Round-Down: eBooks on the Go

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Two new partnerships with digital media distribution platforms are allowing publishers to make it even easier to get electronic books in the hands of travelers this month.

On May 6, Kobo, a Rakuten company, and Global Eagle Entertainment, Inc. launched a reading platform that will allow Southwest Airlines passengers to access, through their personal WiFi-enabled devices, a complimentary entertainment portal while onboard. This portal will be replete with full books and extended previews of top titles and new releases from major publishers such as Penguin Random House, HarperCollins, Hachette Book Group, Simon & Schuster, Macmillan, and more.

Similarly, on May 15, Simon & Schuster announced a partnership with Foli, another digital-content mobile-distribution company that has specialized in providing hotels and airports with access to digital copies of leisure magazines. Together, the two companies will use geo-location technology to deliver a specific book, or collection of books, to a specific location. To kick off, Simon & Schuster is making available David McCullough’s highly anticipated biography The Wright Brothers available at the National Air and Space Museum, several airports, and the Wrightsville Memorial in North Carolina. It will make several bestsellers available at partnering hotels and airport lounges across the U.S.

Both digital delivery platforms will make the books available to customers only while they are at specific locations (while aboard the Southwest airlines flights, or for a total of three days at the locations Simon & Schuster has selected for their titles), and allow users the option to purchase the books if they are not finished with them by the time their flights or stays end.Continue Reading

Indie Spotlight: Brighthorse Books

blog brighthorseHaving published their inaugural titles in 2015, Brighthorse Books is a brand-spanking new venture from novelists Jonis Agee and Brent Spencer. Based in Omaha, Nebraska, the press currently considers poetry, short fiction, and novel manuscripts through its annual Brighthorse Prize. By utilizing print-on-demand technology, Brighthorse also offers authors a 50/50 split on net book-sale profits, which, as most starving writers know, is pretty darn sweet.

More importantly, Brighthorse Books has hit the ground running with its initial trio of prize-winning titles. The novel Leaving Milan, by Elizabeth Oness, shares the quiet and powerful story of Harper Canaday, a young woman with more strikes against her than she deserves, who desires nothing more than a better life than the one she sees out her apartment window in a depressed Midwestern town. Rick Christman gives us Searching for Mozart, a collection of poetry both straightforward and poignant exploring the pain that lingers when a soldier returns home from Vietnam.

Maggie Boylan “a spiky little burned-out sparkler of a woman,” stars in Michael Henson’s The Way the World Is, a devastating short fiction collection about the incestuous relationship between local law enforcement and drug dealers as well as the clients they both share—hapless and resourceful addicts, of which Maggie is queen. Henson’s collection is easily the best fictional account of the widespread meth and Oxy wreckage in Appalachia since Daniel Woodrell’s Winter’s Bone.

The reading period for all three contests began on February 19, and Brighthorse will remain open for submissions until August 16, 2015, so you can enter nowFor Ploughshares, Brent Spencer explains the genesis of Brighthorse, what goes on behind the scenes, plus their plans for expansion in the future.

Kate Flaherty: The first question for any new independent press has to be why? What made the two of you agree to take the plunge into publishing?

Brent Spencer: Over the years, as writers and as teachers of creative writing, we’ve seen many manuscripts that should be published but don’t always find their way into print. At a certain point, we looked at each other and said, “Why don’t we publish them?” We’d each had experience as editors, and I ran a university press for several years, so we thought that, together, we might have the necessary skillset. We also wanted to find a way to give our graduate students in creative writing real-world experience as editors.Continue Reading

Round-Down: North Carolina and Idaho Schools Face Proposed Book Bans

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Concerns over the age-appropriateness of books is nothing new. Efforts to ban books are perennial attempts of, assumedly, those worried about a book’s potential to negatively impact a reader too young to access its merit. At Melville House, Taylor Sperry discusses the recent attempt at banning Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner and John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men by parents of students at schools in North Carolina and Idaho, respectively.

As reported in The Citizen-Times, Reynolds High School in Asheville North Carolina has “temporarily suspended” Hosseini’s The Kite Runner from its classrooms. Former school board member and parent of a Reynolds High student Lisa Baldwin cited the fact that Reynolds High School had begun using The Kite Runner in its curriculum in place of Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front in her frustrations. She says, “It’s not only the language in the book (The Kite Runner) and the adult themes . . . it’s the fact that they have removed a classic novel (All Quiet On the Western Front) from the curriculum without parents knowing about it.” The Kite Runner will not be taught until the request for its removal has been reviewed.

