Reamde, Neal Stephenson’s newest novel, is, as many reviewers have noted, a doorstop of a thriller. That much is true. All through my reading, though, which took me way longer than many of his other novels, I kept thinking that the book ought to have been shortened by about 300-500 pages. That’s not a statement I would make about Stephenson’s other door stop-sized books.

I started reading Stephenson a long time ago, but I don’t recall exactly how I first came across  Snow Crash. What I do remember how I got so totally hooked on the novel that I spent one late night during a family vacation more or less hiding in a bathroom at a beach rental Continue reading

Disintermediation will not make publishing as we know it go down the tubes [U]

In a recent interview with The Rumpus, Laura Miller of Salon (her work also appears in a lot of other places), was asked what she sees “as the major challenge facing book publishing today.” In response, she laid out a number of concerns and issues, all of which are worthy of more discussion (and it would be cool if she did an essay on this, because I’d love to see her expand her thoughts).

[It should also be said that she says a lot of other stuff that is worth reading—about personality and reviewing, and reading outside of her comfort zone—and totally worth reading, regardless of what you think of her reviewing habits. There being, as one old friend used to put it, no taste accountants. But I love this remark: “trust me, there is no joke so broad that there won’t be someone out there who’ll think you mean it seriously.” Happens every day.]

Each of the following “concerns” are direct quotes from her response in the interview. I’ve put what she likely just rattled off informally into a more formal structure, which means I could be seen as taking her out of context.  So be it.

Concern #1. The whole stratum of expertise embodied by agents and editors and booksellers might be lost in the disintermediation currently going on.

While this is a legitimate concern, to a certain extent, it’s a nonissue. I think Tim O’Reilly has it right when he said that “isn’t necessarily the old economic models that survive, but economies survive, and new players and models arise.” Read his post here. Continue reading

Is it Final, or Does it Just Appear That Way?

Now and then a well-meaning, experienced publishing-type person has asked me, apropos of  The Final Appearance of America’s Favorite Girl Next Door, ‘Are you wed to the title?’ Or something approximating the same sentiment. (Which seemed to indicate the sentiment that a), It’s so long; or perhaps, b) I don’t get it.)

To which my response has been, Yes. Totally. (With the unstated ‘Can we not talk about this any more?’ implicit in it.)

Yes, it is a long title. But it is the title. It is the only title that would do the novel justice. I tend to refer to it in casual speech as ‘Final Appearance,’ which is more convenient for someone like me who likes to talk at great lengths. Appearance and finality are two huge parts of the novel. I hope the thinking reader will come away from the novel wondering what the final appearance actually is, or if it is any one thing at all. At least in terms of this story, appearance means a whole slew of things — plain old looks, an ‘appearance’ on a tv show, a false front — you (I hope, as a thinking reader) get the point. Continue reading

TFAOAFGND Outtakes, part 1

Not everything you write goes into the novel, especially if, like me, you take 10+ years to write a novel. Sometimes you write a scene and then decide that the scene is more efficiently alluded to than actually in the novel. I’m going to post some of the more interesting (in my mind — you may think otherwise) bits and pieces here. So here’s a start…. Continue reading

Got the Advance Reading Copies

Of TFAOAFGND, and I think they look pretty good. But so I’m reading the first page, and thinking this is a killer first page, and then get down a few grafs and see, crap, a freaking typo. But this is what advance copies are for, or one of the things.

It’s a curious thing, a physical copy of a book that is going to be an ebook — all the heft you’d expect from a book that will, when it is finally published have no heft.

a stack of Final Appearance advance reading copies

If you’re a reviewer or tastemaker, thought-leader, or just a general bon vivant (you must have evidence of status as bon vivant), shoot Margaret an email at and request a copy. You might get lucky.

Is Big Publishing on the Borders of Collapse?

Okay, it’s a bit of a hyperbolic headline, but still, if you’re in Big Six publishing, you have to be a bit concerned about your business model.

When you look at the numbers, it seems pretty clear that Big Six publishing seems to be headed to a place it does not necessarily want to be. Publisher’s Lunch has a fascinating piece on Amazon’s effort (subscription required) to come up with a subscription service. In describing the plan, which would give Amazon exclusive rights to “to offer free access to wide swaths of backlist ebooks to Amazon Prime members,” Michael Cader writes that, for most publishers, it’s a nonstarter:

Publishers who have already declined told us the exclusive was one of the easy reasons to not even consider the plan, with one person suggesting that the scheme is directly targeted at taking customers and share away from Barnes & Noble.

The thing that really struck me was, however, this:

…most traditional publishers are trying to uphold the value of selling authors’ work at a price that supports a professional process and allows for broad investment in the funding of new work.

And then this:

For standard trade publishers who license individual works from authors (and through agents), the structural, rights and relationship obstacles are manifold.

Later, there’s a quote (unattributed) about how disruptive the scheme is “to the economics that we know are working.” Which seems to me the real problem facing Big Six publishing these days. The economics may be working at this moment, but how long this moment will last is anybody’s guess. Especially when you consider how fast sales of ebooks are overtaking trade books. In March, Hachette Livre reported that nearly a quarter of US sales were from ebooks. According to Publishers Weekly, ebook sales jumped “167% in June” and:

The major trade segments took big hits in June due in part to the closing of more Borders stores. Trade paperback sales had the largest decline, down 64%, while children’s hardcover sales were off 31%. Adult hardcover sales fell 25%, mass market sales were down 22% and children’s paperback was off 13%. Sales in all the trade segments were also off by more than 10% for the first half of the year.

