Sunday, March 27, 2005


Rhinos On The Rhine

The San Francisco Chronicle reviews Glynis Ridley's Clara's Grand Tour: Travels With a Rhinoceros in Eighteenth-Century Europe:

[Clara was] a gentle, endearing, 3-ton Indian rhinoceros, who was as famous in her day as any artist, actor or head of state, and whose two-decade journey through villages, cities and royal courts sparked theological debates; revised the era's assumptions about "natural philosophy" (i.e., science); thrilled untold thousands; and made the fortune of one very enterprising young man.... From the engineering and construction of the unique horse-drawn coach that carried Clara thousands of miles throughout Europe, to the intricacies of how Van der Meer went about not only ingeniously marketing Clara but growing wealthy from his orchestrated display of her as the first rhino on European soil in centuries, the book paints a vivid picture of a time when increasing numbers of citizens, from every class, seemed avid for knowledge and novelty.

This sounds like catnip for history freaks. And yet -- even though it's only been out for two weeks -- I see that it's already on sixty percent discount. As Tom Wolfe can tell you, that is not a good sign. It really is disheartening, given the power of advance reviews and of what publishers decide to promote or allow to wither, the way that the fate of books seems more or less determined before they even reach bookstores.

A google search turns up very few reviews indeed of Clara's Grand Tour, and this sounds like a book that deserves much better. I can only hope that, even though it's already "old" -- you know, it's been out for two weeks and all -- that other reviewers start turning some attention Ridley's way.


Bee Season

In the LA Times (reg. req.) Merle Rubin reviews Hattie Ellis's Sweetness and Light: The Mysterious History of the Honeybee:

Peering into a specially constructed glass "observation hive," Ellis, a British columnist and food writer, found herself mesmerized: "I put my ear to the glass and both felt and heard the whirr of life: thousands and thousands of lives wound up like watches, ticking away in collective survival. I blurred my eyes. The bees formed an almost solid material, quietly, steadily seething…. Not repulsive, like the pulsing of maggots on meat. Not a crawling, or scurrying, or wriggling. It had a gentle, purposeful, cohesive movement, impressive and unstoppable in its numbers, like a crowd gathering at a large sports stadium, or a workforce funneling into a factory gate."

Her book -- which includes "the genial Lorenzo Langstroth, American inventor of the movable hive-frame; and the 20th century monk Brother Adam, whose extensive labors in crossbreeding resulted in the popular Buckfast "superbee" -- sounds fascinating. Unfortunately, it's hitting bookstores at precisely the same time another bee history, Holley Bishop's Robbing the Bees: A Biography of Honey, The Sweet Liquid Gold that Seduced the World.... oh, and Tammy Horn's history Bees in America: How the Honey Bee Shaped a Nation. Ummm... and also Stephen Buchmann's book Letters From the Hive: An Intimate History of Bees, Honey, and Humankind. The four books have come out within weeks of each other.


If you're a nonfiction writer, this is one of your recurring nightmares: that you spend years and years researching and toiling away at what you thought was an obscure and yet fascinating subject, making it your own, only to discover that... someone else has been writing the same damn book.

(Cold-Sweat-Screaming-Nightmare Variation: that their book is also much better than yours.)

The notion gets bandied about occasionally that there should be an informal book development registry, where writers about to pitch books and editors about to buy them could check first to make sure that someone else hasn't already scooped them. Many book deals are already announced in Publisher's Lunch and similar industry reads -- if the Authors Guild or some such kind soul started compiling these agent and publisher announcements into a searchable listing, it would be a real service to authors.

Don't get me wrong: the reading public is immeasurably enriched by suddenly having four bee histories to choose from. But some writers are going to be very measurably poorer now.

When these authorial collisions occur, it's tempting for reviewers to ascribe it to some sort of fad or trend in publishing. Even more subtly, when a book comes out a year later on the same subject as some previous volume, it's easy to write it off as a "me too" volume. Ah, but publishing timelines do not work that way. Books take years to research and write, and what few outside of publishing realize is that once the manuscript is turned in, the marketing and production cycle means that it is roughly another year until the book actually hits the bookstore shelves.

