Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Enter The Penguin

I've had the weekend to contemplate last week's news that London-based Pearson PLC, the parent company of "traditional" book publisher Penguin, will purchase self-publishing house Author Solutions, Inc. for $116 million. On the recommendations of various colleagues and advisers, in 2009 I chose to publish my first book, a thriller titled Blood of the Moon, via Author Solutions subsidiary iUniverse. It was my initial foray into so-called "independent publishing," back at a time (not very long ago) when independent publishing options weren't quite so abundant as they are now. Blood of the Moon remains in the iUniverse catalog to this day, so I have a little bit of skin in this new Penguin game, in addition to a perspective different from authors inexperienced with Author Solutions.

I've enjoyed immensely my authorial journey since Blood of the Moon came out. The book has won a few awards, and earned some great reviews. I've traveled around the country to meet enthusiastic and supportive readers at various events. I've forged warm relationships with many gifted authors across all genres, from folks you might not have heard of to perennial residents of the New York Times' bestseller lists.

The question is, have I enjoyed myself these ways because of my relationship with iUniverse, or in spite of it?

The short answer is, in spite of it.

Put is this way: I independently released last year my second book, an anthology of a handful of scary short stories titled Trust and Other Nightmares. Publishing it with iUniverse never crossed my mind. I published the book through Smashwords. Unlike with iUniverse, with Smashwords my independent publishing experience has been nothing but professional, efficient, and pleasurable.

When possible, I like to shake hands with the people with whom I do business. So in May, 2009, I began my relationship with iUniverse by flying from Virginia to visit the company's head offices in Bloomington, Indiana. I toured parts of the facility, and met some earnest people. Shortly thereafter, I contracted with iUniverse to publish Blood of the Moon. Some publication products I purchased from iUniverse, other services I retained from professionals to whom I was referred by contacts at the William Morris Agency's Manhattan offices. Though the journey wasn't always smooth, I was very happy when Blood of the Moon was released in October, 2009.

In the approximately three years since, I've watched Borders fail, and heard Barnes & Noble talk about spinning off the Nook division from the rest of its operations. Somewhat curiously, Amazon has launched imprints in the "traditional" book publishing model to work alongside its CreateSpace (and to some extent Kindle) independent publishing services. Many good independent bookshops I knew and admired have shuttered their windows for the last time, while a few tinker with their business models and continue to satisfy slews of devoted customers.

It has been a tumultuous three years in the book publishing world, with raucous change the only constant.

Except at iUniverse.

For the past six months, I've been trading e-mails and voice-mails with iUniverse about Blood of the Moon royalties due me for the third quarter of 2011. It's not a lot of money, but that's not the point. iUniverse doesn't even dispute that those royalties are due. They simply haven't gotten around to paying them. In legal circles, that's called breach of contract. On the shiny side, I'm informed that this year iUniverse has finally updated its accounting software to accurately track and pay e-book royalties, though I've yet to see any actual evidence of this. Meanwhile, iUniverse has screwed up my federal tax withholding status for 2012, despite acknowledging timely receipt from me of the appropriate tax forms and that my status hasn't changed since 2009. At least iUniverse hasn't wavered in one way they plainly consider seminal to their singular driving definition of first-rate customer service -- they continue to contact me regularly in pathetic attempts to sell me stuff I neither want or need.

And now, enter the Penguin.

I've read a lot of commentary, most of it harsh, about Pearson's buying out Author Solutions. In the press releases trumpeting the acquisition, Penguin C.E.O. John Makinson said purchasing Author Solutions provides Penguin "a leading position in this fast-growing segment of the publishing industry," and that self-publishing "has moved into the mainstream of our industry." In the current book publishing climate the "mainstream" comment makes some sense. But if Makinson and his bosses truly think Author Solutions d/b/a iUniverse represents a "leading position" in independent publishing, they're either victims of deeply flawed due diligence, or they're indulging in a shocking degree of self-delusion.

I can see what some people at Author Solutions get out of this deal. Its C.E.O. Kevin Weiss and his buddies snatch a cash-laden exit strategy from an enterprise they've managed poorly, if not outright carelessly.

It's not so apparent what Penguin's risk-reward analysis is. If Penguin lets matters at iUniverse (one of several Author Solutions self-publishing subsidiaries) and its sister companies proceed as they currently do, federal and state regulatory complaints and class-action lawsuits from wronged authors aren't outlandish considerations. If Penguin spends appropriate time and money to clean up Weiss' messes, it might be able to develop a new way of discovering talented authors among the thousands who eschew the death throes of the "traditional" publishing model for what Smashwords and CreateSpace, among a handful of other companies (but certainly not Author Solutions), do very well. Unfortunately, many sage observers predict Penguin's first significant moves after swallowing up Author Solutions will consist largely of fairly Draconian cost-cutting measures in a desperate quest for "synergies" as it merges the two businesses.

