Friday, December 24, 2004

Slow book sales spark new rivalry

By Edward Wyatt

Two of the book industry's giants, frustrated by two years of little to no growth, appear to be taking their frustrations out on each other.

Last week, Peter Olson, the chief executive of Random House Inc., the United States' largest publisher, disclosed the company's tentative plans to sell books directly to consumers through its own Web site. On Friday, Stephen Riggio, the chief executive of Barnes & Noble Inc., the country's largest bookseller, said he was "deeply concerned" by Random House's plans to enter his business, raising the possibility of a growing rift between the publishing titans.

The announcement of the new plans comes as the book business is suffering through a second consecutive year of almost-flat sales. The average age of book consumers continues to climb, and except for children's and religious books, few areas of the business seem to be picking up new readers. Many of the best-selling books of this year were published in 2003, including "The Da Vinci Code," (Doubleday), "The South Beach Diet" (Rodale Press) and "The Five People You Meet in Heaven" (Hyperion).

Those disappointing trends have led most big publishing companies to weigh new ways to increase sales or to reach new consumers. At the same time, publishers have complained that they are facing greater competition from Barnes & Noble, which has been aggressively trying to expand its own publishing business. Recently, it began a series of full-page newspaper advertisements publicizing new advice and how-to books that it is publishing. Its growing effort to increase that business has begun to worry some of the publishers who are Barnes & Noble's biggest suppliers.

The dispute over online sales appears to be largely theatrics at this point, given the difficulty of building a retail business from scratch.

Olson disclosed the online plans last week in his annual year-end letter to employees in North America. Though the disclosure took up only part of one sentence in a three-page, single-spaced letter, it quickly became the talk of the publishing world.

Riggio of Barnes & Noble said that people at his company were surprised by the announcement in part because Bertelsmann AG, Random House's parent company that is based in Germany, just got out of the business, selling its stake in last year.

"We were partners with them," Riggio said Friday in a statement relayed by a company spokeswoman. "Now they're wanting to compete with us."

Riggio said that because this is the busiest time of year for his company, he had not had time to ask to Random House about its plans. "We want to be able to talk to the folks at Random House before we make any public statements," he said.

Stuart Applebaum, a spokesman for Random House, said on Friday that Barnes & Noble's agitation seemed to be bigger than the energy Random House had put into the online sales idea.

"It's premature to characterize it as anything but a concept at this point," Applebaum said. "It's on the drawing board, but it's a drawing board with just a few pencils applied to it yet."

The extent of Barnes & Noble's concern about Random House's plans would seem to also stem from the company's size. Several other publishers already sell their books on their own Internet sites, including Penguin Group USA, the second-largest book publishing company. But David Shanks, Penguin's chief executive, said that Barnes & Noble has never objected to its online sales operations, which it started early this year.

W.W. Norton & Co., an independent company, and Harlequin, the Torstar Corp. unit that dominates the romance novel business, also sell their own books through their Internet sites. Meanwhile, Scholastic Inc., the education and children's publisher that operates book fairs and a small retail operation, sells its own books and those from other publishers on its site.

Olson's mention of online selling followed a list of potential initiatives, including different pricing and distribution models and the sale to outside companies of Random House publishing services, including bookkeeping and other back-office functions and distribution services.

"In the year ahead, I will report to you on our progress with initiatives, which, in time, may include direct sales online of our books to readers as a complement to our existing sales channels and the expansion of our proprietary publishing, as well as many other publishing, marketing and distribution ideas," Olson wrote.

Applebaum also noted that Random House has long sold books directly to consumers, mainly though book clubs, including Book-of-the-Month Club and the Literary Guild, run by Bookspan, jointly owned by Bertelsmann and Time Warner.

But as opposed to the book clubs, Riggio said, "We believe this is an entirely different matter."


© 2004 and wire service sources. All Rights Reserved. | 12/22/2004 | Slow book sales spark new rivalry

Monday, December 20, 2004

Bad Sex Writing Prize Goes to Tom Wolfe

Mon Dec 13, 9:44 PM ET

LONDON - It's the literary award no author wants to win, and this year it's gone to Tom Wolfe. The Literary Review gave Wolfe its annual Bad Sex award Monday for his best-selling novel "I Am Charlotte Simmons."

Judges said the book's sex scenes were "ghastly ... inept ..(and) unrealistic."

The nearly 700-page novel is set at fictional Dupont University in Pennsylvania, chronicling the bright, naive Charlotte Simmons' entry into a hedonistic world filled with heavy drinking and casual sex.

Reviews of the book have been harsh, but like most of Wolfe's work, it's selling well.

He gained fame in the 1960s with works including "The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test" and "The Right Stuff." "The Bonfire of the Vanities," his scathing satire of New York in the 1980s, was a top 10 best-seller of the decade.

The Bad Sex prize, in its 12th year, is intended to "draw attention to the crude, tasteless, often perfunctory use of redundant passages of sexual description in the modern novel," its judges say.

Yahoo! News - Bad Sex Writing Prize Goes to Tom Wolfe


Romances, satires among 2004's most checked-out

December 19, 2004

This week, Judy Kamiat of Palm Beach County's West Boynton branch discusses the best books of 2004, advice on starting book groups and anticipated releases for next year.

Q. What books were popular at your branch this year?

A. As far as our biggest circulations, London Bridges by James Patterson, Night Fall by Nelson DeMille and The Plot Against America: A Novel by Philip Roth were popular. We're also doing quite well with The Godfather Returns by Mark Winegardner. Danielle Steel has had about three to four titles out this year. Her new book, Echoes, has gotten better reviews than she usually gets.

Q. What's different about it?

A. It's set in World War II and has a more serious storyline. Patrons who read her will like anything by Nora Roberts. She has a new book called Northern Lights.

Florida's own Carl Hiaasen's Skinny Dip has done well. He's interesting. For some reason, his previous books circulated, but not big. This book was a July release and we still have a waiting list for it. It's hilarious. He pokes fun at all the pompous politicians and then he has characters that couldn't be any stranger. I heard him speak at the book fair and he said he takes it from personal experience. Even the premise of the book, being saved by a floating bale of marijuana, is not that unusual here. He even has one character who's a drug addict who goes into nursing homes and steals the pain patches and that actually did happen here. It was a light enjoyable read.

We also had a book called The Rule of Four by Ian Caldwell and Dustin Thomason. It deals with an ancient manuscript that has a code. It was on the bestseller list for a while but I don't think it had the same kind of potboiler excitement that The Da Vinci Code had.

Q. It caused quite a stir. What did you think of it?

A. I thought it was very thought provoking. It's still on the bestseller list. It touches something with people. If you wanted to read it strictly from a thriller point of view, it was a page-turner. I was fascinated by all of the different issues it brought up. Q. What advice would you give to someone who wants to start a book group?

A. You have to get a list of books and throw the idea out there. The best book groups are when the people involved have some say of what's being read. Let people pick and choose. You can do a theme party from your home. You find your own niche, a group of people -- not necessarily similar in background -- and people who like to read. I'm Jewish and we had some Catholic women in a group I did and having people of different religions made it interesting. I don't want to hear someone regurgitating what I think. I want a different viewpoint. So, you get into arguments and it's very refreshing.

What we've found around here is that a lot of the individual developments form book groups as part of their activities. I don't know of too many that meet [at the library] but I know of a lot in the Boca area.

Q. What kind of books do you enjoy reading?

A. I have eclectic tastes. I don't like big sagas, maybe if it's a good one. But I do like mysteries. There are cooking mysteries, cleaning mysteries -- all kinds of mysteries so that you can pick. I'm not a huge reader of nonfiction. The Daily Show with Jon Stewart Presents America the Book: A Citizen's Guide to Democracy Inaction was popular, so you'll see what the political bent of our patrons is. Maureen Dowd's Bushworld: Enter at Your Own Risk, Bill Clinton's My Life and Bob Woodward's Plan of Attack had huge numbers are far as circulation. There's still a long waiting list for Clinton's book. We've also has a lot of success for George Carlin's When Will Jesus Bring The Pork Chops?

Q. What's on the literary horizon for next year?

A. Steve Martini is coming out with a book called Double Tap. In January, Barbara Taylor Bradford releases Unexpected Blessings, a sequel to the bestseller she had last year called Emma's Secret. The Good Guys by Joe Pistone, Bill Bonanno and David Fisher is getting a lot of buzz.

Q. Joe Pistone? That the guy actor Johnny Depp portrayed in the move Donnie Brasco, right?

A. Yes, it's received a lot of pre-publication publicity, as did State of Fear by Michael Crichton. It's about how information is manipulated in the modern world.

Copyright © 2004, South Florida Sun-Sentinel

Romances, satires among 2004's most checked-out: South Florida Sun-Sentinel

Monday, December 06, 2004

'America' Named Book Of Year
NEW YORK, Dec. 6, 2004

Jon Stewart's "America (The Book)," the television commentator's million-selling riff on politics and other matters of satire, has been named Book of the Year by Publishers Weekly, the industry trade magazine.

In announcing the award Monday, Publishers Weekly called the book "a serious critique of the two-party system, the corporations that finance it and the 'spineless cowards in the press' who 'aggressively print allegation and rumor independent of accuracy and fairness."'

Stewart, a comedian, is best known as the host of The Daily Show, a satirical news program that airs on the cable network Comedy Central.

His book was released in September and immediately topped best-seller lists even as Wal-Mart declined to stock the book, citing a page featuring the faces of the nine Supreme Court justices superimposed over naked bodies. The page facing the nude photos has cutouts of the justices' robes, complete with a caption asking readers to "restore their dignity by matching each justice with his or her respective robe."

Earlier this year Stewart sparked a feud that straddled the line between politics and entertainment when he appeared on the CNN debate show "Crossfire" and angered its bow-tied conservative host Tucker Carlson by calling the show "partisan hackery" that does little to advance the cause of democracy.

CBS News | 'America' Named Book Of Year | December 6, 2004?14:02:00

Saturday, December 04, 2004

100 Notable Books of the Year

This year the Book Review has selected 100 Notable Books from those reviewed since the Holiday Books issue of Dec. 7, 2003. The book titles are linked to the full reviews [if you click on the link at the end of this piece, it will take you to the linked list.] Next week we'll present the 10 Best Books of the Year, chosen from this longer list.


ALOFT. By Chang-rae Lee. (Riverhead, $24.95.) The developments of Long Island are the setting for a tale of a self-made American on the rise.

THE AMATEUR MARRIAGE. By Anne Tyler. (Knopf, $24.95.) An ambitious exploration of domestic dislocation, ranging over 60 years of American experience.

AMERICAN SMOOTH: Poems. By Rita Dove. (Norton, $22.95.) In this collection, dance is an implicit parallel to poetry, each an expression of grace performed within limits.

BANDBOX. By Thomas Mallon. (Pantheon, $24.95.) Two glossy magazines wage a circulation war in the twilight of the pre- Depression era.

A BIT ON THE SIDE. By William Trevor. (Viking, $24.95.) Stories about enduring love without purpose and adultery without passion.

CLOUD ATLAS. By David Mitchell. (Random House, paper, $14.95.) A novel that covers about 1,000 years in narratives involving a New Zealand stowaway, a book editor, a goatherd and others.

COLLECTED POEMS. By Donald Justice. (Knopf, $35.) Justice (1925-2004) spent most of his life around universities, and much of his attention looking behind him, preoccupied with the evocation of nostalgia and the endings of things.