Those books you see in the store are rather like the light from distant stars: they do not show you what is happening in publishing now, but what transpired years and years ago.

Saturday, March 26, 2005


Whatsit of The Week

What is this?


A Place To Hang Your Tea Towel

In today's Times of London, Alain de Botton reviews Geraldine Bedell's The Handmade House: A Love Story Set in Concrete, about an attempt to build a new home in North London:

This might at first sight appear like a slender and unoriginal premise for a 250-page book, were it not for the shocking state of Britain’s planning laws and its building industry.... it’s almost impossible to build oneself something from scratch. Land is the greatest problem, especially in London. Though the capital is filled with shoddy, ecologically unfriendly Victorian terraces thrown up in a few weeks in the late 19th century, for a host of illogical reasons, planning departments in most boroughs refuse to let their residents tear them down and replace them with something better....

It would be easy to mock this book on the grounds of privilege: the travails it recounts are, after all, those of privileged people (the house costs £540,000 and the land on which it sits cost a similar amount). Although Bedell is at pains to stress that she and her husband are “ordinary people”, they obviously aren’t. However, it would be a typically cynical (and uniquely British) response to blame them for being fortunate. The problem isn’t that Bedell has the chance to live in a beautiful modern house, but that most people don’t.

Given the madness for all things real-estate related in the last few years, it would be easy to imagine an entire genre of homebuilding and homebuying narratives to spring up, both in fact and fancy. There are some humorous classics -- Eric Hodgin's Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House, say, and Roy Brooks's listings compilation Brothel in Pimlico. And, of course, there is the hugely popular escapist quaint-foreign-home stuff. But not much else immediately comes to mind, particularly in the way of ordinary domestic houseseeking. As Botton's review implies, there is a deterrent to other writers dealing with the topic: real estate somehow feels flippant to write about, whether seriously or otherwise. Yet it is indeed a key decision in people's lives. And if there's fiction about tea towels...


POD People

An interesting piece in the Sydney Morning Herald:

When the Irish author Andrew Byrne started researching his book about homelessness he began by sharing a longneck with an Aboriginal man behind Central Station. "I was talking to him about his family and he just broke down. Basically, his entire family are all dead. There was an awful lot of emotion in what we were talking about," Byrne said.... Homeless: True Stories of Life on the Streets, to be published this week, is a record of the interviews with people Byrne encountered over four months around Australia. He befriended strangers, met their mates, spent hours in homeless shelters and took lessons in making a home out of a cardboard box. Byrne says he is still surprised at how ordinary people can end up in dire situations.

Though largely still the province of daily journalism, homeless reportage does sometimes make it into book form in the US -- witness the recent release of Michelle Kennedy's Without A Net: Middle Class and Homeless With Kids in America -- but I was a little surprised when searched for "homeless" among 2005 releases on Amazon. Of the six books that came up, three of them were print-on-demand titles from PrintAmerica and iUniverse: Razl Santoyo's I Love You, Baby, I Love You: Stories of Homeless People in a Border Town, "A Redhed"'s Murder and Underwear: Working With the Homeless in Chicago, and Robert C. Greene's Cardboard Condo: How the Homeless Survive the Streets.

Now, I find print on demand (POD) to be as dubious as anyone else does, and for all the usual reasons -- bad editing, bad design, bad promotion, and just plain bad writing. And PublishAmerica's practices in particular have taken a pounding from investigative journalists. Nonetheless, this example of homeless narratives raises an interesting question. Forget all the bad novels and the conspiracy wingnuts these places attract for a moment: could it be that some crucially overlooked social issue writing is getting displaced into POD because of the indifference of traditional publishers to these topics? Will sociologists and future historians with a tolerance for hot-glue binding and bad editing find themselves consulting POD works such as these someday?


Cartoonish Misrepresentation Counters Previous Cartoonish Misrepresentations

"Nobody understands Charlotte Bronte but me! MEEEEEE!"

