Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Baron Ladislas d'Orcy, Airships, and an Obsession

The Following is from my Introduction to our Third Place Press edition of D'ORCY's AIRSHIP MANUAL, a book I've been meaning to remind the world about since we first printed it last year. Sure, you can get this as a free Google Books download, but you won't get it clean & complete, nor will you get the essays I have included in this edition:

How will history remember you?

It’s a question that runs through every person’s mind at least once in their lives. In this modern, interconnected, social-media-saturated era there’s a strong chance none of us will be forgotten by history—all our glories, mistakes, our most banal moments recorded forever. Back before the internet, before computers even, the printed word was the way to be remembered by history. Sure, there was also artwork, photography and, in the case of the early 20th century, film, but print was the medium of empires and historians. How is it then, that a man as prolific a writer & multi-faceted as Ladislas d’Orcy has fallen into the folds and margins of history?

D’Orcy’s Airship Manual began its modern life as part of a book digitization initiative in the early 1990s called Project Gutenberg. Hundreds of volunteers painstakingly typed, scanned, and collated as many works in the public domain as they could. By the time Google stepped in with its vast resources and man-power, Gutenberg had an archive of over 1.5 million titles (now part of the wonderful www.archive.org). It was through Google, that this book came across my desk. We had just started Third Place Press in late 2009, and were testing our Espresso Book Machine (‘Ginger’) with public domain titles of varying sizes and page-lengths, and one of our earliest customers ordered the Google edition of this book. The odd-shaped book bounced out of our machine and into my hands and I was spell-bound with the information inside: this exhaustive compilation of all manner of airships in existence in 1917, with commentary on their construction and materials, with dozens of schematics and photographs. A few months, and a few more printed copies later, I decided to create our own version of D’Orcy’s Airship Manual for our Rediscovery Editions. It was not simply a matter of simply printing the PDF of the book; there was much work to be done on the sizing, and all manner of marginalia and markings. I also discovered that the edition we were printing was missing pages. After some careful work I managed to ‘stitch’ together a complete edition of the book, but still there was one thing missing: a biography or even a mention of Ladislas d’Orcy.

And this is where the story truly began. It started with a book and became about a man. A man with no Wikipedia entry, and no biography to speak of. So I proceeded to do what any modern lay-researcher would do: I began scouring the internet via Google. Over time, and many sessions searching I managed to dig up a wisp of biography, and like the book itself, I’ve managed to stitch together something coherent, albeit brief.

Baron Ladislas Emile D’Orcy was born in Gratz, Austria in 1887 and raised in Paris. His barony is part of the Austro-Hungarian aristocratic families. With such privilege comes a fine education, and Ladislas was educated in Hungary and Italy, after which he traveled extensively as a young man throughout Europe, the Balkans, India and the Far East.

Sometime during this period, it seems he became fascinated with the nascent aviation field. Pre-World War I was, by all accounts, a vibrant and exciting (not to mention dangerous) time to be involved in the business of flight. D’Orcy himself was involved in many ventures, including the Henry Farman Company in the United States. In doing so, D’Orcy and his colleagues stimulated aeronautical innovation and competition in a nation woefully behind its European counterparts.

D’Orcy helped found many Aviation clubs around the world, including the most secretive and prestigious of them all, The Society of Quiet Birdmen. Aviators were a daring and small community—aviation was still looked-upon as more of a hobby by the public at large—and it seems that they thrived in their outsider nature. D’Orcy was in the middle of all this revelry and camaraderie, soaking up life to the fullest.
As a writer, D’Orcy was precise, detail-oriented, and broadly knowledgeable. He was considered an authority on lighter-than-air craft (Zeppelins, dirigibles, etc.), and wrote articles for Scientific American, Flight, L’Aero and Hydro. He was also editor of several aviation journals, including Aviation and Aircraft Journal.

