Saturday, June 04, 2005

We Mapped Manhattan

IN 1857, members of the Philological Society of London proposed the creation of a dictionary built upon quotations contributed by readers. The Book Review's project to make a literary map of Manhattan was wildly more modest than the Oxford English Dictionary, but our reliance on reader submissions was as great, and our gratitude to participants as genuine. The response to our announcement on May 1 (''We'll Map Manhattan'') was both enthusiastic and far flung. Submissions arrived from across the country and around the world (Paris, Tampico, Singapore), from general readers, university departments (English, of course, but also German and forestry), and from the third-grade classes of Ms. Chapnick in Ardsley, N.Y., and Mrs. Rosee and Mrs. Absgarten in Scarsdale.

Celia Hartmann, a New Yorker, wrote in an e-mail message, ''I am obviously not the only one who walks around town with a world of fictional locations imprinted on top of the so-called real geography of the city.'' She suggested Jack Finney's novel ''Time and Again'' and E. L. Konigsburg's ''From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler,'' as did enough other readers to make those books -- along with F. Scott Fitzgerald's ''Great Gatsby'' -- the three most frequently submitted. Also much cited were Caleb Carr and Lawrence Block. Some other books and authors we thought emblematic of New York went nearly unmentioned: only two readers proposed Jay McInerney's ''Bright Lights, Big City,'' about the number for Isaac Bashevis Singer's stories (for citations to these and more authors, see the expanded listings at

Mapmaking is a process of omission -- if it were not, a map of the United States would be 3,000 miles wide. Our design allowed the display of only 49 books, plus a very nice epigraph from Melville (with thanks to Rob Tally of Durham, N.C.). In deciding what to include, we wanted to represent many genres and many eras, and to be guided by reader preferences. The triage was painful, necessarily excluding many wonderful books and authors. But one pleasure of devising the map was discovering the personal connection readers often felt to the books they proposed. In an e-mail message, Bernie Lynch praised Paul Auster's ''Moon Palace'': ''The restaurant and the book both much loved. It was my neighborhood Chinese restaurant and helped me through my undergraduate years. Appreciated more for the waiters than the food but a wonderful communal atmosphere.''

Erin E. Foster enjoyed having lived in an apartment overlooking that of a character in Judy Blume's ''Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing'': ''If Peter were 10 years old when 'Tales' was published in 1972, he would have been in his 30's during my tenure on the block. I liked to think that he came back every once in a while . . . to visit his folks.''

Readers often displayed nimble analytical skill in discovering their favorite fictional addresses. Kim Herzinger drew on an intimate bond with the novel and the neighborhood to locate the 10th Street home of Clarissa Vaughan from ''The Hours,'' by Michael Cunningham (see Web map). Herzinger ''counted 72 steps from #10 to the corner of Fifth, but I am going to assume that Louis'' -- who had an affair with Clarissa's friend Richard -- ''is slightly shorter than I am.'' She eliminated one building because ''#12 (which is, however, handsomer than #10) is right next to #14 where Mark Twain once lived. Surely someone as literate as Clarissa would have mentioned she lived right next door to Twain's house.''

Some mysteries remain -- the apartment of J. D. Salinger's nomadic Glass family, who seem to move from East to West Side; the address of the Xenophon, where William Dean Howells's March family found a sublet in ''A Hazard of New Fortunes.'' Nor could we confidently pin down the office of Bartleby the Scrivener, despite many good suggestions from readers, including Ann Sullivan-Cross's. Having had a job at 14 Wall Street -- ''like working in a dead letter office, at the depths of a dark world governed by dark laws'' -- she felt sure she recognized the spot; she pointed out, moreover, that Melville's brother Allan had a law office at that address.

These readers see no impermeable boundary between the actual city and the city of the imagination. Meg Wolitzer, one of many writers who volunteered the home addresses of their characters -- we display some of them on the Web map -- expresses a similar idea from the author's perspective. Discussing the apartment at 16 Charles Street she found for the Castlemans in her novel ''The Wife,'' she writes, ''It's the weird thing about being a writer: a strong sense of specificity even though everything is made up.''

This articulates what could be our cartographic motto: a strong sense of specificity, even though everything is made up.

Randy Cohen writes ''The Ethicist'' for The Times Magazine.


We Mapped Manhattan - New York Times

Cash Up Front
June 5, 2005

If you walk around any Barnes & Noble or other large bookseller right about now, there's a good chance you will notice prominent stacks of a thick hardcover with an eye-catching jacket and the title ''Running the World: The Inside Story of the National Security Council and the Architects of American Power.'' The book, written by a former Clinton administration official, David J. Rothkopf, and published by PublicAffairs, is based on interviews with foreign policy insiders like Henry Kissinger, Madeleine Albright and Condoleezza Rice, and offers itself as a definitive study of the council, sometimes called the most powerful group of people in the history of the world.

