Monthly Archives: June 2011

Self-Published At the Book Club

The New York Times Magazine has a story, which is only slightly condescending, about Amanda Hocking, the twenty-something self-publishing phenom whose paranormal romance/fantasies have earned her over $2 million.  Ms. Hocking recently signed a seven-figure deal with St. Martin’s Press. While stories like hers should do something to lift the stigma of self-publishing in the digital age, they are countered by other reports, such as the recent Reuter’s piece about counterfeit books being sold cheap on Kindle.

The truth is there probably never was a stigma for the mostly young readers of Ms. Hocking’s work.  They saw stories they were interested in and tried her books.  They didn’t avoid her work because it lacked a familiar imprint or because it wasn’t pre-certified by Publisher’s Weekly.

Within some genres, self-published books are selling well.  In thrillers, two of the top ten books at the Kindle Store US are self-published.  Both have the advantage of selling cheap — 99 cents compared to up to $12.99 for some of their competitors, which may be even more expensive than paperback versions. Romance, mystery and other genres have all been invaded by these upstarts.   While the Kindle Store is only one store, its scope is huge with e-books now outselling paperbacks on Amazon, which through its Kindle app, controls 75% of the e-book market.

Things are different when it comes to literary fiction.  Or perhaps I shouldn’t use the term “literary fiction.” Writers can classify their own works as “literary,” and a couple of self-published 99 cent novels identified as such have slipped into the top 20 on Kindle.  Both, however, also fall into other categories with wider appeal.  Maybe the term I’m looking for is “serious fiction.” The kind of books read by people who take reading seriously. You know who I mean — people who LOVE books,  pride themselves on actually having made their way through at least some of Joyce and Woolf, fans of all the Jonathans (Letham, Franzen, and Safron Foer), Paul Auster, David Foster Wallace, and anyone published in The New Yorker with the exception of Stephen King.  Those readers may read books from respectable independent houses or even obscure zines put out by writers and editors they’ve heard of, but 99.9% won’t even look at self-published work from the Kindleverse.

Months ago I suggested to a friend, a serious intellectual type and avid reader, that she look at a book I thought was not only good, but might even be important.  It was a historical novel, set mostly in London in 1963, with some back-story in the war and post-war years, references to mods and teddy-boys, jazz and The Beatles, as well as to the Cuban missile crisis and the Profumo scandal.  Her reply when she realized that the work did not have the approbation of a publishing house major or even minor was, “I don’t have enough time to read published books.”

I didn’t buy this explanation.  My theory is that while readers of genre fiction are simply looking for stories that keep them turning pages, “serious readers,” have another agenda. Heaven forbid they should like something that hasn’t been vetted by publishers and critics, only to be told later that it’s derivative or not as good as they thought.  It would be like buying a blank canvas, and then finding out it was just a blank canvas and not an accepted example of minimalism.  It’s not that they lack the time to read self-published books, they don’t even want to be seen with them.

The book, I was recommending was Larry Harrison’s Glimpses of a Floating World. Although I never convinced my friend, I’m pleased to say I got my book club to look at it.

This was only our third club meeting.  The previous selections were Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, and The Yacoubian Building by Alaa Al Aswany.  I was thrilled that the club had taken my suggestion of Glimpses.. (Full disclosure: The author is fellow member of the Year 0 Writers group, and a facebook friend.  We first “met” on a writer’s site, where we admired each other’s work. We have never met in the non-virtual world.)

I didn’t take a poll, but I don’t believe anyone in the club had ever purchased or read a self-published book before.

So, how did it go?

As with previous selections, opinions varied. One reader complained that she didn’t find any of the characters sympathetic and didn’t see much change or growth in the protagonist, Ronnie.  It was also clear that she was not predisposed to read a book about a seventeen-year-old heroin addict.   Others pointed out that as long as he remained a junkie, showing growth would have been unrealistic,   but there were “glimpses” of his capacity to care for others and  by the end his thinking had evolved at least to the point where he understood his addiction to be a dead-end.   There was general agreement that the character was well drawn.  He acted like the adolescent he was — intelligent, but immature, in some ways even gullible.  Everyone thought that Ronnie’s father, Freddy was just an awful human being. A couple questioned the idea of his professional rise with the police. This led to discussion about “successful” people whose lives were a mess, and the nature of corruption and who rises to power within a corrupt system.    A few weren’t satisfied with the ending — finding it “contrived” or “overkill,” but I was not the only voice in the room who had a different take.

The point is, the book was taken as seriously as any other book.  Everyone thought the writing was high quality and professional. . No one complained about proofreading, formatting, editing inconsistencies or any of the other issues often associated with self-published books. All found it a gripping read.

As with any discussion on any good book, there were disagreements and tangents. We veered off into talking about British films set in that period that also dealt with social taboos, A Taste of Honey, Victim, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner.

