Round-Down: the Cost of Higher Minimum Wage for Bookstores


A recent article in the San Francisco Gate announced the imminent closing of yet another bookstore–Borderlands Books, which exclusively sells, according to its website, science fiction, fantasy, mystery, and horror titles. It’s sad news, no doubt, but it’s also—pun unintended but liked—downright scary news.

On its current home page, which you can visit here, Borderlands has written at length about its choice to close. We learn in it the various and considerable trials the bookstore has seen through its eighteen-year history. Also provided is the reason for the closing, the bookstore’s final and insurmountable obstacle: “In November, San Francisco voters overwhelmingly passed a measure that will increase the minimum wage within the city to fifteen dollars per hour by 2018.  Although all of us at Borderlands support the concept of a living wage in principal and we believe that it’s possible that the new law will be good for San Francisco–Borderlands Books as it exists is not a financially viable business if subject to that minimum wage.”

We see independent bookstores closing their doors all across the country, and we understand many of the reasons–the common challenges these stores see in the face of a digital world in which the push of a button is not only an easier but sometimes cheaper means of getting the book. Amazon is of course widely cited as a primary cause for drops in sales, as Borderland mentions in its announcement.

Judith Rosen at Publisher’s Weekly writes on the nuance and a possible solution to the problems bookstores are seeing today. ABA president Steve Bercu, owner of BookPeople, had the “epiphany” to reduce collecting sales tax on bookstores. But one thing is for certain: there are no easy solutions. Rosen ends her piece with a sobering quote from Michael Tucker, owner of Books Inc.: “[This trade] is always going to be in crisis.”

It would seem almost insulting for me make a case for the vitality and necessity of bookstores—that’s just so apparent. But what I’m grappling with, in the case of Borderlands and more closings likely to come, is that I can’t see myself arguing against either thing—a higher minimum wage, or anything that would threaten the often already fiscally precarious bookstore. We have a responsibility to be patrons of these bookstores, to be literary citizens. The reality seems grim–but if books have taught me anything, it’s that there’s nothing that can’t be overcome.

Indie Spotlight: Ampersand Books

imgresFounded by Jason Cook, Ampersand Books is the epitome of publishing in the twenty-first century—brash, fresh, and aggressive. Ampersand, and its imprint Bloody Fine Chapbooks, have moved at a breakneck pace on a shoestring budget to produce a list of books thick with dark wordplay and wry humor. From the haunting (and haunted) poetry chapbook Ear to the Wall by Carrie Causey, to the clever collection When You Say One Thing But Mean Your Mother by Melissa Broder, to Roberto Montes’ funny and frightening I Don’t Know Do You (just named one of the “best, most original poetry books of the year” by NPR), Ampersand hit the ground running in 2009 and hasn’t looked back. For Ploughshares, Jason Cook divulges a secret or two of Ampersand’s success and what he sees as Ampersand’s place in the literary landscape of the future.

Kate Flaherty: Ampersand’s manuscript submission process—where you only consider manuscripts from authors whose work has appeared in your magazine, Ampersand Review—seems supremely practical. What were the grounds for this process? Does it make Ampersand’s inbox slightly more manageable?

Jason Cook: The inspiration for that process is, essentially, laziness. I knew that if I wound up in a staring match with a stack of unread manuscripts, I’d almost immediately surrender and go play on Facebook for 3 hours. Engaging in a conversation with a writer whose poem or story you just published is a whole different thing than reading yet another query letter, and usually you can give a “nay” or “maybay” before seeing it.

I think it also makes writers feel a little more comfortable about pitching me books that don’t exist yet. I don’t think many indie publishers do that, but I’m having fun shaping these books as they emerge.

KF: While distinctive from one another, Ampersand titles share a certain air of cynicism tinged with nostalgia for a world that never was. Ampersand’s fiction titles are particularly melancholy—for example the wistful snapshots that make up Joseph Riippi’s The Orange Suitcase or the exhausting psychological paralysis of Spencer Dew’s Here Is How It Happens. Explain this Ampersand worldview.

JC: Since the editorial staff is composed of exactly me, I guess that’s just what I like. I like books with a broken heart, but with enough self-awareness to wonder whether it matters.Continue Reading

An Incredibly Brief Introduction to New Media Lit



Let us consider a form mired in its indefinability: new media lit. I’ve found that nothing – not even poetry – can alienate a reader more quickly than encountering it. Normally I would resist trying to encapsulate an entire genre into one shell of a definition, but because we don’t have a lot of time here and my purpose is simply to expose you to the very distant edge of what the genre has to offer (whether you choose to step further is up to you), let’s stick with a radically basic, extremely flawed definition: New media lit is any “literature” that appears online, utilizing the myriad tools of technology and often allowing a greater degree of reader interaction than does offline literature.

