Monday, September 13, 2010

Publishers Weekly and the Self-Published

Publishers Weekly recently announced its plan to begin quarterly coverage of self-published books, stating that in the past twenty years self-publishing has "produced an explosion of new authors and new books." According to PW, "Nearly 800,000 books were produced in the U.S. last year and were characterized by Bowker as 'nontraditional.' Much of this was self-published and POD." Since "They are books and that is what PW cares about," PW is launching PW Select, "a quarterly supplement announcing self-published titles and reviewing those we believe are most deserving of a critical assessment."
The first supplement will appear in December 2010. The supplements will list all self-published books submitted to PW during the quarter, and 25 (or more) of those titles will be reviewed. There will also be discussion of publishing trends and resources for the self-publisher.
Well, this is an interesting development, and comments from self-publishers have already made for two opposing camps, divided by reactions to the fact that these listings and reviews won't be free--PW charges $149 for a listing and doesn't guarantee a review.
The authors who excoriate PW for charging to be listed (and not guaranteeing reviews) regard this as a huge ripoff, yet another sign that PW is part of the publishing establishment and has no genuine interest in self-published books. Well, I don't think PW would ever argue that they aren't part of the establishment. A review in PW, even a bad one, is pretty much a guarantee that the book will sell. If it's a badly written celebrity book with an unrealistically large advance, it might not earn out its advance, but it's still going to sell. Yet the move to cover self-published titles indicates that PW does have a genuine interest in books from outside the mega-conglomerates. A financial interest in them? A perception that this could be a cash cow? That's harder to say.
It's well known among savvy writers that there are people and organizations out there that make plenty of money out of writing contests. Most writing contests do charge an entry fee, and the fees range from nominal to not-so-nominal. Some of the contests are highly respected and some are just machines bilking the naive. My point here is that the fact that a contest charges an entrance fee is not in itself unethical, it's how the contest is run.
Now, if last year's figure of 800,000 books published in the US is any kind of average, it ain't rocket science that PW has no way of reviewing them all, whether listings are paid or free. PW does not review all that many books in its regular weekly issues, it mainly lists the books. PW is a hefty trade publication and I doubt that most subscribers have time to read all its articles, let alone sift through all the individual listings.
As a writer who may at some point choose to self-publish, my reaction to a $149 processing fee to be listed in PW (which, incidentally, includes a 6-month subscription to the digital version of PW) is that sure, it's burdensome. Many writers don't have much money. But the poorest writers are not self-publishing on paper. If they're self-publishing, they're likely to be doing e-books, which aren't currently eligible to be listed anyway (why not, I'd like to know?). Someone who is self-publishing a traditional physical bound book is spending much more than $149 in production costs. If you're going to put money into producing the physical objects, which will then have to be housed somewhere (your living room?), you'd better be willing to put some additional money into marketing them. Paying $149 to be listed in the industry's major organ may or may not prompt anyone to notice the book, but if you're serious about your work, isn't it a sensible gamble? The face of publishing is changing, in some ways unpleasantly but in other ways perhaps for the good. In some ways writers have less control and fewer options than in the past, and in other ways they have more control and many more options. When it comes to book publishing, the author who opts for self-publication has to make many choices, and the choices that fit one person's work may be unsuitable for another's. It's my guess that some types of book will never benefit much from exposure in PW, but in general it seems to me that self-publishers should not be penny-wise and pound-foolish.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Gmail Wants to Prioritize My Mail?

Too much email? Google wants to start prioritizing our Gmail for us.
As a person who gets far more email than I can reasonably read, let alone make sense of, I had to take a look at this, albeit with a feeling of deep skepticism. Google says:
"Priority Inbox can help save you time if you’re overwhelmed with the amount of email you get. It attempts to automatically identify your important incoming messages and separates them out from everything else. Gmail uses a variety of signals to prioritize your incoming messages, including who you emailed most frequently and which messages you’ve recently opened as opposed to which messages you’ve deleted.

When you click the Priority Inbox navigation link on the left-hand side of your mail, you’ll see messages grouped in three sections: Important and unread, Starred, and Everything else. This is the default setup, but you may customize your sections on the Priority Inbox in Settings.