Sunday, March 20, 2005


The Seventeenth Minute, And Ever After

Today's Oregonian reviews The Sixteenth Minute: Life in the Aftermath of Fame :

The book's editorial premise is simple: What happens when a person's Andy Warholian 15 minutes of fame are over? What does that person do when the media attention has vanished? Can the person adjust to not being famous?

Written by Jeff Guinn, the books editor for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, and Douglas Perry, a features editor at The Oregonian, "The Sixteenth Minute" profiles seven people who were once very famous at some point between the early 1960s to the late 1990s and are now semi-famous for once being fully famous....

In most cases, the tour isn't pretty. In some places, it's like watching a small woodland creature agonizingly expire after being hit by an automobile. There is Cara of "Fame" and "Flashdance" theme song fame ignored at an industry party as she tries to interest anyone in her new record. There is Cooney still insisting he could have beaten Michael Spinks for the heavyweight championship instead of suffering a beating. There is Wills, embittered because he'll never make it into the Hall of Fame because he was the most hated ballplayer of his era. And there is Foley, a professional wrestler well past his prime, who takes insane physical risks in the ring to stay in the spotlight . . . and be taken seriously as a novelist!

Hey, it's hard for anybody to get taken seriously when breaking into fiction.

But really, I have to take issue with this review's conclusion: that Fitzgerald was right about there being no second acts in American lives. Nonsense. Nonsense. American lives are nothing but second, third, and fourth acts. The very mobility of our society and permeability of our class structure has long held out the possibility of being able to move on.

Look, I think Guinn and Perry have a great idea here, and I wish more people would do this kind of follow-up. But did it not occur to the reviewer that perhaps the authors chose these subjects not because they were representative cases, but because they are dramatically pathetic ones? I mean, "Former Heavy Metal God Lives Boring Home Life, Works at Post Office" isn't much of a headline, is it? And for that matter, mightn't the authors be chosing incidents rather selectively -- as authors must do -- from perhaps otherwise mundane and even contented lives?

The longer I write biography, the more hesitant I become to use standard bio segues like "He was a broken man now." Broken to who?... To you? ... To him? Is he broken every minute of the day? The formulation is a specious one.

For a thoughtful meditation of how life goes on, even after it's "over," I implore everyone to check out Ross McElwee's much-overlooked 1997 documentary Six O'Clock News. It's available on VHS, but there's no DVD yet. It's messy and exasperating, as all McElwee films are. It is also one of the most honest works on the subject that I have ever seen.


Where's Anna?

The Boston Globe interviews Charlotte Gordon, author of Mistress Bradstreet, the first biography in a long time of Anne Bradstreet, that stalwart of undergrad American Lit surveys:

Q: What kind of sources are available for Bradstreet, who died in 1672?

A: There aren't a lot of sources. Her autobiography is 5½ pages and that's it. I had to read diaries and letters from other people. . . . She had this series of prose meditations, where she talks directly about how we should live, and, of course, her poems. An abundance of material on some level. But you have to decide how you are going to read the poetry.

The problem is a common one. There is a tendency in biography, when faced with a person who has not left a paper trail, to engage in the "must have thought" and "would have done" form of narration. It's a device that critics love to pounce on, and rightly so much of the time. But for some biographical subjects -- and Anne Bradstreet certainly sounds like one -- it is simply not possible to construct any other type of narrative. If you do not have letters by them or about them, or memoirs written by or about them, and if there are not substantial newspaper accounts written about them, then.... well, as a historian, you've got a particularly hard nut to crack.

It's a problem I suspect is endemic to those researching women before the modern era. Because they were often not in position to engage in legal and business transactions (and, not least because their names are liable to change one or more times in their life), women often left far less of paper trail than men did. And this can affect even very well-known figures. But it's more puzzling when this also stymies critical essays on the writing itself. In researching my piece last year in The Believer about Anna Sewall's Black Beauty, I discovered that despite selling tens of millions of copies, and playing a key role in the early history of the animal rights movement, there is not one academic study of Sewall's book. That is an absolute scandal.