This stuff has been around for a while—since Michael Joyce first doled out a floppy disk to his peers bearing the first (arguably) hypertext story entitled “Afternoon, a Story” in the late ’80s—but only on the fringes of literature, existing more as a novelty than as a respectable form. Robert Coover hailed its potential more than anyone, seeing it as perhaps the natural evolution of literature—the product of emerging media and our increased connectedness to technology. At a certain point in the 1990s, for some, new media lit seemed to be the inevitable future.

It was a future that never came to pass. But today, as digital literacy and the capacity for multimodal thought processing increases light years with each new generation beyond the previous one, I think it’s worth dipping into the digital waters again, if only to challenge our notion of what literature is and consider what else it can, and might, one day be.Continue Reading

Round-Down: Literature To-Go


Restaurant chain Chipotle just announced plans to add to their recent “Cultivating Thought” series, including such writers as Jeffrey Eugenides, Amy Tan, and Neil Gaiman. The project’s promise is simple: great, short writing by these and other talented names–offered on burrito bags and soda cups. The prodigiously talented Jonathan Safran Foer came up with the idea for the series and partnered with the chain to set his vision to action.

The “Cultivating Thought” site is clean and features just one question at its center, which reads “Must a cup, or bag, suffer an existence that is limited to just one humble purpose, defined merely by its simple function?” The answer now seems to be “No,” as Chipotle is the first to offer such an inventive solution.

At Vanity Fair, Kia Makarechi gets word from new “Cultivating Thought” series contributor Julia Alvarez: “’I thought it was important as a Latina to add my voice to this series,’ [Alvarez] said. ‘So it’s not just our food being served at Chipotle, but also our arts which we all vitally need to nourish the spirit and open wide the heart.’ Alvarez’s story, ‘Two-Minute Spanglish con Mami,’ focuses on the immigrant experience, especially as it pertains to what Alvarez described as ‘the biggest, hugest challenge I faced when I came to this country: learning English.’” Makarechi notes “Alvarez also said she’s pleased to add a Latina voice to the series, an omission that attracted some criticism when Chipotle announced its first batch of authors in May of last year.”

I would be lying if I were to write that I feel nothing is risked in printing these pieces on soda cups and burrito bags.Continue Reading

Satire and the Question of Taste

charlie hebdo

In the past few weeks, we’ve seen a lot of takes on the tragic Charlie Hebdo massacre (see the Round Down for a good selection). One of the most common, and understandable, reactions from writers and thinkers has been the attempt to parse the sensitive cultural issues involved—this stems from the fact that Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons were often racist, specifically anti-Muslim. Add to this tangle the question of privilege: To whom does free speech really belong?

In this post, however, I will not lament the case of cartoons versus mass death. Many others have done it better before me. The issue I am interested in concerns the content of the cartoons. It is one of taste, and one of offense.

In 2006, Christopher Hitchens wrote about the controversial Danish cartoons depicting Mohammed: “As it happens, the cartoons themselves are not very brilliant, or very mordant, either.” The same could be said of the Charlie Hebdo illustrations that spurred the attack. They are not subtle. They are in fact so sophomoric that they seem to have found the low bar set by MAD magazine and ably limboed under. The drawings are emphatically not in good taste.

But why does good taste matter?Continue Reading

Round-Down: Same Booker Prize, New Booker Rules


The Man Booker Prize was first described to me by a writing mentor as “the book prize of all book prizes,” its winning titles fast-tracked to literary canonization and international renown. With so many novels vying for that golden spot, the prize judges have a little bit of reading to do. So it’s no surprise that in 2013, when the prize opened its doors to American authors—a move that some worried placed the prize at risk of “losing its distinctiveness”—the sheer breadth of books under consideration for the title of “best” made for what I can only imagine was and continues to be a torturously difficult vetting process leading to a torturously difficult final decision.

The Prize recently released other changes to its rules. One such revision clarifies the difference between publisher and self-publisher; self-published works are disqualified from consideration. According to the entry rules, a publisher “must publish a list of at least two literary fiction novels by different authors each year.”

Additionally, eligible books first published outside the UK now must have been released no later than two years prior to their UK publication dates.

Perhaps the most pivotal change: A title’s publisher must also make an e-book of the longlisted work available if publication follows the longlist announcement. Conversely, if upon announcement a longlisted title is available as an e-book, the publisher must make 1,000 print copies available for retail sale within ten days.Continue Reading

Round Down: The Complicated Response to Charlie Hebdo


As anyone paying even the remotest of attention to the news this past week, we all know this is a sobering time for journalists, satirists, publishing professionals, and supporters of free speech. The brutal murder of staff and police at Charlie Hebdo magazine offices by Muslim extremists, along with violent ricochets all over the greater metropolitan area of Paris in following days, has spurred a complex discourse around the issues of freedom of expression, satire, and inter-religious/cultural relations.

