The Best of Times, the Worst of Times: The U of Missouri Press is closing, Jennifer Egan is Tweeting

A bad week for publishing, but sometimes it seems like they all are.  First I was greeted with the news that the New Orleans Times-Picayune has cut back circulation to three days a week.  Apparently later in the same day, three papers in Alabama announced a similar move to downsize and reduce circulation.  Apparently being an award winning newspaper that does heroic community service in the midst of the disaster of a century is no longer enough.

Then today’s twitter feed brought me news of another University Press closing.

University of Missouri Press is closing after more than five decades of operation, UM System President Tim Wolfe announced this morning.

The press, which publishes about 30 books a year, will begin to be phased out in July, although a more specific timeline has not been determined.

Ten employees will be affected. Clair Willcox, editor in chief, declined to comment but did note that neither he nor any of the staff knew about the change before a midmorning meeting.

In a statement, Wolfe said even though the state kept funding to the university flat this year, administrators “take seriously our role to be good stewards of public funds, to use those funds to achieve our strategic priorities and re-evaluate those activities that are not central to our core mission.”

via University of Missouri Press is closing | The Columbia Daily Tribune – Columbia, Missouri.

Plenty has been said about the worrisome demise of daily papers and what the transformation of journalism into an online blogosphere really means for the body politic.  Will the Huffington Post, after all, actually cover anything in New Orleans if the paper goes under entirely.  Reposting is still not reporting, and having opinions at a distance is great fun but not exactly a form of knowledge.

The demise of or cutbacks to university presses is less bemoaned in the national press or blogosphere, but it is still worrisome.  Although I am now a believer in the possibilities of serious intellectual work occurring online, I am not yet convinced the demise of the serious scholarly book with a small audience would be a very good thing.  Indeed, I believe the best online work remains in a kind of symbiotic relationship with the traditional scholarly monograph or journal.  I keep my fingers crossed that this is merely an instance merely an instance of creative destruction, and not an instance of destruction plan and simple.

On a more hopeful note, I will say that I thoroughly enjoyed the New Yorker tweeting Jennifer Egan’s latest story Black box and am looking forward to the next installments.  I’d encourage everyone to “listen in”, if that’s what you do on twitter, but if you can’t you can read it in a more traditional but still twitterish form at the New Yorker Page turner site.  To get the twitter feed, go to @NYerFiction.  The reviews have been mixed, but I liked it a great deal.  Egan is a great writer, less full of herself than some others, she has a great deal to say, and she’s willing to experiment with new ways to say it.  Her last novel, Waiting for the Goon Squad, experimented with Powerpoint like slides within the text.  And, there’s a nice article over at Wired about the piece, suggesting it may be signaling a revival of serialized fiction.

Let’s hope so, it will make up for the loss of the U of MIssouri Press, at least today.

Book futures, or, apocalypse now.

I led a discussion in the Adult Forum down at St. Stephens last Sunday in which I suggested that apocalyptic literature falls in to basically two types: apocalyptic nihilism and apocalyptic redemption, the one seeing an end to everything the other seeing destruction as the necessary precursor to renewal. Theres an awful lot of apocalypticism out there about the book these days, a good bit of it just assuming the book is going to hell in a handbasket.

I mentioned in my post earlier today that prognosticating the future of the book seems to be a growth industry. Indeed, we devoted an entire symposium to it here at Messiah College. Besides the recent articles I mentioned earlier from my colleague Jonathan Lauer, and another by Jason Epstein, I ran across this from John Thompson at Huffington Post. A lot of it was the usual and obvious grist for the blogging mill, but I was intrigued by his final point, that the death of our current models for book production and dissemination may well lead to a flourishing of smaller independent publishing concerns

Seventh, small publishing operations and innovative start-ups will proliferate, as the costs and complexities associated with the book supply chain diminish, and threats of disintermediation will abound, as both traditional and new players avail themselves of new technologies and the opportunities opened up by them to try to eat the lunch of their erstwhile collaborators.

This strikes me as a plausible idea, and an exciting one. Although Anthony Grafton lamented the loss of the demanding professional editor, I think there’s an awful lot of talented creative people out there who could bring new energy and innovation to the world of ebooks and print books alike. We might be able to look back at this time fifty years from now and see this moment as one that heralded a new beginning for the book rather than its demise. If that’s not just so much rose colored glasses.

Kurt Vonnegut, Zombie Author–Or, I am the hype that I descry

I picked up via twitter yesterday that a Kurt Vonnegut novella that was twice rejected by major magazines has been published for the first time via Amazon singles.  Dutifully, I downloaded the book and now have it available via my Kindle app on my iPad and ready for reading. Perhaps a review will be in the offing if I can get around to it. (If I would blog less, I’m sure I would read more.)  The ways in which this leaves me feeling strange and uneasy requires a catalogue.

