Tuesday, January 29, 2008

The reading business, not just the book business

In "Freed from the Page, but a Book Nonetheless" in Sunday's online New York Times, San Jose State business professor Randall Stross reviews Amazon's new Kindle e-book reader. It's really less of a review than a look at where the publishing business is, and what Kindle may mean for readers and authors alike.

I'm not terribly excited about the Kindle, which is expensive at $399, and seems like a very clunky design and clumsy interface despite its use of the cool new E ink technology. But Stross makes three really interesting points:

What makes Kindle so appealing is the ability to download books and other digital content wirelessly from anywhere Sprint's EVDO network reaches. The point of that techno-jargon is this: Kindle makes obtaining a new book incredibly convenient. If you've got your Kindle in hand and you're within reach of Sprint's wireless network (which would be in any major urban area), you just search on Amazon for the book you want, and in minutes, you can start reading. You don't have to go to the library, the bookstore or even sit at your computer. Kindle thus becomes a bookstore itself, at your fingertips, as it were. That makes downloading books as simple as downloading songs, and if you've followed the revolution in the music industry, you know what that's done to sales of CDs (they're dwindling fast).

Does this mean the long-forecast beginning of the end of the actual book? Not necessarily: there's the cost, and the clunky factor. Still, as Stross notes, Amazon sold out of the devices soon after they were introduced and they're having a hard time keeping them in stock. (But we don't know how big the initial manufacturing run was or how many have sold since.) The Kindle IS the first e-book reader to actually sell well. That's interesting in itself.

The second thing Stross said that interested me is his response to Apple CEO Steve Jobs' comment about the book industry at the recent MacWorld. When asked about the Kindle, Jobs, in one of his more arrogant and less-visionary moments, said in part: "the fact is that people don't read anymore." Not true, says Stross, citing a Book Industry Study Group report that 408 million books were sold last year, bringing in $15 billion in revenue, not a bad chunk of change. Stross also cites a survey for the AP that found that 27 percent of respondents hadn't read a book the previous year, while the same percentage had read more than 15 - and eight percent had read more than 51 books the previous year. (You go!) Yes, concludes Stross, some people don't read - but some read a lot. (And we authors love you who do.)

The end of Stross' review is really intriguing. The book world, he says, has always had "an invisible asset": the passionate attachment that its authors, editors and most frequent customers have to books themselves. Indeed, in this respect, he continues, avid book readers resemble avid Mac users.

The object we are accustomed to calling a book is undergoing a profound modification as it is stripped of its physical shell. Kindle’s long-term success is still unknown, but Amazon should be credited with imaginatively redefining its original product line, replacing the book business with the reading business.

Replacing the book business with the reading business: What does the reading business look like? And what will that mean for authors, publishers and readers? That's something worth thinking about.

By the by, here's an indication of the changes to come: in "New Literary Program to Make its Home Online," in today's NY Times, Motoko Rich reports that Daniel Menaker, most recently executive editor-in-chief of Random House has signed on as host of "Titlepage," an online book show, beginning March 3. Described as "passionate conversations about books" Titlepage will feature Menaker and several authors in roundtable discussion and will "air" on titlepage.tv, a new internet television channel.

What do you think the reading business will be? And how can authors help shape it? Let me know.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Writing my life - and leading with my heart

I'm in the process of negotiating a contract for the memoir I've been working on for, oh, two decades or so. When I started writing it, I had no idea what I was doing, no idea of what memoir was, and no real understanding of how to tell the story - hence the very long gestation. I describe this as "a book of my heart," and it's true. It's taught me who I am in many ways, what I care about, what motivates me, and why I live the way I do. It's a story about love and life: how I nearly lost both, and how my relationship to nature, the living world that nurtures us, gradually brought me back. Back to life and love, and most importantly, back to myself - to believing in and loving who I am, just as I am.

There was a time when I was sure this was a "big" book, a book that would bring me a contract with a big publisher and get me the kind of exposure all of us dream about. I thought it was my chance, my corner, my way to finally get my due. And I couldn't figure out why I struggled with the story. It sounded too heroic, or too stilted, or too forced. It just didn't sing.

