I’ve been busy with various things over the weeks. Last week I attended the destination wedding of my sister Maureen in Cabo San Lucas in Mexico. Fun, but exhausting!
It’s always a challenge trying to decide the reading material to bring on the trip. Eventually I settled on an early novel by Jack Matthews which I had still not read. It looked fast and easy to read. I also bought at the library a special issue devoted to Kurt Cobain and Nirvana. Of course, I also had my Samsung tablet. While waiting at airports and inside airplanes, I ended up doing a LOT of reading… I finished the Rolling Stone mag en route to Mexico and read several books about Confucius (more later).
I brought Pictures of the Journey Back to the hotel swimming pool, which was the perfect setting. The novel was a fast read with many short characters and lots of dramatic incident. It was also very funny. Then it hit me — this was the perfect book to bring on a journey — and the journey back…
Like my Robert’s Roundup series, I want to write a regular series about cool book reviews I’ve been finding. On occasion I will post my own reviews, but most of the column will be be links to reviews by other people.
“The only proper way to read the fiction of Kathryn Davis is in a state of happy, profound, and irreducible uncertainty. Here is the place where the membrane between the mundane and the mystical becomes so thin as to be transparent. No answers will be supplied, and the metaphors will bend your imagination to its breaking point.” (Laura Miller (Twitter) on the fiction of Kathryn Davis. (author website). Specifically she recommends starting out with Thin Place which she read with “baffled wonder”. (Aside, it’s always a delight to come across Miller’s columns on Salon, Slate, etc.).
About Susan Choi‘s novel Trust Exercise, Laura Miller writes, Each of the novel’s three parts (the third is a relatively short coda) concerns a woman who feels betrayed, her trust violated—but the locus of that betrayal, the truly guilty party, looks different to the reader than it does to the women themselves. The first time around, though, how can the reader know any better? Like the unanalyzed souls Karen pities for their lack of self-knowledge, the reader of Sarah’s “novel” is blind. What choice is there but to fall into her version of what happened? And what choice can there be, once we’ve heard another, if equally blinkered, version, than to recognize just how easily trust can be misplaced or abused—often right under our noses, and with nobody any the wiser? [FUN FACT: Susan Choi grew up in Houston, and according to Miller, attended HSPVA]
YOU’LL ENJOY IT WHEN YOU GET THERE The Stories of Elizabeth Taylor: (review by Claire Rudy Foster). QUOTE: In the States, where “sympathetic” characters are considered evocative and powerful, where we’re taught to see ourselves in every paragraph and written across every landscape, this type of description will not do. And yet, Taylor’s fiction pushes us beyond the boundaries of ourselves; if anything, she’s doing the reader a favor. Without the distraction of the ego, the chronic me me me that American fiction encourages through its unrelenting “relatability,” the story is stripped bare. It’s telling that, in most of these stories, the main characters hide under awnings and umbrellas, holding a book—not to read, but as a barrier. A means of escape.
From Foster, here’s a nice piece about why kinky writing is also tight writing: Short-short fiction is not about being clever. It is about the essential parts of story. The bones. The steel rods and rings. The skin that goes white with tension. Tolerating that kind of discomfort takes practice, yes, but it is exhilarating. It is a pleasure. The closer I draw the words around me, the more I feel my power. I feel everything until I am numb. Then, I can squeeze my way into the story. It makes a shape that is tight, and smooth, and takes your breath away. (Wow, apparently rumpus.net has a semi-regular column, (K)ink: Writing While Deviant — i.e., ” a series about how looking at the world through the lens of an alternative sexual orientation influences the modes and strategies with which one approaches one’s creative work. “
TYPEWRITERS, BOMBS, JELLYFISH: ESSAYS by Tom McCarthy (reviewed by William Morris) This collection itself is “a complex, spring-like structure” filled with literary and cultural references that recur throughout, often becoming “embedded one within the other.” How else to explain McCarthy’s transitions between Thomas Pynchon and MC Hammer, Don DeLillo and Zinedine Zidane? And stretched throughout the book, an almost constant stream of Mallarmé. There are essays on the weather in London, Kafka’s letters, David Lynch, and J.G. Ballard, making Typewriters, Bombs, Jellyfish an unceasingly eclectic collection. (Morris also recommends the McCarthy novel Satin Island). QUOTE: For writers in the nouveau roman style, and for McCarthy, reality is the collision of the will and the world. Toussaint’s heroes enact their will through refusal. They reject the tedium of inauthentic daily life. “The only escape route,” McCarthy writes, “from this [present moment], from its simultaneity, its loops and repetitions, would be violence.” The “irremediably inauthentic” must be punctured with violence to escape life’s ennui.
TRYSTING by Emmanuelle Pagano (reviewed by Rachel Taube). Though they lose some nuances of expression and must forfeit some of the clarity of the French, Higgins and Lewis successfully reimagine the poetry and intensity of the original…. At the same time, because each piece is in the first person, the narrators begin to blur together from one story to the next. The female point of view in one story bleeds into the next. The narrator’s gender is rarely clear, so that we don’t know if the relationships are heterosexual or homosexual or meant to represent something else. This effect seems intentional, and as I got farther into the book, I began to see it as an exercise in exploring queerness. We can’t identify a gender, and it doesn’t matter. Interestingly, though, this doesn’t quite align with the reading of the book in its original French. In French, gender is more visible in the language.
TROMPE L’OEIL by Nancy Reisman (reviewed by Michelle Fost) Reisman can sound like Virginia Woolf, but her experimentation also places her in the company of contemporary film directors like Terence Malick and Richard Linklater. If she has written a love letter to cinema, it’s not a traditional or straightforward letter. I don’t think anyone in the Murphy family ever so much as steps a foot in a movie theater in the many decades that we follow them. We hear about great painters, but no filmmakers, no directors, no actors. Instead, we can understand the Murphy family itself as a stand-in for a film being made. Moments accumulate to form their story, and we read of these moments sequentially.
White Dancing Elephants. Stories by Chaya Bhuvaneswar. (Reviewed by K.C. Mead-Brewer). Gods, myths, stories within stories—Bhuvaneswar’s quiet, magical real style reveals a beauty that is constant and unflinching, found even in the face of D/death. Throughout this collection, her fascination with Indian myths and poetic traditions is folded into the everyday lives of her characters. In many ways, these stories almost read like modern-day fairytales—timely and timeless, magical even as they haunt. See also the reviews of an Alfred Doblin story collection and Baboon by Naja Marie Aidt. ( In Aidt’s writing, we’re made to see the ugliness in love and the beauty in monsters. We’re called to empathize with those we would rather discard and deny. We’re called to openness and curiosity. Don’t look away, she seems to say. Don’t look away, this is important. This is where it gets good).
” Washington’s subtle, dynamic and flexible stories play out across the city’s sprawling and multiethnic neighborhoods. His characters move through streets named so often — Richmond and Waugh, Rusk and Fairview — that they come to have talismanic power, like the street names in Springsteen songs. ” Dwight Garner reviews Bryan Washington’s Lot (author site) Washington is a Houston author, and by the way, I know all of these neighborhoods very well. Here’s an interview on Lone Star. Asked to name his fave short story writers, he said, “Nafissa Thompson-Spires, Victor Lodato, Xuan Juliana Wang, Jamel Brinkley, Yukiko Motoya, Osama Alomar, Amelia Gray, ZZ Packer, Sandra Cisneros, Alejandro Zambra, Ha Jin, and Patricia Engel are doing work that I admire deeply. ” (A nice bunch of unfamiliar names!)
Book Review Digests. For the past two years I have been volunteering to proof various annual editions of Book Review Digest for Project Gutenberg. These volumes are incredible. As I write this post, only two volumes have been released. I can promise you there are about 15 more volumes still being worked on (I’ve worked on about half of them). It conveys firsthand what kinds of books were being released and talked about. Most of the “reviews” are 1-4 sentences long, but good enough to get a sense of whether a book is worth reading. It’s also clear that book reviewing standards in the 1900s and 1910s were very high (I even recognized some of the reviewer’s names. One was F.M. Ford!) To my astonishment, about half of the literary books have bio pages on wikipedia or elsewhere, but a surprising number of books reviewed from that time period have never been digitalized. For example, because PG already has 89 ebooks by Henry James, you’d assume that it’s pretty complete. Yet one of the Book Review Digests revealed two other works by James which still haven’t been digitalized (travel books, I think). Here for example is every page of the 1917 edition on a single HTML page (long!) I would guess 80-90% of these books haven’t been digitalized except in image form. For this edition, links to PG ebooks were included, making it even more useful. Some day, these reviews will be parsed and appear on the download page and reveal more masterpieces. The good news is that the 1921 edition is currently being processed by PG and that it’s only a matter of time before it gets to the 1923 scans. From now on, when I stumble upon an interesting review which has been digitalized, I’ll mention it on this section of the reviews.
Eddy: A novel of To-day . By Clarence Louis Cullen (bio) . Tells of the regeneration of an immoral woman by a strong, loyal-hearted daughter who after finishing school goes to live in her mother’s home. “In spite of vagaries of diction Mr. Cullen has written a really good novel. It scores a triumph in that, despite its subject, it leaves a clean and wholesome impression.” + – N. Y. Times. 15: 213. Ap. 16, ’10. 300w.
Cavanagh–forest ranger; a romance of the mountain west by Hamlin Garland. This story, one of the best things Mr. Garland has ever done, portrays the passing of the old west–the west of the miner, the cattle man, the wolf and the eagle–and the establishment of the dominion which compels the ranger to transfer his allegiance to Uncle Sam and his conservation policies. The old order is symbolized by a coarse, slovenly, boarding-house keeper in a “little fly-bit cow town,” under whose uncouth, even repulsive exterior can often be detected a strain of fairness and honesty; and the new dominion finds its parallel in the woman’s daughter, who, after ten years of training in the east, returns to her mother, and, obnoxious as the process is, puts filth and dirt to route and institutes a cleanly régime. In Cavanagh, the hero, we find a faithful portrayal of the fight which the strong young men of the Forest service are called upon to put up against rangers opposed to law and innovations. It is an interesting story, but with a certain vitality, much realistic detail, and often beauty of line and color.” Margaret Sherwood. The Atlantic, 1910., (Garland later won the Pulitzer Prize for his memoir, Daughter of the Middle Border).
Ashton Hilliers Master-girl: a romance. (1910) Aha, it’s a pseudonym for British zoologist Henry Marriage Wallis.A story of prehistoric times with a young savage for a hero who fares forth to appropriate a wife from a neighboring tribe and is generously blessed by the gods of his Sun-*men race. The master girl his wife, “stands a primitive human document,” a heroic specimen of cave woman thru whose elemental passions gleams something of the fine unselfishness and loyalty of her later generations. The author draws vivid pictures of the fight these people made for existence against the ravages of beasts, enemies and cold.The story furnishes an argument in favor of woman’s rights, and its archeology is unimpeachable.” A. L. A. Bkl. 7: 36. S. ’10.
“It is an entertaining tale, written with a good deal of imaginative power, and held in its descriptions fairly close to the accepted scientific accounts of the way in which the cave men are supposed to have lived.” N. Y. Times. 15: 247. Ap. 30, ’10. 210w.
A Public Domain Mystery
To my astonishment, I discovered a 1910 praised novel, Odd Man by a certain Arnold Holcombe, for which there is practically no information! (and no scans!)
A story of the petty persecutions and insolence which some villagers heap upon a peculiar, hermit-like man who dwells in their midst. “The odd man is a village recluse, half gipsy, half student–a carpenter when he chooses to work–who lives alone in a ramshackle cottage on a patch of land much coveted by speculators when the village becomes a rising suburb.” (Sat. R.)
“The author’s chief fault is that he overaccentuates. The book has unusual originality, its thoughts are clearly put, and it is worth reading. If it has fallen short of its intention, it is, nevertheless, a well-constructed bit of fiction.”- N. Y. Times. 14: 806. D. 18. ’09. 200w.
This certainly sounds worth investigating. A clue is found on an Italian book page which lists Holcombe as a pseudonym for Arnold Golsworthy (1865-1939). Here’s a long description of this author but note that this is a rare books site. Apparently he came from a London literary background, published a few mysteries and did a lot of random things. Hathiway Trust has a few things and Google Books has 2 things.
General Literary Essays
My dirty secret is that Arnold Bennett’s Old Wives’ Tale is one of the favorite novels — and one of the first I ever read on an ebook reader. Later, I read the Riceyman Steps (also good, but not great) and How to Live on 24 Hours a Day . I was delighted to discover an essay by one of my favorite essayists Wendy Lesser has written about Bennett’s Old Wives’ Tale (in response to Virginia Woolf’s castigating essay about his fiction). Yet Woolf is absolutely wrong about the nature of the excess information. The part of the book that is about rents and houses is all fascinating, as are the parts about stenography (a fledgling career for young women), newspaper advertising, the travails of lodging-house management, and the general ugliness of life in the industrial Five Towns, the famous Staffordshire Potteries where Bennett set so many of his novels. Occasionally in ”Hilda Lessways” and much more often in ”Clayhanger,” Arnold Bennett writes marvelously on the stuff of life. He makes you understand what it must have been like to sit at a Victorian deathbed, to give in to an autocratic father, to work in a print shop, to belong to a local political club and to live out one’s time in a smoky little provincial town, longing all the while for a cleaner, larger, more satisfying existence. When he’s in top form, Bennett manages to suggest how all these material things help to mold, defeat or in some cases enrich the individual soul or spirit — what Woolf, I imagine, would call character.