If Priority Inbox mistakes an email as important or doesn’t flag one that’s important to you, you can teach it to make better selections. Just select the message in question, and click the “mark as important” or “mark as not important” button; they’re the buttons with plus and minus icons just to the left of the Move to and Labels drop-down menus. "

Sound good? Well, I'm not so sure. It's going to prioritize people I email most frequently? Well, that sounds okay--obviously they must be important to me for some reason--but wait a minute, isn't it often more important to hear from people I rarely exchange email with? Friends I usually talk to on the phone or in person; relatives emailing to let me know someone's in the hospital; people I care about but lost touch with before email was available; journal editors and literary agents I might later have lots of contact with; genealogists who want to let me know I've made an error in my family tree... the list goes on.
How's it going to use opening email versus deleting as a signal? I often open email just because it's easier to get at the delete button from an open email. Or because I know I can quickly glance at it and file or delete it, whereas something more important has to wait because I know I'll need time to think about it.
I get a lot of mail from several academic email lists. I want to get this email--I subscribed to these lists, after all--but not all lists are equally interesting or equally urgent. Moreover, not all mail from a given list is equally important. I delete announcements about conferences happening two days from now in Germany, but I sometimes want to know about British conferences happening in two days, even though I can't go. I'm not going to propose a paper for next year's conference on Renaissance or Japanese art, but I might forward the announcement to someone who would. I don't see how Gmail is going to make very good decisions based on what I happen to open from my academic and software email lists.
Supposedly this prioritization process is going to be most helpful to people who get lots of email (I think yes for some, no for others), and for the email-bombarded who are willing to spend a lot of time upfront marking what's important to them. Hmm. I use voice-recognition software for certain projects, and that's something you certainly have to train in order for it to work well, but voice recognition software trains by becoming more familiar with the user's voice and by being corrected when it misrecognizes words. This mostly works pretty well for me because my voice doesn't vary hugely in dictation and because I dictate on projects that have a large but relatively consistent vocabulary. I avoid dictating on projects that involve a lot of foreign words and names, such as transcriptions of old lecture notes, because when I've tried that I spend too much time correcting words I'm only ever going to dictate once or twice, versus merely occasional use of foreign words. I think my incoming email is probably too much of a weird conglomeration of types of things to be effectively filtered for anything but spam.
On the other hand, I'd like to see Gmail develop better ways to filter incoming mail by topic. It does have labels, which I use a little bit; it doesn't have folders, which I'd use if it would only admit that labels aren't a substitute for folders. It needs more robust ways of searching for unread mail. I need, for example, ways to search for all those genealogical inquiries that came in on days when I had way too many other things to do; I'm interested in answering those people and at the same time those usually aren't quick emails to handle so they tend to get left till later and rapidly forgotten.
I'll be curious to hear whether people who start using the priority inbox find it works for them.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Defining the Quiet Novel

