Saturday, January 30, 2010

Who Cares About the Authors?

What a rude shock to wake up this morning and find that Amazon has stopped selling all books published by Macmillan, including the new paperback release of Towers of Gold.

Macmillan has told Amazon it wants to set its ebook rates at $15 rather than Amazon's standard $9.99. In an attempt to pressure Macmillan, Amazon has removed the "buy button" from every Macmillan books. (This also has a lot to do with the new iPad and Steve Jobs comments' that lots of publishers are unhappy with Amazon.)

This is disturbing. What is equally disturbing are all the comments left on the New York Times website about the controversy. Most say ebooks aren't worth $15, go to your library, wait and buy the books used for .01. The emphasis is on finding a bargain.

What's left out of this equation is compensation for the author. It takes a long time to write a book and the average author probably loses money on his or her books.  I spent eight years researching and writing my book and the last 18 months promoting it. Believe me, I am running a deficit.

If readers want  new books, they have to spend money on the books so authors can afford to write them. That's why it is reasonable to ask $15 for a Kindle version (of which I would get a few pennies.) Yes, electronic books are less expensive since there are no direct publishing costs, but don't forget all the back end costs of editing, preparing boos, designing the book, promoting it, etc.)

I for one, am going to stop using Amazon and I urge everyone to do the same. If you want to buy a book on line go to Powell's Books or Indiebound instead.

UPDATE: Later in the day, Macmillan CEO John Sargent bought an ad on the website Publisher's Marketplace. It was a letter to all Macmillan authors and illustrators and their literary agents explaining the disagreement. I am glad Macmillan is trying to communicate with us.

Friday, January 29, 2010

The World of Wine and Isaias Hellman

I’ve been poking around the world of wine recently, both for some stories I have done for the New York Times and a book I am contemplating. Two things have come up this week that bring together my work on Isaias Hellman and Towers of Gold and winemaking.

First, I got a chance to tour Pt. Molate in Richmond, the place where Hellman and other members of the California Wine Association built the world’s largest wine processing facility in 1908.

The CWA, which controlled about seven-eighths of California’s wine production (everything from growing grapes, making wine, bottling and shipping it) lost its facilities in the 1906 earthquake and fire in San Francisco. The organization then turned to the East Bay, at a point north of today’s Richmond-San Rafael Bridge, where a facility would be next to the railroad and a port. It built a massive brick building with crenellated towers resembling a German castle.

Winehaven, as the plant was called, shut down during Prohibition and the Navy ran a fuel depot on the property for dozens of years. The Navy has left and a Berkeley developer and the Guidiville Band of Pomo Indians are trying to build a five-star resort complete with Indian gaming on the property. The main Winehaven building still stands, and the developers would repair it and turn it into the casino.

Pt. Molate has been closed to the public for years since much of the ground is contaminated. But you can drive through and see the castle, old bungalows that once housed winery staff and then navy personnel, a vine covered warehouse, and more. In my tour, I got to see the air raid shelter in the factory’s basement and there were still cans of drinking water from 1953, stacks of gurneys, portable commodes, and wool blankets. The Navy left a lot of stuff when it closed the fuel dept. The Richmond Museum is taking a lot of it, but debris remains.

I really enjoyed my tour and the chance to glimpse this side of Isaias Hellman. He dabbled in wine all his life, buying the renowned Rancho Cucamonga in 1871. He hired the French wine maker Jean Louis Sansevain to run his vineyards, and he exported wine around the country.

Which brings me to my next connection: this blog post from a group of wine lovers about Hellman’s 1875 sweet wine called Angelica. They tasted it two days ago and gave it a 97 rating! That’s very impressive for a wine so old.

Richard Jennings of Mountain View, the taster, assessed the angelica this way: Bricked medium cranberry red color with clear meniscus; fascinating, VA, coffee liqueur, chocolate, raisinette nose; tasty, rich, chocolate, orange, raspberry, coffee liqueur, raspberry syrup palate with good acidity; long finish (bottled from wood in 1921; reminiscent of both a mature Port, but with greater color -- no doubt due to the 46 years in wood before bottling -- and a mid-1800s vintage Madeira Bastardo, i.e., vintage Madeira from a red grape, with the acidity of a Terrantez or Verdelho)

I have a few bottles of this in my cellar. Anyone want to come and try it with me?

