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Archives: May 2006

Taking Sci-Fi Seriously

It’s already become conventional wisdom among science fiction pros and fans that the NYTBR sci-fi column stinks, even though detractors have only ever heard one example upon which to base their judgments. By contrast, the Washington Post book reviewers have been held up as a model for taking science fiction seriously not just as pop culture ephemera, but as literature capable of significant creative expression—and for being willing to grapple with such expressions on their own, occasionally quite technical, terms instead of flailing about in “math is hard” frustration. The sci-fi reviews in last Sunday’s Book World offer a clear example of what it is that impresses those who value WaPo over NYTBR in this field.

Before Martin Morse Wooster begins discussing Ian McDonald’s River of Gods (which is sitting on my coffee table, constantly trying to seduce me into blowing off all my freelance assignments and devoting myself to it), he discusses his belief that most SF writers, having fumbled the short-term prediction game, have moved on in other directions…but not McDonald, whose novel is heralded for “deftly show[ing] how technological advances and social changes have subtly changed lives.” I don’t know that I entirely agree with Wooster’s thesis in its broadest sweeps; it seems to me that Bruce Sterling, who comes in for appreciation later in the article, is also continuing to grapple with how technology will transform society in the near future. Then again, Sterling and William Gibson have also started setting their fiction in today’s world, blurring the lines between sci-fi and contemporary literature in compelling ways… at any rate, Wooster’s unashamed enthusiasm for the genre is certainly contagious, and he proves that there’s still life in the multi-book approach that former NYTBR columnist Gerald Jonas used before he was replaced.

Another publication doing a great job of treating science fiction as just another contemporary form of literature is Bookforum, which brought in novelist Carter Scholz to review a new biography of Alice B. Sheldon, who wrote SF stories under the name James Tiptree, Jr. There’s not much to say here other than to recommend that you read Scholz’s effort, which treats Sheldon and her literary legacy with the same respect the Review reserves for, say, James Wood on Flaubert or Jonathan Franzen on Alice Munro. It’s hard to imagine the Review deigning to review a biography of a science fiction writer; they’d much rather spend their time on the memoirs of promiscuous food critics. Maybe the psychosexual turbulence of Sheldon’s life (not to mention her death) will register on their radar screens, though, and we can look forward to a thoughtful review from the likes of Jonathan Lethem or Liesl Schillinger (who, it must be said, at least made a reasonably persuasive argument for Insatiable as smart entertainment).

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Have Platform, will Publish

<a href="http://www.publishersmarketplace.com”>Publishers Marketplace’s semi-snarky headline on this story is that the NY Observer has “finally discovered platforms” and I can’t really argue – after all, a recent visit by a freelance editor at a notable writer’s site stressed that if two fiction projects came across her desk, and writer A had no platform and writer B had one, well, guess which one she was more likely to buy.

But now, as Sheelah Kolhatkar reports, the word is everywhere. “I don’t know where it comes from, but people use it all the time now” said Jonathan Burnham, senior vice president and publisher at HarperCollins. “It’s a question editors ask agents when they’re discussing a book, and they say, ‘What’s the author’s platform?’ It’s much used within sales and marketing meetings and so on: ‘How solid and substantial is this story, and how is it going to work for the media?’”

Ultimately, platform seems to be about having key talking points, built-in readership and an ability to promote oneself that makes life easier for the poor publicist in charge of the author’s work. And thanks the the internet, creating platform and – gack – “buzz” is that much less expensive.

So what about reviews? “[What it] means, in essence, is that review culture is dead,” said another publisher requesting anonymity. (The review culture may be dead, Kolhatkar adds, but that doesn’t mean this person wants to piss off The New York Times.) And for the writer lacking a platform? ‘He needs to be a really good writer,” said one unnamed publisher, practically shrugging. “Still happens.”

Yes Virginia, there will be a sequel to the Graduate

I have to confess something from the getgo: though I thought the movie was fine and dandy, I hated the book. Hated, loathed, despised it. Why? Because Benjamin Braddock was a whiny slacker who didn’t want to take responsibility for anything and then essentially annoyed Elaine into finally accepting him. How was this supposed to be a good novel? But of course, no one asked me, and it was very sad to hear that the author, Charles Webb, had been in extremely dire straits of late – and that he’d obtained a flat fee for the rights to the book and never saw a penny of the profits from the movie.

So now word comes in via the BBC that Webb has sold the rights to a sequel to Random House (presumably, UK, no word on whether a US house has anted up to publish) that will be released in June 2007. The Times had initially reported that Webb was initially reluctant to negotiate a publishing deal for this new book, but now that he’s gone ahead, it’s believed the new book will bring back Mrs. Robinson in some form or another.

And maybe, just maybe, Mr. Braddock will actually behave like a real man. But I kind of doubt it.

Today in Wottakar’s: HMV officially makes the buy

Has the saga finally ended? Will WHSmith counter-offer? It’s all so exhausting to keep up, but Reuters reports that HMV will finally, finally buy Ottakar’s for a cut-price 62.8 million pounds (or a measly 285p per share) to help its own books chain cope with stiff competition from supermarkets and the Internet.

“Over the past year the book market has undergone a significant change with new levels of competition from the supermarkets and on-line retailers impacting all specialist booksellers and in particular those with insufficient scale to compete on equal terms,” Ottakar’s Chairman Philip Dunne said in a statement, explaining why he was backing HMV’s offer.

As it happens, on Tuesday, Ottakar’s shares closed at 287p, just above HMV’s offer price. Not exactly a huge profit margin going on here..

