Monthly Archives: November 2012

7 Writers Who Died Young

Gabe Habash -- November 29th, 2012

Though death and authors is a well-covered topic on PWxyz (see here and here), we haven’t given due attention to the writers that left an enduring mark on literature without living a full life. In the cases where the writers knew of their impending deaths, it’s worth considering how much that knowledge informed their work, while in the cases of an unexpected death, we can only wonder how much more these writers could’ve accomplished with a longer life.

Thomas Chatterton (age 17)

Before succumbing to arsenic poisoning, English poet Thomas Chatterton never achieved the renown he found after death. Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelley, and John Keats, who dedicated Endymion to him, all praised Chatterton posthumously. But during his short life, Chatterton was ignored by publishers and was so poor he couldn’t eat (though he also refused charity his friends offered). Nonetheless, his legacy has lived on: the writings of Thomas Rowley, Chatterton’s fictitious 15th-century monk, was published seven years after his death. More recently, there’s a song about him, a collection of “Chattertoniana” in the British Museum, and, in 1987, Peter Ackroyd wrote Chatterton, a literary re-telling of his life.

John Keats (age 25)

Like Chatterton, Keats’s reputation became what it was after his death. When he died in 1821, he’d only been writing for six years (his first piece of poetry, “O Solitude,” appeared in print in 1816) and copies of his work had supposedly only totaled around 200 copies. Some biographers cite Keats’s exposure to his brother’s sickness in 1818 as the origin of the tuberculosis that would eventually take his life. In his last years, as his condition worsened, he was convinced he’d made no mark on the literary world. Still, even as his health waned, he was productive, making the final revisions to “Bright Star” the year before his death. Continue reading

The Google Appeal: Is There a Class?

James Grimmelmann -- November 23rd, 2012

The Google Books lawsuit—seven years old and counting—grinds on. In May, Judge Denny Chin certified it as a class action, with three individual authors representing all authors with books scanned by Google. This Summer, Google appealed Chin’s decision, and that appeal is now being considered. On November 9, Google filed its opening brief, and it was supported by a group of library associations and by well over a hundred academics led by Berkeley’s tireless Pamela Samuelson. Electronic Arts, Pinterest, and Yahoo! also indicated they would like to file a brief, but didn’t get their act together in time and have asked for an extension.

Looking down the road, the issue of class certification is a procedural sideshow. The question everyone cares about—is it legal to scan books en masse?—almost certainly won’t be settled this year, and quite possibly not in 2013 either. Meanwhile, as the Google lawsuit plods along, the book industry bounds into digital. Google Books has gone from front-of-store to the backlist, and the publishers have already remaindered their own suit against Google. And, the Guild was soundly trounced in the parallel HathiTrust suit against Google’s library partners. Unless that resounding holding in favor of fair use is reversed on appeal, it may not much matter what happens to the original class action against Google. Still, it’s worth unpacking the issues now before the Second Circuit in the Google Appeal. Continue reading

Amazon Kindle Turns 5

PWStaff -- November 19th, 2012

Amazon has marked its 5th birthday by releasing the bestselling Kindle e-books from the first five years. They are:

Top 5 Best-Selling Kindle Books Ever

  1. Fifty Shades of Grey
  2. The Hunger Games
  3. Catching Fire
  4. Mockingjay
  5. Fifty Shades Darker

Top Selling Kindle Books By Year

  1. The Complete User’s Guide To the Amazing Amazon Kindle (2008)
  2. The Lost Symbol (2009)
  3. The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (2010)
  4. The Help (2011)
  5. Fifty Shades of Grey (2012)

The Magically Disappearing Copyright Report

Peter Brantley -- November 18th, 2012

"Aloha" written in beach sand
When I was working in the Open Book Alliance to defeat the Google Book Search proposals, one of the first things that I learned as a neophyte working the Hill was that one’s allies and foes on legislative action swirled in fluid kaleidoscopes. Coalitions formed and then re-formed depending on what was at issue, and who had a stake. Public positions could change suddenly and inexplicably, until one figured out whom had spoken to who.

So it was this weekend before Thanksgiving. On Friday, 16 November, the conservative Republican Study Committee (RSC) released an amazingly liberal document proposing deep and substantive reforms in U.S. copyright law. Within 24 hours, on Saturday, 17 November, the report had been pulled from the House website and an email apology for its “inadequate” vetting had been flung out on the net. Hollywood had hit their phones, and the political volte-face was as dramatic as something out of Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much. Continue reading

Moving Up to a Bigger Musket

Peter Brantley -- November 12th, 2012

Artillery at Fort Sumter
I just got back from the Charleston Conference – a lively mix of publishers and librarians discussing digital transitions in information access. It was the first time I attended, and I was struck by how many other friends in trade publishing were also there for the first time, ranging from Smashwords and Safari Books Online to the Frankfurt Book Fair. O’Reilly also organized a premier Tools of Change Charleston with Mitchell Davis, the local entrepreneur behind BookSurge and BiblioLabs.

One thing that immediately struck me was how much the conversation about trade publishing seems increasingly to leak into discussions about other sectors of publishing, including Charleston’s focus on academic and A&I resources. Part of that was intentional by the organizers, and part because it’s hard to open a newspaper without reading about the titanic shift towards Big 6 trade consolidation. The combination of Random House and Penguin seems inevitable to everyone, and most pundits and prognosticators agree that more combinations are on the way. Additionally, there seems to be strong concurrence that the merger’s primary achievement is to buttress a strong arm against the market power of Amazon, giving ever larger publishers more heft in negotiations, and heading off ultimatums from Amazon’s perceived monopsony power.

