Monthly Archives: September 2010

Suggested Reading from the Book Banners

This week is Banned Books Week, at least according to the American Library Association (ALA).

They have a great site on the phenomena of the banned book, with a statistics pages that appeals to my inner nerd. Surprisingly, total challenges brought against books seem to be trending down. Are video games stealing this piece of book thunder too? The stats also show, as expected, that Americans have a much tougher time with sex (which is covered in three categories) than they do with violence. Parents are most likely to initiate challenges to books, and the bans focus on schools and libraries. Anywhere public money is spent on books, someone will try to control what everyone else can read.

The ALA site lists the 100 most frequently challenged books from both the last decade and from the 1990s. You have to wonder why the likes of Aldous Huxley, Ray Bradbury, Kurt Vonnegut, and even Judy Blume are still on the list. Isn’t that stuff all terribly old school by now? Kid’s book authors make up a good chunk of what gets banned. Madeline L’Engle, Garth Nix, Philip Pullman, J.K. Rowling, Lois Lowry, Louis Sachar, Maurice Sendak, R.L. Stine, and Chris Crutcher all appear for this decade. Poor Roald Dahl and Shel Silverstein (along with Stephen King) seem to have fallen back into grace.

Looking over the list, I noticed two things. First, banned books receive some notoriety before getting banned. There’s no point in banning it if no one’s heard of it. How many other far more shocking books never made the cut and instead languish silently on library shelves? Second, they deal with an issue–whether it be sexuality, racism, or religion–that some would rather not have anyone write anything about, ever. That makes for great suggested reading. Books that are well written enough to get noticed, and that deal with challenging subject matter.

Of course, bookstores saw this as a marketing opportunity long ago. Banned book displays do a remarkably good job of selling banned books. Thank you book banners! Keep up the good work of ferreting out titles worthy of lasting attention.


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Video Trailer for It’s a Book by Lane Smith

Here’s a one minute video that offers yet more insight on the digital transition. It’s the book trailer for It’s a Book by Lane Smith, though part of me wonders if (as is often the case with movies) this trailer might not be better than the thing it promotes.

Of course, it’s ironic that a video book trailer is being used to promote a book that pokes fun at all things digital, but that’s getting nitpicky. Perhaps the fact that this video exists means the doom and gloom days for ebooks will soon be behind us.

As someone who spent a good chunk of this weekend with my nose stuck in an old-fashioned paper book… I get it.

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Thoughts on the Shitiness of First Drafts

I’m working on the first draft of a novel. I hate first drafts. Short stories are bad enough, but novels are much smaller boats set adrift on bigger seas. Many writers have commented at length on this process, but I’ll put my trust in Hemingway. He summed it up best: “The first draft of anything is shit.”

When I first came across this quote, I thought someone made it up. How could an undisputed writing master utter such profanity? As I continued in my scribble quest, I thought it meant that first drafts need to be tidied up. Kinks must be worked out, language made pretty so that it flows. Though even then, I thought Hemingway resorted to such a  statement due to having imbibed a bit too much the night before.

Many years later, I get it. First drafts are gangly beasts. First drafts pass out on the floor, quivering masses that drool and fart and disgorge fleshy things. In the first draft, a new character will suddenly appear halfway through and act like she’s been in the book all along. The names of places, characters, and things will change, then change again, then change back again. A factory will produce Twinkies in one chapter, heart monitors in a later chapter, and then settle on Chevy Priuses by the end of the book. The main character will set off on his journey, only to be hijacked by his sidekick who demands that he is, in fact, the main character. In first drafts, the end that seems so crystal clear in the beginning, will wither into hilarity before 50 pages are written, not just snuffing out the much celebrated light, but taking the whole tunnel with it.

I always understand how to write a chapter just as soon as I’ve finished writing it. This is the tricky part. The first draft black hole. I now resist the temptation to go back and make things right. Instead, I take notes and move on to the next chapter, which in turn will only reveal its true form once I’ve slogged clear through it. Often, the chapter before or even one much earlier in the book will change with it. Which is why there is never any going back. I’ve tried that before, and produced some very lovely first chapters. Anyone want to buy a first chapter? Cheap.

When I reach the end, the first draft–clunky though it may be–is a thing of beauty. It went from nothing to something, a miniature big bang. First drafts are manuscripts that live across parallel universes. The trick is to get all the way to the end to understand which one belongs in this universe. Only then do I let myself go back and write the far more fulfilling second draft, yanking the remaining bits of the story into this universe.

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More Seats at the Writer Table, Less Pie for All

Mike Shatzkin maintains one of the best blogs I’ve found yet on the changes happening in publishing. If you care about this subject, follow his blog. He posts about once per week, so it’s not a huge time hit.

His most recent post is on how publishers will need to transition from a b2b to a b2c model as bookstore shelf space continues to dwindle. This isn’t–for now, at least–about publishers selling directly to consumers. It’s more of a change in marketing tactics to focus on creating brands around which communities can gather. In this area, the publishing industry has one shining star:

The one consumer brand in publishing that means the most and provides the most equity to its owner is Harlequin. Consumers recognize it and have understandings about quality and price based on it. But because they also know that the Harlequin name means the “romance” genre, and because many romance readers buy and consume dozens, even hundreds, of titles in the genre every year, they have logical reasons to visit Harlequin’s web site repeatedly and to request and open email reminders of new publications from them.

Two thoughts in particular struck me. First, other than for Harlequin, this transition is likely to be a whole lot harder than most publishers anticipate. The competition in this space is fierce, and there are a lot of players in it already. Amazon is indeed the grandpa of all companies when it comes to understanding your customers, and some of them do seem quite fanatical. Though Facebook may soon be giving them a run for their money.

My second thought was hinted at later in the post. This type of tribe building around shared interests seems to be more suited to specialized, boutique publishers. There is a real question around what advantages scale offers. Customers passionate about something sense phoniness towards it from a mile off. It seems likely that major publishers will work on fostering smaller brands that are highly targeted to specific consumers, and that many smaller publishers will sprout up to serve specific communities.

This all means one thing: many more books get published. Shatzkin does make this point later in the post when he talks of “tripling down on title output to become a serious player in a niche.” That’s great news for new authors. More titles mean more seats at the table. Though it also implies a smaller slice of the pie for all. We may earn a little less, but is that really anything new for writers?

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Sir Arthur Canon Doyle on Sherlock Holmes and Psychic Matters

I love the raw quality of this video. The audio alone makes it worth ten minutes from your day. Doyle has a wonderful raspy voice and is no slouch in the vocabulary department. He speaks of his inspiration for Sherlock Holmes, how the character launched from modest beginnings to become a “monstrous growth.” Then he delves into the “psychic matter” which he found to be a more worthwhile pursuit than literature in his latter years.

Best of all: his interactions with the dog. That’s one happy dog.

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