Friday, February 26, 2010

A Get Together to Read all Those Unread Magazines

If readers of Ghost Word are anything like me, they have a huge stack of unread magazines towering – or toppling – somewhere in their home. 

For years, that was the condition of my extensive collection of New Yorkers. Past issues, some three or four years old, sat stacked on a table in my bedroom. I always wanted to read them. I always meant to, but I never got around to it. In desperation, I let my subscription lapse.

            In honor of all those unread magazine, The Booksmith will host the first National Magazine Day on Saturday. Starting at 1 pm, people are invited to come to the Haight Street store in San Francisco and bring their stack of unread magazines. For $5, they can hang out in the store and read for hours, drink Philz Coffee, snack, and finally conquer that paper mess. At 6 pm, Kevin Smokler (whose idea this was in the first place) will moderate a discussion with Derek Powazek (Fray),  Jen Angel (formerly of Clamor), Jeremy Smith (of the digital, and  Andrew Leland (managing editor of The Believer).

Once you have finished all those magazine and have vowed to only read content on the web, pick up some tickets to hear San Francisco Chronicle columnist Jon Carroll interview Scott Rosenberg, a co-founder of and the author of Say Anything, a recent book on the history of blogging. Carrol and Rosenberg will be in conversation on Monday March 1 at 7 pm at the Berkeley Rep. It is a benefit for Park Day School in Oakland.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Bay Area Literary Tidbits

San Francisco Chronicle columnist Andrew S. Ross took a look at the success of Books, Inc, the 11-store independent chain in the Bay Area on Sunday. Rescued from bankruptcy in 1996 by Michael and Margie Scott Tucker, the 149-year old company is thriving because it stays lean and treats each store separately.

“We buy for each individual store, seeing each store as a reflection of its community," Scott Tucker told Ross. In Books Inc.'s case, wrote Ross, “it also includes special shopping nights with a portion of the proceeds going to local schools, and discounts for community book clubs. "Integrating with the community will become more important as progress marches on," said Margie Scott Tucker.

University Press Books in Berkeley has its own unique way of connecting with community.  On Monday, Feb. 22, it will host its second Slow Reading Dinner, where guests munch on food foraged from the Berkeley Hills cooked by a master chef. Then, over bottles of wine, the guests will read passages from their favorite books. Slowly, of course.

Two Bay Area authors are featured in Oprah Magazine in March. Zoe Fitzgerald Carter’s forthcoming memoir, Imperfect Endings, about her mother’s quest to commit suicide – with Carter’s assistance – is excerpted. Carter is a friend: we went to Columbia Journalism School together and our daughters work on the Berkeley High newspaper together. She gave me an advance copy of the book and I must say it packs a wallop. It is beautifully written, which almost disguises the anguish Carter felt at contemplating whether to help her mother die. Carter will be having her book release party at A Great Good Place for Books in Oakland at 7 pm on March 3.

Gina Welch’s In the Land of Believers was named one of Oprah’s top 10 books for March. Welch, who is from Berkeley, is a secular Jew who spent two years at Jerry Falwell’s Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg, VA. Welch starts attending the church as a skeptic, but soon comes to understand – and appreciate – aspects of evangelical Christianity.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Ordinary Thunderstorms by William Boyd is just ordinary

Every since I read Any Human Heart I have been a fan of William Boyd's. It's the story of one man's life, and at the same time the story of the British Empire in the 20th century. The main character, Logan Gonzago Mountstuar, is a writer and his life interesects with Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury set, the Spanish Civil War, the glory days of Paris, and much more. The book is written in diary form and purports to be Mountstuar's autobiography.

Restless came next and I was amazed at how different it was from Any Human Heart.It was a spy thriller set in Europe in World War II. But the more I learned about Boyd, I realized that was his talent as a writer. His books are all completely different from one another.

I was really excited to get an advance copy of his newest novel, Ordinary Thunderstorms. Unfortunately, I did not like it. It, too, is a take on a genre -- the innocent man done wrong who must confront the big, bad corporation -- genre. You know, a book like those written by John Grisham.

It opens with Adam Kindred, a climatologist who comes to London to interview for a job. He is Australian by birth and recently lost a plum academic assignment in the US because he had a fling with one of his students. (And his wronged wife's family donates generously to the school, hastening his exit.) Kindred goes to eat dinner after the interview, strikes up a casual conversation with a fellow diner, and returns a file the diner inadvertantly left at the restaurant. When Kindred arrives at the apartment, he finds the diner (who is really a doctor researching a new asthma drug for a pharmaceutical company) with a knife stuck in his abdomen. Kindred stupidly takes it out, thus putting his fingerprints all over it. He hears a noise in the apartment. The killer! He flees and soon he his being chased by both the police and the killer. Oh, and also by the big bad pharmaceutical company. See, the dead man is really a doctor who has discovered that the miracle asthma drug the company is developing has killed 14 children in clinical trials.

Kindred has to disappear completely and Ordinary Thunderstorms is a reflection, in part, on just how a person can sever all links to a past life. Kindred ditches his credit and bank cards, his mobile phone, and his identification. He sleeps on a fogotten patch of ground near the Thames, begs by day, and eats roasted seagull by night. He visits the soup kitchen of a local church and bathes in the bathrooms of train stations.