Mary Jo Finney, a parent of a Coeur D’Alene high school student, took issue with Steinbeck’s work being taught in the school. At The Spokesman-Review, she says, “’The story is neither a quality story nor a page turner.’” She cites the ostensibly gratuitous amount of profanity in the book as the real problem. Finney is calling for the book to be pulled from classroom instruction.

In the case of the Asheville situation, it is hard to set aside the fact that Remarque’s novel is brutal and stark and certainly contains “adult themes” (a phrase so vague it is stripped of power). The bottom line seems to be that great works contain great struggle, and that conflict can appear in ways the discomfort and unsettle us. The larger question is: When does this material affect us as readers in a way that is out of proportion with its merit and vision? The Kite Runner is a classic–hard-hitting, bestselling, and doing important work in portraying real struggle.

The problem as I see it with the call for the ban in Idaho is that books have no obligation to be objectively “quality stor[ies]” (a designation that strikes me as risibly subjective)–nor is Steinbeck’s book’s status as “not a page-turner” at all inherently problematic. As the Clean Reader app recently demonstrated, it seems we’ll do just about anything to micromanage the telling–and we’ll miss the point entirely.

Books succeed or fail with regards to the attention they pay to their vision, and language, like all elements of craft, should be constantly dedicated to this vision. When we tamper with that objective via censorship, we are forcing ourselves into relationships as collaborators on a story that is not only not ours to tell, but not ours to assume or appropriate. Stories are ours to experience as a writer intends. When we refuse a story for its language, for its essential components, we run the dangerous risk of eschewing valuable experience, of opening ourselves to the real learning gleaned from other time periods and cultures, from other people and places, from circumstances and conflicts both like and unlike ourselves.

Stories You Can Touch

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Who doesn’t love to get mail? These days, it turns out there are a number of membership services that capitalize on that very simple human quirk, curating colorfully themed packages and sending subscribers a monthly surprise in the mail (not email, snail mail—you know, that ancient form of correspondence that has something to do with stamps?). The idea is simple: pay a subscription fee, get a mysterious box of goodies every month.

But one company is a little different. While others pride themselves on delivering the coolest swag around, The Mysterious Package Company is in the business of telling stories. Specifically, stories you can touch. Far more than just a mindless delivery service, the MPC considers itself a “Purveyor of strange and unannounced deliveries, designed to intrigue, befuddle, and delight.” As a customer you can expect to receive (or anonymously send as a gift) a fully formed transmedia narrative utilizing “letters, postcards, diary pages, artifacts and more,” with packages strategically staggered to “arrive over time to build anticipation and intrigue.” Elegant and artful handmade creations delivered to your doorstep which together tell a sophisticated story full of macabre horror and steeped in suspense.Continue Reading

Round-Down: Penguin Random House Launches Its New Website

 

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It has been a little less than three years since the Penguin-Random House merger announcement was made, and the new company, Penguin Random House, just recently launched its new, joint website. The site is clean, highly functional, and features a home page that encourages engagement with PRH’s many excellent authors and titles. The house’s commitment to bridging the gap between readers and writers is apparent on the new site in this way; in addition, the site provides viewers with links to all of its social media profiles and the Penguin Random House blog.

In 2012, Penguin and Random House announced plans to merge, uniting as a huge, single force in the publishing world. In The New York Times’s coverage of this merging, Julie Bosman wrote that “[t]ogether, Penguin and Random House will make up the biggest and most dominant publisher in the business, one that has unmatched leverage against Amazon.com and the potential to inspire other mergers in the industry.” The two houses joined to become, as Penguin Random House CEO Markus Dohle put it, the first global trade-book publishing company. “One goal of the merger,” Bosman quotes Dohle, “is to ‘crack the code of discoverability’—of how to put books in front of potential buyers—‘in a world with fewer bookstores.’” When the news was announced in October 2012, it caused a stir in the literary community, with authors, editors, and agents all wondering how, exactly, the change would look.

Penguin and Random House made a point to note, when the news of their merging broke, that the change would be slow, that it would not be a sudden and intense jolt to the world of book publishing. Still, the few years since the announcement and subsequent merge have been like a held breath, with all waiting for the new publishing force to move online. The three-year waiting period for this seems to my mind proof of the care taken throughout the merger–the light but firm pressure applied to the companies in the effort to make a new publishing house from two major houses with outstanding reputations. What might seem a kind of lag in the move to the online space has actually been a calculated period of transition–one that, with the publishing industry’s often necessary few-years-long production cycles, really required a period of waiting.