The essays included in this book allow the reader to step into the mind of D’Orcy and experience his bright intellect. Super-Zeppelins is remarkable in that it is an article written in 1916,at the height of World War I, based on scant information on two downed German Zeppelins; one sunk beneath the Thames and the other destroyed off the English coast. With only eye-witness accounts, some photographs and analysis of wreckage, D’Orcy reverse-engineers these Zeppelins to astounding detail: length, payload and fuel capacity, munitions, crew-capacity and more. Here is a man moving across disciplines easily—physics, engineering, chemistry, aeronautics—to deduce, correctly the true shape of these war machines. In Mastery of the Air vs. The Control of the Sea (also written in 1916) we see D’Orcy’s capacity for military analysis, already foreseeing that a military with a strong air presence will dominate in 20th century conflicts. Moreso, he uses science and mathematics to back up his reasoning. On the Threshold of the Flying Age, and Is Transport by Air a Success? (both written in 1921), we see D’Orcy the pragmatist and businessman, discussing the evolution of the aviation industry in the United States and Europe. D’Orcy is equally optimistic and tough, demanding such visionary things as government subsidies, sound-proofed passenger cabins, and parachutes, which may sound ludicrous but at the dawn of the flying age, it was a free-for-all of safety standards and regulations.

Sadly, in my research I discovered that D’Orcy died on February 12th, 1928. It is a rather curt single sentence mentioned in Aircraft Year Book, 1928. Just the date, and that he was an editor of an Aviation Journal. That’s all.

But I know that it’s not all. There is more to uncover in this clever man’s life, and so for me it’s a journey that has only started. D’Orcy died in 1928. He missed out on seeing many of his hopes and fears for aviation realized during the horrors and necessity of World War II; he missed out on the advent of the Space Race and the moon landing. It would have been a treat to read his analysis of all of this, his inquisitive mind bringing insight to us all.

For now though, we have this book and his essays, and perhaps in the future there will be more to know about Baron Ladislas D’Orcy and the dawn of the flying age.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

The Barnes & Noble Hail Mary; or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Trust the Booksellers

I've only been to Book Expo America (BEA) once.

It was in 2004, when the convention was held in Chicago. It was a wonderful, exhilarating, exhausting time; I met many authors and people in publishing, found some great books. Those of you that have been to BEA know: the usual.
I was working at the venerable Elliott Bay Book Company and it was the legendary Rick Simonson and I representing the store. With so few of our staff going that year, there was a lot of ground to cover, so I was sent to sit in on some panels and meetings I usually wouldn't, for example the Bookstore owner's meeting/round-table. I was a bit intimidated, seeing all these owners and managers of the largest and most important bookstores in the nation. I resolved to listen and take faithful notes of the proceedings.
A bookstore owner stood up and asked, "how can we distinguish ourselves against Amazon and the chains?" (Remember, this was 2004). Heads turned and the silence stretched on. Meanwhile, my pulse was raising. "Really?" I thought to myself, "Is nobody going to say the obvious?" So after a few more seconds I said 'screw it' and stood up. I announced myself, my store, and said:

"It's obvious: It's your staff. Market your staff, their peculiarities, their tastes. You have this smart resource & you need to promote it more."

Then I sat down and continued to take notes. They half-heartedly talked about the idea a bit before moving on. I thought it was a smashing idea. But who was I, except a minor employee of a bookstore?

(Caveat: fast-forward a year or so later to Seattle's University Bookstore & its marketing campaign that year: Want to guess? Yep. They put photos of their staff members on the sides of buses and on posters. Coincidence? Maybe. It was a great campaign.)

All this preamble is to declare my thoughts on how to save Barnes & Noble. If Barnes & Noble is reading this:

To save itself, B&N should franchise.

Take existing locations and turn them into franchises, let owners/co-ops/collectives step in to buy in; let the locations start ordering their own front and back-list, to carefully tailor their selection to the interests of each neighborhood.

B&N's biggest challenge is the brutal reality of brick-and-mortar costs; their surge into supporting the Nook at the cost of floor-space & overall company budget was a huge mistake from the start. Customers started complaining about the reduction in section sizes and selection--never mind that they could have bought the e-books on a fancy Nook there in the store. When people step into a bookstore they expect to see books. B&N was juggling two different business models and now with the latest revelations and changes it turns out something had to give.

B&N (the corporation, not the on-the-ground staff) has been in the business of, not book-selling, but branding for the past decade. Why not just admit that and let the multitude of eager booksellers do what they do best. Independent bookstores are surviving because of their uniqueness.

