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Posts Tagged ‘reading’

Readers — a decade later. This is why we write

In art, blogging, books, culture, journalism, life, Money, work on March 8, 2014 at 12:05 am

By Caitlin Kelly

A check arrived this week that left me so excited I burst into tears.

It wasn’t the amount on the check — $491.00 Canadian — but its source, a Canadian gift to authors called the Public Lending Right Program. If your books qualify, (only those published within the last 20 years), you can register your work and receive, in effect, a royalty paid out once a year for the public’s use of your books through Canadian libraries.

malled cover HIGH

The enrolment period is open now, until May 1. Maybe your works qualify!

I was also thrilled to receive a payment that didn’t feel covered with blood and sweat, the way so much of my work now does.

The publishing/journalism business today too often feels less like a creative endeavor than a protracted and wearying battle — rates remain low, publishers pay late and editors refuse to negotiate contracts that claw back 3/4 of your fee if  they decide they just don’t like your final product, even after multiple revisions.

One Canadian friend, with four books in the system, says she used to make a pretty penny from the sale of her intellectual property. A book’s advance, ideally, is only the first of an ongoing revenue stream from your work; with Malled, I also earned income from a CBS television option and multiple, well-paid speaking engagements.

Like most mid-list authors, I’ll never “earn out”, repaying my advance and earning royalties, so every bit of ancillary revenue from each book is very welcome.

Twenty-eight countries have a similar program to Canada’s, with Denmark leading the way in 1941.

Not, sorry to say, the United States.

It’s a sad fact that writers here are not considered successful unless they sell tens of thousands of copies of their books, a bar that very, very few of us will ever be able to clear. Not because our books are boring or poorly-written or sloppy. They’re too niche. They’re too controversial. They’re too challenging.

Or, more and more these days, with the closing of so many bookstores and newspaper book review sections, readers simply never discovered they even exist, which makes endless self-promotion even more necessary than ever.

Here’s a new website to help readers discover year-old books  — called backlist books, in the industry — they might have missed.

And another, focused on business books.

There’s a fascinating resource called WorldCat.org — do you know it? If you’re an author, you can search it to see where your books have ended up; mine are in libraries as far away as New Zealand and Hong Kong.  A friend once sent me a photo of three copies of my first book, Blown Away, on the shelf in a Las Vegas library. I felt like waving.

Measuring your worth and success as a writer solely by your financial income is unwise. But if you measure your books’ value by the number of readers reaching for them, even a decade after publication — as people clearly did with this statement, for my first book, Blown Away: American Women and Guns — you can enjoy a different sort of satisfaction.

That first book came out in April 2004, still finding readers. Certainly, gun use and violence in the United States is an ongoing issue  — I knew that when I chose my subject.

My second book, Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail came out April 2011 and in China last July. According to this PLR statement, it, too, is still being read; in this rough economy, many people have tumbled from well-paid jobs into low-wage, hourly labor.

Our books feel like dandelion seeds, something light and ethereal blown hopefully into the wind. Will they take root and bloom and spread, our ideas heard and discussed and maybe even remembered?

Beyond our sales figures, authors never really know who’s reading us.

Having proof of ongoing readership and influence?

Priceless.

Two great books I just finished reading — and you?

In books, culture, entertainment, life on February 7, 2014 at 1:05 am

By Caitlin Kelly

I very rarely read fiction, so it was a bit of luck that I recently found — in, of all places, on the book/magazine recycling shelf near our apartment building’s laundry room — two terrific novels.

books

“Cutting For Stone” is by physician Abraham Verghese, and I’d read the rapturous reviews and thought, not for me. It’s a long, winding tale of twin brothers born in Ethiopia and their lives. Both become doctors. I might never have bought this book, his first novel, or borrowed it from the library, but there it was — free for the taking.

I found many elements of the book compelling. He really knows, (and researched, as he included voluminous notes at the back), Ethiopia and its history and geography, so I felt literally transported. I’ve never been there and might never get there, so I enjoyed that.

