Never Let Me Go, Kazuo Ishiguro

Cover illustration for Never Let Me Go, by Kazuo IshiguroWith the movie version of Never Let Me Go releasing last month, I was inspired to race through this book before the movie got nominated for something. Plus, never having read any of Ishiguro’s work (no, not even Remains of the Day), I felt it was a bit overdue. (As is this entry, given that I finished the book over a week ago.)

Never Let Me Go takes takes place in an alternate present (or an alternate late 1990s) with a dystopian bent. The novel is told in a conversational (and very, very English) first person voice from the point of view of Kathe H., a 31 year old about to retire from being a “carer” in order to become a “donor.” Kathe explains that, as she prepares for the next stage of her life, she feels the urge to recall her past with her two dearest friends, Tommy and Ruth, and more than that, to come to some understanding of what it has all meant. She begins her story at Hailsham, the boarding school where she and her friends grew up, on a beautiful but isolated country estate, and follows them through their late teens, living with a group of other students at a rural cottage, and into their adult lives as carers and donors.

The story, though phrased in a way that assumes a certain level of knowledge on the part of the reader, isn’t intended to be mystery. Like the students in the novel, readers know from the beginning that the characters are being carefully groomed to become multiple organ donors. As the children grow up, their knowledge of the specifics increases, and so does their understanding of where they come from, and the what donation will mean. Readers piece together the details of the donation system gradually from bits of information dropped throughout the text. The antiseptic language and Hailsham-specific slang scattered throughout infuses the book with a sense of creepy authenticity.

Throughout Never Let Me Go, Kathy comes across as friendly, matter of fact and honest–but she is not strictly speaking, a trustworthy narrator. Her remarkable evenhanded forthrightness in relating the events of the story, even her own faults and her sex life, is oddly offset by her extreme reserve. As the work progresses, it becomes clear that her own emotions are tightly controlled and deeply suppressed, perhaps as a survival mechanism, perhaps simply as a function of the expectations with which she has been raised. She faces the deaths of her friends, if not with equanimity, than with acceptance. Still, there are aspects of the donor’s fate, particularly what may happen after they “complete” that she cannot face, can barely imply. The emotion and drama of the story, like the precise truth behind the characters lives, is left largely to the reader to uncover.

Never Let Me Go features an unusual narrative structure that is both striking and convincing, though occasionally a little wearing. The story is primarily a sort of continuous flashback, one narrator recalling a series of a events in chronological order. But within those recollections, the plot tends to swirl and eddy, doubling back on itself. Kathy H., like any of us, telling a story to a friend, might start out to relate a specific event, then become sidetracked by some peripheral detail–what a particular teacher was like, which areas at school were and were not considered “in bounds,” etc.–leading to a whole other anecdote. It might be 10 or 15 pages before the narrator brings us back around to the original tale. Ishiguro adds a further layer by including frequent references to subsequent discussions the characters had about the events in question. In this way, each incident is rendered using a rich depth of perspectives, all filtered through the narrator’s current self, creating something manifold and complex and at the same time entirely one-sided. It’s really a great device, although I’ll admit that by about halfway through the book, it had started to drive me a little crazy.

In it’s style, characterization, relationships, and even in the simplicity of many of the events, this novel is compellingly realistic. It’s one of those rare books that inserts one fantastical detail into a world that is otherwise utterly true to life. As so many have pointed out, Ishiguro uses the novel as a venue to raise implicit questions about science and morality; what it means to be human, and what human beings are capable of.

Equally present in the work, but less discussed, is the apparent ease with which Kathy, Ruth and Tommy, and all the students accept their fate as donors. What is it that keeps these characters so grounded, so balanced, so willing? They aren’t restrained in any physical way–compulsion isn’t necessary. I would imagine that these students, released into the world as teenagers, would run as wild as Amish kids on Rumspringa, partying and shooting up and sleeping with outsiders. I’d expect runaways, or, if that were impossible, at least some self-destructive acting out–ODs, high speed car accidents, probably even a couple of deliberate suicides just before the donation processes begins. But none of that happens. In fact, the young people frequently make requests to begin their training early. There is only one context in which any kind of a reprieve is ever discussed, and even that is so modest: not a pardon, just a short stay of execution, a few extra years.

So why is that? I think Ishiguro intends it as a comment upon nature vs nurture, on the ways in which experiences and expectations can limit vision, can hold human beings in mental cages–and yet they still, as much as they are able, look for a way out. They crave the idea that a way out is even possible. It feeds back into the larger issue of amoral science: the author is saying, look, these children have been so thoroughly indoctrinated that they submit willingly to their own systematized execution–but they still love one another, they will still fantasize about the future, they will still try. This acceptance makes sense in context, but I found it consistently troubling, the one aspect of the book I could never quite credit.

The Girl Who Fell from the Sky, Heidi Durrow

Cover illustration for The Girl Who Fell from the SkyThe Girl Who Fell from the Sky tells a story of a family tragedy and survival from the points of view of five interconnected characters. Though the story is in fact very simple, the nonlinear time line, limited narrators, and unconventional sentence structure, give The Girl Who Fell from the Sky an odd sense of unreality and mystery–an airy elusiveness that keeps readers guessing, working to put the pieces together.

