Author, are you fortunate enough to have a book in publication? If so, how is book distribution working for you?

The latest hitchnews found itself concerned with the ability of authors to reel in helpful information regarding demographics of book buyers. After some investigation, hitchnews discovered that our two largest book distributors -Ingram and Baker & Taylor – won’t provide any information along these lines, using buyer privacy as a cover. However, one of the lesser stars in the book distribution firmament, Atlas Book Distribution, says they will provide this info – if the book stores report it to them.
It’s my opinion that hitchnews' revelations don’t uncover any nefarious intentions by book distributors, but it does point up by implication the clout distributors have in the book biz.
A case in point: My first published novel came out of a Canadian publishing company that was using the disparity between Canadian and U.S. dollars' worth to undersell domestic publishers. This company used one of the above-mentioned distributors in the U.S. My distributor withheld over a million $$$ from my publisher’s initial U.S. sales in an attempt to ruin said publisher. Of course, it didn’t take long for the publisher to turn belly up.
Privacy concerns are a good thing. But valuable general information, such as sales at given bookstores in certainly available, and providing this info to authors and publishers hardly threatens buyers.
If you’ve had distribution problems along these lines, or in any other manner, I’d like to hear suggestions as to how to resolve them.
More on the Kindle

While spending time in a book booth this week, I had my first opportunity to see the Kindle in action. We were outside, in a brightly sunlit tent, and one of my colleagues was reading from a newly purchased Kindle. Despite ambient glare, the device was easy to read. The type, leading, and “print” size all seemed easy on the eyes – this having been one of my concerns with using such a device.
As we nattered on about the Kindle a recent bit of news came up concerning Amazon’s new device. Or rather, Amazon’s management of its electronic distribution. I first saw this news reported in the L. A. Times, and I won’t go deeply into detail here, but Amazon was actually able to – and in fact did – remove e-sales of Orwell’s “1984” and “Animal Farm” from the Kindles of those who had purchased these literary masterpieces.
While electronic books seems a step into the future – at least to the geekier of us readers – this episode points up the Wild West nature of cutting edge technology. Clearly, there isn’t any obvious law to keep Amazon from grabbing up books beyond their copyright protection and selling them in electronic form. And there’s nothing yet to prevent the ironically Orwellian ability of Amazon to remove books from your Kindle.
Appalachian Authors Guild

I’ve been a member of AAG for a couple of years now. This group’s identity is a simple one: some sort of connection to Appalachia, via the author or the story. As with almost all other similar writer groups, this one struggles to have its work appear in the publishing biz.
The members of AAG that I’ve met are passionate about writing; they work hard at improving their craft, and are pretty darned crafty at pitching their work to the public.
The group has a blog now, and I hope – in the spirit of writerly or readerly networking – that those who partake of the Gridley experience will link with AAG, share ideas, inspirations, and support.