His characters were clear, strong, sympathetic. He describes many medical situations in a way no one but a doctor could write so persuasively; I loved his insider story of his character’s training in a poor Bronx hospital, especially.

And I loved the cover image: mysterious, enticing, colorful.

The other book was “Tell the Wolves I’m Home”, by Carol Rifka Brunt.

RifkaBrunt_Tell-the-Wolves

I also loved its cover — that exotic teapot is important to the plot.

This one resonated for me on so many levels!

It’s told through the eyes of a 13 year-old girl and unravels a mystery about her beloved uncle who has recently died. I won’t give it away, but it’s a terrific read. She, like me, lives in a town in Westchester County, just north of New York City, so all the references registered for me as deeply familiar.

I also covered the AIDS crisis, as a newspaper reporter, as it unfolded in the mid 1980s in North America — the book is set in that time period and addresses that issue, and powerfully brings back what it felt like, then, to know people dying of it and how the world was reacting to them then.

The first book is about two brothers, once close, who become estranged for years; the second book is about two estranged sisters who move from hostility back to closeness.

(I was raised an only child so have no daily notion of what it’s like to live with siblings. One of books’ many gifts is bringing us into worlds we will never experience ourselves.)

I highly recommend both.

(Whoever is leaving those books downstairs absolutely shares my taste — I’ve also found and read The Dive From Clausen’s Pier and One Day, both of which I also really enjoyed. It feels like Christmas on that shelf!)

This New York Times review of the TDFCP praises what I also found extremely well-drawn — what it feels like to arrive in New York City knowing not a soul and re-inventing yourself.

I don’t read science fiction, romance, chick lit, horror or YA, but…

What have you read recently I should reach for next?

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Are books — and their readers — an endangered species?

In books, business, culture, journalism, Media, work on January 11, 2014 at 9:58 pm

20131219120434By Caitlin Kelly

This recent piece in The New York Times makes sadly clear why the notion of producing a book — a dream for many — is becoming more of a fool’s errand:

Overall book sales have been anemic in recent years, declining 6 percent in the first half of 2013 alone. But the profits of publishers have remained largely intact; in the same period only one of what were then still the “big six” trade houses reported a decline on its bottom line. This is partly because of the higher margins on e-books. But it has also been achieved by publishers cutting costs, especially for mid-list titles.

The “mid-list” in trade publishing parlance is a bit like the middle class in American politics: Anything below it is rarely mentioned in polite company. It comprises pretty much all new titles that are not potential blockbusters. But it’s the space where interesting things happen in the book world, where the obscure or the offbeat can spring to prominence, where new writers can make their mark.

Budgets have been trimmed in various ways: Author advances, except for the biggest names, have slumped sharply since the 2008 financial crash, declining by more than half, according to one recent survey. It’s hard to imagine that the quality of manuscripts from writers who have been forced either to eat less or write faster isn’t deteriorating. Meanwhile, spending on editing and promotion has also been pared away.

As the author of two well-reviewed non-fiction books, both of which required national reporting, and as someone who would like to write more, I care a lot about whether new books get published, how much authors like me — yes, midlisters — get paid and when, and who, if anyone, will actually read our books.

malled cover HIGH

Without a book-seller to recommend my books or a reviewer to rave (one hopes!) about them, how will you — oh, elusive readers — find or choose us?

I gave up reading my “reviews” at amazon.com years ago as some ad hominem attacks were so nasty they left me shaking. I shudder to think how many potential readers I’ve lost thanks to the face-punches comments left there by people who take an unholy pleasure in savaging others.

Yes, be critical! Every ambitious writer needs to hear where we’ve failed to connect or persuade.

But don’t be vicious.

Professional reviewers know the difference between slicing with a scalpel and bludgeoning with a pick-axe. I’ve reviewed others’ books. I know the incredible trepidation with which any writer reads their reviews; one even wrote to me personally after I reviewed his book in The New York Times to take issue with my comments.

How do you decide which (if any!) books to read?

How many of you, as I still do, spend time in a favorite bookstore simply browsing covers and titles, old and new?

Do you briefly scan what’s on the front tables at your Barnes & Noble?