Set in 1980s Portland, OR, the novel opens innocuously with 10-year-old Rachel moving in with her grandmother. It’s clear that the move is precipitated by some recent family tragedy, but the exact nature of what has happened remains at first obscure. Rachel’s first-person, child’s-eye-view narration is absorbing. Bright and perceptive, she eagerly relates the details that strike her as new and curious–her grandmother’s unfamiliar speech and special lavender lotion, her aunt Loretta’s smooth beauty and “potential lizard,” Drew. More reluctantly, she discusses her sense of cultural alienation as the daughter of an African American serviceman and a Danish woman, living in America (and experiencing American racial tensions) for almost the first time. Rachel feels divided from the white girls at school because of her darker skin, alienated from black girls because of her blue eyes, her over-achiever status, and her prematurely large breasts. She also desperately misses the hybrid Danish-American culture in which she was raised.

“At the AME Zion Church, when we sing holiday songs, beneath my breath I sing the Danish words. The Choir is so loud no one can tell that during “Silent Night” I sing stille and not “still,” hellige and not “holy.” I’m glad I remember these sounds. I have learned a lot of words since I came to Granda’s. Dis, conversate, Jheri curl. There are a lot more. And sometimes I feel those words taking up too much space. I can’t remember how to say cotton in Danish or even the word for loud. What if you can have only so many words in you at once? What happens to the other words?”

Like the best first-person narrators, Rachel tells readers more than she means to, occasionally even more than she herself understands. Gradually, it becomes clear that Rachel’s mother and younger siblings recently died in an “accident”–that the whole family fell from the top of a Chicago apartment building where they had been living for most of one summer, leaving Rachel the only survivor.

Interspersed with Rachel’s narration are third-person sections following Jamie, a young neighbor boy who witnesses the family’s fall, and Laronne, the supervisor at the community college library where Rachel’s mother, Nella, had worked during her short stay in Chicago. As the novel progresses, Laronne finds and reads Nella’s diaries, while Jamie meets and talks to Rachel’s father Roger, creating fourth and fifth narrative strains that also help to fill out the story.

Eleven-year-old “Jamie who was really James,” known later in the story as Brick, is reading a fieldguide on birds in the apartment courtyard when Rachel’s brother plummets to the pavement, followed by her mother and infant sister, and last of all Rachel herself. Obsessed with the incident, Jamie hangs around the memorial erected in the courtyard meeting reporters and other visitors (including Laronne). Quizzed by a reporter, Jamie claims there was a man on the roof before the family fell, sparking questions about what exactly happened–did Nella throw her children off the roof and jump herself, or did some man push them? And who was the man on the roof: Nella’s red-headed boyfriend? Her estranged husband? Or only the crazy old Pigeon Man who raises birds on the roof? Jamie also visits Rachel’s hospital room, where he meets her father Roger and hears the story of Roger and Nella’s first son, killed in a fire before Rachel and her siblings were born. Soon after, afraid of the police and of the Pigeon Man, Jamie leaves the apartment building, living for a time with Laronne before heading West (somewhat inexplicably) to find Rachel and tell her Roger’s story. It takes six years before the two meet in Portland.

The novel is complicated, not only by the mode of storytelling, but by the themes which populate it–race and class, of course, but also alcoholism and addiction. The language of addiction and recovery is prevalent. In their youth, Nella and Roger are both alcoholics. The fire that kills their first son is started when Roger passes out drunk with a cigarette in hand. Nella meets the man she leaves her husband for at a meeting, and the fight that proceeds her death is brought on in part by his drinking and drug use. Roger drinks heavily at Rachel’s hospital bedside, and after the death of aunt Loretta, Rachel’s grandmother also becomes an alcoholic. Loretta’s fiance Drew runs the recovery program at the local Salvation Army. After leaving Chicago, Jamie/Brick becomes an alcoholic and addict as well. It’s through the Salvation Army and Drew that he and Rachel become reacquainted as teenagers. Creepily, young Rachel’s diary parallels that of her dead mother by numbering the entries “Day 1, Day 2, Day 3” AA style, rather than using conventional dates.

Finally, imagery of birds and flight and sky and maps permeates the text, flowing through nearly every section–ornithology, the bird-feeder, Pigeon-Man, the sky metaphors, pilots, bird-boy, the map maker, the maps on Rachel’s body, and of course, the family’s fate–it goes on and on. The effect is striking, artistic, holistic, but also unsubtle.

More importantly, the conclusion is seriously lacking. The climax of the story falls flat, failing to deliver the emotional impact that has been set up, and leaving behind a myriad of loose ends. It’s common in novels that aspire to “post modernism” that stories trail off, that life goes on, as it might in the real world, without the neat bows and morals of classical literature, but this is extreme. In the final chapters, it seems, all the characters but two disappear without explanation. It feels rushed, and it feels false. But it’s worth keeping in mind that Durrow is still a very young writer. Her prose is astounding, her characterization deep and astute, she just hasn’t mastered plot and pacing completely.

I Miss Ronald Regan…

…a president who, by the way, I cannot freaking stand, with his ripping the solar panels off the white house and screwing Jimmy Carter out of credit for bringing the hostages home; and his elitist trickle-down economic theories; and his vehement opposition of Roe v Wade; and his “homeless by choice” bullshit; and never mentioning AIDS until 20,000 people were already dead; and his “nine most terrifying words”; and his wife’s lame “just say no” campaign; and Iran-Contra; and Grenada; and whatever other secret CIA shit went down.