Furthermore, there has been only one biography of Sewall, published some three decades ago and long out of print. This is perhaps a little more understandable, if simply because -- as with Bradstreet -- there was virtually nothing left behind by Sewall other than Black Beauty itself. Indeed, much of the book is really about Sewall's mother, an active author who left behind far more clues to her life than her daughter did. Still, it's high time that someone wrote a biography of Sewall -- or at least, of her life and times. If there's not much of her life to go on, at least there's no lack of context that we can provide for it.

It would be interesting to know what other erstwhile well-known women historians have taken up and then had to drop, simply due to an outright lack of material to work with.

Saturday, March 19, 2005


A Pint of Guinness: My Part in Its Downfall

Memoirist David Monagan gives his top ten Irish travelogues in The Guardian, and at the top of his list of recommended reads is The Third Policeman, by Flann O'Brien. The righteous folk of Dalkey Archive have it in print, and it's one of those books that I keep hearing that I "have to read" but, ahem, haven't read yet. Monagan's description certainly makes it sound intriguingly bonkers:

Hilarious and mind-bending, it is set in a two-dimensional police station that turns out to be Irish hell. Framed for murder by quare constables - who are obsessed with the atomic properties of bicycles and struggle to maintain the barometric balance of Ireland - the protagonist occasionally wanders down the road to heaven, but can never bring any of the riches out.

Curiously, Monagan also cites Spike Milligan in his top 10 list. Milligan's work is scarcely known in this country, and easily overlooked because comics are not always known to produce brilliantly comedic books. But Milligan's Adolf Hitler: My Part In His Downfall is well worth tracking down -- it is a small comedic gem of memoir written by a man suitably unimpressed with both himself and with stuffed shirts alike.


Asylum... in Vega$$$!

The Press Citizen of Iowa City reports we've become the fifth US Asylum City for writers:

Based in Las Vegas, the asylum network provides safe havens for writers who are under threat of death, torture or imprisonment in the native countries. Iowa City will join Las Vegas, Ithaca, N.Y., Santa Fe, N.M., and Pittsburgh as network host cities.... The City of Asylum network started in the United States in 2000 out of the Paris-based International Parliament of Writers. Host cities provide the writers with a monthly stipend of $2,500, a furnished residence, health insurance and other amenities. Writers stay in the host city for one or two years, according to the asylum's national Web site.

Las Vegas? Is the stipend paid in $100 poker chips?

This is such a splendid idea that I can only hope that other cities will be quick to pick up on it. There are some that you'd think would be asylum cities.... San Francisco? Eugene? Madison? ... Are their city councils are looking at this?


Swan Bake

A Craving For Swan is a good book, but a craving for swan is a bad idea.

Sunday, March 13, 2005


Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap

The Age of Melbourne runs a glowing review of Elisabeth Wynhausen's Dirt Cheap: Life on the Wrong End of the Job Market:

I came to Dirt Cheap , Elisabeth Wynhausen's account of a year working for minimum wages, fully expecting to hate it. An Australian knock-off of Barbara Ehrenreich's best-selling Nickle and Dimed seemed eminently cringe-worthy - a book about McJobs had itself been franchised. And, despite Ehrenreich's critical success, the presumption of a journalist speaking for the poor after 12 months of slumming rather stuck in the craw. Yet Wynhausen's powerful, impassioned prose won me over almost immediately....

From dead end job to dead end job, Wynhausen documents the inadequacy of the institutions supposed to protect low-wage workers. Individual contracts, say the ideologues, are a matter of personal choice but when she answers an ad for a hotel job, the penalty-rate-free contract arrives "as if my signature on the piece of paper was a mere formality". The Occupational Health and Safety regulations that look good on paper prove impossible in practice. "I could just imagine what (my supervisor) would say if I followed the order in the manual and advised her that the slippery floor around the tray wash machine was a workplace hazard." Accepting her own powerlessness provides Wynhausen's biggest challenge.

Along with the spread of such accounts from other countries, I've come across similar accounts over different eras as well, with journalists "slumming" in poverty level jobs from the 19th century as well. It brings up a curious thought: has anyone ever anthologized writings from this genre?