In some ways, mainstream book coverage is coming down from its historically lofty perch to join the rest of arts coverage, catering less to the intelligentsia and more to the casual reader, who may not be interested in literary fiction or nonfiction. With so much to watch and read and listen to—and so many people chiming in on what to watch and read and listen to—it’s no surprise readers are hungering for a trusted source who can point them in the direction of books tailored to their interests. And those same readers may be looking for the kind of full-court, blogosphere press typically reserved for watercooler shows like Sharp Objects and meme machines like A Star Is Born.
Here a consumerist vision of reading is presented as a form of anti-elitism. The quaint use of “intelligentsia” suggests a suspect class of self-regarding intellectuals with an echo of Cold War red-baiting. And then a fantastic fictional character: the casual reader who disdains literary books but is eager for, say, the New York Times to tell her which nonliterary books to read when she isn’t busy watching HBO or listening to podcasts. And what does “full-court, blogosphere press” describe but hastily written, barely edited, cheap, and utterly disposable online jetsam? Such is the nature of the new “books coverage.” I was aware of the trend. Two months before Eichner’s story ran, my contract to review books at New York magazine was dropped. I had been told that although its books coverage would be expanding, what I did—book reviews—had “little value.”
Liking Books is Not a Personality. by Hannah MacGregor. Ouch, this is a good long historical look at how book collecting has changed, but ultimately, I don’t like the essay because it doesn’t recommend any books!
I just wanted to rave about the Novel: A Survival Skill (The Literary Agenda) by Tim Parks. (author website).
Hitler’s method was to lie until he got what he wanted, by which point it was too late. At first, he pledged no territorial demands. Then he quietly rolled his tanks into the Rhineland. He had no designs on Czechoslovakia — just the Sudetenland, because so many of its German-born citizens were begging him to help shelter them from persecution. But soon came the absorption of the rest of Czechoslovakia. After Czechoslovakia, he’d be satisfied. Europe could return to normal. Lie! There is, of course, no comparison with Trump in terms of scale. His biggest policy decisions so far have been to name reprehensible figures to various cabinet posts and to enact dreadful executive orders. But this, too, is a form of destruction. While marchers and the courts have put up a fight after the Muslim ban, each new act, each new lie, accepted by default, seems less outrageous. Let’s call it what it is: defining mendacity down.
As it happens, Green wrote a long book review essay about Jonathan Baumbach who died recently (NYT obituary). About Baumbach’s most lauded work, Green writes, “ Finally the truest subject of Chez Charlotte and Emily is the marriage of Joshua and Genevieve, but unlike Baumbach’s other, later examinations of marital discord and romantic incompetence, this novel is able to realize the subject with the kind of formal ingenuity that fully confirms Baumbach’s reputation as an experimental writer whose efforts contributed to an enlargement of the conceptual possibilities available to adventurous writers. “ About his 2004 novel B, Green writes, “B is the Baumbach protagonist most transparently a stand-in for the author, so we should of course respect the metafictional distance B’s lowering of the “metaphorical disguise” paradoxically imposes, but B is finally such a familiar figure in Baumbach’s work, resembling so many of the other apparent surrogates in behavior and attitude, while the circumstances and events recounted in B so often echo the particulars found across Baumbach’s fiction, that the self-reflexive references to the protagonist’s vocation become more the essentially realistic details underpinning a work that itself never strays too far from its own kind of episodic realism. [Dzanc Books is selling some of Baumbach’s works as ebooks, Amazingly, there’s been almost no reader reviews on Amazon.com, which just goes to show you….]
1:12 Current projects
2:55 Writing Habits
4:33 Writing For Practice?
6:10 Writing nonfiction vs. Fiction
7:18 Hardest Book To Write? Easiest?
8:30 Tie Fast Country: TV & Getting Inspiration From Rural Life
12:10 Rereading Old stuff
13:00 Thoughts on Audio Books
16:00 Is it harder to write as you get older?
16:40 Thoughts about genre & collaboration working with editors
21:44 Writer and Family Life
23:15 Reactions to “Wanderer Springs”
23:40 Is it important that fiction be accessible to an audience?
26:50 Books that Influenced Me while growing up. Small town libraries
28:00 Developing as a young writer. Father’s influence.
31:20 Characteristics of Texas writing and writers
33:45 Traveling and seeing the world
34:20 Thoughts about teaching students and how it changed my writing
35:20 Principles/Secrets of Writing
36:10 Tips for New Writers
37:30 Identifying with my characters; small town stories
40:00 Writers that Influence Me
Robert Flynn is a Texas author born in Chillicothe, Texas in 1932. In his novels he writes about Texas traditions and myths, the clash between rural and city life, God and Christianity in a forlorn (and often violent) world. With his first book “North to Yesterday” he tackled the legends of the Texas cowboy and in his later works (Jade & Jade the Law, both set in early Texas) he continues writing in the Western genre, but with an eye towards understanding the nature of violence, justice, redemption and reconciliation. Robert Flynn is the author of 17 books, including Jade: Outlaw, The Last Klick, and North to Yesterday, and a two-part documentary for ABC-TV as well as a fellow at the Texas Institute of Letters. He is the recipient of a Lon Tinkle Lifetime Achievement Award, two Spur Awards from Western Writers of America, and two Wrangler Awards from the National Cowboy Hall of Fame. He lives in San Antonio, Texas.
QUOTE: “You can read any book on writing fiction for example, and they will tell you the same thing. Someone may say it in a different way that gives you better insight, but there are no secrets in writing; it’s just a matter of doing it.”
At college I took creative writing classes with Flynn. In the classroom he seemed laid back and didn’t analyze stories too deeply; on the other hand, he had an intuitive sense of what a story wanted to do. After graduating from Trinity, I participated in fiction workshops with 3 seasoned authors (John Barth, J.M. Coetzee and Stephen Dixon) at graduate school. Don’t get me wrong, it was a thrill to work with accomplished authors (and read their fiction). On the other hand, I have ended up reading several works by Flynn for various reasons (possibly out of personal loyalty more than anything else). I have come to appreciate the understated artistry of his stories and his embrace of the Western genre which almost grates at my postmodern sensibility. (I reviewed one of his works for a college literary magazine and reviewed two other titles: Tie-Fast Country and Jade: The Outlaw).
Reading these works made me realize that Flynn was a lot more contemporary and politically engaged than I’d imagined. To my surprise I learned that Flynn wrote a lot of political stuff (mainly nonfiction) on Facebook and his blog.
Flynn belongs to the same generation as my other literary idol Jack Matthews. There are parallels. Both had slight successes in the national publishing world, but continued to churn out quality fiction for decades while teaching at universities and remaining “best kept literary secrets” in their respective regions. I must confess feeling envy that the two of them found career paths in academia; (these opportunities seemed to have disappeared after I graduated). On the other hand, my generation did pretty well during the Internet boom and New Media; plus we had access to blogs and self-publishing, so I guess it all evens out (sort of).
Both fiction writers transcend place in their fiction; on the other hand, both seemed to embrace provincialism and find inspiration in the past. Also, there is something to be said for longevity in the writing world. I’ve seen many remarkable writers write one or two great things and then disappear from the book world. It’s as though they were disappointed by the lack of attention and praise, and just decided not to do it anymore. Just writing one great thing (regardless of commercial success) is a major accomplishment. But if you can sustain a lifelong commitment to storytelling, that also is a remarkable thing. Often it means experimenting with different genres and characters and themes. Even if everything isn’t original or transcendentally beautiful, at least you can say that you have covered a lot of ground.
I had fun interviewing Mr. Flynn (he’s an old friend). I also had fun recording some audio interviews with Jack Matthews (and links to the published videos will appear soon). I’ve heard a lot of literary interviews in my life, so I have high standards. Although the final product is great, I realize that I was a lousy interviewer. I wanted to think of challenging and profound questions of art and craft. But even the most brilliant of people can’t think of brilliant answers on the spot, and even if they do, it’s punctuated by umms and ahhs. (I removed them all for this interview, you’re welcome). Also, I realized that I forgot to ask a lot of obvious questions. Like:
Tell me about your first book (and second). etc.
If you remember, tell me about how you wrote book 1, book 2, etc. What was the hardest part? What are you most proud of?
Why did you write Book 1, Book 2? Was anything going on in your life?
If you get a degree in literature, you learn that these biographical questions are not supposed to be that interesting or important. On the other hand, if you have the writer in front of a microphone, why not ask these questions? The worst that can happen is that they refuse to answer!
Through careful editing I can shorten my questions and editorial asides. Frankly I really tried to steer the interview to things which mattered to me. But frankly, who cares about my opinion about how the question should be answered?
One of my most challenging interviews was also one of my best. (It was written, not audio). I interviewed my best friend — the brilliant San Antonio literary critic Michael Barrett. He was only half-motivated to participate — and only after a lot of prodding. In fact, he refused to answer a certain percent of my questions and intentionally gave boring answers sometimes. We played a game where I would ask one or two questions a day and then give a follow up question on the next day.
I asked long-winded questions on the assumption that it would give him different ways to answer. Often he responded in the opposite manner I anticipated. Keep in mind that on his movie criticism and facebook posts, he gives all sorts of witty and comprehensive answers. Eventually I figured out that while Barrett is adept at addressing aesthetic questions, it’s futile to ask them in the abstract. It’s much better to ask questions that tap into his encyclopedic knowledge of movies. Just a few weeks ago, I asked them to recommend some Irish movies, and he gave me an exhaustive annotated list. (His lists are famous — and in fact I have put them in a text file which I am not providing a hyperlink for: https://www.personvillepress.com/private8/mike-list.txt )
Literary interviews are hard to do — although an entertaining writer can make anything interesting. The written Paris Review interviews are the gold standard of course, and I think you can say that the Bill Moyers interviews are outstanding as well — even though he usually comes to them with a political or cultural agenda (and that’s not really a bad thing). Don Swaim used to do a 5-7 minute Bookbeat interview segment for CBS Radio, but a decade ago, he released many of the full unexpurgated interviews online (they were taken offline, but direct links are still available on the right sidebar of this page). These uncensored interviews are extraordinarily fun and revealing.
I don’t keep up with literary podcasting as much as I should, but when I was following these things, the best interviewer was Michael Silverblatt of KCRW Bookworm. What an extremely high-brow interviewer! That said, I had two complaints with Bookworm: 1)Silverblatt asked unnecessarily cerebral questions and 2)he was interviewing only authors from the big publishing houses.
At one time I would find Silverblatt’s challenging questions to be interesting. But authors aren’t especially known for their critical pronouncements. You wouldn’t expect Don Swaim’s interviews with Ray Bradbury or P.D. James or James Michener to uncover profound insights about literature; on the other hand, you’d expect to have a lot of fun. Even though Silberblatt is a fascinating person and critic, I find that the conversations drift away from the author and towards Silverblatt’s verbalizing of his readerly responses.
Let me be clear. Silverblatt is a great reader and critic (and interviewer). Also, he is responding to the fact that many writers are reticent or reluctant to talk about their own works. But his critical perspective often overshadows the author’s voice even if it is what gives his podcast a personal touch. Let’s say you were an author invited on a show hosted by a feminist or Marxist critic. You would not exactly be shocked to find that the discussion is being directed in a certain way even though you might not have given a second thought about social classes or Hegelian dialectic.
On the other hand, an author is trying to speak to a variety of readers — not merely one perceptive critic. As great as it can be to face a perceptive/enthusiastic reader, an author also is trying to reach many different kinds of readers (and nonreaders!)
Audio interviews are a convenient necessity — a painless way to learn how authors sound and talk. (Perhaps it’s important; perhaps it’s not). While listening to the Flynn interview, I was struck by how soft-spoken Flynn is — even in a profession known for soft-spoken people. That is interesting information to me — and perhaps to a listener as well.
You might already know that my Personville Press publishes various fiction titles by Jack Matthews (1925-2013). A year before he died, I went to Ohio and interviewed him about various things. I shot some video footage as well as audio footage about his books and life as an author.
Here’s one audio slideshow I put together of excerpts where he talks about a Worker’s Writebook . I recently published a second edition of it and even included a 2019 afterward.
In the last 4 minutes, Jack Matthews reads a chapter from his ebook titled “The Pointedness of the Tale.”
0:00 CAN A BOOK EVER TEACH A PERSON TO WRITE WELL? 1:38 ARCHETYPAL THEMES IN LITERATURE 4:04 HABITS OF GOOD WRITERS 4:44 WHAT I READ AS A COLLEGE STUDENT 5:33 MATTHEWS READ A CHAPTER FROM “A WORKER’S WRITEBOOK,” “POINTEDNESS OF THE TALE”
I plan to produce several different slideshows/videos to accompany Jack Matthews ebooks. Some people are not into “video trailers,” but I generally enjoy hearing the author describe a book project in his own words. (I might produce a shorter version for Amazon, haven’t decided).
None of the Above by Michael Cocchiarale (website) . Spanning the years 1980 to 2007, None of the Above is a story about Increase Alt, a Midwesterner coming of age during tumultuous times for both himself and the nation. I found another title by him at a great price (alas-expired!) a few weeks ago.
Spoonfeeding Casanova by Dominic Mann-Bertrand. Picaresque tale about a ghostwriter who is hired by a mysterious wealthy man to write his memoirs.
Things I I Pray I never Forget by Doug S. Haines (website) Short Story collection by Texas author. “Work, death, family, religion, illness, addiction, and Mother Nature all play their part in shaping the lives and choices of the characters within this collection.”
One final thing. In my last roundup, I promised to provide a Smashwords 100% off coupon to obtain the Jack Matthews’ writing guide for free. (By the way, I did the preface and afterward for it!) Here’s the coupon you need to get it for free. Expires May 22, 2019. (Note: The coupon is not automatically applied; you have to manually apply it).
Although it’s fun to link to lots of ebook deals (especially if I end up obtaining the ebook myself), I recognize that reviews are more useful to readers than deal announcements. So I’ll alternate my ebook deal posts with a column with links to many reviews (with a few I have personally written).