At Publisher’s Weekly, Calvin Reid covered the merged house’s recent move online. There, Dohle says that the site is “consumer-focused.” And this really seems to be the case–the site offers a lot to those interested in buying books or staying up to date on the house’s activity–the Penguin Random House newsletter is marketed alongside bestselling and award-winning books, new releases, and upcoming titles.

Penguin Random House released a promotional Vine several days ago, and posted it to its social media accounts. The short video presents the text “It’s never been easier to get lost in our books” before cutting to a still of many book covers that then rearrange themselves to form the new Penguin Random House website itself. The suggestion here is that the new site is actually made from its books, and, further, that Penguin Random House highly values its titles and readers. It’s an impressively clean start for the publishing house. Watch the Vine here.

PRH’s new life on the web should, from the look of it, only help in the brand’s growth as it moves forward in an industry with a fast-changing landscape.

Round-Down: Book Readings In the Sky

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Southwest Airlines recently started holding book readings on their flights. The airline has a history of bringing spontaneous and entertaining events aboard: there was at one point an Imagine Dragons appearance, and once even a wedding. The involved writers are compensated in free airfare, the passengers with free readings–which might seem like a win-win from a comfortable and grounded distance.

But, as senior Slate editor Jonathan Fischer writes in his article, “Southwest Airlines Has Figured Out How to Make Your Flight Even More Fun: Book Readings at 35,000 Feet,” a sudden book reading at 8:40 AM might not be such a great idea. “I’m generally of the opinion that there are no good surprises on an airplane,” Fischer writes. “But Southwest hopes that these ‘in-flight activations’ will make their customers’ days a little brighter.”

Near the end of the piece, Fischer writes: “But surely Southwest is worried about annoying passengers? ‘There’s always the opportunity for that,’ [Southwest community engagement coordinator] Boller says, but she maintains it hasn’t happened yet.” What strikes me about this new book reading venture is that it is less offered than mandatory, and that regardless of the quality of the work there’s something that is, while certainly well-intentioned, a bit off about forcing participation in celebration of anything.

Just two days ago I returned from AWP Minneapolis, where I heard some phenomenal writers read their work. I have the great memory of walking to the “Paris Is Still Burning” reading. I was late to the reading–my own mistake, having been caught up in conversation–and recall seeing the windows grey with condensation, the silhouettes of bodies pressed against the glass. The place was packed, with incredible writers and thinkers eager to share there work, and readers eager to hear it.

This got me thinking about the role of the reading at large, and made me question why I felt such instant hesitation about these airline readings. Writers deserve to have their work heard by those interested in or at least open to hearing it. But when that organic willingness, that eagerness, isn’t there, the whole exchange stops holding the shine of a reading. I suspect a lot of the magic is lost. And both parties run the risk of awkward disappointment: the writer reading to an uninterested or even annoyed party, the listeners strongarmed into their status as such.

I think it’s great Southwest wants to keep its passengers entertained and offer something fun, something new, but I hope nothing is cheapened at the expense of this entertainment.

Indie Spotlight: Unbridled Books

imgresUnbridled Books was founded in 2003 by co-publishers Fred Ramey and Greg Michalson, who together have more than 50 years experience in publishing plus a terrific track record for finding and promoting literary fiction that sells in the commercial market. Self-described as an independent publisher focused on producing books that are “moving, beautiful, and surprising,” Unbridled’s list is an international patchwork of well-told tales set everywhere from Cuba to Iceland to Afghanistan, as well as America coast-to-coast. For the Ploughshares blog, Ramey and Michalson share the secrets of their indie success as well as what makes a writer Unbridled.

KF: While your press publishes stories from across the country and around the globe, what seems to bind Unbridled books together is a life-affirming humanity. Even in the inherent tragedy of Solveig Eggerz’s World War II-era novel Seal Woman or in the dark criminal underworld of Ed Falco’s Toughs, for example, there exists a spirit of hope and survival that can be difficult to find in these cynical times. What attracts you, as editors, to these types of novels? 

GM: I don’t mind dark, but I’m not much interested in “despair and die.” I’ll leave that to other publishers. If a reader is going to invest the time and energy into a book I publish I’d prefer there was some pay-off that affirms something about the world. Writing, after all, is in the end a hopeful enterprise. 