Every now and then I've seen the term "quiet novel." Not all that often, because I don't read huge numbers of book reviews or much literary criticism, but from time to time people will describe a book thus. I never thought about it--it seemed like an ordinary enough way of referring to a book, just as one might call a book "lively" or "rumbustious."
Awhile ago an agent commented to me that quiet novels aren't selling well these days. I was a little dubious about that because only a given percentage of the novel-reading population prefers books that are filled with adventure, excitement, and car chases, and the book to which the agent referred didn't strike me as terribly quiet. It featured sex, drugs, rock-and-roll, tears, accusations, theft, and theater. I granted, however, that agents are more in touch with the publishing world than I am these days. In any case, I still took the term "quiet novels" as a simple descriptor.
But then my friend Betty referred to "two very quiet 'portrait' novels" that she felt were similar in tone to one of my projects. More references to quietness? (Let's not get into "portrait" since presumably any reasonably reflective novel revolving around one character could be considered a portrait.) I began to wonder whether "quiet novel" was a genre rather than a mere subjective description. I did a Google search.
Most uses of the term that came up seemed subjective, although fairly congruent with one another.
An Amazon customer review of Anita Shreve's Sea Glass begins "Anita Shreve's latest book, "Sea Glass," is a quiet novel that deals with the universal themes of life, love, loss, hope, beauty, tragedy and death." The fairly in-depth, very positive review ends by saying that the book has "no great surprises and no great suspense. It doesn't delve too deeply into the minds and hearts of the characters involved, but then, we don't always want something that's earthshaking."
In "The Virtue of Quiet: "Colm Tóibín’s Brooklyn," Dan Hartland writes, "Colm Tóibín’s Brooklyn is a quiet novel. [...] very quiet." He mentions, on the whole very favorably, "the book’s peculiarities: a focus on the internal, a modesty of style and of ambition, and a dry, sardonic humour." He notes that while the book's moderation and passivity mirror those of the protagonist, this unity is intentional and the book is, in fact, full of incident. So it's not a book where nothing happens and everything revolves around the protagonist's navel.
Hilari Bell, discussing suitable and less suitable ways of writing of novel climaxes, refers to books in which "The climax doesn't match the story. You see this most commonly in a quiet novel about tangled relationships...that ends with a car crash (or a kidnapping, or a natural disaster) and the protagonist suddenly finds herself struggling for survival."
Lynne Griffin's blog post "Literary Lingo Recap," which nicely defines various current buzzwords used by agents, simply defines a "quiet novel" as a literary novel, especially one without a strong plot. (She defines literary novels as usually being more character-driven than plot-driven, and more about the writing than the story, which is a common definition of literary novels in texts geared toward commercial fiction. There are, however, many books fitting that description that more "literary" readers would simply call mainstream novels.) While I think that overall Griffin's definitions are useful, this one just doesn't cut it for me. Lots of literary novels would never be called quiet, including some that aren't terribly strong on plot. A picaresque literary novel, for instance, is unlikely to be either quiet or (by definition) plot-driven. Literary novels cover a lot of ground, after all. There are literary novels with strong plots, nonexistent plots; with experimental narration and with traditional narration; with deep characterization and without much focus on character; the main thing is that a literary novel is not a commercial novel, although occasionally one may belong, to some extent, to one of the genres typical of commercial fiction, and of course every now and then a literary novel is a commercial success. Should we distinguish between a genre called the literary novel (which might be mainly quiet novels) and what's known as literature (Moby Dick, Tristram Shandy, Wuthering Heights) when we're not using the term literature to mean sales brochures ("I'll leave you some littachur") or academic writing ("the literature")?
The blog post Shantaram & the idea of a Noisy Novel mentions the quiet novel somewhat as a foil to noisiness. The blogger opens with a conversation had with a novelist friend: "We were talking about what it was that publishers might be wanting at the moment, and she told me that the days of the quiet novel were largely over." The blogger continues, "I take the quiet novel to mean a beautifully written, often short-ish narrative in which not much happens. Stylism is the quiet novel's main event: plotting is barely perceptible, characterisation is but a ripple on the surface on the writer's prose. The focus is often on transactions of a personal, intimate nature between a small group of people living within a softly-spoken coo-ee of each other." (She then discusses noisiness and hyperrealism, mainly in the context of the Australian novel.) This prompts some good reader comments on quiet versus noisy, and the blogger's response that "Jane Austen and Jeanette W[interson] weren't exactly what I had in mind as examples of the quiet novel, tho the quiet novel has links with a tradition of quietism focusing on the personal, domestic, intimate life etc. However, both JA and JW feature strong characterisation and elements of social or aesthetic analysis. Also -- most of JA's novels *are* strongly plotted. [...] Whereas the quiet novel, at worst, is often more like a collection of loosely-related scenes." After a few more reader comments, she says "I think the point is just simply to do with strong vs weak narrativisation, and whether it's time for a revival of strong narrative, which is possibly more allied with pulp fiction and film at present." So for this well-read and intelligent blogger, a quiet novel is likely to be a dull and poorly plotted thing that by definition doesn't really grab the reader. This is not someone who equates "quiet novel" with "literary novel;" rather, she wants lively, strongly plotted novels that are better written than Shantaram, a book about which she has mixed feelings.
Confused by so many different, even if somewhat related, uses of the term "quiet novel," I asked Betty what she thought. Was it a genre or a subjective evaluation? What was her personal understanding of the term? Even if it wasn't going to be clear exactly what everyone else might mean, at least I could find out what Betty meant in relation to my own project. Betty responds:
Quiet novels to me are those written with emotional and intellectual constraint. A quiet novel keeps the reader on an even keel because the style tends toward calmness. Events may be very dramatic, but they're described with restrained prose so that the reader isn't feeling emotionally pulled. Stimulating and challenging questions may arise, but because they're written with understatement, the reader doesn't feel stirred up intellectually. In quiet novel, I as a reader, feel more like an observer. This doesn't mean I'm not drawn into the story or that I don't emotionally connect with the characters, but rather that I'm not experiencing it with great dramatic pulls. I feel compassion for characters, but the writing doesn't make my pulse race or my body twitch. My heart doesn't break although I understand the heartbreak the character is feeling.