Book reviewers are saints, I tell you. Reviewing books can be a thankless task — especially if you are busy with your own writing projects. With the explosion in indie titles over the past decade, it’s become clear how many indie titles are being ignored by national book reviews. Amazon.com and other places have provided a platform for overlooked authors to receive reviews. Horray! At the same time, these amateur reviewers (much as people may castigate them) are in short supply –especially as the number of books released each year continues to grow.
Although I’ve written competent book reviews, I’ve never considered book reviewing to be my forte. To write book reviews, you have to do them regularly and with consistent standards. Also you have to get inside what the book is supposed to do — and sometimes that is a challenge.
You also have to finish books — something I’m bad about — even for fiction. I read a lot, but mostly for a specific purpose (i.e., research for something I’m working on). I am constantly interrupting my reading to read other things. Short story collections mitigate the problem somewhat because all you have to do is get to the end of one story before leaping onto another book. I like reading novels, but do it so rarely (hey, I’m working on that, I promise!)
Even when I get into some book, with all the interruptions it can take months to finish. I started Babbitt months ago and still haven’t finished it — though this is not the book’s fault. Should I review it? Committing to review something only adds to the burden of reading. Sometimes this burden is an acceptable one — especially for book titles which have been overlooked. On the other hand, does anyone really care about my opinions on Babbitt?
I grow weary of longish reviews by the professional book reviewer. Sure, it’s good to have some cultural context or background about the author’s previous works, but not every book requires a review essay worth being published on New York Review of Books. Reading reviews shouldn’t be an intellectual burden. Also, you don’t really need analysis until you’ve finished reading something. These sorts of reviews aren’t particularly helpful for the initial “Should I or Shouldn’t I read this?” decision. From a promotional and informational perspective, sometimes a 1 or 2 sentence summary of the book’s premise and style is all you really need to decide whether to go for it.
So I’ll try to write brief reviews when I can, longer things when I have more to say. But I’ll spend more time linking to book reviews by others — especially for overlooked/indie ebooks. I’ll also give a slight preference for Smashwords titles. (read my commercial disclosures here).
Book reviews are much less time-sensitive, so I’m not worried whether the review or the title reviewed is new. Here are some categories that suggest itself.
Book(s) of the Month
I’ve noticed that nonfiction books or topical books are easier to review; hence, I’ll avoid reviewing them (unless I can’t help myself).
To my dismay, for six days or so, I found that typing a particular button on my PC wouldn’t work. I had to push this button again and again until it (finally!) did its job. That nonfunctioning button was (obviously) my “e” button. How long could humans last without it?
Upon making a visit to Walmart and purchasing a new keyboard, I feel delighted to write fearlessly about life: eager to describe deer and antelopes and beekeepers. Life seems easier, even more gentle.
If you don’t have the letter “e“, what happens?
Instead of “love“, you have only “attractions”.
Instead of “friends”, you have only “companions.”
Instead of “hope” you can only “grasp at straws.”
When humankind starts subtracting from what is sayable, many things will go unsaid.
[This sale ended on March 9 Saturday 11:59 PM, so now lots of things are more expensive. A good number of things were permafree, so it’s still worth perusing. Also I’m posting some Amazon monthly deals near the bottom).
This post is mainly about the incredible deals from this year’s Read an Ebook sale on Smashwords. I try to list the free stuff near the top of each category if possible — though I rarely list any titles costing more than $2. For this particular column, I listed a lot of high quality poetry ebooks, which made me realize that I need to have a multimedia section containing audio/video of some of the authors (that’s on the bottom). BTW, the letter “e” on my keyboard is failing, and it is a struggle to correct myself each time it fails. March 7 Update: I’ve been adding stuff, plus I’ve noticed that some of the ads I’ve been running are now free (Filiad, Don Q Public, Woodland Poems, Other Shore, etc). Get them while you can!
Titles from Smashwords & other places
First, you should check out the previous Robert’s Roundup columns on Smashwords deals. Here, here, here and here.
101 Tips on How to be A Bouncer by Darren Lee. (Set your own price). Such an odd topic, but it’s very well-written. The author is a lawyer who used to be a security professional at nightclub and events for several years.
Yas Niger is a prolific Nigerian author (website) who is a trained activist. teacher and commentator. Lots are free on Smashwords, but the rest are discounted to free as well.
Irrevocable Acts by Jonnie Hyde (website) is a tale of a New Mexico grandmother, a landscaper and a professor are thrown together to become environmental activists. FREE!
Where the What If Romans and the Moon is Louis Armstrong by Esther Krivda (website) is a FREE! gigantic fairy tale type novel with a girl named Sophia Oomla who lives in a magical world where she is speechless during the day and can communicate only after midnight with fairies and other kinds of creatures. It sounds like a children’s book written for adults.
Tamara Merrill (website) has written a trilogy (all free!) of the Agustus Family Trilogy starting with Family Lies, In her interview, she mentions writing a lot of stuff early in her career, then getting sidetracked. (Hey, know the feeling!) . Each of the 3 books covers a different time period starting pre-World War 2 with the last one Family Myths coming in the 1960s.
Terrance Bramblett (website) is a prolific Georgia author of stories, essays and memoirs with a quirky, humorous touch. He has published lots of mini-ebooks. He’s a late addition to this column, so I wasn’t able to buy his ebooks, but I downloaded about 5 free mini-ebooks in the 10,000-30,000 word range which are free this week. After listing some of his favorite books (Joseph Heller, Hunter Thompson, Mark Twain, etc), he notes, ” All these have one thing in common: a zany, twisted slant on life and the events that happen to people as they go through it. These authors write the way I wish I could.” Among his works is a two volume historical novel, Rebel Gold (1.25 for each volume) about Lucas Stone who after the Civil War, seeks adventure with the Confederate gold he stole.
Two FREE! books by Laura Rae Amos (website) : Exactly where they’d falland the Fish and the Bird. Both are “serious” books about relationships, somewhat from a female perspective. The first is about how three people handle a romantic liaison from long ago. Actually the second book is a similar subject (kind of).
Here is Ware by Michael Cocchairale (website). Short story collection set in Ohio, Pennsylvania, NY which features characters baffled where they are in their lives. From this interview, Cocchairale described the relationship between the title novella and the other stories: ” (It) started out as a single flash fiction. However, it wasn’t long before I wanted to find out more about Samantha Wayne and her dysfunctional family. I wanted to see her grow up—to see how, through both luck and savvy, she was able to avoid the pitfalls that claimed other family members. Then I became keen on exploring the tensions that arose when she moved away from her hometown.” published another book this month None of the Above with the also excellent Unsolicited Press.
Rising Tide Of People Swept Away by Scott Archer Jones (website). (both titles are 1.25) Jones is a New Mexico novelist who has two novels with Fomite. This title is about a boy who flees a toxic family and lives with various drinkers and losers. (Here’s an audio interview). Just a few days ago Fomite released And Throw Away the Skins about a broke breast cancer survivor named Bec who lives in a rundown cabin in northern New Mexico.
David Vernon is the founder and editor of the Australian publisher, Stringybark which publishes various books (fiction and nonfiction). It is particularly known for hosting story competitions 2x a year on certain topics. Several are on erotic themes, but most are on more conventional topics. Most are discounted from $4 to $2 (boo!) but about 1/3 are at $1. It’s all mystery meat to me (especially since the ebooks don’t appear on Amazon), but the story collections have good previews, plus the publisher has motivated some insightful reviews on the Smashwords book pages. I grabbed Cocktails (erotica -0.99) Between the Sheets (erotica.99), Valentine’s Day and Very End of the Affair (humor — .99)
From the above publisher here’s Reflections in a Hubcap ($1) by Steve Atkinson. Atkinson is a retired London reporter who dabbles in fiction. Some of the tales are described as ” whimsically autobiographical while others visit the dark and murky places of the human mind.”
Avenging Cartography by Ken Poyner (website). 1.50. Poyner is a highly regarded author and storyteller who publishes tales of the fantastic — which might also be classified as science fiction. fairy tales, whatever. The book descriptions and titles are hilarious. One unnamed reader (the author himself?) described his stories as ” unruly and: quirky, witty, slightly askew, off-kilter. . . . Also, they’re short, you can pop them in your mouth and gobble them up in small bites. Poyner’s work is the weird marriage of science fiction to speculative with a soupçon of magical realism thrown in. A little bit raunchy, a little bit R rated, these are not tales for the timid. Sharp political satire, these curious fables of lust and greed are perfect for our own age of avarice. ” All the books are $1.50, and I went with this one and his latest, Revenge of the House Hurlers. I am prepared to be disappointed; on the other hand, if the books are half as wild as the descriptions, I’m going to like them a lot!
I couldn’t afford it during this purchasing expedition, but Read by Strangers: Stories by Phillip Dean Walker (website) (1.75) sounds interesting. According to the description, it is ” sixteen queer stories exploring the complexities of the human experience. From weary men seeking a ride back from a club but find themselves trapped to a woman addicted to a virtual reality game who is neglecting her child to a man whose fantasies about of his neighbor’s wife have begun to take over his life. “
Erotic Stories on Smashwords. From time to time I like to explore unfamiliar categories to see what they’re like. This column’s unfamiliar category is Erotica — unfortunately many of these titles are overpriced — even during Smashwords sales. I’m going to take a stab at a few. I don’t have the time or desire to explore them all, but I wanted to point out the one which seem like deals or well put together.
Coming Together Presents is a series of single-author collections dited by Lisabet Sarai where the proceeds go to charity. Price is slightly discounted to the still reasonable 2.24.
Speaking of erotica, Bradley Stoke (website) writes a variety of novellas and stories with an erotic theme — though they are more plotted than the typical stroke stories. Everything is FREE! There’s an erotically-charged sci fi series Anomaly trilogy, Alif (sexual utopia at a brothel), as well as short story collections: Cyberwhore (sci fi), No Future a dystopian futuristic novel about UK, Crystal Passion (adventures of a a lesbian British rock band). Reviews are mixed/nonexistent, but I get the impression from the descriptions that while sexual elements are an important part of these stories, there are social, cultural and political themes as well. Among non-erotica there’s Omega, a tale about childhood imagination with fantastic, improbably things, a kind of refuge from adult concerns and a journey to truth. The description is really vague (the author compares it to a Johnathan Swift thought-piece), Also, there’s the long Glade and Ivory about shamans in prehistoric times.
Whitepoint Press (website) is another small indie press publishing on Smashwords (and discounting for Read an Ebook week). Founded by Lisa De Niscia. Generally with this week’s discount, fiction is $2 and poetry is $1.50.
How they Spend their Sundays by Courtney McDermott (website). 2.00 Stories about Lesotho and South Africa by a former Peace Corps volunteer (Hey, I am a PCV myself — Albania, 1995-7).
Off Somewhere by Z.Z. Boone (website). This short story collection is $2 this week. Fun fact: Boone has written 20 plays under the name Bill Bozzone.
Things we Do for Women by Seth Johnson. $2. Linked stories taking place in Kentucky. From a blogpost: “I began writing stories about a gunman or a potential gunman. Many of these stories are in The Things We Do for Women. As the characters began to move and live, I realized that for the work to project the angst and uncertainty, the ilk of disconnection perhaps felt by a gunman, I needed to write anti-stories—that is, stories with no definitive resolutions, no way out, no money shots. Most of the stories written in the main protagonist’s POV are anti-stories. The intent is to leave the reader mired in the character’s emotion, yet unsettled.” Publishers’ Weekly give a lukewarm review, but clearly they don’t get what Johnson is doing.
Lighting the Word by Merle Drown (website – what a name!) is a family drama about a high school student who decides to run away from his mother and entrusts this secret. Sale $2. One reviewer writes, “Merle Drown provides unique insight into a small-town tragedy. His storytelling never asks the reader to sympathize with or forgive Wade, although at times they may feel compelled to do so. “
Bad Faith by Jesse Tandler (FREE!) is a tale of twenty-something grad students dealing with life’s realities. In reviewing the novel, Paul Samael wrote that the novel is “about this problematic obsession with authenticity – but it’s more concerned with its impact in the domestic sphere than the political arena…. this is not just a good story – it also made me think quite hard about the slipperiness of “authenticity” as a guiding principle for what we value in life. “
Inelegant Universe by Charles Hibbard (Free!) is a story collection much admired by Paul Samael, saying that he” particularly liked the way that many of the stories manage to combine fairly everyday incidents (e.g. dinner parties, two friends on a hike, visiting an elderly parent in a nursing home) with larger, more abstract ideas – ranging from string theory through to evolution and the conflict between order and chaos.” Samael also enjoyed the free Garrison Keillorish Burned-Over District and Retirement Projects.
Petrarch’s Letters to Classical Authors. To my astonishment I realized that I downloaded a 1910 Gutenberg text which was translated with commentary by Mario Emilio Cosenza. Even though the translation is somewhat out of date, this edition was beautifully done — with ample footnotes and explanations. It contains imaginary letters written to Virgil, Cicero and others. What a great idea — I’m inspired. By the way, if you’re interested in reading Petrarch’s magnum opus Canzoniere, you absolutely need to check out Mark Musa’s great translation and edition. I recommend the print edition though I’m surprised that the ebook is available for $8.
Smashwords is actually a good source for competent and low-priced poetry. One reason is that SW has a higher percent of indie presses; also it’s possible to discount titles below 2.99 and not forfeit all your profits to the Amazon megamonster. Also, look in the multimedia section because I’ll usually try to find an audio/video link to a recitation of the poems.
