Round-Down: Why GO SET A WATCHMAN May Have Been Better Unpublished

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Discussion surrounding the recent release of Harper Lee’s purported To Kill a Mockingbird prequel–or draft, or sequel–Go Set a Watchman has dominated the literary community for the past several weeks. Just about every article on Watchman touches on the question of either whether Lee consented to having the long stowed-away manuscript released. At The New York Times, Randall Kennedy asks exactly this.

The initial reactions to Watchman’s release are expectedly mixed, yet strong. An informal poll conducted by CNN, in which about twenty thousand people have now participated, reveals public response to the question “Are you planning to read Go Set a Watchman?” Just over sixty percent say they will, and there’s about a twenty percent split on either side between those who are flatly not interested and those who won’t because they “want [their] memories of the original unsullied.” Lee’s new novel is operating under the extremely unique condition of existing within the same realm as and including many of the same characters from Mockingbird, a text that has been so widely loved and taught. It is because of these conditions that we should consider some facts of the questionable circumstance.Continue Reading

The Economic Crisis and Survival of Greek Letters Part 1: A Tiny Interview with Evangelia Avloniti of the Ersilia Literary Agency

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This interview is part 1 of a 2 part series on contemporary Greek letters and the economic crisis. 

Literature survives. Always has, always will. Modern Greek letters alone have seen the rise and fall of the Ottoman Empire, two world wars, followed by the Greek civil war in the 1940′s along with its recovery period and its military junta soon thereafter. And most recently, it’s overseen six years of Economic crisis, which has seen Greece on the brink of exit from the Eurozone. No matter—the literature survives. And in that there’s not only hope but celebration.

Some would argue, because of the crisis, that Greek letters are more popular than ever before. I talk with Evangelia Avloniti of the Ersilia Literary Agency about just that: the economic crisis, the future of Greek letters, and the author she’s most excited about right now.

Evangelia Avloniti founded the Ersilia Literary Agency in 2009 just as Greece began sliding into financial distress. Today, the Ersilia Literary Agency is considered the premier literary agency in Greece representing a select list of twelve Greek authors, locally and internationally, as well as thirty international publishers and agents among which are Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Grove Atlantic, Kuhn Projects, Zoe Pagnamenta, Levine Greenberg Rostan, and Elyse Cheney Literary Associates.

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Round-Down: What You Should Know Going Into GO SET A WATCHMAN

Atticus_and_Tom_Robinson_in_courtToday, July 14, is an auspicious day in literary news: Harper Lee’s much anticipated, and controversial, Go Set A Watchman is officially released across the world. An event for the record books–the title already broke the pre-order record held by the Harry Potter series and promises to break still others before the week is done—many eager readers lined up at midnight this morning to grab a copy. Die-hard fans picked up the sequel (or prequel, depending on how one looks at it) to the childhood favorite because, or perhaps in spite, of several shocking spoilers leaked in the days leading up to the worldwide official release.

In a coordinated publicity stunt, HarperCollins released the first chapter of the novel online, in the UK via The Guardian, and in the U.S. via The Wall Street Journal (owned by the same parent company as HarperCollins). Reese Witherspoon’s breathy, wry Southern voice is leant to the experience at both sites via an audio recording, and if you’re still on the fence about whether or not you want to brave a bookstore today, I recommend checking out the text at The Guardian. The colorful animation that accompanies the text as you scroll down to keep up with Witherspoon’s charming intonations lends a visceral experience to the “sneak peak” that will—even if the text itself cannot, as some reviewers caution—provide fans with the same sense of whimsical pluckiness as young Scout’s voice. The WSJ, for its part, has black and white photographs from the film version of To Kill A Mockingbird, as well as from Lee’s own life and town, accompanying the text.Continue Reading

Indie Spotlight: Etruscan Press

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Etruscan Press began in 2001, founded by Philip Brady, Robert Mooney and Steve Oristaglio, who currently serve as Executive Director, Executive Editor, and Business Advisor. Housed at Wilkes University and partnered with Youngstown State in Ohio, Etruscan is probably best known for poetry (three titles have been chosen as National Book Award finalists and other collections have earned a lengthy list of accolades), but Etruscan also publishes a complete range of rich and varied literature. Novels, memoir, short story and essay collections, criticism, translation, and anthologies all have found their way onto Etruscan’s list.

In 2015 alone, Etruscan is putting out Cannot Stay by Kevin Oderman, a collection of travel essays to destinations that are common, uncommon, and even imagined; a gritty coming-of-age memoir, Crave, by Laurie Jean Cannady; and Poems and Their Making: A Conversation, an anthology “moderated” by Philip Brady and described as “a collection of original poems and essays by a diverse cast of inter-connected contemporary American poets, delving into the origin and development of poetic thought, line, and structure.”

Finally, Etruscan is publishing three collections of poetry this year, most notably The Other Sky, a collaboration between poet Bruce Bond and visual artist Aron Wiesenfeld that will surely show up on a number of “best of” lists by the end of this year. For Ploughshares, Executive Director and poet Philip Brady will share how the press achieves its mission of producing a “body of work in fiction, poetry, creative nonfiction, criticism, and translation [that] subverts traditional boundaries and manifests the impulses beneath conventional modes.”

