Sunday, November 28, 2010

That loving feeling!

During the holidays, we go
to great lengths to recapture
that sense of joy and connection
we first experienced as children.

Here we are once again. The holidays. They bring us home. We might not really travel home and we might not define the destination as home. But we are programmed to want those places in our hearts and our thoughts where love resides. We want to re-experience old and pleasing connections to community. We need and want that feeling of belonging. And though most of us move on, relocate, create new families and select new friends, we invest great energy in building familiar networks. And now here we are, for a month or so, returning to the touchstone. It’s as if we can really go back – to that feeling of kin all about us. The warm bed. The full belly. The prospect of another incredible tomorrow. That place where we learned how to love.

Holidays slow us down enough so we can notice that, in fact, such feelings of community exist all about us. I found it again last night at Cape Ann Cinema in Gloucester, Mass. The cinema is located in a big room above a used record store. It’s a quirky movie theater run very well by a young man named Rob with longish hair and a passion for cinema.

Here are five reasons to celebrate places like this, where the makings of a joyful community are generously and cleverly provided. Forgive the political statement, but it’s a perfect fusion of commerce and community. More like this, please!

(1) Multi-purpose movies

Improves reading skills (subtitles): The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest. Transports us to new places: The Secret of Kells. Makes us think: Freakonomics. Helps others: Race to Nowhere (education fundraiser). Provokes laughs: Four Lions. Gives us art: Shakespeare in Cinema—Love’s Labour’s Lost and Opera in Cinema—Valkyrie.

(2) Something for every body

A big room full of couches, comfortable accent chairs, recliners, even wooden desks for those with perfect posture or type A personalities. You can’t help but get comfortable!

(3) Popcorn

Per the owner: “Half the oil, organic, delicious.” More to the point, per me: I’d go to this theater just to eat the popcorn. It’s also half the price of the chains and includes about 20 types of seasoning. There’s a stack of big bowls so you can each have your own bowl of popcorn. For popcorn buffs and control freaks, this feature alone is worth the price of admission.

(4) Feeling “tucked in”

No blinding overhead lighting. Floor lamps strategically positioned. As previews draw to a close, proprietor quietly moves about the large room, turning off a lamp here and there. A gentle refocusing and there you are, in the dark and engaged with your movie. Wait a minute, is that a fleece blankie I see on the back of the recliner in front of me?

(5) Among friends

We sit among neighbors, family, friends. This is quite different from stadium seating that positions us so we don’t even see each other. Here we are just one big living room of like-minded people. When we leave, we help each other with our coats and hold the door for each other.

And we all say thank you to Rob, who, it seems, never lost that loving feeling!

Thursday, November 18, 2010

How I Review Books — or — Do I Need a 12-Step Program?

• • •
You can attend readings every night in New York City.
More, if you are so inclined. This reading, at Word in Brooklyn,
was in a hot, crowded basement. The editors came
with the authors and served wine and cookies.
Jim & I were lucky to get seats.
• • •

Anna Quindlen, the former NY Times columnist, once said that her work gave her the opportunity to deeply consider what might have otherwise been a trivial or passing moment, event or experience. Writing — thinking in a careful and deliberative way — allows you to draw out the significance of what interests you in that moment. Otherwise, she said, whatever it is would pass as unnoticed and unremarkable.

The same can be said for reviewing books. It’s a great way to get into the book and formulate a considered understanding.

The process is labor intensive. I saw this from a new perspective last year when I attended a few panel discussions led by some of the country’s leading book bloggers. They are a lively and passionate group. Many are young mothers who squeeze the work into crazed schedules. Authors and publishers seek bloggers out because they can get a buzz going. To help that along, authors like to arrange “blog tours” in which a different blogger reviews their book each day or week. Managing requests and scheduling reviews are among book bloggers’ tasks, along with the hard work of getting review books from publishers.

This blog entry explains my system for reviewing a book a week. Other freelancers perform a version of this method. What I detail is but one small part of an enormous writing/production/marketing effort that concludes when you reach for a copy of “Decline of Fishes” by Gloucester, Mass., author Peter Anastas, the book I reviewed this week.

One. Finding out about new books

Most people review books that have come out within the last few weeks — while they’re still on bookstore shelves and in the “new” section in libraries. I relax that rule on occasion because most books can be purchased online.

I usually get to one reading a week. Here in Manhattan, authors on book tours pass through like water under the George Washington Bridge. My hometown library and Toad Hall bookstore — in Rockport MA — also present excellent and ambitious reading series. Sometimes I hear the author I am about to read. I take notes and quote him or her if it’s appropriate.

To stay one step ahead, I subscribe to Publishers Weekly (around $170 a year) and I also read the NY Times book reviews during the week and on Sundays, along with a host of other publications including the NY Review of Books, Time Out New York, Entertainment Weekly, the New Yorker, New York, and more. It takes a big chunk of time to go through the papers and magazines I’ve accumulated over the week. Friends, NPR, authors via email, conferences, and the entire online world provide information on new books. I still go to libraries and bookstores and enjoy browsing. Despite all this, many local and regional books never get any notice at all. That’s where I come in.

Two. Ordering books

Requesting books from publishers requires a system. Publicists, publishers, email and mailing addresses come and go. Finding contact information from a publisher’s website is sometimes like mining for coal. You have to go deep. Some still want requests in writing – faxed or mailed on your publication’s letterhead. Others accept emails but reply only if the book is in trouble. Publishers are far more careful about who they mail review copies to in these hard times. Time, patience and persistence are key to the reviewer’s success obtaining review copies.