Treasures that Prevail by Jen Karetnick (website) $1.50 Karetnick is an acclaimed poem now living in Miami; the subject of these poems is the effect of climate change on Miami. Let me say at the onset that I am an absolute sucker about climate change. (I’ve written widely about it, but check my piece here).
Various ecopoems by Scott T. Starbuck (website) Starbuck has published several poetry volumes about ecological subjects. Among them, Carbonfish Blues stands out because it is beautifully illustrated by Guy Denning. (Watch out — the ebook file is huge!). Other ecopoem titles include Hawk on a Wire , and Industrial Oz (here’s a review of it)
Among the Lost (1.25) by Seth Steinzor (website). Steinzor is a distinguished poet who wrote a two volume modern verse retelling of Dante’s Inferno I bought volume one last Christmas, and this is part 2.
Lessons of the Dead: Poems. ($1.50) by Brett Ortler (website). This new release consists of several poems, whose titles start with “What the Dead Tell Us about….” and then use a variety of phrases to finish it with (War, Magic, Cupid in Old Age, etc.). Surprisingly, Ortler has written a lot of frivolous-sounding nonfiction about mosquitos, fireflies and Minnesota. Hey, if it pays the bills!
Imperfect Tense By Melisa Cahnmann-Taylor. $1.50 Cahnmann-Taylor is a TESOL teacher, poet and linguist. Her poems are about her profession as a linguist and teacher (see audio in the multimedia section)
Dreams of Desire by Vala Kaye (personal website). 2.99 (not on sale, but I got it when it was on sale previously). Kaye writes fantasies for adults (paranormal romance). This Faustian tale is about a a frustrated writer who meets a beautiful and mysterious female Satan worshipper who offers Zach the creativity he longs for in exchange for …..? It’s marked as “for mature readers only.” I’m going out on a limb here, but I’m guessing there will be sex… Kaye lives in North Houston — so conceivably our paths could cross..
To Squeeze a Prairie Dogby Scott Semegran. Regular 2.99, discounted today to 99 cents. I have an ad for this book on the sidebar to buy on Smashwords…. I’ve read the first chapter. A strong work…
Under the Radar /Blink and it’s Gone Sales
This post is mainly about Smashwords deals, not so much other authors on Amazon. I’ll add a few of the Amazon deals here if I find any.
Half-Angel by Raphael Sanzio. Very informal poetry about commuting to work in NYC. Intermittently free.
Quartet in Love by Judy Stanigan. (FREE!) A humorous and satirical take on the pitfalls of romance….
Listen to Me by Shashi Deshpande. Writer’s memoir by prolific English language author from India. I’m doing doing alerts on her fiction alerts, so hopefully I’ll announce them in future columns. This is a great buy!
Edward Adrift by Craig Lancaster. (website) 2nd of series about a 42 year old autistic man growing up in Montana . From his author page: “”It’s all too easy to turn people into caricatures, but the truth is, we humans are pretty damned fascinating,” Lancaster says. “For me, fiction is a way at getting at truth. I use it to examine the world around me, the things that disturb me, the questions I have about life–whether my own or someone else’s. My hope is that someone reading my work will have their own emotional experience and bring their own thoughts to what they read on the page.”
Sky Below by Scott Parazynski (astronaut memoir and adventure story). Man, Amazon is going out to promote this one!
Hannah Arendt: Life in Dark Times (Icons). by Anne C. Heller. I’ve been enjoying these micro-biographies, even though they aren’t full treatments of the subject. (Every month, another in the series is discounted).
I have several audio interviews I made with authors which I’ll be publishing here soon!
Personville Press Giveaways and Deals
I run Personville Press, a small literary book press where all the ebooks cost less than $4. [Update: Oh, what the heck, for this week only I discounted all my titles to $1 and left Interview with the Sphinx at free until next week. Enjoy!]You can buy these titles at the main ebook stores (Amazon, Kobo, BN, Apple, etc.), but I regularly run promotions on Smashwords, so the same titles usually sell on Smashwords for half the price that you see them on Amazon. Pay attention to any 100% coupon codes which I occasionally list below — they can be redeemed only a small number of times, so first come, first serve. Smashwords only sells epub versions of these titles, but you can easily convert them to Amazon’s mobi format by using Kindle Previewer or Calibre.
Interview with the Sphinx. By Jack Matthews. ($1.10 until 5/18/2019). no coupon code required) Hyperintellectual Tom Stoppard-like play which reads like a novel about a strange interview with the ancient Sphinx character. Freud and Florence Nightingale show up too. I loved this play and even produced an audio version of it (3.99 on cdbabyand itunes), but the script reads well too.
A Worker’s Writebookby Jack Matthews . $1.00. Matthews distributed a photocopied version of this writing guide to his Ohio U. creative writing students over the decades.
Three Times Time Story Sampler by Jack Matthews (Always Free!) US Amazon customers can sometimes get it for free, but to make things easier, you can down these files directly without having to register: Epub, Mobi.
Literary Trends Spotted
This is not so much a trend as it is a recent penchant for stories from states and regions unfamiliar to me. I am so much a sucker for books from distant lands. Even in the USA, I know there are fascinating books coming from West Virginia, South Carolina, Utah, Oregon, Idaho and Wyoming and probably other places as well. That’s just the USA. I must admit I get excited when I discover an author comes from a land I don’t know really well. I remember my recent excitement at discovering that Donald Harington came from Arkansas or that Ron Rash came from South Carolina or that (in today’s post) we have Scott Archer Jones from New Mexico or Seth Johnson is from Kentucky. About Texas, well, don’t get me started!
Egad I must have over 200 browser tabs open. Now that I’ve published, I’m going to shut my browser down (temporarily). A long post. I’m taking next week off, to give me time to recover! The deals never stop coming!
To my surprise and chagrin, I see that Amazon cancelled my participation in the Amazon Affiliate program (which I started a month ago). The email announcing the cancellation did not mention the reason, but after reading the terms, I see something:
z) You will not display on your Site, or otherwise use, any Program Content to advertise or promote any products that are offered on any site that is not an Amazon Site (e.g., products offered by other retailers). You will not display on your Site or otherwise use any data, images, text, or other information or content you may obtain from us that relates to Excluded Products.
Amazon has really crossed a line here. Do they really think literary bloggers are going to agree to exclusive arrangements on ebook ads?
So to summarize: a multibillion dollar company with a near monopoly on ebook sales has demanded exclusivity for advertising on a personal blog of an impoverished writer linking to ebook pages of an store whose direct sales volume is probably less than 1 or 2 percent of Amazon’s.
Aside from the fact that Amazon has more sales volume, I believe that Smashwords’ affiliate program is better, fairer and far more profitable to third party websites than Amazon’s own. By default, Smashwords gives a 11% payout on direct ebook sales while for Amazon, it’s 4% or less. If they choose, authors can choose to increase the affiliate payouts to a higher percent, something I have chosen to make SW authors aware of.
The entire publishing community is now living in fear.
Large traditional publishers are worried about making their next quarter’s numbers, and are terrified Amazon will take away their preorder buttons if they so much as look at Amazon cross eyed. Indies are terrified of Amazon’s next price-matching email or KU nastygram, which reminds them that repeated offenses could lead to cancellation of their publishing privileges. Indies are terrified of seeing their legit reviews disappearing without explanation or recourse. Or, like the NY Times bestseller who contacted me this morning, why should an author fear being kicked out of KU because Amazon might notice that a pirated version of her book was just listed for sale at another major retailer?
What kind of life is this, living in fear that your business partner who’s supposed to have your back is browbeating you, and threatening to drop the axe on you at any moment?
All too often, succumbing to Amazon’s offers of quick fixes like KDP Select can feel safer, but this decision can also lead to long term pain, bondage and servitude. …
Exclusivity is a form of censorship. It says you can express yourself here, but not there.
Algorithms that give preference to exclusive books are a form of censorship too. This struggle for free expression predates Amazon, and will continue long after Amazon is gone. ….
The good news is that Amazon’s practices can’t last. They’re unsustainable for the creators of books. Like all forms of oppression, the people will eventually rise up and take back their independence.
As I mentioned previously, even though I have always been uncomfortable with Amazon’s tactics, first and foremost I want to provide good information for consumers. I will continue to provide links to Amazon exclusive deals and ebooks from their imprints (Little A, Amazon Crossing), but generally I will prefer to link to the author’s personal website than the Amazon page. Also, I will continue running links and ads to Smashwords and other ebook stores. FYI, my next Robert’s Roundup will be on Tuesday March 5 ( 2 days after the annual Smashwords Read-an-Book week has started). I’ll be reporting on the great things I’ve found from that sale.
Map to the stars: The secret delights of annotated bibliographies
The older I become, the more I seem to enjoy reading about books than actually reading them. Why do people read about books?
Books are plentiful, and our time on this earth is limited. People need some method for picking and prioritizing what they read (or in general what they do with free time). The youthful reader is inclined to read indiscriminately, favoring whatever was unavailable at libraries or forbidden by parents.
By early adulthood it dawns on people that reading time (or time in general) is a precious commodity. Even if you are lucky enough to find a career that requires a significant amount of reading, there never seems to be enough time to read what you really want. If you spend too much time on books that are crap (a highly significant amount) there is less time to read great and powerful stuff.
Some degree of serendipity is crucial for discovering good reading material¹, but at some point you have to find some method that will keep exposing you to great reading material.
I’ll devote a series of blogposts to such methods. For this one, I shall discuss an overlooked resource when trying to decide what to read: the annotated bibliography (abbreviated as AB for this essay).
Annotated Bibliographies (ABs)
Despite my love for reading, I could never imagine reading an AB —much less writing one – except under duress in high school English class.
A year ago, though, I decided to make an annotated bibliography (AB) about Civil War fiction as an afterward for a Jack Matthewsebook my company was publishing. It turned out to be an all-consuming project; truthfully just proofreading everything turned out to be a nightmare. Nonetheless, I think the result was an admirable (and useful) contribution to the genre.
It’s important to distinguish between a bibliography (which is a mere listing of titles in alphabetical order) and an AB (which not only lists the items, but also describes why each source is interesting or important). A good AB (and honestly, most of them are good!) is usually worth reading on its own. A few days ago I read two print annotated bibliographies of Texas history. Delightful and fascinating! Frankly, these two books revealed new books that I never could have found by looking in library catalogs or checking bibliographies of other history books.
Perhaps print bibliographies don’t translate well to web browsing, but AB’s have been on the web for over 20 years. Starting from the 1990s, you would find them everywhere as Description Lists or (DL) in HTML. That was back when Internet search was iffier and you relied on links pages maintained by human editors to help you find what you wanted. These pages were usually static HTML and more focused on creating paths to other helpful resources. (Alas, nowadays, it seems that most websites aim to trap you or force you to sign up for a newletter or give them your credit card).
Even today, the sort of bibliographies which you find on Wikipedia just list book titles and possibly web resources. Nothing is wrong with that of course, but in an age of excessive information, we don’t need to know every work on a topic; we would just like to know which works contain the best information or are ideal for beginners or have the best photographs (etc.) Let’s use my Civil War bibliography to illustrate how ABs work and what they offer for readers.
Why annotated bibliographies are awesome
First, ABs don’t try to cover everything in a field — just the most interesting things (or the most interesting things that the preparer has encountered). My Civil War fiction AB tried to hit the big landmarks, but there is no doubt that this list overlooks many worthy works. Often the selectivity of these resources make it more helpful to the reader.
Second, I tried to subdivide the huge list into several smaller categories(containing no more than 20 titles). Also, I ordered the categories in a way to give certain works more prominence (i.e., Critical Overview and Classics).
Third, in addition to arranging works by category, I decided against listing them alphabetically. For the most part, I arranged works by date of publication — although this perhaps can be somewhat disorienting. But it isn’t hard to search for the name of an author or a title in a web browser.
Fourth, this may not be obvious, but I don’t have any special expertisein the area of Civil War fiction. In fact, I have read surprisingly little Civil War fiction (though I will be correcting this deficiency soon). Mostly I just did background reading, found some useful bibliographies (both in print and online) and then combined everything. I found several notable critical studies of Civil War fiction and just listed most of the fiction titles discussed in them. In the 1990s there was a special award specifically for Civil War fiction, and so I list all those titles. By reading book reviews and comments on Amazon, I tried to include a fair summary as well as context (i.e., was this first of a series? Is there anything notable or unique about the author or the narrative angle? Did it win any awards? Was it made into a movie? )
Fifth, I listed data about the books which might be useful for certain readers. I tried to identify which works were already in the public domain. I also indicated lexile scores for books geared toward younger readers. (Lexile is a method of measuring the relative difficulty of a text and is used by teachers).
Sixth, online bibliographic resources can remain flexible in format. (This is something that the Wikihow article on ABs acknowledges). I looked at various style guides before making my AB. Then I realized that there was no need to give complete citations as required by MLA or Chicago Style Guide. (Besides, it would increase the prep time.) Generally, publication data is reasonably easy to locate from Amazon.com and other places.
Date of publication is relevant because it indicates which works are in the public domain (and can be downloaded for free). I debated whether to include links to Project Gutenberg (PG) or archive.org or Amazon.com or Wikipedia, but in the end I decided to keep hyperlinks to a minimum. I did this mainly because I was making this bibliography for an ebook and worried that putting links here would just create linkrot. It’s hard to predict how long Project Gutenberg or other web projects will be able to maintain its URLs.
This bibliography is (relatively) noncommercial. I stuck a small ad for a Jack Matthews title published by my company, but aside from that, it’s a static page unlikely to change (unless I forget to pay my hosting charges!) In contrast, you can find lotsoflisticlesaboutCivilWarfictionand Civil War books. All are interesting and helpful and written by people with interest or expertise on the subject.
