Tuesday, December 31, 2002

Libraries Across U.S. Are Scaling Back
Mon Dec 30, 1:37 PM ET Add U.S. National - AP to My Yahoo!

By JASON STRAZIUSO, Associated Press Writer

Seattle's libraries were forced to close for two weeks. Denver doubled its late fees. And Sunday book browsing is out in Erie, Pa.

Libraries across the country are cutting staff and services because of a budget crunch. Librarians say one of the most disturbing things is that the cutbacks are occurring at a time when an increasing number of people need libraries to help them find jobs.

"As the economic times get worse, library use has gone up," said Maurice J. Freedman, president of the American Library Association. "The injustice of it is, here we are providing more service with the same staff, and we're asked to cut our budgets."

Children's and school librarians are being laid off, weekend hours are being cut and new book buying is out of the question.

The problem stems from tight state and local budgets. When cuts need to be made, libraries are hard-pressed to compete against, say, fire and police protection.

In Pennsylvania, Erie's main library will close on Sundays starting in January. Further cuts are expected.

"We're just grinding our teeth over this," library coordinator Mary Rennie said. "Sunday afternoon was a great time for families to come down together."

Late fees at the Denver Public Library double to 20 cents a day in 2003 to help cover a $410,000 budget cut.

Librarians say that in addition to job seekers, the cuts are hurting students as well as homeless people who spend their days in the library.

Library patron Dennis Hunter, 46, who lives outside of Erie, said that if libraries cut back, he can still get onto the Internet. "But a lot of people just don't have the resources to make do," he said.

Elsewhere around the country:

_The Public Library of Cincinnati planned to close five branches in 2003, but after a public outcry decided to reduce staff and services.

_New York City, starting in October, reduced service at 67 of its 85 branches to five days a week, from mostly six; its 2003 budget was cut $16.2 million, or 14 percent, spokeswoman Nancy Donner said. The cuts came despite a 7 percent rise in attendance since September 2001.

"The annual attendance of 40 million at the city's library system is higher than that of all the city's cultural institutions and professional sports teams combined," Donner said.

_In suburban Detroit, the Berkley Public Library plans to cut hours and lay off its children's librarian, a 14-year veteran. "In 20 years I've never had to cut library hours," said director Celia Morse said. "To cut them twice in one year is particularly painful."

_Seattle shuttered its libraries for a week in August and December and will do so again in 2003, spokeswoman Andra Addison said. The budget has been cut $7 million in the last two years. Library workers voted for the closings and are going without pay during the shutdowns to avert job cuts.

"I don't think people understand what libraries do, and their value to a city's economic and cultural health," Addison said. "In a down economy, this is when people use books more."

An American Library Association-sponsored study released this year found that circulation at 18 of the country's largest libraries was up about 8 percent in 2001 over the average of the four previous years.

Freedman, the ALA president, said libraries' funding problems stem from a lack of political clout. At its annual meeting in January in Philadelphia, the ALA will launch a campaign to raise funds and awareness.

"We have to get a message across," Freedman said.


On the Net:

American Library Association: http://www.ala.org

Pennsylvania Library Association: http://www.palibraries.org

A Notion of Really Rogue Nations
Web 'Game' Allows Players to Create and Run Virtual Countries

By Noah Goldman

Dec. 30
— Imagine a nation where college students make ends meet by selling their kidneys, the government is avowedly atheist, euthanasia is illegal, and all tariffs have been abolished.

Sound like a throwback to the bleak days of hard-line dictatorships of the Eastern Europe's Iron Curtain? Or perhaps the return of a despotic-ruled Cambodia?
No, this describes the present-day regime of the ever-formidable Empire of Mediocrity.

What? Never heard of it?

The Empire is part of the biggest online game you never heard of — yet. It is called NationStates, a free Web-based game that allows anyone to build and run their own virtual country.

Max Barry, a 29-year old Australian novelist, says he came up with the idea of NationStates.net after filling out an online quiz designed to gauge a person's political philosophy.

"So many people have so many views as to what that best form of government is and they are absolutely convinced that theirs is the best way," Barry states. "NationStates allows them to see how their ideologies might play out."

And the types of online nations, housed in an online world of 12,000 "regions," truly run the gamut.

Consider some of Barry's favorites, such as The Principality of Twenty Nine, whose credo reads "Peace through superior firepower." Or perhaps, The Dictatorship of Angry PoliSci Majors whose motto says, "We're all going to be unemployed."

Other nations include the Holy Empire of Half-Naked Chicks and the United States of Bushism, a jibe at the verbal flubs made by the real president of the United States.

Free to Rule As You See Fit

NationStates can be described as a mix between the popular online family simulation, The Sims, and the classic board game Risk, the game of global domination.

Within minutes, anyone can set up their own "nationstate" by answering just a few simple questions in three subject areas: economy, civil rights and political freedoms. The result is one's very own virtual country, tailor-made to fit one's own personal political preferences.

Players also designate the national animal, the currency and the official motto of their land. But the fun does not stop there.

Once a nation is established, players will be presented with various issues, ranging from allowing Nazi protestors to march to feeding the hungry. Users can take stances on issues or ignore them all together.

Each action, or non-action, affects the prosperity of the player's nation and sometimes produce unforeseen side-effects. For instance, granting greater political freedom will lead to more civil unrest.

"There is no way to win and no way to lose," says Barry.

Alternate Realities

But the game has certainly proved to be a "winner" for Barry, who initially planned the site as an adjunct to his soon-to-be-published novel, Jennifer Government.

In the satirical tale of an "alternate present," practically the entire world is completely capitalistic. Everything is publicly traded. People take their last names for the corporations they work for and the police will only investigate crimes for which they can directly bill.

The book's epomymous lead character is a government agent, looking to nab a low-level Nike employee, Hack, who has been tricked into signing a contract that is really a Mob-like "hit" order. The order requires Hack to kill people who purchase Nike's newest model of shoes in order to build notoriety for the company.

Power Play?

The game, however, received no formal promotion from Barry's publisher, Doubleday. The Web site's launch consisted of merely an e-mail to twenty of Barry's friends. But word quickly spread from there.

"People started linking the site on their 'blogs , their web logs," says Barry. "And they would talk about their nation and how it was doing." About 1,000 virtual nations sprang up within two weeks — well ahead of the book's Jan 21. release date. And the roll of virtual nations grows scores almost by the hour. The tally now surpasses 20,700 nations, not counting the 1,500 or so countries that have been deleted due to inactivity.

Barry says he is surprised by the response the site has received. He adds that the game has served as a sounding board for many different ideas. "I am a big believer in free speech," Barry mentions. "That this has developed into a forum for something political is great."

Equally fantastic for Barry: The book has recently been optioned to be adapted for the big screen by George Clooney and Steven Soderberg's Section 8 film company.

Barry has already started thinking about whom he would like to play the lead. "Maybe Sandra Bullock," he says.

Copyright © 2002 ABC News Internet Ventures.

Sunday, December 29, 2002

December 29, 2002
Who Owns the Internet? You and i Do

SOMETHING will be missing when Joseph Turow's book about families and the Internet is published by M.I.T. Press next spring: The capital I that usually begins the word "Internet."

Mr. Turow, a professor at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania, studies how people use online technology and how that affects their lives. He has begun a small crusade to de-capitalize Internet — and, by extension, to acknowledge a deep shift in the way that we think about the online world.

"I think what it means is it's part of the everyday universe," he said.

Capitalization irked him because, he said, it seemed to imply that reaching into the vast, interconnected ether was a brand-name experience.

"The capitalization of things seems to place an inordinate, almost private emphasis on something," he said, turning it into a Kleenex or a Frigidaire. "The Internet, at least philosophically, should not be owned by anyone," he said, calling it "part of the neural universe of life."

But, he said, dropping the big I would sent a deeper message to the world: The revolution is over, and the Net won. It's part of everyone's life, and as common as air and water (neither of which starts with a capital).

Some elements of the online world have already made the transition. Internet often appears with a lowercase I on the Internet itself — but then, spelling online is dreadful, u kno.

Although most everybody still capitalizes World Wide Web, words like "website," and the online journals known as weblogs (or, simply, blogs) are increasingly lowercase. Of course, the Internet's capital I is virtually engraved in stone, since Microsoft Word automatically capitalizes the lowercase "i" unless a user overrides its settings.

For Mr. Turow, the first step in his campaign was persuading his book editor to enlist. She compromised, dropping to lowercase in newly written parts and retaining the capital in older articles reproduced in the book.

Then he nudged Steven Jones, a communications professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago and president of the Association of Internet Researchers. Mr. Jones was cool to the idea, until he looked at copies of Scientific American from the late 19th century, and noticed that words for new technologies, like Phonograph, were often uppercased.

Today, Mr. Jones is a crusader himself.

"I think the moment is right," he said, to treat the Internet "the way we refer to television, radio and the telephone."

He shared his view with a few hundred close friends last month at a meeting of the National Communication Association, an educators' group. "I just noticed everybody's attention kind of snapped forward," he said.

"I'm used to having people say nice things," he said. "We're scholars, not wrestlers. But this time I was struck by the number of people who were saying the equivalent of, `Right on!' "

DICTIONARY editors, though, have dismissed Mr. Turow politely but firmly.

Dictionaries do not generally see themselves as making the rules, said Jesse Sheidlower, who runs the American offices of the Oxford English Dictionary.

"What dictionaries do is reflect what's out there," he said. He and his fellow dictionary editors would think seriously about such changes after newspapers make them, he added.

That could take a while. Allan M. Siegal, a co-author of The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage and an assistant managing editor at the newspaper, said that "there is some virtue in the theory" that Internet is becoming a generic term, "and it would not be surprising to see the lowercase usage eclipse the uppercase within a few years."

He said, however, that the newspaper was unlikely to make any change that was not supported by authoritative dictionaries.

Time to ask Robert Kahn, who is as responsible as anyone for the creation of the Internet, having helped plan the original network that preceded it and having created, with Vinton Cerf, the language of computer networks, known as TCP/IP, that allowed the vast knitting-together of systems that gave birth to the modern medium.

He cares deeply about the name, having led a fight for years to ensure that its use is not restricted or abused by the corporation that received the trademark in 1989.

A settlement was reached two years ago with the company now known as Concord EFS. The company agreed that it would not dun people who used the word, which meant that "Internet" now belongs to everybody, Mr. Kahn said.

"We defended the right of people to use the word `Internet' for what we think of as the Internet," he said.

THAT was the important fight, according to Mr. Kahn. "Whether you use a cap I or little I" hardly matters, he said.

Which leads us back to a profound question for Mr. Turow: Don't you have anything better to do?

"That's a really interesting question," he said. "I was an English major. I'm very sensitive to the nuances of words, and I'm very concerned about the nuances, the feel that words have within the society."

Fair enough; Perhaps the next big thing, after all, will be small. At least initially.