So back to the question I asked before: How did it go? The short answer is: It was “normal.” We were able to discuss the book and not the fact that it wasn’t traditionally published. It was not unlike going to a same-sex wedding and realizing it isn’t that different from any other wedding.

There was no pre or post-club survey, but maybe the members of the club will now be more inclined to read untraditionally published works. I hope so.

And just to encourage any “serious readers” who have not yet taken the plunge, here’s a trailer for Glimpses:

Better Than Sex — What Weiner Really Got Out of It

Many people are mystified that a smart man like Anthony Weiner, who did his job well, and seemed to have everything, could blow it so spectacularly.  But what he did had nothing to do with intelligence, or even with lust in its usual form. (One-handed surfing could have satisfied that need easily.)

The New York Times reports that Weiner knew he was being followed on Twitter by right-wingers suspicious of his activities and eager to catch him in the act.  There’s evidence that the Congressman was playing a game of cat and mouse with them, and in an interview he had three weeks ago, Weiner spoke about the risks of social media.   Even after numerous political “sex” scandals, including the recent resignation of Congressman Christopher Lee, who was also caught sending a shirtless photo, Weiner did not curtail his activities.

People who think that this was “about” sex, another example of monogamy’s being outmoded, have it wrong.

Bill Clinton’s getting a blowjob in the White House was about sex.  The most powerful man in the world was at heart an awkward adolescent who still could not believe that some pretty (albeit zaftig) young woman really, really, wanted him, and he was going to get some!  Right there in the Oval Office!  Like something JFK would have done!  He hadn’t asked for it.  He knew it was wrong, but when confronted with this gift, despite the risks, he couldn’t say no.

In Weiner’s case, there was no oral sex.  He’s a newlywed who was likely still getting laid at home, by a beautiful woman.  According to one of his virtual companions, there was some “sex chat” on the telephone.  Hardly close to the real thing.

Sex like drugs is a rush.  But where was the sex in this scandal?  And if not sex, what was he doing it for?  He’s not excusing his behavior by claiming to have been drunk or high.  He seems as bewildered as anyone.

The answer to the question “why” is simple. Danger was the drug of choice.  Weiner wasn’t pursuing women online in order to get off despite the risk. He was getting off because of the risk.  Risking it was the rush.  Gambling is a recognized addiction.   It might have started off with just joking around and flirting, but at some point knowing “they” were watching, waiting for him to slip up, made the stakes higher, and the game a whole lot more interesting.  You could lose everything with one click, but he kept on winning.

As he became even more known for his passionate political style and biting sound bites, there was more to lose and it was irresistible.   Marriage and the very real possibility of achieving his goal of becoming the Mayor of New York City, added to the thrill of possibly destroying it all every single time his thumbs got itchy and he’d grab his phone.

But he was playing too well.  His opponents couldn’t catch him.  He was too smart for an army of them.  And that must have felt like cheating death itself.

This was even better than sex with a goddess who happened to be the love of his life.   Here he was risking even that, risking his very existence, yet surviving and triumphing, again, and again and again.

Finally, like any gambler losing his streak, like any junkie who winds up on a slab, he screwed up.   It didn’t take one of his “conquests” setting him up.  His own thumb betrayed him as he publicly tweated the infamous underwear shot. Was it on purpose?  Maybe, in the same sense that someone hovering by a cliff long enough, will eventually slip.  Why they were hovering in the first place is the question.

And then he tried one last bluff — telling the press, he was hacked.  But it was over.  His heart wasn’t in it.   He knew he was done.  No finger wagging with a definitive, “I did not have sexts with that woman.”  Just a bewildered man, who knew enough not to ask his wife to accompany him when he stepped out to meet the press.

Some people worry about his mental state.  They’re right to do so.  Donald Manes was once upon the time Queens Borough President. He was accused of corruption and killed himself while under indictment.  Manes may have been bi-polar.  Bi-polar people are most at risk of suicide after a manic episode when they come back down to earth and see the consequences of their actions.  Weiner isn’t bi-polar.  He’s never been accused of the type of graft that Manes was indicted for. But like Manes, he is now, as a result of his actions facing a different future than the one he was looking at yesterday.  Weiner is a successful man, and successful people often aren’t very skilled at failure.  It hits them hard.

This isn’t about whether or not he should step down.  I leave that to the chattering classes and people at the water-cooler or the dinner table.  I would suggest that those who are his friends, however betrayed and angry they might feel, show him a little compassion, and those of us watching on the sidelines still snickering, we might find better uses for our time.

Another Desperate Attempt to Flog My Book

This is just another desperate attempt to flog my book. First off, there are some fine reviews over at Amazon UK and Amazon US, including a recent one from the infamous Big Al.   There are also some up at Goodreads.  In the past couple of days, there have been some new and interesting reviews.  Here’s one from Goodreads, whose pessimism caught my eye:

“If for nothing else, read it to get a full sense of what New York City used to be (crime-ridden, grimy and immensely interesting) as opposed to the white-washed boring, gentrified piece of crap it’s become. Made me nostalgic for the home I used to have.”

