read globally, act locally

December 28, 2010

As the year comes to a close, I realized I hadn’t completed the 2010 Global Reading Challenge. I chose the medium challenge, which was to read two books from six continents. Here’s what I ended up reading (as near as I can tell – my record keeping wasn’t always consistent).


Jassy McKenzie – Random Violence (South Africa)
Malla Nunn – A Beautiful Place to Die (South Africa)
—Out of that huge continent, I only read books from one country. I should venture out more.


Tarquin Hall – The Case of the Missing Servant (India)
Christopher Moore – Asia Hand (Thailand)
Timothy Hallinan – The Fourth Watcher, Breathing Water, The Queen of Patpong (Thailand)
—Well, two countries – a bit better.


Peter Temple – Truth (Australia)
Garry Disher – Blood Moon (Australia)
Adrian Hyland – Gunshot Road (Australia)
—About time I read a New Zealand author, eh?


Louise Welsh – Naming the Bones (Scotland)
Mark Billingham – Bloodlines (England)
Harri Nykanen – Raid and the Blackest Sheep (Finland)
Arnaldur Indridason – Hypothermia (Iceland)
Anders Roslund and Borge Helstrom – Three Seconds (Sweden)
Martin  Cruz Smith – Three Stations (Russia)
Jo Nesbo – The Snowman (Norway)
Ake Edwardson – The Shadow Woman (Sweden)
Hennikng Mankell – The Man From Beijing (Sweden, China, US, Africa – does this one book count for four continents?)
John Harvey – Far Cry (England)
Nicci French – The Other Side of the Door (England)
Barry Maitland – Dark Mirror (England)
Jarkko Sipila – Vengeance (Finland)
Tana French – Faithful Place (Ireland)
Stieg Larsson – The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest (Sweden)
Johan Theorin – The Darkest Room (Sweden)
Yrsa Sigurdardottir – Last Rituals (Iceland)
—Better read something Danish next … and perhaps French and German and Italian and Spanish and .,.

North America (incl Central America)

John McFetridge – Let it Ride (Canada)
Brent Pilkey – Lethal Rage (Canada)
—Plus more books set in the US that I care to list. Oddly enough, none were set in the Northwest (or Alaska, or Hawaii).

South America

Claudia Piniero – The Thursday Night Widows (Argentina)
Leighton Gage – Dying Gasp (Brazil)
—The Piniero I read just now expressly to wrap up the challenge, and I’m glad I did though of all the books I read, it has the least “foreign” feel; it’s set in a gated community that is a weird clone of any gated community in the United States full of new, ostentatious and highly-mortgaged houses. Yet it’s part of recent Argentinian culture. Fascinating, if depressing.

There are lots of intriguing reading challenges for 2011, but I think I’ll stick to reading mostly what I feel like and see if, at the end of the year, where I’ve been. I do appreciate those who participate in challenges, though, because their reviews become tempting destinations.

Another challenge I hope all avid readers will consider if they are in a position to do so is shopping at independent bookstores. Businesses like Uncle Edgar’s and Once Upon a Crime (my local mystery bookstores) do so much for the genre I love that I want to keep them around. Independent bookstores often offer discounts and free shipping, so don’t assume you’ll get a better deal online or at a chain; they’ll also take orders online or by phone, so it’s as convenient as buying online. They offer passion and knowledge that is hard to match anywhere as well as a community hub for book lovers. They’re worth preserving and the decisions we make when we buy books matter.

“an appetite for murder and revenge”?

December 12, 2010

This strange bit of reasoning just appeared in today’s New York Times in an editorial about Justice Steven’s excellent book review analyzing why he feels the death penalty is wrong.

The justice says that endorsing capital punishment is touted as a commitment to law and order — whether it was Gov. George W. Bush presiding over 40 executions in Texas in 2000 (the most ever in a year in one state) or elected judges in Alabama favoring the penalty (while unelected judges in Delaware do not). Its cultural power is demonstrated by Americans’ appetite for mysteries about murder and revenge.

Reading crime fiction is evidence that Americans are culturally disposed to violent vengeance? Then how do you account for the popularity of the genre in the UK, where capital punishment was banned decades ago? Or in Scandinavia, where the state does not execute its prisoners but where crime fiction flourishes?

I live in a US state in which a botched execution over 100 years ago disgusted the populace so thoroughly and permanently that capital punishment was abolished, but we have a great many talented mystery writers and not just one, but two fabulous independent mystery bookstores to aid and abet the Minnesotans’ passion for the genre.