THE CURSE OF THE APPROPRIATE MAN. By Lynn Freed. (Harvest/Harcourt, paper, $13.) Tough fiction whose theme is women's desire.

THE DARLING. By Russell Banks. (HarperCollins, $25.95.) A privileged American girl grows up to see her life ruined in a war in Liberia, and winds up caring for chimps.

THE FALLS. By Joyce Carol Oates. (Ecco/HarperCollins, $26.95.) The falls are Niagara and the advent of sin as well in this novel of high pressures and ungovernable forces.

THE FIRST DESIRE. By Nancy Reisman. (Pantheon, $24.) An impressionistic debut novel about the tensions and rivalries within an extended family.

FOUR SOULS. By Louise Erdrich. (HarperCollins, $23.95.) A vengeful, partly comical plot that ranges about in time and space, rising in pitch to conclude in gorgeous incantations and poetry.

GILEAD. By Marilynne Robinson. (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $23.) A demanding, grave and lucid novel in the form of a long letter from an aging preacher to his young son.

THE HAMILTON CASE. By Michelle de Kretser. (Little, Brown, $24.95.) A beguiling, multilayered novel that spans much of the 20th century.

HARBOR. By Lorraine Adams. (Knopf, $23.95.) This first novel, based on Adams's reporting for The Washington Post, captures the immensity of the terrorist challenge.

HEIR TO THE GLIMMERING WORLD. By Cynthia Ozick. (Houghton Mifflin, $24.) A novel of ideas, incarnated in an 18-year-old orphan girl who takes a job in 1935 as secretary to a scholar of an ancient Jewish heresy.

I AM CHARLOTTE SIMMONS. By Tom Wolfe. (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $28.95.) Campus debauchery as seen through the oh-so-innocent eyes of a God-fearing young woman.

THE INNER CIRCLE. By T. Coraghessan Boyle. (Viking, $25.95.) Alfred C. Kinsey, premier American sex scientist, strives to perfect humankind in Boyle's skeptical novel.

THE JANE AUSTEN BOOK CLUB. By Karen Joy Fowler. (Marian Wood/Putnam, $23.95.) A comic novel, set in a California college town, that is more about how to read than about book groups or Jane Austen.

JONATHAN STRANGE & MR. NORRELL. By Susanna Clarke. (Bloomsbury, $27.95.) A fantasy, involving a Yorkshire magician (Norrell) who comes to London in 1806 and takes on the handsome Jonathan Strange for a disciple.

THE LEMON TABLE: Stories. By Julian Barnes. (Knopf, $22.95.) Old age and getting there is the scene of this collection by the author of ''Flaubert's Parrot.''

THE LINE OF BEAUTY.By Alan Hollinghurst. (Bloomsbury, $24.95.) This year's Booker Prize novel concerns a gay intellectual whose heart has room in it to like Margaret Thatcher.

LITTLE CHILDREN. By Tom Perrotta. (St. Martin's, $24.95.) Adultery and childraising in a generic suburb.

MAGIC SEEDS. By V. S Naipaul. (Knopf, $25.) A writer's restless world travels lead him back home to India and into the center of a revolution.

THE MASTER. By Colm Toibin. (Scribner, $25.) A deeply considered, crisply delivered novel whose hero is Henry James.

MEN AND CARTOONS: Stories. By Jonathan Lethem. (Doubleday, $19.95.) Brooklynite fiction by the author of ''The Fortress of Solitude.''

NATASHA: And Other Stories. By David Bezmozgis. (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $18.) A loosely linked anthropological collection that succinctly and unsentimentally depicts a world of Russian Jews in Toronto.

OBLIVION: Stories. By David Foster Wallace. (Little, Brown, $25.95.) Narratives in an exhaustive mode, told by people who notice absolutely everything.

OUR KIND. By Kate Walbert. (Scribner, $23.) A novel in stories, collectively narrated by women who came of age before 1960.

THE PERSISTENCE OF MEMORY. By Tony Eprile. (Norton, $24.95.) Part fable, part coming-of-age story, Eprile's first novel concerns a burdened South African Jew and his country's endless ''Border War'' in Namibia and Angola.

THE PLOT AGAINST AMERICA. By Philip Roth. (Houghton Mifflin, $26.) Charles Lindbergh is elected president in 1940 on a pro- Nazi platform, and a Jewish family in Newark suffers the consequences.

THE PRODIGAL.By Derek Walcott. (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $20.) A verse memoir by the world wanderer who took the 1992 Nobel Prize.

RUNAWAY. By Alice Munro. (Knopf, $25.) Her 11th collection of short stories about people who do what our neighbors do but far more vividly.

SNOW. By Orhan Pamuk. (Knopf, $26.) The line between farce and tragedy is drawn in blood where secular and Islamic Turkey seem to explode on contact.

THE STONE THAT THE BUILDER REFUSED. By Madison Smartt Bell. (Pantheon, $29.95.) The final novel in Bell's huge Haitian trilogy.

SWEET LAND STORIES. By E. L. Doctorow. (Random House, $22.95.) Like Doctorow's novels, these stories affirm the American theme of self-creation.

TRANSMISSION. By Hari Kunzru. (Dutton, $24.95.) An Indian programmer, thwarted in his plans to make his fortune in California, unleashes a killer computer virus.

THE TYRANT'S NOVEL. By Thomas Keneally. (Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, $25.) In a country very like Iraq, a fiction writer is ordered to produce, in one month, a novel to be published under a tyrant's name.

AN UNFINISHED SEASON. By Ward Just. (Houghton Mifflin, $24.) Just's 14th novel captures the ethos of Chicago and its suburbs in the 1950's.

VILLAGES. By John Updike. (Knopf, $25.) An old man reflects on his sex life, after the pill and before AIDS, in a sincerely raunchy novel.

WAKE UP, SIR! By Jonathan Ames. (Scribner, $23.) A plot of fine inanity involves an artists' colony, where the hero improbably acquires a sound grasp on things and people.

WAR TRASH. By Ha Jin. (Pantheon, $25.) A moral fable whose suffering hero passes from delusion to clarity as a Chinese P.O.W. in Korea.


AFTER SUCH KNOWLEDGE: Memory, History, and the Legacy of the Holocaust. By Eva Hoffman. (PublicAffairs, $25.) Hoffman renders the catastrophe as it is revealed to a generation drastically affected by events it is too young to remember.

AGAINST ALL ENEMIES: Inside America's War on Terror. By Richard A. Clarke. (Free Press, $27.) An insider's account of President Bush's early concern with Iraq after 9/11.

ALEXANDER HAMILTON. By Ron Chernow. (Penguin Press, $35.) A biography of the founder who created American capitalism and died in a duel with Aaron Burr.

AMERICAN DREAM: Three Women, Ten Kids, and a Nation's Drive to End Welfare. By Jason DeParle. (Viking, $25.95.) A reporter finds ending welfare did not notably increase happiness.

THE AMERICANIZATION OF BENJAMIN FRANKLIN. By Gordon S. Wood. (Penguin Press, $25.95.) An engaging study of the most engaging founder.

THE ANCESTOR'S TALE: A Pilgrimage to the Dawn of Evolution. By Richard Dawkins. (Houghton Mifflin, $28.) Back through time from our own branch of the tree of life.

ARC OF JUSTICE: A Saga of Race, Civil Rights, and Murder in the Jazz Age. By Kevin Boyle. (Holt, $26.) An account of the murder trial and eventual acquittal in 1925 Detroit of a black doctor who fired on a mob that had come to drive him from the house he bought in a white neighborhood.

AT THE TOMB OF THE INFLATABLE PIG: Travels Through Paraguay. By John Gimlette. (Knopf, $25.) An eccentric, hilarious, horrifying — that is to say, utterly faithful — picture of a country as strange as any on earth.

BEASTS OF EDEN: Walking Whales, Dawn Horses, and Other Enigmas of Mammal Evolution. By David Rains Wallace. (University of California, $24.95.) A history of the ''bone hunters'' who have scoured the earth to elucidate mammal development in geological time.

BLUE BLOOD. By Edward Conlon. (Riverhead, $26.95.) A memoir by a New York City police officer with a Catholic education followed by a Harvard one.

CHAIN OF COMMAND: The Road From 9/11 to Abu Ghraib. By Seymour M. Hersh. (HarperCollins, $25.95.) What went wrong in Iraq, by the dogged New Yorker reporter.

CHRONICLES: Volume One. By Bob Dylan. (Simon & Schuster, $24.). A memoir — idiosyncratic and revelatory — by the peerless singer-songwriter.

DANCING WITH CUBA: A Memoir of the Revolution. By Alma Guillermoprieto. (Pantheon, $25.) A memoir by a reporter who, as a 20-year-old dance student, took a teaching job in Castro's Cuba in 1969.

DEVIL IN THE MOUNTAIN: A Search for the Origin of the Andes. By Simon Lamb. (Princeton University, $29.95) A geologist's rich account, rock by rock, page by page.

THE FABRIC OF THE COSMOS: Space, Time, and the Texture of Reality. By Brian Greene. (Knopf, $28.95.) A discussion of the irreconcilable differences between the cornerstones of theoretical physics — the general theory of relativity and quantum mechanics.

FATHER JOE: The Man Who Saved My Soul. By Tony Hendra. (Random House, $24.95.) An account of an English Benedictine monk who passed God's love along to someone who couldn't find it alone.

THE FIVE BOOKS OF MOSES: A Translation With Commentary. By Robert Alter. (Norton, $39.95.) The first five books of the Bible in a version rich in literary insights.

GHOST WARS: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and bin Laden, From the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001. By Steve Coll. (Penguin Press, $29.95.) An evenhanded account of the battles involving the White House, the C.I.A. and other agencies at a time when terrorism was not Washington's top priority.

HIGH NOON IN THE COLD WAR: Kennedy, Khrushchev, and the Cuban Missile Crisis. By Max Frankel (Ballantine, $23.95.) This fast-paced history argues that the danger of an all-out nuclear war was less acute than we may have been led to believe.

HIP: The History. By John Leland. (HarperCollins, $26.95.) A lively study of the well-known but hard to define antiestablishment posture.

HIS BROTHER'S KEEPER: A Story From the Edge of Medicine. By Jonathan Weiner. (Ecco/HarperCollins, $26.95.) A cautionary tale about the promise and peril of biomedical research.

IN THE SHADOW OF NO TOWERS. By Art Spiegelman. (Pantheon, $19.95.) An album, a monograph and an intimate memoir by the author of ''Maus,'' who witnessed the attacks on the World Trade Center at close range.

THE ISLAND AT THE CENTER OF THE WORLD: The Epic Story of Dutch Manhattan and the Forgotten Colony That Shaped America. By Russell Shorto. (Doubleday, $27.50.) A history of the first multiethnic upwardly mobile society in America.

JEROME ROBBINS: His Life, His Theater, His Dance. By Deborah Jowitt. (Simon & Schuster, $40.) A grand survey of the great and popular choreographer of both ballet and Broadway.

JOHN JAMES AUDUBON: The Making of an American.By Richard Rhodes. (Knopf, $30.) A biography that also shows a nation taking form.

THE LIFE OF GRAHAM GREENE. Volume Three: 1955-1991. By Norman Sherry. (Viking, $39.95.) The final installment of Sherry's authorized biography.

LIFE ON THE OUTSIDE: The Prison Odyssey of Elaine Bartlett. By Jennifer Gonnerman. (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $24.) The hard life and times of a young mother of four who drew 20 to life for her first offense — selling cocaine to an undercover police officer.