FR: We’ve published a good many novels that go to dark places in the heart, but I think you’re right. We’re probably less interested in novels that are all razors and needles. It seems we’re drawn more to the story that is finally in some way affirming and that knows full well why and how it got there. This isn’t a question of our being—or the authors’ being—idealistic.Continue Reading

How to Win AWP

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I’ve always felt that AWP* could be livened up by a conference-long game of Paintball Assassin. Until that happens, here’s some other stuff to try:

The Book Fair Bartering Game:

Start with free swag. Something cool, like a box of matches with a chapbook cover on it. Find the bored grad student tending another booth. (A booth with better swag, preferably swag that costs something. Like magnets. Magnets always cost more than you’d think.) Trade the matchbox for a magnet, then trade up your magnet for a hat, and so on. There is at least one booth with a bottle of bourbon. You win the game if you get the bottle when it’s still half full.

The Start-Your-Own-VIP-Party Game:

You don’t have to be a VIP. You just have to convince all the VIPs that the real VIP party is in the back room of Potbelly’s. Then you lock them in there and don’t let them out until at least five of them have written you blurbs.

The Intentional Misidentification Game:

Approach any writer who is clearly not Junot Diaz but could maybe, in a dark alley, pass for him, and excitedly shout that you loved Drown. You win the game when someone goes along with it. Bonus points if he signs your nametag as Junot Diaz.Continue Reading

Round-Down: Barnes & Noble Reveals New Shopping Bags

bnnewbagsBook retailer Barnes & Noble recently released a new line of shopping bags in the hope of incentivizing in-store purchases. In an article at Bloomberg Business, Belinda Banks writes that the new bags “evoke an old-fashioned etching, with the words set in a serif font and forming an image evocative of the story. For The Wizard of Oz, for instance, the feet of the Wicked Witch of the East poke out from a house composed of text; for Moby Dick, a whale’s tail plunges into an ocean of letters.” The bags have already been publicly launched in New York and will soon appear in stores nationwide. The retailer reports that they distribute “more than ninety million bags per year,” making this no small effort.

The idea that we will buy based on who offers better packaging frankly strikes me as silly. The question of convenience seems far more responsible for growth in sales. These items no doubt contribute to a larger sense of brand, and a consumer’s ability and desire to identify with that brand is certainly crucial, but it seems unlikely to me the bags alone will mark any significant change for the bookseller.

Additionally, when a bookseller such as Barnes & Noble introduces more and more products that are not texts at all–Banks cites in her article the additions of craft beer kits and portable turntables–the question is very clearly raised for me: how transparent is the motivation behind this move to shopping bags that highlight books, things that at least appear to be an increasingly peripheral concern for the retailer? Just a few months ago I went looking for literary magazines in my nearby Barnes & Noble. Not only did I not find them, but I found additional displays of board games and coffee mugs.

Alex Shepard sums it all up quite nicely over at Melville House, writing that “Barnes & Noble hasn’t been particularly good at selling books for quite a while and they haven’t seemed particularly interested in it lately, either—to enter the floor space of a Barnes & Noble today is to be awash in books, yes, but also records, chocolates, CDs, cards, board games. These are high-margin items, but they emerged at a time when Barnes & Noble needed to get better at selling books; instead, they turned their back on them.”

Though it is true that the bags are visually quite appealing, it’s very hard to fathom them seriously helping, especially due to the fact that you only receive the bag after you’ve made your purchase–what is considered at best a fringe perk, a thoughtful afterthought. Shephard’s words about the bookseller are ringing true: “Barnes & Noble needed to get better at selling books; instead, they turned their back on them.”

Diverse Writers Break the Internet: Ask HBO How Many

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If you were on Twitter at all on March 4th, you were probably mildly (if not completely) aware of the public nightmare that was the HBO Access Writing Fellowship application. Full disclosure: I didn’t apply although I know many writers who did. And for those not familiar with the fellowship, it is designed to give up to eight diverse writers the opportunity to take part in a series of master classes held at HBO’s campus in Santa Monica in preparation for each participant’s writing and producing of an original pilot. The eight finalists will then have the opportunity to be mentored by HBO and Cinemax executives during the calendar year they complete their pilots. To apply, the rules were simple: in order to participate you had to be a diverse writer (which HBO defined as both women and people of color alike) and to complete your application you had to be one of the first one thousand applicants to submit. No exceptions. And this is mostly what broke the internet that fateful Wednesday. And when I say broke, I mean literally that.

The third party site, Without A Box, which HBO used to accept its Access Writing Fellowships applications literally crashed minutes after the call opened. Technology experts observing the crash likened it to a DDOS attack, not unlike the attacks the hacker group, Anonymous, used to completely shut down Amazon, Paypal, Mastercard, and Visa in 2010 in protest of those companies freezing donations and assets to WikiLeaks.Continue Reading