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Amsterdam, by Ian McEwan

I often wonder that people read a book only once. Some will listen to music over and over, often see the same movie multiple times. But not so with books. All this to say this is my third (or fourth – I forget) reading of McEwan’s short novel, Amsterdam. With well-written fiction pieces such as this one, there’s plenty to appreciate through multiple readings.
My take this time through McEwan’s book is that he’s the master (please don’t shudder as I use this term) of the postmodern novel. Oh, he’s not the phrase-turner that several of his contemporaries are, but that’s by choice, I think. He throws in a juicy phrase occasionally, just to prove he can, but his interest in writing lies elsewhere. Maybe a spin through his plot will serve as something of an explanation.
Two old friends, Clive Linley and Vernon Halliday are mirrors – opposing personality poles to one another. Clive is a composer of modern orchestral music (a supposed rival of “that McCartney fellow”), who's having a few middle-aged health challenges. He’s also been commissioned to score an orchestral piece to commemorate the millennium (this book was published in 1999).
Vernon is editor of one of London’s newspapers, The Judge, and is struggling—as have been a couple of his predecessors—to keep the paper afloat. He’s also struggling in other ways: he seems short on the personal skills necessary to maintain friendships through decades of life, and he’s somewhat thin money-wise.
But the two have commonalities, other than their being pals. They both profess a uniquely British liberality, socially and politically. And they’ve both visited the same woman, the beautiful and sexually adventurous Molly Lane.
While Vernon has both feet planted in the pragmatism of modern journalism, Clive is quite the romantic (as in Wordsworth). Vernon's possessed with the idea of undoing conservative Foreign Secretary, Julian Garmony (also a lover of Molly), who's being touted as the next Prime Minister. Clive eschews development and technology as much as is possible these days, opting for rural rambles to shore up his waning composition skills. In fact, on one such stroll, he witnesses a woman being attacked. He abhors this experience, but so as not to interfere with his mental composing he hides and ignores the beating. Meanwhile, Vernon has obtained pictures of Garmony in full transvestite regalia (the pictures, of course having been taken by Molly), and he opts to run the most provocative pic on The Judge’s front page.
The pic backfires, as does Clive’s latest symphony – and Clive's avoidance of the woman’s beating. It’s a beautifully paced story, with an ending a mystery writer would be proud of, and I won’t spoil that moment for future readers. Suffice it to say that Clive and Vernon, who become at odds over the Garmony affair, patch up their friendship during what turns out to be a fateful visit to Amsterdam.
For McEwan, plots, scenic narrative, and historical backdrops are merely a canvas on which to paint the lives of his characters. Here, as in the later Atonement, he looks deeply into human makeup and dredges its spoils, but in a completely believable and somewhat uplifting manner. His characters are Brits, naturally, and their life choices must be dealt with in what seems to this Yank a most stiff-upper-lip fashion. Still, his characters are everyday types in McEwan’s eyes, even while they may be socially glam types.
This is where his understated prose comes in: he wants to humanize, to humble, yet to cinch up without seeming apocalyptic. Were he to use the flowery language of his Irish rivals, and a few of his Yank contemporaries, he’d have had them out on a romantic limb he dare not saw off. McEwan IS an everyman sort of writer, but one who knows how to work both sides of the social fence with equal ease and believability.

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Underground – My Life With SDS And The Weathermen, by Mark Rudd

Reading memoirs with an eye to technique and wordplay is almost always counterproductive. Such personal views of life and history are written to place the writer’s presence and activities into context with the grander social drama about them. With Rudd, both his presence and the grander social drama surrounding him are the stuff of some of modern history's more pivotal moments.
To synopsize this history: SDS, or Students for a Democratic Society, was founded in the early ‘sixties and based on a moralizing student position paper called the Port Huron Statement, which was largely concerned with racism and the Vietnam War, both seen as manifestations of embedded social inequality.
With the war dragging on and becoming more visible via the media each day, students began to link up organizationally with outside antiwar groups. Sit-ins and demonstrations sprang up at university campuses, including Rudd’s at Columbia.
These groups had remarkable success in drawing worldwide attention to various racial policies, research practices, and look-the-other way attitudes of university boards in the U.S. As a result, students began to shut down universities worldwide in protest of a host of economic practices coalesced about the Vietnam War.
Then things began to unwind for SDS. It broke into feuding factions, all seemingly trying to one-up the others in their devotion to radicalized New Left politics and an equally radicalized world order. Many turned to symbolic displays of violence, then went underground to avoid jail and to perpetuate their self-styled revolution.
This, then, is Rudd’s canvas. He cast his lot with a radical group, The Weathermen, which sought to spark a nationwide political revolt against what they saw as institutionalized social inequality enforced by governmental violence. Rudd, by admission, was not of such a combative mind. As a result, he quickly disappeared underground, married, had children, and finally—after seven underground years—resurfaced in order to live in the open.
Rudd’s account depicts his fellow student activists (organizers, as he terms them) as highly idealistic with effective organizing skills. Their postures, however, seemed more nearly trained on what they were against than on what should replace the world’s ills.
In Rudd's view, SDS and its offshoots became too caught up in individualistic expressions, these ultimately fracturing the unified front the New Left put up in opposition to the Vietnam war and social injustice.
From my own forty-years-later viewpoint, Rudd and his compatriots, despite their radical ideas, were too emotionally tied to the U.S.’s tendency to “rugged individualism,” preventing them from maintaining the unified front necessary to push such social change to fruition.
This personal/social schizophrenia showed up in many ways: One radical, who robbed banks and killed police to finance a revolutionary agenda, subsequently helped fellow prisoners obtain GEDs and provided them with AIDS counseling. After surfacing, Rudd taught in a western community college, where he led a successful revamping of curricula and teaching methods to facilitate learning. During this time, he successfully organized and founded a helpful teacher’s union, even as he urged students to voice critical views of U.S. society.
But a word about the writing: As I wrote at the beginning of this post, evaluating such memoirs technically is foolish; still, Rudd’s displays better wordcraft than most, especially with regard to temporality. I’m fascinated in my own writing, as well as with books such as Rudd’s, at the manner in which temporality occurs, i.e., in how time is orchestrated.
In Underground, time seems almost to stand still during the SDS siege of Columbia University. Rudd dwells on events in great detail at this point, pushing the reader along moment by moment. This reader wanted to stride across events, but Rudd insists on restraining the reader in each moment, forcing one to look around, to live it as he did. Later, during his years underground, and particularly as he sums up his post-resurfacing era, time races along, taking months and years in great bounds. It’s impossible to tell whether Rudd consciously orchestrated things in this way, but it’s been done to great effect.
What might one take from this book in a historical sense? The 'sixties have been written to death – some of the best writing by Todd Gitlin, Jules Witcover, and Paul Berman. The unique thing about Rudd's book is that it focuses on the personal – Rudd's own idealism, his conflicts with the U.S.'s often glaring imperfections, how one might change them – wholesale or piecemeal – or how one might live within a society of such blemishes while its evolution moves slowly, inexorably forward.