And did you know that the books there — some of them a decade old — arrive there not because B & N thinks they’re awesome but because publishers pay a fee to the bookstore for that placement?

With falling advances, writing is evermore dominated by people who don’t need it to earn a living: Tenured academics and celebrities spring to mind. For these groups, burnishing a résumé or marketing a brand is often as important as satisfying the reader.

This is a serious challenge for all but a tiny fraction of the truly fortunate — people whose combination of “platform” (i.e. millions of people eager to buy anything they write) and story attract a huge advance — like Allie Brosh, whose fantastic blog Hyperbole and a Half produced a book, published in October 2013, that is now a best-seller.

The rest of us will get an offer, after a few books, of anything from $15,000 to, (at best) $125 or $150,000, even that very rare, divided into four payments over two or three years; $12,000 or $8,000 or $5,000 a year is helpful, but no writer I know can live only on that income.

So we squeeze the important and reputation-building work of writing a book in between teaching others to write or bar-tending or cranking out copy on every other topic but that of our book, creating a competition between the work we hope will allow us to find new readers, terrific reviews, maybe an award or fellowship — and the work that puts gas in the car and food in the fridge.

We eke out excellence.

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What (other) blogs are you reading? Recommendations, please!

In art, beauty, behavior, blogging, culture, design, education, entertainment, life, US, women on November 17, 2013 at 12:20 am

By Caitlin Kelly

I recently culled my list of blog subscriptions — from a fairly crazy 87 — to a still-unmanageable 46.

I enjoy blogs’ wide variety of voices and experiences. Many of my faves are written by women, some living overseas or in places I fantasize about — like the mountains of Colorado.

Now I’m looking for a few new ones to explore — so please give me some of your recommendations?

Some of the blogs I now read are purely or mostly visual — about art, interiors, design or photography — a refreshing break from words and also creatively inspiring. (I’m not as interested in traditional girly stuff like fashion , food, make-up, beauty or parenting as I am in design, ideas, history, urban life, labor, education, writing, work and relationships.)

The blogs named below are also visually appealing: they’ve chosen an attractive theme, use lots of photos and most of them consistently include useful links, all elements I really appreciate as a reader and have tried to do here for you as well.

They’re clearly written for an audience, and I’m glad they’re there.

Here are a few of my favorites:

The original Stumptown Coffee Roasters located...

The original Stumptown Coffee Roasters located at 45th and Division in Portland, Oregon. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

{frolic}

This daily blog, written by Portland florist-turned-stylist Chelsea Fuss, is a charmer. She recently posted from her travels to Chile. The photos are lovely and she often includes multiple links to food, clothing, stationery and other items.

Small Dog Syndrome

It sounds odd to find and hire someone without ever meeting them, but Cadence Woodland, who writes this witty, worldly blog, became my assistant in January 2013 after I read her blog, loved it and knew she would be a terrific fit. She was then living in Utah and has since moved to London, so her recent posts are full of the joy and fear of looking for work and new friends in a new city. She manages to be both Mormon and feminist, an intriguing combination.

Éléments de costume pour bébé, France, XXIe si...

Éléments de costume pour bébé, France, XXIe siècle, présentation dans la devanture d’un magasin. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One quality, the finest

As a fellow Francophile Canadian living in the tri-state area (NY, NJ, CT), I really appreciate the spirit behind this lovely and informative blog, written by Patricia Gilbert, who teaches high school French. Every day, she highlights a French word, idiom or aspect of French culture, whether a current show in Paris or a singer or a painter. I have learned beaucoup from her blog. Like me, she also hopes to retire to France.

Looking at Glass

Another daily blog, written by another Patricia. I so enjoy her choices — every possible use of glass: in architecture, furniture, crafts.

Colorado Meadows

Colorado Meadows (Photo credit: QualityFrog)

Gin Getz

She’s currently in Patagonia, but usually lives in the mountains of Colorado. Her photos of the landscape there, often taken on horseback, are elemental, stark and beautiful.