Why am I trying to help B&N survive? When Borders went under in late 2011, thousands of passionate booksellers were out of jobs, a small percentage managed to get back into the industry, but the rest moved on to find other careers. It's all about the people.

And what of the cautionary tale that it's a bad idea to open a bookstore in the Age of Amazon? Bunk. According to the American Booksellers Association 43 new bookstore opened in 2012 alone. And small-scale chains are thriving too. Here's the latest on Diesel.

If B&N goes under, our culture loses just over 600 locations; 600 'third places'; and thousands of talented and knowledgeable staff.

Sure, bookstores will slip in to fill the void, but for the amount of Borders locations lost, the corresponding rise of independent bookstores has been much smaller. And what will happen in those communities in the meantime is that they will all get used to ordering from Amazon and we as an industry will have lost more customers. B&N has the infrastructure set up already. The owners of each location would shoulder the lion's share of the Brick-and-mortar expenses (not all, B&N should still have a stake in maintaining their stores), the training and hiring, etc. This frees up B&N to continue to 'brand' itself and pursue the Nook model without the distractions & demands of physical locations.

Another story: I was in a newly-opened bar in my neighborhood last week and the guys sitting next to me were peppering the bartender with questions about how long they'd been open, who the owners were, etc. At one point the bartender asked them a question and they answered that they own a couple of franchises. They didn't say which, but the most telling part of the conversation was this: One of the men said "Opening a bar sure is tough, franchises are much easier." Now imagine that conversation happening over owning a bookstore. Most of us dream about it but the reality is a lot of hard work (I know, I tried long ago).

The more bookstores we have out there in the world, the more chances we have to remind people why Amazon doesn't fulfill their book-reading needs. 'The enemy of my enemy', etc.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

NaNoWriMo's Young Writer's Program and self-publishing.

I late 2011, a teacher named Kim Votry, of Seattle-based Home Education Exchange, sat down with me in my office at Third Place Press and talked to me about a program she taught, and an idea she had that the Press--and by extension, our Espresso Book Machine--could help manifest.

Up until this point I did not know that the NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) organization had set up a Young Writer's Program. In the traditional model of the yearly event, writers from around the world participate in a month-long attempt in November to write a 50,000 word novel. The junior version requires students write smaller and reasonable amounts. To back up this process NaNoWriMo has various activities and materials to guide students through the process. Kim took these materials an extra step and treated her students like serious novelists working for a publishing house. She would spend September and October working with the students on various narrative concepts, like plot and pacing, and creating outlines, and then they would spend November writing. In January they would begin the process of revising re-writing and editing, and by late spring the books would be ready. But what then?

That's where Kim thought I could play a part. So we hammered out the details and through the spring of 2012 I worked with Kim and the students to design their book interiors and covers. Several students contributed artwork for their covers, others included drawing for the chapters, and others worked with me on concepts.

Once the book designs were ready, I used Ginger, our Book Machine, to print out a proof copy for each student. And on the last day of school I presented them with their books.

Home Education Exchange First Year Student Novelists
Everyone was extremely excited, the parents were proud, and Kim and I knew we had a successful program set up.

This year, instead of the initial 11 students, we had 18. Several were repeat students working through the process again, but there were new writers as well. We began the design project in the early spring, with the cover concepts being hashed out. As we approached May, Kim was busily corralling the students and their edits and manuscripts. Unforeseen circumstances in timing delayed the delivery of all manuscripts, but by early May I was elbow-deep in book layout and artwork and imagery. Kim and I would trade dozens of emails reviewing the comments by the students and their parents on my designs. We would go through various rounds of this as we honed each design to the exact needs of each student.

Every story required a different approach: epic fantasy, kidnapping thriller, Alice in Wonderland-style journeys, fantasy-sci-fi planetary adventures. I worked with more artwork than the year before, as well as many requests for interior layout (inserting maps, artwork; using special fonts for epistolary elements like phone texts and notes), fonts for chapter headings.

I was once again, thrilled and astounded at the rampant creativity and humor evident in the books, and the audacity of some students to break the 4th wall and talk directly to the reader. And in the case of one student, the bravery to choose to kill her narrator and end it with an amazing sentence: "That's all it took for me to no longer be a part of this world."
Home Education Exchange, Year Two of Student Novelists Program

Today I had the honor of handing the proofs to the students and it was a treat to see their reactions to their book designs. It's one thing to look at a PDF of a cover or interior and see the book taking shape, it another thing entirely to hold it in your hands as a complete product.