THE MISSING PEACE: The Inside Story of the Fight for Middle East Peace. By Dennis Ross. (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $35.) A virtual encyclopedia of the ''peace process'' as seen by the special envoy who was the central figure in American Middle East policies for 12 years under two presidents.

MY LIFE. By Bill Clinton. (Knopf, $35.) From hardscrabble days in Hope, Ark., to the brink of impeachment, by the 42nd president.

NATALIE WOOD: A Life. By Gavin Lambert. (Knopf, $25.95.) A wistful and humane account that captures Wood as an industrious performer and vulnerable woman.

THE 9/11 COMMISSION REPORT: Final Report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States. (Norton, paper, $10.) How and why the government failed to protect us from Al Qaeda, with sweeping recommendations for reorganizing American intelligence.

1912: Wilson, Roosevelt, Taft & Debs — the Election That Changed the Country. By James Chace. (Simon & Schuster, $25.95.) A history that sees the presidential election of 1912 as setting up the conflict between progressive idealism and conservative values.

NUCLEAR TERRORISM: The Ultimate Preventable Catastrophe. By Graham Allison. (Times Books/Holt, $24.) A Harvard scholar's report on the nuclear threat and how it might be reduced.

ON THE WING: To the Edge of the Earth With the Peregrine Falcon. By Alan Tennant. (Knopf, $25.) An eco-thriller about studying falcons.

OSAMA: The Making of a Terrorist. By Jonathan Randal. (Knopf, $26.95.) A reporter's guide to the vain, ascetic, humorless man and the Islamic geography that made him.

THE OUTLAW SEA: A World of Freedom, Chaos, and Crime. By William Langewiesche. (North Point, $23.) A report from the empty three-fourths of the globe, where 40,000 merchant ships operate with virtually no oversight. OUT OF GAS: The End of the Age of Oil. By David Goodstein. (Norton, $21.95.) A physicist warns that the world's supply is headed toward depletion.

PERILOUS TIMES: Free Speech in Wartime, From the Sedition Act of 1798 to the War on Terrorism. By Geoffrey R. Stone. (Norton, $35.) A study in historical perspective that shows a constant expansion of free-speech rights.

PLAN OF ATTACK. By Bob Woodward. (Simon & Schuster, $28.) A behind-the-scenes look at the administration's decision to invade Iraq.

POLITICS: Observations & Arguments, 1966-2004. By Hendrik Hertzberg. (Penguin Press, $29.95.) A collection of almost 40 years of articles by an observer whose chief watchtowers have been The New Yorker, The New Republic and Newsweek.

THE PRICE OF LOYALTY: George W. Bush, the White House, and the Education of Paul O'Neill. By Ron Suskind. (Simon & Schuster, $26.) A detailed account of the forces driving the Bush White House, as described by former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill.

PUBLIC ENEMIES: America's Greatest Crime Wave and the Birth of the FBI, 1933-34. By Bryan Burrough. (Penguin Press, $29.95.) A history of the desperadoes called forth by the Depression and of the government's response, organized by J. Edgar Hoover.

RISING '44: The Battle for Warsaw. By Norman Davies. (Viking, $32.95.) The story of the rising of the Polish Home Army against the Germans in 1944 and the destruction of Warsaw by the Nazis.

RIVERS OF GOLD: The Rise of the Spanish Empire, From Columbus to Magellan. By Hugh Thomas. (Random House, $35.) An absorbing account of the extraordinary speed and scope of Spain's imperial expansion.

SONTAG & KAEL: Opposites Attract Me. By Craig Seligman. (Counterpoint, $23.) An appealing meditation on two widely discussed, influential critical icons who arose at the same historical moment (the mid-1960's).

SOUL MADE FLESH: The Discovery of the Brain — and How It Changed the World. By Carl Zimmer. (Free Press, $26.) How a brilliant group of 17th-century thinkers, centered in Oxford, created the modern scientific methods for understanding the human mind and body.

STALIN: The Court of the Red Tsar. By Simon Sebag Montefiore. (Knopf, $30.) An intimate portrait of the Soviet dictator and his henchmen.

STRANGERS: Homosexual Love in the Nineteenth Century. By Graham Robb. (Norton, $26.95.) A work of social archaeology by a writer who comes to gay history by way of writing the lives of Rimbaud and Balzac.

SURPRISE, SECURITY, AND THE AMERICAN EXPERIENCE. By John Lewis Gaddis. (Harvard University, $18.95.) Gaddis argues that three salient elements of President Bush's security strategy — pre-emption, unilateralism and hegemony — have deep roots in America's history.

THE SURRENDER: An Erotic Memoir. By Toni Bentley. (ReganBooks/HarperCollins, $24.95.) The writer and onetime Balanchine dancer extols the joys, physical and spiritual, of anal sex.

THE UNDRESSED ART: Why We Draw. By Peter Steinhart. (Knopf, $23.) A charming report on the renaissance of drawing, led by amateurs who eagerly practice it in recreation centers, museums, private ateliers and living rooms.

UNFORGIVABLE BLACKNESS: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson. By Geoffrey C. Ward. (Knopf, $26.95.) A life of the first black heavyweight champ, who drove white America nuts.

UP FROM ZERO: Politics, Architecture, and the Rebuilding of New York. By Paul Goldberger. (Random House, $24.95.) The story of the long and complex struggle over what should go up in the place of the World Trade Center.

WASHINGTON GONE CRAZY: Senator Pat McCarran and the Great American Communist Hunt. By Michael J. Ybarra. (Steerforth, $35.) A sweeping narrative life of the Nevada Democrat who was a smarter, more effective edition of Joe McCarthy.

WASHINGTON'S CROSSING. By David Hackett Fischer. (Oxford University, $35.) How a daring venture across the Delaware on Christmas night in 1776 defeated the British at Trenton and changed the dynamic of the Revolutionary War.

WHAT'S THE MATTER WITH KANSAS? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America. By Thomas Frank. (Metropolitan/Holt, $24.) How, according to Frank, the rich and powerful have built a cynical alliance with culturally alienated heartlanders.

WILL IN THE WORLD: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare. By Stephen Greenblatt. (Norton, $26.95.) Enlightening scholarship on the life and the universe it was lived in.

THE WORKING POOR: Invisible in America. By David K. Shipler. (Knopf, $25.) The story of the millions of Americans who work steadily but fail to escape upward into the middle class.

The New York Times > Books > Sunday Book Review > Holiday Books: 100 Notable Books of the Year

Tuesday, November 30, 2004

Jacket Flak
Do Book Blurbs Bear Sincere Praise Of Peers, Or False Fawning Of Friends?
Courant Books Editor

November 28 2004

Think of them as tiny billboards clamoring for your attention:

"A stunning debut from an emerging writer!"

"Another richly conceived novel from one of America's most beloved authors!"

"Once I picked it up, I could not put it down!"

Book blurbs - those back-of-the-jacket hugs-and-kisses from one author to another - have been around for about 100 years and are essential weapons in the ever-more-competitive arena of book marketing. Editors and publicists play matchmaker to marry appropriate blurb-writers with the book being launched. Authors agonize over whom to approach for blurbs and, if they've become well known themselves, often complain they are overwhelmed with requests to write them.

Yet as integral to the publishing process as they are, blurbs still engender some controversy. Are their always-generous sentiments always genuine? Do some authors scatter them so indiscriminately that they earn the nasty epithet blurb whore? Are readers misled if they aren't aware the blurber may be the good friend, lover, editor, teacher, mentor or publishing-house colleague of the blurbee?

Giving And Getting

Stewart O'Nan, the Avon-based author of "The Night Country" and co-author with Stephen King of the about-to-be-released "Faithful: Two Diehard Boston Red Sox Fans Chronicle the Historic 2004 Season," frequently provides blurbs. And, he says, he's more than happy to write them - and get them.

"I like to champion the work of first-time novelists or overlooked authors," O'Nan says.

And because "my own work is all over the place" in genres and subjects, he says, the right blurb can "tell the reader what kind of book it's going to be." A blurb by Stephen King, for example, is a tip-off that the novel will be "foreboding," while one from Amy Bloom signals it's a book about family issues.

"They're a clue," he says.

Steve Almond, author of the story collection "My Life in Heavy Metal" and the delicious memoir "Candyfreak," says book blurbs offer the reader "collateral filtering - if so-and-so likes this book, then it must be cool."

"It's quality by association."

And readers aren't the only ones who may be impressed by a blurb from a respected author, Almond says. "Inside publishing houses, they don't necessarily know whether what they have is good or not or how well it will do," so a bigfoot blurb can spark extra effort to promote the book.

"People have to do everything to draw attention to their books," Almond says, but he acknowledges that seeking a blurb can be daunting.

"It's inhibiting to ask so nakedly for praise," and it feels like an imposition to ask a busy writer. Almond says that requesting a blurb amounts to asking: "Will you like me, and write that you like me, so other people will like me?"

The Art Of Blurbing

Writing a blurb can be tricky, says Wally Lamb, the Connecticut author whose first novel, "She's Come Undone," became a bestseller after Oprah Winfrey praised it.

"If you are going to do one, you owe allegiance to that writer and to the readers - you don't want to steer them in the wrong direction. Once, Lamb recalls, he was "accosted by a reader who hated a book I blurbed."

He says "no" more than "yes" to requests, and if he agrees to write one, he reads the entire book first.

"I don't ever not finish a book or walk out of a movie," he says.

Yet even savvy blurbers can make mistakes, Lamb says, noting that he passed up the chance to write one for Arthur Golden's "Memoirs of a Geisha," which went on to become a huge seller.

Elinor Lipman, a novelist who lives in Northampton, Mass., wrote a piece on blurbing for The New York Times in 2002 that she hoped they would headline "Confessions of a Blurb Slut" (they didn't). Lipman says that even though she has tried to impose "a blurb moratorium" on herself, she still writes about a half-dozen a year.

"I've run out of adjectives," she laments, laughing. "It's hard to come up with something fresh and new."

Many do fail to find something original to say.

Tom Payne, writing for the website, excoriates those who rely on such hackneyed terms as "achingly beautiful," "darkly comic," "like (insert name of another author) on (insert name of mind-altering drug)," "vast, sprawling epic" and many other clichés.

Still, says Lipman, she hates it "when people say you can evaluate blurbs by how often an author writes them. That's not true, and it's unfair," she says. "Can you not love 10 books a year?"

But before she agrees to write a blurb, she has to love the book, says Lipman, whose most recent novel is "The Pursuit of Alice Thrift."

"I feel I have to give it a standing O," she says.

"If I'm reading it, and I'm thinking about who I know that would love the book, then I'll blurb it. I take my own pulse, and if I realize `this is doing nothing for me,' then I won't."

She's also surprised when booksellers say, "I saw your name on the book and then ask, `Did you really like it?'"

She tells them, "If you saw my name, it's sincere."

Almond says it's "a huge compliment when you are asked to blurb a book. You think, `Oh, wow; I matter.'

"The blurber gets to do a profound thing - to represent an artist who might really need it - but writers should never blurb books they don't really believe in."

Bagging Those Blurbs

For publishers and publicists, the process of bagging the right blurb is a challenge.

"It's a huge amount of work to find amenable writers," says Caryn Karmatz-Rudy, a senior editor at Warner Books in New York who has pursued blurbs for 11 years. They may be on deadline themselves and lead very busy lives.

"If you are a desirable author, you get solicited by every editor in town," she says, "and plenty politely decline.

"But there are incredibly benevolent souls who say, `I'll give a new author a leg up.'"