Let's assume for a moment that Penguin's motives are commendable. If so, my modest suggestion is for Makinson and his people to quickly assemble an advisory group of Author Solutions authors, and to request frequently and respect greatly their input. iUniverse don't have to suck like a black hole. It chooses to. That malady doesn't have to be Penguin's choice too.

Unless that's the way the Penguin wants it.

"The main impetus to continue appearing on Batman -- besides
 the desire to get some TV work -- was that it was fashionable."
~~Burgess Meredith~~

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Author Spotlight: Catherine Coulter

Creativity pulses through Catherine Coulter's veins. The internationally bestselling author of 68 novels (of which 60 have been New York Times bestsellers) is the granddaughter of a writer, and the daughter of parents who between them tally painting, singing, and playing concert piano among their impressive artistic gifts. Coulter's authorial palette is wide -- in addition to publishing several successful historical and modern romance series, as well as contemporary romantic thrillers, she's the author of a series of FBI thrillers that enjoys global popularity. The latest entry in Coulter's FBI series is titled Backfire. Featuring FBI agents Lacey Sherlock and Dillon Savich investigating the attempted assassination of a judge presiding over a blockbuster San Francisco murder trial, Backfire was released just a few days ago. Initial reviews are universally exuberant. It's no surprise Coulter has another well-deserved hit on her hands.

Understandably, Coulter's schedule is clamorous with events and appearances promoting Backfire. We're pleased Coulter found some time to share with us and answer a handful of questions for Gazalapalooza's readers. After all the adventures she has had with her FBI series, Coulter didn't even bat an eye at seating herself in the middle of the ring of electric fire that is the Gazalapalooza Author Spotlight. Her posture is straight in the stern wooden chair, her eyes are bright and wide, and she's the vision of calm, cool and collected despite the klieg lights' blazing glare. She's so ready. Let's get this Spotlight underway.

Gazala:    In my omnipotence, I've sentenced you to be stranded alone on a desert island for offenses best left unnamed. In my beneficence, I've decided to allow you a limited amount of reading material to make your stay a little less bleak than it would otherwise be. I'll spot you your religious text of preference, and the collected works of William Shakespeare. In addition to those, name the one fiction book, and the one nonfiction book, you'd choose to take with you, and why you choose them.

Coulter:    For fiction, the seven “Harry Potter” books. (Since you're spotting me Shakespeare, surely you'll allow some leeway for a series.) I'm an admitted muggle, and the thought of being an animagus thrills me to my core, but the fact is I simply don't tire of fighting dragons and searching for the elder wand.

As for non-fiction, this has to be a book whose pages I could use to light a signal fire to get rescued off your Dr. Moreau's island. Something really thick, lots of incomprehensible words, and utterly useless to me in my current circumstances. Something like the Physician's Desk Reference. (I'm assuming you're not selling drugs on the island.)

Gazala:    Your latest novel is an excellent and gripping thriller titled Backfire: An FBI Thriller. I've read it. I enjoyed it immensely, and recommend it highly. Shockingly enough, however, from time to time my bare recommendation doesn't always motivate a book's potential reader to become a book's actual reader. Tell us something about Backfire, and why its potential reader should make the leap and become its actual reader.

Coulter:    Bottom line, it's all about fishing -- you know, hooks and bait dangling in all the right places. Truth is, if the reader has read the first 15 thrillers in my FBI series, and liked them, it ain't such a big leap. Anyone new I look at as a tuna and bring out my best lures. My very best lure: two disparate-seeming mysteries come together at the denouement -- all I can say is it's a miracle.

Gazala:    What are books for?

Coulter:    If there's no need for a signal fire, then you can start by stroking them, admiring their beautiful covers, marveling at all those words. Then you can simply hang it up and give yourself over to something magic, something that makes you forget the tea sitting at your elbow.

Gazala:    W. Somerset Maugham said, "There are three rules for writing the novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are." Do you agree, or disagree, and why?

Coulter:    I disagree. I mean, who can believe a person with that crazy name? Wait, there are three rules, I just felt them wash over me. Unfortunately, I can't identify them either. Don't you love a good mystery?

 Gazala:     Two unsmiling men in black suits are loitering by my front door, and I best go see what they want. Ask yourself a question, and answer it.

Coulter:    Q: Do you think there's such a thing as writer's block? A: I remember once I was having fits with a book, struggling to even get a couple of pages. Pulling teeth, mine and the characters’, and on page 80-something, the characters simply stopped dead in their tracks and wouldn't talk, wouldn't do anything. I thought about it, slept on it, then tossed the pages. I came up with an entirely different plot and the characters all gave me thumbs up. So, yeah, it's a block, but it's not caused by angst or stress or any sort of psychological malaise -- I think it's all because of a bad plot.