1.  If the book has been rejected multiple times and Vonnegut in his later life never chose to publish it when he most assuredly could have, as an e-book or otherwise, why should I buy this book now.  Is it because “it’s a Vonnegut,” and therefore worthy of my time.  I think this must not be true since in the end Vonnegut didn’t think it was even worth his time.  Am I somehow trading in a cult of celebrity in which the Vonnegut industry keeps pumping out the undead wisdom–even if the quality of the book might end up being something akin to a black velvet painting of Elvis being sold on the roadside beside a 7-Eleven in Arkansas.  Somehow I think here of Foucaults inquiry in to what exactly constitutes the work of an author.  I always kind of smiled at the question of whether an author’s laundry list is a part of his or her work.  I am now wondering whether Vonnegut’s laundry lists will be imaged and sold online as amazon singles.

2. I haven’t read half of the Vonnegut that Vonnegut himself thought was worth publishing.  Why should I purchase this latest for 1.99.  Because its easy and I didn’t even have to leave my couch to do it?  On the other hand, I have wasted a good bit more money than that on impulse purchases of literary magazines that now serve landfills, or perhaps could be fodder for Liz Laribee’s latest art project(the latter a worthy demise, I should say)

3.  Should I really enrich Rosetta Books and Amazon.com in pursuit of Vonnegut’s ghost.

4. Is there a problem with the fact that the internet erases distinctions between ephemera and things of “enduring value”?  What is the nature of “enduring value” when essentially everything can endure on an equal plane and theoretically in to eternity. ( I know here that my colleague Samuel Smith thinks the internet is more ephemeral than a paper book, but I have my doubts.  If we really get to the point of apocalypse in which all our digital resources are essentially unavailable through some massive destruction of the grid, we won’t be reading our paper books either.  We’ll be burning them in our fireplaces.  Or cooking them in our soups.)  The intellectual world is flat, and if Rosetta books had not chosen to publish the work, some enterprising graduate student with a scanner and an email account could have.

5.  Is it a problem that in writing this blog post, linking to websites, retweeting GalleyCat missives, posting to Facebook, I am flogging a book that I haven’t even read, part of the industrial–internet–publishing complex that makes Kurt Vonnegut a Zombie Author who continues to fascinate and destroy.  I am the hype that I descry.

In Praise of Reviews, Reviewing, and Reviewers

I think if I was born again by the flesh and not the spirit, I might choose to become a book reviewer in my second life.  Perhaps this is “true confessions” since academics and novelists alike share their disdain for the review as a subordinate piece of work, and so the reviewer as a lowly creature to be scorned.  However, I love the review as a form, see it as a way of exercising creativity, rhetorical facility, and critical consciousness.  In other words, with reviews I feel like I bring together all the different parts of myself.  The creativity and the rhetorical facility I developed through and MFA, and the critical consciousness of my scholarly self developed in graduate school at Duke.  I developed my course on book-reviewing here at Messiah College precisely because I think it is one of the most  challenging forms to do well.  To write engagingly and persuasively for a generally educated audience while also with enough informed intelligence for an academic audience.

Like Jeffrey Wasserstrom in the  Chronicle Review, I also love reading book reviews, and often spend vacation days not catching up on the latest novel or theoretical tome, but on all the book reviews I’ve seen and collected on Instapaper.  Wasserstrom’s piece goes against the grain of a lot of our thinking about book reviews, even mine, and it strikes me that he’s absolutely right about a lot of what he says.  First, I often tell students that one of the primary purposes of book reviewers is to help sift wheat from chafe and tell other readers what out there is worth the reading.  This is true, but only partially so.

Another way my thinking diverges from Lutz’s relates to his emphasis on positive reviews’ influencing sales. Of course they can, especially if someone as influential as, say, Michiko Kakutani (whose New York Times reviews I often enjoy) or Margaret Atwood (whose New York Review of Books essays I never skip) is the one singing a book’s praises. When I write reviews, though, I often assume that most people reading me will not even consider buying the book I’m discussing, even if I enthuse. And as a reader, I gravitate toward reviews of books I don’t expect to buy, no matter how warmly they are praised.

Consider the most recent batch of TLS issues. As usual, I skipped the reviews of mysteries, even though these are precisely the works of fiction I tend to buy. And I read reviews of nonfiction books that I wasn’t contemplating purchasing. For instance, I relished a long essay by Toby Lichtig (whose TLS contributions I’d enjoyed in the past) that dealt with new books on vampires. Some people might have read the essay to help them decide which Dracula-related book to buy. Not me. I read it because I was curious to know what’s been written lately about vampires—but not curious enough to tackle any book on the topic.

