Monday, February 28, 2005

Contemporary literary works at Project Gutenberg ...

Steven Sills has published three books with Project Gutenberg (http://www.gutenberg.org/) . I didn't know until Steven sent me an e-mail awhile back that Project Gutenberg published original work. I thought they only published classics. Tells you what I know.
Michael Hart, the man who founded Project Gutenberg, tells me in an email that of the 15,400 eBooks at gutenberg.org, about 3 percent — some 500 books — are there “with the permission of the authors/copyright holders.” He also says that there are original works at gutenberg.cc as well — he guesses about 500 more.
I haven’t read Sills’s books and I can’t really review them. Since this blog is supposed to give readers a behind-the-scenes look at a book review editor’s world, this is a good opportunity to explain what The Inquirer does and doesn’t review and why. We don’t review eBooks, or print-on-demand (POD) books, or self-published books, including books by AuthorHouse or PublishAmerica or even Xlibris — which is part-owned by Random House.
This is not out of snobbery. If a publisher like Farrar Straus & Giroux decides to publish somebody’s manuscript, they assume the costs of printing and publicity. They are betting on that manuscript and putting their money up accordingly. In all the other cases, it is the author who is putting up the money and betting on himself or herself and his or her work. It is the fact that someone besides the author is willing to assume the risk of publishing that makes all the difference. After all, it’s hard enough to decide which books to review as it is. I believe that something like 175,000 books are being published by trade publishers annually now. The Inquirer reviews about 500 of them. In other words, most don’t make the cut.
There’s an opportunity here, though. With all the bloggers out there, maybe some people could start looking at these other books and reviewing them online. It’s a pretty safe bet that among all those other books are some — maybe a lot — worth reading. After all, there have been some pretty good self-published books. Leaves of Grass, for instance. All of William Blake’s books.
Here are links to Steven Sills’s books:
American Papyrus http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/4545
Corpus of a Siam Mosquito http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/5176
Tokyo to Tijuana: Gabriele Departing America http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/12733

16 comments:

  1. The policy is the same at the Chicago Sun-Times, which I review for in addition to the Inquirer.

    I don't know of any major newspaper that does any differently.

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  2. Frank,

    POD is a technology and does not necessarily mean a book is self-published. A lot of small presses are using POD technology to lower costs. Yeah, some of these small publishers are simply vanity houses in disguise, but not. Btw. You recently published a glowing review for Secret Dead Man whose publisher relies exclusively on POD technology (but is still extremely selective on what they publish).

    Dave Zeltserman

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  3. Once again, we discover that I am not omniscient. The book mentioned seemed well worth reviewing, so it doesn't bother me that it got through the semi-permeable membrane that passes for my mind. The question, I guess, is how does one differentiate those worth taking a look at from those that aren't?

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  4. Frank,

    I think you have to look at the publisher as opposed to the technology the publisher uses. Yes, there are "fake" publishers that use POD technology (fake in that it is really a group of authors self-publishing their own work) but there are also legitimate and extremely selective publishers using POD technology. Point Blank Press, which published Secret Dead Men (and also published my own first novel FAST LANE, which has received rave reviews from those willing to look at it, including making several of Poison Pen Bookstore's Best of 2004 lists) is one of those extremely selective publishers, who along with publishing a few first-time authors also publishing crime fiction heavyweights like James sallis, Ed Gorman, Gary Phillips, Bill Pronzini, etc.)

    I don't know what the solution is, but it would be a shame for newspaper reviewers to ignore books from legitimate publishers like Point Blank Press just because of the technology that they're using.

    Dave Zeltserman
    (if interested you can see more of Point Blank's lineup and comments their books have received at http://www.pointblankpress.com)

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  5. Frank,

    Btw. If you'd like more thoughts of mine on this subject (one that's near and dear to my heart), feel free to contact me at davezelt@comcast.net

    Dave Zeltserman

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  6. As a longtime newspaperman and a writer who, after making more than 120 queries with both agents and publishers, has not been able to get his debut novel anywhere close to being published, I still think that "the old way" of getting published is the way to go, for all of the reasons mentioned by Mr. Wilson -- and more. This is a complicated matter full of many nuanced ways of getting published, but I still think that the agent/publisher willing to put their money and time on line to get the book looked at, edited (not so well these days, I will admit), printed, published, and distributed is a strong positive judgment on the novel. New technologies and changing tastes may alter this, but not just yet.

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  7. Willis:

    I couldn't agree with you more. But the issue I raised earlier wasn't about published vs. self-published, it was whether publishers who use POD technology should be ignored by reviewers. How big does a publisher have to be or how much of an investment do they need to make in a book before the book shouldbe deemed reviewable?

    Dave Zeltserman

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  8. Having been, in my misspent life as a newspaperman, a book review editor (BRE) myself for several years, I believe I can honestly say that for most in the BRE consistory, size does not matter. Or at least not exclusively. BREs depend upon publishers to do a lot of the filtering for them -- an inefficient process, but there you are -- and of course BREs are more familiar with the reputation and quality of bigger publishers. But most will go the extra mile to keep an eye out for good books from small presses. The main problem is that the sea is so big and the boat is so small, and getting smaller: Even in large metropolitan dailies, the typical book coverage is down to little more than one page on Sunday. How many reviews can you get in there each week? Plus there are many demands on the limited space. Most BREs, for example, are constantly pressured to focus more on books written by people in their area or state, no matter the probable worth of the books, because, after all, "they are OUR writers."