But listicles are a form of abbreviated journalism and rarely systematic. A good features writer can sniff out enough notable books in a field to make a listicle, but often they are skewed towards newer books and books which are in the public eye (rather than books which are actually interesting or important). Sometimes publications can go offline or migrate to a different software platform — thus disrupting the continuity of URL addresses. Biblio-listicles reside in an online world subject to various pressures (technical and commercial).
It would be easy for a wiki site to facilitate the production of ABs. But such bibliographies are better produced by individuals (or small groups of like-minded individuals). I doubt that you can set criteria for group editing which are reasonably fair or neutral to all contributors. Wiki software helps in producing the ABs, but the neutral point of view (NPOV) philosophy and notability criteria used by Wikipedia isn’t really compatible with the individual quirkiness which make annotated bibliographies so special and interesting.
You would think that the proliferation of citation tools and content management systems would mean that ABs would be everywhere online. That is definitely not the case. Maybe in the 1990s when human editors cataloged web resources, this might have been true. Since then, Google Search and Wikipedia articles have taken over, worthy tools, but skewed in their own ways. Google Search can be gamed fairly easilywhile Wikipedia seems dedicated to listing resources without trying to assess their value. (If you don’t believe me, try browsing through this top level category of Wiki bibliographies and try to find anything actually useful.)
ABs are not easy to find using search engines. Every time I try Google to find a good annotated bibliography, the search results consist mainly of commercial products (some of whom are not even available for individuals!) When I try googling a more specific topic for an annotated bibliography, thepickingsare usuallyslim. Interestingly, it’s not as hard to locate ABs on abstract philosophical topics. Check out this Chinese philosophy AB or the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy to see what I mean.
Online bibliographies have other problems. First, they tend to be database-driven, which means that the view in the browser is often truncated or chunked in an unusable way. Database-driven bibliographies offer advanced sorting and filtering capabilities and occasionally annotations, but their selection criteria might not match your own. For example, which resource in a list of 50 or 100 should you check first? Second, many of these tools cater to institutional customers and not open to public surfing.
Take for example the Oxford Bibliographies Online. Sounds and looks promising, but wait! You have to log in, and your institution has to subscribe. If your institution doesn’t subscribe to such a service or if you don’t even belong to an institution, you’re out of luck.
Many of the best AB’s are in book appendices (i.e., not online). Again, there is a lot of segregation between users who have institutional accounts (and better access to bibliographies and ebooks) and users who don’t.
While I compiled material for my Civil War AB, not having access to most of these academic services severely limited what I could find online.
On the other hand, print versions of academic books from my city library often had ample bibliographies in their appendices. (Perhaps they were not ABs, but they were still very useful.)
This leads to my final question: If many academic books contain ample and carefully crafted ABs in the appendix, why don’t more authors simply repost the appendix online?
1 I actually think contemporary readers need to be more adventurous about what they read, even if it means having to struggle through crap once in a while. Indie publishing is flooded with perfectly interesting books which don’t win awards or get reviewed in notable places. This tendency to seek only books by award winners or books have been widely praised is perfectly understandable (and results in a higher probability that you will read a winner), but it also eliminates the thrill of discovery and also keeps hidden many remarkable literary works. It also lets you read with auto-pilot turned on; you are not really trusting your own judgment but instead simply trying to validate whether your opinions match what the critics have said. My solution is to download and read a lot of first chapters and later abandon a lot of books after that. Sure, you can’t judge every book by a single chapter, but at least I’m giving a lot of unknown authors a chance to enter my brain.
(If you know of any annotated bibliographies online to recommend, feel free to list them in the comments).
I’m changing the format and frequency of Robert’s Roundup. Basically I’ll post roundups every 2-3 weeks, make posts longer and most of the time combine Amazon deals and Smashwords deals in the same post. I’m posting this Friday, but will add stuff over the next three days or so. Note: Smashwords’ Seasonal Sale will go live March 3 — so I’ll do a big SW roundup on the day or two after.
Robert Bolano’s 2666. (1.99 on Amazon AND Google Play Books). I’m pretty amazed that this modern classic is at this price.
Under the Radar
Various novels by Dennis Ruane. Many have been discounted to free. The common thread through these 4 novels seems to be modern men who retreat from professional obligations to retreat into nature. All sound fascinating!
Tiny Shoes Dancer (99 cents) by Audrey Kalman (website) is a fine short story collection by a fine California author. A few months ago at another sale I bought a novel about a mother being held at gunpoint by her son, What Remains Unsaid. Her website describes her fiction as “fiction with a dark edge” and that sounds about right.
Fat Lady’s Low Sad Song by Brian Kaufman (99 cents). I took a chance on this baseball novel written by a former comedian/restaurateur/rodeo rider. It’s about two down-on-their luck baseball players (one female, one male). Lots of good reviews, and a great first chapter. 2018 Kirkus Best book
Blink and it’s gone sales
Bomb: The Author Interviews 1.99 Thirty years of interviews that offer “a window into the minds and the writing processes of some of the world’s best practitioners of poetry and prose”
Sexual Intelligence by Marty Klein. 1.99. This is available on Unlimited This is a book of psychology. Klein has written other non-discounted books about porn, conservatism, sexual politics…
Short History of Decay by E.M. Cioran. I had never heard of this Romanian philosopher, but this is his famous work, Susan Sontag loves him and his ebooks are being discounted.
Deals on stuff published by Amazon.com
Generally these remain 99 cents or 1.99 until the end of the month.
Make Art Making Money: Lessons from Jim Henson on Fueling Your Creative Career by Elizabeth Hyde Stevens. Very thoughtful discussion about art, business and life. The first chapter referenced another book, Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World by Lewis Hyde which is very famous and widely acclaimed. I found a copy about a year ago at a library sale, and this ebook inspired me to read Gift first. (Could she be his daughter?) Stevens studied semiotics at Brown and her author bio page lists lots of literary credits (including a longish piece, Weekend at Kermie’s — which I assume is in the ebook).
Some Fine Day by Kat Ross. Exciting futuristic tale about what happens when a member of an underground society gets to the flooded surface. Definitely YA fiction, but I’m ready to read the whole thing!
Wall Between by Jesper Bugge Kold (from Danish). Mystery story about a man who delves into the death of his E. German grandfather. Kold has another title Winter Men (2.99) which is about how two brothers act during WW2 and how they deal with the guilt after.
Upside of Falling Down by Rebekah Crane. I usually am immune to YA novels with amnesia and plane crashes as plot elements, but the first two chapters aroused my interested and was fun too. Still haven’t decided whether to buy her other 99 cent YA novel Odds of Loving Grover Cleveland. (compassionate look at summer camp with disturbed teens). A lot of older readers say good things about it!
I found two ebooks by Amazon imprints definitely worth checking out. Slightly more expensive, but on Kindle Unlimited (which I’ll be canceling in the next 3 days).
One Match by J.Y. Chung. 2.99 This started out as an eerie sci fi thing about online dating and then transmogrified into a long exploration of high tech, professional life, getting older, etc. I wish I bought it when it was still 99 cents, but I’ll probably finish it before my KU expires. UPDATE: Wow, I have a change in heart about this one. It seems like a conventional yuppie romance book. Don’t recommend.
Everyone Knows You go Home by Natalia Sylvester. 1.99 story by a Latin American author about a dead father who mysteriously appears at a woman’s wedding. Magic realism, funny, I’m going to get to this eventually (I bought another title by Sylvester before). PS, she has a Texas connection?
Without a Country by Ayse Kulin. 1.99 Kulin writes sprawling Turkish tales that seem like sagas/family histories. One of her ebooks was in the World freebie bundle that Amazon did last summer, but Kulin has several other titles out as well. The first chapter is about a a woman who is about to leave her country out of fear of being arrested.
Various works by Cornelia Amiri: Back to the One I love, (0.99). I met this prolific multigenre author at a local author event. She has written tons, most priced at 99 cents. This one is time travel romance (?) while she’s written fantasy adventure about selkies (Scottish mythical beast that changes from seal to human form). Her most recent novel is an YA fantasy romance also costing 99 cents.
To Squeeze a Prairie Dogby Scott Semegran. Regular 2.99, discounted today to 99 cents. (won’t last). I have an ad for this book on the sidebar to buy on Smashwords…. I’ve read the first chapter. A strong work…
Hold Autumn in Your Hand by George Sessions Perry. (Texas classic novel which won National Book Award. Not on ebook!)
Titles from Smashwords & other places
Nick Stokes recently published a FREE maze story called You Choose. (alas, without hyperlinks; it’s adapted from a printed version). Also: An Affair Here’s his website. Apparently Stokes is a playwright who releases a lot of things under creative commons license. His fiction has an experimental/metafiction bent. Here’s an interview: Part 1, Part 2.
To put a novel down before the end, then, is simply to acknowledge that for me its shape, its aesthetic quality, is in the weave of the plot and, with the best novels, in the meshing of the writing style with that weave. Style and plot, overall vision and local detail, fascinate together, in a perfect tangle. Once the structure has been set up and the narrative ball is rolling, the need for an end is just an unfortunate burden, an embarrassment, a deplorable closure of so much possibility. Sometimes I have experienced the fifty pages of suspense that so many writers feel condemned to close with as a stretch of psychological torture, obliging me to think of life as a machine for manufacturing pathos and tragedy, since the only endings we half-way believe in, of course, are the unhappy ones.
New York Review of Books, 2012
I have one book by Parks (Adultery and Other Diversions –not an ebook), but Parks has a lot of ebooks available (fiction and nonfiction). He’s done a lot of Italian translations by very important people. I’ll be watching out and reporting on sales. Here’s a very wonderful LARB interview. My library has a few of his fiction titles, and Novel: A Survival Skill is a highly regarded book of literary criticism.
Alan Good reviewsA Life on Paper: Stories (6.15 ebook)by Georges-Olivier Châteaureynaud. “Châteaureynaud’s stories are disorienting, bizarre, mythical. The stories don’t end with epiphanies or a tidy wrapping-up. Some of the endings are abrupt, even unsatisfying; they feel more like a beginning. So what?”
Can’t remember if I already posted so, but Art of Thinking Clearly by Rolf Dobelli is a very fine book about logical thinking. Also highly recommended are Mindware: Tools for Smart Thinking by Richard Nisbet and Skeptics Guide to the Universe by Bob Novella et others. Words cannot express my anger at missing the 1 day 2.99 ebook sale, although I now realize that my library owns 5 hard copies. Dobelli is an easy read. Nisbet is pretty intense, and I expect Skeptics Guide to be almost as intense. UPDATE: I started the Novella book. Accessible book on logical thinking.
Random Library Checkouts. Generally whenever I visit a library, I will make it a point to browse through the stacks and pick one random book that struck my fancy. The library has many works from abroad and in translation. Before I had to return it, I was getting into This is Memorial Device by David Keenan, a great novel about the punk music scene in Scotland in the 1980s. Had to return it, but I’ll definitely be checking out again! (ebook is 8.99 ugh!). Am rechecking out for the gazillionth time Collected Essays of Elizabeth Hardwick — a great fat book from NYROB.
Literature And The Latin Middle Ages: European literature and the Latin Middle Ages by Ernst Robert Curtius; Willard R. Trask; Colin Burrow . Harold Bloom recommended this as one of the alltime best books of literary criticism. I requested it on Interlibrary Loan and then skimmed it, but it’s clearly an interesting and penetrating book. I’ll find me a copy!
The paradox of Ukrainian Lviv : a borderland city between Stalinists, Nazis, and nationalists by Tarik Amar. It’s an outrageously priced academic book from Cornell U., but overall a fine overview of Lviv before during and after WW2. (Thousands of Jews died there, and Polish were expelled at several different times, both during and after Nazi control). I visited this beautiful city often and gave a lecture there at one of the universities. I didn’t realize that Stanislaw Lem grew up there and was later expelled after World War 2 during one of the Polish purges. The academic book was sometimes dry but thorough and about what you’d expect. It’s hard for Americans to imagine the turbulence of this city, and how it was both a melting pot and a dangerously balkanized city.
Review Copies Received
Literary Trends Spotted
Lately I’ve noticed that multi-volume omnibus editions are selling very well. (The first that I truly got excited about was Nearly Complete Works of Donald Harington ). Here’s what’s going on here. Amazon is setting a price floor at 2.99 for indie authors, and because offering ebooks under 2.99 on Amazon severely reduces royalties, people are getting around the system by offering bigger ebooks! It’s easier to persuade people to buy a 3 volume omnibus edition at 3.99 than trying to sell individual titles for 2.99 or $1. This is sort of a good thing; on the other hand, readers and publishers are again falling into the “Bigger is Better” trap. Eventually these gigantic ebooks will take up too much memory or impair device performance, but ultimately the source of the problem is Amazon’s price floor. For the time being, the 3-5$ price range for omnibus editions is worth watching very closely. Many amazing deals are to be had.
(VIDEO 16 min) Mark Beyer talks about the meaning and value of art with respect to his novel WHAT BEAUTY ebook
I have several audio interviews I made with authors which I’ll be publishing here soon!
Personville Press Giveaways and Deals
I run Personville Press, a small literary book press where all the ebooks cost less than $4. You can buy these titles at the main ebook stores (Amazon, Kobo, BN, Apple, etc.), but I regularly run promotions on Smashwords, so the same titles usually sell on Smashwords for half the price that you see them on Amazon. Pay attention to any 100% coupon codes which I occasionally list below — they can be redeemed only a small number of times, so first come, first serve. Smashwords only sells epub versions of these titles, but you can easily convert them to Amazon’s mobi format by using Kindle Previewer or Calibre.
Interview with the Sphinx. By Jack Matthews. (FREE until 3/16/2019, no coupon code required) Hyperintellectual Tom Stoppard-like play which reads like a novel about a strange interview with the ancient Sphinx character. Freud and Florence Nightingale show up too. I loved this play and even produced an audio version of it (3.99 on cdbabyand itunes), but the script reads well too.