Scenes from the Girls’ Night Out Party

red-dress-party.jpgWhen Sarah and I received our invites to the launch party for Girls’ Night Out, the latest benefit anthology from Red Dress Ink, we were expecting the usual sort of book reception: a couple authors, some industry pros, and a few media representatives. We knew it wasn’t going to be one of those nights when Sarah called me from in front of the night club and told me there was a line halfway down the block. Turns out there had also been a “Red Dress Ink Design Challenge,” where contestants were invited to design a little red dress…and not only were they planning to unveil the winner at the party, they’d also invited five women from America’s Top Model to join in the festivities. (I’m afraid I wouldn’t have recognized any of them if I’d ever left the authors’ VIP section, though; when it comes to reality TV, I’m more the Dog Whisperer demographic.) The room was packed, the music was loud, and they kept mixing the vodka with Tab, of all things. But, still, we had fun.

Top: Melissa Senate and Caren Lissner were among the first authors to arrive. Middle: Once Sarah and I figured out that we could check in with the media coordinator instead of waiting in the line outside the club, we quickly ran into Jennifer Sturman, one of RDI’s first mystery novelists; Girls’ Night Out contributors Lauren Henderson and Nicola Krauss check out the one-sheet of author photos. Bottom: RDI executive editor Margaret Marbury introduces the house’s newest author, Poonam Sharma, to seasoned chick-lit/mystery novelists Laura Caldwell and Lynda Curnyn.

BookExpo Aftermath Includes Dueling Podcasts

For all you folks who didn’t get to go to BookExpo America, you can still listen to the official BEA podcasts, which so far include speeches by Tim Russert and John Updike and a five-minute interview with Pat Schroeder. But you can also listen outside the box and download the interviews Ed Champion conducted with various BEA attendees and exhibitors as he wandered through the aisles and meeting rooms. His first installment includes sound bites from several bloggers (including, I freely disclose, myself making some asinine comments about liking The Long Tail because “it’s nice to see Wired being relevant again”) as well as novelists Michelle Wildgen and Delia Falconer. Funnily enough, the first section of Champion’s roundup includes a brutal analysis of the podcasting panel BookExpo just released in their slew of recorded programs…No word yet, however, on whether that lineup is going to include the confrontation between Champion and Sam Tanenhaus.

No Sucess Through Clean Living, by Barry Bonds?

chicken-orbeef.jpg“If you can’t find a book on our site,” boasts Abebooks.com, “it probably doesn’t exist.” So they decided to come up with some of those imaginary titles for you, from Henry VIII’s Making Marriage Work to Whoops, I Was Wrong by George W. Bush. Before you accuse them of being too partisan, though, they’ve also created a mock-up for Kim Jong Il’s Everything You Wanted to Know About North Korea But Were Afraid to Ask

John Updike doesn’t exactly heart the Internet

First proof of such? John Updike‘s speech at BEA (now available in podcast format) where he went off, essentially, on the paradigm shift in publishing towards more technologically-based means. Next up is today’s profile by Chip McGrath (who, for a former NYTBR editor, sure seems to be popping up a lot of late) where Updike grudgingly admits to going online to research his new novel TERRORIST, although he was heartened to find out that “the Internet doesn’t like you to learn too much about explosives.”

More to the point, the new novel sort of uses the thriller structure, a form Updike has never tried before. And McGrath seems to be relieved that no matter what the “classic Updikean traits” are still in evidence, which seems kind of condescending. Fortunately, when Updike talks about what’s next for him, he acknowledges the difficulty of the mystery/thriller format. “I try to see the next book in my mind, and I see a slightly plump book with a lot of people in it, like ‘Gosford Park.’ But it’s not a murder mystery because I’m not clever enough to write one of those.”

One Week They’re Literati,The Next They’re Foodies

So the NYTBR decided to publish an all-food issue over the Memorial Day weekend—its second themed edition in two weeks (following last week’s all-fiction issue) and its third (you remember January’s “Literary Lives,” right?) of 2006. Setting aside the question of whether we can look forward to more of this kind of stunt publishing from the Review in the future, how does the food issue stack up?

Well, I won’t spend too much time directly arguing about whether this issue really came about because “we saw the remarkable range and depth of the food-related books being published this season—more and better than in any single season we can remember,” even though it seems to me that you could point to plenty of recent seasons with an equally impressive lineup of food books. And I won’t even question the kid-glove treatment regular Review contributors Jane and Michael Stern get from Nora Ephron. Instead, we could talk about how the “food issue” is almost entirely “the food memoir issue,” as the actual cookbooks get lumped together into one Amanda Hesser roundup. On a more serious note, it’s worth pointing out that the experts called upon in the “Save These Books!” feature include three authors who had just received glowing reviews a few pages earlier (the Sterns and Anthony Bourdain), as well as the subject of another lavishly praised book (Mario Batali, who figures prominently in Bill Buford’s Heat). It seems a little cozier than I expect from the Times, but maybe that’s just me. What did you think?

Of course, lest I be judged a kneejerk NYTBR-hater, I should point out that much of the actual writing in this issue is fairly commendable. It’s not the content that rings my alarms so much as the gimmicks surrounding it…but then again, too, we should perhaps at least give the Review credit for chasing after “news about the culture.”

Hachette Shifts UK Sci-Fi Line to US

Here’s a quick tidbit from Publishers Lunch: the British science fiction imprint Orbit, a division of Little, Brown UK, will be relocating to the Hachette Book Group’s New York office as part of a broader effort to take the line international. “I believe that there is a fantastic opportunity for a dynamic new SF/Fantasy imprint to thrive in the U.S.,” says publishing director Tim Holman, and plans call for the American Orbit to be publishing 40 titles a year by the end of the decade. The question is where they’ll come from: Most of Orbit’s May 2006 releases, for example, have already found U.S. homes at established sci-fi houses like Tor and Del Rey; the one exception, Russell Kirkpatrick’s Across the Face of the World, is a fantasy trilogy published in Australia by HarperCollins.

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