Archive for February, 2012

At the San Miguel de Allende Writers Conference

February 26, 2012

San Miguel de Allende

Last week I went down to the San Miguel de Allende Writers Conference. All I can say is: Wow!

After selling books my whole adult life, I still don’t understand this  one mystery: Why do writers write? I’m fascinated by all writers, from Pulitzer Prize winners to old geezers puttering around with  memoirs of their exploits at The Battle of the Bulge.  In particular  I’m puzzled and amazed at the minds of fiction writers. I can’t imagine   inventing stories. It’s hard enough to lie to Leslie about how I let  the gold fish die while she and Hayley  were visiting  Disneyland for the weekend.  Almost all the novelists I speak with say that the stories keep pouring out of their heads like water from a broken faucet. I think it must have something to do with the subconscious. When I try to understand it, the phrase that keeps coming into my mind is “touched by the muse”.  I don’t even believe in the muse. But I don’t know how else to explain it.

Fascinating and exciting though they may be, most writers conferences – how shall I say this? – aren’t easily monetized. Not to put too fine a point on it, I don’t usually come away with a lot of new clients. But I have to tell you. To paraphrase Mitt Romney, there was some severe talent down in San Miguel de Allende.  I asked  to read  a lot of manuscripts from the writers down there. And I know that some of them are going to end up on the front tables at Book Passage.

A lot of writers conferences have their primary  focus on how to get published. Pitching to the agents is always  the highlight of the conference.  Prior to the pitch sessions, participants go to workshops where they are instructed  with excruciating detail on the nuances of the  perfect pitch.  I would imagine it feels a little  like learning the rules of etiquette at the court of Louis the XIV.   I don’t believe in any of this. I tell the writers that I just want to have a conversation about what they are writing about. I like to think that a bad pitch won’t kill a good project and a good pitch won’t save a bad one.

San Miguel de Allende  was more about writing than learning how to get published and networking with agents.   The agents played a more subordinate role, which was all for the best.   There were only four agents there. We did have the usual agent panel where we tried to explain the ins and outs of getting published. Before the panel started, I introduced myself to the agent sitting to my right, Kathleen Anderson. She’s a very successful agent in New York. I decided to try to impress her by telling her that I sold a book earlier in the day. She responded that she did as well.  Hers was the collected unpublished writings of James Joyce.  Mine wasn’t.   So ended the conversation. It turns out that Kathleen was not your usual snooty New York agent though. We’ll get to that in a few minutes.

Speaking of James Joyce, I spent a lot of time talking to Susan Sutliff  Brown. Susan is a freelance editor – book doctor – ghost writer.  And a very good one too. She’s  also a retired James Joyce scholar. Susan told me entre nous (and I really shouldn’t be repeating this in a blog) that she loves reading junk fiction. I attended her fiction workshop where she attempted to explain  what Joyce, William Faulkner,  and  mystery writer James Lee Burke have in common.  More than you might imagine, according to Susan. She also brought up Scruples  by Judith Krantz. I was doodling on my legal pad, so I wasn’t paying attention at that moment.  Susan might have been saying that Krantz’s first novel had a lot in common with Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain, but I might have heard it wrong.

I went to another fiction writing session conducted by C.M. Mayo, an award winning writer living in Mexico City. She talked a lot about first lines in literature. At the end of the class we all attempted to compose a great first line.  A lot of them sounded like bad imitations of Henry James.  I took a different approach. I wrote something about diarrhea at the art opening.  More  Charles Bukowski than Portrait of a Lady. And, like Bukowski, my genius was not understood or appreciated at the time.

I  was off and on engaged in a running conversation/argument with Rikki Ducornet  about  how writers write and how story tellers tell stories.  Rikki has written 8 novels and has won about a zillion literary awards. Right now she is writing a libretto to an opera based on The Gilgamesh Epic. I can’t exactly remember what  we talked about but I do recall  bringing up Nietzsche’s notion of the union of the spirit of Apollo and Dionysus in Greek tragedy. It was as if I was back in my sophomore year at Brandeis.

The highlight of the entire conference  was an over-top-fiesta that conference director Susan Page put on in a huge 18th Century mansion. There was a phalanx of mariachi players. A few of them looked suspiciously like retired Jews from New York. Whatever.  My favorite thing  there was a real burro wearing a straw hat with plastic flowers.