Friday, December 27, 2002

Publishers have the Hollywood tie-in covered
By Bob Minzesheimer, USA TODAY

Literary purists cringe, but publishers know the easiest way to sell a book is with a new cover from Hollywood:

The Hours, Michael Cunningham's novel inspired by Virginia Woolf's 1923 masterpiece, Mrs. Dalloway, became a best seller only after winning the Pulitzer Prize in 1999. Now it has another life: 250,000 copies with a film image of Meryl Streep, Julianne Moore and Nicole Kidman, who plays Woolf. The movie opens in select cities Friday.

Catch Me If You Can, Frank Abagnale's memoir of a con man, sold 86,000 copies after it was reissued in 2000. Now 250,000 copies carry a cover that copies the movie poster. Top billing goes to Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hanks. The movie opens today.

Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, Chuck Barris' account of his schizophrenic life as a TV game-show host and CIA hit man, was out of print until this month, when 75,000 copies of the movie tie-in edition were released with actor Sam Rockwell on the cover. The movie opens Dec. 31 in Los Angeles and New York and Jan. 17 nationwide.

"Movie art on books isn't as aesthetically pleasing to some purists," says Carl Lennertz of BookSense, the marketing organization for independent bookstores. "But it's essential to increased attention, display and accessibility to a much larger potential readership."

Hollywood-inspired covers, he says, help "moviegoers, of whom there are more of than readers — a lot more, alas — make the connection to the book."

Consider A Beautiful Mind, Sylvia Nasar's biography of John Nash, a brilliant but mentally troubled mathematician. The original paperback pictures Nash on the cover. The movie tie-in edition shows Russell Crowe, who portrayed Nash in last year's movie.

The publisher continues to print both editions, but the cover with the actor is far more popular than the one with the actual subject of the book. With Crowe on the cover, 850,000 copies are in print; 160,000 copies show Nash.

This year, nearly all of the leading Oscar contenders were inspired by books, from J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers to Gangs of New York, Martin Scorsese's movie based on Herbert Asbury's 1928 collection of stories.

But Carol Fitzgerald of Bookreporter .com, a Web site for book discussions, says she fears that because of the economy, "people will make a choice to 'see the book' this year instead of reading it. Movies cost less, require a smaller time investment and deliver instant gratification."

If she had to choose one book she believes people will read as well as see the movie, it's The Two Towers. "Readers are invested in the trilogy," she says.

"People who read these books when they were younger tell us that they are circling back to them now and appreciating them more. They are the ones leaving the theaters and heading to the bookstores."


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10 outstanding reads, 10 stand-out stinkers

Yes, at 3 a.m., book reviewers do toss and turn, worrying that a deserving debut novel, a deeply researched history or that truly moving memoir has been buried beneath an avalanche of glossy publicity kits or ignored because of deadline pressures. But we do our best. Alphabetized by author, here is a sampling of some of the outstanding books of 2002 as well as books we found disappointing — or worse.

The best

1. Master of the Senate by Robert Caro (Knopf, $35). Caro writes history with the touch of a novelist who values a sense of place and mood. Though the book is anchored by relentless research, Caro knows that history is more than facts. Master of the Senate, the third of Caro's four volumes on Lyndon Johnson, is about LBJ's Senate years, from 1949 to 1960. No writer offers a more vivid sense of modern history.

2. The Emperor of Ocean Park by Stephen Carter (Knopf, $26.95). Although wrapped in the conventions of a mystery, this long, profoundly satisfying novel wrestles with life's most perplexing issues: religious faith, sibling bonds, human weakness, truth, marriage, ambition, money, race. Carter's answer on how to live the good life is not found in automobile showrooms or Restoration Hardware, but in the Bible. This resonating novel is one to read and reread.

3. Atonement by Ian McEwan (Doubleday, $26). McEwan, who won the Booker Prize in 1998 for Amsterdam, infuses his slyly graceful Atonement with energy. Its historic sweep from 1935 to 1999 uncovers betrayal, guilt and redemption. It is a provocative engagement of the senses, an adroit management of grand themes, grand schemes and grand resolutions.

4. Everything Is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer (Houghton Mifflin, $24). In this debut novel, Foer fictionalizes his voyage at age 20 to trace his family history in Ukraine. He inserts vibrant characters, invents clever plot points and imagines events from centuries ago. The result is a hilarious yet heartbreaking tale of family and discovery.

5. Roscoe by William Kennedy (Viking, $24.95). Kennedy has written seven novels set in Albany, N.Y. (Ironweed is the best known.) But he shows no signs of overmining the territory. His latest is an exuberant portrait of political and sexual betrayal, set mostly between World Wars I and II, notable years for crime and punishment in New York's state capital.

6. The Nanny Diaries by Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus (St. Martin's, $24.95). On the surface, this is a portrait of a young girl caring for a darling little boy neglected by his wealthy, self-absorbed Manhattan parents. Yet the debut novel is both hilarious and far more profound than one realizes at first. For one thing, the mother, Mrs. X, is not the one-dimensional she-devil she appears to be. (Selfish and tormented, she bears her secret sorrows.) The novel reminds us that more tears are shed over answered prayers.

7. The Founding Fish by John McPhee (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $25). McPhee is an amateur (except when it comes to writing) who delights in hanging out with the best pros. Which is what he has been doing for 26 books, from a profile of a college basketball player named Bill Bradley to his Pulitzer-winning opus on geology. His latest weaves wonders about what might seem a small topic: shad, the most storied of American fish.

8. I Don't Know How She Does It: The Life of Kate Reddy, Working Mother by Allison Pearson (Knopf, $23). Often compared to fellow British female protagonist Bridget Jones, Kate Reddy exists as a far more complex, intelligent and tormented soul. This tale of a working mother in London's financial district offers up observations that will resonate with readers long after they have finished the highly praised novel. Though the ending wraps the story up too neatly, the novel has far more depth than simply another dispatch from the eternal mommy wars waged between working and stay-at-home mothers.

9. Hell to Pay by George P. Pelecanos (Little, Brown, $24.95). Masters of the crime novel genre like Dennis Lehane, Michael Connelly and Elmore Leonard read Pelecanos. And for a lot of good reasons. Hell to Pay continues the emotional journeys and crime-solving escapades of Derek Strange and Terry Quinn, the ex-cops Pelecanos introduced in last year's knockout, Right as Rain. Pelecanos' fiction is excruciatingly realistic, his protagonists are flawed but sensitive, and his bad guys are very, very bad.

10. The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold (Little, Brown, $21.95). A lovely novel that begins with the rape and murder of a 14-year-old girl. An audacious contradiction? Perhaps, but Sebold's debut novel rises, literally and figuratively, above its plot. A surprise best seller, it's propelled by the voice of its questioning narrator, the murdered girl. In the end, it's more about redemption than death.

The disappointments

1. Red Rabbit by Tom Clancy (Putnam, $28.95). His 10th novel featuring Jack Ryan is less of Clancy's usual techno-thriller and more of a conventional spy story. Set in 1983, it's about a Soviet plot to kill the pope. Its biggest problem is that it doesn't need to be 618 pages; it takes Clancy a good 200 pages to get the plot going. For a writer whose strength is neither dialogue nor characterization, that's inexcusable. It's also dangerous to fall asleep reading a 600-page book.

2. Prey by Michael Crichton (HarperCollins, $26.95). In his new novel, Crichton tries to scare the bejesus out of us with a harrowing tale of nanoparticles gone berserk. If you don't get what all the nano-fuss is about, Crichton makes a valiant but futile effort to evoke the dangers of mixing nanotechnology, biotechnology, computer technology and humanity's reckless egotism. Prey is a big fat tech manual wrapped around a threadbare story. The subject matter is way too complicated for commercial fiction.

3. Visions of Sugar Plums by Janet Evanovich (St. Martin's, $19.95). Evanovich has built a loyal following of readers who have devoured all eight of her mystery novels about a zany New Jersey bounty hunter named Stephanie Plum. Apparently, those readers will follow Evanovich anywhere. A disjointed plot involves one character named Sandy Claws and another, Diesel, who may or may not be from another world. In this world, it looks like little more than an attempt to cash in on the popularity of Christmas novels.

4. The Cell by John Miller and Michael Stone, with Chris Mitchell (Hyperion, $24.95). This book promised to reveal why the FBI and CIA failed to stop the Sept. 11 terrorists. The authors are veteran crime reporters better suited to writing about Mafia thugs. They have lots of FBI sources but are in over their heads in dealing with international terrorism. They use second- and third-hand information but write about events as if they were witnesses.

5. More, Now, Again: A Memoir of Addiction by Elizabeth Wurtzel (Simon & Schuster, $25). The author of Prozac Nation, that shapely Harvardian is at it again. Now our struggling writer has developed an addiction to Ritalin, which she grinds up and snorts while trying to finish a book. And again, we are treated to her endless self-absorption mixed with self-pity.

6. Halloween by Jerry Seinfeld, illustrated by James Bennett (Little, Brown, $15.95). This reader could fill an entire newspaper with savage reviews of trashy kids' books that have been written, so to speak, by celebrities and/or adult authors. Halloween is one of the worst. It is not a bit funny. And it features a particularly shameful moment when the young Jerry look-alike sneers at an old lady who dares to ask him, "What are you supposed to be?" He hits her in the head with her own orange peanut-shaped marshmallow, snarling, "We're going for name candy only this year."

7. The Book of Mean People by Toni and Slade Morrison, illustrations by Pascal Lemaitre (Hyperion, $16.99). Being a Nobel Prize laureate is no guarantee you can write a children's book. This strange offering involves various definitions of what makes people mean. Mothers yelling at their children or trying to feed them green peas are demonized. (By that standard, 99.9% of mommies are mean.) By the end of the book, it's hard to figure out who isn't mean, except for the rabbit hero and his dog.

8. God Bless America, song and music by Irving Berlin, accompanying CD performed by Barbra Streisand, illustrated by Lynn Munsinger (HarperCollins, $15.99). As a book illustrating Berlin's beautiful and patriotic song, this is an acceptable title. And Munsinger's bear illustrations are pleasant. But the book would benefit from more information about the brilliant and fascinating Berlin, who published the song in 1938. And the accompanying CD of God Bless America, performed by Streisand, illuminates why it is the rare celebrity who should venture into the kids' market. Save it for Vegas, Babs.

9. What About the Big Stuff? Finding Strength and Moving Forward When the Stakes are High by Richard Carlson (Hyperion, $19.95). Filled with platitudes about learning patience, the importance of meditating and taking time to be kind, this new offering is ineffectual. Readers would be better served reading Harold Kushner's When Bad Things Happen to Good People, or any books by the Dalai Lama, when "Big Stuff" happens. Carlson's anecdotes about his back problems and his thoughts on forgiveness, illness, death and 9/11 are pretty thin.