What’s true regarding vampires is—I should perhaps be ashamed to say—true of some big fields of inquiry. Ancient Greece and Rome, for example. I like to know what’s being written about them but rarely read books about them. Instead, I just read Mary Beard’s lively TLS reviews of publications in her field.

Reviews do influence my book buying—just in a roundabout way. I’m sometimes inspired to buy books by authors whose reviews impress me. I don’t think Lichtig has a book out yet, but when he does, I’ll buy it. The last book on ancient Greece I purchased wasn’t one Mary Beard reviewed but one she wrote.

I can only say yes to this.  It’s very clear that I don’t just read book reviews in order to make decisions as a consumer.  I read book reviews because I like them for themselves, if they are well-done, but also just to keep some kind of finger on the pulse of what’s going on.  In other words, there’s a way in which I depend on good reviewers not to read in order to tell me what to buy, but to read in my place since I can’t possibly read everything.  I can remain very glad, though, that some very good reader-reviewers out there are reading the many good things that there are out there to read.  I need them so I have a larger sense of the cultural landscape than I could possibly achieve by trying to read everything on my own.

Wasserstrom also champions the short review, and speculates on the tweeted review and its possibilities:

I’ve even been musing lately about the potential for tweet-length reviews. I don’t want those to displace other kinds, especially because they can too easily seem like glorified blurbs. But the best nuggets of some reviews could work pretty well within Twitter’s haiku-like constraints. Take my assessment of Kissinger’s On China. When I reviewed it for the June 13 edition of Time’s Asian edition, I was happy that the editors gave me a full-page spread. Still, a pretty nifty Twitter-friendly version could have been built around the best line from the Time piece: “Skip bloated sections on Chinese culture, focus on parts about author’s time in China—a fat book w/ a better skinnier one trying to get out.”

The basic insight here is critical.  Longer is not always better.  I’m even tempted to say not often better, the usual length of posts to this blog notwithstanding.  My experiences on facebook suggest to me that we may be in a new era of the aphorism, as well as one that may exalt the wit of the 18th  century, in which the pithy riposte may be more telling than the blowsy dissertation.

A new challenge for my students in the next version of my book-reviewing class, write a review that is telling accurate and rhetorically effective in 160 characters or less.

Tchotchkes R’US: Formerly known as Barnes and Nobles, Booksellers

Like a beaten dog wagging its tail as it returns to the master for one more slap, I keep returning to Barnes and Nobles, hoping for a dry bone or at least a condescending pat on the head. Mostly getting the slap.  I’m wondering lately how much longer B&N can hold on to the subtitle of their name with a straight face. I admit that for purists Barnes and Nobles was never much of a bookseller in the first place, the corporate ambiance just a bit too antiseptic for the crowd that prefers their books straight, preferably with the slightest scent of dust and mold. But as a person that has spent the entirety of his life in flyover country, Barnes and Nobles and its recently deceased cousin Borders seemed something like salvation. If the ambiance was corporate, the books were real, and they were many. If there were too few from independent publishers, there were more than enough good books to last any reader a lifetime, and I spent many hours on my own wandering the shelves, feeling that ache that all readers know, the realization that there are too many good books and one lifetime will never be enough.

Barnes and Nobles became a family affair for us. One way I induced the habit of reading in my kids was to promise them I’d take them to B&N anytime they finished a book and buy them another one. The ploy paid off. My kids read voraciously, son and daughter alike, putting the lie to the notion that kids today have to choose between reading and surfing.  My kids do both just fine, and I think this is attributable in no small part to the fact our family time together was spent wandering the endless aisles of bookstores, imaging the endless possibilities, what the world would be like if we only had enough time to read them all. Other families go on kayak trips; we read books. I’m not sorry for the tradeoffs.

All that is mostly over, for paper books anyway. My son and I still go over to Barnes and Nobles, but the last three trips we’ve come out saying the same thing to one another without prompting–worthless. Aisle after Aisle of bookshelves in our local store are being replaced by toys and tchotchkes designed to…..do what? It’s not even clear. At least when the place was dominated by books it was clear that this was where you went for books. Now it seems like a vaguely upscale Walmart with a vast toy section. I’m waiting for the clothing section to open up soon.

I don’t think we should underestimate the consequence of these changes for booksellers and bookreaders. Although it is the case that readers will still be able to get books via your local Amazon.com, the place of books is changing in radical ways.  The advent of e-books is completely reordering the business of bookselling–and i would say the culture of books as well.  An article in the Economist notes that books are following in the sucking vortex that has swallowed the music and newspaper industries all but whole.  Among the biggest casualties is the books and mortar bookstore, and this is of no small consequence to the effort to sell books in general:

Perhaps the biggest problem, though, is the gradual disappearance of the shop window. Brian Murray, chief executive of HarperCollins, points out that a film may be released with more than $100m of marketing behind it. Music singles often receive radio promotion. Publishers, on the other hand, rely heavily on bookstores to bring new releases to customers’ attention and to steer them to books that they might not have considered buying. As stores close, the industry loses much more than a retail outlet. Publishers are increasingly trying to push books through online social networks. But Mr Murray says he hasn’t seen anything that replicates the experience of browsing a bookstore.