    The main problem is and nearly always has been the publishers, whether large or small. They do not support the books with advertising or promotion once they decide to publish, except in the case of brand-name or other high-profile authors -- who, of course, do not need it. What other industry do you know will go to great trouble to get their product to the market -- and then let it languish and lie there when it does, making little effort to let the public know about it? Beer? Snack foods? Communications services? Uh-uh. But the average mid-list book (if there even is such an animal anymore)? Sure, let's put it out there and see if it has legs. The publishers have for decades depended upon the "free advertising" of newspaper reviews. That worked, not very well, but a lot better than it does of late or will in the future, as newspaper book coverage, especially in the form of reviews, continues to contract. In 35 years of newspapering I have watched such coverage shrink enormously; just the fact that there are far fewer newspapers (most cities of any appreciable size used to have at least two) contributes to that. The remaining newspapers are making a huge mistake by cutting back book coverage -- I mean, shouldn't they encourage people to READ? -- but it's not the first mistake they've made and it won't be the last. But to get back to the original problem: Maybe if publishers supported the newspapers by advertising their books, maybe the newspapers would see more point in covering them. But if the publishers indicate they don't care, why should the newspapers? It can get to be series of vicious circles.

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  9. My own ideas are that as long as an author has had a book reviewed by a newspaper reviewer of some national stature and his material is of a serious nature that reviewers must then see him and his oeuvre as worthy of being reviewed. With that said, of course qualified reviewers of literary works need to be online

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  10. Hey people, let's keep this thread going and get others involved. This is a very interesting topic that too few people have addressed at all. We hear, again and again, how people aren't reading enough. Actually, I think worries about the decline in reading are exaggerated; for one thing, more and more people are listening -- to audio books, which isn't the same, but isn't so bad, either. At any rate, whether people are reading more or less or about the same, they sure are writing. And that seems to me to be important and deserving of our attention.

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  11. Frank brings up an interesting point... I don't know if people are reading less, but they sure seem to be writing more. The number of books that are published by non-vanity presses is staggering. When you add in all the self-published/vanity stuff, the numbers are extraordinary.

    I get so many books submitted for review that I couldn't read all of them (much less write about them) if there were 10 of me.

    I wrote newspaper reviews of 56 books in 2004 and even that wasn't but a fraction of the books I saw.

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  12. Everybody is always trying to pass costs off on to someone else. It is little different in book publishing. Publishers have largely abrogated the important job of book acquisition to agents. They rarely accept unsolicited manuscripts anymore; they rarely have "slush piles." It costs money to have people to read such stuff. There is no question that they are thereby missing a fair amount of excellent unsolicited material. You might say, "Yes, but that function has been taken over by agents. It has not disappeared, only shifted." Untrue, or certainly mostly incorrect. The structure of agenting drives them more to make money, to cover their costs (and then some) by finding the "right" books that will make a killing, and such books are, by their definition, the sort of books they have seen before that have made a killing. These are books that fit categories, that they "know" they can sell because that is what they have sold before, that is what "publishers are looking for." How do they know that? Publishers aren't looking anymore. They are being told. By agents. It's similar to Hollywood hoping to make a killing with another movie like the one they just made. Don't misunderstand: Agents are important; always have been, always will be. But this is not the way to run a railroad, with the ticket agent in the engineer's seat.

    Sincerely,
    Willis Wayde

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  13. You make an interesting point, Willis, but I don't believe there is a large reservoir of excellent unpublished books out there. It's inevitable that some will fall through the cracks, regardless of the system, but I think that, if a book has quality, it will find a publisher.

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  14. How large the "reservoir of excellent unpublished books" is no one can know, but that there is a reservoir and not just a bucket no one can doubt. Not so wide as the ocean, but deeper than a well, perhaps? Else there would not be the burgeoning phenomenon -- far more noticeable than in earlier decades -- of writers seeking other means than "big" publishers to get published, and the equal-in-reaction phenomenon of other means rising up to answer the demand. The increase in smaller, high-quality, discriminating presses, for instance, is greater than at any time since the 1920s, probably even greater than then, even in percentage terms. These are not all semiliterate wannabe writers being served by dilettante niche literati playing at being publisher. This is proved by the fact that so much celebrated contemporary fiction is coming from smaller publishing houses -- again, in numbers greater than in recent memory. Some of this fiction is even being paid the ultimate compliment in American culture of being made into movies. Greater honor we do not bestow.

    Sincerely,
    Willis Wayde

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  15. But doesn't the rise of small presses and other alternatives to the traditional forms of publishing demonstrate that these books are being published?

    It seems that it is harder than ever for a good MS not to be published -- and, unfortunately, all too easy for crappy ones to see print as well.

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  16. Anonymous10:18 PM

    Here's a very incomplete list of self-publishers:

    Walt Whitman, Mark Twain, William Blake, Henry Adams, Ezra Pound, e. e. cummings, Edgar Allan Poe, James Joyce, D. H. Lawrence, Gertrude Stein, Anais Nin, Carl Sandburg, Stephen Crane, George Bernard Shaw, Thomas Paine, Virginia Woolf, Rudyard Kipling, Thomas Hardy, Henry David Thoreau, Edgar Allen Poe, Benjamin Franklin, Michel de Montaigne, Alexandre Dumas, Derek Walcott, Upton Sinclair, James Fenimore Cooper, W. E. B. DuBois, Edwin Arlington Robinson, and Robert Hayden....

    http://www.fglaysher.com/mission_of%20earthrise_press.html


    "Publishers' role as the gatekeepers of quality has always been dubious... the only thing maintaining publishing's quality-control role is the carefully manicured perception that self-publishing is anathema to aspiring professional authors. Publishing, through its marketing plans and budgets, today effectively controls who sees what book. But the grip of the industry's role of gatekeeper is about to go."

    http://www.fglaysher.com/Post_Gutenberg_Publishing.html

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