Thursday, February 23, 2012

News: Amazon the Bully: The Dispute with Independent Publishers

I have written posts against Amazon before. (see here.) I’ll admit that an outright hatred of Amazon by anyone who cares for books, authors and the publishing industry is a bit myopic.  There is a very good argument that Amazon has done more to expand reading than almost any other entity. By making many books “loss leaders,” Amazon has made “physical books” (see my post above about the use of this term) very affordable. Additionally, Amazon has made it very easy for independent writers to self-publish. In both cases, Amazon has helped put writing in the hands of more people. This is a good thing.

Yet, today, Amazon took a step backwards in this area of expanding reading. They removed about 5,000 titles distributed by the Independent Publishers Group (IPG) from Kindle availability because of a contract dispute. (read more information at Paid Content and Publishers Marketplace) It seems that Amazon thought, given its size and Kindle-reading base, IPG would give in to demands for steeper discounts. IPG, looking out for the well-being of its nearly 400 independent press clients refused. This was clearly the right decision. All publishers, whether small or large, operate on razor-thin margins. Amazon makes billions of dollars a year off many things other than books. Publishers and distributors should not have to help pad Amazon’s profits while putting their own existence in jeopardy. 

At the present time, it seems that IPG feels strong in standing its ground. They report that no other retailers of their e-books have asked for term changes similar to Amazon. The question that remains is how will the current dispute end? Will Amazon’s bully tactics work? More e-book readers own Kindles than other device. If Amazon holds their ground, IPG might feel pressure to concede. I hope that they don't. This is exactly the kind of situation that critics of Amazon have feared. Because of the huge number of loyal Kindle users, publishers have no choice but to sell through Amazon. If a book is not available for the Kindle, many readers will not seek out a print edition, or read a Google Book on another device. And yet, as already stated publishers need to be paid a fair price. The good news is that there is some precedent for Amazon backing down. In 2010, when Macmillan switched to "agency pricing" (see my post linked to in the first paragraph for information on this concept), Amazon initially shut off Kindle access to Macmillan titles before capitulating. Still, the titles published by Macmillan were much more popular and sought after than some of these small press titles.

The bigger question is whether this dispute is a harbinger of things to come. Will Amazon be able to bully other publishers and other distributors for steeper discounts by shutting off access to their titles on the Kindle, even temporarily? I hope not, but I fear that it’s possible.

If there is more to report on the current conflict or any future conflicts, I’ll be writing about it.

The PEN/Faulkner Award and Finalists: Part 1

Most people know about the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction. Many people know about the National Book Award. If you have been following my previous posts, you know about the slightly lesser known National Book Critics Circle Award. (See my prior posts: background information on the award, my predictions of the finalists, and a recap of the finalists. The winner will be announced on March 8th). Still, there is a fourth major literary award given in the United States that is even less widely known: the PEN/Faulkner Award.

The PEN/Faulkner is the newest of the four major awards. First given out in 1980, it was started as a result of the controversy surrounding the 1979 National Book Award and changes made in 1980. When Going After Cacciato by Tim O’Brien won instead of the more commercially successful The World According to Garp by John Irving, many in the publishing industry were upset by the obscurity of the choice. These detractors pressed for changes in the awards, modifying the voting, adding categories and rebranding them as the American Book Awards. (Read more about the beginning and end of the American Book Awards in this Washington Post article.) A group who thought that these changes were a mistake, including novelist Mary Lee Settle, pushed for a new award.  Although the National Book Awards eventually returned, and as they exist today are closer to the pre-1979 awards than the American Book Awards, when the PEN/Faulkner Award was started, this return seemed doubtful. Thus, the goal when it began was to fill a void. Even though this void may no longer exists, the award remains, and deserves attention.

The finalists for this year’s PEN/Faulkner Award were announced on Tuesday. They are: 

Lost Memory of Skin by Russell Banks 

The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka

Stay tuned for more thoughts on the finalists!

Monday, February 20, 2012

Review: What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank

By Nathan Englander
207 pp. Alfred A. Knopf. $24.95

At a reading I attended last week, in response to a question about craft and inspiration, Nathan Englander said something like, “I only know Jewish stories,” so that’s what I write. It is true that all but one of the stories in his new collection prominently feature Jewish characters, but calling them “Jewish stories” is too simplistic. In the eight stories, Englander tackles themes such as trust between a husband and wife, devotion between a mother and child, the unkindness of kids to one another, and family secrets. These are themes that can be understood and appreciated irrespective of the religion of the characters, and yet, the “Jewishness” of these stories cannot be denied. Two stories take place in Israel and at least three are informed by the lingering shadow of the Holocaust. 