Memo Re: War

The LA Times reviews OUP's annotated reissue of Walt Whitman's all-too-timely journals Memoranda During the War:

Walt Whitman, the then-obscure 40-ish author of an eccentric collection of poems called "Leaves of Grass," who scribbled his "few stray glimpses" of these forgotten men into blood-spattered notebooks during his daily rounds. These "impromptu jottings" — descriptions of soldiers' last breaths; their recoveries; their requests for toothbrushes, pickles, rice pudding, fresh underwear, a good book, a pen, an ice cream treat, a letter to be sent home — later became "Memoranda During the War," a slim volume that Whitman published in a private edition in 1876 and later folded into the diary-like "Specimen Days."

Whitman's prose work is rarely introduced to students anymore, aside from his introduction to Leaves of Grass -- and that is hardly prose at all -- but his collections of newspaper columns and the like are surprisingly engrossing. Frankly, the longer I read him, the more I find him better company in prose: it is there that he becomes less of a grandstanding and bombastic... well, poet.

Whitman could be an embarassingly jingoistic poet in his early outings. Perhaps he had second thoughts after, as the Times review notes, "Arriving near the Virginia battlefield, the first thing Whitman came upon was 'a heap of amputated feet, legs, arms, hands, &c., a full load for a one-horse cart.' " His experience of the field hospitals -- which he describes as "about nine hundred and ninety-nine parts diarrhea to one part glory" -- might have had something to do with him eventually becoming less impressed with what a great big glorious country he lived in, and more with humanity itself.

Saturday, March 12, 2005


MHC to SAT: Cram It

Amid this week's slavish press coverage of the addition of an essay portion to the SAT -- Gosh! A whole five paragraphs, graded by underpaid drones! -- few aside from Inside Higher Ed seem to have noticed that Mount Holyoke College is doing just fine without any SAT at all:

Mount Holyoke College, which decided in 2001 to make the SAT optional, is finding very little difference in academic performance between students who provided their test scores and those who didn't. The women's liberal arts college is in the midst of one of the most extensive studies to date about the impact of dropping the SAT -- a research project financed with $290,000 from the Mellon Foundation.... "The fact is that the SAT does not add enough value for us to require students and their families to make such a large investment of time, energy and money in this single, high-stakes test," said Jane B. Brown, vice president for enrollment and college relations.....

Mount Holyoke's study is generally consistent with a study by Bates College, which made the SAT optional in 1984 and last year released an analysis of the impact of its shift over a 20-year period. Among the findings: The difference in Bates graduation rates between those who submit the SAT and those who don't is 0.1%. The difference in overall grade point averages at Bates is .05 (five-hundredths of a GPA point); the exact difference is 3.06 for those who did not submit the SAT and 3.11 for those who do.

For those wondering whether the ETS is merely the latest in a long line of scholastic snake-oil salesmen, I highly recommend A.R. Grant's article "The Evils of Competitive Exams." An excerpt:

It enlisted ambition in the service of learning, and made students for love – not of knowledge but distinction... the force of learning for its own sake was often overpowered in the few who had it, by the superior force of the secondary motive. Moreover, the teacher... was tempted to teach, not in order that his pupil might know, but that he might get marks: not that his knowledge might be sound and deep, but that it might be producible on demand. And the teacher soon found that knowledge need not be deep or even sound in order to be readily producible.

Hence originated ‘cram’ – i.e. teaching with a view to a specific examination alone, of various degrees of literary dishonesty, but in all cases aiming at passing off a counterfeit instead of real knowledge. Nor was this the only evil of the ascendancy of examinations. It killed or disabled promising students, but would only make dunces work by the imminence of disgrace.... Lists of successful candidates for honours supplied a tangible testimonial of efficiency; while no record appeared of brains or energy exhausted, of intellectual indigestion of knowledge for distinction, but perfectly useless in after-life. And there was no list of those who had perished by the way, or had dropped out of the running, more or less damaged by the killing pace.