10. The One Minute Millionaire: The Enlightened Way to Wealth by Mark Victor Hansen and Robert Allen (Harmony, $19.95). This self-help tale mixes obvious fiscal advice — use only one credit card; be persistent in pursuing your goals — with a far-fetched novel about a widow who must earn $1 million in 90 days to regain custody of her children from her evil in-laws. Save your money. Avoid this book.

Contributing: By Deirdre Donahue, Bob Minzesheimer, Carol Memmott, other USA TODAY staff writers and freelancers

Tuesday, December 24, 2002

New Booker Prize award
The Booker Prize's advisory panel is setting up a new prize. Unlike the Booker Prize for Fiction, which identifies a British or Commonwealth novel as book of the year, the new prize, which acknowledges a lifetime contribution to literature, will be open to authors in the United States and any other English-speaking country.

Sunday, December 22, 2002

December 19, 2002
Room at the Table for Fresh Faces

How's this for an upbeat thought? Despite a year of whining about economic gloominess in book publishing, 2002 might be remembered, if one notes such things, as a particularly good year for first fiction. One would have thought the contrary, that in these times of uncertainties, publishers would be betting only on the sure thing, the brand name writers, and that that would rule out taking many risks with debuts.

Not necessarily true. Several days ago Random House Inc. astonished book professionals with the announcement that its seven book divisions had this year published 103 first novels or first short-story collections. A company record. Random House Inc.? Wasn't that the behemoth many in the business felt would be the most risk averse after its conglomeration in 1998?

There were other bright signs for wannabe fiction writers, and it didn't have much to do with the size of the publishing house. St. Martin's Press, for instance, which churns out 700 titles a year, published 63 debut fiction titles, and Little, Brown & Company, with a 50-title program, did even better proportionately in risk taking. It published eight first novels or debut short-story collections.

In a way this adventurousness may seem surprising in such a mingy economy. But an essential part of publishing lore is that its attraction as a profession for the young and idealistic is precisely this: the joy of discovering and publishing new writers. And this excitement seldom fades over the years of a career.

Michael Pietsch, publisher of Little, Brown, put it this way: "There's nothing publishers love more than first novels: opening up that box with a manuscript in it and discovering a new novelist."

Peter Olson, chairman and chief executive of Random House Inc., said: "Contrary to the cynics who believe publishing is focused mainly on best sellers and big advances, for our editors author development is a privilege and a truly passionate undertaking. This year they jump-started 103 author careers." (Random House Inc. publishes more than 1,500 fiction titles a year.)

Career building can be a necessarily slow process. Sally Richardson, publisher of St. Martin's Press, said, "We will take on first novels that other publishing houses wouldn't, because we are willing to do smaller numbers than many other houses — have first printings of 3,000 or 4,000, maybe some at 12,000, in hardcover."

"It's no-frills launches," she said. "Part of it is working the smaller bookstores, with a whole spectrum of genres. Mysteries, women's fiction, historical fiction." St. Martin's had 73 best sellers this year, Ms. Richardson said, including "The Nanny Diaries," a first novel by Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus. Clearly Ms. Richardson's not a bad starter for a writer.

So in a book year with little excitements, when even the sales of some brand name authors are slipping a bit, first fiction provided some energy and juice. One of the few enduring buzz books of 2002 was Alice Sebold's first novel, the best-selling "Lovely Bones" (Little, Brown), which is still buzzing along. Mr. Pietsch, its publisher, said, "It's been a banner year for first novels, and `Lovely Bones' will fuel that for a few years to come."

One thinks back to 1997 when Charles Frazier's "Cold Mountain" (Atlantic Monthly Press) and Arthur Golden's "Memoirs of a Geisha" (Alfred A. Knopf), both first novels, were publishing's propellants. People read them and rushed for their computers to try their hand.

This year, too, there were awards as well as popularity for some first fiction. Julia Glass's novel, "Three Junes" (Pantheon), won the National Book Award for fiction, and "You Are Not a Stranger" (Nan A. Talese/Doubleday), a debut story collection by Adam Haslett, and Brad Watson's "Heaven of Mercury" (W. W. Norton), a first novel, were finalists.

What does this first fiction array prove, other than that perhaps publishers have more nerve than they often lead us to believe? It proves yet again that the best engine to drive a book's sales is not advertising or authors' tours or even reviews, but word of mouth. People will read a book recommended by someone they respect even if they have never heard of the author.

Selling any novel is not easy, but rookie novels are an easier sell than most people would suppose. Publishers and editors are always searching for that new writerly voice. The hunt may be as important as the back list, for in the end the new voice, they hope, becomes a steady voice and eventually that's what makes up the all-valuable back list — those books that bring steady sales to a publisher year after year.

But writing is a torturous game. Get a nicely published first novel in the stores and the writer is on the way, right? Far from true in most cases. The really hard sell is the author's second novel. The voice is no longer new and fresh. Moreover, the prospective publisher has the computer printout revealing the net sales of what was that promising first novel. The numbers don't have to be best selling, but they had better be promising or the author's agent is going to have a tough sale to a publisher still searching for new fresh voices. Unless, of course, that second manuscript is so obviously smashing. Hey, editors and publishers, make 2003 the year of the second novel!

Copyright The New York Times Company

Monday, December 16, 2002

Dunn's word game has something to say
By Pat Craig

QUIET, SELF-EFFACING, and with the sort of politeness that inspires grandmothers to bake a special batch of cookies, Mark Dunn isn't the sort of literary type you'd expect to find infused with the red-hot political spirit of, say, George Orwell.

Of course, he doesn't see himself as anything near Orwellian, either. Just a guy with a few concerns about civil liberties.

He's a bookish, bearded Southern man who switched, at least temporarily, from playwriting (he's written 25 plays, including "Five Tellers Dancing in the Rain," which was produced in 1997 by Pleasant Hill's OnStage Theatre) to novels, spent his career, until recently, working in the rare books and manuscripts division of the New York Public Library.

"I wrote a relevant novel by accident," says Dunn, who isn't the least bit disappointed when people point out the similarities to Orwell's "1984" in his "Ella Minnow Pea." "Orwell may have influenced me. But I wanted something that might appeal to a younger audience."

Some critics have called his work Orwell-lite, but, in truth, Dunn's relevance is due as much to timing as anything else. He did want to write a piece about censorship, civil liberties and freedom of expression. But it is probably the fact that the hardcover edition came out at about the same time as the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center that is creating the attention.

The hardcover edition became a cult hit, but hardly a best seller. But when the government began talking about some of the possible restrictions that the homeland security process might place on liberty, people began reading a lot more into what is essentially a novel within a word game.

And, in turn, the paperback rights touched off a bidding war, which meant that Dunn was a literary force to be reckoned with -- and that, for the first time, he wouldn't have to hold down a day job.

"It was funny, really; some of those bidding for the paperback were the same publishing houses that turned me down the first time," he says. "It has changed things. For example, I've made more money at this than from all of the plays I've written."

The book, described by Dunn as "an epistolary lipogram," is a direct result of his work in the New York Public Library, and a huge fondness for words. The epistolary form -- a collection of letters -- is not that uncommon a literary device. A lipogram, a story written without the use of one or more letters, is a bit more rare. But at the library, Dunn found himself reading about lipograms and decided to challenge himself by writing one.

That was the birth of Nollop, a fictional island town off the coast of Charleston, S.C. The town was named for Nevin Nollop, who is credited with coining the phrase "The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog," a sentence that uses all the letters in the alphabet.

After some years have passed, the Z drops from the monument to Nollop, leading the town council to ban the use of that letter by citizens. In rapid fashion, other letters fall off, leading to more letter bannings

Dunn's challenge was to continue writing the epistles, minus the newly forbidden alphabet letters. He does that quite masterfully and manages to tell the story, complete with the council's threats of punishment -- including flogging and banishment -- and the battle of Ella Minnow Pea to restore civil liberties to her island.

"I knew how it was going to end, obviously," says Dunn, "But as I wrote it, it got harder and harder. It was a mental challenge beyond the story itself."

Tuesday, December 10, 2002


Why do books cost so much?
Thirty bucks for a new hardcover! How book prices got so out of hand, who's responsible and what it will take to make reading more affordable in the future.

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By Christopher Dreher

Dec. 3, 2002 | December is one of the biggest months for booksellers, and Brian Ritenbaugh, a supervisor at a B. Dalton Bookseller in Monroeville, Pa., is bracing for his customers. During his 10 years in the retail book business -- at B. Dalton and also at independent stores and selling college textbooks -- he's seen the same reaction time and again. "No matter what the prices are, they say it's too expensive," he says. "The first thing they ask about is price, and the reactions range from a grunt to an outright whine."

It's unlikely that Ritenbaugh will be hearing happier noises anytime soon: Book buyers now must shell out $20, $30 or even $40 or more for hardcovers that decades ago used to cost less than $10. And the sticker shock is causing many customers not to buy as many books.

"It's just too expensive," one Chicago book buyer said recently at a Barnes & Noble, putting down the new hardcover by a favorite author, Chuck Palahniuk, even though it was discounted 20 percent. "I used to buy more books and be willing to try new authors. But you don't know if the book's going to be good or not and it's too expensive to try something new or even an author I usually like."

Why do books cost so much? Consumers are often baffled at the price tag attached to what appears to be little more than a mass of paper, cardboard and ink. A whole host of factors, including the size of the book, the quality of paper, the quantity of books printed, whether it contains illustrations, what sort of deal the publisher can make with the printer and the cost of warehouse space, all affect the production costs of a book. But, roughly speaking, only about 20 percent of a publisher's budget for each book pays for paper, printing and binding, the trinity that determines the physical cost.

The rest of what you shell out for, say, the new Donna Tartt novel pays for the publisher's overhead (the cost of maintaining a staff of editors, proofreaders, book designers, publicists, sales representatives and so on), and for the cuts taken by distributors (who run warehouses that supply books to retailers) and booksellers. Promoting the book is another expense: printing up catalogs presenting each season's titles to booksellers and the media, purchasing ads, mailing out hundreds of review copies to critics and sending the author (if he or she is lucky) on a book tour. So are shipping fees and the storage costs on unsold copies.

Fluctuations in the cost of any of these elements can eat into a publisher's profits and force them to raise their prices. For example, the price of paper skyrocketed twice over the past few decades, in the late '70s and mid-'90s.

Many readers are surprised to learn that the author's cut is quite low -- as a general rule, it ranges from 10 to 15 percent, though very popular authors are able to negotiate a higher royalty and others must accept a lower one. Flashy news items about handsome advances (for hardcover or paperback rights) paid to such young authors as Jonathan Safran Foer or Dave Eggers create the false impression that writing books is a lucrative enterprise. (Advances are an upfront payment made "against royalties"; the advance is deducted from the author's royalty payments as copies of the book are sold, although many high-profile -- and even low-profile -- books fail to "earn out" their advances.) Except for a handful of bestselling writers, the overwhelming majority of authors make only $5,000 or $10,000, if that, on projects that took them years to complete. (Most must rely on other sources of income, such as teaching, journalism or a gainfully employed spouse to get by.)