I tell this to all my adult clients and they don't believe me until they receive their book, and then, in that moment, their expressions are exactly like the kids.
The thrill of being a published writer is not age-specific.

Friday, May 28, 2010

The Hydra, the Chorus, the Geist, the Book: Chronicle of evolution in action.

Last weekend I attended The Richard Hugo House's excellent event "Finding Your Readers in the 21st Century". Writers were encouraged to sign up for this two-day event filled with panels on a wide range of topics; blogging, self-marketing, social media, e-publishing, self-publishing, and more. The keynote speech on Friday night was inspiring. Matthew Stadler, of Publication Studio, interviewed 3 lecturers who presented on the publishing industry, past present and future. Barbara Sjoholm (past), Alan Rinzler (present), and Jeff Vandermeer (future) set a tone of empowerment and optimism that persisted throughout the weekend. I was there for a panel on self-publishing using the Espresso Book Machine, and also running a table in the Small Press Fair on the main floor of the house. It was there that I kept on having interesting conversations with aspiring (and published) authors on the nature of publishing. I feel the weekend was a success, and can't wait to participate next year. But all the while, in the back of my mind, an idea I'd mentioned 2 posts ago kept coming to the surface.

All this strife and consternation over e-book versus the physical book in newspapers and magazines and on blogs seems to me, to be chasing its tail. What needs to happen is a dramatic re-envisioning of the whole argument. 

If we treat the book as an evolutionary marker for the transmission of narratives, rather than a beginning, and treat the e-book as a divergence from this relatively young 'species', the book, we begin to see some remarkable possibilities in the way we tell stories.

We begin with the Book, which for 500 years or so, has defined the relationship between storyteller and audience. The book overtook the oral tradition, codified the structure of language, and allowed the storyteller (writer) to acutely control the reader's experience. But it was still a participatory event, the words drifted off the page into the mind of the reader, where it then underwent transformation from abstract to 'concrete' in the mind's eye. Neil Gaiman and others have likened this as a form of telepathy, transmitted by the author, who is not in the room (or even alive in some cases). Over time, literary movements and tastes merged, split, and further evolved. By the 19th century, traditional narratives began to sit on shelves alongside experimental, and structure-shirking works. During these phases, the very essence of the book never wavered.

The Geist (otherwise known as the e-book, which is really a ghost of the book) began a transform the book's essence. At risk was the linearity, and according to some, the concept of a 'page'. Publishers have taken lazy swipes at defining the shape of the Geist, but for now it's mostly a electronic facsimile of a bound book, with page numbering, chapters, and covers. The format of the Geist might allow for interesting changes in form and function, and the way narratives work. Take away the page numbering, and the human mind begins to fall deeper into a narrative; there's no 'clock ticking' till page xx reveals the final sentence. Untethered from this subtle cue, readers figuratively drown in words, in story. Paragraphing changes may change the way we interpret stories-- I often joke with co-workers that I could spot a Jose Saramago book a mile off, because his paragraphs often last for pages. This may seem daunting to a reader, and yet, Saramago sells, and has a devoted following. Writers may begin to ask themselves why they write their paragraphs the way they do. Do they create short ones, to keep the readers from drifting off? Are writers themselves intimidated by the sheer bulk of a page-long paragraph? I'm just spinning ideas out there, but the Geist has some evolutionary potential that needs to be explored.

The Chorus is what is currently being described as an 'enhanced e-book', which is incorrect, because the Chorus offers a larger growth potential than the Geist. The very nature of the Chorus is social; with the advent of e-readers and wi-fi, we can begin to see the social aspect of reading. Whereas the Book and the Geist are solitary affairs, the Chorus offers readers a new way to experience a book. Social network sites like Goodreads and Librarything already show that readers want to connect with each other over what they read. The Chorus would allow readers with the appropriate App to chronicle their journey through a novel by tagging comments and notes on their e-reader, and through wi-fi, share them with friends and strangers. A Chorus reader would have the option of switching off this ever-fluid marginalia, to experience the story like a Geist. After, they could come back through the narrative with the marginalia switch on, and see what opinions appeared. The possibility for the urge for fan-fiction to directly overlap with a narrative creates interesting ideas; this is not the same as a collaborative novel, as the Chorus would be geared for a structured narrative with social network elements. Writers who are savvy to the Chorus' format might conceive of new ways to tell stories; perhaps purposely fractured narratives, perhaps literary Easter eggs/treasure hunts. The most important potential of the Chorus would be to engage society in a continual dialog about literature, and perhaps bring more reluctant readers into the fold.