The man who succeeds in examinations has a quickness in acquiring, memory for retaining, and readiness in producing knowledge; but he may be altogether deficient in reflection, in grasp of mind, in judgment, in weight of character. The man he outstrips may be one whose faculties are not so flexible, and therefore will not take training so well, who thinks too much to acquire knowledge rapidly, who refuses to accept other men’s views without verifying them for himself, who, when he has acquired knowledge, is awkward at producing it, and has none of the tact which makes the most of what it possesses, and instinctively avoids exposure of ignorance; who, in fact, is too truthful and straightforward to write what he is not sure of, and is above making random shots.

The first man has probably reached his highest point. The second may have a long period of development before him... The examination test gives only the amount, not the capacity. In such a case, the after-life will almost certainly reverse the verdict. It appears to me that the examination system tends to select minds acute rather than deep, active rather than powerful.

If you'd like to read the rest of the article, you'll need to go deep into the library stacks: it appeared in Nineteenth Century magazine's issue of November 1880...


World's Biggest Procrastinator Gets Around To Dying

Over in the Telegraph, Mark Sanderson reports on a rather tardy author:

Oxford University Press commissioned I. A. Shapiro to edit the letters of John Donne in 1930. The Shakespeare scholar was still working on the project when he died, aged 99, on March 14 last year. Twelve months later, OUP have still to appoint his successor.

To put this in perspective: Shapiro spent 74 years editing the letters of a man who died at the age of 59. When he started his project, Herbert Hoover was president, Krazy Kat ran in the daily papers, the last silent pictures were being finished off, and the Hindenburg had not yet been built.

Mr. Shapiro's career suggests one heretofore unrealized authorial strategy. If you have any disagreements with editors over deadlines, then.... outlive them.

Sunday, March 06, 2005



There is a certain model of book reviewing -- perhaps the model for book reviewing -- that must always leaven its analysis of the book that was written by criticizing the author over the Book You Didn't Write.

For those of you just starting out in reviewing, a helpful hint: these potshots are traditionally placed in the final or penultimate paragraphs. Now go knock yourselves out!

Just where reviewers get this Platonic ideal of The Book You Didn't Write is mysterious; what is known is that, even if the author did write that book, they'd still find another Book You Didn't Write hiding behind it. No matter: pointing out this fictitious BYDW is apparently what proves the reviewer's critical cast of mind.

And that's why, although I was delighted to see today's San Francisco Chronicle reviewing Scott Sandage's new book Born Losers, I was dismayed to see this BYDW hackery at the end:

Sandage needs a more detailed comparison with other cultures and other times, as well as a more honest accommodation of the variety of attitudes we find in contemporary American society than he provides. How does our version of failure differ from those in Japan and India and the emerging markets of Eastern Europe? If different, are theirs any better, or are all market economies flawed? How has the participation of women and minorities as they gain greater access to the market shaped (or not) our business ethos and our perception of losers?

Finally, if ours is a system of habitual and dysfunctional risk, one that has left us with a greatly diminished vocabulary for assessing people and thus a greatly diminished people, what then does Sandage imagine is a step in the direction of restoration?

Ok. First of all, Sandage's book is subtitled A History of Failure in America. America. Not A History of Failure in the Entire Goddamned World. Does this reviewer have any notion how much additional work she is asking him to do here? And why does a historian like Sandage have to "imagine a step in the direction of restoration"?

Isn't that the reader's job?


Der Bombe

A surprising revelation in yesterday's Times of London, and one which has so far had little media play elsewhere: although it is well known that Germany was far from finishing a fission bomb by the end of World War II, German historian Rainer Karlsch claims that Nazis built and tested dirty bombs:

Hundreds of prisoners of war were burned and killed in the tests in 1944 and 1945 which led Hitler to believe that he could win the race for the atomic bomb and tip the war in his favour.... Dr Karlsch’s arguments are based on East German, British, American and Russian archives. Soviet military intelligence infiltrated the SS unit supervising the nuclear tests.He also took soil samples from the test areas on the island of Rügen and the state of Thuringia and interviewed survivors who saw test explosions. “The evidence presented is very persuasive,” said Professor Mark Walker, of Union College in New York State, an authority on German nuclear research.