One critique of this trend is that there may be little benefit to making publishing businesses ever larger through M&A because internal coordination costs for larger firms grow faster than the benefits of output efficiencies. At Charleston, there was speculation that inevitably one would see a dissolution of the great houses, and a re-emergence of their imprints as stand alone publishers. In an age of networked production and ebook distribution, the strong countervailing argument against consolidation is that there is no better time for Alfred A. Knopf and Panthenon to take themselves out of megalithic houses and re-assert editorial and business independence. I must admit, as a literature geek I find this scenario romantically appealing, and I would love to see these noble brands born anew and ascendant.

However, I think that the opportunity for those organizations to resurface is gone. That’s not due to change in the brilliance of their staffs or their aspirations – it’s a result of wholesale changes in publishing. Once we start producing literature without traditional firms, even born-again, smaller and nimbler houses based on traditional publishing structures are not going to be successful. It will take an entirely different model of publishing to succeed – one that recognizes that the costs of literary production are plummeting; distribution occurs on the network; and that entry points into story-telling are growing increasingly diverse. New publishers are as likely to be independent videographers or game companies as trade houses, and a growing industry meme focuses on how likely it will be for film producers to commission books, rather than see traditional publishers managing 360 deals. With tools like Mozilla’s Popcorn, transmedia production is reaching the hands of technically unsophisticated creators.

Making strategic choices about optimal organizational form based on a desire to achieve effective market position against the dominant retailers of the existing industry will not be successful. Newly emergent publishing models are going to develop on the periphery of the existing publishing industry, often wholly independent of it, with both large and micro actors emerging to produce a wide range of new forms of content. The consultant Mike Shatzkin has persuasively argued that everything but traditional text narratives in trade is merely an experiment, and that’s a logical analysis. However, it’s not in trade that those experiments are going to be successful.

During the Charleston Conference, I grabbed a quiet morning and toured Fort Sumter, site of the start of the U.S. Civil War. One of the things I learned was that the war bridged a great transition in artillery technology, with field bombardments shifting to vastly more deadly and accurate rifled cannons. It seems a similar transition is amongst us within publishing. As armies in this war, Random House and Penguin have reached for a bigger musket to arm themselves in order to retain financial independence. Unfortunately, more innovative firms have started to adopt Kalashnikov AK-47s.

The Confederate Army abandoned Fort Sumter in February 1865, as Sherman swept his way through South Carolina.

Who Has the Better Book Covers: U.S. or U.K.?

Gabe Habash -- November 8th, 2012

During a stop at Dublin’s Hodges Figgis, I was struck by two things as an American reader. One: most U.K. paperbacks have cheap binding. Two: the covers of most books on the other side of the Atlantic differ drastically from what we see in the States. With the exception of Penguin Classics and a few other publishers that are in both markets, a trip through a U.K. bookstore is an altogether different experience.

Here are 10 books, U.K. on the left and U.S. on the right. Which do you prefer?

1. A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole












2. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood











3. Under the Dome by Stephen King











Continue reading

PW Best Books 2012: The Weird, edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer

Rose Fox -- November 2nd, 2012

Leading up to the November 5th publication of PW’s Best Books of 2012, our reviews editors are blogging about some of their favorites from our top 100. Here’s the latest post:

While Hurricane Sandy had us trapped in the house, my girlfriend decided it was a good time to sort our extensive collection of SF, fantasy, and horror anthologies. As we separated year’s-best anthologies from award-winner anthologies and single-author collections from themed collections, I was struck by how many of these compilations treat the past as closed off in some way, disconnected from the present. This approach makes sense when writing about the best stories (or books) published in a single year, or the greatest hits of an author who’s no longer alive, but efforts to compile the best examples of a genre or subgenre always fall short, because genres don’t end the way years and lives do. If I published The All-Time Greatest Stories Where a Dog Wears a Steampunk Space Suit in 2013, you can be sure that someone would come along in 2014 and write an absolutely superb dog-in-steampunk-space-suit story. For a living, evolving genre, there really is no “All-Time Greatest”; there’s only “the story so far.”

With The Weird, the VanderMeers–editors of books (The New Weird) and magazines (especially Ann’s widely celebrated tenure at Weird Tales)–have taken pains to connect the past, present, and future of weird fiction. The chronological ordering of the 110 stories and novel excerpts, written between 1908 and 2010, illustrates the evolution of this fascinatingly nebulous genre. The editors don’t just acknowledge that weird fiction is alive and changing: they celebrate its vigor and chart its growth as proudly as parents marking a child’s height on the wall. It’s no stretch for readers to wonder what developments are ahead, and depending on how life extension technology develops, I fully expect to see the VanderMeers publish The Weird II in 2114.

This compendium isn’t just of historical interest, of course; it’s also thoroughly enjoyable to read. Each piece is a gem that stands fully on its own. Surprisingly few of the older inclusions contain cringeworthy dated attitudes, and the editors have deliberately looked outside the U.S. and England for works that many Western readers would never otherwise encounter. These weird stories succeed as weird stories, astonishing and unsettling at every turn.

“Weird fiction” is a deliberately broad term. The Weird is labeled “A Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories,” which doesn’t narrow it down much. PW‘s review says the book “is a deeply affectionate and respectful history of speculative fiction’s blurry edges.” Michael Moorcock’s “foreweird” declares that weirdness includes “pretty much anything from absurdism to horror, even occasionally social realism.” The VanderMeers’ introduction uses terms like “indefinable and perhaps maddeningly unreachable” and “unease and the temporary abolition of the rational.” This lack of definition is itself unsettling within speculative fiction fandom, where taxonomic niggling is the national sport. But rigid definitions, like retrospectives, require finitude–and weird fiction, like Frankenstein’s monster, is very much alive.