The Hydra, offers the most profound evolution of narrative, as it would draw from two less-likely sources and one familiar: Art (as in Photography and illustration), audio and cinema. Early cinema used narratives borrowed from literature, but within 20 years, cinema evolved its own narrative language, introducing parallel stories, chronological shifts with ever-increasing frequency, the ability to disorient the viewer to temporarily convey emotional states (fear, joy, confusion, etc), and ultimately, the power of a single image to elicit a multitude of thoughts from the viewer. Some of these techniques eventually worked their way into the toolkit of late-20th century novelists. I call this format the Hydra (otherwise known as the multi-media book) because if one considers the idea that narrative/storytelling is the core, then this format allows multiple 'heads' or modes to convey a story. A Hydra will engage the reader/viewer in a multi-sensory manner; as one reads, sound effects may well up, then, at a vital moment in the story it might shift into a video clip, which might be overlaid with music or, audio narration of the text. The trend of creating 'book trailers' hints at the Hydra's possibilities. But let's make one thing clear: the Hydra is NOT a book. At least it shouldn't be. If publishers attempt to simply create what would amount to a book with Ads and some noise, then everyone loses out on new ways to tell stories.

Why the funny names? Well in the occult theory of magickal systems, to name a thing, gives it shape; it also gives one power over it. The current language circulating is clunky and badly thought out, and as such, does not allow the mind to strive for elegant solutions. Each format should be explored without the stigma of 'the Book format'. Humans crave stories, regardless of what David Shields says, and I believe that if we allow these other forms to evolve freely, the reward may be a deeper evolution of the human mind.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Updates, printings, recommendations Old-Skool style.

It's been a while since I posted. I say that all the time. Let's just get on with it shall we?

A bunch of printing and book designing has been going on, and hopefully I can give you a sufficient wrap up.

We've been printing copies of a book titled "The Northwest Collection of Music for the Scottish Highland Bagpipe" by John G. Dally; Reprinting copies of "Mountains of the Night" by Bruce Taylor; reprints of "HASH" (the Concept Proof edition) by Charles Cox; "Monsieur and His Art: a Serious Word to Germany's Riders" by Louis Seeger, translated & book designed by Cynthia Hodges; a novel, "Istanbul" by Gary Peters (with lovely scratch board illustrations and cover art by Janice Warren).

The three books I've uploaded images for are a great example of the diversity of projects coming through the Press. The Bagpipe book was designed by the author on WORD, while I manipulated his original cover concept into the final layout. My warning to authors who use Word is that it's a fickle mistress, and the conversion to PDF can produce irregularities, which then lengthens the pre-production time leading into the actual printing. The Horse Book was entirely designed by the translator, with advice from myself--this project turned around very fast; from first meeting to final printing it was no more than three weeks. I think Hodges did a smashing job. I hope she's proud of it. "Istanbul" was more of the traditional (7 months and now I can say 'tradition'? Ha!) model: I designed the interiors and cover for the author, using the images provided by his wife. This project was also rather smooth, taking about a month once I began interior layout.

We also had the pleasure of hosting Steve Almond for his latest book "Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life", but it was what he wrote about in this article that brought the Espresso Book Machine into the mix. Almond essentially has self-published his book, using the EBM that our friends at the Harvard Bookstore have, and we asked Steve if he'd like copies printed out for his event here at Third Place Books. He was eager and excited, and eventually suggested that he do a presentation with Ginger (our EBM) before his actual reading. We had a nice, attentive crowd for Steve's talk; Steve said some great things about the future of publishing and writing and how the EBM fit into this Brave New World. We recorded the event, and once I have the audio cleaned up I'll post it on here.