Dr Karlsch was alerted to the possibility of Nazi nuclear testing by the recollections of elderly residents from the region close to Ohrdruf concentration camp. “I was standing by the window at 9pm at night and there was suddenly a long, slim pillar of light. It became so bright that I could have read a newspaper,” said Claere Werner. “The pillars expanded at the top so that they looked like a leafy tree.” That was on March 3, 1945. “The next day, and the days following, we all became so tired.” The community started to suffer from nose bleeds, severe headaches and nausea.

Karlsch's previous work in researching uranium mining and nuclear development in wartime and postwar Germany has been lauded in this H-Net review, so he would seem to know whereof he speaks. Although Hitler's Bomb has is to be published by DVA next week in Germany, I see no listings for an English-language release.


Live The Writer's Life in New York City!

I recently came across this article in the July 13th 1908 issue of the New York Times, and reproduce it here in its entirety:

Elusive Publishers Have Kept Mrs. Todd's Genius From the Public, She Says

"Just Friends," a common-sense story with a real heroine. Address Mary Ives Todd, No. 2056 Eight Ave., NY. Price $1. To publishers, 60 cents.

The above advertisement was published in the Times Saturday Book Review. Mrs. Todd readily explained to a reporter for the New York Times why she had found it necessary to adopt her own measures in exploiting her books.

When Mrs. Todd came to New York five years ago she had a small heritage from her maternal uncle, Hoadley B. Ives, a New Haven banker, and an ambition to attain distinction in the literary field. Religious difficulties with her husband, which were adjusted afterward, furnished the motive for "Debora," a book in which she advocated certain modifications in divorce laws.

Mrs. Todd said the manuscript of the book was refused by every publisher in the city. She saw an advertisement of a Boston concerna and wrote to ask for terms. The firm finally agreed to publish the volume for $510. Mrs. Todd sent the money, and immediately the concern disappeared.

Not discouraged, Mrs. Todd settled in the back rooms on the fourth floor of a noisy Eighth Avenue tenement and wrote another novel. A New York firm, whose top floor offices on a side street were discovered by Mrs. Todd after she had taken her work to all the more substantial houses, promised to bring it out for $500. They, too, went out of business shortly, according to Mrs. Todd, without returning either the money or publishing the book.

A Broadway firm agreed, according to Mrs. Todd, to publish her third novel. She said that she advanced $650 for printing and $50 for "press corrections." She said that these alleged corrections hardly amounted to a dozen lines. She never saw any advertisements of the book, and received altogether $5.80 in royalties. Not satisfied with this return on an investment of $700, she took her book away from the publisher. He gave it up without objection -- after charging her $5 for "storing the plates."

Mrs. Todd paid $400 to have her fourth book printed. After waiting about a year for royalties which did not come she paid another publisher, a woman, $100 more to take the manuscript out of the other firm's hands. The first time the woman publisher was visited after the payment of $100 she was found to be under the influence of liquor. Mrs. Todd does not know which of these two publishers has her manuscript. About this same a boarding house keeper, according to Mrs. Todd, persuaded her to invest $2500 in a Polish newspaper, published by one of the boarders. The boarder decamped as soon as he got Mrs. Todd's money. The boarding house keeper disclaimed all responsibility.

Mrs. Todd's fifth and last book, "Just Friends," is a story about Thomas Paine. Mrs. Todd described it as a "story of old folks, who are not treated well in America." She paid $365 to a firm to bring out this book. They recently went into bankruptcy, but gave her 250 copies of the book, which went to press apparently before the failure. Now she is advertising the book herself.

Mrs. Todd says she expects soon to go to her husband in Los Angeles.

Saturday, March 05, 2005


Lies, Damned Lies, and Book Recommendations

Behold the latest idiotic misuse of statistics by the Independent:

A survey published today to coincide with World Book Day confirms what authors from Louis de Bernierès to Alexander McCall Smith can attest - nothing sells better than the recommendation of a friend or relative.
One in four of those polled said the last book they read was on the basis of what a colleague or family member had told them, with almost a third of under-35s citing it as the most important factor. Only loyalty to a favoured author counted as much, with 26 per cent of readers saying their last choice of a book for pleasure was because they had read others by the same author.