Like many other customers, you might have thought the book was on display simply because the booksellers believed it was important, particularly relevant now and would practically sell itself.

This is also what Peter Osnos, the chief executive of PublicAffairs, would like to think. But he has been in the publishing business long enough to know that it's never that simple. In order to ensure the book was on display on the front tables, his company had to pay a total of about $11,000 to the large bookstore chains. Last fall the company also paid what Osnos called ''a significant amount of money'' for prominent placement of a new boxed edition of Lou Cannon's two-volume biography of Ronald Reagan, after the former president died in June.

''Had we not done that,'' Osnos said recently, ''there's no guarantee where the book would be. It could have been in the back somewhere.''

Osnos takes great pains to stress that he is not complaining about the arrangement, but simply describing a complicated kind of machinery that has evolved over the last 15 years in the world of American bookselling. Over that period, the amount of retail space devoted to selling books has quadrupled -- from superstores like Barnes & Noble and Borders to the growing book sections of big-box stores like Wal-Mart and Costco, and even of supermarkets. And with this expansion the once humble conventions of book display -- the neighborhood bookstore window, the recommended-books table near the cash register -- have also been supersized beyond recognition. In fact, many publishers say that the tables and flashy cardboard displays that crowd the front of chain bookstores have emerged as a marketing force fully as powerful as the traditional ways of trying to bring a book to the public's hard-won attention -- through newspaper and magazine ads, reviews, author tours and radio and television interviews.

But this promotional device, like most others, comes with a cost. It is known, somewhat deceptively, as a cooperative advertising agreement. In plain terms, it means that many of the books on display at the front of a store or placed face out at the end of an aisle are there because the publisher paid for them to be there, not necessarily because anyone at the bookstore thought the book was noteworthy or interesting.

Under such programs, booksellers -- mostly chains, but also larger independent stores -- keep a certain percentage of a publisher's net sales, usually 3 percent to 5 percent annually, depending on the agreement with the publisher. This money is then parceled out for various purposes, to help, for example, defray the bookseller's advertising costs, when a chain takes out ads or prints fliers to promote certain books. But the publisher's money may also buy coveted space on the store's front tables or on tall, highly visible racks, known as stepladders, announcing to customers that these books are considered the most important in the store.

''The Barnes & Noble stepladder is the best piece of real estate there is,'' said one veteran publishing executive -- who, like most others interviewed for this article, did not want his name used when talking about the world of book display. ''Now, when I go into a store I practically genuflect in front of the stepladder.'' (As an example, he said that one of his books with sales of about 800 copies a week immediately jumped to 3,000 to 4,000 copies a week once he paid for its placement on stepladders in stores across the country.)

Pay-for-display programs are nothing new in the retail world. Supermarkets have long extracted money from manufacturers to put their boxes of cereal or detergent in eye-catching spots. But the practice seems less savory in bookselling, where bookstore owners and managers were once assumed to serve as an editorial presence, recommending and featuring books they liked. Besides, publishers complain that, despite its name, cooperative advertising is not a cooperative exercise in the least. Some compare it to a tax or even to extortion -- evoking the practice of ''payola'' in the radio industry. Which is not to say that co-op is actually under-the-table, illegal or even unethical -- it's just that bookstores don't tell customers about it.

Co-op advertising has thus acquired a reputation as a kind of dirty secret of the publishing business. In 1999,, which also charges publishers for prominent placement and promotion of books on its Web site, dealt with complaints about the policy by saying it would disclose which titles had been paid for, but it has since stopped doing so. A disclaimer on the site (it takes some searching to find) informs customers that Amazon accepts payments, but, it adds, ''We don't sell our reviews -- and we don't say a book is good just because it's a publisher-supported title.'' Barnes & Noble likewise says that while its ''Discover Great New Writers'' program is supported by money from publishers, the company would never allow a publisher to ''buy'' a spot on this list; it reserves the right to choose the books itself.

Trying to get publishers or booksellers to talk about display agreements, even off the record, is like trying to persuade Mafiosi to break the oath of omertá. One respected New York publishing executive contacted by this reporter couldn't get off the phone fast enough when asked about it. But among themselves, publishers complain bitterly that display programs are just another way that the big bookstores are dictating how they do business. Booksellers, meanwhile, hate to talk about display arrangements because they feel that they have been unfairly portrayed as somehow dishonest or mercenary in a highly competitive business with paper-thin profit margins.