The discourse has volleyed from simple displays of solidarity (using #JeSuisCharlie hashtags) to more nuanced (using #JeSuisAhmed tags, which reference the French Muslim police officer who responded to the scene at the Charlie Hebdo offices and who died responding to the aid of those journalists who, as many pointed out, mocked his culture and religion). The latter spurred many to recall the oft-attributed Voltaire quotation, “I may not agree with what you say, but I will fight to the death for your right to say it.” It also reminded many of the quotation attributed to Salman Rushdie, an Indian author who had an Iranian fatwa put upon him for his book, The Satanic Verses: “What is freedom of expression? Without the freedom to offend, it ceases to exist.”Continue Reading

Indie Spotlight: Queen’s Ferry Press


Queen’s Ferry Press, based out of Plano, Texas, since 2011, is the brainchild of Erin McKnight. While it’s hardly the first independent press with the lofty goal of printing and promoting the best literary fiction, in just a few short years Queen’s Ferry has managed to attract an impressive stable of writers at the top of their fiction game—Sherrie Flick, Sarah Van Arsdale, and Phong Nguyen to name a few. As Queen’s Ferry has grown its catalog, it has garnered awards and accolades along the way for its wonderfully eclectic range of titles. Queen’s Ferry ventures also include the imprint firthFORTH, which publishes fiction chapbooks, and The Best Small Fictions, an annual anthology compiling the best short fiction in a calendar year. The inaugural collection, to be published in 2015, will be guest edited by Robert Olen ButlerTara L. Masih will serve as series editor.

Publisher Erin McKnight shares with Ploughshares the key to Queen’s Ferry’s success, and what’s in store for readers and writers in the New Year.

Ploughshares: Between Queen’s Ferry and firthFORTH, you’ve published more than two dozen attractively produced and well-received books in the past three years, with no sign of slow-down. Both presses also accept submissions year-round. How do you do it?

Erin McKnight: As trite as it sounds, I enjoy the work. The press is deeply personal, so emotional investment is high; making a manuscript into a book feeds my soul as well as my career ambition. Within the past few months, the masthead has also filled out—we now have marketing, editorial, reading, and social media roles—which has made my job far easier; it took me a long time to accept help, but this assistance was worth the wait.Continue Reading

Round-Down: The Torture Report Book


On December 30th, 2014, acclaimed independent publisher Melville House released a print copy of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s “Study of the Central Intelligence Agency’s Detention and Interrogation Program”—also known as the Senate Torture Report. Though the material is in the public domain (has been since December 9th, is only a summary of the actual several-thousand-page Report—which remains classifiedand runs at about five-hundred pages) the publisher sold out of its first print run, a considerable fifty thousand copies, that very same day.

When I first heard this news, I paused. I mouthed to myself, possibly even said aloud, “Holy crap.” I hadn’t heard of something like this happening before—this sort of treatment and release. I didn’t even quite know what to make of it. But soon I couldn’t stop thinking about the role of the print book at large, our pledged allegiance to physical copy, the responsibility of a publisher, and the ineluctable importance of vision—because it takes a seriousness of vision to do something like this.

In The New York Times’ coverage of this, Alexandra Alter mentions that this approach to re-release is not an isolated case. “Other government reports,” she writes, “like the 9/11 Commission Report and the infamous Starr Report detailing President Bill Clinton’s sex scandal, have sold hundreds of thousands of copies.” So it’s not necessarily a surprise that this report, so momentous in its public release, has garnered so much attention, and so quickly. The Times also aptly captured the Report in labeling it “a portrait of depravity that’s hard to comprehend.” A mere fifty pages in—pushing past the many blacked-out words and phrases, the tiring lurch of long footnotes—I already found myself overwhelmed by the hard fact of that sentiment.Continue Reading

Round-Down: A Look at the Crowded Literary Journal Landscape

1024px-Atlantic_City's_Crowded_Beach,_New_Jersey,_U._S._A,_from_Robert_N._Dennis_collection_of_stereoscopic_viewsWe all know someone who thinks it. We’ve all heard it, somewhere, before: There are too many literary magazines on the Internet and in the world. The argument goes something like this: No one reads those small journals anyway. They’re all the same; they all publish the same kind of work. They have no subscriber base or readers. There’s no use, then, in creating a journal at all. The question seems to arrive with a defeated shrug: Why bother?

It is true that many new journals will have a short life span, disappearing after only a few issues, but many with serious intent and aesthetic vision are fast paving new roads in publishing, expanding their reach, and breathing new life into what some consider the tired promise of “innovation” in contemporary literature. To this end I submit the following evidence—recent, new, and soon forthcoming literary journals that challenge the notion of the online and print magazine itself, that own and celebrate truly fresh aesthetics, and that remind us of the power of the work, collected and distributed with desired effect, with consistent and often powerful aim.Continue Reading