In a disappointing result for the promotional teams who spend up to £100m on book advertising every year, only 6 per cent said they chose a book because they saw it advertised, with 7 per cent citing the cover design as the deciding factor.

This was issued amid book recommendations and the like for World Book Day. My suggestion for what journalists should read? How To Lie With Statistics. Then they should call their paper's ad department and see if publishers have been rushing to cancel ad buys. I suspect they'll find nothing of the sort. Think publishers know something the study's authors didn't?

There are two fundamental problems with this survey: the first is a methodological one so severe that it renders the results worthless, and the other is a matter of flawed interpretation of this useless data. This survey measures what people say made them buy a book -- indeed, saying what they recall made them buy a book -- and not what demonstrably didmake them buy it. Consumers are notoriously unreliable reporters of their own purchasing motives: nobody, particularly anyone who considers themselves at all intelligent, wants to admit or even realize that their purchasing decisions are influenced by advertising or by product design.

But if survey numbers can lie, sales figures do not. If design and advertising only actually accounted for 13% of sales, every book designer and copy writer in the country would have bruised asses from the doors hitting on them on the way out. But go to a midtown Starbucks, and I think you'll find any number of them seated at their iBooks without any apparent discomfort. Go to a bookstore and watch what consumers do rather than what they say, and it quickly becomes apparent that book design matters a great deal more than anyone cares to admit.

At the very least, a survey relying on the quasi-delusional fantasies of consumer responses should have at least gathered data at the point of purchase: i.e. not about "The last book you bought" but about "This book that you're buying right now." To use consumer memory of purchasing motives just makes the already suspect result altogether useless.

So: enough about the raw data. What about the interpretation?

There is the curious assumption in The Independent's article -- and perhaps in the study itself, which they do not bother to identify or provide a link to -- that purchase motives do not overlap each other. This is a basic misunderstanding of advertising. Your friends may have recommended a book, but is it not possible that a purchase is made more likely by continued prompting from advertising? Or, indeed, that a recommendation is more likely to be remembered or heeded because it was preceded by advertising or by a memorable book cover?

More importantly, the Independent's notion of causality is utterly simple-minded. Let us say, for the sake of argument, that the recommendation of friends is indeed the panacea that is being claimed. Fine. So how did they hear about the book?

There may be influential social nodes whose word-of-mouth influences later sales, but to reach them in the first crucial months after a book's release, and before books start making their long journey back to the pulp grinders... that requires promotion. In other words, the efforts of marketing departments necessarily precede word-of-mouth sales. To set the two against each other in survey results creates a false dichotomy of the sort that no publisher would be fooled by... though I suppose an arts reporter might be.

In any case, I'm a little dubious about just how widespread the word-of-mouth phenomenon is, though it is certainly very visible in the case of some bestsellers. But when the article cites "what authors from Louis de Bernieres to Alexander McCall Smith can attest," they are running the gamut from A to... uh, B. The vast majority of books do not have long sales runs: they have a sharp spike in their first few months, with the nearly all sales occuring within six to nine months, and then a race to the bottom afterwards.

Friends recommending books to each other over the course of years and buoying up worthy authors with a steady stream of sales and praise may make for feel-good headlines, but a hell of a lot more titles are destined for the remainder table than for afternoons at the book club over chamomile tea.


Hmm. Not Enough Word of Mouth Sales?

One of the more curious tidbits in this Christian Science Monitor review of Joakim Garff's new biography of Kierkegaard is just how few people were actually buying his books: "Garff examines Kierkegaard's finances and paltry sales figures. It's astounding what a name for himself he made while selling fewer than 300 copies of each book."

It would instructive to figure out which well-known intellectual figure has the smallest actual book sales, versus the largest book sales of a now-unknown figure from the same period.

I can already see historians a century from now: "Who is this Dave Pelzer?...."

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