Karmatz-Rudy says that to land a blurb, you must "tailor each request letter to each person and use any connection you can think of."

Lipman agrees. "Here's my advice to editors," she says. "Personal cover letters flatter the author."

A standard generic request tells her that the editor really can't be bothered to do the job right.

Blurbs from respected authors help get booksellers excited and help energize publicists, Karmatz-Rudy says. "People take notice because they know how hard it is to get certain people to blurb."

Lynn Goldberg, founder and CEO of Goldberg McDuffie Communications Inc., a New York City public-relations firm that works with publishers and authors, says they try "very, very strongly to get writers who truly like another's work to write blurbs."

It's important to match them in terms of substance and style, Goldberg says. "We're always trying to envelop our projects in royal robes.

"If it's a first novel, we do a LexisNexis search to find reviewers who liked similar books."

What can be off-putting to readers, she says, is when the blurb comes from a celebrity who has little credibility as a judge of good writing.

Goldberg knows the ins and outs of getting the marketing machinery up and running.

"First the book must be sold in-house, before you can sell it outside," she points out. "You sell it in to the stores and sell it out through the media or directly to readers via the Internet."

One bookseller who says she's rarely influenced by book blurbs is Roxanne Coady, owner of R.J. Julia Booksellers in Madison.

"I don't find them very useful, but customers do," especially if the blurber "is a huge name," Coady says.

"I think they need to tell more about what the book can do for the reader and less about plot."

Reading Between Lines

While blurbs can serve a legitimate purpose, readers sometimes need a skeptical eye.

Penguin UK, for example, used a quote from a letter by Charlotte Stoker for its 1993 edition of the 1897 classic "Dracula":

"No book since Mrs. Shelley's Frankenstein, or indeed any other at all has come near to yours in originality, or terror - Poe is nowhere...," the enthusiastic letter writer told the author.

Charlotte, of course, was Bram Stoker's own mum.

John Freeman of New York, who frequently reviews books for The Courant and other newspapers, says that while blurbs can show how well connected an author or publisher is, the process often is altogether too cozy.

Authors are often indebted to each other for their livelihood, he says.

"Writers attend MFA programs together, become friends and then tap their friends for teaching assignments. When their books finally make it into print, they can ask one another for blurbs, for an agent, for publishing contacts.

"Three out of four blurbs can usually be labeled as suspect, or even blatant logrolling, " Freeman says. (Spy magazine, you may recall, ran a snarky column called "Logrolling in Our Time" that outed authors engaged in mutual back-scratching via gushy blurbs.)

"Thomas Pynchon, for example, has blurbed books by several writers represented by his wife, agent Melanie Jackson; Jay McInerney blurbed his classmate Robert O'Connor's novel `Buffalo Soldiers,'" Freeman says. "Almost every back jacket flap contains blurbs by writers from the same publishing house. Find a back flap where all three or four blurbs come from house authors, and something begins to smell a little fishy."

One way to detect such connections is to check names of those the author thanks in his dedication or acknowledgments against those who provided the blurbs. Another is to do an Internet search on the blurbers to see if they, like the blurbee, all write for the same publishing house.

Almond, who teaches writing at Boston College, says he would not hesitate to blurb a book if a student of his managed to publish. "You can be effusive about any literary book that gets published," he says.

Freeman says an insincere blurb can be spotted by the way it is written. Ask yoursel, "What exactly is this saying?" he suggests.

A good blurb, he says, should "be a travel agent" that tells you you're going somewhere "unlike any other place you've ever been."

He cites as a fine example what Jonathan Lethem wrote about "House of Leaves" by Mark Z. Danielewski:

"This demonically brilliant book is impossible to ignore, put down, or persuasively conclude reading. In fact, when you purchase your copy, you may reach a certain page and find me there, reduced in size like Vincent Price in `The Fly,' still trapped in the web of its malicious, beautiful pages."

Stewart O'Nan says his favorite interpret-it-any-way-you-like blurb reads: "No praise is too high for this book."

Readers must remember, says Almond, that blurbs are "the collision of promospeak with a writer's advocacy for art. Promotion keeps moving the product, while what artists say moves people."

Or readers can follow O'Nan's advice when choosing a book:

"I ignore the blurbs and what the author did last time. I want to read this particular book," he says.

"As Ezra Pound said, `Go to the work.'"
Copyright 2004, Hartford Courant

Connecticut Entertainment - Movies, Music, Dining News from The Hartford Courant - ARTS & THEATER

Monday, November 29, 2004

Library offenders could go to jail

BAY CITY, Michigan (AP) -- Keeping library books too long could soon land some readers in jail.

Frustrated librarians want the worst offenders to face criminal charges and up to 90 days behind bars.

"We want to go after some of the people who owe us a lot of money," said Frederick J. Paffhausen, the library's system director. "We want to set an example."

Paffhausen, who took over as director in October, is asking the Bay County Library Board for permission to seek arrest warrants for offenders who ignore repeated notices.

The board plans to consider the crackdown next month.

One patron from Bad Axe owes $1,190 for 73 items -- mainly science-fiction books -- hoarded for more than a year, Paffhausen said.

Patrons keep an average of $25,000 in overdue materials out of the library system each year, officials said.

That costs taxpayers money, because the library often must buy copies to replace unreturned materials, leaving less for new books, CDs and DVDs, Paffhausen said.

Currently, the library cuts off an offending patron's privileges and sends overdue notices. Daily fines of 5 to 10 cents per item are assessed. If the material is worth $75 or more, the patron receives a form letter from the prosecutor's office warning that it's a crime to keep library items.


Copyright 2004 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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Saturday, November 27, 2004

Now the 'Nanny Diaries' authors are taking care of business

Write a first book that becomes a huge best seller, reap fame and a fortune, get ready for the knives to come out.

This is the situation these days for Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus, the former Manhattan au pairs who told mostly all in "The Nanny Diaries," a thinly disguised novel based on their Park Avenue experiences that became an international sensation with 2 million copies in print.

Last Sunday's New York Times profiled the two photogenic 30-year-olds and their transformation "from Cinderellas to prima donnas." It zeroed in on their hopscotching from one literary agent to another to another and how their $2 million advance for their next two books was whittled down to $250,000 for their second novel after its previous publisher got cold feet about the project. That comeuppance was seen as poetic justice by many in the catty Manhattan publishing world.

"Citizen Girl" (Atria Books, 306 pages, $24.95) is similar in tone and approach to "The Nanny Diaries," but this satire about a young woman's progress in the business world has not been generating many favorable reviews and predictions are being made that the duo will become infamous "one-hit wonders." Word-of-mouth enthusiasm, however, was a far more important factor in their previous runaway success.

McLaughlin and Kraus, who met in a theater history class in New York University, concede that they are not novelists -- "Citizen Girl" was based on e-mails between the two -- but both thought their second project was worthy.

The New York Times quoted Kraus summarizing their thoughts on the book: "OK, if we never do another thing, if this is our swan song, we need to go to our graves knowing that we put this out there."

Now the 'Nanny Diaries' authors are taking care of business

Thursday, November 18, 2004

National Book Award Winners Announced

The winners of the 2004 National Book Awards were announced November 17 at a ceremony at the New York Marriott Marquis Hotel in New York City. The annual awards are given by the National Book Foundation to recognize achievements in four categories: Fiction, Nonfiction, Poetry, and Young People's Literature. The night's ceremonies included the presentation of the National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters to Judy Blume.

This year's winners by category are:

Lily Tuck, The News From Paraguay (HarperCollins)

Kevin Boyle, Arc of Justice: A Saga of Race, Civil Rights, and Murder in the Jazz Age (Holt)

Jean Valentine, Door in the Mountain: New and Collected Poems, 1965-2003 (Wesleyan Univ. Press)

Young People's Literature
Pete Hautman, Godless (S&S Books for Young Readers)

Sunday, November 14, 2004

Resurrecting The Godfather

By Chauncey Mabe
Books Editor

November 14, 2004

Mark Winegardner, the man who holds the fate of the Godfather franchise in his hands, lives in a leafy, affluent suburb not far from downtown Tallahassee, where he's head of the creative writing program at Florida State University. On a crisp Sunday afternoon, he opens the front door of his house dressed in an equally crisp coat and tie. He looks more like a mob lawyer than a novelist.

"I'm trying to vary my wardrobe so Steve has something slightly different to shoot," Winegardner says, nodding toward the photographer, here to take pictures of the author on the fourth freelance assignment of the past two weeks.

In the backyard, Winegardner strikes what are for him familiar poses -- thoughtful in the gazebo, smiling by the outdoor pool table, brooding in front of the tiny writing cottage -- with the patience and professionalism of a media star.

Winegardner knew he would be facing scrutiny two years ago when he won a competition to find a successor to Mario Puzo, creator of The Godfather, who died in 1999. Indeed, this kind of attention is one of the main reasons he was willing to set aside his own work to take up the saga of the Corleone family.

The result, The Godfather Returns, goes on sale Tuesday.

"I didn't need the money," Winegardner says. "I could have quit teaching already if I'd wanted to. My last novel, Crooked River Burning, did that for me. What The Godfather Returns will give me is a higher profile. It will shed a positive light on my other books. I won't have to worry about getting my next three or four published."

The Godfather Returns will do that, and more. Random House shipped a first printing of 350,000, which all but ensures best-seller status. Additional print runs are a virtual certainty. Puzo's original, The Godfather, has sold some 21 million copies since 1969. It's hard to imagine readers will be able to resist the Godfather brand.

Nor should they, according to Publishers' Weekly: "This is a phenomenally entertaining, psychologically rich saga that spans the entire Godfather years imagined in novel and film by Mario Puzo." Newsweek was more dismissive: "Tinkering with a cultural totem, Winegardner ties himself and his book in knots."

A little competition

"If I didn't think Random House was interested in getting a good book, I wouldn't have done it," Winegardner says. "They could have done the cynical thing and gone after a famous crime writer and not had to worry about what was between the covers."

While not a household name, Winegardner was an established writer with an enviable critical reputation when he opened his e-mail one day to find an invitation from Random House editorial director Jonathan Karp, who was seeking candidates to pen a sequel to The Godfather. Karp was Puzo's editor for the last decade of the writer's life.

"I used to call Mario and beg, plead, wheedle -- anything to get him to return to the Corleone saga," Karp says. "And he was very firm, very polite. He always said no."

Eventually, however, Puzo offered to let Karp do anything he wanted with The Godfather after the author's death. Puzo wouldn't be around to care, and he wanted to continue providing for his family from beyond the grave.

"I was walking in Central Park one day when I wondered what the Corleone family was up to," Karp says. "I went back to the office and called up Mario's agent, Neil Olson, and told him I'd like to bring the Corleones back and I think there's a creative way to do it."

As Karp points out, it would have been a simple matter to keep publishing Godfather books under Puzo's name despite the inconvenience of the author's death -- consider the posthumous careers of V.C. Andrews and Robert Ludlum -- but he wanted to find "a writer to bring as much originality and vision to the Corleone saga as [Francis Ford] Coppola did in his classic movies."

Karp and Olson put out a "discreet" inquiry to a select group of agents, but of course within 24 hours the story had been leaked to The New Yorker. Soon Karp was fielding interview requests from Time, the BBC and morning shock-jock radio shows. One publication, Karp recalls, called the competition "Italian-American Idol."

A flood of unsolicited proposals followed, but Karp focused on 12 writers he had selected from the beginning. Karp's idea was to find a writer who was roughly the same age and at the same career stage that Puzo was when he started The Godfather: early 40s, with two critically acclaimed but obscure novels behind him. Winegardner fit the bill perfectly. Crooked River Burning was already one of Karp's "favorite" books, and his first novel, the baseball story Veracruz Blues, is highly regarded.