Apartment Therapy

As someone obsessed with design — interior and exterior — I love this popular, super-fun and helpful blog. It’s exhaustive in its coverage, but whatever you’re looking for is likely in there somewhere. Despite the name, it’s not only about apartments, but addresses every issue of domestic life, and is also international. I like its focus on smaller, lower-budget homes, not blingy mega-mansions. It includes many photo renovation stories as well.

Under the counter or a flutter in the dovecot

The name alone! Writer Nigel Featherstone lives in a small cottage, with his chickens, in rural Australia. His work has a dreamy quality I always appreciate.

Mindful Stew

High school teacher Paul Barnwell lives in Kentucky, where he writes thoughtfully about a wide range of educational issues.

Fit and Feminist

Another athletic/feminist Caitlin! I really enjoy her take on women, our bodies, exercise, sports, fitness and body image.

Kristen Lamb’s blog

I’ve been reading her blog for a few years, even though it’s largely aimed at fiction writers and those who will likely self-publish. Kristen — who lives in Texas — is a pistol! She’s funny, blunt, personal and calls it as it is. I starred commenting fairly consistently on her posts, and one day (!) this fall my phone rang — and there she was! She invited me, on the basis of my own work and credentials, to teach a non-fiction class at her recent on-line conference, WANACON. I really enjoyed it, got good reviews and may do it again. Her blog, which has a stunning 29,000 followers, is helpful, smart and full of good cheer.

What are some of your favorite blogs?

What do you most enjoy about them?

Who are your favorite authors? A few of mine

In art, beauty, behavior, books, culture, education, entertainment, journalism on May 5, 2013 at 2:55 am

By Caitlin Kelly

The stack of books I’ve brought with me for a week’s rural vacation is nine high, from Joseph Stiglitz’ The Price of Inequality to Michel de Montaigne’s Travel Journal, from September 1580, during which the Pope greets him warmly and helps him become a Roman citizen.

On this journey, we are nestled at friends’ cottage in a cove on the Northern Neck of Virginia.

Time to read for pure pleasure!

I recently decided to finally read the Patrick Melrose novels by British writer Edward St. Aubyn. I’d heard and read so much about them and thought they just couldn’t be that great. But acerbic, cold-eyed, tart-tongued — they absolutely are.

They are not books for everyone! If you like shiny, happy stories about people deeply in love, optimistic and fulfilled, move on! His main character — a heroin-addicted hero, if you will in one of the novellas — is Patrick Melrose, wealthy, aristocratic, caustic. Sounds horrible. But so not.

This author knows his stuff inside out — the bitter, odd, deeply private behaviors of people with a lot of money and very deep secrets. Here’s an interview with him from 2006 from the British newspaper The Independent. And a Q and A from this year from The New York Times Book Review.

I also saw The English Patient, from 1996, on television again and felt in love once more with its creator, Canadian-Sri Lankan author Michael Ondaatje. His writing is exquisite, like entering a dream, so that when you put down the book again you almost have to shake yourself back into the room, here and now. I’ve so far only read two of his books, but loved both, In The Skin of a Lion, set in my home city of Toronto, and Divisadero, set in rural California. He has also written many books of poetry.

Michael Ondaatje, author of "The English ...

Michael Ondaatje, author of “The English Patient” speaks for the Tulane Great Writer Series presented by the Creative Writing Fund of the Department of English. Dixon Hall; October 25, 2010 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Here’s an excerpt of an interview with Michael Ondaatje from Gulf Coast magazine.

I liked Zadie Smith’s White Teeth, (hated the next one), and Monica Ali‘s Brick Lane and Claire Messud‘s first book, The Last Life, (loathed The Emperor’s Children.)

If you have never read Alexandra Fuller, run! Don’t Lets Go To The Dogs Tonight is a beautifully written account of her growing up in Zimbabwe — as is Peter Godwin‘s When A Crocodile Eats The Sun.

Alexandra Fuller - We gaan niet naar de hel va...

Alexandra Fuller – We gaan niet naar de hel vannacht (Photo credit: Djumbo)

I realize my list is already heavily loaded with writers who are either British or partly educated there; many years ago, I loved the novels of Margaret Drabble and Nadine Gordimer as well.