Norwegians have a tradition of passkekrim, celebrating the Easter holiday by reading crime fiction. I suspect most Norwegians just want to have something good to read over the holiday, but it certainly is not the case that they mark the occasion by indulging in vicarious bloodthirsty revenge. In fact, when I observe passkekrim this spring I will try to remember that not only did Jesus pardon a condemned criminal and welcome him into his kingdom, but that he himself was arguably the most famous of the many who are wrongfully convicted.


the power of visualization

August 7, 2010

I may need to stop reading comments posted at mainstream media sites because they make me think the world has gone off its rocker completely. This morning, responses to an Al Franken commentary on the importance of net neutrality would lead me to conclude that a sizable percentage of Americans actually believe net neutrality is a government takeover of the Internet.  Someone used the phrase “socialized free speech.” Apparently it’s a whole hell of a lot better if speech is owned by the private sector; the government should just lay off their plans to prevent business from ruling the waves. Anything proposed by anyone in any way affiliated with our black president (as in voted for) is in the cast of bad guys in an action film long on thrills but without a coherent plot. Wait, logical reasoning is a plot! a plot against us! Take to the streets – but first, sell them to the private sector and pay a toll to use them, because right now the government is in charge of public roadways and that’s just wrong.

I’ll wait for some rhetorician to do the dirty work of analyzing those comments and from which black lagoon they arise. For now, I’ll just avert my eyes. Thanks to Siva via Talking Points Memo via Breakup Girl! via GraphJam for this moment of blissful logic. (See? Told you it was a plot.)

the future: TK*

April 5, 2010

My pal Josh Hadro just tumbled an article to FriendFeed that I almost certainly would have missed otherwise: a Harvard Business School Q&A with Peter Olson, a refugee from big book publishing who now has washed ashore at the B school. (Yes, the one that will license its Review to libraries but won’t let professors link to it in their courses. For that, you pay extra. You know the hand gesture that indicates togetherness, usually to illustrate the phrase “Me and X are like this”? Me and the Harvard B School are better illustrated by a much ruder British two-fingered gesture. )

The former CEO of Big Random comments on the iPad launch and all the downloading of books that come with it,

“Traditional trade book publishers are scared,” says Harvard Business School professor Peter Olson. “The world that they have known, of print books and brick-and-mortar bookstores—the whole fiscal distribution system—is on the cusp of changing fundamentally.”

Quite rightly, he puts his finger on it when he says all the pricing and distribution issues, while vexing, are short-sighted distractions.

“The odd thing is that no one is really focusing on the reader. A disproportionate amount of publishers’ resources are dedicated to the manufacturing and physical distribution of books, when in fact their key function is editorial in nature. In a sense, many book publishers are trying to buy time, to postpone a reckoning with reality.”

Right. But here’s where I think he’s worrying about the wrong thing:

“The fundamental question at the very bottom of this is, will people read books at all?”

I know the answer to that one. Yes, they will. People like to read, they need stories, they crave stories, and they’re reading more than ever, contrary to doom-and-gloom scenarios.

How can publishers feed the craving for books without losing readers? First of all, forget everything you know about the publishing industry. Think about what really matters: finding good books, making them better, helping them connect with readers. Find out from readers what they want (and stop assuming they’re on the endangered species list, at least until you’ve observed them in their natural habitat). Talk to people who are good at making the connections – booksellers and librarians – and start over with a blank slate.

But bear one rule in mind above all others: don’t mess with readers. The more you frustrate them on the way to a brave new world, the more likely you’re putting the finishing touches on The End.

Image courtesy of mag3737.

*if you’re wondering what TK means, it’s what publishers put as a place holder when things like dedications are “to come” – though why K? I don’t know.

books locked out of prison

February 5, 2010

The Texas Bureau of Prisons does not want hazardous materials in the hands of its inmates, according to an expose in the Austin American-Statesman, so it has banned 89,795 books and magazines, including works by Alice Walker, Edwidge Danticat, Pablo Neruda, John Grisham, and – wait for it – Jenna Bush. I guess she set a bad example or something, and Neruda was a socialist, but I’d like to know the charges against Danticat. Provoking thought in a dangerous manner?

Texas prison officials said restrictions on reading material are for the good of both guards and inmates. “We have to protect the safety and security of our institution, but also aid in the rehabilitation of our offenders,” said Jason Clark, an agency spokesman.

“And what may not be judged inflammatory in the public at large can be inflammatory in prison.”

No shit. Mention unalienable rights or free speech in there and no telling what might happen. But one thing you can say for Texas officials. They keep very accurate records of how many books they’ve banned.

photo courtesy of curium.

public service announcements and reps x two

February 3, 2010

First, a funny video riffing off the side effects listed in pharmaceutical television ads. Nice job, Unbridled Books! I especially love the literary references to Tolstoi et al.

Second, reported in Shelf Awareness, NAIBA begs publishers to keep reps employed and connected to independent booksellers. This is a part of the process of bringing books to the public that isn’t much known to readers but has a profound effect on book culture. Reps are the link between the publisher and the bookstore shelves, and they are ethnographers of the communities they serve.