"But Mark won the contest fair and square on the strength of his proposal," Karp says. "There were a lot of qualified people who could have done a good job. It was a tough decision."

Like Puzo -- whose first two novels, The Dark Arena and The Fortunate Pilgrim, enjoyed respectful reviews and low sales -- Winegardner had never written crime fiction before turning to the Godfather saga.

"We did not want a by-the-numbers crime novel," Karp says. "We wanted an ambitious popular novel, and for that you need a big talent like Mark. He's also got huge cojones, which you need to tackle an iconic American myth like The Godfather."

An eye for details

"When they first contacted me, it didn't leap off my computer screen as something I should drop everything and do," Winegardner says. "But after I did the reading and wrote the proposal I saw how I could write a good novel. By the time they picked me, I was hot to do it."

Karp knew he had chosen a winner when he received the first 100 pages from Winegardner. "When I saw the scenes with Kay and Michael together, I shivered," Karp says.

Winegardner eschews the obvious track, which would have been to pick up the story at the end of Coppola's The Godfather III -- all three movies were written by Puzo, and therefore must be considered part of the canon -- and simply bring the Corleone family up to the present.

Instead, Winegardner read The Godfather closely, and watched the movies again and again. He found significant gaps in the story, and he was intrigued by marginal characters he felt could be brought to the forefront.

For example, Winegardner wondered whatever happened to Johnny Fontaine, the Sinatra-inspired character; and what was the backstory with Tom Hagen, the family's brilliant and loyal Irish-American consigliere; and where did Sonny's orphaned family disappear to; and what exactly was the nature of Fredo's betrayal of his brother Michael?

Looking closely, Winegardner also found implausibilities that gave him entree into the story. For example, what doctor would have been stupid enough to perform an abortion on the wife of Michael Corleone? Frequently hailed by critics for his ability to write from the female point of view, Winegardner jumped on that one.

By the same token, Fredo's betrayal rang false to Winegardner, as did Michael's decision to have his brother whacked. In a subculture so obsessed with family, it seemed unlikely he would murder his brother no matter what Fredo had done.

"I never understood exactly the nature of Fredo's betrayal," Winegardner says. "A lot of it doesn't make sense. In The Godfather II, the story is carried by the astonishing acting and by the power of the mythology. Details are lost in the popcorn. Part II is a great movie, but what could Fredo have known that couldn't have been uncovered by some two-bit private eye, let alone a powerful rival family?"

In addition to mastering and extending the familiar characters, Winegardner has also created some equally powerful new ones, led by Nick Geraci, an up-and-coming thug in the Corleone family who proves Michael's smartest and most formidable rival.

The real Mafia

Apart from the writing itself -- getting on top of Puzo's magisterial omniscient voice and making it his own -- Winegardner's biggest challenge was weaving in real information about how the Mafia works without violating the enormously effective operatic mythology Puzo created.

As Winegardner points out, Puzo always said that everything he knew about the Mafia he learned at the New York Public Library, which meant primarily newspapers. The only book about the inner workings of the Mafia at the time was The Valachi Papers, an unreliable account by a low-level gangster who had turned government witness. Only five years before, Winegardner says, J. Edgar Hoover was still insisting there was no such thing as the Mafia.

Largely because of interest spurred by The Godfather, there are now thousands of nonfiction books about the Mafia. As a result, anyone who "watches four episodes of The Sopranos" probably knows more about how the mob works than Puzo did, Winegardner says.

The shelves behind Winegardner's desk are filled with books he used for research: Nick Tosche's biography of Dean Martin, Dino; Donnie Brasco, an undercover memoir by Joseph D. Pistone and Richard Woodley; New York crime writer Nicholas Pileggi's two mob biographies, Casino and Wiseguy, among many others. These represent only a fraction of the books he read.

"To me the saga of the Corleone family exists in a mythologized parallel universe," Winegardner says. "As great as the original is, it left out lots of real Mafia history, like the Appalachian raid, the Mafia attempts at assassinating Castro. You never see anyone initiated into the Corleone family, and you never read about a Mafiosi being a `good earner.' That's the kind of thing I wanted to do.'"

Filling in the gaps Puzo left in the '50s and early '60s also appealed to Winegardner because that's the period when the Mafia was at the height of its power and influence. Crusading federal agents and U.S. attorneys, using wiretaps and the power of the RICO statutes, began weakening the Mafia in the late 1970s.

"The great thing about the novel and the first two movies is the depiction of the heyday of the Mafia," Winegardner says. "By the 1980s, the mob was in decline. A lot of the most interesting things in Mafia history happened back in those mid-century years. That's what I wanted to get my hands on."

A Godfather V?

As Winegardner gears up for the media blitz sure to accompany the publication of The Godfather Returns -- Random House is said to be tutoring him on how to look good on television -- he insists he's the same writer he always was. He doesn't expect this foray into pop fiction to diminish his critical reputation.

"I never wanted to be the kind of writer, and I know writers like this, who think popularity is unseemly," Winegardner says. "I've never thought it a virtue to be inaccessible. Writing is hard work and I hope people read my books."

He's even interested in writing another Godfather book, should Random House want one. But he thinks it's a good idea, even from a commercial point of view, for him to write something else for a while.

"My agenda as a novelist hasn't changed," Winegardner says. "My audience has changed, but not my agenda. I want to continue working as a novelist. It's what I do.

"I hope The Godfather Returns is not seen as merely an entertainment. But I'll tell you, the first run alone will sell more than all my other books put together."

Resurrecting The Godfather: South Florida Sun-Sentinel

Thursday, November 11, 2004

Author Chang found dead aged 36

Best-selling US author Iris Chang has been found dead at the age of 36.

The writer was discovered in her car on a highway near Los Gatos in California and had a gunshot wound to her head.

Authorities believe the injury was self-inflicted. Chang had recently been treated in hospital after suffering from depression.

Chang was renowned for her books about the Japanese occupation of China as well as the history of Chinese immigrants in the US.

She was best-known for her 1997 international best-seller The Rape Of Nanking, which described the atrocities committed by Japanese soldiers during their occupation of the former Chinese capital in the 1930s.

'The best historian'

Chang started her career as a journalist, but left to pursue writing and published her first book at the age 25.

Thread Of The Silkworm told the story of Tsien Hsue-shen, the Chinese physicist who pioneered China's missile programme during the Cold War.

Her agent Susan Rabiner said she suffered a breakdown during research for her latest book about US soldiers fighting the Japanese in the Philippines.

She continued to suffer from depression after leaving hospital, and in a note to her family asked to be remembered for the person she was before she fell ill.

The late historian Stephen Ambrose described Chang as "maybe the best historian we've got".

"She understands that to communicate history, you've got to tell the story in an interesting way," he added.

Story from BBC NEWS:

Tuesday, November 09, 2004

A Rant about Early Voting in Palm Beach County

My library, my place of employment where I spend 40+ hours every week, was one of eight early voting locations in Palm Beach County, Florida. Yes, that Palm Beach, home of the hanging chad & the butterfly ballot and the place where the courts get to decide who the people really voted for. Although the supervisor of elections was run out of office, it didn't happen until August of this year - making her the lame duck super lame supervisor of elections and the person in charge of this presidential election.

Her solution to the butterfly ballot/hanging chad problem was to get rid of the punch card voting system used in the 2000 election. She sold the units on ebay, made a few bucks for the county. Then she bought electronic, touch screen voting units. They seem like they work pretty easily, most people can figure out what to do. They seemed like a good idea, except for one little detail - there is no paper trail. And by the time this got dragged through the courts, there was nothing anyone could do about it.

If that doesn't scare you, try this: the average number of voting machines at each of those eight early voting locations is five. 5. Let's do some simple math (it has to be simple, I'm an English major). 8 locations X 5 machines = 40 machines for the population of Palm Beach County who choose to vote early. The population of Palm Beach County is approximately 1,216,282. Granted, lots of those people aren't eligible to vote, they're children or felons or they're not citizens or they didn't bother to register to vote. But if even half are eligible and registered to vote, that invokes another simple math problem: 1,216,282 divided by 2 = 608,141 people who can vote on 40 machines over a two week period. What all this math comes down to is this: lots of waiting. The average waiting time to vote at the early voting location in my library started out at about 2 hours but within a couple of days, it jumped up to 4 hours. Lots of people came and went, refusing to wait. Lots of people kept coming back, trying time and time again, only to get more and more frustrated as the wait lengthened instead of shortened.

To add to the confusion, there was an historically large number of requests for absentee ballots, the last number I heard was well over 100,000. But lots of those folks never received their ballots. My mother, for example, has voted absentee for several years now because she is not well enough to wait on line to vote on election day - and the wait then is usually no more than 30 minutes or so during peak voting times. She got her absentee ballot for the primary, but it never came for the general election. So she called the supervisor of elections' office a week after they were mailed and she hadn't received it. She was told they would mail out another one. That one never showed up either. And she is not alone. Lots of people in the early voting line are there because they never received their absentee ballot and they cannot vote on election day. But other folks are there because they have nothing else to do and gives them something to bitch about, or because they don't know any better and their friends told them they should do it, or the campaigners called and offered them a ride to early voting, or for a myriad of other reasons. And it is close to impossible to get through by phone to the supervisor's office due to the sheer volume of calls.

All I know is my job has been much more difficult for the past two weeks. More frustrating. Louder. And much more stressful. I think I'll go read a book.

Monday, November 08, 2004

News Watch
Ex-Girlfriend Can Press Claims Against Best-Selling Author

New York Lawyer
November 5, 2004

By Mark Fass
New York Law Journal

A lawsuit charging popular novelist James Patterson with breach of contract and copyright infringement will proceed following a Southern District judge's partial denial Wednesday of Mr. Patterson's motion to dismiss.

Christina P. Sharp met Mr. Patterson in June 1996 and they soon planned to marry.

"In tandem with their romantic relationship, Sharp alleges, the two 'developed a close professional relationship,' in which Patterson discussed problems with his writing, and Sharp helped by acting 'as a sounding board and [making] suggestions,'" wrote Judge Gerard E. Lynch.

Mr. Patterson ended the relationship in April 1997. Following his publication of his bestseller "Cat and Mouse" (which allegedly incorporates Ms. Sharp's work into the text) and "Suzanne's Diary for Nicholas" (allegedly based on her idea), Ms. Sharp filed suit.

The court dismissed seven other charges, including misappropriation and unjust enrichment, letting stand the charges of copyright infringement and breach of express or implied contract. Sharp v. Patterson, 03 Civ. 8772, will be published Wednesday in the New York LAw Journal.

Ex-Girlfriend Can Press Claims Against Best-Selling Author

Thursday, November 04, 2004


The Little Song Reader That Could

When Book Sense announced its 2004-2005 Reading Group Suggestions, it designated six novels as "amazing debuts": The Dive from Clausen's Pier, Everything Is Illuminated, The Lovely Bones, The Song Reader, The Time Traveler's Wife and White Teeth. The only long shot on this list--not a Today Show Book Club selection, a big prize winner or even reviewed by the likes of the New York Times--was The Song Reader by Lisa Tucker. This wasn't the first time Tucker's debut had exceeded expectations.

