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

Round-Down: Extra! Extra! Paper Lives!

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Despite the endless negative news reports and doomsday forecasts regarding the rise of eBooks at the expense of paper books, recent studies and reports vindicate those of us who prefer pulp to pixels.

According to the American Booksellers Association, independent booksellers are continuing to add new stores, which means there are more places to buy and sell paper books. The ABA also reported its membership figures at the BookExpo America publishing convention and trade show in Manhattan last week. The organization’s membership has been on the rise ever since its sharp decline in 2008, back when the financial crisis hit the hardest–and when competition from Barnes & Noble, Borders (RIP), and, of course, Amazon, which launched the kindle in 2007, was high.

Given that many in the media have been grimly predicting that Amazon would render paper books as antiquated as eight track tapes, this news refreshes those of us who wax poetic about the smell of a library.

News of the ABA’s rising membership isn’t the only evidence that’s making many sigh with relief. Just the other day, publishers in the UK announced rising paperback sales.

Furthermore, the company that invented the Moleskin consistently reports double-digit sales growth, according to a recent NPR story. In the story, the CEO of the Moleskin company is quoted as saying that perhaps it is because digital technology has become so commonplace that paper holds such fascination. He goes on to add that there is an intimacy to a tangible, physical artifact that digital publishing cannot quite deliver.Continue Reading

Round-Down: Author Solutions Faces Author Problems

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Back in 2013, three writers sued Author Solutions, a self-publishing service, citing a list of grievances against the company. Andrew Albanese’s article at Publisher’s Weekly notes that the authors claim Author Solutions “misrepresents itself, luring authors in with claims that its books can compete with ‘traditional publishers,’ offering ‘greater speed, higher royalties, and more control for its authors,’ [and] profits from ‘fraudulent’ practices. . . including ‘delaying publication, publishing manuscripts with errors to generate fees, and selling worthless services, or services that fail to accomplish what they promise.’” The purported misrepresentation of Author Solutions as an independent publisher is called into question. The full complaint can be read here.

Now, the case against Author Solutions is growing and seeks class-action status. In Albanese’s update of the case, he mentions that attorneys for the self-publishing service claim these authors “have invented out of whole cloth a purported ‘deceptive scheme’ in an attempt to indict [Author Solutions’] entire marketing operation and its senior management.” It can be difficult to ferret out the extent and veracity of these complaints only from reading—why is the case proceeding? But it is important to acknowledge that Author Solutions, when it comes to its marketing, has a history of complaints and cautious warnings from targeted authors who have purchased services and chose to publish with Author Solutions or one of its imprints.Continue Reading

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.