This concerns me for obvious reasons — I’m a writer and my novel is about to be published by Shelf Media Group only as an ebook. How this came to be so has as much to do with serendipity as it does with any actual design. It’s going to be very interesting to see how this works out. We know that publishing is going through a major, major shift and, like global warming, that shift would seem to be happening at a faster pace than anyone anticipated.

I used to work in publishing many, many years ago. I keep saying, “I used to know how publishing worked, but I don’t anymore.” I’m guessing that’s true of a lot of people these days. Even those who do.

More to come.

Are Publishers Irrelevant?

Pat Holt, on her Holt Uncensored Blog, has had an interesting series of posts on what she calls the DIY author. These are people (she starts with Seth Harwood) who have essentially bucked or avoided or been ignored by the major publishing houses—that is until they’ve created an online platform and established a fan base—and have done it themselves, creating iPhone apps, podcasts, offering up their work for free, and so forth.

I am not, as Holt termed Harwood, one of “the new breed of whiz-kid authors.” I’m a middle-aged novelist who published two novels way too long ago, has ghosted a number of nonfiction books (some of which have been national bestsellers [which, believe me, does not make me anything close to rich]) and has one complete novel on the shelf that was enthusiastically turned down by all of the major publishing houses, and another that’s almost ‘finished,’ finished meaning in this case I almost have the ending done, but much work still needs to be done. Continue reading

What's Wrong with Jay McInerny is what's wrong with the rest of America — but it's not what you think

I’m in the midst of reading Richard Powers’s new novel, GENEROSITY: AN ENHANCEMENT. I’m a big fan of Powers’s work, and despite some not so great (and in my mind kind of ill-conceived) reviews, I’m liking it a lot so far. Jay McInerny reviewed the book in the Times Book Review this week, and I was surprised by his statement in the “upfront” section. Continue reading

The Oxford Project

I spent the summer of 1983 at the University of Iowa, where I met my now ex-wife. Together, we moved back there in late summer of 1984. This was the early-middle Reagan years, and there were not a lot of jobs available. Despite whatever might have been happening elsewhere, the Reagan Recession was still in full swing. I remember once going to a hardware store to apply for the one job opening they had, and despite getting there early, there was a line out the door of guys, some likely way more well-informed about hardware, and a lot of them seriously hardbitten, out-of-work dudes who looked like they needed the job in a way that I’ve probably never known.

I filled out the application, but never heard a word.

I took a paper route with the Des Moines Register just to make some money. And then I applied for a route with the Iowa City Press-Citizen. I had experience. I’d worked as a relief driver for news dealers for the Washington Post for several years during high school and college, and it was a job I liked. Parenthetically, there are few better jobs for a writer than delivery jobs. I think it was in On Becoming a Novelist that John Gardner said that one of the best jobs a writer could get was a mail delivery route. Once you have the route memorized, something like muscle memory can take over, and then you get to spend long periods alone, thinking, dreaming, listening to the radio, but then you get to meet people, too, and a lot of times they’re folks you’d never have met in any other way. I used to drive down Route 80 and stop at a place called the Little Amanas, where there was a rack in a convenience store. There was a nice kid who worked there, like me, probably in his early 20’s. He worked behind the counter. He had a sort of angelic face, delicate, and very blond hair. And we’d chat a little every day. Then one day he was gone. I asked the next fellow where that guy had gone. Turned out he’d been beheaded in a car accident.

At that time, and maybe it still is, the Press-Citizen was an afternoon paper, except on Saturdays when we delivered in the morning; there was no Sunday paper. So you got to meet the people you delivered papers to.

One of the places I delivered papers was the town of Oxford, a drive a dozen or more miles down Route 6 from Iowa City through Coralville, and then into Oxford. I always stopped at Mary and Al Wyborny’s Oxford Trustworthy Hardware, then the gas station, where there were a couple of racks to fill. To this day I can’t remember the name of the gas station, because I put it into my second novel, and that false memory, at least in terms of words (the mental pictures are still there) had crowded out the real memory.

And so, late last year, I stumbled across this review of And so, late last year, I stumbled across this review of The Oxford Project in the Philadelphia Inquirer that stopped me in my tracks. I went to the gallery at Welcome Books and stared at the photographs, hoping to see some of the people I had known, many of whom had surely died in the intervening years. And then my wife bought me the book for Christmas.

I spent most of the day in the book, looking at the photographs and reading the short snippets of the lives that people had offered. The thing that hit me instantly was that while I had met these people, and seen these people and interacted with these people, I had never known them. The book is as good as or better than a lot of novels I’ve read. It’s the story of a small American town during a period in which small American towns were (it seems to me) becoming more relevant for whatever iconic value outsiders could paste on them and way less relevant for the people who lived and worked there.

The revelations are brutal and frank and sweet and sometimes massively depressing. Alcoholism is a constant theme. The sorrow of life is palpable, but also is the heroic foolishness of the human heart, faced as it is with its own sure extinction, beating on nonetheless.