I usually prefer non-fiction, and some of my favorites include the brutal but incredible war accounts, The Good Soldiers, by Pulitzer Prize winning American writer David Finkel and My War Gone By, I Miss It So, by Anthony Loyd; from amazon:

It is the story of the unspeakable terror and the visceral, ecstatic thrill of combat, and the lives and dreams laid to waste by the bloodiest conflict that Europe has witnessed since the Second World War.

Born into a distinguished military family, Loyd was raised on the stories of his ancestors’ exploits and grew up fascinated with war. Unsatisfied by a brief career in the British Army, he set out for the killing fields in Bosnia. It was there–in the midst of the roar of battle and the life-and-death struggle among the Serbs, Croatians, and Bosnian Muslims–that he would discover humanity at its worst and best. Profoundly shocking, poetic, and ultimately redemptive, this is an uncompromising look at the brutality of war and its terrifyingly seductive power.

Cover of "My War Gone By, I Miss it So"

Cover of My War Gone By, I Miss it So’

Here’s a longer list of my faves, from my website, with both fiction and non-fiction.

I don’t read chick lit, celebrity stuff, romance, horror or science fiction but am always on the hunt for great, lesser-known fiction, memoir, biography, history and belles lettres — maybe from 50 or 150 years ago.

Any suggestions from your bookshelf?

Libraries Matter!

In beauty, books, culture, design, news, urban life on March 29, 2012 at 1:48 am
English: A panorama of a research room taken a...

Image via Wikipedia

If you’ve never visited the magnificent 101-year-old library building at the corner of Fifth Avenue and 42d Street, the one whose wide entrance is guarded by two enormous stone lions, Patience and Fortitude, you’ve missed one of the world’s most beautiful spaces devoted to  books, reading and learning.

The library is going to get a $1 billion facelift thanks to British architect Norman Foster:

With the expansion the main branch will become the largest circulating library in the United States, Mr. Marx said, with publicly accessible stacks. “We need to provide the opportunity to browse for books at a time when bookstores are closing,” he said, adding that “scholars and researchers should be able to enjoy the serendipity of what they find on the shelf.”

But some patrons fear crowding at the main branch, where annual attendance is expected to rise to perhaps 4 million, from 1.5 million. “It won’t be O.K.,” said Donald Jones, 55, a Manhattan resident who uses the computers at the Mid-Manhattan branch several times a week. “One problem I already have is crowding with the computers.”

The plan also calls for turning second-floor offices in the main branch into workspace for as many as 400 writers and researchers and for keeping the library open until 11 some nights. (The latest it stays open now is 8 p.m. two days a week.) “We want this to be Writing Central for New York,” Mr. Marx said.

I confess, I haven’t spent a lot of time there, mostly because I work from home (as a writer) in our suburban apartment; I can’t justify the $15 trainfare and two lost hours commuting to go sit there, although it is truly a spectacular space.

I did spend a week or so there a few years ago working on a specific, fascinating and highly unusual research project for a fellow writer. He had discovered an amazing true story on a remote and distant Pacific island, Mangareva, about a crazy French priest who subjugated the natives and created a bizarre and highly punitive penal system using his own religious followers as his enforcers. Seriously.

My role? To translate original French documents — stored in Australia — into English so we could re-create and understand this story. It was utterly extraordinary. Reading the 150-year-old reports felt like opening a reporter’s notebook, so filled with specific details they were — from the narrow, muddy paths across the island to the huge piles of coconuts stacked aboard their vessel while in port. It was riveting reading and one of the most fun freelance jobs I’ve ever had.

Day after day, I’d settle into my seat at one of those long wooden tables in the glorious Rose reading room, my dictionary and laptop close at hand, disappearing for hours into a world thousands of miles away and decades distant. By day’s end, weary, I’d share my head, as if awakening from a delicious dream, walk down those wide marble steps and re-enter the riparian sidewalk on Fifth Avenue.