''At no point in time do we put a book on display unless we think it's going to sell,'' said Stephen Riggio, the chief executive of Barnes & Noble, who bristled at questions about the practice. Gregory P. Josefowicz, the chief executive of Borders Group -- which has a chain of about 500 bookstores -- agreed. ''If we just keep displaying things that don't meet customer needs but are there because of the availability of co-op, that would be a bad strategy,'' he said. He didn't dispute the prevalence of co-op, however, noting that he and other booksellers felt that sharing some display costs with publishers was justified. ''Space does cost,'' he said.

''The rearrangement of the products in the store by store staff is an investment in money for us,'' Josefowicz added.

The phenomenon of co-op advertising was born during the Depression, when book sales dropped sharply and publishers and bookstores willingly joined hands to share advertising and promotion costs. Later, when sales improved, some booksellers insisted on keeping the agreements. ''And that was the first step down the slippery slope from many publishers' points of view,'' said one publishing executive with more than 20 years' sales experience. For years, as bookselling remained largely in the hands of independent stores, pay-for-display was rare, but with the rise of chains and the explosion of display space the arrangements have become more complex and costly.

Publishers have had a love-hate relationship with the idea almost from the beginning. ''I have to say that there were probably some publishers at the time who saw someone else's book in the front window and thought, 'Hey, I'd pay for that if I could,' '' said the veteran executive. And indeed now, displays in superstores are seen by some publishers, especially smaller houses, as an increasingly reliable way to promote their books. ''The promotions cost a fair amount,'' said George Gibson, the publisher of Walker & Company -- known for making successful books like Dava Sobel's ''Longitude'' -- ''but you're buying space, and they have every right to sell that space, and in this day and age when there are so many books being published -- literally every day -- the trick is to try to get a book to stand out in the crowd.''

He added, of the agreements, ''Sure, it might be nice if they cost less, but you use them judiciously.''

The veteran publishing executive said he believes that in many Barnes & Noble superstores, about 70 percent of the books on front-of-store tables are there because co-op money secures their spot. (In New York City, the percentage is less because store clerks have traditionally retained more autonomy to promote books they personally like and think will sell well.) Stephen Riggio declined to say what percentage of books on display tables in Barnes & Noble were generally part of cooperative programs, but maintained that it was ''a small amount system-wide'' and added that ''it's not the driving force behind our merchandising.''

But many publishers disagree and say that costs for certain types of display arrangements with large booksellers are becoming too high. Numbers are very hard to come by, but some publishers said that the price for placement on front-of-store promotional tables for only a few weeks or a month -- in some cases, even, just one week -- at Barnes & Noble stores can be between $10,000 and $20,000 per book, depending on the time of year. Placement on eye-catching cardboard displays can cost much more than $20,000. When compared to the cost of advertising, those fees are not inordinately large, but publishers say that they are starting to take a bigger and bigger share of the money set aside to promote books.

''A great deal of our marketing money is now going to co-op,'' said one publisher. He added that he also has experienced more pressure from booksellers. They do not openly threaten to hide the book in the store if no cooperative money is used, he said; the stores obviously also want books to sell. But that threat is sometimes implicit. ''They're not rude,'' he said. ''They just don't promote the book.''

And booksellers are going after even relatively small amounts of additional money from publishers. One publisher tells a story of a major bookselling company offering a chance for one of the publisher's noted authors to address a dinner meeting of the company's senior managers, a great opportunity for the author. But the bookseller demanded $5,000 from the publisher to allow the author to speak. The offer was declined. ''It's an aggressive posture,'' the publisher said.

While publishers disagree about the merits of paying for display, one thing about the arrangements is clear: they further concentrate money and attention on the books that need it least.

The phenomenon, which has been called a reverse Robin Hood effect, happens because publishers pay huge advances to star authors and then feel they must support that author's book with substantial promotion money. Of course, this was happening well before bookstore display emerged as a force. But publishers say that display arrangements have made promotion budgets even more lopsided in favor of the Stephen Kings and Danielle Steels of the book world, meaning that new authors or less prominent books are given increasingly little advertising or display help.

Stephen Riggio said that while prominent authors do get heavy display support from publishers, he believes big booksellers are unfairly charged with hurting smaller books and publishers with their display policies. ''It's just another j'accuse story in which we are painted by some people in publishing as limiting the marketplace,'' he said. ''It gets right to me.''