Published in May 2003 as a trade paperback original by Downtown Press (S&S's "chick lit" imprint), The Song Reader quickly proved to be more Secret Life of Bees than The Devil Wears Prada. In a starred review, PW called the story of two sisters in Missouri "an achingly tender narrative about grief, love, madness and crippling family secrets." Excerpted by Seventeen, chosen for Border's Original Voices and a July/August Book Sense Pick, the novel went back to press five times last year and became a regional bestseller. This year, in addition to making the Reading Group Suggestions list, The Song Reader has been chosen by the American Library Association as a popular paperback for young adults and again by independent booksellers as an "Adult Book Recommended for Teen Readers," along with books such as Catcher in the Rye and Girl with a Pearl Earring. With more than 70,000 copies in print, Pocket plans to expand the readership for Tucker's novel still more by publishing a special YA edition next June.

The Song Reader has also done surprisingly well in several foreign markets, especially in Germany, where Eichborn's July 2004 hardcover release was both a critical and commercial success, leading to a heated auction for the paperback recently won by Goldman/Bertelsmann. Reached by phone, Tucker said she is "thrilled" by her German reviews. "My German editor sends over stacks of them at a time, from highbrow newspaper book sections to magazines like Elle and Glamour," she told PW Daily. "I love the way they talk about Song Reader. To the Germans, it's a psychologically serious novel that's well written. A literary novel, as we would call it, but they don't seem to classify the way we do, where literary is defined in opposition to popular."

What's next for Tucker? This year saw the release of her second novel, the more suspenseful Shout Down the Moon, about a jazz singer and her son. She also had a story in Lit Riffs, alongside Jonathan Lethem and Neal Pollack. She's currently working on two new books. "One of them is about a father who has disappeared from his life and headed to New Mexico, hoping to hide his children from a dangerous world, " Tucker said. "The other is about a 19th-century physicist working on the nature of reality.... I doubt that anyone would mistake them for chick lit," Tucker added with a laugh.

Whatever she publishes next, Tucker can count on independent booksellers to help her get the word out. "I love Lisa, " Deb Wehmeier of Garden District Book Shop in New Orleans told PW Daily. "She came here and signed books for our New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival that benefited our children's book bank for kids who don't have access to books. I do a book group for a dozen women in a women's shelter and Pocket donated copies of her second novel for the group. Lisa asked me the names of all the women in the group, and a short time later we got 12 copies of The Song Reader personalized to each women in that shelter. She deserves all good things."
--Kevin Howell
PW Daily for Booksellers (Thursday, November 4, 2004)

Wednesday, November 03, 2004

October 31, 2004
Prize Fight

What is it like to be attacked by your fellow novelists for having written a novel that reportedly sold only 100 copies? Thomas McGuane said publicly that the National Book Awards underwent a ''meltdown'' by selecting finalists as obscure as you.

It surprises me very much. It surprises me that Tom McGuane could damn my book without having read it. And by the way, ''Florida'' has actually sold at least 1,099 copies.

The critic John Leonard suggested that a prize winner should be someone who has put in time and paid his dues.

I am 56. I have taught literature at a girls' school in Manhattan, Nightingale-Bamford, for more than 20 years. My first collection of short stories was titled ''Nightwork'' because I wrote it at night while I was divorced and raising two sons. How else can I pay my dues?

All the finalists in fiction this year are women. Do you think this has anything to do with the response you're getting?

Would they be doing this if we were five unknown men?

What do you think the award should stand for besides, obviously, literary excellence?

I do think you should honor some work that is trying to be a clean, hard object.

That could describe a washing machine.

True, it could. But what I mean is that a piece of writing should be hard and clean in the sense that there is nothing extraneous about it, no feathery adjectives.

You initially published with Knopf, which is known for its devotion to serious fiction, but ''Florida'' was published by a small academic press.

I was hoping that Knopf would take it, but they didn't. It was Gordon Lish at Knopf who bought my first stories, and he was fired before the stories came out. I think publishers are afraid of taking a risk on something that is different.

But ''Florida'' is not so radically different. It tells the story of an orphaned girl who finds refuge in books. Why, do you think, have orphans been such a powerful presence in Western literature?

Well, what is it to be an orphan? It's always to have to say ''please'' and ''may I?'' You are always spending the night at someone else's house. You don't want to make a mistake, or do anything wrong, or ask for too much.

You yourself seem timid, but in your short stories in particular you take on such bruising events as incest and dead bodies under beds.

There is a story of mine that has always upset people. It is called ''What Have You Been Doing?'' and it's about a woman who teaches her son how to kiss.

Is it based on actual experience? Have you ever kissed either of your sons amorously?

My older son, Nick, was very much an actor, and he did things that sometimes sort of shocked me. Sons forget their size and their bodies.

Are you saying you actually kissed your son? I'm horrified!

No, no, I never did that. I once tried to teach him how to dance. When you write, you always make it a little bit bigger and bolder than it is in life.

That's a relief.

I can be very bold and brave and nasty on the page.

Better on the page than in life! What did your sons, who are now in their 20's, think of the story?

They just laughed. It's wonderful having boys, isn't it? They're very forgiving of their mothers.

Yes, certainly more forgiving than the American literary world.

It doesn't matter what anyone says. If the work is good, eventually it will be found. I used to imagine that my work would be discovered after I am dead, but it's much nicer to be recognized in one's lifetime.

The New York Times > Magazine > Questions for Christine Schutt: Prize Fight

Harlem School's Book Shortage Stirs Industry

When Phillip Lefevre, an English teacher at Harlem's Frederick Douglass Academy II, wanted his seventh graders to read Sandra Cisneros's The House on Mango Street (Arte Publico Press, 1984), about a young girl growing up in the Latino section of Chicago, he faced one major hurdle: the school had no books.

A teacher in suburban Boston for the last 13 years, this was his first foray into the inner city teaching experience. "I expected the student body to be different, of course," he said. "I just was totally unprepared for how much less the district would actually provide."

FDA II, whose 420 students are predominantly black and Hispanic, opened its doors in September 2000, still has no library. What's more, the 115th St. New York Public Library branch across the street has been shut since 2002 because of budget cuts. In order for Lefevre to teach his 62 students a book recommended by the city school system, he had to look elsewhere.

Lefevre appealed to his friend Lee Isles, a data analyst at Barnes and, for help. Isles managed to get a discount on the books and set up a fundraising Web site to donate to the cost. Isles then sent the link to his old job site, All Media Guide in Ann Arbor, Mich. (a company that provides content data to online retailers), sparking former co-worker Matthew Tobey's interest. Tobey in turn told his friend writer Neal Pollack about it. Pollack, who said he feels strongly that "no one should be denied the opportunity to read books just because their school is under-funded," shot an e-mail over to Susan Bergholz, Cisneros's literary agent. Bergholz contacted Martin Asher, editor-in-chief of Vintage Books, and 10 copies of the book were sent directly.
But perhaps not fully satisfied with this Band-Aid solution, all the major players decided to go one step further. Bergholz is sending three books for every 20-odd authors she represents, as well as overstock and galleys to the school. Pollack posted a "call to arms" on his Web site, donated money from his own pocket and is currently in talks with Tobey and Isles about ways in which to continue raising money for such future efforts.

"I think the real issue here has to do with how the New York City school system spends its money," Isles said. "I have a hard time believing that every school has these same issues."
As of this date, $748 have been collected, an amount just $102 short of the required funds. Lefevre is planning to use any additional money raised to fund a Harlem Renaissance unit for his class, and said he's "incredibly amazed" by the feedback Isles has received. "You have to understand, these kids are not used to books they can take home," he added. "This is foreign to them."

Though grassroots efforts like ones initiated by Isles (he was also responsible for raising enough money last week to supply Lefevre's students with copies of The Old Man and the Sea) provide learning materials where federal, state and local governments fall short, they also hold greater promise. "It's like Latasha [Greer, the FDA II principal] said to me," Lefevre recounted. "This is how things get going. This is how movements begin."

To donate money, visit Isles's site. To donate books, clearly mark packages "book donations" and send to:

Frederick Douglass Academy II 215 W. 114th St. New York, N.Y. 10026

--Raya Kuzyk
PW Daily for Booksellers (Wednesday, November 3, 2004)

Monday, November 01, 2004

The fiction factory of Edward Stratemeyer.
Issue of 2004-11-08
Posted 2004-11-01

The summer I was seven, a sudden adventure shanghaied my parents, and they hastily deposited me at my grandmother’s home, in suburban New Jersey, for the weekend. I was sitting mournfully by the back-yard pool, without the prospect of a playmate, when my grandmother came down the flagstone path, a box in her hands, and announced, with an air of genial relief, “I’ve found your mother’s old Nancy Drews.” Warped and moldy, “The Bungalow Mystery,” on top of the box, appeared unpromising—and, at two hundred pages, long. But desperation will drive a child to great lengths. I began to read and, it now seems, didn’t look up for several years.

What I was reading were dozens of variations on a single story, which went something like this: Nancy Drew, a sixteen-year-old girl in the suburb of River Heights, visits a friend and learns of a mystery, typically involving a lost treasure or a missing heir. An anonymous note slipped under her door warns her, “Keep off the case, or else”; high jinks and a car chase ensue. While sleuthing, Nancy gets knocked out by a crook, and comes to in an elegant old mansion (“Nancy saw lovely damask draperies, satin-covered sofas and chairs”), where she partakes of a refreshing tea service and cinnamon toast; renewed, she discovers a secret passageway, thanks to a cunning knob of some kind, rapidly solves the mystery, and restores social order.

As Bobbie Ann Mason points out in her excellent 1975 history, “The Girl Sleuth,” Nancy Drew is a paradox—which may be why feminists can laud her as a formative “girl power” icon and conservatives can love her well-scrubbed middle-class values. She climbs fences like a tomboy but cries “How dainty!” upon spotting a gold bracelet. Her friends have marvellous weddings, but Nancy never frets about her future; more than a kiss from Ned Nickerson, her worshipful beau, would only interrupt her sleuthing. Like many juvenile heroines of her time, she is missing a mother. (Hers died when she was three.) But there are no shadows behind her “sparkling” bright-blue eyes. The shadows are in the world, and they are easily detected and vanquished, for they have squinty eyes, poor grammar, badly mended clothes, and a habit of wearing too much rouge.

Next year, Nancy turns seventy-five, and, having sold more than two hundred million books, she has been rewarded with a twenty-first-century makeover. “Nancy Drew Girl Detective” is a new series launched last spring by Aladdin Paperbacks, a division of Simon & Schuster. The contemporary Nancy is more attuned to emotional issues than the old Nancy, as one can only expect in our therapeutic age. But her gaze remains unshadowed.

I don’t remember wondering much about Carolyn Keene, the book’s putative author, although I must have eventually asked how she could write so many books; I recall my father gently suggesting that Keene had been replaced by a ghostwriter. This concerned me for one reason: what if the books changed? I needn’t have worried. The truth is that Nancy Drew, like her comrades-in-sleuthing the Hardy Boys, was never the creation of a single mind. From the start, she was the product of a corporation—a literary syndicate. The man who created the syndicate was not a feminist or a brilliant writer. But in his own unassuming way he was, like Nancy Drew, a phenomenon.

