Tuesday, May 31, 2011


On March 11, eleven weeks ago, the latest nuclear disaster struck Japan when the Fukushima meltdowns occurred, spewing radioactivity into the air, the land and the sea. Six weeks later, April 26 marked the 25th anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear meltdown, which continues to release radioactive material. In early April we updated and released a free downloadable copy of Karl Grossman’s Cover Up: What You Are NOT Supposed To Know About Nuclear Power, as a contribution to the debate about the viability and dangers of nuclear energy. Karl, who has been covering the nuclear power industry for nearly 40 years, had just received the 2011 Generoso Pope Foundation Award for Investigative Reporting along with a $10,000 check, based upon the 20 articles in his syndicated Long Island newspaper column—as well as pieces appearing on Internet sites, including The Huffington Post. The Generoso Pope Award followed his having won the George Polk Award for Investigative Journalism over a decade ago. Grossman is easily the most knowledgeable and widely read critic about the unholy alliance between the nuclear energy corporations, their lobbyists, and their allies in Congress and in the government.

Germany had just decided to start phasing out all their nuclear power plants, and Israel had abandoned the construction of their first plant—both nations concluding that this form of energy posed an unacceptable threat to human life. At the same time, Steven Chu, Obama’s energy secretary, a long-time nuclear advocate, was pushing for further development of this power source. Yet, on April 2nd the Business section of The New York Times, the headline on page 6 was this: Despite Bipartisan Support, Nuclear Reactor Projects Falter. According to this report “In an effort to encourage nuclear power, Congress in 2005 voted to authorize 17.5 billion in loan guarantees for new reactors. Now, six years later, with the industry stalled by poor market conditions [because the private companies were not interested in putting in 20% of their own funds to get this done—considering it a bad investment] along with the Fukushima disaster, nearly half the fund remains unclaimed. But Congress, at the request of the Obama administration, is preparing to add $36 billion in nuclear loan guarantees to next year’s budget.” Thus 44 billion of taxpayer money is being put aside to develop new nuclear plants, while Obama’s budget request for alternative energy sources, like wind and solar, came to only 3 billion dollars.

The New York Times ran a front page story on April 27, headlined Culture of Complicity Tied to Stricken Nuclear Plant, detailing the cover-ups that “allowed Tokyo Electric, to do what utilities least want to do: undertake costly repairs,” after a whistle blower reported serious defects at the plants. Instead the agency asked the company to inspect its own reactors, and that played a significant part in the tragedy that hit Fukushima, “A ten year extension for the oldest reactors suggests that the regulatory system was allowed to remain lax by politicians, bureaucrats, scientists and industry executives single-mindedly focused on expanding nuclear power… and who all profited from it, by rewarding one another with construction projects, lucrative positions, and political, financial, and regulatory support.…and that is the problem, critics say, that non-transparent, collusive interests underlie the establishment’s push to increase nuclear power plants.”

This, of course, is exactly what Karl Grossman documents in his book Cover-Up, as it applies to America’s nuclear energy proselytizers.

Given this mix of nuclear disasters, debates, and nations going in opposite directions concerning nuclear power, one might have hoped that Julie Bosman, the “book news” reporter at The New York Times might have taken note that we, as publishers, had just released Cover-Up as a free public service book. But that did not happen. Her column on April 26 proclaimed Aspiring Authors Get Help Online, announcing that Penguin was setting up a new website called Book Country, a place where “aspiring novelists” of “genre fiction” can post “writing samples or manuscripts” which could be read and critiqued by other users in this “community… a place for agents and editors to look for new talent; and eventually the venture will offer a suite of self-publishing services this summer that will include e-book and print publication. This will generate revenue for Penguin by those who want to self-publish their books for a fee by ordering printed copies. (The books will bear the stamp of Book Country, not Penguin, and the site is considered a separate operation from Penguin.)”

It sounded to me like a masterstroke of marketing: offering Online Help For Novice Authors in its headlines, but, by the end of the article, it just seemed like another empty promise; the setting up of a vanity press division of Penguin.

While I’ve sworn off criticism of The New York Times book reviewers (having made my points over the last year and a half and having grown tired of repeating myself), this vow didn’t include giving a reporter a free ride. Nonetheless, I didn’t want to fault Julie Bosman if what she covered were things assigned to her. And so I left a phone message, followed by an email asking her how it was that this Penguin piece came about and letting her know about Karl Grossman’s recent awards. She never did respond.