Restricting field reps to large stores will give publishers a skewed view of what is a very diverse world–independent bookselling. Sales reps take the time to know our stores, what our customers like, and what is on our shelves. They are the industry worker-bees, travelling the region, taking ideas and trends and pollinating other stores. We learn about other stores from them, what others are reading and loving; what is selling; marketing tips; event ideas; what the publisher is doing; and what authors have books coming out in the next season. They make fans for authors out of our frontline booksellers. They cut through the catalogs to make sure we carry what we’ll be able to sell, and their endorsements are why we buy what we might have ignored.

These reasons are why cuts in field sales reps devastate us. Have you really thought about what this stricture will mean to you? Fewer book sales. Without a doubt, we are not ordering as much through telemarketing. We are definitely not focusing on your backlist through tele-sales, and we definitely miss titles from the frontlist. We also don’t buy as much direct, which makes independent bookselling a less profitable business. The vicious cycle is that we buy less because we don’t have sales reps, and then you devalue our business because we aren’t buying as much as we used to.

Cory Doctorow has previously praised the sales force. Three cheers for reps (and three extra ones for Tom Leigh.)

Finally – squeeeeee! The first book review for Through the Cracks came out in Publisher’s Weekly. “Sociology professor Jill McKenzie hires PI Anni Koskinen to find the man who raped her in Chicago’s Lincoln Park 23 years earlier in Fister’s strong sequel to In the Wind (2008) . . . Koskinen connects with an array of well-drawn supporting characters, including other rape victims, the lead investigator on the McKenzie case, and the attorney who helped overturn Taylor’s conviction. Thoughtful attention to the complexities of police work and social justice lift this gritty mystery well above the norm. Koskinen’s empathy with both cops and victims as well as her fierce, brittle independence make her easy to root for.”

another fine mess – Patterson, Amazon, and the commodification of reading

January 30, 2010

I’ve been mulling over how to respond to the amazing profile of James Patterson ™ in last Sunday’s New York Times Magazine, but this morning’s news that Amazon has instantly removed Macmillan’s books over a dispute on e-book pricing adds an interesting wrinkle.

“Removed” is an oversimplification;  used copies are on sale, because Amazon and the seller make money on those, but Macmillan and their authors do not. There is no indication, of course, that new books exist and could be bought elsewhere. Amazon will sell you the book, just not share profits with the publisher and, by default, the author. Full disclosure: I am one of Macmillan’s authors. I love my editor, and I appreciate them publishing me, but I also enjoy my day job and it’s a good thing because I’d never make a living writing crime fiction. I’m not too bothered that the listing for my forthcoming book is among los desaparecidos. I’d rather you buy it from an indie, anyway.  This is not about me. It’s about books and their future.

Comments on news threads like this tend to fall into patterns:

  • E-books are way too expensive.
  • DRM sucks.
  • My words as an author are MY PROPERTY and you will pry DRM from my cold, dead hands.
  • Traditional publishers should die already.
  • I’m a writer. How’m I supposed to make a living?
  • Amazon is great.
  • Amazon sucks.
  • Why isn’t everyone acting like  Baen/O’Reilly/Cory?
  • Self publishing is the future.
  • Self-publishing sucks.
  • Cut out the middleman. Sell direct.
  • But what about indie bookstores?
  • Indie bookstores suck. I get much better deals at Amazon.

[Sunday update: Amazon blinked, grudgingly. Their relationship remains “it’s complicated.”] But let’s set all that aside for now. Here’s what struck me about the Patterson profile (which didn’t go into his psychology as a fictional FBI profiler would … now wouldn’t that be interesting ? But I digress.)

Transformers – More than Meets the Eye

The subtitle of “James Patterson Inc.” is “How a Genre Writer has Transformed Book Publishing.” There are really two stories here: one aggressively business-minded author has created a highly successful brand and sold millions of books; publishers drool over big hits, and he’s hit his home run farther than anyone other than God when he wrote The Bible (but damn, forgot to inscribe “copyright shall last forever” as the eleventh commandment or he would be rolling by now. Think of all the derivatives! The children’s versions! The movie rights! But I digress.)

The other story is about changes in the book industry that set the stage for Patterson, inc.

Like movie studios, publishing houses have long built their businesses on top of blockbusters. But never in the history of publishing has the blockbuster been so big. Thirty years ago, the industry defined a “hit” novel as a book that sold a couple of hundred thousand copies in hardcover. Today a book isn’t considered a blockbuster unless it sells at least one million copies.