We finally cleaned up the PDF created from a scan of one of the few remaining physical copies of "Growing Up With Lake Forest Park, Volume 2" by Barbara L. Drake Bender. The volumes (of which the 1st is still in print) were quite popular here in the northern suburbs of Seattle. We conversed with the Shoreline Historical Museum, who now owned the rights to print the book, and I spent a couple of weeks cleaning up the final PDF. Our customers and the Museum are very excited about the project.

Finally, a customer requested with print a copy of a book called "Dogs of All Nations" by W. E. Mason; it was on archive.org and therefore technically not available from the EBM. But for an extra fee, I took the existing file, cleaned it up as best I could, and created a new cover for it. Originally, it was going to be a one-off, but as I looked through the material, I realized that there were probably dog-lovers out there that would want this highly informative treat from 1915, copiously illustrated with photographs of dozens of breeds, with small descriptions of each. So we printed extra copies for the store and now proudly sits in our Pets section.

Phew! That's a summary of books coming out of the Press.

And now for books coming out from the larger publishers:

I've eased back into reading, after a nine-month dry spell (though, during that time I read "Eating Animals" by Jonathan Safran Foer, which is a beautiful, harrowing look at our eating habits--which is kind of a trend right now, yet Foer executes his book brilliantly so that all views are explored (with small essays from disparate sources--animal activist, big farming bio-chemist, sustainable farmer, to name but a few), and Foer doesn't flinch from reporting the realities of large-scale animal farming. He doesn't try to convince the reader to become a vegetarian; rather he arms you with the ability to make informed choices about alternatives to factory farming, about which Foer convincingly proves that it is the number one danger to our environment at large, even more than fossil fuel consumption.--Anyhow.) I've been reading some tremendous books lately and I wanted to share them with you.

"Hellhound on His trail" by Hampton Sides, tracks the stalking (and eventual murder) of Martin Luther King Jr. by James Earl Ray. It's amazingly written, meticulously researched, and utterly heartbreaking. Sides dispels the conspiracy myths surrounding the assassination by alternating Ray's adventures with King's mission in Memphis, at the height of the book, a grueling minute-by-minute account of both men's movements on the day of the murder made for some of the most terrifying reading I've ever experienced. Whether it was his intention or not, Sides also parallels the social and political landscape of 1968 with modern day--America in the middle of a war, hate-mongers stirring up citizens against a President that inherited a legacy of actions taken before his time, and more. If you read one non-fiction book this year, read this one.

"Extra lives: Why Video Games Matter" by Tom Bissell is an examination of video game culture, from the point of view of a gamer (himself, a self-admitted addict), and a writer (travelogue, memoir, and short story collection); each chapter looks at a different game that changed the nature of the industry. There are other door-stopper overviews of the Game Industry, but Bissell's is the most rewarding, because it attempts to convey to the lay reader what the obsession is for gamers, while also bringing a critical eye to structure, especially in the form of narratives. It's in this exploration where "Extra lives" transcends the subject and approaches deeply philosophical topics; the nature of reality, and the need in humans to experience Story. Alternately geeky and rigorously intellectual, Bissell's book contributes to the literature of technology, social-science, and narrative theory. It's the other non-fiction book you should read this year...

"How Did You Get This Number?" by Sloane Crosley, is the second collection of essays by this immensely talented and astute (and fucking funny) writer ("I Was Told There'd Be Cake" is her first book). In the Book blurbs, she's compared to many humorists, and even David Sedaris has a quote on the back. It's hard to describe Crosley's essays; they range from recalled youthful high-jinks, to a young woman trying (if a bit goofily) to assert her identity. She's smoothly self-deprecating, while at the same time being caustic like a guided missile about some of life's superficialities. She can be serious, though, and in several essays (the trip to Portugal, for one) she reveals thoughts that show a sensitivity to the world that often halts the reader in mid-laugh (that's a good thing). It's the final essay though, that really drives home Crosley's talents as a writer; profound honesty, gentle satire, and keen observation all come together to reveal her contribution to the art of letters. This is the third non-fiction book you should read this year, if...etc.

