Monthly Archives: April 2010

Are We Riding Waves of Literature or Are We Drowning in Crap?

An American Editor is one of the blogs I read regularly if not daily. This past week he has been looking at “e-Books and the Downfall of Literature.” Today, he focuses in on the role literature plays in our society. What struck me in particular was this:

When following the traditional publishing route, an author strives for excellence because the author needs to separate his or her work from that of the masses. The competition for gatekeeper recognition that drives an author to strive for excellence doesn’t exist in the direct-from-writer’s-computer-to-Internet-ebook world. I’m not suggesting that the direct-from-writer’s-computer-to-Internet-ebook authors do not strive to do their best, but rather that the pressure to do whatever it takes to be the best no longer exists; that an author more quickly reaches the point of saying his or her work is good enough. . . . Good enough becomes the great leveler. . . . The standard of good enough is not a high enough standard for literature.

He has one comment so far, which I believe brings up a valid point:

It seems that you are pointing out the loss of our culturally accepted “gatekeepers.”

If you really compare “judgment by the few” (cultural gatekeepers) with “judgment by the many” (Internet feedback and such) you see that neither is better or worse, they are just different. . . . Just because we no longer rely so heavily on professional reviewers and publishers, doesn’t mean we are without means of filtering the influx of literature. The difference is that there is a much broader range of authorities to choose from.

What we have truly lost or are losing is a culturally-shared body of work—or, I should say, we have fragmented into micro-communities with localized “cultural literacies.” But we have gained access to a much broader and more diverse body of literature. So, with loss comes gain.

I believe both points of view are valid and true. Literary gatekeepers—the editors and publishers—do filter out the fine from the flawed. But they also use other filters to choose manuscripts that have little to do with literature and everything to do with business survival such as the bottom line. If it means publishing forgettable but popular books, they do. And it is unquestionable, at least to me, that some manuscripts worthy of becoming Literature are bypassed not because they don’t meet “gatekeeper standards” but because they won’t sell enough.

On the other hand, I miss newspaper book sections far more in theory than in fact. The New York Times has shown its biases for its own writers and for male authors. The Los Angeles Times  was, frankly, boring in many cases. Its reviewers often seemed more concerned with their own self-knowledge than with the book under review. Losing them is a loss to the literary community. But while the world of literary websites, forums, and blogs offering “judgment by the many” may lack the professionalism and standards that “judgment by the few” possess, they have something rarely seen in those newspaper review sections: enthusiasm. Ground-floor passionate enthusiasm for books and reading that encompasses everyone. Many more books get talked about and become known to readers. They are helping to stimulate reading! And no amount of grousing by the “old guard” is going to change that—even thought their standards are worthy of being emulated.

Aside from the interest the article generated for me, I think it is timely. Last week I talked about why BiblioBuffet has a policy of not reviewing self-published or vanity-published books. It really comes down to two reasons: (1) too many books, not enough time, and (2) needles are really hard to find in haystacks. On rare occasions, however, a self-published book (never a vanity one, in my experience) comes along that is breathtaking. Amazingly, I saw two—a coffee-table cookbooks and a book of historical fiction about Somalian immigrants—this past weekend at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books. What made me stop was that they were virtually indistinguishable not only from a regular trade book but even from a top-of-the-line publisher like Knopf. I ended up buying one of them there and ordering the second when I got home. These are books I would like to review.

In fact, Nicki and I are currently discussing BiblioBuffet’s current book submission policies. What if anything will happen is unknown. But I see all this change in the publishing industry as creating tidal waves of changes in books. Hopefully, we won’t drown in crap but instead find ourselves riding our literary horizons gently onto the worldwide shores of Literature.


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Issue of April 25, 2010

In this week’s issue, we have some fabulous reading for you. Want to explore a startling corner of history? Perhaps read about a family history that is, if you are fortunate, not like your own? Find out what authors make the best celebrities? Take a tour of one of the country’s premier book festivals? Then click away!

There are lots of reasons to love books, not least among them the opportunity to come together with other booklovers to share in the excitement of meeting authors and booksellers, getting books signed, listening to book-oriented panels, and buying books. Even though it means sore feet for two days Lauren Roberts once again hits her local festival for her annual fix in Celebrating Books and Reading.