But I’ll say this about Regan: he was smart. He actually read the economic theories he promoted, and he was capable of explaining them coherently. He wrote some of his own speeches, including everybody’s favorite “government is the problem” inaugural address. He had the intelligence and (for lack of a better word) the soul to appropriate and rejuvenate the biblical “city up on a hill” analogy from John Winthrop and JFK. He had a sense of humor.

I’m pretty sure Regan would know what the 14th Amendment is, not to mention which supreme court decisions interpret separation of church and state as implicit in the 1st Amendment. I’m also pretty sure I’d hate what he’d have to say about both the constitution and the supreme court today…but at least I’d understand it. And there’s something to be said for that. Something to be said, too, for an opponent you can respect, someone you can argue with in a meaningful way, and someone who, at the end of the day, might not be such bad company over a beer.

Valencia, Michelle Tea

Cover illustration for Valencia, by Michelle TeaMichelle Tea is one of San Francisco’s living literary heroes–if you go to readings in the city, you hear her name all the time as an example of San Francisco’s vital literary scene. I’ve even heard her read a few times over the years without really knowing who she was. Her name carries such weight that, at the recent Litquake Litcrawl event, I found myself explaining the RADAR Reading Series to a friend, saying: they do a lot of alternative-style narrative. And Michelle Tea is really involved in it.

So, I figured it was time to get with the program and actually read something she wrote. For my first foray, I chose Valencia, the second and best known of Tea’s three memoirs. She is also the author, co-author or editor of nine other books in a range of genres including poetry, fiction, collected essays, and one graphic novel, but this book stands out as her signature title–the one that always makes it in the author bio or the introductory speech. In other words, the perfect place to start.

Valencia is a fast-paced if slightly meandering narrative of 20-something Michelle Tea’s substance-fueled adventures in 90s San Francisco. The story follows Michelle through a series of friendships, jobs, drunken hook-ups, and, of course, girlfriends–especially her doomed relationship with socially conscious Southern girl, Iris. Tea’s language is elastic–by turns spartan and poetic–creating a mobile, richly textured narrative with a voice that sucks you in and propels you forward through the story. The author comes through as fearless and eager, blindingly enthusiastic, in love with love and with the city, by turns casual and obsessive, self-absorbed yet self-aware, and always unapologetic. She makes a compelling narrator, and not always a completely sympathetic one.

Tea doesn’t dwell on the inner lives of her characters or on the significance the events that befall them, and that can make Valencia seem shallow. (That, and lines like this: “I could never come up with a good reason not to have a beer, so I completely understood. Plus she looked good with a beer in her hand.” Or this: “But I wondered about being with someone who tried to stop me from drinking coffee.”) The truth is, unlike most memoirs, the trajectory of the author’s life and the emotional weight of events doesn’t seem to be the point of this story. Valencia is, more than anything else, a tribute: to youth, to the particular culture represented by the eclectic cast of characters, and most of all to the city of San Francisco. It’s a world Tea brings to life with clarity and honesty and a certain amount of wistfulness. “But back to when it was thick and glistening and alive. I mean life, never knowing what was going to happen.”

Publisher’s Weekly has described Tea as “a modern-day Beat,” an assignation I find somewhat mystifying. Yes, Michelle Tea, like the Beats, writes about doing drugs, quitting jobs, sleeping with strangers, and meeting people on the bus–but that’s where the similarity ends.

Tea’s core themes center on feminism, class, and sex (or sex work). There were no female Beats. Just women who let the Beats crash in their spare bedrooms or shoot apples off their heads. The Beats were for the most part,1The big exception, of course, is group muse Neil Cassady. disaffected members of the middle class: Alan Ginsberg, Lucien Carr and Jack Kerouac all met at Columbia. William S. Burroughs went to Harvard. They weren’t born into poverty and abuse. They didn’t work as whores (although they paid some).

More importantly, the spirit of the Tea’s work is so fundamentally different from that of the Beat poets. The Beats were in many ways modern-day transcendentalists. The intellectual precursors of the hippies, they believed in the inherent holiness of life’s simplest aspects, and the inherent goodness of humanity’s purest desires. They rejected the mainstream emphasis on material wealth that characterized the post-war years. They looked for beauty in small good things, but also in seedier side of society. More than that, they had confidence that all this mattered in some way larger then themselves.

Tea, like an up-beat Brett Easton Ellis, leaves her readers with the vague impression that none of what happens matters all that much. She has post-modernist, post-hippie, self-analytical sensibilities that prevent her from taking anything (even her own love and pain) too terribly seriously. “Even I was bored with trying to convince her that she was in love with me, or that she should be.” Tea writes, on breaking up with a girl friend. Describing late nights with a group of friends, she recalls, “…everyone’s political consciousness was very fresh and important and we loved to dress them up and trot them around the ring.”