On May 7, Bosman struck again, writing an article in the Arts Section about Bookish.com. The “news” was that Publishers Were Making a Plan: A ‘One Stop’ Book Site. Turns out that Simon & Schuster, Penguin, and Hachette have their own web marketing sites “but few people go there, so they’ve banded together to form a new site, called Bookish.com—hoping it will be a catch-all for readers in the way that music lovers visit Pitchfork.com. But its one stop shopping only for books (and imprints?) of these three biggies and their XYZ imprints. “Said David Shanks, the CEO of Penguin, We think it would all be really good if we could come up with a site that embraced the amazing marketing materials that publishers have been doing on their own sites and put them on to one site…with the purpose of answering the question for the consumer, ’Which book should I read next?’.” They were also hoping to select books from at least 14 participating publishers.

How helpful is that to readers, learning from these three giant conglomerates what books of theirs they should read next?

I googled Bookish.com to ask some questions not covered in Bosman’s “reporting.” First I had to fill out a form requiring me to give them my email address and also list my favorite childhood book. I put in Curious George. Once I filled out the form I was promised I could now contact them with my question. What follows is my May 8th email to info@bookish.com

Reading about Bookish both in PW and in Julie Bosman's New York Times article raises questions that I hope you can answer.

1: Paulo Lemgruber was quoted as saying that you would be selecting books from at least 14 other publishers in addition to those from S&S, Penguin, and Hachette. In considering what these “14 other publishers” mean. Might they be imprints of one of these big three (such as Grand Central, Little Brown, Avon, Harper Collins, William Morrow, Dutton, Plume, Putnam, Viking, Free Press, Pocket Books, or Scribner—from among the 40 or more imprints they own)? And will all titles of your big three be listed? Or only select ones?

2: Might the "14" consist of titles or imprints from other conglomerates like Random House, Harper Collins or Macmillan for example. Or might they be from small independent presses, such as Graywolf, Beacon Press or Seven Stories Press, for instance?

3: What are the charges for an independent press, assuming they could come on board? Would they be based on the list or by particular titles?

4: David Shanks at Penguin said the intent of Bookish.com was to inform the reader "What Book should I read next?" Since Lemgruber said he took inspiration for sites such as Rotten Tomatoes (an invaluable site as it separates the good films from the ordinary and from the truly rotten ones), how do you handle a book that gets poor reviews? Just skip it? Or put a good face on it?

5: And what was the purpose of having anyone looking at your website, having to answer what our favorite book from childhood was in order to get your email address?

In any event, I look forward to hearing back from you by email or by phone.

Guess what? The email bounced back as undeliverable, because the address had yet to be set up.

What sort of “book reporter” writes a piece about a new site without even checking it out? The answer seems clear: a reporter who accepts self-serving press releases as news; a reporter who knows very little about investigative reporting and doesn't check her own sources. No wonder there was no interest in Karl Grossman’s book…but I venture that there surely would have been if Penguin had done a free download of this informative book.

On April 27, Publishers Weekly reported a Parker Series to Continue at Penguin With New Writers. “In a deal cut by Robert B. Parker's estate, Penguin's Putnam imprint will continue to publish two of the author's most popular series—Spenser and Jesse Stone—under the co-authorship of writers Michael Brandman and Ace Atkins. The Spenser series debuted in 1974 and is made up of 39 novels; the Jesse Stone series began in 1997 and is comprised of 9 more.” (This marketing ploy, hiring another author to continue writing a series under the name of a famous dead one, is nothing new. Five years ago, Harcourt Brace, under their Houghton Mifflin and Mariner imprints did the same thing with Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer series, using Max Allan Collins to write four more Hammer books). Another great marketing ploy.

Not reading Bosman regularly I don’t know whether she covered this story yet or not. I did read a lovely interview she had with Bob Loomis this past month, who was retiring from Random House. She also wrote a story about Philip Roth winning the Booker Prize, which gave as much exposure to Carmen Callil the founder of the UK based feminist Virago Press, who withdrew from the three judge panel in noisy protest after the other two judges decided to give Roth this major prize. Callil referred to Roth’s work “the Emperor’s Clothes. He goes on and on and on about the same subject in almost every single book. It's as though he's sitting on your face and you can't breathe... I don’t rate him as a writer at all.” Callil sounds more like the founder of The Harridan Press. Personally, I think the story should have been about Roth’s remarkable achievements. But that’s another issue.

But back to the question of whether Bosman is in service of the Arts or Marketing. She writes frequently about things that appear in Publishers Weekly much earlier. Marketing stories like the ones I cite properly appear in Publishers Weekly, for they are interesting to other publishers, but have little to do with “Book Reporting” in the Arts section of The New York Times. If Bosman were writing these sorts of columns in the Business section of the Times, all well and good. But writing this sort of stuff for the general public (assuming it wasn’t assigned to her)—for book readers—would seem to me irrelevant, for these are really “marketing reports” at best, and “Pimping for Penguin” articles at the very wost.

I welcome your opinion.