A few years ago, on my way to a residency at the Mesa Refuge in California - two heavenly weeks of time to write uninterrupted, I read a slim book called Faith, by Buddhist author Sharon Salzberg. And I had one of those "Duh!" moments. I realized that I had been going about the story all wrong: I couldn't write it with the idea that it would bring me recognition or mention in the New York Times Book Review or big advances or being published by the right publisher because that's not what I believe in. That's not why I write. I write because I love the world, because I want to spread my own ocean of light over the ocean of darkness, because I hope to touch people's hearts. I write because I believe, as author and psychologist Mary Pipher said in The Shelter of Each Other, "Good stories have the power to save us."

I write because I want to tell the kind of story that can save me, you, all of us, and this singular living Earth, the only planet we have ever known.

So when I finished the memoir - when it finally sang, beginning to end - I didn't sent it to the hot-shot agent who read an earlier draft and loved it, the guy who doesn't take a project unless he can earn money from it, or to the pair of agents who love great stories and who loved my proposal, or to the editors at big houses who had said good things about earlier versions of it. I sent it to the editor-in-chief of University of Texas Press because she loves my work, she's market-savvy, and she publishes beautiful, thoughtful books. She has time to talk to me and she believes in what I have to say. She cares about the work as well as the bottom line. So I picked love over prestige and money.

That's not to say I don't intend to sell as many copies as I can when it comes out next year - I want those books to fly off the shelves! But if I don't live what I write about, the story won't work or touch its audience. I have to be the person I say I am, all the way though the process. This is truly a project of my heart, so I'm leading with my heart as I send it out into the world. I can hardly wait!

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Turn off the tv. . . .

Sometimes companies do such smart things that you have to give them a big "atta girl." Today's goes to title nine, the women's fitness and casual wear company named after the Title IX Act that prohibited sexual discrimination in any educational program or activity receiving federal aid. (The act passed in 1972, thirty-five years ago, and both the federal government and educational institutions are still trying to weasel their way out of compliance. But that's another story - read it at the Women's Sports Foundation's web site.)

What title nine the clothing company did that I think is great is in the latest catalog. In "Too Much News," a short piece on the inside front page, founder Missy Parks sounds a call to stop being so fearful and selfish, get off our duffs and get outside that reads in part:
"I've noticed that the more news I hear the more I tend to worry. Really, it's hard to keep up with what we're supposed to be worrying about. Should we worry about the plain-vanilla flu or Bird Flu? Should we worry about a Recession, A depression, a global financial meltdown? Is there a child predator in our neighborhood or a crazed kidnapper lurking in our city? . . . .
Or perhaps, I should remind myself that statistically our children have never been safer, we have never been healthier and our nation has never been wealthier. . . . So perhaps what I should do is turn off the tv, shut down the computer . . . [and] go for a hike, buckle up, buckle up my children, eat well -- most of the time, lend a helping hand, get some sleep, express gratitude."
I've been reading Last Child in the Woods, Richard Louv's book with the illuminating sub-title, Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder. It's about just what it says: what it costs our children - and our culture - to be so alienated from nature. Not from expeditions to far-flung places or nature shows on television or computer, but every-day nature, the pockets of wildness right around us. What our kids are missing is time spent outside in the places where the processes of life go on in their own messy and fascinating fashion. Time to dream, to imagine, to invent, to be in the company of other species, time to simply watch life happen. Time spent in the community of nature, as Louv and may others point out, is rejuvenating, restorative, calming, healing, and inspiring.

So as Missy Parks says, let's turn off the tv and get outside - and remember what life's about!

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

New year, new resolutions

A few years ago, a friend came to visit for New Year's and brought with her a beautiful tradition that my husband Richard and I continue to celebrate: we each light a candle and close the old year by briefly describing what we are proud of, and then voice our intentions for the new. My resolution that first year was to focus my writing - not on earning a living, which was crucial to me, but on accepting only those assignments that would allow me to learn something I wanted to learn or express something important to me. For a freelancer, I was making a perilous choice. Has it worked? That's the subject of my podcast for this week. Hear more (or read the text of the podcast) at my web site. (Click on the title of the podcast, and then once it has loaded, click on play arrow, the arrow facing right in the audio bar. Don't click on the word "start" - nothing will happen.)

I wish for you heartfelt resolutions and much joy in the year ahead!