I'm currently reading "The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet" by David Mitchell. I mentioned in one of my very first posts how much I admire Mitchell, and this book builds on that admiration. Set in 1799 in Nagasaki, the novel brilliantly weaves through the clash of cultures as Dutch traders carefully work with the Xenophobic Japanese; Jacobe de Zoet is an accountant, whose tenure on Dejima--and island constructed in the Nagasaki bay so that no Westerner sets foot on Japanses soil-- is a cascade of small indignities, mixed with awe at the otherworldliness of the Japanese. There's more, but I'm not finished with the book yet, and besides, you can't read it till June, and I hate to be such a tease... A full report once I'm done.

Next time, I'll talk about the Hydra, the Chorus, and the Geist. Trust me. This next post is special.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Awards; a moment of Clarity; a declaration

I've been meaning to post about all the SF & Fantasy related news I've come across.
Here goes.

Firstly, I attended NORWESCON (they currently have information up for 2011), the Northwest Science Fiction Convention where they announce the Philip K. Dick Award winner every year. 
Now, contrary to the other major SF awards in the U.S., the Philip K. Dick Award is chosen by a small committee; the LOCUS award is voted on by the Magazine's readers, the HUGO Award is voted on by attendees of the World Science Fiction Convention (wherever it is held every year), and the NEBULA Award is chosen by members of the Science Fiction Writers of America. That's the first way this award is unique.

The second unique aspect is that it is an award given to paperback originals (trade or mass market). It's set up this way because during Philip K. Dick's lifetime, he was never published in hardback here in the U.S. (in Europe and England, where they 'got' his talent before we did, he had a healthy publishing history). Paperback originals have also traditionally been ignored by some of the more prestigious awards.
So because it is a small committee, voting on often overlooked books, the shortlist is a wonder to behold every year. The awards always surprises; it makes novels go up against short story collections and anthologies, and super-small presses are equally considered along with larger ones. 

I was extremely happy in 2004 when a little known book, Life by Gwyneth Jones, published by a tiny local press Aqueduct Press, won the Award that year. The book deserved it, so did the publisher for taking a chance on an interesting topic.

The winner this year was BITTER ANGELS by C. L. Anderson... Nothing against the judges, or the winner, but I was pulling for Daryl Gregory's THE DEVIL'S ALPHABET (mainly because I loved his first novel, PANDEMONIUM so much).

The other major award announcements were the finalists for the Hugo Award:
Boneshaker, Cherie Priest (Tor)
The City & The City, China Miéville (Del Rey; Macmillan UK)
Julian Comstock: A Story of 22nd-Century America, Robert Charles Wilson (Tor)
Palimpsest, Catherynne M. Valente (Bantam Spectra)
Wake, Robert J. Sawyer (Ace; Penguin; Gollancz; Analog)
The Windup Girl, Paolo Bacigalupi (Night Shade)

and the Locus Magazine Award:

Science Fiction Novel
The Empress of Mars, Kage Baker (Subterranean; Tor)
Steal Across the Sky, Nancy Kress (Tor)
Boneshaker, Cherie Priest (Tor)
Galileo's Dream, Kim Stanley Robinson (HarperVoyager; Ballantine Spectra)
Julian Comstock: A Story of 22nd-Century America, Robert Charles Wilson (Tor)

Fantasy Novel
The City & The City, China Miéville (Del Rey; Macmillan UK)
Unseen Academicals, Terry Pratchett (Harper; Doubleday UK)
Drood, Dan Simmons (Little, Brown)
Palimpsest, Catherynne M. Valente (Bantam Spectra)
Finch, Jeff VanderMeer (Underland)

There's some overlap in both awards, but it's exciting since all the authors are extremely talented and if a person were to use these lists as a reading guide, they would have a great time.

Also at Norwescon, I attended a panel titled "Impact of Digital media", which was set up to discuss many of the issues dogging publishers today; Amazon, e-book pricing, etc. During the panel a gentleman named Ben made a statement that blew my mind wide open, to look directly at something that had been simmering in my mind for a while: he was referring to e-books and 'multi-media' books (on the horizon, getting closer thanks to the ipad and some of the things it can do with books). What he said was:

"We need to think of these as different things."