Edward Stratemeyer was born in 1862 in Elizabeth, New Jersey. His parents, Henry and Anna, were middle-class German immigrants with a staunch work ethic. Henry was a tobacconist, and Anna, who had been married to Henry’s brother before his death, reared six children; Edward was the youngest. As a boy, he idled away his time reading the popular rags-to-riches tales of Horatio Alger and William T. Adams (a.k.a. Oliver Optic). As a teen-ager, he had a printing press and amused friends by printing broadsheets and stories, including an early effort titled “Revenge! or, The Newsboy’s Adventure.” His father spoke to him of wasting time. According to Deidre Johnson’s “Edward Stratemeyer and the Stratemeyer Syndicate,” he was twenty-six when he sold his first story, “Victor Horton’s Idea,” to Golden Days, the beloved boys’ magazine, for seventy-five dollars—about six times the standard weekly wage. Later, he liked to claim that he had written the story on brown wrapping paper in the tobacco store, and recalled showing the magazine’s check to his father, who promptly said, “You’d better write a lot more for them.”

He did. He wrote “Poor but Plucky” as Fred Frisky. He wrote “Dashing Dave, the Ever Ready Detective” as Captain Ravell Pinkerton, of the U.S. Secret Service. He wrote “Joe Johnson, the Bicycle Wonder” as Roy Rockwood. He also worked as a stationer—he did not sell enough stories to support himself—and then, later, became an editor at Good News, where his heroes Alger and Optic published their work.

Every Horatio Alger hero’s rise to riches depends on a lucky break. Stratemeyer’s was his proximity to Alger himself. In 1898, the older man, in failing health, wrote to Stratemeyer at Good News and asked him to complete a story that he was too ill to finish. “Can you take my story and finish it in my style?” he inquired. “You will divide the proceeds equally with me but I shall retain the copyright. . . . I fancy it would be easy work for you as you have a fluent & facile style.”

In truth, Stratemeyer’s style was much like Alger’s; each was of the “Maggie, for this was the name by which she was universally known” school of circumlocution. Stratemeyer took on the job and ultimately completed several of Alger’s unfinished manuscripts for posthumous publication. (Alger died in 1899.) Then, in the late eighteen-nineties, Gilbert Patten began publishing his stories about Frank Merriwell, America’s first fictional schoolboy hero. The success of the Merriwell dime novels is hard to conceive of today: they sold a hundred and twenty-five million copies over two decades. Stratemeyer, who had given Patten his start at Good News, decided that he could improve on the invention. The result, in 1899, was “The Rover Boys”—the schoolboy exploits of three wisecracking brothers named Tom, Dick, and Sam. It was an immediate hit.

Stratemeyer’s timing was superb. The spread of primary education had spawned a host of independent young readers, and juvenile fiction was on the verge of becoming hugely popular. The dime novel, which had emerged in 1860, had created an appetite among children for more exciting fare than Sunday-school moralism. What Stratemeyer brought to this burgeoning market was not literary brilliance; the early Rover Boys books are crudely written at best. But he had two essential gifts: a knack for coming up with ideas, and organizational genius. As Henry Ford was revolutionizing the auto industry, Stratemeyer was revolutionizing the way children’s books were produced. The boy who had played at the printing press had learned how to put his single-mindedness to work for him.

The most daunting obstacle facing publishers at the turn of the century wasn’t finding good stories but figuring out how to package and distribute them. Advertising was relatively uncommon, and, in any case, children didn’t read the newspaper. Salesmen travelled around the country, selling books from publishers’ lists, but this system was highly inefficient.

New printing techniques had made it easier to manufacture good-looking books for less than ever before. Most “quality” hardcover juvenile fiction cost a dollar or a dollar twenty-five, but it was still primarily instructional. The most famous of these was the Rollo series, about a boy who travelled through Europe with his uncle, learning the virtue of honesty. For excitement, people had the Deadwood Dicks and the Lone Star Lizzies, low-end dime novels aimed at working-class men and read on the sly by boys—and some girls—everywhere. (Publishers assumed that girls would happily read boys’ books, but not vice versa.)

In 1906, Stratemeyer had his first big idea. The Rover Boys had sold tens of thousands of copies, but Stratemeyer had hopes for more. He went to a publishing firm with a radical proposal: his new series, “The Motor Boys” (the Rover Boys with more speed), would cost fifty cents but, with its cloth hardbound covers, look like it cost twice as much. The “fifty-center” would bridge the gap between the nineteenth century’s moralistic tradition and the dime novel’s frontier adventures. Because the fifty-center was a hardback, unlike the dime novel, it seemed respectable to parents. And it was within range of a boy’s allowance, or his wheedling skills.

At first, the publishers worried about the scant profit margin—probably three to five cents per book. But Stratemeyer thought that the books would make up in volume for the diminished profit margin per unit. He was right. The Motor Boys series quickly became “the biggest and best selling series for boys ever published,” according to a publisher’s blurb. When Stratemeyer repackaged the Rover Boys series in the same format, it, too, grew into a bona-fide phenomenon, selling more than six million copies by 1920. Years after Stratemeyer’s death, boys were still writing to say things like “I think you write the best books ever. You know how to put that touch in them that gets boys. . . . I will always try to imitate the Rovers as much as I can.”

The fifty-cent books had an advantage over their more expensive, single-volume counterparts: you could release a “breeder” set of three at once—a strategy that Stratemeyer had pioneered with the Rover Boys—to test the waters, and, if the set did well, you had immediately generated an audience for the sequels. Sequels to one-off books, in contrast, tended to sell relatively poorly. By the time a fifty-cent series reached ten volumes, it was considered successful; it had captured enough faithful readers to bring in good money for writer and publisher alike.

Stratemeyer could not keep up with the demand for his stories. This prompted his second big idea: he would form a literary syndicate, which would produce books assembly-line style. From his days of working at Good News, he was acquainted with the best juvenile writers, and knew that “any one of them could have built up a 70,000-word novel from a comma, if required,” as one such writer put it. By the time the Stratemeyer Syndicate was incorporated, in 1910, he was putting out ten or so juvenile series by a dozen writers under pseudonyms, and had more series in development.

Stratemeyer would come up with a three-page plot for each book, describing locale, characters, time frame, and a basic story outline. He mailed this to a writer, who, for a fee ranging from fifty dollars to two hundred and fifty dollars, would write the thing up and—slam-bang!—send it back within a month. Stratemeyer checked the manuscripts for discrepancies, made sure that each book had exactly fifty jokes, and cut or expanded as needed. (Each series had a uniform length; the standard was twenty-five chapters.) He replaced the verb “said” with “exclaimed,” “cried,” “chorused,” and so forth, and made sure that cliffhangers punctuated the end of each chapter—usually framed as a question or an exclamation. Each series was published under a pseudonym that Stratemeyer owned. As Fortune later noted, it was good business for children to become attached to a name, but it would be bad business for that name to leave the syndicate with the ghostwriter.

There were a few missteps in the early years. In 1906, G. Waldo Browne, an enthusiastic contract writer, wrote Stratemeyer that he had completed the first book of the “Young Builders” series that Stratemeyer had commissioned, and excitedly outlined his ideas for forthcoming volumes, including “The Young Mechanics: How They Earned the Money to Build a School House,” “The Young Mill Owners: How They Lifted the Mortgage from the Old Red Mill,” and “The Young Manufacturers: How They Won the Great Financial Battle.” Alas, Browne was informed, he had not quite “hit the nail” with Stratemeyer.

Through the first years of the century, Stratemeyer and his publishers engaged in an epic publicity effort that included buying up lists of children’s names and addresses, circulating a catalogue of books, and seizing every chance to cross-promote his books. Each series volume, for instance, contained a paragraph plugging the volume preceding it and the volume to come, known as the “throw-ahead.” The sheer number of books that Stratemeyer produced meant that he had more leverage with publishers (he worked with several, and would move from one to another when dissatisfied) than the average author, and could better orchestrate his distribution efforts among their salesmen. He pushed cost-averse publishers to invest in a higher number of illustrations per book, and in better covers. And he kept looking for ways to expand his readership. In 1910, the formation of the Boy Scouts of America meant an open line to Stratemeyer’s core audience. Immediately, he began a series about Boy Scouts, to the dismay of Scoutmasters, who complained, according to the Fortune reporter, that boys were turning up their noses at “mundane” tasks like tracking woodchucks.

None of Stratemeyer’s innovations would have mattered had he not known what kids wanted to read about—“that touch in them that gets boys.” The Stratemeyer fifty-center was an adventure story aimed at children between the ages of ten and sixteen; it assumed that kids, like adults, were captivated by the new technology of the twentieth century, and, generally, tried to keep up with trends in adult fiction. Stratemeyer had, in his own prankish way, the muscle memory of children’s enthusiasm for novelty. “The trouble is that very few adults get next to the heart of a boy when choosing something for him to read,” he wrote in a letter to a publisher in 1901. “A wide awake lad has no patience with that which is namby-pamby, or with that which he puts down as a ‘study book’ in disguise. He demands real flesh and blood heroes who do something.”

Stratemeyer’s heroes—among them the Motor Boys, the Outdoor Girls (the first girls’ series, Dorothy Dale, was introduced in 1908), the Motion Picture Chums, Tom Swift, and the Bobbsey Twins—dashed about in six-cylinder racing cars or jets or balloons. “Swift by name and swift by nature” was Tom Swift’s motto. Most strikingly, Stratemeyer abandoned the model of self-improvement that informed both Alger’s and Patten’s best-sellers. His children were already perfect—solidly middle-class “Übermenschen,” as one syndicate partner later termed them. “Manly” and “wide awake,” they succeeded at whatever they turned their hand to and enjoyed utter freedom (in contrast to “firmly guarded” nineteenth-century types), typically exposing the schemes of ne’er-do-wells hoping to siphon away the fortune of an innocent orphan. Stratemeyer understood that twentieth-century children wanted a fantasy posing as reality. As Patten aptly put it, the new model was a story about “the boy that every kid would like to be. Not, mind you, the boy that every kid ought to be. That was the Horatio Alger idea.”

Stratemeyer was a micromanager. During the syndicate’s golden years, Stratemeyer, who lived in Newark with his wife and two daughters, would arrive in his Manhattan office at nine every morning, dictate two chapters, and then fire off a series of letters to publishers. No detail was too minor to escape his attention; once, while preoccupied with an important business deal, he noticed that a publisher had sent him a cover on which a Japanese life preserver bore an English name printed in tiny type, and immediately sent off a letter requiring a correction. He repeatedly accused his publishers of laziness and indifference to the success of his books, yet he had that particular gift for caustic woundedness that made other people want to do more for him. At the end of the most cutting of letters, he would sign his name in a spidery fashion, as if to suggest that his native enthusiasm had been dealt a great blow. In an early letter to W. F. Gregory, an editor at Lothrop, Lee & Shepard, he practiced this to great effect:

Dear Mr. Gregory,
I received yesterday the package of books and have looked the two volumes over with interest.
I think “The Fort in the Wilderness” is exceedingly good. . . . I wish I could say as much for “Dave Porter” but I cannot. To me the pictures are very poor and will do the book more harm than good. Every one of them lacks life and action. The race on the ice is tame and the knock-down blow in the gym simply awful. And what life is there in the automobile scene? I suggested lots of good things—the feast, the “rough house,” the boys on the run-away trolley, the serio-comic initiations, etc., but none were used. Some day when I feel rich I am going to ask you to put in two or three new pictures at my expense.

We don’t know if Stratemeyer ever felt rich, but certainly by 1920 he was rich. His books had sold in the tens of millions of copies. His writers were still struggling to make a living—they knew that the syndicate could dispose of them at any time—but he was enjoying the fruits that come to the chairman of any successful company.