Confession, I actually enjoy browsing Amazon, and I read book reviews endlessly.  But I think this article is right that there is nothing quite like the experience of browsing the shelves at a bookstore, in part because it is a kind of communal event.  It is not that there are more choices–there aren’t, there are far more choices online.  Nor is it necessarily that things are better organized.  I think I have a better chance of finding things relevant to my interests through a search engine than I do by a chance encounter in the stack.   And, indeed, The Strand is a book store that leaves me vaguely nauseous and dizzy, both because there is too much choice and there is too little organization.  But the physical fact of browsing with one’s companions through the stacks, the chance encounter with a book you had heard about but never seen, the excitement of discovery, the anxious calculations–at least if you are an impoverished graduate student or new parent–as to whether you have enough cash on hand to make the purchase now or take a chance that the book will disappear if you wait.  All of these get left behind in the sterility of the online exchange.  The bookstore is finally a cultural location, a location of culture, where bookminded people go for buzz they get from being around other book-minded people.  I can get my books from Amazon, and I actually don’t mind getting them via e-books, avoiding all the fuss of going down and having a face to face transaction with a seller.  But that face to face is part of the point, it seems to me.  Even though book-buying has always fundamentally been about an exchange of cash for commodity, the failure to see that it was also more than that is the cultural poverty of a world that amazon creates.  With books stores dying a rapid death and libraries close upon their heels, I’m feeling a little like a man without a country, since the country of books is the one to which I’ve always been most loyal.

I am, of course, sounding old and crotchety.  The same article in the Economist notes that IKEA is now changing their bookshelf line in the anticipation that people will no longer use them for books.

TO SEE how profoundly the book business is changing, watch the shelves. Next month IKEA will introduce a new, deeper version of its ubiquitous “BILLY” bookcase. The flat-pack furniture giant is already promoting glass doors for its bookshelves. The firm reckons customers will increasingly use them for ornaments, tchotchkes and the odd coffee-table tome—anything, that is, except books that are actually read.

I suspect this may be true.  Bookshelves and books alike may become craft items, things produced by those curious folks who do things by hand, items that you can only buy at craft fairs and auctions, something you can’t find at Wal-Mart, or Barnes and Nobles.

Borders fantasies

Book lovers have always turned a blind eye to the god Mammon, remembering only with regret the fact that the house they live in with their truest love was bought and paid for by the leering uncle down the street. Jonathan Gourlay took up that ill-begotten relationship in a nice personal essay on the demise of Borders. For Gourlay, Borders was an opportunity missed whose demise was figured long ago in it’s decision to skip a flirtation with the labor movement and bend the knee to a corporatist ethos.

“For Borders, which first opened in 1971, the end began when it was sold to K-Mart in 1992. By the time I got there, three years later, only a few of the stalwart Borders believers remained to try to change the store from within. Within a few months of my arrival, Neil gave up and retired to play in his band, The Human Rays. I don’t know if the band was real or Neil just thought it was amusing to retire and join The Human Rays. His friendly management style didn’t jibe with the new owners.

“Neil’s replacement was a guy named Doug. Doug had the personality of a pair of brown corduroy pants. We all hated Doug. We hated him because he was not Neil. Underneath that hatred was a hatred of what Doug represented: corporate masters and the loss of our own identity. With Neil we labored under the impression that we were cool. Under Doug we just labored.

This romantic vision may have a grain of truth.  But it’s worth remembering that scrolls and codexes(codices?) required immense amounts of money–and so wealthy patrons who had to be appeased–to produce. And at some level when you come down to it a book is a commodity as surely as a coke can. So we like to imagine ourselves as counter cultural in our love of texts, but that romantic ethos is purchased at a price like everything else.

The promise of the Internet is in part the idea of thinking and writing and reading without the necessary intervention of the dollar bill. But is that too just a romantic fancy?

Ink Spilled, and spilled, and spilled

From Frank Donoghue in the April 10, 2010 Chronicle Review.

“Deborah L. Rhode, a professor of law at Stanford University, in her book In Pursuit of Knowledge: Scholars, Status, and Academic Culture, notes a study showing that only 2 percent of published scholarship in the humanities is ever cited.”

Looking back on our own age in academe, I suspect that archeologists of knowledge may remark that there has never been so much sweat and strain on the part of the many–academics that is–for the profit of so few.