“Science and Story are the two stars that have guided my life,” says Nicki Leone. And having grown up that way, she found herself strongly identifying with the author of a compelling new biography about a woman who unknowingly produced one of the most important cell lines used in science today but who remained unknown and unappreciated until the author connected with the woman’s family in The Story in the Science.

Every family has a history but not every family has a history that includes the Mafia. How does one come to reconcile memories of a loving, doting father with the later discovery that he is a trusted member of a feared crime-and murder ring? The secrets of this author’s family’s life, Lindsay Chamption says, are released in a series of “seemingly harmless” moments until they build into a “chilling, heart-wrenching mystery” in Family Secrets.

At some point in our lives all of us have at least one person we have been “dying” to meet. Lauren Baratz-Logsted recalls that unlike some of her peers who were enthralled with sports, movie, or political celebrities she has always found her “celebrities” among authors. And, she admits, she is not immune to going gaga over more than a couple of those in Dying to Meet You.

Marking the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books are the bookmarks that Lauren Roberts collected. This year, instead of just taking anyone offered she got fussy. But those few proved to be enough to satisfy in A Book Festival in Bookmarks.


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Drowning in Books

Publishers Weekly, the trade journal, noted in a recent article that in 2009 self-published books, which included those issued by vanity presses and micro-niche publishers, reached a staggering 764,448. That’s three-quarters of a million books, and it doesn’t even include the “traditional” books from commercial publishers. That number: 288,355. Not all of the latter are intended for the public; they include textbooks and other specialized publications, but still! Put them together and you are talking about more than a million books published in just one year.

It’s even more astounding when you take into consideration that the number of book readers in proportion to the population is not high. In 2002, the National Endowment for the Arts reported that only 57% of American adults had read a book that year. It hasn’t gotten better since then. According to a poll take in 2007 by Associated Press/Ipsos one in four Americans read no books at all, and that for those who did read the average number was only seven per year.

So while it appears that interest is reading books is dropping off, it is also true that the interest in publishing is growing. Everyone wants to have someone read their writing, thus it should come as no surprise that many turn to vanity-publishing and self-publishing to “get it out there.” The result of those decisions is the focus of this post because despite the Submission Guidelines we have for those seeking to send books to BiblioBuffet for review consideration, we are receiving more e-mails, press releases, and books that are self-published or vanity-published.

We just don’t hear from the authors either. Earlier this week I received an e-mail from a successful publicist whose name is familiar to us. We have reviewed a couple of his clients’ books in the past, and they were good. However, in this e-mail he listed a book that had been published by Lulu, a printer with a good reputation for quality but a printer nonetheless. Anyone can upload anything to Lulu and create a book at a reasonable cost. But it is not a published book, at least by our definition. A published book doesn’t always mean high quality but it does mean that it was professionally edited and produced by a publishing house that thought it had an audience and was willing to put its money behind it in the form of an author advance, editorial guidance, copy editing, professional design, high-end printing, catalog inclusion, review copies, and marketing and publicity. And it will be found in bookstores.

Books printed by vanity  houses and by authors (self-published) may or may not have some of these benefits. If the author is willing to spring for a professional freelance editor and book designer the book will likely be indistinguishable from its commercially-produced competitor. But these are rare because professionals cost money. Lots of money. And relatively few authors have that to spend. So they edit themselves or ask a friend to do it. They might use a drawing or photograph they made, or they use clip art. The nuances that make up a fabulous cover (meaning it “reads” well) are missing because cover design is a highly specialized field. They don’t understand kerning, and leding and the reason behind them. They don’t understand the purpose of genuine editing. The most inexperienced may even still be caught in the “Golden Word Syndrome,” meaning they think that their words are perfect as is. And even if the writers are sufficiently experienced to want and use the best help they can get, they are faced with, as a book publisher once told  me, the fact that “as hard as writing and publishing a book is, it is at least ten times harder to market it.” And she was a successful small commercial publisher who had spent decades honing her writing craft, owning a weekly newspaper, and giving lectures before thinking about opening her own house.

She was, I fear, one of a type that is rapidly disappearing. Both today’s technology and, more worrisome, mindset focused on immediacy encourage writers to think that they can and are entitled to bypass the learning curve that successful writers (and publishers) know they must traverse. They have the “right” to do that, and now they have the ability with the help of technology providers like iUniverse, Lulu, and so on. And when that happens what usually results are books that are no better than a publisher’s slush pile, which mostly range from illiterate to mediocre. Except that they are now in book form.