La Cucaracha Bar

At the Fiesta, Kathleen Anderson, Kristen Iversen, Christine Wettlaufer, and I decided it was time to act like real writers and head for the bars. Christine had spent some time in San Miguel de Allende and insisted that we go to La Cucaracha, a bar with certain literary pretensions. It is said that Neal Cassady had his fatal accident on the train tracks outside of town after getting drunk at La Cucaracha. Legend has it that the bar has one of the 10 skankiest ladies’ rooms in the world. We ordered some margaritas there, and looked around at the clientele. Some of them  seemed like they might be over the hill “D” rated  Hollywood actors. There were a lot of TVs around the room. But instead of showing football, they had looping videos of go-go dancers in g-strings.

We decided it was time to move on, so we left and walked along the cobblestone streets to the plaza and found another bar, a little less, how shall we say, picturesque.  This time I ordered  the  true beverage of great writers — a scotch on the rocks. The waitress couldn’t speak English and none of us could really explain what we wanted in Spanish. Finally  I asked for Scotch con helado, which I later  discovered to my dismay meant “scotch and ice cream”.

Kristen Iversen is the director of the MFA program for writing at the University of Memphis. She was one of the keynote speakers at the conference. She was also once the student of Rikki Ducornet. Kristen’s forthcoming book is called Full Body Burden: Growing Up in the Nuclear Shadow of Rocky Flats. 22 publishers bid on it at auction. It’s being published by Crown Books this summer.   Of course, all of us wanted to know how much money Kristen got, but we were too embarrassed to ask. When Kristen went to the bathroom, though, we talked about it a lot. Christine is Kristen’s star student and probably knows how big the advance was, but she wouldn’t tell us except to say that Kristen probably doesn’t have to teach any more. Christine has written a memoir about her 24 years in the military. She’s good and I told her I wanted to represent her, but the book is a finalist for the Bakeless Award. If it wins, it automatically gets published by Graywolf  Press. So there isn’t much help I can give her.  Of course if it loses……

We all went bar hopping again on Saturday night along with some other authors whom I think I would like to sign up as well. We went to Harry’s Bar. It was “Bikini Night”. Anyone coming to the bar in a bikini got in free. They had a 12 foot high bare breasted papier-mâché female figure at the entrance. Somewhere in Kristen’s camera is a picture of me fondling it. She tells me the picture may have gotten lost. I hope she’s right.

I loved that writers conference. It was a lot of fun. I made some good friends. I got to hang out with writers. Life doesn’t get much better than that.

Breaking News: Amazon Removes All Kindle Editions of Independent Publishers Group From Their Site

February 22, 2012

Independent Publishers Group announced yesterday that Amazon.com has removed every Kindle edition of IPG Books from their site. This is serious and requires immediate response from all interested parties. Amazon did the same thing last year with all MacMillan Books and backed off after pressure from authors and publishers.

IPG is one of the largest book distributors of independent presses in the world. It distributes hundreds of smaller and mid-size presses that  publish thousands of titles.

Mark Suchomel, president  and CEO of IPG said in an e-mail alert yesterday, “I am disappointed to report that Amazon.com has failed to renew its agreement with IPG to sell Kindle titles….  Amazon.com is putting pressure on publishers and distributors to change their terms for electronic and print books to be more favorable toward Amazon. Our electronic book agreement recently came up for renewal, and Amazon took the opportunity to propose new terms for electronic and print purchases that would have substantially changed  [publisher's] revenue from the sale of both. It’s obvious that publishers can’t continue to agree to terms that increasingly reduce already narrow margins. I have spoken directly with many of our clients and every one of them agrees that we need to hold firm with the terms we now offer. I’m not sure what has changed at Amazon over the last few months that they now find it unacceptable to buy from IPG at terms that are acceptable to our other customers…”

This  is another cautionary warning of the dangers of what is close to being monopoly power by Amazon in the sale and distribution of  e-books. Kindle Editions account for more than 60% of all ebook sales. They can only be read on Kindle Readers which are the largest selling  e-book readers by far. Anyone who owns a Kindle reader can no longer purchase or read any of the thousands of titles distributed by Independent Publishers Group.