Even during some of the more emotionally charged moments of the story, Tea retains her perspective. On tumbling into the ill-fated relationship that arguably forms the center of the story, she has this to say: “It was that gross. We would just stare at each other…It was very meaningful, we shivered with it… Once, when I was very high on pot, Iris raked her fingers up my back, and I had a vision of the world being born, dry land splitting into rivers. I was out of my mind.” All this grand, dramatic imagery, but also that self-regulating reality check (it was gross, I was out of my mind) that is the trademark of her generation.

So, ultimately, Valencia is a fast, fun read, artfully narrated and dotted with moments of surprising humor. It might not change your life, but it can definitely brighten your day.

 

References   [ + ]

1. The big exception, of course, is group muse Neil Cassady.

Thoughts on “The Acquisitions Editor” Spoof

I read (okay, sometimes skim) Joe Konrath’s blog the way I occasionally listen to Rush Limbaugh on the radio–because even though he pisses me off, it seems like a good idea to know what different people are saying. Not that I want to compare Joe Konrath to Rush Limbaugh as a person. I mean, Rush is a crazy, mean, asshole. Joe’s just a bit of a curmudgeon. But sometimes, like I said, he really can piss me off. Like this post, “The Acquisitions Editor” from two weeks ago (look, I don’t check it everyday).

Okay, so what’s wrong with this picture? Well, let’s start at the beginning. I’ve worked at a lot of publishing houses and visited a lot more. Let me just say: none of them are in hip happening buildings, and at none of them are Editorial Assistants expected to get coffee for anyone. What is this, Madmen?

Okay, yeah, I know, it’s not literal. I’m over it.

The top five infuriating inaccuracies in this article are as follows:

5. ebooks rights only?

On what planet are publishers contracting exclusively for e-rights? According to current estimates, ebook sales represent 6% of the total book market–a lot more than I would have thought, but hardly enough justify going through the whole manuscript process. Especially when whoever owns the print rights could presumably undercut your price at any time, or even just do something as simple as creating market confusion with a new edition.

4. The implication that publishers came up with the $9.99 ebook price point.

It may be shooting myself in the foot to mention this one, but the $9.99 price point is Amazon’s. It wasn’t created by publishers. In fact many publishers prefer a price point closer to the $14 trade paper standard, which is why so many ebook prices are going up now that publishers have a say. I can sort of understand this. Cheapo mass market paperbacks have always been my personal favorite book format as a consumer, but traditionally publishers only release those for their most popular books, so they can make up in volume what they loose in price.

The thing is, I really liked the $10 price. It’s equivalent to eating lunch out or going to a movie. That is, it’s the kind of little splurge I can indulge in on a semi-regular basis. More than that, it struck me as pretty fair–$5 more expensive than say, renting a movie, $5 less expensive than buying a trade paper you could potentially resell. RIP.

3. “Well, we could spend two or three weeks working on a single title in order to get it ready.”

All I can say to this one is, “I wish.” The standard time-table for publication, from the time the author turns in their finished manuscript to the day it goes up for sale is more like six or seven months. True, about six weeks of that is time spent at the printer and in transit to the warehouse–but that still leaves five months. What happens in that time? Well, copyedit, author review, integrating changes, design, proofs (2 rounds), author review again, another round of proofs, cover copy, author review, cover design, author reviews that, too, endorsements, putting the ebook in different formats as needed, and QC-ing the ebooks formats.

Keep in mind that all this happens after the author has turned in a first draft, received feedback, and made revisions. If you count the developmental process it’s closer to ten months.

2. “But paper books cost money to create.”

Not as much as you might think. The unit cost of a standard black and white 6 x 9 paperback is really, really low. Like really low. They are made in China.

Making a book does cost money, but the costs are mostly stacked on the content creation and vetting end of things. For instance, you have to pay for developmental editorial work, design, acquisitions and marketing time, and you have to all the production staff (mostly freelancers) like the copyeditor, copywriters, the pager, the person who handles the QCs, etc.

To be fair, old Joe does mention these costs. Based on his estimates, I guess he really doesn’t like designers.

Yeah, that was a joke. More seriously, when you go with a traditional publisher, one of the things you’re getting is experience and expertise. Konrath argues that publishers don’t product test, but actually the whole (failing) publishing business model is one big product test–basically you just throw everything at the wall, see what sticks, and then try to recreate it. Not the most refined approach, but over time it has let publishers build up a strong good body of market knowledge and, yes, actual data. From this article, and this whole blog actually it’s clear that Konrath prefers to go his own way. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it doesn’t necessarily follow that 200 years of industry experience are wrong–just that this guy prefers his own title and cover.

1. “Do you know how much it costs to rent this office? We’re paying $25k a month, and that doesn’t even include utilities. I’ve got three assistants. We all have health insurance and 401k. Expense accounts. Do you have any idea what it costs to take agents out to lunch?”

Delusional. Seriously. Delusional. Everyone working in publishing, and I mean everyone, is overworked and underpaid. Literally everyone in the business, the designers, the tech people, the editors, the finance people, the publishers, everyone, could make more money working elsewhere. The only exceptions are the executive teams at the big six, and perhaps one or two other large houses.

Assistants are shared, offices are eclectic at best, there are no admins at all, there are a ton of temps (that means no health care, son), and lots of people, (especially editors and marketers) put in free nights and weekends. These are not the fat cats of the literary world (I’m really not sure who those would be. Critics, maybe? Or Madona, when she wrote that children’s book?). They are mid-level (at best) professionals who’ve invested their careers, hearts, minds, blood, sweat, and leisure-time in making art happen. Essentially, they are good, hardworking advocates who don’t deserve a bunch of shit from the likes of this guy.