The story of the blockbuster’s explosion is, paradoxically, bound up with that of publishing’s recent troubles. They each began with the wave of consolidation that swept through the industry in the 1980s. Unsatisfied with publishing’s small margins, the new conglomerates that now owned the various publishing houses pressed for bigger best sellers and larger profits. Mass-market fiction had historically been a paperback business, but publishers now put more energy and resources into selling these same books as hardcovers, with their vastly more favorable profit margins. At the same time, large stores like Barnes & Noble and Borders were elbowing out independent booksellers. Their growing dominance of the market gave them the leverage to demand wholesale discounts and charge hefty sums for favorable store placement, forcing publishers to sell still more books. Big-box stores like Costco accelerated the trend by stocking large quantities of books by a small group of authors and offering steep discounts on them. Under pressure from both their parent companies and booksellers, publishers became less and less willing to gamble on undiscovered talent and more inclined to hoard their resources for their most bankable authors. The effect was self-fulfilling. The few books that publishers invested heavily in sold; most of the rest didn’t. And the blockbuster became even bigger.

What did Patterson add to the mix? Television advertising. Swift and strategic development of new product lines for children and romance readers. Outsourcing the actual writing to hungry midlisters. Trusted product that has little swearing or challenges to family values (in one series the manly detective is a single parent of 12 adoptees – “’Cheaper by the Dozen’ meets ‘Die Hard,’ as Patterson describes it”).  But there’s lots of violence, particularly against women – you may want to avert your eyes from this tidbit:

The thriller genre is generally not for the squeamish, but Patterson’s tend to be especially graphic, and the violence often involves sociopathic sexual perversion and attractive young women. For instance, the villain in his second Alex Cross novel, “Kiss the Girls,” is a psychopath who kidnaps, rapes and tortures college girls in an underground bunker; at one point, he even feeds a live snake into the anus of one of his victims.

I can’t help but be reminded of a recent post by Peter Rozovsky on the most disturbing noir song ever, “He Hit Me, but it Felt Like a Kiss.”  But I digress.

The Ecosystem of Books and Reading

This is what I’m taking away from all of this.

Books produced this way are like meals at McDonald’s. They are filling and they’re fast. They provide a satisfying meal for people who have little time and can’t afford to try things they may not like because they work two jobs and just want a little predictable escape for a few hours. These kinds of books are bad for you, not because the nutritional value is harmful so much as the ecological harm they do.

Think about McDonald’s. We stopped growing people food to grow corn to feed cows to butcher and grind up in enormous, karma-destroying meat factories, shipping the resulting pink sludge in ozone-destroying trucks, subsidizing crops that are genetically engineered intellectual property owned by giant corporations that will sue your ass if you save seeds or if seeds accidentally end up growing in your fields without their permission; we import real food from Chile and elsewhere that lots of people can’t afford even if there was a grocery store in their neighborhood. And we wash that burger down with sugared beverages sweetened by subsidized corn in a production process that exhausts both water and land but makes big brands like Coke and Pepsi rich and exportable to the world.

You can’t really blame people for eating at places like McDonald’s if they’re working hard and need fast, cheap, filling food that they can count on. But it’s ruining our planet and our health.

Likewise, if we alter book production so that it’s streamlined, predictable, easily accessed by people who can’t afford to experiment by buying books they might not enjoy, then corporations will be able to churn it out. Okay, there’s a power struggle of Godzilla proportions going on between the book equivalent of agribusiness and McDonald’s, but in the end they’ll settle their differences and readers will suffer.

Some people have already joined the equivalent of a “slow book” movement. Some people will save writers like saving seeds. There will be independent bookstores just as there are local farmers markets and food coops helping members savor flavors they wouldn’t discover otherwise. Lots of people are growing their own stories. But none of that works for the person who works long hours, has little paycheck to show for it (or has a big paycheck but doesn’t read except on airplanes), and can’t spend a lot of time seeking new authors when they know a book with James Patterson on the cover will give them the escape they enjoy. Everything else is for elitists and snobs.

The analogy, thank goodness, doesn’t really hold up.

First, the government doesn’t provide subsidies to publishers to plant more James Pattersons. Avid readers constitute a significant share of the book buying market and they have adventurous pallets. We are likely to see a growing divide – with small publishers providing variety and the big six focused on fast food, or folding because the big bets they place on finding the next Patterson don’t work out. But not all of our arable land will be planted with Patterson-engineered stories because the book business hasn’t swung subsidy deals as agribusiness has.

Second, our ace in the hole: public libraries. They do a good job of helping people get their hands on the books they enjoy without passing judgment, and they are great advisors about what to read while you’re on  a waitlist for the latest James Patterson. Libraries grow readers, and readers love books. All is not lost. But we’re in for some interesting times.

photo courtesy of Libby taken at a free-for-all when a book warehouse in Bristol let people take what they wanted last year. The business’s lease had run out.


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