Here’s a fantastic trend already in 28 American states and worldwide, small boxes that resemble birdhouses or mailboxes called Little Free Libraries. The idea is to spread a love of books and community:

The idea has mushroomed.  Bol now encourages people to visit his website for suggestions on how to build their own library.

Today there are Little Free Libraries in at least 28 states and six countries including Ghana, Australia and Afghanistan. And people from more than a dozen other countries have expressed interest, Bol said.

On Bol’s website he offers suggestions on how to build the libraries and sells kits for a fee starting around $100. Money donated to his non-profit helps build libraries in needy communities and developing countries. The website says, “If you need help let us know.  Don’t let money get in the way.”

You can find the little libraries not just in front of homes, but also outside of health centers, coffee shops, bike paths, bus stops and store fronts.   People are encouraged to send in a picture of their library so it can be posted on the website.  In return they get a “Little Free Library. Take a Book, Return a Book” sign to post on what they’ve built, as well as a Little Free Library Charter number.

Do you have a Little Free Library near you?

Do you use (and love) your public libraries?

The bitterly disappointed reader — who’s to blame?

In books, business, culture, women, work on February 28, 2012 at 12:33 am
Popeye

Image via Wikipedia

Here’s the problem:

You, the reader, want someone to write a book that resonates with you. It’s all about you!

Except, sadly, it’s not. It never will be.

Writers, certainly of non-fiction, write what they know, how they think, what they’ve studied or taught, how they were raised.

Every single one of us writes through multiple filters: race, age, gender, nationality, religion, political beliefs, income level, ethnicity.

Then we have to pass the gatekeepers of agents, editors, publishers and their sales and marketing staff. And, oh yeah, the retailers who only order our books on commission, shipping them right back within six weeks unless the merch is moving.

So when readers expect writers to write in a way they find cosy and comforting, a peculiar and somewhat infantile rage often emerges when some of them, inevitably, find our work disappointing.

“It’s not what I expected!” they wail.

Well, what did you expect?

Some readers who feel a writer has failed them not only dislike our books — they dislike us personally.

Which, while I love the passionate involvement readers can have with our books, is also a little weird — I don’t loathe Alexander Payne as a human being if I hated (which I didn’t) — his new film, “The Descendants” or his hit “Sideways.”

Separating the creative product from its producer seems a challenge these days.

I’ve seen this in four instances and I think it really bears discussion and reflection.

The first, of course, is the huge best-seller “Eat, Pray, Love” written by a childless, educated white woman who left her suburban marriage to travel the world in search of herself.

The very idea! Jowls shook worldwide in horrified indignation. How dare she…pursue…pleasure?!

If I pick up Dickens or Balzac or John Grisham or David Sedaris, I know what I’m getting into. I’m an adult making an informed choice. If I loathe the book — its tone, content, voice, pacing, dialogue, plot (or absence of same), well, tant pis! It’s the price of admission, kids. Just because it’s for sale doesn’t guarantee it’s great or that it will make me happy.

So when this blogger was chosen for Freshly Pressed, I took immediate exception to her decision to tear up the book she was reading because she disliked the author’s point of view.

Part of her objection was the privileged background of its author, Gretchen Rubin, whose father-in-law is the former secretary of the Treasury Robert Rubin. Her book, “The Happiness Project,” has been a huge best-seller.

She is who she is.

I chose the cartoon of Popeye because I live and write by his motto: “I yam what I yam and that’s all I yam.”

Expecting any writer to write as if s/he were someone else you might have a beer with instead burdens even the smartest authors with an added hurdle to clear when trying to find and grow an audience.

Same criticism has followed Laura Vanderkam, a young Princeton grad whose third child’s arrival just preceded that of her third book. For a woman in her early 30s, that’s a whole pile ‘o achievement.

I know Laura personally. She’s privileged, well-educated, a driven, goal-oriented woman.

She is who she is, and whether you agree with her gogogogogogogogo mindset, her worldview inevitably colors how she thinks, the subjects that engage her and how she approaches them.

If you don’t share her worldview, you probably won’t enjoy her books either.

My memoir of working retail, “Malled”, has drawn some of the most vicious comments I have ever heard anywhere, including three years of relentless high school bullying.