I’m not saying prices couldn’t get lower. I’m not saying the royalty split is perfect, or that it’ll fall out that way in the end. I’m not saying the system is efficient, or the business plan is a good one. I’m not saying authors can’t double as agents and micro-presses.

I’m just saying: publishers aren’t the enemy; they just may not be your solution.

And you don’t have to be such a feakin’ jerk all the time.

The Debate

Wow, so, raise your hand if you listened to the third and final gubernatorial debate last night? If not, you can get the whole thing here.

One thing I’ve been learning over the last few months: State elections are a lot more fun than presidential elections. Way more gloves-off, say-whatever, drama-city then you could ever hope for from someone competent and presentable enough to eek through the presidential primary processes. Another great thing about these mid-terms: for once California isn’t the craziest state in the lower 48 (Christine O’Donnell and Sharon Angle make Gary Coleman and that porn star from 2003 look kind of sweet).


So, the debate. Tom Brokaw pulled no punches with the questions. He asked Whitman about the maid and Brown about the “whore” debacle.

I found his framing of the whore comment a little weird–

“We’ve heard no outrage from you about the use of that kind of language, which to many women, is the same as calling an African-American the n-word. Have you been in charge of the investigation to find out who’s responsible for using that phrase?”

–I can kind of see the analogy. Both terms are derogatory, disrespectful and dehumanizing, and both terms have been to an extent reclaimed. But I think anyone who interacts in the world on a semi-regular basis knows that being called a whore is not as bad as being called a nigger.

Maybe because sexual identity is only one part of what a person is, while the n-word is used to refer to the totality of a person. Whatever. Whore is just not as bad. Maybe in the right context, like the 19th century, or Iran, it might be more comparable.

Neither candidate handled this particular exchange with anything resembling grace. Brown babbled on about how the incident occurred a whole five weeks ago while Whitman cooed “ooooh” like someone was being sent to the principle’s office. Eventually, Brown managed to wrench out a defensive apology, to which Whitman responded with a prissy little lecture. Awesome.


I have to say, as someone who fundamentally disagrees with just about everything Meg Whitman stands for, that woman is really, really well-spoken. I mean wow. She falls back on vague political-stump-talk with some regularity (who doesn’t), but she managed to get in some clever little digs and turns of language. She comes off as especially oratorically gifted compared to poor Jerry Brown, who was busy stumbling over phrases and sticking his foot in his mouth (the back pocket thing?!?) the whole time.

But, you have to get beyond presentation to the content, and the content was:

Budget cuts, obviously.

Sounds like Whitman has her first 15 billion picked out. She didn’t really pinpoint exactly what it was, although welfare, state employee salaries, and future state employee pensions are definitely in the pot along with whatever else.

More jobs.

Not really clear on the plan for this. It’s more of a stated goal for both candidates.

Suspend Proposition 23.

Based on her speech, Whitman’s main reason for the suspension is to ensure that trucking jobs stay in-state. They’re trucking jobs. Where are they going to go? China? Maybe not the best choice for a case-in-point.

Lower taxes.

Of particular interest is the elimination of capital gains tax in order to encourage businesses to establish themselves in California over neighboring states. The flip side of this argument is that individual investors (i.e. non-business entities who just happen to have the income of a major corporation) will also benefit from the tax break.

Support Prop 8.

This one makes me so angry I really don’t know what to say. Whitman used an argument that I think will play really well with middle aged moderates on both sides (i.e. my dad et al): essentially that whatever your point of view, as a part of the state constitution, the proposition deserves another day in court and it’s the duty of Attorney General to make sure that gets done.

Finish the big fence.

Guest worker programs, yea; basically everything else, nay. Whitman specifically targeted San Francisco’s sanctuary status, which, let me just say, I resent. Also beefing up boarder patrols, creating a database that makes it easier to identify faked documents, and, yes, finishing the fence.

Whitman is not some tea-party nut-job.

She didn’t exactly say this, but she did say she wouldn’t be campaigning with Sarah Palin. More than that, she’s pro choice, she’s fine with civil unions, and she never mentioned God.

Apparently we don’t like teachers anymore.

One of the weirdest things about this debate was the discussion of education. Neither candidate could put enough distance between him/herself and the California Teachers Association. Exactly why this is isn’t clear to me.

Normally, teachers are right up there with cops and fire fighters. In every other election I’ve ever seen, an endorsement from the Teachers Association is something candidates brag about in their commercials. The implication seemed to be that schools are failing because teachers are lazy and ineffective; maybe schools are failing because there are 30+ multilingual kids in every room and not enough money for pencils.


Meanwhile, Jerry Brown stressed the following points:

Budget cuts again.

Jerry Brown’s statement about budget cuts was initially pretty hard to follow. He said he would cut the governor’s office by 10-15%. Driving home in my car, I definitely thought to myself: “how much can that possibly be?” and low and behold, Meg Whitman called him out on it before long. At that point Brown clarified, explaining that a leader can’t ask people to make sacrifices without making some himself. Since this is straight out of 90% of the business books I’ve worked on, I immediately thought “yes!”

