Thursday, March 17, 2005

ABERDEEN STORIES by Steven C. Stoker (iUniverse)

I remember when I discovered this book. I had been plucking through POD title after POD title, each with writing worst than the last. I remember twisting my neck in circles to try and relieve the tension that comes from reading sentences like this:

"There was no way Bob wasn’t starting over again this time, no matter what."

I was ready to turn and walk out of the (used) book store when the cover (believe it or not) of another POD title caught my attention. It was this:

ABERDEEN STORIES, by Steven C. Stoker (iUniverse)

I stared at the orangey image of a watering device in a grainy field, one like so many that littered the farms from my childhood. I put my coat on, sighed, then picked up the book.

Good move. I read the first few pages of chapter one and the tension flowed from my muscles with every word. Having an apartment full of McInerneys and Easton-Ellises and all the other folks who have written of psychological urban decay, the stores that made up ABERDEEN were a true emollient--succinct stories of simple times in rural America.

There is no novel here--just a large grouping of short vignettes about growing up in a small-town, in more of the form of a memoir. Every line, every paragraph is well-written and lovely, to the point where I reread a few stories two or three times in a row before moving forward.

I hate to make the comparison--for fear of sounding trite--but Stoker could be sort of an upcountry version of David Sedaris, with slightly more poignant writing and a true sense that you would love to sit down and buy the guy a drink (of hot cocoa.)

Here is a taste:

"One job that we were able to do as kids was to pull thistles. It was not a job to be sought out, for it was a torturous endeavor at best. Even with the best of gloves, long-sleeved shirts, heavy denim jeans, and hightopped boots, the tiny spines would find their marks. And they seemed particularly fond of the tender skin of pre-pubescent young farm boys.

There were many things that Dad asked me to do that I enjoyed, but thistle duty was not one of them. Dwight and Mike were no more enthusiastic than I, and we all dawdled as much as possible to avoid the task. Such tactics, however, were fruitless. The thistles did not go away until we made them go away."

Writing this review seems like too weak an exaltation, really. I wish I could say more, do more.

I guess there’s nothing left but to pick it up and read it again.

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Judging books by their covers (a scratch and sniff adventure)

There is a hallmark for POD titles--other than the overwhelming lack of editing: the covers.

In our great search for the emeralds and rubies at the bottom of the POD sea, we've come across some book covers that were so horrible, so absolutely amateurish, that we pulled them off (not so easy, by the way--POD quality has improved over the years) and framed them.

Perhaps my favorite--and quite possibly the nadir--was a book (that I cannot bear to publicize) about a satanic force that rises to rule the world. And on the cover was a huge image surely intended to be a pentagram.

It was a Star of David.

And in an instant this publisher managed to offend both Jews and Satanists alike.

Why are these covers so bad? I'm guessing it's because of volume - since POD companies produce thousands of titles per year and the traditional publishers produce, well, far less.

So can you judge a book by its cover? Sometimes. I'll be the first to admit that when I am browsing the tables at B&N or Borders, I will almost always pick up a book with an intriguing cover. Likewise, I will never pick up a book with a hideous cover--regardless of how clever the title may be.

So here is my suggestion for you POD folks: Go to you local college or university (even a community college if you have to) and find the art and/or computer science departments. Talk to the professors or post an ad looking for a graphic designer who wants to work on book covers and offer the cover of yours in exchange for a resume builder. No money needs to swap hands and you likely get a far better product from a kid trying to make a name for herself than the opposite: a guy with a 5:00 p.m. deadline and rush hour traffic facing him.

Don't get me wrong--the New Yorkers aren't perfect. In some cases they just repeat the same ideas over and over and over and over and over. But even their worst is usually far better than an average POD.

Random, S&S, Putnam, HarperCollins--they all spend a fortune on high quality covers--not just beauty, but covers that suggest a sense of the book. That is what you want--not the exact opposite.


Bonus round:

Check out Max Barry's display of the evolution of the cover for his book, Jennifer Government.

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

It's the technology, stupid

Years ago, I attended a most unique writer's workshop at my local Barnes and Noble: they had a guest speaker (supposedly) as every single store at the exact same time (which begged the question: did I miss someone better?)

The writer who spoke at my store was halfway through his monologue when he said, out of nowhere (and out of context), "you know, one day all books are going to be published right here, in the store. You'll probably go to a kiosk and select your book and by the time you get to the front of the store your book will be waiting for you."

The group of onlookers began nervously chuckling. I thought the guy was a box of Fruit Loops.

What I learned later, however, was that Barnes & Noble had taken a significant interest (logistically and financially) in iUniverse. So, it turns out the workshop was really an excuse to generate some publicity (and get discouraged writers to jump on a technology bandwagon.)

But it got me thinking: would I want to go to a bookstore where I have to buy a book from a kiosk? I love the feel of the virgin paper, the gentle crackling sound the binding makes the first time it is opened, sitting down with a cup of overpriced joe and seeing if a chapter or two will hook me.

I discarded the notion, thinking it was silly, that no one would ever shop that way. But then it hit me: this is the same mistake that publishers, et. al. are making with e-books right now.

What they are saying: "People don't like to read books on computers or hand-held devices."

What they should really be saying: "My generation does not like to read books on computers or hand-held devices."

I'll bet they don't own iPods, either. Who could fathom putting all of your music on a tiny device and carrying it around with you? Young 'uns, that's who. In two different school systems in Northern Virginia, the high schools are handing out laptops to their students to use as the standard for reading, note taking, test taking and the like; they turn them in at the end of the year like textbooks. And in California and Arizona, seven different school districts are handing out e-book readers. To quote one superintendent: "It's a lot cheaper to throw away a handful of broken devices than to keep ordering dozens of copies of the same books over and over, year after year. And no one can scribble in an e-book reader or tear pages out. And the kids never have to carry more than one [book] with them. Everyone loves them."

So, you see, these kids will be bred to e-read.

And they, too, will select books from a kiosk, where they will be printed and waiting for them by the time they reach the front of the store.

Here is where the rubber meets the POD highway: once book purchasing goes to the kiosk (and POD activity right within the store), the playing field will be leveled substantially. If everyone is being POD'd, where is the sales edge* to traditional publishing?

And don't tell me it's the advertising.

Please note: I said "sales edge", not "edge" in general. The obvious answer to the question here is EDITING. But, for sake of argument, I am assuming we're dealing with books that needed little editing, like the multitudes that are acquired yet never edited by the New York brethren, day after day after day . . .

Bonus round:

A bunch of folks commented and sent me emails about Laurie Notaro's flip from iUniverse to Random House. If you want to read her story (from a chat session) from over three years ago, simply click this bad boy. You can tell it has been three years. When was the last time you could get in print via iUniverse for $100?

More gems on the way.

Monday, March 14, 2005

PublishAmerica title lands on the Book Sense list (seriously)

Am I kidding?

Not this time.

New York agent Bob Mecoy tipped me off to the fact that an author with PublishAmerica has landed on the April Book Sense list.

RAW NERVES: A Cape Cod Comedic Thriller, by Saralee Perel

Sure enough, you can see it at the bottom under Mystery/Suspense (as a Notable.) Quite impressive, as I feel the Book Sense list is more of a thinking person's list than any other. I did a little research on this title (have not read it, though) and I know of an editor at St. Martins who loves this stuff. I should probably give her a heads-up.

Two things to note here:

(1) The Book Sense folks actually read a PublishAmerica title -- and liked it.
(2) A New York literary agent noticed it landed there, too.

Hang on, folks--we're going for a ride.