Then there's that peculiar aspect of the book business known as the "returns policy." Books are sold to retailers in a process that resembles consignment. Bookstores pay for the books they order, but they are able to return any unsold books for a full refund (though they usually have to pay shipping). This practice began during the Depression, when publishers wanted to keep selling books in bad economic times, and it continues today despite frequent calls for its abolition.

This means that if a publisher ships 100 copies of a book to a bookstore and only 50 sell, the remaining books are shipped back and the bookseller is given credit for them. (The returned books are sometimes destroyed, although increasingly they are sold to "remainders" dealers who in turn supply retailers with reduced-price sale books.) The estimated cost of these returns is also figured into the price of a book.

"When you're buying a book, you're not only paying for that book, but you're also paying for the book that will be returned and destroyed," explains Jason Epstein, former editorial director at Random House and the author of "Book Business: Publishing Past, Present, Future." "That means you're actually paying for a book-and-a-half, or a book-and-a-quarter."

All of this adds up, but if the high price of hardcovers may be more than some consumers want to pay, it's not a recent development. When the prices of hardcover books are adjusted for inflation, they turn out to have remained fairly flat between 1975 and 2000.

Nonetheless, for those who remember the 1970s, the escalation in prices does appear substantial. Figures obtained from R.R. Bowker, the company of record for information about the publishing industry, show that, from 1975 to 2000, the price of the average hardcover book of fiction went up 200 percent to $24.96. Average prices for hardcover poetry and drama books increased 211 percent to $33.57. Nonfiction hardcovers went up 123 percent to $40.29. The largest increase was in the juvenile category, which climbed 227 percent to arrive at the current average of $18.40.

Still, adjust these figures for inflation and you get a different story, says Robert Sahr, an associate professor of political science at Oregon State University who studies media coverage of complex matters such as budgeting and economic policies. He found that the cost of hardcover fiction in real dollars had actually gone down 2 percent, while poetry and drama and juvenile categories had risen only a few percentage points. Nonfiction hardcovers had decreased in real price by 27 percent.

"I'm not very surprised," Sahr says. "Trade books are one of the clearest examples of a completely discretionary purchase. They have to be price-sensitive."

But that's not to say that hardcover prices weren't already too expensive in 1975. And while the price for front-list hardcovers has remained relatively static, some of consumers' overall exasperation with the cost of books may derive from very real increases in the prices of paperbacks -- both mass-market "supermarket" books and trade paperback editions of backlist titles (books originally published some years ago). These are the majority of books sold.

According to Bowker, the average price for mass-market paperback fiction has gone up a whopping 328 percent (from $1.35 in 1975 to $5.78 in 2000), poetry and drama have increased by 252 percent, and juvenile titles cost a staggering 387 percent more now than they did in 1975. (No figures were available for nonfiction mass-market paperbacks.) Adjusting for inflation, Sahr found that the average price of mass-market paperbacks has gone up almost 40 percent, poetry and drama almost 15 percent, and juvenile titles just under 60 percent.

But what's taken a huge bite out of America's book budget is the rise of the trade paperback, those larger paperbacks of better quality that can now be found occupying prime real estate on tables at the front of bookstores. Since the 1980s, publishers have increasingly kept their backlist in trade paperback, and used this format to publish the paperback versions of books that don't have a mass-market appeal or million-copy sales potential, such as more-literary or specialized titles. Right now the price of most trade paperbacks hovers between $12 and $16, although nonfiction titles often cost more. (For example, this week's No. 1 New York Times bestseller, "John Adams," by David McCullough, costs $18.95, which makes you wonder how soon trade paperbacks will begin to regularly creep past the $20 barrier.)

While trade paperbacks are more presentable and easier to read than mass-market paperbacks, they have in many cases supplanted those less expensive books. For example, in the '60s, you could pick up a copy of John Updike's "Rabbit, Run," for as little as 65 cents in mass-market paperback, which when converted to 2002 dollars roughly equals $4. A 1991 mass-market paperback of the same book went for $5.99, which in today's dollars is roughly $8. Today, a new "Rabbit, Run" paperback is only available in trade paperback and goes for $14.

The practice of selling at a discount has also fueled the rising price of books. Over the past two decades, widespread discounting has made it seem as if consumers are getting a deal. Some superstores discount books on the New York Times bestseller list and other selected titles. At online venues, the savings often extend to other hardcovers and trade paperbacks. For example, the "Rabbit, Run" trade paperback sells for only $11.20 on Amazon because the site offers a 20 percent discount. To compete with larger outlets, independent booksellers have initiated "frequent buyer" programs in which a certain amount in purchases entitles a customer to discounts.

Everyone likes to feel he or she is getting a bargain, but discounting has made it easier for book prices to creep upward while maintaining the illusion that consumers are getting the books inexpensively. Since booksellers' markups aren't as big as those of other retailers, discounting can be a risky strategy that slices profit margins razor thin; recently, some have thought better of it. After growing accustomed to the sight of 20- and 30-percent-off stickers, suddenly consumers are being charged full price for many types of books, another source of sticker shock. Maintaining the illusion that books are affordable has gotten more difficult.

"The chains have been very smart in their marketing and discounting message, but they've rolled back the breadth of the discounting over the past few years and the perception remains," says Carl Lennertz, publisher program director for BookSense, a marketing program for independent booksellers. "The other smart thing the chains did is put remainders in the front of the store, which gives the perception of sales throughout the store."

In recent years Barnes & Noble founder and chairman Leonard Riggio has issued numerous public proclamations asking publishers to lower their prices and was quoted in the New York Times calling some book prices "abominations." Epstein maintains that publishers are already squeezed too hard.

"The publishers aren't cleaning up," he says. "Given the very thin margins they operate on and the cost of doing business, prices are not too high. From the point of view of publishers, they're too low."

Besides, publishers are being pressured from above, as well as by consumers. During the 1990s many publishing houses conglomerated or were acquired by large corporations, which forced publishers to be more conscious of the bottom line and their responsibility to stockholders. To Epstein, this is exactly the wrong model for book publishing. Traditionally, the business was, he insists, never meant to be a moneymaker and should be seen as "more like a sport or a hobby. It was fun and culturally very useful. If you wanted to make money you'd go over to Wall Street."

"The book industry is not run the way other businesses are run, and it's unlikely it ever will be," concurs Albert N. Greco, a professor at Fordham University and author of "The Book Publishing Industry." "It's a creative industry. It's not like selling light bulbs. And publishers have been working that way in this country since 1639. I don't think it's going to change very quickly."

But according to Michael Cader, a longtime book packager and the creator of Publisher's Lunch, a Web site and e-mail newsletter service read religiously by many publishing professionals, book prices must change. He points to reports that indicate that the total amount of money being spent on books is stagnant while more and more books are published every year. According to Bowker, over 135,000 titles were published last year, compared to 119,000 in 2000.) Simple economics dictates that with more books vying for the same amount of money, there should be more competition and prices should come down.

"There's a possible paradigm shift coming up," Cader says.

Cader believes booksellers and publishers have "tapped out" the small segment of the population that reads books with any regularity. Instead of raising prices -- which can only go so high before those consumers turn away -- he argues that publishers need to work on getting more people to read and on making book publishing a growth industry. He suggests utilizing more free and low-cost promotional techniques, promoting mediums like electronic publishing, and developing long-term programs aimed at getting younger people interested in reading. He describes the average person's current school reading experience as "12 to 14 years of making people dislike reading or making reading boring."

Another way Cader's "paradigm shift" might come about is through the evolution of the entire publishing industry. Epstein envisions a huge change in the way books are sold as a result of new technology, specifically print-on-demand machines that can produce a bound copy of any book either while the customer waits or to be picked up after an order is placed online. With the elimination of the costs of inventory, shipping, returns and distributors' markups, the price of books would go down and authors might make more money from their work.

"The technology exists to bypass all that," he says. "That would mean lower prices."

Many consumers have found more immediate remedies for high book prices, however. Over the past few years used book sales have skyrocketed, particularly with the Internet making used booksellers' inventory more accessible to more consumers. And big-box retailers like Costco, Wal-Mart and Target sell huge numbers of discounted books. And in the end, for those who believe there should be no price tag on knowledge or information, there's always the library.

"Cars aren't free, neither are apartments or food," says Greco. "We live in a free market economy. Yes, books are important and play a unique role in the culture. But that doesn't mean they have to be free. Or cheap."

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About the writer
Christopher Dreher is a writer living in Boston.

Monday, December 09, 2002

I reviewed Sweet Dream Baby by Sterling Watson a few weeks ago. I loved it, but I thought it was more of a Southern fiction/coming of age story than a mystery or thriller. Apparently, the Toronto Globe editor thought differently. I was delighted to see that it is on their list of the Ten Best Crime Books. And just in case you thought that was some sort of Canadian fluke, Sweet Dream Baby was selected for the top ten on the Booksense 76 list for January/February 2003.

Gotta love it.

December 7, 2002
U.S. Writers Do Cultural Battle Around the Globe

The Bush administration has recruited prominent American writers to contribute to a State Department anthology and give readings around the globe in a campaign started after 9/11 to use culture to further American diplomatic interests.

The participants include four Pulitzer Prize winners, Michael Chabon, Robert Olen Butler, David Herbert Donald and Richard Ford; the American poet laureate, Billy Collins; two Arab-Americans, Naomi Shihab Nye and Elmaz Abinader; and Robert Pinsky, Charles Johnson, Bharati Mukherjee and Sven Birkerts. They were all asked to write about what it means to be an American writer.

Although the State Department plans to distribute the 60-page booklet of 15 essays free at American embassies worldwide in the next few weeks, one country has already banned the anthology: the United States. The Smith-Mundt Act of 1948, renewed when the United States Information Agency became part of the State Department three years ago, bars the domestic dissemination of official American information aimed at foreign audiences.

"There were Congressional fears of the government propagandizing the American people," said George Clack, the State Department editor who produced the anthology. The essays can, however, be read on a government Web site intended for foreigners (usinfo.state.gov/products/pubs/writers). "We do not provide that address to U.S. citizens," Mr. Clack said, adding, "Technology has made a law obsolete, but the law lives on."

Despite the domestic blackout, the participants are focused on the potential abroad. "There is the perception abroad that Americans feel culturally superior and are intellectually indifferent," said Mr. Ford, who won the Pulitzer in 1996 for his novel "Independence Day." "Those stereotypes need to be burst." He added that he was eager to go to Islamic nations to help "humanize America" and present a more diverse picture of public opinion than is conveyed by the Bush administration. "With a government like the one we have, when not even 50 percent of Americans voted for the president, the diversity of opinion is not represented," he said.

Stuart Holliday, a former White House aide to President Bush who is overseeing the anthology publication as coordinator of the State Department's Office of International Information Programs, said: "We're shining a spotlight on those aspects of our culture that tell the American story. The volume of material is there. The question is how can it be augmented to give a clearer picture of who we are."