Brown says he wants to get all the stakeholders together and re-budget, making the necessary cuts in his first 100 days, then go around the southern half of the state explaining why the cuts are necessary. Not as satisfying at Whitman’s 15 billion right off the bat, but I think somewhat more reasonable, since you would need assembly and senate buy-in to pass the new budget anyway.

More jobs.

Nothing to add here. Just, find more jobs.

Prop 8 is unconstitutional.

This was one of the few parts of the debate where I felt like I could really get behind Jerry Brown. He basically stated that Prop 8 violates the 14th amendment. ‘Course, he hasn’t always been exactly rock solid on this.

Pathway to citizenship.

On this issue, Brown became very articulate, but he also offloaded most of the responsibility on the feds. He had some good closing lines about the treatment of migrant workers, though.


Both candidates left something to be desired, Whitman in the areas of policy and compassion, Brown in (not exactly sure how to put this, but) respectability. What I mean is, like most career politicians, Brown is an older white man with a slippery record, who resents having to apologize for letting his staffers call his bitchy opponent a whore. Part of that slipperiness, like the gay marriage thing, may be due to the conflict of duty vs inclination, which I can appreciate. But it doesn’t make for much of a legend.

Oh well. Go Governor Moonbeam. I guess.

What you sign up for when you sign with a traditional publisher

I’ve been reading a lot on alternative publishing lately, looking for creative solutions to what is becoming an increasingly complex and fractured space. I’ve been a little disturbed by how much of the content focuses on the perceived failings and inequities of traditional publishing, rather than on possibilities for improvement. I say perceived because, while the publishing business has some serious problems, those aren’t the issues that are attracting the notice in the online, as far as I can see.

The book industry’s business model is clearly failing–I’m not disputing that. But many commentators are blaming that failure on greed in the industry, a negative attitude toward content and authors, and a fundamental lack of valuable services provided.

In response, I have to say first, that greed is something I’ve never witnessed among publishing professionals. Working in publishing is a labor of love. Every single person at a publishing company, from the publisher to the IT staff, could earn a higher salary elsewhere. They do what they do because they enjoy it, they care about it, and they think it maters. Book editors are always at work: they work all day at the office, they work all night at home, and they talk up their books like crazy to anyone who will listen.

The second point can be a little more ticklish. By and large, editors love their authors. Editors select their authors because they believe in their work; they help to hone and shape the manuscript; they represent the book and fight for it within the company and in the marketplace. Many authors and editors become close friends.

But there are always those authors. You know the ones. They use the home phone number you gave them for emergencies every other day. They request six separate short extensions instead of just saying “I’ll be six months late.” They turn in the manuscript six months late and then can’t understand why the book’s not out for BEA. They change the title four different times after the manuscript is already in production, then complain when Amazon and Barnes & Noble don’t update their websites right away. Essentially, they behave unprofessionally. That’s because (guess what) they aren’t professionals. They’re writers.

The third point, that traditional publishers no longer provide a valuable service, is I think, best redressed by explaining exactly what traditional publishers do (and do not) offer. This will vary from press to press, but basically, here’s what you sign up for for when sign with a traditional publisher:

1. The product

Your book will be released in at least one hardcopy version, either cloth or paperback (or, less frequently, both at different times). The hardcopy edition will have a professional cover created by designers specializing in your book’s particular market. The interior design will most likely be a variation on an existing template for which the publisher and printer both already own the necessary fonts.

Your book will also be made available in assorted ebook formats. Typically, these include mobi/kindle, ePub/apple, eReader, PDF, and if you’re lucky, at least one format for the disabled, such as Daisy.

If the publisher has high hopes for your book, they may also produce a audio version, a vook, or an app right out of the gate, BUT THIS IS RARE, especially for first-time authors.

2. Editing and production

Constructive, effective editing is the most valuable and important contribution a publisher can make to any book. At the manuscript stage, authors work with their editors to revise and improve the work. For high-level nonfiction, this may involve a peer review and/or competitive analysis. For fiction and softer nonfiction it more typically involves a more collaborative line edit approach.

When the final manuscript is submitted and approved, it will be vetting for copyright violations, fact checked if necessary, copyedited, and designed. Three rounds of page proofs is about average, although the publisher generally only shares one round with the authors unless there are special concerns. During this period, illustrations are commissioned, executed, and inserted into the text. Photographs and screen shots may come from the authors themselves (this is very common in nonfiction), taken from stock art, or more occasionally developed by the publisher. The e-versions of the book are also QC-ed during this period.

3. The marketing

This will differ significantly depending on the type of book you’ve written and the audience your going after. Regardless, much of the marketing will depend on the author. Here’s what you can expect from publishers.

The base-line no-frills B-level book treatment is as follows. All books receive back cover copy and web copy, catalog and newsletter coverage, social media coverage, availability on web retailers, and email blast promotions singly or in clusters (typically these go to previous customers or target groups like librarians, professors, indie bookstores, etc.). In addition, all trade books (that is books intended to be sold in a bookstore, as opposed to professional books or text books) will be presented to key accounts such as Barnes & Noble, Boarders, Books, Books-A-Million, what-have-you. Trade books will also be sent to industry reviewers such as PW, Library Journal, and newspaper book review sections (and yes, freaking Oprah).