KF: Etruscan’s catalogue describes the press as devoted to “producing and promoting books that nurture a dialogue among genres and cultures,” yet your list of titles share such a contemplative and careful approach to both subject matter and precision of language that it seems every Etruscan title could be called poetry. What do you think makes a manuscript uniquely Etruscan? Does genre matter all that much to you over aesthetics?

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Round-Down: Stephen King Releases Exclusive Short Story Audio

maine fireworksIn what Alexandra Alter at The New York Times calls an “unusual experiment,” Stephen King has released a short story, “Drunken Fireworks,” which is forthcoming in his collection The Bazaar of Bad Dreams. The collection is slated for a November 2015 release, making this a months-advance sneak peek at the eagerly anticipated work. In the publisher’s press release, the original audio story is described as a “one-of-a-kind audio publishing event.”

King has long valued hearing work narrated; in fact, he paid his children to read novels aloud and record them. Alter writes that “in his basement in Bangor, Me., there are boxes full of cassettes narrated by his three children, including recordings of novels by James Ellroy, Wilbur Smith, and Frank Herbert.”

It is, of course, hard to say whether this decision to “pre-publish” a story in audio will mark the start of a larger trend toward this sort of promotion. But, it seems King’s collection might be uniquely poised to accomplish this. The ingredients seem to be there–a vast and committed readership, a shorter work, and content that seems enhanced by the audio component (the story takes place in Maine, and King wanted the narrating voice, Tim Sample, to capture the story’s sense of culture and place). Alter notes that, with the digital release, “Mr. King and his publisher are testing whether audio can serve as an effective teaser for a future print book.”Continue Reading

Round-Down: Are BOGO Books A Good Thing?

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Many businesses have sought creative ways to keep customers incentivized to return because there are so many options for shopping around. Publishers are no different. Harlequin, the famed romance novel imprint of Harper, is turning to a new reader rewards program as a way to keep readers loyal in the ever-growing book marketplace.

Unlike a lot of rewards programs out there (I’m looking at you, American Express), consumers will not have to wait a long period of time before their points are redeemable. Rather, readers will earn two-thousand points simply for creating an account during this trial period, presumably while Harlequin collects data and perfects the model. Participants will also have the option to grow their accounts by participating in surveys wherein readers get to share their preferences and ideas related to romance novels. Right now, the rewards range from free books (print or electronic), gift baskets, and, the real high-ticket item—a Skype interview with a favorite author.

At first blush, it sounds like a wonderful idea. Who doesn’t want to be rewarded for reading (even if–especially if– it is for steamy romance novels with a preponderance of “quivering” and “ocean pool eyes” metaphors)? Who wouldn’t want to be more involved with authors and publishers than a fan?Continue Reading

Interactivity and the Game-ification of Books

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As an undergrad studying creative writing one of the first things I remember learning was the sin of gimmickry. Readers, I was taught, would see through your cleverness—it would be vile to them and they would hate you. But as a kid and teenager my favorite books employed some pretty neat sins and I don’t remember ever hating those authors. I relished a novel approach to novels and welcomed those books that didn’t just swim in standard conventions. Some of the most memorable artifacts of my youth, in fact, were more bound riddles than books, and each riddle taught me how to open myself up to uncertainty, ambiguity, and irresolution (all concepts more true to life than your traditional cut and dry, happily-ever-after tale).

More specifically, the books I tended to gravitate toward were texts in which the role of the reader could more aptly be described as that of a player, or collaborator. (Though one could argue all books are collaborative in nature, the ones I tended to flock to were especially open-ended, demanding a higher degree of interactivity.) I would remain captivated by these books infused with a sense of play/collaboration and it would eventually become an important element in my own work.

I first devoured picture books like the Where’s Waldo series, for instance, less interested in the eponymous red and white striped protagonist than in the sheer overstimulation of colorful characters and anachronistic situations swirling in the background. They might have been my first writing prompts, actually. I remember writing little stories about the wizard and how he came to be lost in the scene, or what events must’ve transpired to rip a Viking out of time and space to plop him smackdab in the center of a bustling mall.Continue Reading

Round-Down: A Year of Publishing Only Women

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In a surprising move, And Other Stories, an independent publisher in the United Kingdom, decided last week to take up novelist Kamila Shamsie’s call for publishers to take a stand against gender bias by publishing only women in 2018.

Publisher Stefan Tobler said that he and his colleagues had realized for a while that they were publishing more men than women, and said that, “If we don’t do it, what is going to change?” (As a side note, everyone commenting on this news seems to want to make a big deal of the fact that Tobler is a man who wanted to publish only women for a year, as if it’s a shock that a dude would be a feminist ally. Or as if this idea is somehow a more legitimate one because it has a man backing it. I find that sad).

