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

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

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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

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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

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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

 

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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

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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

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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