And then it came to me: We do need to think of these things as different; a book, an e-book, a multi-media book, an audio book. It's obvious with audio, but is it really? It's someone reading aloud a book word-for-word, in other words, rather than visually delivering the text, it is being delivered aurally. So in essence, the audio book is like a regular book. It's more tricky with e-books and multi-media books (mmbooks, for convenience). Arguments are raging across the net and in magazines about e-books not being aesthetically designed like books, the idea of mmbooks terrifies fans of the traditional book, but what if, what if

We started to view all of these permutations as evolutionary branch-off points, like Neanderthals and Homo sapiens?

But you say, 'things' can't evolve. Yes they can. Not on their own, but in concert with humanity. I read a book a long time ago called "The Alphabet Versus the Goddess" which had some startling and exciting theories about literature and human evolution ( I won't go into them here), but the lesson I took away from it was: Whatever humans make, in turn, remakes us. Be it a car, a fabric, a book, a cellphone. 
If we start to look at the book problem from this angle, we can begin to separate the divergent 'species' and allow them to evolve in separate directions. Film narrative is a distinct, but no less connected, off-shoot of narratives forged in literature; decades later it evolved enough to create its own narrative devices, which in turn wove their way into the novels of the 20th century.
Let's talk about e-books. But let's truly look at them divorced from the idea of the book

All these mediums are evolutionary branching off points from a original, an Ur-medium; the art of pure story-telling, around fires; each step--cave painting, hieroglyph, abstract alphabet, clay, papyrus, paper, scroll, etc--represents a shift in how stories are told. The book was not borne, Athena-like from Gutenberg's forge; its history is large and its future is ever-changing. 
Rather than call this era the end of the book, I declare it the Golden Age, where, challenged by various other forms of story-telling, the book finally comes into its own, solidifies what it means to us, to our future, to our evolution as a species.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Introducing HASH; Concept Proofs

I first met Charles Cox through my co-worker Alicia, they'd just begun dating and she was very happy with him; when I met Charles, I understood why--an extremely gregarious, intelligent fellow and, as I was to find out, a man of many talents. Last year, as we set up the Press and The Espresso Book Machine, Charles and Alicia came by to see the new member of the Lake Forest Park community and to see how I was holding up. We fell into casual conversation about what the EBM means in terms of re-arranging the traditional publishing model, and Charles mentioned a book he'd written for NANOWRIMO and wondered idly if he should print a few copies. I didn't leap straight at him in excitement, but I began the conversation that, this past March, culminated in this:
HASH was written in November, but it had been years in gestation; Charles had been familiar with the characters for a while, and it showed-- as I read the book, I felt that the characters were, 'lived in', real.  Designing HASH was a joy because Charles let me play with fonts (4 of them!) and certain 'flourishes' in layout; it was also a joy because HASH is very kinetic, harkening back to the days of William Gibson and before, when ideas didn't have to be door-stopper novels or be book x of a series. It's a smart, lean book; funny and thoughtful. And I felt it deserves to be published.
Charles didn't want to self-publish (that can sometimes be a full-time job of its own), but he was curious about an idea I had-- self-produced manuscripts, which I later renamed CONCEPT PROOFS.
My thinking is this: In this landscape of publishers trimming down editors, swallowing up other publishers and imprints, and more and more agents looking for that 'next big thing' and being less patient to grow an authors' careers (I'm not saying all agents are like this, but there is a trend.), it's harder and harder to get a foot in the door. 
Even once you've made it as far as an agent, and, into a publisher for consideration, your book could die on the phrase "I don't know how to market this." On the one hand, the reason is bunk, on the other, publishing is a business, so they have to think in those terms. An agent or an editor must look at a manuscript and/or query letter and visualize possibilities; the kind of book that might come out of this double-spaced gathering of text.
The Concept Proof is an option for authors who want to take the chance to visualize how their book might look from a publisher; they can determine whether it draws heavily on genre book design or other, 'mainstream' design aspects (a cross-over book like Niffenegger's "The Time-Traveler's Wife", for example). So this is why we made HASH; I took Charles' novel, decided how I wanted it to look on the inside, while the multi-talented Charles (I said so earlier, remember?) designed his own cover, and the photos show what came out of it. Our hope is that we've done some of the conceptualizing for the prospective agent or publisher, and they'll be more open to considering it.

All that said, we know that we can't be sending the physical copy to everyone under the sun; most agents and/or publishers only take digital submissions. But it's a cozy little world out there in Publishingland, and who knows who you might run into at a party or convention?