Betty cites some comments on specific quiet novels: "[Peter] Taylor as always writes in the most measured, calm manner, so that the surprises and the humbling human understanding he so effortlessly throws in seem barely to ruffle the surface." (Kirkus Review)
"A Summons to Memphis is like a leisurely port wine sipped slowly and with pleasure beneath a blackjack oak." (The Philadelphia Inquirer)
"Serious, beautiful and affecting, what makes Stoner so impressive is the contained intensity the author and character share." (Irving Howe) ". . .[T]he passion of the writing [in Stoner is] masked by coolness and clarity of intelligence." (John McGahern)
Betty concludes:
I hope that gives you some idea of what I mean by a quiet novel. It's no doubt true that unless you're already a well established literary personage, then getting quiet novels published today is likely more difficult than getting "less restrained" work accepted for publication. Wolf Hall, for example, pushes and pulls the reader emotionally and intellectually. There's nothing subtle about Mantel's writing. She writes with visceral descriptions that can make you ache from the pain she's inflicted on a character. The opening scene is extremely dramatic, steeped in physical cruelty. This, I think, is what the publishing world is saying the public wants.
I, of course, don't think that's necessarily so.
There are likely many variations on how to understand what quiet means, but I hope this gives you a better idea of what I was referring to.

And yes, that gives me a better idea what at least one reader has in mind. Whether Betty will continue to think the tale is quiet, and whether others will think so, remains unknown.

Monday, September 6, 2010

More on Novels and the World of Work

Awhile back I posted some ruminations on whether recent literary fiction has much to say about work. It wasn't my own observation that literary fiction tends to bypass work, and I hadn't previously thought much about it, but my literary friends are showing a tendency to disagree with the notion that literary fiction does not deal with work. Betty Dietz, for example, writes:
I'm not so sure that work has fallen out of favor in novels over the past twenty years. I think the opposite is true. I think that in literature now more characters are engaged in specific jobs and that their employment is used as theme, for character development or, at the least, as an important point of reference on which the story is built. Off the top of my head and from the stack of most recently read novels, I've thought of several books that use work as an integral part of their character and/or thematic development. In Stoner, John Williams immerses his protagonists in academia (the University of Missouri in Columbia). A Summons to Memphis, by Peter Taylor, is the story about a rare book collector and editor who is the son of a lawyer, and the brother of two sisters who are real estate managers. In Summertime, by J.M. Coetzee, the story is told by a biographer researching a book about the writer John Coetzee who has died--it's a fictional autobiography. The researcher interviews five people and each of these people have specific jobs that are relevant to the telling of the story. Coetzee's Disgrace is about an academic who loses his job because of a scandal involving one of his students. The Stain by Phillip Roth is also about an academic. Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel is about Thomas Cromwell, a lawyer who worked his way up from being the son of a blacksmith to being the chief adviser to Henry VIII. The Conservationist by Nadine Gordimer is about a businessman who spends his weekends and holidays being a gentleman farmer in South Africa. A Long, Long Way by Sebastian Barry drags us through the trenches with a WWI soldier.

I could think of more, but that's enough. Work, I think, is an important component of contemporary literature[...]

It must be confessed that I have not read a single one of these novels; I am hoping that I'll have somewhat more time to read fiction in the coming years, given that graduate school is over. The fact that Betty has read these is a recommendation in itself. In any case, perhaps the essay upon which I originally commented drew on an idiosyncratic pool of novels. Further thoughts from readers are encouraged.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

And Where Did They Go?

Most of my home gardening this summer has involved pulling weeds in the back yard and attempting to keep the container plants watered, but today's temperatures miraculously dipped to the 50s and 60s, so I was able to spend several hours in the yard without either heatstroke or death by mosquitos.
I had the pleasure of finding two of these in the front garden:

Since they were eating a vine rather than milkweed, I assumed they were Swallowtail caterpillars rather than Monarchs, and since there are numerous types of Swallowtail, that's not impossible, but this Wikipedia photo of a Monarch caterpillar looks more like my guests than any of the Swallowtail photos. The plant, they were devouring, honeyvine (Cynanchum laeve), is apparently one of the few non-milkweeds Monarchs will eat.

I was going to photograph my striped tenants in their full glory, but when I returned with the camera an hour or so later, they were gone. I hope they were merely napping out of sight and not eaten by birds.
Speaking of birds, a hummingbird came by around the same time to check out the blossoms on a coleus I had just repotted. The other day I saw a bright yellow bird of finch-like shape in the back yard (I have no idea what it was).
And there are many types of butterfly and bee visible in the yard at any given time.