In 1926, ninety-eight per cent of the boys and girls surveyed in a poll published by the American Library Association listed a Stratemeyer book as their favorite, and another survey showed that the Tom Swift books, which the syndicate launched in 1910, were at the top of the list. Thirty-one series were in full swing. Yet Stratemeyer still wasn’t content. He had noticed the growing popularity in the twenties of adult detective fiction and of pulp magazines like Black Mask,which wasfounded by H. L. Mencken and George Jean Nathan. As the journalist Carol Billman points out in “The Secret of the Stratemeyer Syndicate,” Stratemeyer saw that this detective fiction, grafted onto an adventure story, might appeal to children. In 1926, the year that S. S. Van Dine’s “The Benson Murder Case” introduced Philo Vance to the world, Stratemeyer wrote the outline for the first three volumes of a series that proved more popular than any that had come before: the Hardy Boys.

If the Hardy Boys emerged at roughly the same time as hardboiled detective fiction, they were also a distinct counterpoint to it. Where private dicks like Sam Spade were wise, urban, cynical, hard-drinking, and suspicious of “dames,” Frank and Joe Hardy were innocent, suburban, fresh-faced, and clean-living. They have an amiable, distant relationship with women; their mother packs a delectable picnic lunch, and no one seems to notice when her name changes briefly, in mid-series, from Laura to Mildred. Iola Morton and Callie Shaw—Frank and Joe’s “special friends”—turn up primarily to be saved from danger and to praise the boys. (“Oh, I really think Frank and Joe are too wonderful for anything!”)

As Marilyn S. Greenwald tells it in a new biography, “The Secret of the Hardy Boys” (Ohio; $32.95), Stratemeyer found the Hardys’ first ghostwriter, the young Canadian newspaperman Leslie McFarlane, through a classified ad in a trade paper. Stratemeyer sent him outlines, cautioning McFarlane to remember that these books were less flashy than their cheaper counterparts: “You perhaps understand our cloth books go in a different field from the paper volumes and the stories are not quite so melodramatic.” The books were to be two hundred and sixteen pages and twenty-five chapters. For the first one, “The Tower Treasure,” McFarlane would be paid a lump sum of a hundred and twenty-five dollars—a figure that required Stratemeyer to sell sixty-two hundred and fifty books in order to make a profit, assuming that the royalties were around two cents a book. As for McFarlane, he later wrote, “I greeted Frank and Joe Hardy with positive rapture. . . . There was, after all, the chance to contribute a little style.”

Stratemeyer’s initial Hardy Boys outlines were two pages long, and set the breezy tone for the books. The first began:

Joe and Frank Hardy are on their motorcycles on an errand for their father, Fenton Hardy, the famous detective. It is Saturday, a holiday from the Bayport High School which they attend, springtime. . . .
The shore road, the rocks below—the racing auto—will it hit them? Narrow escape—anger of a middle-aged man who ran car and anger of boys. “A road hog,” they say.

A cast of characters sent to McFarlane dictated that the boys’ Aunt Gertrude be “peppery and dictatorial” and that the mother, Laura, be a “sweet singer.” Frank is dark, Joe blond. The boys are to have a barn with a gym; Fenton Hardy is equipped with a James Bond-worthy library full of dossiers on jewel thieves and an extensive wardrobe of disguises. (These more fanciful plot elements dropped away in later volumes.)

In 1930, Stratemeyer decided to follow up with a girl detective, whom he called Nancy Drew. The women’s movement of the time had energized girls’ fiction, creating an audience for female characters with spunk (in contrast to Stratemeyer’s early girl heroines, like Honey Bunch, who “knew exactly how to do a washing for she had watched the laundress many times”). Stratemeyer had signed up a young college graduate named Mildred Wirt, and he sent her the outline of “The Secret of the Old Clock.” Wirt went on to write twenty-three of the first thirty Nancy Drews. From the start, the series sold better than any other Stratemeyer series, overturning the conventional publishing wisdom that boys’ series outperformed girls’.

Wirt gave the early volumes a “New Woman” flavor, but the core of Nancy’s appeal is similar to the Hardys’. The mode is adventure with a flourish of mystery. The plot is furthered by coincidence. Nancy discovers “clues” everywhere: A tire tread? “A clue!” A ransom note with a fire-dragon crest? “It may be a clue,” Nancy cries. Needless to say, these “clues” don’t function as a puzzle that the enterprising reader can piece together for herself, as they do in Sherlock Holmes or Encyclopedia Brown mysteries. Instead, they are reassurances that order reigns behind the scenes. Nancy later happens to walk into a store in Chinatown and discovers that the store sells notepaper with a fire-dragon crest. Happily, the owner recalls not only that Nancy’s suspect had been in the store several months earlier but also his name and build. The message is confidence-inspiring: The world is rife with crooks, but it is negotiable, and fundamentally rational. Hard work pays off. The damned remain damned—unless they repent—and the wronged (long-lost maharajas’ sons, heirs to candlemakers’ fortunes) are restored to their rightful life at the intersection of High and Elm, among the rangy Colonials and the tall trees.

Nancy was Stratemeyer’s final creation, and she lived far longer than he did. In May of 1930, the year that Nancy made her début, Stratemeyer fell ill with pneumonia. While he was sick, he had a dream that he was a character in one of his own baseball series. He died of a heart attack shortly thereafter.

Even as Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys were invading children’s bookshelves, there was one place you couldn’t find them: the library. The Stratemeyer Syndicate came under attack from educators and librarians from the start. As early as 1914, Franklin K. Mathiews, the chief librarian for the Boy Scouts of America, published a damning article, “Blowing Out the Boy’s Brains,” about series fiction. “Parents who buy such books think they do their boys no harm. The fact is, however, that the harm done is simply incalculable,” he argued. The series books would “debauch and vitiate” a child’s imagination.

Early on, librarians condemned the syndicate’s series as tawdry, sensationalist work taking children away from books of moral or instructional value. Decades later, some educators began to argue that the books were a stepping-stone to more sophisticated literature, a way to get kids reading in the first place. (Television was now the real problem.) In either case, librarians seemed uncomfortable with the idea of reading as pure entertainment. Nancy Drew was long banned from many public libraries.

The syndicate’s production methods didn’t help matters. Mathiews made much of the assembly-line process: “The public will, I am sure, be interested in knowing just how most of the books that sell for from twenty-five to fifty cents, are not written, but manufactured,” he pronounced scathingly. “There is usually one man who is as resourceful as a Balzac so far as ideas and plots for stories are concerned. He cannot, though, develop them all, so he employs a number of men who write for him.”

Mathiews assumed, rightly, that the very word “manufactured” would make people squirm with distaste. But Stratemeyer’s assembly-line method surely made his series better, not worse. The rapid rate at which the syndicate was producing fiction allowed Stratemeyer to learn from his mistakes more swiftly, making his series more sophisticated than many of the series penned by individual authors. Furthermore, when it came to refining a catchy story, two heads often proved to be better than one.

Stratemeyer realized that the way to move books was to keep them constant. The “manufactured” nature of the series was curiously reassuring to kids, who felt that there was an endless supply of goods they knew and liked coming their way. Children, of course, love repetition, as any parent who’s had to watch “Finding Nemo” ten times knows. But so do adults. The hardest thing about selling what economists call “experience goods”—like books or movies—is persuading people to try something they can’t be sure they’ll like. That’s why a handful of brand-name fiction writers (often writing books with continuing characters) dominate the best-seller lists and the shelves of airport bookstores: in some way they’re a known quantity. As the Stratemeyer Syndicate grew, a snowball effect could be seen: the more books that appeared in any given series, the more children bought them, confident that supply would not run out.

Though collaborative effort doesn’t seem strange to us when it comes to making television shows or movies, even today we resist it when the resulting narrative is bound between hard covers. Yet Stratemeyer’s books really were meant to be simply another form of mass entertainment. His closest peer wasn’t another writer—say, L. Frank Baum—but his near-contemporary Irving Thalberg, the “boy wonder” movie producer who worked at Universal and M-G-M in the nineteen-twenties and helped pioneer the studio system. Like Stratemeyer, Thalberg devoted obsessive attention to every detail of his products, and believed in staying out of the public eye; his first screen credit was a posthumous one.

Why did Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys survive when their peers did not? As the social historian John G. Cawelti has noted, some formulas are more enduring (and instructive) than others. A “good” formula creates an integral fantasy world, one that is both entirely like and entirely unlike the culture that produced it. The most lasting formulas not only reveal something about the culture that shaped them but in turn shape the culture that comes after them. (Consider the profound influence of the Western on the American psyche.) If Alger’s rags-to-riches stories didn’t last, it was essentially because they were too literal—too specific an expression of working-class ambitions of the eighteen-seventies and eighties.

The Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew endured, in part, because they avoided overt adult moralizing, and because they were more complex than their juvenile forebears. Generally, multiple plots unfold at once, and the connection among them becomes clear only at the book’s end. The mystery formula elegantly embodies children’s two conflicting impulses: the search for order and security, and the appetite for novelty and risk-taking. Consider the ritualized cliffhanger at the end of each chapter, which represents order and excitement at the same time—“Nancy flew from the saddle and hit the ground so hard she blacked out!”

The series also survived because they were rewritten over time. In 1930, the syndicate was inherited by Stratemeyer’s daughters, Edna Stratemeyer and Harriet Stratemeyer Adams. The daughters shut down the Manhattan office and opened one in East Orange, New Jersey, where they worked at rolltop desks throughout the Depression. They dramatically reduced the number of series in production: in 1935, fourteen series were circulating; in 1940, nine; by 1980, when the syndicate was in its final years, only four. But these four accounted for nearly six million dollars in sales. Edna retired after a decade, but Harriet had inherited her father’s single-mindedness, and took over the bulk of the writing of the Nancy Drew series herself, remaining at the syndicate until her death, in 1982.

Harriet’s primary inspiration was to update the most promising of the existing properties—the Bobbsey Twins, the Hardy Boys, and Nancy Drew. She sent out all the extant volumes for reëvaluation. Some needed complete rewrites; others only a deft touch-up. In 1959, the new Nancy Drews began rolling off the assembly line. Nancy’s age, like the Hardys’, was revised upward. She was now eighteen, not sixteen—the driving laws had changed—and she motored around in a convertible instead of a roadster. On the cutting-room floor lay scenes that had contained offensive stereotypes of blacks, Jews, and other ethnic groups. And the books were shorter—twenty chapters instead of twenty-five. It is these versions, not the originals, that most people today have read. The collaborative project was complete: what Stratemeyer had conceived, and ghostwriters had executed, had been streamlined and improved upon by Harriet.

Ultimately, Edward Stratemeyer was a conventional-minded businessman with a radical idea that would not have been radical in any other industry. It was to give his customers, who happened to be children, what they wanted, not what he thought they should want—and to make a product that was better than his competitors’. He understood, as George Orwell later wrote, that there was such a thing as the “good bad book”—one that “has no literary pretensions but remains readable when more serious productions have perished.”

As Nancy has aged, children’s-book publishing has become more sensitive to psychological “issues,” and Nancy’s quick-footed efficiency is now thought to be intimidating for young readers. And so, in “Nancy Drew Girl Detective,” the new Simon & Schuster series, Nancy relates her adventures in the first person, acknowledges her flaws, and shows herself to be a more empathetic and inclusive soul than the old Nancy. But if I were sitting by the pool again, in search of distraction, I would pick the old Stratemeyer formula over the new one. Stratemeyer understood, in the end, that children want their heroes to have an air of mystery. A young reader isn’t trying to discover the ways in which she’s ordinary; she’s trying to discover just how to banish the shadows so that the afternoon lasts a little longer

The New Yorker: The Critics: A Critic At Large

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