Ron Charles of the Washington Post liked this book a lot and argues that the over the top, hackkneyed first chapter is a deliberate act by Boyd. Charles says the book gets better along the way. I agree. The book does get better, but its stereotypical depiction of big bad business seems predictable and tired. Boyd does create compelling characters, particularly a young prostitute and her son who befriend Kindred, but overall I would say skip this one. Dinitia Smith sort of says the same thing in the Barnes and Noble review. Which is okay, because Boyd has such a rich backlist. I think I will go read some of his earlier books.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

The San Francisco Writers' Conference

I attended the San Francisco Writers' Conference on Friday, which continues through Sunday at the Mark Hopkins Hotel.

            With more than 300 registrants, it must be the largest writing conference in the Bay Area. Unlike others I have attended, the SFWC places a large emphasis on the business side of publishing – how to build a platform, how to use social media to extend your brand, how to set up your own book tour and create events, how self-publishing can be a viable option. Then there are workshops on finding an agent. (Packed, of course.)

            The result, in a certain sense, is that everybody is looking to someone else for something. Unpublished writers want tips on how to get an agent from published writers; a chance to pitch to agents; and have numerous questions for editors on what they are looking for. Agents at the conference are interested in meeting acquisitions editors they don’t know, and I bet the editors are looking to know more agents so they get more submissions. 

There future of publishing was on everyone’s mind. Alan Rinzler, the executive editor of Jossey-Bass, gave a talk on why now is the best time ever to publish a book. Believe me, the room was packed. Rinzler spun off a few statistics about how business is looking up: stock prices for publishing companies went up an average of 18.8% in 2009; more debut novels were published last year than ever before; young kids are reading more.

            But the bottom line came to this traditional answer: editors are always looking for good books. When Rinzler reads a great proposal, it is akin to falling in love. His heart pitter patters. His breath grows short. Excitement mounts. (He didn’t really say that, but he meant that)

A few other tidbits I gleaned:

Content rules. As an author, you must build your brand by writing well, and not just on the page but on Twitter, Facebook, on your blog (and yes, you must have one) and on all those nice hand-written thank you notes you must send out to everyone you meet. The idea is to distinguish yourself and stand out from the crowd. If everyone is writing thank you notes, though, what happens?

Even though everyone is talking about e-books, a writer must publish a real book to be taken seriously.

Even huge authors had to start somewhere. At the keynote at Friday’s lunch, Steve Berry, who has sold 10 million books, (and to think I had never heard of him before) had to send out a manuscript 86 times before a publisher bought it. His message was important: have faith in yourself as a writer and don’t give up.

At the cocktail party at the end of the day, the self-publishing company Author Solutions unveiled a new book marketing program for authors. It is called AuthorHive, and it is a one-stop shop where authors can put together a tailored publicity plan. AuthorHive can be hired to send out just a press release (about $300), set up radio interviews, do a blog tour, create a book trailer or website, etc. AuthorHive promises to end the piecemeal approach to book marketing by giving authors a central place to coordinate their book marketing efforts. Since this company is a subsidiary of a self-publishing company, it may be more geared to that group rather than writers who have books coming out with publishing companies.

While a central place to coordinate marketing sounds like a great idea, I was immediately struck by the company’s name. AuthorHive sounds suspiciously like AuthorBuzz, the publicity company run by MJ Rose, an author and consultant. AuthorBuzz puts ads on Shelf Awareness or other blogs. It seems that the creators of AuthorHive want to capitalize on Rose’s success by choosing a similar name. The tag line for AuthorHive is “create some buzz for your book.”

I twittered about this last night and immediately heard back from MJ Rose. “May be but I do advertising with a background of being CD if 150 mil dollar ad agency and am author myself. Live &die by my rep.”

In English, Rose says she brings her background of being the creative director of a huge ad agency plus her experience as an author.

Still, one more example of how the transformation of the publishing business is having an impact on authors and their role in selling books.

Thursday, February 04, 2010

Bay Area Literary Tidbits

There are lots of exciting writing possibilities in Oakland these days:

The library system is putting on a series of writing workshops in three branches. People can learn how to write short fiction, poetry, or memoir or teens can take a course on blogging.

More interested in journalism? The Community Media Access Center in the West Oakland branch is hosting a six-month course to train community journalists. The good news? It pays a $1,000 stipend.

Over in Berkeley, things are a bit different. New York Times blogger Michelle Quinn visited the main branch of the Berkeley Public Library and was atonished by what she read. Hint: it concerns bugs.

Writer Michael Lewis is a Hollywood darling, yet he remains true to his hometown of Berkeley.

San Francisco writer Ethan Watters offers 10 things to know before going on Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show.

Journalist Paul McHugh has penned a mystery called Deadlines that Mercury News reporter Pete Carey says is an accurate portrait of metropolitan journalism in a difficult era. Carey likes the book, too,

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Larry King Picks Towers of Gold for his Book of the Week

Imagine my surprise when I heard from a Larry King producer that the very popular CNN talk show host wanted to list Towers of Gold as his book pick for the week starting February 1, 2010.

I guess King wants to showcase responsible bankers for once.

Monday, February 01, 2010

Amazon has called "uncle" but the truce is really just the beginning

On Sunday evening, Amazon came to its senses and decided to allow Macmillan to set a price of $12 to $15 for new e-books. As of Monday afternoon, the buy links for Macmillan had not yet been reactivated, though.

The more I read, the less I understand about this issue. There are so many pricing points and percentages and sales models. I have never worked at a bookstore or in a publishing house, so the finer points elude me.

Lots of other people have interesting things to say, though. Here are a few:

Andy Ross in his Ask the Agent blog