“I actually started to hate her”, wrote one woman.

“Bitter, pretentious and lazy, lazy, lazy,” wrote another.

These are not book reviews, dear readers.

These are character assassinations, written under the soothing cloak of anonymity, and posted forevermore on Amazon.com — the place where would-be buyers, you know, make decisions about our work.

I can assure you, if someone stood outside my store or my home, shouting how nasty my food or products or service were, I’d take direct action.

But in this virtual world, where total strangers make snap decisions about who we are (based on — hello! — a deliberately chosen and heavily edited narrative voice), the real person behind the words on the page becomes some weird, annoying ghostly abstraction.

The writer you meet, certainly in non-fiction or memoir, is but one facet of that person. Judging and dismissing them with a sneer only reflects a sad lack of sophistication about what book-writing is.

My readers no more “know me” than someone who sits beside me on the subway for 30 minutes.

The next time you loathe a book — or love it — try to remember that a real person wrote it.

With their best intentions.

Tossing Old Books And Looking For Something New To Read

In books, education, History on November 7, 2011 at 1:11 am
Books

Love 'em --- who can ever have enough? Image via Wikipedia

It feels good to cull the herd once in a while.

Last weekend I managed to fill three cardboard boxes with outgoing books — soft covers, coffee table books, (we don’t even have a coffee table), books by friends and acquaintances and review copies Jose and I have snagged, free, over the years from the Niagara of copies that pours into every newsroom.

I’ll take them into Manhattan to The Strand, a legendary store that I hope will buy them. If get $100 for them all, I’ll be happy.

Then I can buy some new ones!

I sorted the remaining books into sections: Canadian history and politics, American history and politics, French history and politics, art, music, antiques, auction catalogs, photography, business, design, dictionaries, (of economics, foreign terms, French, Spanish), cookbooks, travel, and a dozen essentials — books on how to sell and promote my own books.

I lined up, on one shelf, the 20 or so books that aren’t reference (or just too heavy to delve into for fun) as a reminder to actually, you know, read them. I tend to return to non-fiction, memoir, essays and history. I rarely find fiction I enjoy. 

I don’t read sci-fi, romance, chick lit or anything about vampires or werewolves. Some of my favorite writers include Grahame Greene, Thomas Hardy, Gerald Durrell, Amy Bloom, Alexandra Fuller, Peter Godwin, Balzac, Jan Morris. Yes, they’re almost all British men. Not sure why.

One of my recent favorites was this delightful, quirky tale by a woman from St. John’s Newfoundland, “Come, Thou Tortoise” which I found — of course! — in the bus station bookshop in Vancouver, B.C.

My second-favorite of recent years was The Ten Thousand Autumns of Jacob deZoet, by David Mitchell. Oh, what a beautiful, moody book! As a huge fan of ukiyo e Japanese woodcuts, reading this book, set in 18th century Japan, was like sliding into a delicious fever dream.

And this, The Elegance of the Hedgehog, a French book I adored; it’s also now out as a film, “The Hedgehog.” It tells the story of the secret life of a Paris concierge.

I liked Cat’s Eye, by fellow Canadian Margaret Atwood; she became my first celebrity interview when I was editor of my high school newspaper. Since she also attended my high school, she agreed to the interview. I liked Cat’s Eye a lot because it reminded me so powerfully of my hometown, Toronto.

In The Skin of A Lion, by Michael Ondaatje, is a gorgeous little thing, also set in Toronto. I recently read Divisadero, also by him. I love his poetic style.

So my favorite authors seem to be Canadian, a New Zealander, British and French. I need to find a few American writers! (I do like Richard Ford and Richard Russo and lovelovelove John Cheever.)

I’d love to hear some of your recommendations!

What are the best three books you’ve read, and why?

Meeting Your Readers Face to Face

In behavior, blogging, books, business, work on August 13, 2011 at 1:56 pm
Michael Shellenberger

Author Michael Shellenberger at a D.C. bookstore. Image via Wikipedia

When your books start heading out into the wider world — bought (paid for!) by libraries, schools and civilians — it’s hard not to be intensely curious about just who these people are.

