Round-Down: Penguin Random House Launches Its New Website



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 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


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


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


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

Round-Down: What the [Redacted]? Clean Reader App Cleans Up Literature


see no evilMany parents want to expose their children to great literature but find themselves facing a dilemma—often these books, for their more mature content, contain profanity. It can be a difficult thing to broker, the desire to introduce strong work at a young age with the desire to avoid swears and age-inappropriate content. And now, a new app for Android and iOS devices called Clean Reader claims to have found a solution.

Clean Reader’s function is simple. As written on the app’s website, “Clean Reader prevents swear words in books from being displayed on your screen. You decide how clean your books should appear and Clean Reader does the rest.” Also available on the site is a trial demo, in which you’re able to see the app at work–in this instance, the app covers up the word “damn” in the sentence “If only he had his damn knife, he would stand a chance of walking away.” Here, the altered sentence does, it seems, no significant damage to meaning, and we can understand how the app is ideally meant to operate. But this is the only example given in the demo, and so the app’s function raises other questions.

At The Huffington Post, Claire Fallon notes that “Clean Reader isn’t censorship; anyone who’s read a book of Shakespeare’s stories for children or an abridged classic for younger readers has experienced a similar curation.” Claire makes a point to note that the revision to these texts isn’t actually illegal. “Instead of republishing the texts with edits,” she writes, “the app would be purveying the same book, but providing the option to cover up all of the obscenities.” It’s critical to understand that this isn’t censorship, but rather that these are amendments not permanently made to an already-published text. But the question is raised: What damage could be done to a writer’s intended vision in the name of this cleanliness?

The problem with this sweeping cover-up of profanity, to my mind, is that there’s no actual consciousness behind it, and as Fallon smartly notes, the changes can end up rendering sentences actually meaningless, scrubbed clean to the point of downright aseptic confusion.

I haven’t yet worked out exactly how I feel about the app. I understand the utility behind it. The app seems to even have the potential to do good, to act as the solution it claims to be. Still I’m a sure skeptic: How can this tool, with no consciousness behind it, both effectively and reliably provide an actually cleaner reading experience—because there is obviously a reason writers use profanity. I struggle to think many or even most texts wouldn’t be compromising something, and possibly something significant, for this ostensibly valuable sterility.

The app offers levels of cleanliness for its users: “Clean,” “Cleaner,” and “Squeaky Clean,” each providing more in the way of profanity cover-up than the last. Check it out for yourself here.

Indie Spotlight: Leapfrog Press


leapfrog books


Leapfrog Press began in Wellfleet, Massachusetts, in 1993 as the brainchild of writers Marge Piercy and Ira Wood, whose initial goal was providing an outlet for literary fiction overlooked by the big New York houses. While Piercy has served as judge for Leapfrog’s annual fiction contest, the press currently is in the hands of Managing Editor Lisa Graziano and Acquisitions Editor Rebecca Schwab. Now based out of Fredonia, New York—in storied Chautauqua County on the shores of Lake Erie—Leapfrog’s list has moved on as well. In addition to literary fiction by both new and established writers, Leapfrog publishes a smattering of nonfiction and poetry and a diverse list of middle grade and YA fiction.

What makes Leapfrog stand out as an independent press is their refreshing lack of fear when it comes to compartmentalization. Despite publishing a small number of titles per year, they’ve put out everything from mysteries to memoir, science fiction to how-to, hardboiled exposé to tender and poignant story collections. When Leapfrog says they simply want “writing that expands our webs of connection with other humans and the natural world; books that illuminate our complexities,” they really mean it.

For Ploughshares, Lisa Graziano helps readers understand the why and how of their editorial decisions, provides details on Leapfrog’s annual fiction contest (deadline is May 1!) and gives the inside scoop on Leapfrog’s future.

KF: From Mary Malloy’s historical fiction/mysteries, starring adventurous academic Lizzie Manning, whose expertise and mettle could put even Indiana Jones to shame, to Michael Mirolla’s fascinating and frightening sci-fi tale The Facility, where the future is filled with Mussolini clones, to Li Miao Lovett’s powerful novel In the Lap of the Gods, set in China during the controversial construction of the Three Gorges Dam project, Leapfrog’s list is wonderfully quirky. What qualities do your divergent titles share? What marketing challenges does this wide range of titles bring you?

LG: Good storytelling first, and we do like quirky, as you put it. But our books share a few themes to which we are partial. Many have a grounding in science, sometimes subtle, sometimes not. Some are based in important cultural and/or historical questions, whether or not they are “historical.” We don’t perceive these themes as separate. They tend to run together in many our books. Continue Reading

Round-Down: Artists’ Books Now On Display Online


I have always loved artists’ books, though I didn’t until recently—embarrassingly—consider them part of their own genre. The Smithsonian Institution only weeks ago launched a new inter-institution project, digitally curating many gorgeous artists’ books online on a searchable platform. The Smithsonian is collaborating with the American Art Museum and National Portrait Gallery Library, the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden Library, the Library at the National Museum of African Art, and other renowned institutions in order to make this careful digital curation a reality. Over six-hundred artists’ books are already searchable online and helpfully supplemented with notes and high-quality images of the books themselves.

In case you’re unfamiliar with artists’ books, the Smithsonian has included an introduction to the collection: “Artists’ books,” the introduction begins, “are works of art, like paintings or sculptures, but in book form. While book illustration has a much longer history, the book as art object is a product of the 20th century.” This primer goes on to note that “Many artists use the book format to create narratives to deal with difficult issues, with ideas that cannot be conveyed as clearly on a canvas or other medium. Some artist-made books illustrate the words of others, integrating art and literature. And some artists’ books do not have words at all.”

The challenge in creating this vast and growing archive is not immediately apparent, but is considerable. Anne Evenhaugen, reference librarian for the Smithsonian’s American Art and Portrait Gallery Library, mentions in Allison Meier’s article for Hyperallergic that a significant challenge is deciding how to catalogue and sort pieces “with a vocabulary often unique to printmakers and bookbinders, not to mention the significant task of categorizing a book as an artist’s book, as so many examples defy easy identification.” How, then, do we classify pieces that might even deliberately elude this easy or typical classification, and broker our desire to stay true to an artists’ vision with our desire to have these beautiful pieces available in digital form?

Unlike illustrations in books, the Smithsonian’s introduction also points out, artists’ books are a recent “product of the 20th century.” We’re also drawn to the further complicating idea that “Many artists intend their works to be interactive and expect their pages to be turned and the weight and texture of the book to be felt by the reader.” Online, while this sort of interaction isn’t possible, the photographs provide strong suggestion these details, and the archive invites us to consider the purpose of artists’ books–as beautiful art pieces with seriousness of intent and vision.

Check out some of these astonishing artists’ books here.

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.