But what looks like a book, talks like a book, and quacks like a book is not necessarily a book that should show its face in public. But every once in a while—a great while—there is a self-published or vanity-published book that should. It was one of these that the publicist was writing about. The author had credentials, had obtained professional services, and was going about it in exactly the right way. Yet we declined to request a review copy, and I gave the publicist my reason.

Within an hour I received a polite but irritated response wondering why it mattered that the author had used Lulu. I pointed him to our guidelines—which we have had in place the day we opened our doors—and apologized because I recognized that he had a valid reason to be irritated. He has standards too. He represents fine writers. The author was no doubt one. But BiblioBuffet is not going to change its policies for the few because if we did so the floodgates would open to the many. We have enough trouble handling the volume of mail we get now. The thought of 764,448 or more books flooding into us makes me nervous, especially because I have worked with slush piles. To say they are not pretty is an understatement. Read enough of one, and it was make you literally sick. Formatting the slush into book-like forms won’t improve it. So to those few quality authors who elect to self-publish or vanity-publish, I am sorry. Please try a commercial house next time. You won’t end up disappearing in the slush flood. And then we’ll consider your book for review.


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Issue of April 18, 2010

Travel around the world and into time with BiblioBuffet this week!

The world of art seems as if it should be a genteel one, filled with inspired and inspiring works. But the work itself is almost a backdrop to the backbiting, scratching, viciousness, greed, insanity, and yes, even the incredible generosity that Lev Raphael finds in his review of four books (one history, one biography, one monograph, one novel) that portray, in fascinating detail, the worlds four masterpieces created in Four Portraits.

Writing about one’s previous employment can be weird, but in sports it can take on a particularly sensitive strain unless the writer has succeeded at the only measure for success, in this case the Yankees 27th championship. It’s an unflinching look with a welcome dash of perspective, says Pete Croatto, in Then  He Came to the End,  and that makes the book in its new paperback edition (with Afterword) worth reading.

For a generation, the name “Vietnam” has wrought some of the most painful and personal memories of war since the Civil War. It ripped apart not only generations but an entire country. Now, nearly forty years after the raw end, comes a book that tells the stories of the men of one unusual unit in a war that, David Mitchell says, “will always be an ugly conflict, but the heroism of some of its participants and their will to survive against all odds is inspiring” in Long Ago But Still Remembered.

Horror is the spice of life. At least it’s the spice in Kiwi-turned-Australian author Paul Haines’s life. As Gillian Polack discovers in her interview, Haines likes to delve into the profoundly personal to produce the terrible terror, and he does it rather well. Discover how in The Horror in Life: An Interview with Paul Haines.

Incorporating new books into one’s library should be a fun job for any bibliophile. But sometimes those books—filled with memories and connections and relationships—are more than just new books as Lauren Roberts shares in Giving Books.


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Issue of April 11, 2010

In this week’s issue, BiblioBuffet’s contributors bring you, our readers, a surprising range of work. Travel back in time to visit with Richard II, or share the exuberant experiences of a special librarian. Debate the impact of online reading on our brains, take a look at a unique memoir, peek in on a most disrespectful and amusing author interview, and explore the world of a history in brief. We have it all just for you.

Nicki Leone’s passion for Shakespeare finds its way into many parts of her life including gardening. A recent warm spring day, ideal for working in the dirt, was also ideal for listening to her favorite CD collection of Shakespeare’s plays, in particular, Richard II, in which she found a “play of politics, personality, and plants” in Richard II: Outdoors and In.

A debut memoir that stretches the description of the genre by using character studies of her friends and family (rather than traditional narrative) enables the author to “cobble together an intimate portrayal of her own life while rarely speaking directly about herself.” And despite problems, Lindsay Champion says, this rule-breaker is a winner in  Everyone We Know.

The economy is hurting many not least among them libraries. Lauren Roberts shares the story of one library and its struggles and successes in bringing reading and books to a tiny community in Building a Library, Dollar by Dollar, Book by Book.