She may have only given it 4-stars, but she got the point.

Another reviewer in the UK — where for some odd reason they seem to “get” me, went further, so I’m a link you over to his place.  Wow!

By the way,  if you follow the first link in this post, you can the paperback for under $10.  The e-book price is back up to $2.99, but Amazon is still selling it for 99 cents.

Bookstores are Dying: Does It Matter?

Yes, bookstores are disappearing.  But I am shocked to find myself asking, “Does it matter?”

You had to feel just a touch of schadenfreude when the Barnes &Noble branches started to close.  Barnes & Noble in my youth was a store on lower Fifth Avenue.  It billed itself even then as the world’s largest bookstore.  Back before the days of superstores, it was so big that it was divided into a conventional bookstore on one side of the street, and a used book/textbook center on the other.   Then they went national and became the very model of a modern corporate-small-store-eating chain, the basis with Borders for Fox Books the shop that ate Meg Ryan’s Shop Around the Corner in the romanticized Upper West Side of You’ve Got Mail.

As the independents disappeared, Barnes & Noble, at least in New York, became a place that tried to promote authors and work with the locals. Readings and signings happened often.  The Barnes & Noble on 67th and Broadway was not only near Lincoln Center, but a couple of movie theaters as well, including my favorite, the Lincoln Plaza Cinema, known for showing off-beat independents and foreign films.  Barnes & Noble was a great place to go after you got your tickets and still had half an hour or so to kill.  But it is no more.

Last Sunday, I went to the movies.  This in itself is an increasingly rare occurance in the age of Netflix and instant downloads. Why would anyone leave their home and sit on chairs that might be bedbug infested next to strangers who probably have the flu and forgot to turn off their cellphones?

I made the mistake of not getting tickets online for the extra $2, The film was sold out so I had an hour and half before the next showing. With no Barnes & Noble available, I walked five blocks over to the Time Warner Center, the most mall-like structure in the City, only to find that while the Border’s was still there, it shut its doors at nine pm on Sunday nights.  That might work in Santa Fe — but in the Big Apple it just seemed weird, but then again so is the whole mall-in-Manhattan-thing and most New Yorkers probably don’t even know there is a bookstore on the second floor at Time Warner.  The Time Warner Mall, by the way, is best known for the statue of a very fat man with a small penis.  Japanese tourists in particular seem to find this hysterically funny and are constantly posing for pictures in front of it.

Yesterday, I ventured out of my neighborhood again, and found myself in the East Village with a little time to kill, so I stopped into the St. Mark’s Bookshop which hasn’t actually been on St. Mark’s Place in years, since the rents drove it out.  There on the display shelf in front was Meowmorphosis (I refuse to provide a link; you’ll have to find this one for yourself). This is a book whose conceit is that  Gregor Samsa awakes one day to find he’s been transformed into an adorable kitten.  This was a “collaboration” between a long-dead Kafka (Zombie-Kafka?)  and a pseudonymous fantasy writer working under the umbrella of the same clever lads who brought us the Jane Austen Zombie books.  Kafka, who of course, wanted all his manuscript burned,  seemed to intuit the holocaust.  I wonder if he saw this coming as well.

Given that this non-chainstore in what was not that long ago the city’s pre-eminent hipster stronghold is now reduced to selling cutsey over edgy, is there really any hope for bookstores at all or even a reason for their continued existence?

Just to clarify, I love books.  I don’t want to read all my books in tablet form.  I realize that booksellers are up against it.  Even the new and well-managed, Book Culture uptown where I live has taken to selling things that aren’t books — soaps, refrigerator magnets, fair-trade handicrafts like woven African baskets and scarves.  And if it keeps the place open, I’m not against it, but this doesn’t bode well.

Perhaps its personal bitterness showing through.  After setting up my own micro-press to print my opus, I found that most local bookstores weren’t willing to shelve it, even if purchased through Ingrams, or at deeper discount (with returns) through me or even given to them on consignment.  It didn’t move them if I offered to pack the place with friends for a reading.    They too are believers in the publishing system that is destroying them, and don’t want anything that bears the taint of self-publishing which they still mistake for vanity press.  So despite being a reader, and consumer of books, I feel as a writer, betrayed by the shopkeepers who don’t wish to be bothered by me and treat me like a pariah.  It’s like defending the homeless person who curses you out when you don’t place money in his cup.

I am for lack of alternatives, a Kindle writer.  My novel is available online worldwide in paperback and every e-book form.  My sales are modest and my name is mentioned on blogs that few have heard of, but at least I’m not paying tens of thousands each month for retail space used mostly by people in need of a public bathroom or with a few minutes to kill before their table is ready.   I don’t think I’ll be happy or sad when the last bookstore is gone.  It’ll  be more like hearing about a now dissolute old crush who wasn’t that into me to begin with and has now gained weight and is facing legal problems.