The next level of publisher driven promotions, those reserved for A-level titles, can include a whole variety of outreach: promotional websites, facebook pages, ad-value content for Amazon, ads online and in trade publications/newsletters, giveaways like book marks and post cards, chain bookstore display table placement, Amazon special promotions, booksense boxes, press releases, magazine excerpts, interviews, contest entries, conference features (BEA, NLA, Midwinter, Frankfurt) and so on. For nonfiction titles with a specific topic/audience (computer books, business books, etc.) these promotions may be more specialized–i.e. a feature on 1-800-CEO-Read begin_of_the_skype_highlighting              1-800-CEO-Read      end_of_the_skype_highlighting, email blasts MBA professors, a focus on leadership conferences, but the concept is similar.

Finally, at the very top of the echelon, for AAA+ books only, there is the promise of actual print advertising and the elusive publisher-planned book tour.

Obviously, none of this on it’s own is enough to make a book sell. Publishers count on authors to do a lot of self promotion: to network with other authors, to blog, to tweet, to write editorials, to go to conferences, to plan signings and give talks. Authors who are unwilling or unable to do this will have a hard time getting signed. Conversely, the authors who are best at promotion themselves and their books may find that, like Seth Godin, they are better off without a publisher. Of course, Godin was with a traditional publisher through 12 bestsellers before he decided to go out on his own. So I guess make of that what you will.

*A note on ENDORSEMENTS: Authors always have some role in obtaining endorsements, although it can very widely from one publisher to another. Some publishers will ask the author to provide endorsements by a particular date and leave it at that. Others will ask the author for suggested endorsers and handle the requests themselves.

4. The sales

I really can’t put enough emphasis on this one. This is one of the biggest benefits of going with a major publisher: they have all kinds of sales staff. They have a team of trade reps to call on major buyers; a team of college reps to call on large adopters; direct sales staff, who cold call potential customers; sometimes they even have special reps for libraries and Indies. All these people just out there, all the time, selling.

Admittedly, this is less important now than it was five years ago. These days, you don’t have to see an actual book in front of your face to buy it…but it still helps.

Also, notably, many really big publishers have dedicated Amazon employees. That is, staff at Amazon whose salaries the publisher pays, who work exclusively for that publisher. Extended sales staff, if you will.

5. The money

Very few people get rich writing books. Or editing them, for that mater. So what can you expect money-wise? Well, every company is different, but typically you can expect to earn a royalty on a graduated scale between 10-15%. A typical scale might be 10% on the first 3,000 copies, 12.5% on the next 2,000, and 15% thereafter. Interestingly, in negotiations it’s easier to get publishers to change the break points (3,000, 5,000, >5,000) than it to change the royalty rates themselves.

Royalties are paid twice yearly or quarterly (again, depending on the publisher) and do not kick in until after the book is published and begins to sell.

In addition, many publishers offer their authors an advance against royalties. The advance is theoretically intended to give the author the leisure to write and edit the work, although the actual amount of the payment is rarely sufficient to make this possible.

The amount of the advance is based on the publisher’s sales projections and is calculated to be roughly equal to the author’s royalties during the first 6 months to one year after publication. The payment is payable in one or more installments (for example, half at contract signing, half on the submission of the manuscript). In cases where an advance is paid, the author will not start earning royalties until the advance has been “earned out.”

Royalties may be based on list price, the total cost of the book as advertised by the publisher, or net receipts, the money the publisher actually receives for each sale (because of bulk discounting this will vary according to the size of each sale, but is typically 20-50% off list price). These days, royalties based on net receipts are far, far more common than royalties based on list price.

6. Rights, legal and miscellany

Assuming you decided to grant your publish foreign rights in your publishing agreement, your publisher may sell foreign rights to your book to one or more other publishers around the world. For fiction, translation typically comes only after the book has received a degree of success in the market. However, for some sub-genres translations may come early on. For example, it’s not unusual for nonfiction business titles to be translated into Korean and Chinese before their sales records are proven.

If you are plagiarized, your publisher will likely begin by issuing a cease and desist letter. If the other party has been making a profit from the material, there may be some recompense or retro-active permission fee, which will be divided between author and publisher as specified in the original publishing agreement. However, it must be said that if the other party is based in Asia, this is extremely unlikely. If the material is web-based, the best you can really hope for is that it be taken down. The reality is that digital books, like digital music, are vulnerable. People who wish to steal them will continue to do so, no matter what technological protections are put in place. But the vast majority of readers still value what you do enough to pay a reasonable sales price.

If you have questions about permissions, or disclaimers, or any of the legal aspects of writing a book, just ask. The odds are good that your editor has experience with the issue, and if not, there’s a whole legal team to help.

Just did something I never thought I’d do

Actually, more like swore I’d never do. I gave financial support to a politician who:

a) is not pro-choice (although not a completely horrifying one)
b) voted for the Iraq war, and
c) is not even running in an election I’ll be voting in

For context, let me just add that this is only the second time I have ever given money to any political campaign. The last time was in 2008 when I donated to the DNC–A contribution which, by the way, never went through because it turned out my credit card was overdrawn (incidentally, I’m also broke most of the time). So that should tell you about how important I think this particular election is: I have no money, but I still choose to give some theoretical money away to an incumbent senator in another state.