Four months ago today, my memoir “Malled” My Unintentional Career in Retail” was published. To my relief, it is still selling very steadily nationwide.

It’s a thrill to know that some people are appreciating your skill and hard work and ideas — especially when you get “reviews” like the nastiest one (of many) so far at amazon.com that called me “bitter, pretentious and lazy, lazy, lazy.”

I recently read to/spoke with a small group — perhaps 15 or so — at Magers & Quinn in Minneapolis. Fun! A local blogger kind enough to feature me came out with his friends. They had lots of questions and comments, as several people had worked in retail themselves and had much to offer.

It was a lively conversation, and  so satisfying to have a chance to share with people who care as much about this stuff as I do.

When you’re writing, hunched alone in your sweats over your umpteenth revision, it’s these moments I especially look forward to as my reward. Writing books is such a crapshoot. You pray you’ll find readers, and when you find enthusiastic ones and can see their faces and hear their reactions, it closes the loop between your initial private ideas and the act of publication.

I was especially touched there by the woman whose response to “Malled” was “Yayyyyyyyyy!” and told us she keeps telling friends to read it.

For some people, authors are a mysterious breed. Unless you hang out in those circles, you might never meet one, while our products keep pouring out in a hopeless Niagara, each of us trying in every possible way to claim your attention. Booksellers see a ragged parade of us, persistently cheerful in the face of even the tiniest tiny turn-out — sometime one person, sometimes none.

The bookseller at M & Q was relieved to find me relaxed, schmoozing the audience before we began. “Some writers are really high-strung,” he told me.

Why, yes they are. I once interviewed a famous women humorist whose work I had revered for years. Disaster. She was rude, abrupt and distinctly not funny in person.

See: illusions, shattered.

It’s even a real challenge finding venues to read and meet your readers. I’m not sufficiently high profile to read at any of the Manhattan Barnes & Noble stores, and couldn’t find a single store in the city to set up an event for me. I did one event here in the New York suburbs where I live — and one person came, a fellow blogger I know.

“Book tours” paid for by a publisher willing to send you around the country are only for the uber-successful. The rest of us call a few stores in whatever towns we’re about to visit, and hope to piggyback on their local and loyal buyers to come out and meet us. Even if no buyers appear, we sign some books, shake some hands and hope we leave a good-enough impression that the bookstore staff will talk up our book — only word of mouth makes a book truly successful.

Not ads, not reviews.

And we really need enthusiastic and knowledgable retailers to hand-sell our work, recommending it with enthusiasm even while thousands of our competitors line their shelves.

Have you ever gone to a reading to meet an author?

Was s/he what you expected in person?

Why Books Resemble Dandelion Seeds

In behavior, books, business, culture, education, journalism, Media, women, work on May 9, 2011 at 12:12 pm
Satellite image showing Christchurch and surro...

Christchurch, NZ. My book is down there somewhere! Image via Wikipedia

Tiny, white fragile — they float on the breeze, landing and sprouting in the least likely of places.

The great joy of writing and publishing a book, for me, is watching in wonder as it settles down worldwide — libraries have so far bought Malled in Kamloops, (a medium sized city in the interior of British Columbia, where my college best friend lives) to Christchurch, New Zealand to Denton, Texas, where it’s filed under “vocational guidance.”

A young friend, a fellow journalist, shot me a message on Facebook — “I overheard buzz about your book!” She lives in Hong Kong. Cool!

Like seeds, thoughtful books carry with them the germ of new growth — the spread of ideas, sometimes raising questions, even occasionally changing readers’ minds about an issue they once felt sure about, or maybe never even considered.

I’ve been honored to hear readers tell me “your book bolstered me at work” (from a retail associate in Phoenix) to “I’ll never shop the same way again” (readers in California and Toronto.)

I’m thrilled knowing my babies are finding readers all over the world. A friend then living in Las Vegas once sent me a cellphone photo of my first book, of two copies on his local library shelf.

I was so excited I wanted to wave.

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