Before the cold war ended, the United States often sent orchestras, dance troupes and other artists abroad to infiltrate Communist societies culturally. Writers like John Updike, Kurt Vonnegut, Edward Albee and E. L. Doctorow gave government-sponsored readings in Eastern Europe that used literature on behalf of American interests.

"People lined up for blocks," recalled William H. Luers, a former American ambassador to Czechoslovakia and later president of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, speaking of Mr. Updike's appearance at the embassy in Prague in the mid-1980's.

But the United States Information Agency, which ran that campaign, was folded into the State Department in 1999, and over the last 10 years such programs have been severely reduced.

Since 9/11, though, the State Department has increased its efforts to communicate American values to overseas audiences. Mr. Holliday described the anthology, for example, as complementing efforts by Charlotte Beers, a former Madison Avenue advertising executive who is now under secretary of state for public diplomacy, to sell the United States to often hostile Muslim populations.

Her campaign includes "Next Chapter," a television show broadcast by the Voice of America in Iran, a worldwide traveling exhibition of photographs of the ravaged World Trade Center site by Joel Meyerowitz, the distribution of videos spotlighting tolerance for American Muslims and a pamphlet showing Muslims as part of mainstream American life.

Christopher Ross, the State Department's special coordinator for public diplomacy, has advocated reviving official cultural programs abroad as a "cost-effective investment to ensure U.S. national security" and a way to combat "the skewed, negative and unrepresentative" image of America that he says most people of the world absorb through mass culture and communications. Yet even some of the authors expressed mixed feelings about just how effective such cultural exposure would ultimately prove.

In an interview, Billy Collins quoted Auden's famous line that "poetry makes nothing happen," but Mr. Collins tempered that comment by adding: "I think there are some cases where it can. I don't think a group of American writers is going to bring peace to the Middle East, but it puts something in the media that is a counterbalance to the growling and hostilities that fill the pages. It would have a positive and softening influence on things." And while Mr. Collins said he has agreed to join a tour abroad, he added, "It's not a particularly good time for unarmed American poets to be wandering around Jordan and Syria."

Ms. Abinader was more optimistic about the potential for the literary initiative to change foreign perceptions. "I don't think I'm going to grab a terrorist by the lapels and say, `There's a better way of doing things,' " she said. "But what you can do is inspire a different kind of power. That's the power of the word."

Some of the anthology's authors, paid $2,499 by the government, praise the freedoms they enjoy in the United States, but the collection by no means presents an uncritical picture of the United States. Julia Alvarez, a novelist and poet who moved from the Dominican Republic when she was young, writes that America is not "free of problems or inequalities or even hypocrisies." Robert Olen Butler says that the United States, though `built on the preservation of the rights of minorities, has sometimes been slow to apply those rights fully." Michael Chabon tells of crime and racial unrest in his hometown, Columbia, Md.

The poet Robert Creeley said that although the Sept. 11 attacks led to an outpouring of poetry to express sorrow, this "passed quickly as the country regained its equilibrium, turned to the conduct of an aggressive war and, one has to recognize, went back to making money."

Ms. Abinader, the daughter of Lebanese immigrants to Pennsylvania, recalls being subjected to racist remarks by her classmates because of her dark complexion. Later in her academic career, she says, "feelings toward Arabs became more negative and sometimes bordered on distrust, even from my own colleagues."

The other Arab-American in the volume, Naomi Shihab Nye, was asked to contribute after the State Department took note of an open letter she wrote "to any would-be terrorists" the week after Sept. 11. "I beg you, as your distant Arab cousin, as your American neighbor, listen to me," she wrote in the letter distributed on the Internet and printed in several Arabic-language newspapers. "Our hearts are broken, as yours may also feel broken in some ways we can't understand unless you tell us in words. Killing people won't tell us. We can't read that message. Find another way to live. Don't expect others to be like you."

Some 31,000 English-language copies of the new anthology will be available abroad. Editions in Arabic, French, Spanish and Russian are also being prepared. Additional translations into two dozen other languages are expected, with a total of about 100,000 copies likely to be distributed in the next few years. Mr. Holliday said he hoped that the essays would also be reprinted in foreign newspapers and that students abroad would use the texts as course material and to learn English.

All but one of the articles appear for the first time in the volume; the essay by Mr. Chabon is a reprint.

Mr. Luers applauded the anthology but urged a more coordinated and intensive program of cultural diplomacy. "We have to find ways to convey not just propaganda but the richness of this country's culture," he said. "It's pathetic that we don't make an effort. Very educated people abroad don't realize the depths of our culture behind McDonald's and the violent movies."

Saturday, December 07, 2002

National Arts Journalism Program, Columbia University


In 1975, the year's best-selling book, E.L. Doctorow's "Ragtime," sold 232,000 copies, chain bookstores were still a new concept, and the word "marketing" was scarcely heard in publishing houses. By 2000, John Grisham's "The Brethren" exceeded the sales total of "Ragtime" by twelvefold, nearly all best-selling books were published by just five publishing conglomerates, and the business was transfixed by two hot buzzwords that had no role in publishing even five years earlier-Oprah and Amazon. What has happened?

In the last 25 years, corporate consolidation, digital technology and an intensified cult of celebrity have transformed the publishing business, for better and for worse. And while industry observers and casual readers can sense the air of change, there has been scant data and analysis to help us identify the trends. Until now. In 2002, National Arts Journalism Program research fellow Gayle Feldman-a contributing editor at Publishers Weekly and New York correspondent of The Bookseller (London)-undertook a research project and report that systematically compares "best books" of the last 25 years with best-selling books of that period. In the overlaps, divergences and trendlines, the story of the publishing industry as it enters the 21st century finally can be told.

Some of the findings:
* No award-winning book made the top bestseller lists in 2000--though some made weekly lists; by comparison, in 1975 one Pulitzer Prize winner and one National Book Award Winner made the annual list.

* The number of bestsellers sold had increased dramatically in 25 years. For example, in 1975, the big bestseller Ragtime by E.L. Doctorow sold 232,000 copies while in 2000, The Brethren by John Grisham sold nearly 2.9 million copies, a twelvefold increase.

Some other findings: winning a prize is helpful to lesser-known or new writers but has little impact on the sales of established authors, and bestselling books remain celebrity autobiography, religious works, business, beauty, television tie-ins, self-help
and personal fulfillment books--just as they were 25 years ago.

Monday, December 02, 2002

Move Over, Scrooge: Publishers Hope for New Holiday Classic

By Linton Weeks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 30, 2002; Page C01

"Marley was dead, to begin with."

If you say that's the opening line of Charles Dickens's "A Christmas Carol," you're thinking like a reader. If you say that's the opening salvo in a perennial publishing war that has escalated beyond all belief this year, now you're thinking like a publisher.

Book purveyors are banging into each other like liquored-up elves, hoping to discover the next Dickens. They are hyping a handful of Christmas offerings from mega-selling authors -- including "Skipping Christmas" by John Grisham, "The Christmas Train" by David Baldacci, "Visions of Sugar Plums: A Stephanie Plum Holiday Novel" by Janet Evanovich and "Esther's Gift: A Mitford Christmas Story" by Jan Karon -- in hopes that they'll become longtime and lucrative Christmas traditions.

Jim Milliot of Publishers Weekly says of the trend, "This is brand new." Certain children's books, such as "The Night Before Christmas," have always fared well. And other books, particularly classroom favorites like "The Catcher in the Rye," ping onto the bestseller charts around the same time each year.

But the notion of a contemporary popular writer cranking out a Christmas story is, Milliot says, "definitely unusual." Can titles like "Have Yourself a Bodice-Ripping Christmas" by Nora Roberts or Tom Clancy's "Nuclear Christmas" be far behind?

After all, it's the season for chestnuts. The London theaters have been offering holiday pantomime stories for decades. You almost can't call yourselves an American ballet troupe these days unless you trot out "The Nutcracker" when the weather cools.

The recording industry, like the publishing world, has gone cuckoo over Christmas. Just about every crooner -- from Bing Crosby to the Chipmunks to Toni Braxton -- has pressed a Christmas CD. This year's highlights include Alan Jackson's "Let It Be Christmas" and "White Trash Christmas" by Bob Rivers, featuring uplifting tunes like "The Little Hooters Girl," sung to the tune of "The Little Drummer Boy," and "I'll Be Stoned for Christmas." Perry Como, Snoopy and others have had successful runs on yuletide TV.

It doesn't take a miser to realize that a good Christmas book just might sell well year in and year out.

First published in 1843, "A Christmas Carol" is available today in more than 50 editions from Barnes & Noble's online store. It's a cautionary tale: Dickens tried -- unsuccessfully -- to repeat his triumph with other Christmas stories, such as "The Chimes."

Random House tumbled on the secret of perennial sales in the 1960s and 1970s when Truman Capote's slender and sentimental "A Christmas Memory" continued to fly off the shelves year after year. "The Christmas Box" by Richard Paul Evans has returned annually like wild mistletoe since it was published in the mid-1990s. (But that's a case of an obscure writer happening upon bestsellerdom, not a bestselling author setting out to conquer the world.)

The benefits to the publisher are obvious, Milliot says. "There is no new advance. You're paying royalties, but you don't mind doing that. Promotions are already in place."

He says, "It's really found money."

And: "You don't have to deal with critics."

For the proven and prolific writer who forth spews books with clockwork precision, it's a chance to slip another title onto the shelves.

Of this year's crop, Milliot adds, "People are a little surprised that Grisham's 'Skipping Christmas' has done as well as it has."

Grisham's story of Luther and Nora Krank, who decided to ignore Christmas altogether, just may be the new standard. The company shipped 2.1 million copies last year and the book rose to No. 1 on the New York Times bestseller list. So far there are 1.3 million copies in print this time around and the book will be No. 2 on this week's New York Times list.

Stephen Rubin, president and publisher at Doubleday, Grisham's home, isn't leaving everything up to the goodwill of the season. "When John came in and gave us the book, he said his vision was always to keep it in hardcover and bring it back year after year."

To rekindle interest on this second go-round, Rubin says, the company's sales director suggested that the price be lowered and advised Doubleday to "change the packaging, using the same illustration, but making it a much more gifty look."

In "The Christmas Train," a journalist travels by rail from Washington to Los Angeles and runs into various characters and a blizzard. Publishers Weekly notes that Baldacci "gets a bit preachy about the advantages of train travel and the lessons of Christmas."

But, the review adds, "This is a more warmhearted and enjoyable novel than Grisham's comparable holiday offering last year, 'Skipping Christmas,' and Baldacci's fans will snap it up as the Yuletide treat it is."

In "Visions," Evanovich's protagonist Stephanie Plum, a bounty hunter, makes it through a hectic holiday. Kirkus Reviews says: "Plotting gets short shrift in this thinnest of Plum puddings."

Regardless of the critiques, the books -- like the CDs and TV specials -- are making cash registers jingle.