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Bay Area Literary Musings

Of course the big news of the day is the Apple iPad. I loved all the jokes about how it sounds like a sanitary napkin.  The interface to read books does seem appealing, but I am still not sure if I can be lured away from my printed paper. For me, an individual book represents the expression of an author’s thoughts and personality and I never find the same connection while reading on a computer.

I am more tempted by the netbook possibility of the iPad.  It seems like the perfect size to tout around on an interview or to the Bancroft library when I need to take notes.  I have become completely addicted to my iPhone, so I can imagine falling hard for the iPad.

A heads up: Every wonder why there is animosity between the Jews from central Europe and eastern Europe? Ever wonder why some Jews have Christmas trees and celebrate Christmas? Ever think that Jews in California don’t seem all that Jewish?  If so, come to a discussion Thursday Jan. 28 at the San Francisco Jewish Community Center on California Street near Arguello.  Fred Rosenbaum, author of The Cosmopolitans, a book about the growth of the Bay Area Jewish community, and I will be in a discussion moderated by Francesco Spagnolo, the Director of Research at the Judah L. Magnes Museum . We’ll talk about the particular characteristics of Jews in the Bay Area, their contributions, and what they have accomplished, (or not) The panel starts t 7 pm.

The New York Times has picked up 1,000 new subscribers since it launched its Bay Area edition in late October.

Since I am writing regularly for this section, I am delighted to learn of the positive response to our work.

Earlier this year I pointed to the release of a book by Stanford professor Terry Castle, who also writes for the London Review of Book. Castle”s book, The Professor and Other Writings, has just been released. Salon interviewed with Castle, and she has a lot of intriguing things to say. Here’s a brief excerpt:

Sex, particularly lesbian sex, is a consistent theme in your new book. What did you think of Katie Roiphe's recent essay on the lack of carnality among today’s young American male novelists?
I enjoyed Katie Roiphe’s article immensely. She’s right. Some of these "emo-guy" writers -- I won’t name names -- suffer from advanced cases of male estrogen oversaturation. They have the heartbreak of floppy-man-boob disease. And no, I’ve never been bothered by carnality in writing. I think Philip Roth is a genius. Male horn-dogging doesn’t bother me that much. (Maybe because it doesn’t affect me directly.) The writing is what matters. I once saw Norman Mailer jogging shirtless in Provincetown in some huge, billowing turquoise Lonsdale boxing trunks. A lumbering and majestic sight. I’ve been trying to emulate the look myself ever since.

Don’t’ forget to come hear San Francisco Chronicle columnist Jon Carroll interview writer Dave Eggers Feb 1 at 7 pm at Berkeley Rep.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Who knew books were so versatile?

A hat tip to Allison Hoover Bartlett, author of The Man Who Loved Books Too Much, for sending this to me

Friday, January 22, 2010

Falling for a bookstore

I consider myself an independent bookstore devotee, which means I wander into bookstores any chance I get and take a look at which books are on display.

Earlier this week, I feel in love. Again. I gave a reading at The Green Arcade on Market Street and Gough, a store founded by Patrick Marks, who used to be a book buyer at the now-defunct Cody’s.

Green Arcade is a community bookstore, which may not seem so obvious since it is located on a busy intersection. But it sits on the edge of Hayes Valley with its hundreds of apartments and restored Victorians.

The Green Arcade feels welcoming from the moment you walk in. The walls are painted a bright red and music comes from a vintage jukebox rescued from an old San Francisco bar, The Golden Spike. There are upholstered armchairs scattered around and the store’s employees have put up tags signaling particular types of books. There are separate sections for the books of Michael Pollan and Rebecca Solnit, for example.

The Green Arcade specializes in “green” books on climate change, gardening, and sustainable agriculture. (Hence it’s name) Why was I reading from Towers of Gold, a book about 19th century California, then? Well, Patrick Marks also loves history and makes it a subspecialty of the store. (There is also a great kids section)

The vintage juke box

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Bay Area Literary Tidbits

I will be talking at Bookshop West Portal in San Francisco tonight at 7 pm. Please join me!

Marcus Books of Oakland, the nation’s oldest African-American bookstore, may be shutting its doors. The store needs thousands of dollars to stay afloat after its owner, Blanche Richardson, lost funds in a Ponzi scheme and took out a subprime loan.
Donations can be sent to:

Marcus Books
c/o Sandra F. Banks, Esq.
3941 Lincoln Avenue
Oakland, CA 94602

Two literary lions, Kathi Kamen Goldmark (West Coast Live producer, author, and much more) and Sam Barry, (author, HarperOne promotions and much more) have started a new blog to help people navigate the publishing field. It has a great name: The Author Enablers.