Three Times Time Story Sampler by Jack Matthews (Always Free!) US Amazon customers can sometimes get it for free, but to make things easier, you can down these files directly without having to register: Epub, Mobi.
I first published this on Friday, but I have about a dozen other things to include. The deals never stop coming!
Over the last month I’ve had several pressing personal matters arise, but (as far as I can tell), they are behind me. I still have been acquiring interesting titles and authors and will continue to share what I can. My next Robert’s Roundup column should drop in the next 24 hours.
Even though it’s kind of a time-suck, I enjoy doing these columns. I prefer making them longer and less often rather than short and frequent.
Deals which I find on Amazon quickly expire, so by the time people read this, many are gone. Why mention them at all? I do so mainly because sales on Amazon recur often, and if you have a price alert system, you can be notified when the price goes down again.
You should pay closely to my recommendations from the monthly sales of Amazon imprints (i.e., 99 cent deals which last until the end of the month). I spend a lot of time reading through this month’s picks and figuring out which are worth buying. When I publish the Roundup, these sales are still up to date and will remain so until the end of the month.
The goal of this column is to make you aware of more under-the-radar authors whose prices stay low to begin with. So while is moderately interesting that I was able to buy an omnibus edition ofWilliam Styron’s novels for $2.40 during a spot sale, it probably is not that interesting because Styron is already well known, comes from a major publisher and that sale is likely to pop up again later. Let me pick a better example. I was REALLY tempted to mention and buy the debut story collection White Dancing Elephants by Chaya Bhuvaneswar for a one day sale of 1.99. This title is probably unfamiliar to many, but apparently last year, it was reviewed EVERYWHERE and was on many people’s Best list. Also, the ebook was found in multiple copies (digital + print) at my library. So I felt no special urgency to buy it even though it was probably great. At the same time, I discovered a story collection by New Zealand author Bronwyn Elsmore for 99 cents. Besides being kind of exotic, Elsmore has several other titles which will be probably be discounted later. Also, it’s highly unlikely to find her stories from my public library. That is why I spent my money on the Elsmore title.
I want to post reviews (capsule or full length), so probably a good schedule would be to post a Robert’s Roundup every 2 weeks and then on the alternate week run some kind of review or book essay. Given the vagaries of schedule, 2 weeks can sometimes turn into 3 weeks. The urgency of the column depends on 1)reporting on my picks for the 99 cent sales before the month is over and 2)reporting on Smashwords seasonal sales in time for readers to take advantage of it.
I mentioned before why I prefer Smashwords even though it is a smaller store and doesn’t have most of the big publishers. Instead of doing a separate column about deals on Smashwords, I’m just going to make it a separate section on my Robert’s Roundups. Most of the time, Smashwords titles are available on Amazon, but I’m NOT going to link to the Amazon book page for multiple reasons.
Finally, I want to add sections for Multimedia, Poetry and Outside Readings on my Roundup. Multimedia is one way to get into authors, and so are essays/book reviews. (Also, I have some audio interviews with authors which I’ll be releasing). Poetry is always neglected
Feb 28 Update: Since I made this post, Amazon dropped me from their Amazon Affiliates program, claiming that I violated the terms of the agreement by offering ads to competitor products (in this case Smashwords). I plead guilty as charged! In retrospect, these reflections on the implications of signing up for an affiliate program were prescient indeed!
Ever since I revamped the blog to make it more literary, I have thought about whether it was worthwhile to spend time and effort trying to make money from it. . Every indie blogger faces that question at one time or other: sure, blogging is just a habit or a nasty itch, but getting paid a little would make it easier to justify spending more time and energy on it. Given the stark fluctuations in my finances over the decade, the question of seeking ad revenue always remains relevant. Actually, it brings a series of questions:
How much time would it take to configure and maintain an ad-friendly site?
How much would it alienate my (very meager population of) readers? How distracting would it be?
Is the amount of revenue worth the effort and deterioration of the site’s look?
How much control would I forfeit?
How likely is it that ads are for products I’m personally not comfortable with?
Am I crossing a line from which you can’t go back?
Does keeping the blog noncommercial provide benefits greater than trying to monetize it?
Do I have analytical tools to optimize ad performance?
Is the compensation from monetizing a One Person Blog (OPB) high enough to justify doing it?
Is it good to endorse the company deriving benefit from these ads?
How do you compute the optimal ratio of content vs. ads?
Is the subject matter of my blog conducive to advertising?
I’m not going to answer these questions in a methodical manner. I just want to list them for reference.
Some blog topics are naturally conducive to monetization. If you run a fashion blog or a mommy blog or a vintage car blog or a blog about local events in Houston, you’re in luck; it should be relatively easy to connect to potential advertisers. Many bloggers occupy niches of some sort; some are simply less monetizable than others. I am always amused when a blogger from one of these categories talks about how every blogger should try to monetize. No, every blog is different. Some types of blogs are always going to get more eyeballs and always going to attract people who want to advertise. For the vast majority of bloggers, it does not make sense to try because the amount of potential earnings is so paltry.
Are there ads which don’t drive people crazy?
Many ads are distracting. For a long while I have run ad blockers while surfing the net. I don’t particularly feel guilty about doing this, although I wish that I could help these sites in some ways. For me personally, the problem is not the fact a site has ads but that they are extremely distracting and can dominate the reading space. If any ad on a web page has movement, I simply cannot concentrate on the content. Undoubtedly there must be marketing research demonstrating that multimedia ads work better than static ads, but I can confidently assert that sites with ads that dance or shimmer or shake or flash lights drive me crazy. As a reader, I go to web sites to read, not to engage with a video ad which a site has decided I must endure.
Common Mistakes of One Person Blogs (OPB)
At some point, bloggers have to deal with the niche vs. personal thing. Most bloggers start with a niche, and then diverge from it over time with personal updates, political rants, family things, etc. But One Person Blogs (OPB) are difficult to maintain; to truly do justice to a topic requires a full time personal commitment, and even that is not enough. That is usually why many bloggers burn out; they try to do too much or get overwhelmed with other things. In best case scenario, the OPB turns into a multi-person blog and the workload (and profits) are evenly distributed. These things are not as common as you’d think.
The mistake made by one person blogs (OPB) is assuming that the blog has to be the most important thing in their lives. But blogging shouldn’t be first priority or even second priority, maybe not even third priority. Blogposts should be opportunities to go off on random tangents.
Another OPB mistake is assuming that advertising needs to align perfectly with the content. A personal blog is what it is. It’s never going to stay on-topic, and any blog monetization need to allow for this fact. I’m not going to refrain from making a Trump rant, an awkward personal confession or a link to scatalogical humor just because I’m afraid of what potential advertisers will think.
Another OPB mistake is delegating the choice of ads to a third party. Most bloggers have dabbled in putting third party ads on their blog with disappointing results. Maybe the text-only Google ads are better than most from a readability point of view, but the ads themselves aren’t vetted and are potentially suspicious. Also, they appear once and disappear, reducing their effectiveness. Who’s going to click through a link just on the basis of a single ad impression? If I show an ad on my website, I want to know beforehand what it looks like and what product or service it’s promoting. A while back I was looking into joining an ad network — both to buy ads and also to feature them. Eventually I looked at the ad payouts and how much they were charging and eventually realized that the only books which could afford these ads were the bland blockbusters I wouldn’t want anywhere near my blog.
Third party ad networks are convenient and provide better analytics. But they generally don’t provide good value to advertisers or a good payout to website owners. Sure, maybe niche advertising can find the appropriate niche blog, but I generally think both sides are paying too much for those analytical tools at the reader’s expense.
There is a more practical problem with using third party ad networks. Most users were using ad blockers, and third party ads were extremely easy to block. In today’s web, you have to figure out the nuances of persuading people to turn off their ad blocker. Or you can try something more obvious: serve your own ads! (Adblockers rarely block ads from your own website).
The dilemmas of participating in affiliate marketing programs
My makeshift solution is to serve simple book cover ads on the sidebar with links to my Smashwords affiliate links. Then whenever I link to Amazon products in the main text, I embed my affiliate code in the URL.
I somewhat endorse the books featured on the sidebar. I haven’t read most of them, but I’m familiar enough with the content and authors to feel comfortable recommending them. Would I like some paid book ads? Sure! (and hey, if you’re interested, email me!) But for the time being, it’s more important to provide a space for indie authors to get noticed. I’m fine with running free ads indefinitely — most for at least a month.
One overlooked thing about Smashwords is that authors can raise the payout percentage to affiliates. Default payout for Smashwords affiliates is 11%, but when I correspond with authors, I generally ask them to double the payout to 25% (I explain more here).
So far, these affiliate ads have earned me next-to-nothing. Maybe that will change over time as this blog attracts more visitors. Because of the random nature of web surfing, web visitors might not use the affiliate links or possibly not follow my ebook recommendations at all. Oh, well, them’s the breaks!
Which ebook distributors should a blog prefer?
Previously I discussed the pros and cons of Amazon and Smashwords. Is it right for a blogger to prefer links to one of them because of the potential revenue from affiliate marketing programs?
First, let me say that I actually prefer Smashwords as a store for multiple reasons, not just for affiliate payouts. (See my last post).
Second, Amazon not only has more market share and reader reviews, it also has reading applications on all the major platforms. Despite its lack of support for epub, I still prefer the Kindle reading app to the others. Perhaps Google Play Books matches Kindle in platform independence, but they’ve been around for — I don’t know, 6 years — and they still haven’t figured out how to create collections or bookshelves!
Third, I don’t know of third party price alerts for ebook stores other than Amazon. For Pete’s sake, I don’t know how to visit a book page on itunes website without the browser warning me that I need to install iTunes!
Fourth, it is unrealistic for a consumer to keep track of different reading systems. Let me talk about the ebook distributors I have patronized before, in chronological order.
ebookwise — (2004-5) I bought a handful of (DRM-free) ebooks from them, all now lost.
Sony Reader. (2006?) I bought a handful of well-known titles (Bill Bryson, Andrew Weil, etc) after being given a store credit. DRM. All now lost.
Barnes and Noble Nook (2008-2012). I bought about 12 titles and acquired hundreds of free titles. Through some major account screwup, BN lost all my ebook records. I should be mad, but frankly, it was evident for a long while that BN was not managing their records correctly. DRM titles, all now lost.
iTunes on iPad 1. I bought about a half dozen titles for the iPad, including several innovative multimedia titles (some as ebooks, some as apps). DRM. After I finally parted with my ipad 1 in 2016, those titles are now lost. (I haven’t had an Apple device since that time — though I recently came to own an iPad 2, so these ebooks might be available to me again.
O’reilly Store. 2012-2015 I bought a handful of DRM free technical ebooks available as PDF/EPUB/MOBI which I put on my Google Drive. It’s been a while since I’ve visited the O’reilly store, but I’m pretty sure I could download these titles anytime I want.
Packt Press 2011-4? Technical publishers, drm-free. I think I bought a few titles from one of their sales.
Humble Bundle 2011-now. I have bought maybe 3 or 4 different DRM-free ebook bundles from them. I downloaded the files onto my Google drive and put some on Google Play Books. I’m pretty sure I could re-download them anytime I want. Strangely, the big problem with Humble Bundle stuff has been file size (some of their files have been gigantic!) Interestingly, some Packt Press and Oreilly titles were included in the last Humble book bundle I bought.
Verso Books. (2018), I bought a ton of drm free titles from this leftist press during their Summer Blowout sale. They have really incredible titles (especially on climate change), and I’m sure that as long as the publisher is still alive, I can redownload them anytime I want.
Google Play Books (2017-2018). I purchased about 5-10 DRM titles from GPB, mainly because of coupons and sales not present on Amazon. (Octavia Butler, Stephen Hawking, etc). I upload lots of PDF and epubs to GPB, but as I said before, there is no way to organize anything!
Tor (2016-present). I have bought 1 title and downloaded several DRM-free titles from these guys.
Amazon (2009 to present). I have purchased 1000s of DRM titles (about 80% free) and uploaded many DRM-free purchases from Verso, Smashwords and review copies. (I upload only mobi files. I never upload PDFs to them).
Smashwords (2012 to present). I have acquired about 1000+ DRM-free titles. Pre-2017, most of my acquisitions were freebies, but starting in about 2017 onward, I have paid money for an increasing number of titles (especially during their seasonal sales). I try to download multiple formats (when available) and stick on my Google Drive. If mobi files are available, I upload to my Kindle cloud reader. Otherwise, I stick them onto Google Play Books.
To summarize: Except for Amazon, most purchased titles with DRM have eventually become inaccessible. Here are the ebook reading systems I am now using:
Kindle Reader (for most of my purchases). I read on a Samsung 12 tablet and a small android phone.
Google Play Books (for epub uploads, and sometimes PDFs).
Adobe Digital Editions (mobile android edition). For PDFs with DRM (which I use rarely).
So from my perspective as a reader, I am basically blind to sales on iTunes or Kobo or Barnes and Noble store. If more sales become available from these stores, they would have to be pretty huge for me to want to add that reading system — especially since Amazon.com pretty much inherits the low prices from most sales. Maybe at some point a Kobo-Walmart collaboration could persuade me, who knows? Why should I spend extra time making links to ebook stores likely to have the same prices on Amazon?
A kind of solution for affiliate marketing
One way for a blogger to be more agnostic about ebook distributors is to carry affiliate links for everybody. To my knowledge, Amazon hasn’t required exclusivity to participate in their affiliate program. (If they did, I would quickly head to the exits!) WordPress has several plugins which allow you to convert Amazon links to ones with your affiliate codes, so it is convenient to use their program.