Sophie Lewis, senior editor at And Other Stories, echoes Tobler in a piece for the Independent: “Through our acquisitions meetings and campaign planning–which will be solely focused on obtaining and promoting female writing–we’ll be able to . . . have a chance to better understand women’s routes to publication in so much more detail.” She hopes the data procured in the process will help all publishers better understand why a gap persists in the twenty-first century. She offers some hypotheses: “Could it be to do with the way in which creative writing courses are being approached? Or going back further, literature classes at school?”

Especially given the success of the satirical twitter handle GuyInYourMFA and the recent BuzzFeed comedy piece entitled “If Jane Austen Got Feedback From Some Guy In A Writing Workshop” by Shannon Reed (if you haven’t read it yet, do yourself a favor and check it out), I have to wonder if Lewis might not be onto something. I myself have commiserated with many female peers in my writing program about the number of times our work has been criticized for being “sentimental”; the same is not said of male peers’ writing that also happens to be about “feelings.”Continue Reading

Indie Spotlight: McPherson & Company

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McPherson & Company began with a simple mission just over 40 years ago. Bruce McPherson was enamored of his friend Jaimy Gordon’s manuscript Shamp of the City-Solo, so when Gordon was unable to find a publisher, he decided to put it out himself. While he didn’t intend to continue in the publishing world, the novel’s success convinced him otherwise.

McPherson has since put out two more of Gordon’s novels, including 2010’s National Book Award Winner Lord of Misrule, as well as more than a hundred fifty award-winning and best-selling titles that expand far beyond the realm of contemporary fiction.

McPherson & Co. now publishes translations, such as Divine Punishment by Nicaraguan writer Sergio Ramírez, which Carlos Fuentes lauded as “the quintessential Central American novel,” and a fantastic line of “Recovered Classics,” republishing authors whose work has been long out of print, including modernist writer Mary Butts and poet and essayist Edward Dahlberg. Plus, there are books on art and culture, belles lettres, and even some esoteric film DVDs of early art “happenings” by Claes Oldenberg.

Almost as impressive as McPherson & Co.’s wide range of offerings is the company’s support of independent bookstores. McPherson carefully manages its distribution, sending titles to independent bookstores weeks before they’re available elsewhere, with the rationale that independent bookstores inevitably support “independent writers from independent publishers,” and deserve McPherson’s support in return.

For Ploughshares readers and authors, McPherson shares how he’s remained independent these four decades, what he looks for in a McPherson title, and where McPherson is headed in the 21st century.

KF: McPherson has had an amazing run since its inception as Treacle Press in 1974. It’s almost a given at this point that every year a McPherson title will win national recognition, whether it’s an Independent Publisher IPPY award, a Pen Center or National Book Award, or inclusion on any number of “best of” lists. What editorial decisions regarding manuscripts do you think contribute to this level of excellence?

BM: It may sound pretentious to say that I simply publish books that seem to me important and worth sharing. But as an independent publisher, without directors and shareholders, I’m free to take risks that others perhaps can’t. I go for the best I can find (or who find me), and throw everything I’ve got behind the books I choose to do. It’s not really all that hard these days to find material of the highest quality. The Big Six still publish excellent books, of course, but seem to have relinquished entire provinces of literature to smaller publishers. Over the years I’ve been fortunate to meet and become friends with writers not only from around the country, but from around the world. Add to this that it’s not uncommon for my authors to point their friends in my direction. Sadly, the front list is very small, three or four books a year. I can’t begin to take on all the books I’d like to publish, and it’s painful having to disappoint authors whose work I revere. At the Book Expo America the other day, a Canadian publisher said he thought we’re living in a golden age of literary publishing. I believe him; the difficulty comes with convincing the reading public.Continue Reading

Round-Down: “Governments Make Bad Editors,” Authors Protest During BookExpo America

1200px-Jasmine_Revolution_in_China_-_Beijing_11_02_20_crowd_2BookExpo America 2015 (BEA), one of the leading book conferences internationally and held this year in New York, was recently host to a five-hundred-person delegation from the Chinese government, representing one-hundred publishing houses–attendance that BookExpo has described as “unprecedented” and which covered over twenty-thousand square feet of convention space.

On the steps of the New York Public Library, only blocks from the book fair, many gathered to protest the presence of this Chinese delegation at the Expo. This protest, which was organized by PEN American Center, included renowned Chinese writer Murong Xuecun and acclaimed American writers such as Jonathan Franzen and A.M. Homes. In The New York Times’ coverage of the protest, Alexandra Alter mentions the protest’s central aims were “to demand that China free Nobel peace laureate Liu Xiaobo and professor Ilham Tohti from prison, stop restricting other writers and have the confidence to allow free speech.”

At the BookExpo, PEN America volunteers distributed fliers with the words “Governments Make bad Editors.” Cara Anna of The Associated Press mentions the Chinese delegation “kept the mood firmly positive” at the Expo and offered presentations that focused on the good of its current publishing situation.

The possibilities for partnership and expansion are enticing for both Chinese and American publishers. Both parties could mutually, if not equally benefit. The question appears to be, as it so often does: At what cost?Continue Reading