Three. Reading the book

If I don’t get the book I ask for, often I’ll buy it. I review books I want to read. It’s fun and easy to write clever negative reviews but I see myself as an advocate, not a teacher or critic. I do include criticisms and I do review the books of people I know.

I start reading the book I select on Wednesday evening or Thursday. I divide the number of pages by the number of days I have to read the book. If I skip a reading day, I have to read twice as much the next day — usually late afternoons and after dinner. As wasteful as it is, I mark up books.

Four. Writing the review (more on this next time)

It takes me two or three hours to write a review. I save the last chapter to read before I write so that I can get my head back into the book and I look over my notes. I file my review before noon on Wednesday.

Five. Posting the reviews

Once my review is published, I’ll often post it on Amazon, Scribd, my own website, etc. When papers outside of the area publish the review, I get Google Alert notices. I go to one of the websites displaying the review, copy the URL, shorten it using and then post the link on Facebook, Twitter, etc. I must send the link, and sometimes the hard copy to the publishers, though they, too, use Google Alerts to track books/authors.

Six. Distributing surplus books

I donate books I don’t review or haven’t marked up to the Rockport library. They can shelve these or sell them at one of their fundraisers. Books I’ve marked up, I take to the fabulous Rockport transfer station. They have a small building dedicated solely to book swaps.

For most professional reviewers this process is rote. Many take book assignments and do not go through this process. I prefer selecting the books I review so that I can pay attention to some of the local and regional authors who might otherwise go unnoticed.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Why I review books every week for free…and usually pay for them myself

The Happy Hooker and friends at a reading
to sell books at the Museum of Sex in Manhattan.
Many books are sold outside of bookstores.

We want to believe that good books rise to the surface, that good books will find the readership they deserve. Yet I know that’s asking a lot of books these days.

Consider the following (culled this morning from the Web):

o About 300,000 books are published each year in the United States. Approximately half this number includes textbooks and other non-consumer books.

o Publishers Weekly, a go-to publication in the industry that reviews books about 3 months before they come out, reviews about 7,000 titles a year or less than .04% of new consumer books.

o A handful of large publishing companies account for nearly 80% of all U.S. book sales. A successful fiction book sells 5,000 copies; nonfiction 7,500 copies. The “average” book sells 500 copies.

o About half of the books meant for retail sales are sold in bookstores. Less than a quarter of new books are sold online, though this number does not include e-books.

o A typical Barnes and Noble store stocks about 150,000–200,000. Only half (or fewer) books aimed at consumers get into bookstores. And even if the bookstore carries a new book, it probably won’t stay on the shelf for long.

Note: I didn’t fact check though I used figures I found cited in a number of sources. I also noted that Web users quote from each other. One number, reported authoritatively, can wind up in untold number of documents. Further, I looked at postings from 2008 on. As you know, what’s listed above is changing as we speak. I’ve read this week that Amazon/Kindle claims great strides in e-book sales and further declines in “real” book sales. On the other hand, some in the industry claim that Amazon’s figures are misleading. FYI: Re. paid books available at Amazon: For every 10 books Amazon sells, it sells 6 Kindle editions.

Yet I point to these numbers for the statement they make, generally, about getting a new book into readers’ hands.

What the numbers suggest is that most books get very little attention from “traditional” print media sources — magazines and newspapers. And a large number of new books never make it into bookstores. Despite the realities, most authors are sorely disappointed when they realize no one is going to review their book and they can’t even find their book listed on Amazon, much less sitting smartly on a B&N bookshelf.

Authors need help getting the word out. Even the local papers, as desperate as they are for readers, refuse to publish book reviews. This lack of advocacy for the written word perplexes me. Shouldn’t newspapers and magazines be in the business of celebrating books and writers? Isn’t a book reader more likely to be newspaper reader?

I once interviewed a bookstore proprietor in New England. In the course of our discussion, I mentioned that a new book by a writer just down the street from her store had just been published. She had no idea.

True, the author could have stopped by but this conversation made an enormous impact on me. Publishing a book is way too much like that proverbial tree falling in the forest with no one around to hear it.

An author spends years of his/her life writing a book. An editor takes it over and spends a good many months on the review and editing process. Other experts — marketers and booksellers and graphic artists — are called in to further the publication process. Trees are cut down, ink is poured into press reservoirs and books are printed, packaged, shipped and …. sold??? A book is perhaps one of the most undervalued products in our degraded economy.

Why are newspapers and magazines important to authors? There are plenty of arguments that say social media is the way to get the word out these days. Yes, it probably helps, especially if you’re savvy in these ways and more so if your audience is tweeting and posting to Facebook regularly.

But printed book reviews are still very important because many book readers still read newspapers and magazines. Did you know that as many as 80% of families did not buy a book this year? The pool from which authors draw readers is already ridiculously shallow. Authors need a hand from the obvious places, places where readers already turn.

Since that discussion with the independent bookstore owner, I’ve made it my mission to review books by local and regional authors. For years I received a stipend for my weekly reviews but that has since changed. I work for a different, larger newspaper chain now and I no longer ask for compensation for my reviews because I am afraid my weekly column will no longer appear if the newspaper editor is expected to pay for it from her dwindling budget. Further, because of cost cutting at book publishers everywhere, getting review copies is much more difficult. I end up buying most of the books I review for free!

Next time

I’d like to write my next column about what goes into producing these weekly gratis book reviews. I’ll do so if I’m not distracted by something else that requires blogging.

If you have something to say about book reviews, by all means, please post a comment. I’d love to hear from you.