One theme that links some of these stories is humor amidst seriousness. In the title story*, a Hassidic and secular Jewish couple – recently reunited old friends – play a “game” where they darkly speculate on who would hide them in the event of another Holocaust. Yet, the whole time they are getting high on marijuana, pilfered from a teenage son’s stash and rolled into joints using tampon wrappers, an “emergency preparedness” method the women developed in high school. In “Camp Sundown,” which takes place at a summer camp (adults on one side of a lake and kids on another), two elderly “campers” are convinced that a newcomer was a Nazi guard at the “other camps.” The humor here, in part, is provided by another couple. They are so worried about a fire in the wooden bunks – they are used to living in an adobe house – that they wear smoke alarms around their necks. And yet, despite the moments of humor, both of these stories have surprising and serious conclusions. In fact, Englander excels at almost all of his endings. Besides the two already mentioned, other stories in the collection – including “Sister Hills,” which follows Jewish settlers in the West Bank – have endings, which although not necessarily shocking, take an unexpected turn, and force the reader to rethink all that has come before.

One of the best stories in the collection, “Everything I Know About My Family On My Mother’s Side,” stands out from the others stories, stylistically. It reads, somewhat, like an extended prose poem, with short numbered vignettes. Told in the present tense, there is a sense that the reader is discovering family secrets at the same time as the narrator. In fact, the narrator is a writer, and must have known everything in advance; he is merely using the tense as a technique. In lesser hands this style of storytelling might seem disjointed and contrived, but Englander pulls it off with deft and grace.

On the back of the collection there is advanced praise from ten (yes ten!) authors, among them are four Pulitzer winners, two National Book Award winners and one finalist, and one National Book Critic Circle award winner and one finalist. It is a collection of praise which seems almost too good to be true. A naysayer might think that Knopf was recruiting comments from Englander’s close friends to cover up a less-than-stellar collection. This could not be further from the truth. These stories are almost flawless. They take you into others lives’ so seamlessly that you may want to remain there even after the stories end. This collection deserves all of the accolades it has received.

* Some readers may know of Raymond Carver's short story collection, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. Unfortunately, I haven't yet read this collection, and thus I am unable to draw the comparisons that you will find in other reviews. Still, I have learned that Englander's title story not only mirrors Carver's in title, but also in narrative structure.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Some Thoughts On the Future of Books

I am certain that the thoughts below are not really new or original, but I wanted to share them, anyway. I heard (a variation on) them from Nathan Englander at a reading last night. He was responding to a question about the ongoing shifts in the publishing industry – e-books, the death of Borders, etc. Incidentally, the questioner did not ask the question mindlessly and simply because it is topical. Englander read an entire story from his new collection – What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank – which, indirectly, but beautifully, comments on the shifts in reading, books and the like. 

Nathan asked, rhetorically:

-Did the phonograph kill live musical performances?

-Did the photograph kill painting?

-Did film kill the theater?

-Did the “talkies” kill silent film? Well, maybe, and yet a silent film has multiple Academy Award nominations, almost 80 years (give or take) after the last major Hollywood silent films.

I’ve added to/changed some of the points – within minutes I had already forgotten Englander’s exact comparisons – but the gist remains.  Also, the point I love most – about The Artist and the Academy Awards – was 100 percent from Nathan. (Another very similar point: the resurgence of the LP in the age of MP3s.)

Bottom line: e-books will not kill print books or kill the publishing industry. They simply represent a shift, like any other historical/technological shift. In fact, I believe that print books will exist for a long time. There will always be people who will pay a premium for a different kind of experience. People pay (sometimes significantly) for theater, live music and movies, even though they can get similar content cheaper in slightly different forms. Holding a book, feeling the pages, having an author sign and inscribe one to you are all experiences I would pay a premium for. And I know that I am not alone.  I just hope that the price of that experience doesn’t double in ten years. (I could see that happening!)

The story that Nathan read – called The Reader – presents a rather pessimistic view of the future of reading, but given his statements, I don't think he is pessimistic. I think he simply wrote a story. And a great one. It's a reminder that it is often a mistake to project the content of a story onto an author.

Stay tuned for a review of the collection.