Even the three rules of how Coulter writes mysteries is a mystery? Intriguing. That's nothing but another good reason to snare your very own copy of Backfire. You can do that at Amazon simply by clicking right here.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

The 88 Books That Shaped America

There are endless lists of must-read literature propagated in newspapers, magazines and Internet sites all over the world. Nonetheless, you'd be hard-pressed to find one that contains both Dr. Seuss' The Cat in the Hat (1957) and Alfred C. Kinsey's Sexual Behavior in the Human Male (1948). That is, until the United States Library of Congress recently released its tally of the "Books That Shaped America."

In conjunction with the Library's 2012 National Book Festival, to take place this coming September 22nd and 23rd on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., the Library tasked its librarians and curators with assembling a list of the books written by American authors over the past 26 decades that have most significantly influenced the way Americans perceive themselves and the world, and in turn, the way the world views America and its people. After due deliberation and debate, the Library's team presented its conclusions. Beginning with the 1751 publication of Benjamin Franklin's Experiments and Observations on Electricity, and finishing with The Works of Cesar Chavez, published in 2002, the list sets forth 88 books of nonfiction, fiction, and poetry that reflect the evolution of American thought on an array of subjects including politics, culture, race, sexual relations, child-rearing, and even cooking.

(Note, the list is restricted to American authors. Were it not, it would be difficult to explain the absence from it of scads of books such as the Bible, J.K. Rowling's "Harry Potter" series, and maybe even -- based on recent sales data -- 50 Shades of Grey.)

So, who made the list? You can check that out for yourself by clicking here. But until you make that click, some highlights are in order. The "author" who appears most frequently on the list is Anonymous, for his (or her) four works Alcoholics Anonymous (1939), A Curious Hieroglyphik Bible (1788), The Federalist (1787), and New England Primer (1803). Only one other author makes the list more than once, and that is the afore-mentioned Mr. Franklin. In addition to his book on electricity Ben charts twice again, with Poor Richard Improved and The Way to Wealth (1758), and The Private Life of the Late Benjamin Franklin, LL.D. (1793). The remaining 79 entries run the gamut of tastes, styles and mores over the past two and half centuries of American composition. Some of those other books, you might well expect to find on the list. Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884) is there, as is Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852), J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye (1951), Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man (1952), and Ernest Hemingway's For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940).

On the other hand, some of the books that made the cut might leave you curious, bemused, or even aggrieved. Two cookbooks are on the list (Amelia Simmons' 1796 culinary guide American Cookery, and Irma Rombauer's 1931 tome Joy of Cooking). The Common Sense Book of Baby Care, released in 1946 by Benjamin Spock, joins the ranks along with Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are (1963), Ralph Nader's Unsafe at Any Speed (1965), Our Bodies, Ourselves, published in 1971 by the Boston Women's Health Book Collective, Margaret Wise Brown's Goodnight Moon (1947), and Allen Ginsburg's 1956 beat poetry anthology, Howl.

As interesting to contemplate as the authors and books that are included on the list, are those that aren't. The hugely prolific and popular Stephen King is arguably the modern American counterpart to the Brothers Grimm, but the list features not one of his novels. None of The Godfather (Mario Puzo, 1969), The Last of the Mohicans (James Fenimore Cooper, 1826), Bernstein & Woodward's All the President's Men (1974), or Jaws (the novel Peter Benchley published in 1974 that forever changed our relationship with saltwater beaches and effectively launched Steven Spielberg's career) are on the list. Nor is any collection published by Edgar Allan Poe, who is routinely credited with the invention of the detective story that has been the bread-and-butter of a massive swath of literary, and later television and movie entertainment, since "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" first came to light in 1841.

Incidentally, if cookbooks are eligible to make the list, I'm comfortable venturing just a bit further afield. Action Comics #1 (1938) wove inextricably into the American fabric Jerry Siegel's and Joe Shuster's seminal creation, the virtually indomitable hero Superman. It should be on the list. So too should Richard Sears' Sears Catalog. First published in 1888, the hefty catalog (and its later Sears & Roebuck Company editions) helped fuel westward continental expansion, and paved the way for the American mail order business so vital to Internet behemoth Amazon.com and its ilk to this day.

You'll agree with some of the selections on the Library's list, disagree with others, and lament like me over exclusions that seem arbitrary, myopic, or unjust. Besides, 88 is a strange number for a "best of" type list, don't you think? Round it up to an even century, if for nothing but appearance's sake, and at least some controversy could be stilled. That said, Librarian of Congress James H. Billington cautions that this list is merely "a starting point." Billington says the list is intended to "spark a national conversation on books written by Americans that have influenced our lives, whether they appear on this initial list or not."

Nothing by Hunter S. Thompson? I'm feeling grievously sparked already.

"Often when you think you're at the end of something, you're at the beginning of something else."
~~ Fred McFeely Rogers~~