Which Senator? Harry Reid.

The thing is, while Reid may be the Senator from Nevada, he’s also the Senate Majority Leader, which means in a weird way, he belongs to everyone. Even those of us not part of the Democratic party (no, I am a liberal, but I’m also an independent–mostly because I’m too consistently angry at the Democratic party to switch, even for the primaries).

It’s hard enough passing anything in the current senate. Loosing that 59 to 41 majority (and the majority leader into the bargain) isn’t going to ease that situation.

And then there’s is Sharron Angle, a terrifying individual so far to the right that even Bill Raggio can’t bring himself to support her. With this candidate, it’s almost impossible to cover the standard issues questions: her stances include abolishing the department of education and leaving the United Nations. This is someone who talks about the idea of privatizing veterans affairs and refers to autism using air quotes.

At the moment Angle is leading Reid 50 to 46 (or 42 to 40, depending on who you ask) in the polls, and while Bill Mann somewhat snidely remarks that “Harry Reid must have been saying a lot of prayers to get an opponent as weak as Sharron Angle. He will do extremely well.” not everyone is feeling quite so confident.

Including me. I mean, I honestly thought there was no possible way President Bush would be elected for a second term, and I couldn’t have been more wrong there. The 2004 election was the first in which I was old enough to vote, and it taught me one important lesson: you can’t be complaisant. If you think one situation is preferable to another, you have to get behind it. “Even voting for the right is doing nothing for it.” A vote is literally the very least we can do.

Giving a small sum of money might be the second-to-least I can do…but it’s a move in the right direction.

Just did something I never thought I’d do

Actually, more like swore I’d never do. I gave financial support to a politician who:

a) is not pro-choice (although not a completely horrifying one)
b) voted for the Iraq war, and
c) is not even running in an election I’ll be voting in

For context, let me just add that this is only the second time I have ever given money to any political campaign. The last time was in 2008 when I donated to the DNC–A contribution which, by the way, never went through because it turned out my credit card was overdrawn (incidentally, I’m also broke most of the time). So that should tell you about how important I think this particular election is: I have no money, but I still choose to give some theoretical money away to an incumbent senator in another state.

Which Senator? Harry Reid.

The thing is, while Reid may be the Senator from Nevada, he’s also the Senate Majority Leader, which means in a weird way, he belongs to everyone. Even those of us not part of the Democratic party (no, I am a liberal, but I’m also an independent–mostly because I’m too consistently angry at the Democratic party to switch, even for the primaries).

It’s hard enough passing anything in the current senate. Loosing that 59 to 41 majority (and the majority leader into the bargain) isn’t going to ease that situation.

And then there’s is Sharron Angle, a terrifying individual so far to the right that even Bill Raggio can’t bring himself to support her. With this candidate, it’s almost impossible to cover the standard issues questions: her stances include abolishing the department of education and leaving the United Nations. This is someone who talks about the idea of privatizing veterans affairs and refers to autism using air quotes.

At the moment Angle is leading Reid 50 to 46 (or 42 to 40, depending on who you ask) in the polls, and while Bill Mann somewhat snidely remarks that “Harry Reid must have been saying a lot of prayers to get an opponent as weak as Sharron Angle. He will do extremely well.” not everyone is feeling quite so confident.

Including me. I mean, I honestly thought there was no possible way President Bush would be elected for a second term, and I couldn’t have been more wrong there. The 2004 election was the first in which I was old enough to vote, and it taught me one important lesson: you can’t be complaisant. If you think one situation is preferable to another, you have to get behind it. “Even voting for the right is doing nothing for it.” A vote is literally the very least we can do.

Giving a small sum of money might be the second-to-least I can do…but it’s a move in the right direction.

Hurray for California! Everyone else…sorry…

Well, the mid terms are over, and the world isn’t…yet.

In the Bay Area, everyone has been pretty much beside themselves since Sunday night. The Giants won the series, Jerry Brown is the governor, Gavin Newsom his trusty Lieutenant, Barbara Boxer has lived to wheel and deal another day, the 2006 Global Warming act will stand, and today, there is a parade.

Goodbye to Meg Whitman (for four years, at least). Goodbye too, to Carly Fiorina. Now if only we could say goodbye to Prop 8 and stabilize the budget as easily.

The rest of the map is predictably red. But it’s not as bad as you might think. Or at least, as I did think. Harry Reid hung in there, for which I am really and honestly grateful. I’d be even more grateful if he’d take this opportunity to stop throwing state money at his sons’ assorted nefarious businesses and focus–but we take what we can get. (An older man teared up on NPR this morning about how disappointed he was in Angle’s loss. Couldn’t believe it. She strikes me as the most insensitive and racist candidate in the whole country. Except maybe Jim Russell. But I guess it takes all kinds.)

In fact, no one too crazy won anything. No Sharron Angle, no Christine O’Donnell, no one wearing an SS uniform or a costume of any kind, no Carl Paladino, no John Raese. Even second tier crazy Joe Miller might not make it (M-u-r-k-o-w-s-k-i! What’s that spell?). Despite all the talk (change this, tea party that) and an admittedly significant shift in the balance of power, this election hasn’t been the insane alternate universe we all predicted, expected and in some cases, feared. It could still be okay.