On the contrary, he argues, the expansion of his company's stores gives it ''the ability to stock the most diverse collection of books that we've ever been able to do.'' That means books by small and medium-size publishers are ''getting more exposure than ever before.''

The publishing executive with 20 years in sales said that he has been part of many discussions in which marketing divisions have debated the wisdom of devoting large sums of display money to big-name authors whose books would sell well anyway, instead of putting it toward good smaller books that need the attention.

''Those conversations have occurred time and time again,'' he said. ''But no one has had the guts'' to gamble on the lesser-known titles. ''Nobody will do that because the risk is too great for losing the amount of money you've invested in Stephen King.''

Peter Osnos said that for small publishers like him -- PublicAffairs puts out around 50 new books a year -- the expensive world of bookstore display forces him to try to find other ways to get his books talked about.

''One way is to hand a retailer a large check and they will stick your book up front,'' he said. ''What I have to be is more intrepid.''

''Money is the easiest way,'' he added, ''but it's not the only way.''

Randy Kennedy is an arts reporter for The Times.

Cash Up Front - New York Times

Wednesday, June 01, 2005

Famous First Words
A Librarian Shares Favorite Literary Opening Lines

Morning Edition, September 8, 2004 · You can't judge a book by its cover, but librarian Nancy Pearl thinks the first line can tell you a lot. "I think when you read a good first line it's like falling in love with somebody," Pearl tells NPR's Steve Inskeep. "Your heart starts pounding… it opens up all the possibilities." And while a good first line doesn’t always make a good book, Pearl says the chances are better with a strong opener.

Below are some notable opening lines that have made Pearl's heart pound:

Towers of Trebizond by Rose Macaulay: "'Take my camel, dear,' said my Aunt Dot, as she climbed down from this animal on her return from High Mass."

The Last Good Kiss by James Crumley: "When I finally caught up with Abraham Trahearne, he was drinking beer with an alcoholic bulldog named Fireball Roberts in a ramshackle joint just outside of Sonoma, California, drinking the heart right out of a fine spring afternoon."

The Debut by Anita Brookner: "Dr. Weiss, at forty, knew that her life had been ruined by literature."

Uncivil Seasons by Michael Malone: "We don't get much snow, and we hardly ever murder one another. Suicide is more our style..."

Nervous Conditions by Tsitsi Dangarembga: "I was not sorry when my brother died."

The Go-Between by L.P. Hartley: "The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there."

The Autumn of the Patriarch by Gabriel Garcia Marquez: "Over the weekend the vultures got into the presidential palace by pecking through the screens on the balcony windows and the flapping of their wings stirred up the stagnant time inside, and at dawn on Monday the city awoke out of its lethargy of centuries with the warm, soft breeze of a great man dead and rotting grandeur."

One Hundred Years of Solitude, also by Gabriel Garcia Marquez: "Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice."

Ahab's Wife by Sena Jeter Naslund: "Captain Ahab was neither my first husband nor my last."

The Key to Rebecca by Ken Follett: "The last camel collapsed at noon."

***The Miracle Life of Edgar Mint by Brady Udall: "If I could tell you one thing about my life it would be this: when I was seven years old the mailman ran over my head."

The Paperboy by Pete Dexter: "My brother Ward was once a famous man."

After Life by Rhian Ellis: "First I had to get his body into the boat."

I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith: "I write this sitting in the kitchen sink."

A Primate's Memoir by Robert Sapolsky: "I joined the baboon troop during my twenty-first year. I had never planned to become a savanna baboon when I grew up; instead I had always assumed I would become a mountain gorilla."

The Man in the Window by Jon Cohen: "Atlas Malone saw the angel again, this time down by the horse chestnut tree."

No One Thinks of Greenland by John Griesemer: "'You'll want to scratch,' said the nurse. 'Don't,' said the orderly."

***one of my personal favorites
NPR : Famous First Words

Monday, May 30, 2005

Levengers is a mail order company that specializes in "tools for serious readers" - they have incredible stuff and I am lucky enough to have their outlet store in my backyard. Books & Books, a fabulous independent bookstore from Miami that is known for their busy schedule of author signings - 30+ a month at times - opened a small store within a store at Levengers and are bringing author signings there. A few Saturdays ago, I had the pleasure of meeting Joe Finder, author of one of my favorite books, PARANOIA, and the newly released COMPANY MAN. Joe was absolutely mesmerizing - his background in the CIA & Russia was really interesting, and he spoke about his research with some of the Fortune 500 CEO's for his latest book. COMPANY MAN is probably more mystery than thriller and something new for him. He's on a 15 city tour ( and if he comes to your area, I highly recommend a visit for a fascinating hour.

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