If the same ebook is available for the same price on both Smashwords and Amazon, I will buy the version on Smashwords (even if I later end up uploading it to the Kindle app). For this reason, I generally provide links to the Smashwords store if the price is the same. Generally, all the Smashwords titles are available on Amazon.
If the ebook is not on Smashwords, or if the Amazon price is significantly lower (or free), then I’ll mention the Amazon price. Buying through Smashwords pays me 275% of what Amazon pays in affiliate fees, so that’s why I provide as many Smashwords links as I can. On the other hand, Amazon has sales on many titles not on Smashwords. Because the bigger publishers have tools which allow them to price products across bookstores simultaneously, seeing it on sale at Amazon means that it will probably be on sale at other bookstores.
If something is really cheap (and I mean, REALLY cheap!) at another ebook store, I’ll certainly mention it (especially if it’s DRM-free).
To make it easier for you, I will try to provide links to the author’s website and some book descriptions. Like it or not, Amazon’s book page contains the most book information and reviews, so that’s why I link to Amazon’s book page. Even so, you should still check the author’s page when possible. Book pages on the author site not only gives buying information but also direct URLs to book reviews and possibly other supplemental material (interviews, video trailers, excerpts). Also, it can be fun to learn extra things about an author from his bio or his blog.
Goodreads and Book Communities
I actually like Goodreads (despite privacy concerns!), and Amazon’s backing of it has generally helped book communities (although at the expense of the equally impressive Librarything). Let us dream for a moment of an independent book community site which links to all the ebookstores and provided metadata and reader reviews of all kinds. It is not really a good thing that Amazon essentially controls this information. If this consumer/user-generated book information resides at one bookstore, it reinforces the monopoly. Librarything should really do a better job at making their book information available to ebook distributors; perhaps they are already doing this, I don’t know. Capitalism doesn’t always work efficiently, but if it were easy for all ebook sellers to tap into this information, everybody would benefit, and no vendor would derive a special advantage. Then again, it’s hard to imagine such a book community thriving without a big financial backer.
At the same time, my participation in Amazon’s affiliate marketing program does put me in bed with the biggest ebook player (Amazon). For the time being, I’m fine with that — because Amazon book pages have lots of information and Amazon’s affiliate program offers the possibility of blog monetization. But I will keep an eye about whether my implicit partnership with a single bookseller is undermining my commitment to inform you of ebook deals. This blog is NOT MARRIED to Amazon. Instead, it is DATING Amazon simply out of convenience — and if a more attractive suitor comes along, I’m certainly be happy to start playing the field.
The next two days will feature posts about ebook distribution and affiliate marketing for blogs. Today’s post will compare two leading ebook distributors (Amazon and Smashwords). Tomorrow’s post (which is here) will explore the dilemmas faced by a blogger in promoting purchases from one distributor over another.
Amazon and Smashwords both sell ebooks, and lately I’ve been keeping a list of the pluses and minus of both distributors. Comparing the two is slightly absurd because ebooks are Smashword’s core competency (perhaps its only competency), while for Amazon, ebooks are just one part of its commercial empire. Amazon sells not only dedicated devices but creates apps for major mobile platforms. It sells digital content which you can own or stream or rent. It’s tempting to say that because Amazon is bigger, it’s also better. That’s not necessarily true. As a smaller (and more nimble) ebook provider, Smashwords offers several advantages over Amazon’s.
Author royalties for low cost books? Smashwords wins. (Below 2.99, amazon pays 30% to author, while Smashwords pays 50-70%).
Buyer has full access and use of the purchased ebook file (without drm)? Smashwords wins.
Supports epub — the international standard for ebooks? Smashwords wins. Amazon’s ebook readers and reading systems lets you import pdf, mobi and MS Word, but it plays dumb when it comes to epub files.
Allows free and pay-what-you-want ebooks? Smashwords wins.
Author can make coupons to distribute to fans? Smashwords wins. Coupon manager is one of their best features.
Offers ebook creation tools? Both suck, but amazon has more tools and Kindle Previewer for testing. Also, smashwords allows direct epub upload (but not mobi upload).
Author can put videos on book page? Smashwords wins. Amazon only lets you do it on Author Central book page
Affiliate marketing features? Smashwords has better rates and features, but a smaller customer base.
Author giveaways. Amazon requires authors to buy their own ebooks to give them away. Smashwords lets you make unlimited number of freebie coupons.
Provide ways to produce printed books? Only Amazon does this. To be fair, smashwords lets you add urls for the printed book page (even if it’s on amazon).
Book page. Smashwords has much fewer distractions. Book marketing guru David Gaughran wrote, “As I write these words, there are currently 248 different titles on the product page of the Kindle edition of “Let’s Get Digital.” Between the ads, Also Boughts, Also Vieweds, Amazon promotion, and other links, there are hundreds of things that could distract a reader before they purchase.
Consumer Side of Ebooks
Has a nice cloud-based solution for multiple devices? Amazon wins. Smashwords doesn’t have a cloud-based ereader, but the consumer has the freedom to import purchases into whatever reading system can read DRM-free ebook files. Smashwords also can serve files to Dropbox.
Is easier to get ebooks on a preferred device? Amazon wins. Amazon has built reading systems for almost any device. It will automatically forward purchased items to your device. Smashwords requires that you choose a third party reading system which you will manually upload the file to your preferred device and reading system.
Has price-alert tools? Amazon wins by a long shot. Ereaderiq and others.
More freebies? Smashwords wins. Amazon has lots of freebies too, but often they are temporary or made through special arrangement between a publisher and amazon.
User-friendly shopping cart? Amazon is better, but Smashwords paypal shopping cart has gotten somewhat better over the years
Offers a monthly all you-can-eat option? Amazon wins with Kindle Unlimited (KU). On the other hand, most authors on KU are promising to let amazon be exclusive distributor, which is wrong.
Lets you view word count? Smashwords gives exact word counts of ebooks it sells. With Amazon, it’s less clear how much content is in an individual ebook.
Easier for non-us audiences? Smashwords has one store for everybody; Amazon has different stores for each region. This sounds easier, but it also means that consumers are not eligible for certain promotions.
Resolves customer service issues? Amazon wins slightly. You can ask for an ebook refund within a week, which is extremely generous. Smashwords customer support tickets are handled very promptly (and I have never had issues with them).
Which ebooks are better formatted? Varies widely, but generally because amazon has a higher percentage of ebooks by professional publishers, their ebooks look better.
Which has better ebook management/font options/annotation? Amazon wins simply because Smashwords doesn’t have a cloud-based reading system; you must choose your own solution. That said, Amazon’s reading system is powerful; it lets you organize by bookshelves and collections. You assign ebooks into one or more collections either from within the Kindle itself or the Amazon site.
Which website is easier to browse? Smashwords has many different ways to browse through and filter results. Often it’s easier to view ebook descriptions. Amazon used to be good, but they disabled audience-created lists. Amazon search results show a definite favoritism towards bigger publishers and those who have paid to advertise. On the plus side, amazon has autogenerated “also boughts” which show up on the ebook page; this occasionally can lead you to interesting titles.
Which allows lending? Tie. Amazon has a nifty lending feature, but most big publishers have disabled this feature. Because Smashwords sell everything without drm, lending is always permitted, though it must be done manually.
Can you keep your ebooks if the distributor goes bankrupt? Presumably Amazon is big enough not to be in danger of going bankrupt anytime soon. But unless Amazon makes alternate arrangements, it’s not likely that books bought there will transfer to another ebook platform. Smashwords lets you keep the ebook files and import them into another reading system later.
Overall mindshare in the reading world
I define mindshare as the benefits that accrue from a product having a bigger audience. How does the size of the audience enhance the service for customers?
Which has more reviews? Amazon wins by a long shot (but Smashwords customers can simply look at Amazon reviews too!)
More technical/professional ebooks? Amazon is the market leader, smashwords doesn’t even come close, mainly because until recently publishers had to use the company’s ebook creation tool. (Now, you can upload an epub file directly).
which has more ebooks and authors? Amazon has probably 10x the number, but prices on Smashwords are generally cheaper and quality freebies are easier to find.
Which have more name brand authors and publishers? Definitely Amazon. Smashwords has very few major publishers or authors. (Major publishers avoid distributors which lack drm)
Which has cheaper prices? Smashwords has more seasonal sales and deep discount sales. Amazon has more tools (inhouse-and third party) to manage pricing and promotions.
Which is publishing/promoting individual authors? Definitely Amazon wins. A few years ago, amazon started various ebook imprints — Amazon Crossing, little a, etc which has delivered many incredible low-cost exclusive ebooks to consumers. One week in 2018 they offered a dozen freebie titles of extremely talented international authors. Amazon has the big bucks and the inhouse expertise to pull off stunts like this. Smashwords has stayed out of the review/recommendation game altogether
which have more sexually explicit titles? Smashwords is much better. It has more liberal policies towards sexually explicit content while letting consumers filter what they want. Amazon has a lot of explicit content too, but I’ve heard some authors complain about Amazon blocking their ebook (or at least a ebook with a racy title or cover).
Which has the better book community? Amazon runs GoodReads which is an extremely active and book-friendly community (and not too centered around loving Amazon). On the other hand, Amazon is marketed towards everybody while Smashwords is marketed specifically at rabid ebook fans who are more willing to take a chance with an unfamiliar author, less likely to read the next bestseller. Amazon definitely has a long tail, but they also offer a lot of books by celebrities and right-wing pundits and self-help gurus. Amazon reflects the priorities of big publishers and bestseller lists, while Smashwords just offers a collection of random self-published authors who are trying to thrive outside of Amazon’s reach. On Smashwords you get a lot more amateurish stuff, but also edgier, less commercial stuff.
Have I forgotten any key features for this comparison matrix? Feel free to add in the comments below.
Feb 19 Update. I just noticed that Smashwords is making tweaks to customer-facing interfaces: wishlists, libraries, etc. This is a very good sign.
A few weeks ago I was watching a great interview on Colbert with Bernie Sanders. I love Sanders and find all his ideas to be interesting. Yet when Colbert revealed that Sanders had a new book out, I remember thinking, there is zero chance I’ll be reading this book.
Even though I’m a book reader, news junkie and liberal, I rarely pick up or buy a book by someone running for political office. At best I may read a sample chapter in Time or Newsweek, but I generally don’t go out of my way to do so. Why not?
First, I wouldn’t expect to enjoy it. I’ve been told that politicians are not terrible authors. I’ve been told that Barack Obama’s memoir is well-written, and generally I have enjoyed reading opinion pieces by Hilary Clinton or John Kerry. Professional politicians probably spend a lot of time writing speeches which are moving or insightful. But a book?
I would expect that books by politicians would consist of a series of political speeches put together in chapters, plus a few introductory chapters about growing up. The problem is, I already know the gist of their backstory and political positions. Most politicians lack deep knowledge about a subject; they are more keyed into the political process and which bullet points are most persuasive. They may have collected interesting ideas and political anecdotes, but for the most part they are conveying insights secondhand.
Last week, the most talked about book is one by Chris Christie. Without even trying, I came across TV interviews with this “author.” (Believe me, Cheever or Updike or Oates would have killed for this sustained media attention). It seems unfathomable when in this busy news cycle, PBS Newshour would deem this book newsworthy enough to devote an 8 minute segment on it. Soon, in the grand spirit of G. Gordon Liddy, the onslaught of “bad actor” memoirs will soon be upon us . We’ve already had Omarosa and Sean Spicer; it’s only a matter of time before there are memoirs by Steve Bannon, Sebastian Gorka and John Kelley. While maybe some of these people are not corrupt per se (or at least, not outlandishly so), they are still pushing an agenda. Chris Christie isn’t as loathsome as Trump (and he showed visible disdain for him during the Colbert interview). His main line was that he disagreed with Trump’s rhetoric and political methods but he still agreed with Trump’s political ideas. Wait — what? Everyone is entitled to their point of view, but then again, talk shows can accommodate a diversity of viewpoints by inviting social scientists and policy experts rather than the actors involved. Otherwise, you’re just allowing politicians to rewrite history as they think it ought to be written.
A memoir written by an actual president is a different beast (See note #1 at bottom). Almost anything an ex-president says or does is historically important; they can relate encounters firsthand of important people during critical times. A presidential memoir also provides insight into the private vs. public aspect of running the country (although I’m not sure Bill Clinton’s book contained any mention of Monica Lewinsky in his own memoir). I still wouldn’t read most books by presidents, but if I were to pick one, it might be Ulysses Grant (which Edmund Wilson raved about in his book Patriotic Gore). Although I disagreed with George W. Bush profoundly about many things, I thought his Decision Points book to be a somewhat interesting way to tell a story. Bush and his ghost writer/editor picked a few key decisions Bush had to make as president and covered them in depth. Brilliant! It’s far easier to write a book-listicle than a full chronological narrative.
Nonsucky Books by Politicians
I generally avoid books by political figures, but here are some notable exceptions.
Al Gore’s Earth in the Balance (and his other books) That 1991 book literally changed my life. From my study in school, I already knew about global warming, but Gore described the scientific, economic and political issues cogently. After reading it, I remember thinking that first, the carbon tax was a brilliant way to solve the climate change crisis. Wouldn’t the world be a better place now if it had been implemented in the 1990s? That would have given the US a 25 year head start on transitioning to a clean economy . This book made me see that the Texas lifestyle (cars, air conditioning, etc.) and the Texas economy (heavily dependent on petroleum and natural gas) would have a difficult time transitioning to cleaner fuels. Despite Gore’s dire warnings, I could never have imagined that some devastating environmental effects (like hurricanes and forest fires) would be here 20 years later.