Stuart Applebaum of Random House says, "It is a great creative and financial engine driving the holiday choo-choo train. For us publishers the notion of a holiday book perennial is relatively new, but many of us are making up for lost time with the opportunities now in the marketplace.

"It's a little too easy for some to be cynical about it, but the stories are done creatively and earnestly by the authors."

He adds, "The question is whether or not there will be continuity."

© 2002 The Washington Post Company

Saturday, November 30, 2002

First there was the piece by Grant Burns entitled "Who Needs Librarians? Let’s Get Some Trained Monkeys!" comparing library clerks to monkeys, then there was my response here on the Blog (Friday, October 11, 2002,) and now Susan from Readers' Refuge has jumped into the fray with her piece, And All The Monkeys Aren't In The Zoo/Every Day You'll Meet Quite A Few.

Who knew that libraries could be such jungles?

Thursday, November 28, 2002

Book Award Judge Kinsley Cut Corners
Citing Massive Task, He Hints at Not Finishing LBJ Bio

By Hillel Italie
Associated Press
Monday, November 25, 2002; Page C02

NEW YORK -- The job seems impossible from the start: As a nonfiction judge for the National Book Awards, you get six months to read some 400 books on everything from environmental science to backroom politics.

At least one of this year's judges, columnist and television commentator Michael Kinsley, says he didn't even try.

In a column posted Thursday on the online magazine Slate and printed in Saturday's Washington Post, Kinsley acknowledged that he looked at only a fraction of the submissions. He likened the awards to choosing "the best rhubarb pie at the state fair" and hinted that he didn't complete reading the winner, which was announced last week: Robert Caro's 1,000-page "Master of the Senate," the third volume of his Lyndon Johnson biography.

"Once every seven or eight years, Robert Caro wheels out another gargantuan volume in his legendary biography of Lyndon Johnson, now up to Vol. 6: The Kindergarten Era (Part 1)," Kinsley wrote. He said he agreed to be a judge out of "mainly vanity and a desire for free books."

Neil Baldwin, executive director of the National Book Foundation, which sponsors the awards, said Friday he knew Kinsley wasn't keeping up and that he had to be talked out of quitting during the summer. But Baldwin also said he was surprised by Kinsley's remarks because he had seemed so happy about being offered the job. And he noted that the vote for Caro's book by the five-judge nonfiction committee was unanimous.

The chairman of the nonfiction panel, Christopher Merrill, said Kinsley was speaking only for himself.

Neither Merrill nor Baldwin claimed every book was read in its entirety, but they said judges, who receive honoraria between $2,000 and $2,500, considered each text long enough to know whether it merited further attention.

The foundation charges publishers $100 for each book submitted, double the fee for the Pulitzer Prizes. Morgan Entrekin, president of Grove/Atlantic Press, said judges he has known over the years have "always taken the job pretty seriously, although they obviously have to make some quick decisions."

Merrill said he and other members of the nonfiction committee had enjoyed a "period of maniacal reading."

"I read books I never expected to read," said Merrill, director of the international writing program at the University of Iowa. " 'Master of the Senate' is a book I would have otherwise never read. I would have said, 'This is an important book and I'll get to it, someday.' But now I know the sweep of Caro's vision and what he brought to this ambitious project."

Most of the finalists were unknown to the general public and awards ceremony host Steve Martin joked that Caro "brings the total number of nominated authors I've actually heard of to two." Merrill cited this as proof of how hard the judges worked.

"I had never heard of some of these writers," said Merrill, mentioning such nonfiction nominees as Devra Davis, for "When Smoke Ran Like Water." "Those are the kinds of discoveries you make by reading as much as you can."

© 2002 The Washington Post Company

The New York Times
November 28, 2002
Postcards From Planet Google


AT Google's squat headquarters off Route 101, visitors sit in the lobby, transfixed by the words scrolling by on the wall behind the receptionist's desk: animación japonese Harry Potter pensées et poèmes associação brasileira de normas técnicas.

The projected display, called Live Query, shows updated samples of what people around the world are typing into Google's search engine. The terms scroll by in English, Chinese, Spanish, Swedish, Japanese, Korean, French, Dutch, Italian - any of the 86 languages that Google tracks.

people who shouldn't marry "she smoked a cigar" mr. potatoheads in long island pickup lines to get women auto theft fraud how to.

Stare at Live Query long enough, and you feel that you are watching the collective consciousness of the world stream by.

Each line represents a thought from someone, somewhere with an Internet connection. Google collects these queries - 150 million a day from more than 100 countries - in its databases, updating and storing the computer logs millisecond by millisecond.

Google is taking snapshots of its users' minds and aggregating them. Like a flipbook that emerges when successive images are strung together, the logged data tell a story.

So what is the world thinking about?

Sex, for one thing.

"You can learn to say 'sex' in a lot of different languages by looking at the logs," said Craig Silverstein, director of technology at Google. (To keep Live Query G-rated, Google filters out sex-related searches, though less successfully with foreign languages.)

Despite its geographic and ethnic diversity, the world is spending much of its time thinking about the same things. Country to country, region to region, day to day and even minute to minute, the same topic areas bubble to the top: celebrities, current events, products and computer downloads.

"It's amazing how similar people are all over the world based on what they are searching for," said Greg Rae, one of three members of Google's logs team, which is responsible for building, storing and protecting the data record.

Google's following - it is the most widely used search engine -- has given Mr. Rae a worldview from his cubicle. Since October 2001, he has been able to reel off "anthrax" in several languages: milzbrand (German), carbonchio (Italian), miltvuur (Dutch), antrax (Spanish). He says he can also tell which countries took their recent elections seriously (Brazil and Germany), because of the frenzy of searches. He notes that the globalization of consumer culture means that the most popular brands are far-flung in origin: Nokia, Sony, BMW, Ferrari, Ikea and Microsoft.

Judging from Google's data, some sports events stir interest almost everywhere: the Tour de France, Wimbledon, the Melbourne Cup horse race and the World Series were all among the top 10 sports-related searches last year. It also becomes obvious just how familiar American movies, music and celebrities are to searchers across the globe. Two years ago, a Google engineer named Lucas Pereira noticed that searches for Britney Spears had declined, indicating what he thought must be a decline in her popularity. From that observation grew Google Zeitgeist, a listing of the top gaining and declining queries of each week and month.

Glancing over Google Zeitgeist is like taking a trivia test in cultural literacy: Ulrika Jonsson (a Swedish-born British television host), made the list recently, as did Irish Travelers (a nomadic ethnic group, one of whose members was videotaped beating her young daughter in Indiana) and fentanyl (the narcotic gas used in the Moscow raid to rescue hostages taken by Chechen rebels in late October).

The long-lasting volume of searches involving her name has made Ms. Spears something of a benchmark for the logs team. It has helped them understand how news can cause spikes in searches, as it did when she broke up with Justin Timberlake.

Google can feel the reverberations of such events, and others of a more serious nature, immediately.

On Feb. 28, 2001, for example, an earthquake began near Seattle at 10:54 a.m. local time. Within two minutes, earthquake-related searches jumped to 250 a minute from almost none, with a concentration in the Pacific Northwest. On Sept. 11, searches for the World Trade Center, Pentagon and CNN shot up immediately after the attacks. Over the next few days, Nostradamus became the top search query, fueled by a rumor that Nostradamus had predicted the trade center's destruction.

But the most trivial events may also register on Google's sensitive cultural seismic meter.

The logs team came to work one morning to find that "carol brady maiden name" had surged to the top of the charts.

Curious, they mapped the searches by time of day and found that they were neatly grouped in five spikes: biggest, small, small, big and finally, after a long wait, another small blip. Each spike started at 48 minutes after the hour.

As the logs were passed through the office, employees were perplexed. Why would there be a surge in interest in a character from the 1970's sitcom "The Brady Bunch"? But the data could only reflect patterns, not explain them.

That is a paradox of a Google log: it does not capture social phenomena per se, but merely the shadows they cast across the Internet.

"The most interesting part is why," said Amit Patel, who has been a member of the logs team. "You can't interpret it unless you know what else is going on in the world."

So what had gone on on April 22, 2001?

That night the million-dollar question on the game show "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" had been, "What was Carol Brady's maiden name?" Seconds after the show's host, Regis Philbin, posed the question, thousands flocked to Google to search for the answer (Tyler), producing four spikes as the show was broadcast successively in each time zone.

And that last little blip?

"Hawaii," Mr. Patel said.

The precision of the Carol Brady data was eye-opening for some.

"It was like trying an electron microscope for the first time," said Sergey Brin, who as a graduate student in computer science at Stanford helped found Google in 1998 and is now its president for technology. "It was like a moment-by-moment barometer."

Predictably, Google's query data respond to television, movies and radio. But the mass media also feed off the demands of their audiences. One of Google's strengths is its predictive power, flagging trends before they hit the radar of other media.

As such it could be of tremendous value to entertainment companies or retailers. Google is quiet about what if any plans it has for commercializing its vast store of query information. "There is tremendous opportunity with this data," Mr. Silverstein said. "The challenge is defining what we want to do."

The search engine Lycos, which produces a top 50 list of its most popular searches, is already exploring potential commercial opportunities. "There is a lot of interest from marketing people," said Aaron Schatz, who writes a daily column on trends for Lycos. "They want to see if their product is appearing. What is the next big thing?"

Google currently does not allow outsiders to gain access to raw data because of privacy concerns. Searches are logged by time of day, originating I.P. address (information that can be used to link searches to a specific computer), and the sites on which the user clicked. People tell things to search engines that they would never talk about publicly - Viagra, pregnancy scares, fraud, face lifts. What is interesting in the aggregate can be seem an invasiion of privacy if narrowed to an individual.

So, does Google ever get subpoenas for its information?

"Google does not comment on the details of legal matters involving Google," Mr. Brin responded.

In aggregate form, Google's data can make a stunning presentation. Next to Mr. Rae's cubicle is the GeoDisplay, a 40-inch screen that gives a three-dimensional geographical representation of where Google is being used around the globe. The searches are represented by colored dots shooting into the atmosphere. The colors - red, yellow, orange - convey the impression of a globe whose major cities are on fire. The tallest flames are in New York, Tokyo and the San Francisco Bay Area.

Pinned up next to the GeoDisplay are two charts depicting Google usage in the United States throughout the day. For searches as a whole, there is a single peak at 5 p.m. For sex-related searches, there is a second peak at 11 p.m.

Each country has a distinctive usage pattern. Spain, France and Italy have a midday lull in Google searches, presumably reflecting leisurely lunches and relaxation. In Japan, the peak usage is after midnight - an indication that phone rates for dial-up modems drop at that time.

Google's worldwide scope means that the company can track ideas and phenomena as they hop from country to country.

Take Las Ketchup, a trio of singing sisters who became a sensation in Spain last spring with a gibberish song and accompanying knee-knocking dance similar to the Macarena.