Daniel Olivas, an author, lawyer and Stanford graduate, will be discussing his short story collection Anywhere But LA, at Kepler’s Books on Thursday Jan. 21.

Jon Carroll, the San Francisco Chronicle columnist, will interview Dave Eggers at Berkeley Rep on Monday Feb. 1. It is a benefit for Park Day School.

Sometimes books can get a second wind. (No Bay Area reference, but well-regarded book)

Sunday, January 03, 2010

Promising Books of 2010

It’s a new year, which means a whole new set of books to read.  Here are some forthcoming books from Bay Area authors, or authors with ties to the Bay Area, which I think will be worth your time:


Crazy Like Us: The Globalization of the American Psyche by Ethan Watters (just published) – Ethan, one of the founders of the San Francisco Writers’ Grotto, is an incredibly interesting thinker. He looks at the world through such a distinct lens. His latest book examines how the U.S. has exported its views on mental illness around the world. Conditions like anorexia, first diagnosed in the U.S., are increasingly common around the world. The Japanese now buy $1 billion of Paxil, the antidepressant, each year. Who would have thought America would do such a good job exporting its problems? Ethan will hold a book launch party at Booksmith on Haight Street Jan 21 at 7:30 pm.

The Professor and Other Writings by Terry Castle – I was wandering around the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association convention at the Marriott in downtown Oakland in October when I came upon Castle and a stack of her books. It was the annual cocktail party where publishers bring authors to meet booksellers. (I was there as a guest) The room was packed, and crowds were gathered around high-profile authors such as Po Bronson and Annie Barrows. Castle’s table, by contrast, was relatively empty, so I went over and got a signed copy of her book.
            A few days later I picked up The Professor and Other Writings and began to read. To my surprise, I couldn’t set it down. I had never heard of Castle before, but it quickly became apparent that I was in the minority. She is a professor of English at Stanford and writes interesting and thoughtful autobiographical essays for the London Review of Books, the Atlantic, and Slate. Susan Sontag declared Castle “the most expressive, most enlightening literary critic at large today.”  (One of the essays in the book describes the pair’s peculiar and strained relationship) The book is a collection of Castle’s work and the essays range from one about looking for the grave of an uncle who died in World War I to one examining a relationship she had with one of her female professors. The pieces are absorbing and well worth your time.


Imperfect Endings by Zoe Fitzgerald Carter – Carter’s memoir, which will be excerpted in O, Oprah’s magazine, tells the almost unbelievable story of her mother’s suicide. Margaret, who has been living with Parkinson’s disease for 26 years, decides she has had enough and wants to die. But she insists that Carter and her two sisters help her plan her death. They are required to attend it as well. Imperfect Endings raises difficult questions about love and loyalty, but it is written with such style and sympathy that it is difficult to put down. Carter, who lives in the East Bay, has written for New York, Premiere, and other national magazines.

Impatient with Desire by Gabrielle Burton – This is a novel about the ill-fated Donner Party with a focus on George Donner’s wife, Tamsen. Burton, who lives in Los Angeles, has been fascinated by Tamsen Donner for decades and came out with a nonfiction memoir on the topic in 2008. (I wrote about Burton’s fascination and attempts to retrace Donner’s last steps here.) Now she has used her considerably writing skills to craft a moving and poignant novel done in a journal format. Impatient With Desire looks at Tamsen Donner’s resilience and her determination to get her children to safety.


The Kitchen Shrink: A Psychiatrist’s Reflections on Healing in a Changing World by Dora Calott Wang is a memoir that explores the high cost of managed care. When Dora first became a psychiatrist, she actually counseled and helped people with mental health problems. But managed care companies soon took over the health care industry and gave bean counters, rather than doctors, the power to approve treatments. In this well-written and moving memoir, Dora describes the dismantling of the mental health safety net. Hospitals close, ill patients are turned out on the streets, and others die because their insurance plans deny them much-needed medical care. In the middle of this gloom, Dora has a baby girl and the memoir recounts how she reconciles her desires to protect Zoe with her growing powerlessness to help her patients. Dora is a psychiatrist who resides in New Mexico but she received a master’s in writing at UC Berkeley and did her medical residency at UCSF.

The San Francisco Chronicle came out with a list of notable books coming out in January 2010.