Actually what Gore wrote about after losing the election turned out to be even more interesting. In Assault on Reason, Gore wrote think pieces about our intervention in Iraq and what values should guide our domestic and foreign policies. Gore was always a vision guy, and his insights into the political process were thoughtful and profound. Well worth reading.
Daniel Patrick Moynihan wrote many books which influenced public policy, but his best book was the one he wrote after retiring from the US Senate: Secrecy. (Amazingly, an ebook version is not available). Moynihan was tasked with investigating why the CIA got everything so wrong about the Soviet Union – both its military might and its political stability. After poring over classified and unclassified documents and doing an in-depth policy analysis of other administrations, Moynihan concluded that the gathering of intelligence under the guise of secrecy ensured that bad information would be distributed but never challenged. “Secrecy is for losers,” the book said. “(It’s) for people who do not know how important the information really is.” People at the CIA were not idiots, but they (and political leaders) assumed that information from classified sources was higher quality than it actually was. Publicly available information and news reports can be vetted and challenged and confirmed, while classified intelligence briefs rarely undergo the same skeptical rigor.
This book had a profound effect on me when looking at George W. Bush’s military buildup in anticipation of the 2003 invasion. Bush had been referring to classified reports of Hussein’s WMD. I remember attending a town hall meeting right when the Iraq invasion was about to take place. My far-right Congressman, John Culberson, was telling us about how chilling the classified briefings were and how if I attended the same briefings about weapons of mass destruction, everyone would understand why the US had to intervene now. As the town hall meeting broke up and I had the chance to push back on his claim, I realize that instead of talking to him, I should have just handed him the Secrecy book, and asked him just to read the damn book.
I don’t know if he actually wrote this book or it was simply compiled, but Bob Dole Great Political Wit was a random pleasure which I bought for 25 cents at a library sale. I never expected to read it, but the book consisted of short anecdotes between 1 and 3 paragraphs. Some parts were dull, but most were silly, unexpected and fun. Actually, I’m sure Ronald Reagan was an incredibly good joke teller, and I wouldn’t mind reading compilation of his humorous anecdotes. (Some people have compiled them on Youtube, have fun guys!) I wish more politicians could write joke books. (See note #2 at bottom).
In the early 1990s Robert Reich had written widely about how more public investment in people and infrastructure would be more effective than other GOP solutions like enterprise zones. (Work of Nations) In the last two decades Reich wrote deep and thoughtful pieces about managing economic policy and improving the social safety net. I’ve been reading his blog forever; indeed, recently I reread his 2008 posts where Reich details the buildup of the mortgage crisis, the recession indicators, the failure of Bush’s SEC and FTC to regulate industries and ultimately TARP. (Reich made a vehement case against bailing out the major banks and for helping citizens directly). Reich was been right and prescient about so many things that I lose count.
Locked in the Cabinet by Robert Reich was one of his less ambitious books; it gave a firsthand account of what it was like to work in the Clinton White House and how his progressive agenda was frequently overruled by Bob Rubin and Larry Summers. It was also very funny. Reich details the byzantine protocol that cabinet members have to observe and some charming private conversations he had with the Clintons. I was a big fan of the Clinton Administration anyway, but Reich successfully humanized them and revealed their limits as political figures. (I have not read the books by Bill Clinton or Hillary Clinton; don’t plan to!)
Before Elizabeth Warren was barnstorming the Senate (and now, possibly the presidency), she authored a pretty amazing bit of scholarship,The Two Income Trap with her daughter Tyagi. She tried to unmask the subject of consumer debt and bankruptcy (a lot of it is due to medical bills and unexpected emergencies, not slacking off). She noted that Americans saddled themselves with unusual amount of debt to buy more expensive houses than they could afford. Their actions were motivated mainly by the desire to send their kids to good schools in good school districts. To accomplish this, a couple could have two people working full time instead of only one. This provided extra income and extra ability to buy a nice home, but it also added risk; if you are dependent on two incomes, what happens if one person loses a job? In the past, Warren shows, a family could afford to buy a house on a single wage earner’s income, and so sending the spouse to work in the event of an emergency provided a buffer against financial ruin. Now they no longer have this buffer, resulting in more economic uncertainty within the household. It is an intriguing explanation (Matt Yglesias has more), and the book argued policy in a book for a general audience.
Elizabeth Warren is a good and thoughtful writer, but will I be reading her pre-campaign book? Not a chance! (Anyway, I already follow her speeches; her speech at last year’s Netroots Nation was perhaps the most remarkable).
Why some books by politicians aren’t bad
Several things are evident from the limited number of books by politicians which I’ve actually read.
First, Moynihan, Warren and Reich started off in academia and did a lot of important work there. Moynihan taught and even had a tenure-track position until JFK asked him to serve in the Kennedy White House. After he left office in 1965, he worked in academia again before serving various ambassador roles with the Nixon Administration. He was elected to the US Senate in 1976 and mostly stayed away from being an author until after leaving the Senate. Although he wrote many public policy reports (most notably his 1965 report about the Negro Family), probably his Secrecy book will have the most lasting influence. (Also, on my to-read pile is Daniel Patrick Moynihan: A Portrait in Letters of an American Visionary).
By now Warren’s biography is well-known, but her punchy speeches derived from decades of teaching bankruptcy law and becoming master of economic and legal details for the purpose of advocacy. While Robert Reich got a JD and started out in law and government, his most productive and formative years were teaching 12 years at Harvard.
It’s an obvious point really, but political memoirs are richer/juicier/more thoughtful after a political campaign (and presumably after someone leaves office). If you think of it, pre-election books amount to little more than long homework assignments which will become a series of talking points at interviews. One expects competence and occasional insight, but not genius.
Second, although politicians have gotten used to retelling their life stories, often they produce a book with a specific agenda in mind: to show I’m actually brainier than I appear, that I’m warmer than I appear in public, that I am actually very charitable, that my critics have been consistently been wrong about me, that God is an important part of my life as a politician, that I’m just an ordinary Joe like you. The agenda of these books may interfere with the enjoyment of the book itself — especially when the reader has tons of other celebrity memoirs competing for their attention.
Books by political spawn and sidekicks
Family and children of famous politicians also write memoirs. The Bush daughters, First Ladies, Ronald Reagan’s son, probably lots of others. Barbara Bush wrote several memoirs, as did Hilary Clinton and Laura Bush. Chelsea Clinton has written several books for children (as did Mike Pence’s wife Charlotte). Barbara Bush wrote Millie’s book, a tongue-in-cheek book about their dog in the White House. This trend of writing children’s books is not limited to First Or Second Ladies. Kamala Harris wrote both a campaign book and a book for kids. Children’s books are their own thing. Often a dull story can be livened up by a first rate illustrator. That said, I wouldn’t be caught dead reading a children’s book by a politician.
It can be more fun to read tell-alls by the Rosensteins and Guildensterns than the Hamlets. (I’ve been partial to Barton Swaim’s The Speechwriter, which details being a speechwriter to now-disgraced South Carolina governor Mark Sanford). Actually, some journalists started out as political speechwriters (James Fallows, Bill Moyers, Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.), but these gigs were just a short detour off their career in journalism. Often obscurity can work to your advantage. If you are just a small cog in a campaign or administration, your perspective might be more interesting or insightful.
The sad duty of having to read campaign books belongs to political journalists looking for insights into the person’s character or policy prescriptions. Fortunately, journalists are already good at poring through court records, government documents and police reports; compared to these things, reading a campaign book by Kamala Harris or Jeb Bush would be a walk in the park. Some clever writers have read these books in nontraditional ways. Journalist Tim Murphy read only the blurbs for these books and learned a lot about a politician’s voter base and potential constituents. Another very clever journalist named Christopher Beam, upon noticing that Sarah Palin’s awful Going Rogue memoir had no index, decided to make his own.
But what about the Reader?
Well, it is good for journalists to do these things, but what about the ordinary reader? Also, how much money are politicians and publishers really making? In the 1990s, Speaker of the House Jim Wright was able to make extra money in bulk sales of his political book, which violated ethics laws at the time. About 10 years ago, Pakistani prime minister Pervez Musharraf wrote a memoir that I have no interest in — and probably less than 1% of literate Americans would have even the slightest interest in. Yet. when his book came out, he was interviewed by all the major talk shows and reviewed even in the highbrow presses. (Washington Post gave it mild praise). I guess that this book is somewhat newsworthy, but wouldn’t it be better to interview Pakistani novelists (Bapsi Sidhwa, Mohsin Hamid, Mohammad Hanif, etc.) instead? Still better, what about a book by a Pakistani journalist or academic? I get it that talk shows prefer newsworthy and recognizable figures, but Musharraf’s media appearances were unremarkable, plus he’s not that great a man (he staged coups, was a military strongman, derailed democratic elections; in other words, no Nelson Mandela!)
Why do we need these books?
I understand that books by political figures come with an agenda and that a political author may be more interested in selling this agenda than actual books. Why then do you need these books? Can’t talk talks and news shows just invite them on the show without books in hand? I’m not against politicians mentioning books during TV interviews, but we currently have a media environment where celebrity has become the primary currency. At the moment Michelle Obama has been going on a very successful book tour for a book which sells for $20 hardback/$15 ebook. That is insane. Part of my reaction is furious writer envy; part of it has to do with knowing that dozens of great ebooks are being published by journalists and scholars and pundits — all of whom are rarely compensated anywhere near what they deserve. Part of it derives from knowing that most of these political celebrities are already millionaires and hardly need the royalties. Part of it derives from my awareness that entertainment dollars are scarce; money spent on Obama’s book will not be spent on other books. Perhaps I am being overly optimistic; the money could also have been spent on videogames, booze, online gambling or overpriced concerts.
I don’t want to sound like I’m beating up on Ms. Obama; her book probably is competently written and moderately entertaining. But don’t Americans deserve something more substantive (and at a more affordable price)?
Aren’t books supposed to help us understand the world and ourselves? Or are they merely supposed to facilitate celebrity crushes on multimillionaires and flatter ourselves into thinking that these people are like us? I’m reminded of Richard Schickel’s book Intimate Strangers, which shows how Americans fixate on celebrities they think they understand — and celebrities reinforce these fixations by making bland pronouncements of personality. Political books are just one further way to humanize a politician’s political views. Maybe Bannon has vile beliefs or Christie is clueless about making government work. On a talk show, they can share “inside scoops” and deliver well-rehearsed laugh lines. The TV audience can watch it and decide that maybe Steve Bannon and his beliefs (or his boss’s beliefs) weren’t so vile after all.
Americans will spend their money on the darndest things. You can’t really complain about why certain books sell the way they do. That’s just the American way. But when you allow books to be used as props for political campaigns or comeback tours, you are degrading what is special about books — the deep analysis, the confessions, the bold manifestos, the dramatic/lyrical qualities. To swipe Kamala Harris’ catchphrase, books are “better than that.” The world is already awash with books that are unread or have trivial aspirations. The public does not hunger for bland political memoirs; it hungers for arguments and ideas and empathy. If that means that most political books will be unwritten or unpublicized, so be it!
As I said above, I admired George W. Bush for using Decision Points as the structure for his memoir, but I’d never actually read the book. I personally love Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton (and heck even Herbert Walker Bush), but I don’t think I’d ever want to read their books. Nixon (like Obama) is probably intellectual enough to write a deep book, but (unlike Obama) doesn’t seem adept enough to tell a good story. I’m really guessing; I haven’t held any of these books in my hands for more than 15 seconds.
Even though I think Al Franken was an effective politician and thought his comedy performances on SNL were great, I wasn’t that impressed with Franken’s fake-political memoir, Why Not Me? which he wrote in the 1990s. The humor seemed predictable and risque — so much that it surprised me that Franken dared to run for office later. I thought the book contained enough tasteless humor to disqualify him. Later books by Franken were sharper and more issue-oriented, (Rush Limbaugh is a Big Lying Idiot!), so perhaps Franken gets a pass. Other politicians have played around with fiction. In 19th century England, British prime minister Disreali wrote about 10 novels in and out of office . More recently, Democratic senator James Webb wrote a handful of military/Vietnam novels and nonfiction works well before running for political office. (When he entered the presidential race, some intrepid journalists highlighted some of the racier parts of Webb’s novels, but they don’t seem especially lurid or disqualifying for me. Long after they retired, Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich co-wrote novels with different people; Clinton tried it once with a crime novelist, while Gingrich co-wrote several alternate history novels along with other nonfiction. Discovering your muse after leaving office might become a thing, although the median age of presidents and Senators make it hard to imagine people writing that much. Obama might have the imagination and temperament, and perhaps one of these fiction works might turn out to be good, but I currently have no plans to read any of these things.
Lyrical, narrative, and dramatical works, with subjects imagined, invented, and derived from Native American culture. "... ambitious, epic in its style, containing many great lines and ideas, but also strangely baffling." $1
Government worker and his friends discover a way save his agency millions ... but instead of receiving praise, finds themselves in hot water. "Modern-day tale with working-class folks: part fable, part satire, and part comedy." $0.99
A "marvelous, thought-provoking, daring novel" about a father's deluded love for his daughter $0.99
Reviews of Major Releases
Links to reviews of major releases by NBCC book reviewers
Danny Yee BRs
Smart reviews on eclectic subjects — fiction, computers, science, history
Delightful manufacturer of literary listicles!
Great Group Book Review Blog from New Zealand
"Lisa Mason might just be the female Phillip K. Dick. Like Dick, Mason's stories are far more than just sci-fi tales, they are brimming with insight into human consciousness and the social condition." $3.99
Anthology for readers’ “craving for emotionally and intellectually satisfying erotica.” $7.99
Veteran reviewer offers insights & solutions for the world of book reviewing. Robert Recommends! $3.99
"This achingly personal, contemporary version of the Inferno is both truer to its prototype and more daring." $4.99