Like a series of waves, Google searches for Las Ketchup undulated through Europe over the summer and fall, first peaking in Spain, then Italy, then Germany and France.

"The Ketchup Song (Hey Hah)" has already topped the charts in 18 countries. A ring tone is available for mobile phones. A parody of the song that mocks Chancellor Gerhard Schröder for raising taxes has raced to the top of the charts in Germany.

In late summer, Google's logs show, Las Ketchup searches began a strong upward climb in the United States, Britain and the Netherlands.

Haven't heard of Las Ketchup?

If you haven't, Google predicts you soon will.

Monday, November 25, 2002

November 14, 2002
You Are a Suspect
NY Times

WASHINGTON — If the Homeland Security Act is not amended before passage, here is what will happen to you:

Every purchase you make with a credit card, every magazine subscription you buy and medical prescription you fill, every Web site you visit and e-mail you send or receive, every academic grade you receive, every bank deposit you make, every trip you book and every event you attend — all these transactions and communications will go into what the Defense Department describes as "a virtual, centralized grand database."

To this computerized dossier on your private life from commercial sources, add every piece of information that government has about you — passport application, driver's license and bridge toll records, judicial and divorce records, complaints from nosy neighbors to the F.B.I., your lifetime paper trail plus the latest hidden camera surveillance — and you have the supersnoop's dream: a "Total Information Awareness" about every U.S. citizen.

This is not some far-out Orwellian scenario. It is what will happen to your personal freedom in the next few weeks if John Poindexter gets the unprecedented power he seeks.

Remember Poindexter? Brilliant man, first in his class at the Naval Academy, later earned a doctorate in physics, rose to national security adviser under President Ronald Reagan. He had this brilliant idea of secretly selling missiles to Iran to pay ransom for hostages, and with the illicit proceeds to illegally support contras in Nicaragua.

A jury convicted Poindexter in 1990 on five felony counts of misleading Congress and making false statements, but an appeals court overturned the verdict because Congress had given him immunity for his testimony. He famously asserted, "The buck stops here," arguing that the White House staff, and not the president, was responsible for fateful decisions that might prove embarrassing.

This ring-knocking master of deceit is back again with a plan even more scandalous than Iran-contra. He heads the "Information Awareness Office" in the otherwise excellent Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, which spawned the Internet and stealth aircraft technology. Poindexter is now realizing his 20-year dream: getting the "data-mining" power to snoop on every public and private act of every American.

Even the hastily passed U.S.A. Patriot Act, which widened the scope of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act and weakened 15 privacy laws, raised requirements for the government to report secret eavesdropping to Congress and the courts. But Poindexter's assault on individual privacy rides roughshod over such oversight.

He is determined to break down the wall between commercial snooping and secret government intrusion. The disgraced admiral dismisses such necessary differentiation as bureaucratic "stovepiping." And he has been given a $200 million budget to create computer dossiers on 300 million Americans.

When George W. Bush was running for president, he stood foursquare in defense of each person's medical, financial and communications privacy. But Poindexter, whose contempt for the restraints of oversight drew the Reagan administration into its most serious blunder, is still operating on the presumption that on such a sweeping theft of privacy rights, the buck ends with him and not with the president.

This time, however, he has been seizing power in the open. In the past week John Markoff of The Times, followed by Robert O'Harrow of The Washington Post, have revealed the extent of Poindexter's operation, but editorialists have not grasped its undermining of the Freedom of Information Act.

Political awareness can overcome "Total Information Awareness," the combined force of commercial and government snooping. In a similar overreach, Attorney General Ashcroft tried his Terrorism Information and Prevention System (TIPS), but public outrage at the use of gossips and postal workers as snoops caused the House to shoot it down. The Senate should now do the same to this other exploitation of fear.

The Latin motto over Poindexter"s new Pentagon office reads "Scientia Est Potentia" — "knowledge is power." Exactly: the government's infinite knowledge about you is its power over you. "We're just as concerned as the next person with protecting privacy," this brilliant mind blandly assured The Post. A jury found he spoke falsely before.

Saturday, November 23, 2002

A billionaire's ode to charity: $100 million to poetry journal
By James Warren
Tribune staff reporter

November 17, 2002

In the early 1970s, an unsolicited poem arrived in the Chicago office of Poetry, a small, influential but typically financially strapped literary magazine. It was from a Mrs. Guernsey Van Riper Jr. of Indianapolis.

Joe Parisi, the editor, thought it good but not up to the standards of a monthly known for running the works of titans of 20th Century poetry, including William Butler Yeats, W.H. Auden and Dylan Thomas.

Perhaps it was Parisi's handwritten rejection note. Or similar rejection notes he'd send over the years to the same woman, whom he has to this day never met or even spoken with. But, along the way, Mrs. Van Riper grew to have affection for the publication, the kind that may change the state of poetry in America.

Van Riper, who later divorced and switched back to her maiden name of Ruth Lilly, is the last surviving great-grandchild of Col. Eli Lilly, founder of Eli Lilly and Co., the pharmaceutical giant. At 87, she is a very low-profile, ailing billionaire-philanthropist who will now alter the 700-square-foot world of the four-person magazine housed in the basement of Chicago's Newberry Library.

Lilly will stratospherically increase her own previous donations to Poetry by giving it well in excess of $100 million over the next 30 years, with no strings attached. The stunning development, the result of a new estate plan approved by an Indianapolis court and confirmed by lawyers, was outlined, though not fully detailed, by Parisi Friday at a dinner that the magazine held at the Arts Club of Chicago.

"Yes, it does seem to have a couple of extra zeroes at the end of the number," said Billy Collins, the U.S. poet laureate, who attended the dinner. "It is probably an unprecedented gift to a literary publication. It's a wonderful and good thing, unambiguously good, that Mrs. Lilly has done."

And, in a grand understatement inspired by the turn of events, Parisi said last week, "Ruth Lilly has ensured our existence into perpetuity."

The monthly, whose paid circulation is a modest 10,000, was founded in 1912 by Harriet Monroe, a former art critic for the Chicago Tribune, and its storied past includes running the first major works of Carl Sandburg, T.S. Eliot and Wallace Stevens, as well as important efforts by Robert Frost, Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams. It has flirted with poverty, frequently having less than $100 in its till, but it has never missed an issue, and thus is believed to be the oldest continuously published literary publication.

Lilly, who is childless, began writing poetry in the mid-1930s, said her attorney, Thomas Ewbank. She "did not take personally" the rejections from Poetry and proved to be a fan and loyal contributor, establishing in 1986 its annual Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, which was initially $25,000 and has grown to $100,000. She also has sponsored two $15,000 annual fellowships via the magazine, as well as a professorship in poetry at Indiana University.

Lilly has been no less an enigmatic presence in Indianapolis, donating significant sums to academic and arts institutions, but in very understated ways.

The most notice she's received, besides the various donations, came amid some controversy several years ago over millions of dollars spent on European and Hawaiian travel for her and entourages of more than 30, including 26 personal staff members. The money came from the conservatorship into which her estate was placed in 1981.

But even knowledge that her estate exceeded $1 billion did not prepare the Chicago magazine for what was in the offing.

Message from a lawyer

Ewbank contacted Parisi last year, indicating that he had been instructed to devise a new estate plan for Lilly. Ewbank "suggested we obtain counsel, since the plan was so complicated," Parisi recalled. At that point, Parisi had no clear sense of the money involved, but he enlisted the services of estate specialist Richard Campbell.

As the Chicago attorney explained, there are essentially six different pots of funds created by what are known as charitable lead and remainder trusts. For example, out of three trusts, there will be one annual payment to the Modern Poetry Association, which oversees the magazine as its publisher, for as long as Lilly lives; a second annual payment over the next 15 years; and a third annual payment over the next 30 years.

With much of her wealth turning on Eli Lilly stock, which has had a topsy-turvy year (dropping from the mid-$80s to the mid-$40s, closing Friday at $61.30), one can make only broad estimates of values. Ewbank, citing his client's personal preference, did not engage in estimates, leaving them to the magazine.

But, by conservative assessments, the first payment, in January, will be about $10 million. And, over the course of the 30 years, a conservative estimate is $100 million, but it could well be closer to $150 million, Campbell said.

Ewbank would only say, "There are people who can snatch defeat from the jaw of victory. But assuming they have a good investment committee and controls, all they need be is prudent and conservative and this will provide them the base they need."

Such a sum would vault the association into the forefront of vaguely similar, arts-related non-profits. By comparison, the total assets of New York's John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation are $219 million.

For sure, change will come swiftly once word breaks out about such good fortune. Old donors may well be reluctant to maintain their level of giving, while fledgling poets and others may inundate the magazine with requests for money.

With so much funding from one source, tax laws will require the Modern Poetry Association to become a private operating foundation rather than a so-called 501c3, its current tax-exempt status conferred to qualifying political and cultural institutions and interest groups. It is applying to change its name to the Poetry Foundation, but it will still be able to receive tax-deductible contributions.

High hopes for big bucks

Deborah Cummins, president of the association's board of trustees, said the group will seek to increase its various educational programs; devise seminars for teachers nationwide to teach poetry (aimed at middle and high school teachers); expand grants and fellowships; and increase the publication of books via its Poetry Press.

And, no surprise, it wants to use the money to buy its own, far larger and separate headquarters in Chicago. Along the way, it also hopes to find public space for thousands of books of poetry, which surpass those of most colleges and universities but are virtually all in storage.

"The magazine, as our crown jewel, will obviously remain. Perhaps we can pay our authors more [whether you're a Pulitzer Prize winner or unknown undergraduate, it pays $2 a line]. We aim to keep it the premier journal devoted to poetry in the country," she said.

As for long-term impact, Collins said, "The only thing I am sure of is that when the news breaks, it will draw a lot of good attention to the magazine and poetry itself.

"It reminds me of my father, a New York businessman, not being too impressed by my poetry writing. Then I got a $25,000 grant from the NEA (National Endowment for the Arts), and he started taking poetry seriously."

Copyright © 2002, Chicago Tribune

Just got home from the Miami Book Fair. Had the pleasure of meeting some wonderful people, and listened to some incredible authors. The street fair has been downsized yet again, but lots and lots of authors. There are so many authors speaking that it forces visitors to make some very hard decisions, and throwing chaos into the mix surely doesn't help. Coming soon to the home page, my full report of a day at the fair...

Point. Click. Think?
As Students Rely on the Internet for Research, Teachers Try to Warn of the Web's Snares

By Laura Sessions Stepp
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 16, 2002; Page C01

It is 2 a.m. and Daniel Davis, a University of Maryland freshman, has not even started his English paper on biological warfare, due that day.

No problem. He'll just do what he has done before a dozen times or more. He sits down at his computer in his dorm room, signs on to Yahoo's search engine and begins his quest. Six hours and several bags of chips later, the paper pops out of his printer, complete.

He doesn't consider visiting the campus library or opening a book. Why should he? "You can find whole pages of stuff you need to know on the Web, fast," he says.