Lauren Baratz-Logsted takes out her sharp wit and ruthless determination on yet another hapless happy writer, this time YA author, Kristy Kiernan. To her delight Kristy was no pushover, and the resultant interview is some of the best snark-on-snark we’ve yet delivered in The Disrespectful Interviewer.

Shorthand, the “language” of brevity that has recorded centuries of history, law, politics, and business, came to an end for the most part about three-quarters of the way through the twentieth century. Lauren Roberts, for one, is personally grateful since her failure to “get it” kept her off the secretarial road. However, its history is a long and fascinating one as she shares in The Long History of Shorthand.

Are there real changes in reading skills when the ability to read effectively online is achieved and used regularly? Though the Internet is a constant in her life, guest columnist Stefani C. Peters recalls the times in her life when the only way out of a frightening state of depression was her offline reading of books, newspapers, and magazines in My Brain on E-books.


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Issue of April 4, 2010

April showers, right? Depends on where you live no doubt, but as I write this the skies are dark and it is threatening rain so I assume the May flowers are going to be particularly beautiful. Or maybe it’s just that this issue is flowering early. Have a great week!

Gillian Polack, BiblioBuffet’s newest columnist, joins us from Australia. In her introductory piece, she shares her penchant for making lists as she takes us through her books’ habitats otherwise known as her apartment in An Introduction to My Booklife.

What does reviewing books mean? How does it actually happen? What is behind the selection process? David Mitchell decides to take a look at the way he does it, exploring the personal meaning that being a book reviewer has for him in So Many Books, So Little Time.

Walking might seem as too obvious a thing to write about, but Pete Croatto found in his review of The Lost Art of Walking that this common act has an uncommon and complex history in What We Talk About When We Talk About Walking.

Here, There, and Everywhere is not just the heading of the editor’s letter this week, but the state of affairs in Lauren Roberts’s brain. Fear not; there are some great things in there including a couple of happy announcements and the link to a very funny essay she wishes she had thought of.


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Oh, Those Rejections!

Remember high school dates? Remember asking (if you are male)? Remember being asked (if you are female)? How did it feel?

If you’re like me it felt wonderful and horrible. As the “askee” in those late 1960s situations I could always sense it coming. My reaction was either one of excitement or dread. If the latter, the dread was enormous because I knew I did not want to go on a date with him and because I had been instructed that good girls with good manners should not hurt his male ego, rejecting him sometimes didn’t happen until the second, third or even fourth date.

Yup, that’s right. I went on dates with certain guys until I could figure out how to turn down dates with them. And when I finally had to do it, it wasn’t because I found the courage but because it became a matter of personal necessity—any more dates would have meant I was going steady, and if I did that I might find myself exclusively paired off with him, then we would become engaged, and *yeech* eventually marry!

In a similar way I find myself all these many years later feeling that same sense of dread when I am faced with queries from hopeful but “not right for us” writers. How do I turn them down? And let me tell you the answer is no less easy today than it was back then, though turning down dates with men in whom I have no interest has become, ironically, easier.

I have had enough rejections in my writing life to know how it feels to study the magazine or the online site, to create an idea, flesh it out, write, edit, re-write, re-edit, and polish it, to send that query, and to . . . wait with hope in my heart. I also know all too well the feeling of deflation when the rejection arrives, and to have no idea why it was rejected.

I liken my role as BiblioBuffet’s editor to that of the girl (which I was). How do I reject writers who reach out to me? Well, I don’t toss off rejections casually because I understand how the writer is going to feel. Yet I cannot allow my feelings to override my editorial responsibilities. A rejection must be a rejection. I do not allow myself to “date” writers while struggling to find a way  to reject them. Nor am I allowed to critique a writer I am not going to accept; it’s not fair to either the writer or to other editors.

Where I found compromise, though I admit this is still not entirely comfortable, is in writing personalized rejection letters. I have been warned against this practice from some editors and agents because on occasion it can lead to an argumentative or angry correspondent. Fortunately, that has not been my experience thus far. What I have gotten are a few notes of appreciation for the comments, most of which are variations of “please keep writing and find a writers’ critique group.” Ooccasionally, I even add, “try us again in a year.” And I mean it too. Unlike, I am sorry to say, when I told Eddie from high school that “maybe next weekend” would be the right Saturday night for a date.


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