Amazon’s power in the marketplace and their willingness to exercise that power to chilling effect on the availability of ideas in the world should be of interest to us all. Not to put too fine a point on it, this is a censorship of the marketplace that has the same impact as any other form of censorship.

All writers, publishers, and book lovers should make their feelings known. Amazon did this last year with all the titles of MacMillan and ultimately backed down due to pressure.  This is not in the long term business interests of Amazon, a company that prides itself in being “the Earth’s largest bookstore.”

But even if Amazon  backs down, the act itself will put pressure in the future on all publishers to capitulate to Amazon on what are  unreasonable demands for unsustainable trade terms by publishers.

 

 

Amazon.com Has Become a Publisher. Don’t Expect to Find Their Books at Your Local Bookstore Any Time Soon

February 3, 2012

There is some interesting news this week about the ongoing struggle within the book business to define the protean changes that are going on, mostly  having to do with  the exponential growth of the ebook market and of Amazon’s  seemingly inexorable march to  dominate book publishing at all levels.

Larry Kirschbaum

Last spring Amazon announced that it was creating a trade publishing division. They hired publishing insider and veteran, Larry Kirschbaum, to head it up. Larry had been for many years the CEO  of Hachette Book group, one of the “big six publishers.” He retired from that position several years ago and became a literary agent. He is about as much of an old school publisher as you could get. Prior to this, Amazon had been dabbling in publishing but they were more involved in the “self-publishing” end of the business.

This new development puts them in direct competition with the New York trade houses. Not to put too fine a point on it, the big publishers are not happy.  Maybe this is  simply sour grapes, maybe  the publishers just don’t want another competitor to split off their business and to steal their best authors. That is certainly a component of it. But Amazon has never been satisfied being a part of a larger whole. Their stategy has always been to be the whole whole.  And they have the money to do that.  Amazon’s market capitalization is moving north of 80 billion dollars. — Res ipsa loquitur. They also have the infrastructure. They pretty much control the retail end of the ebook business and they have surpassed Barnes and Noble as being the largest retailer of print on paper books as well.

And they don’t believe in open platforms. If you are going to buy a Kindle edition, you must buy it from Amazon. They won’t permit their competitors to sell it. And, of course, you can only read Kindle editions on a — Kindle.  In comparison, the iPad and Barnes and Noble’s Nook accept books in the Epub  open format  edition.

It  is true that Amazon over the past few months has been snagging some big name commercial authors and paying big bucks. Tim Ferris, Deepak Chopra, James Franco, and Penny Marshall are frequently mentioned.  And Amazon has announced that they will be bringing out over 100 titles in the fall. And that is just the beginning. Amazon has downplayed their threat to the publishers saying that for them [commercial publishers], “it’s always the end of the world.”

Well, of course Amazon is always savvy at business and they realize that in order to bring in the big authors and get on the best seller lists, they have to have their books available in all venues and in all editions. Since most  other bookstores loathe Amazon as much as  the publishers, one can assume that there might be some reluctance on the part of these stores to order Amazon titles from Amazon. So in January, 2012  Amazon announced that traditional publisher Houghton Mifflin would be distributing Amazon print on paper titles to the trade.

If Amazon really wants to encourage their erstwhile and ongoing competitors to buy Amazon Publishing titles in hardback and paperback, one might think that they would make nice about the e-book editions as well. No. Amazon will not publish their e-books in the Epub format. This means that Barnes and Noble  and pretty much everyone else selling e-books will not be permitted to sell the e-book edition of the Amazon Publishing titles.

This month  Barnes and Noble announced that they would not be carrying  titles by Amazon Publishing in their physical stores. They said that  any publisher who would not make all their editions available to B&N would not  have their books   represented  in their 700 stores. Today the second largest retailer in America, Books-A-Million announced  that they had made the same decision. One can assume that you will have difficulty finding these books in independent bookstore as well, even if the books are carrying the Houghton Mifflin logo, not Amazon’s.

Although it is always troubling to see fewer outlets for any book, most of us in publishing seem to be feeling a kind of exquisite sense of schadenfreude at what appears to  be  Amazon’s overreach. About 70% of all books are still sold in physical bookstores. I think authors are going to think twice about signing a book contract with Amazon Publishing knowing that their books will not be available at most stores nationwide.


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