So Davis is a procrastinator. So what? Professors are used to that. But six hours? That's a whole new kind of extreme.

Welcome to the world of Net thinking, a form of reasoning that characterizes many students who are growing up with the Internet as their primary, and in some cases, sole source of research. Ask teachers and they'll tell you: Among all the influences that shape young thinking skills, computer technology is the biggest one.

"Students' first recourse for any kind of information is the Web. It's absolutely automatic," says Kenneth Kotovsky, a psychology professor at Carnegie-Mellon University who has examined the study habits of young people.

Good? Bad? Who knows? The first popular Internet browser, Netscape, came out only about a decade ago. What we do know after millennia of training minds in scholarly disciplines is that something has changed and it's not apt to change back.

On the good side, Net thinkers are said to generate work quickly and make connections easily. "They are more in control of facts than we were 40 years ago," says Bernard Cooperman, a history professor at the University of Maryland.

But they also value information-gathering over deliberation, breadth over depth, and other people's arguments over their own.

This has educators worried.

"Seven years ago, I was writing about the promise of digital resources," says Jamie McKenzie, a former school superintendent and library director who now publishes an e-zine on educational technology. "I have to say I've been disappointed. The quality of information [on the Internet] is below what you find in print, and the Internet has fostered a thinner, less substantial thinking."

The problem is no longer plagiarism of huge downloaded blocks of text -- software can detect that now, when a teacher enters a few lines of a paper. The concern is the Internet itself.

Marylaine Block, a librarian and Internet trainer in Iowa, is blunt: "The Internet makes it ungodly easy now for people who wish to be lazy."

In the Shallows

Jeffrey Meikle, chairman of the American studies department at the University of Texas, sees the new world every time he walks into the main library on the Austin campus. There, where the card catalogue used to be, sit banks of computer terminals.

"My students are as intelligent and hardworking as ever," he says, "but they wouldn't go to the library if there weren't all those terminals."

All Web resources are not equal, of course.

What aficionados call "the deep Web," including subscription services such as Nexis and JSTOR, enables students to find information that is accurate, thorough and wide-ranging.

"I think the Internet encourages intellectual thinking," says Nora Flynn, a junior at Maryland. "You can go to so many sources, find things you never heard of. It forces me to think globally."

But many students don't have access to these costly, sophisticated resources or don't know how to use them. This leaves them relying on the free Web, a dangerous place to be without a guide.

Anyone can post anything on the free Web, and anyone frequently does. A student who typed "Thomas Jefferson" into the Google search engine would get 1.29 million hits; rap star Eminem would bring up 1.37 million. Narrowing one's search to certain words may not help. The gamelike quality of screen and mouse encourages students to sample these sources rather than select an appropriate text and read deeply into it or follow an argument to its conclusion. The result is what Cooperman, who teaches both Davis and Flynn at Maryland, calls "cocktail-party knowledge."

He's the model of a man of books: short-sleeve shirts, glasses, slight stoop, a pensive air. "The Web is designed for the masses," he says. "It never presents students with classically constructed arguments, just facts and pictures." Many students today will advance an argument, he continues, then find themselves unable to make it convincingly. "Is that a function of the Web, or being inundated with information, or the way we're educating them in general?"

Entering the Web

If students cannot come up with their own ideas, cut-and-paste technology allows them to lift someone else's sentences or phrases with ease.

Jeana Davis, a ninth-grade teacher in Arlington, says students frequently don't see anything wrong with this. "They'll say, 'I changed the words around.' And I'll say, 'But it's not your original thought.' "

Superficial searching habits can have tragic consequences, illustrated last year at Johns Hopkins University. A physician-researcher performed a test of lung function on a healthy 24-year-old woman, administering a large dose of a particular chemical. The woman then died of lung and kidney failure. The doctor had searched online for information about the drug but had failed to turn up any literature warning of its dangers -- information that medical librarians later did find online after the woman died.

Students can avoid such mistakes by asking for help from those trained to give it, but some young inquirers say they've done that and are merely waved over to the digital section of a library. Librarian Marylaine Block concedes that can happen, particularly since staff positions at many libraries have been cut.

Bonnie Kunzel, teen specialist at the Princeton Public Library, says students "will walk into our library and spend 30 minutes on the Internet trying to find out how a cobbler worked in Colonial America. I'll walk over and ask, 'Want to try a book now?' "

When students do come across something of interest, they may not be able to detect the author's bias because Web prose, unlike the writing in serious books and journals, often appears with only the slimmest of attribution, if any. This can introduce a certain naivete into their writing.

The Net has a kind of magical quality that leads younger students to say to librarians such as Block, "It has to be true. If it weren't true, they wouldn't let it be there." Says Block, "I have to tell them there is no 'they.' "

History teacher Davis, at Washington-Lee High School, recalls sitting down at the computer with a student who was researching Christopher Columbus's effect on the Americas. The student had found a convincing essay by an author taking Columbus to task for his treatment of Native Americans.

"Then we found another essay contradicting that," Davis says. "I asked the student, 'Who is right?' He couldn't tell, and neither could I."

Teachers like Davis spend class time teaching their Net thinkers how to read and think more critically. "I tell them, 'Don't take any Web site for granted. Who was the author? What authority does he or she have? Does the author have an agenda?' "

Maryland's Cooperman engaged a group of summer school students in a similar discussion earlier this month. The course was titled "History of the Jews I" and covered the period from the Bible through the Middle Ages.

Find a scholarly article on an issue in Jewish history, he told the students, suggesting that the best way to do that would be to visit the campus library and "touch books."

After receiving teacher approval of their articles, Cooperman's students summarized and evaluated the articles' arguments and then used the Web to find further sources. Cooperman told them to evaluate the usefulness of the Web sources compared with the scholarly material.

Their Web work turned up contradictions, errors and extraneous material. Nora Flynn, exploring the female Talmudic scholar Beruriah, noted in class that the scholarly article talked about Beruriah as a late invention, a composite of several women scholars. Web sources that she found through the popular search engine Google referred to Beruriah as one woman, she said.

Student Lauren Steely said the Internet sites he looked at presented lots of facts but got the dates wrong. Amy Newman, researching anti-Semitism in Europe at the time of the Black Death, brought up more than 2,000 sites on Google, "but the first 30 were useless. Just poems and songs. Then there was one story that looked like a kindergartner had written it."

"Or maybe it was a basketball player from Duke," Cooperman quipped, drawing a laugh from everybody who roots against Maryland's arch-rival.

Daniel Davis noted that several popular search engines place at the top of their lists the sources that have paid them the most money. This would be like a library prominently displaying only those books whose publishers paid for the privilege, and Davis knows it. But it doesn't stop him from using those search engines.

It only makes him, and young people like him, skeptical about information sources wherever they're found, including books.

"College students are quite aware that they can't trust what they read," says Meikle at Texas. "They're drawn to sites that are ironic or sarcastic, poking fun at perceived truths."

Not that long ago, Meikle continues, a person who wrote a book was assumed to be an authority. "Now, when anybody can have a Web site on any topic, then everybody is an expert, which means nobody is."

Cooperman says this is not necessarily a good thing for students. They "assume everyone is a liar." Shallow thinking is one result, he says. Another is the unwillingness among some students to take a strong position themselves lest they be battered by classmates for their ideas.

Students who are not urged to "touch books" often don't realize how much information is not on the Internet. According to Block, only about 15 percent of all information -- books, periodicals, government documents -- is found there. The full texts of articles from most academic journals, for example, are not online nor are most current books. Because of copyright laws, a lot of information may never make it to the Net, Block says, which is why she and other librarians worry about lawmakers who slash library budgets or propose eliminating libraries altogether, saying, "Why do we need them? Everything's on the Internet."

And so the problem feeds on itself, encouraged by legislators.

Net Gains

Even the most vocal Net critics say it has aided learning in some ways. Students no longer have to wrestle with microfilm machines or wait at the circulation desk for books placed on reserve. Instead, they wander through the information landscape. Jamie McKenzie calls them "free-range students." Philosopher John Dewey, the proponent of student-driven education, would be proud.

Allison Druin, an education professor who runs the human-computer interaction lab at Maryland, says even younger children can create something new on their own Web sites. In her laboratory, children ages 7 to 11 work with professors designing software that kids their age can use when querying the Internet.

"The Internet is a tool, but it's also something they can make an addition to," says Druin. "That's pretty powerful stuff for a kid."

"I see kids much more able to construct on their own," she continues. "They used to look at us and ask, 'What's our next step?' Now we say, 'Here's the goal, here are our resources, here's our timeline,' and they take off.'"

Meikle, at the University of Texas, observes the same phenomenon. His best undergraduates come up with new takes on old subjects as quickly as graduate students did years ago, he says. "I don't think you can come up with something original unless you have an array of things to look at, and the Internet certainly gives you that," he says. "It isn't collaging, it's building something new."

Book Learnin'

One would like to think that this self-confidence and creativity will produce adult citizens eager to participate in society and tackle its problems.

When Jeana Davis at Washington-Lee makes an assignment, she directs students to Web sites they might not know about but that she has already approved. If students want to use another site, they must win Davis's approval.

She requires students to use at least three books on any assignment, not including encyclopedias. She checks their work during each project, looking for originality and depth.

Cooperman at Maryland suggests books, first, to any student who asks him for help. He also offers extra credit to students who do research in the library, according to Daniel Davis, who likes getting bonus points for doing what students took for granted only a decade ago.

"Sitting in the library is a lot better than sitting on the Internet," he says, even though he's not exactly a frequent visitor to the main campus library. "If you go into the library, you have to take apart a topic and you become sort of an expert. Sitting on the Internet you don't actually learn anything."

The place he does visit, as a music major, is the performing arts library. "I can sit for hours there looking at books and things, with no particular goal in mind."

That's post-Net thinking, says McKenzie, a realization that digital is not enough, that grazing is good, but great ideas require deep reading, incubation and contemplation. He believes today's students are headed in that direction if grown-ups take seriously their assigning, as well as advising, role.

"For decades we've been doing topical research," he complains. "Schools say, 'Go find out all about Molly Pitcher.' That's an invitation to scoop it up, to write stuff they already know. We should be encouraging kids to research the difficult truth. Let's tell them a woman has been diagnosed with breast cancer and has five doctors recommending different treatments. What would they do?"

But do school systems really want students using the same tools to question current proprieties and conventional wisdom? Teach kids to be critical thinkers and they'll be sending it right back at the teacher in the classroom.

There is much to worry about.

Up to a point. Libraries have a longstanding appeal that goes beyond the antique, baby's-breath smell of books and the sense of exploration, spelunking through the stacks. Few students can get through college untouched by this experience, whether they know it or not.

"There's something in a library that makes you feel like an intellectual," said Amy Newman. "You can wear glasses, look like Dr. Cooperman. When you read, the books have such nice writing."

© 2002 The Washington Post Company

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