Snow Mountain Passage – A Novel of the Donner Party, by James D. Houston

When one decides to take on an historical fiction writing project, where does one start? In an era in which agents and editors are hyper-conscious of the need for unique stories – or unusual slants on old stories – this question is important.
Since I’ve nudged my writing toward non-fiction and historical fiction, I’ve taken on more non-fiction reading. This book of Houston’s has taught me a few important things about that genre, perhaps the most important being: Who should be narrating a fairly well known story (told in a new way)?
In the early ‘seventies, George Keithley wrote a long epic poem about Houston’s subject here, the U.S.’s only documented case of cannibalism, The Donner Party. In Keithley’s amazing work, he allowed George Donner, leader of a group of emigrants traveling from Illinois to California in the 1840s, to narrate his tale.
His story is told well enough: The conflict between Jim Reed, a prominent member of the party, and a hateful German named Keseberg. Reed’s forcing a decision on the party to take a southerly path through the Sierra Nevada Mountains, and across a deadly stretch of desert. Reed’s killing a member of the party who had attacked him. Reed’s expulsion from the party. The party being stranded in the mountains and nearly starving.
Houston astutely seized on Reed’s persona to tell half of his version of the tale. The wisdom in focusing on Reed was to follow him, after his expulsion, into California. This allowed Houston to grant readers an historical passage through California’s evolution from a Spanish colony, to a quasi-colony of Mexico, to a California toying with the idea of an independent nation, to the influx of easterners, and then a war between Mexico/California and U.S. militias – – all of this just prior to the California Gold Rush. Rather than take a predictable path through the Donner experience, he pushed those fated emigrants to the background to give us little known California history.
In structuring his story, however, Houston didn’t forget the unfortunates Reed left behind. He alternated present tense, third person passages that followed Jim Reed’s adventures with past tense, first person passages by one of Reed’s children, Patty Reed, who stayed with the emigrants. In this way, he provided both stories in one coherent novel, but set them apart grammatically—and dramatically. Writers, take heed: this is the sort of decision-making that gets one published.
Houston’s work here isn’t flawless, but it reaches as high as it aspires – to provide unusual twists on history in an elegant narrative that, for the most part, does his clever story structure justice. My only complaints are twofold: his dialogue often seems trite and non-dramatic – hardly as skilled as his narrative. Second, Patty’s narrative is done in a slightly inconsistent voice. But this is writerly nit-picking that won’t deter future readers from enjoying a well-told story.
A footnote: I’m always second-guessing my own work, particularly when I read something structured similarly. Having recently finished writing my tale of WWII’s eastern front, largely from the point of view of a German Stuka pilot, Houston’s structure provided a fine lesson in split viewpoints that, from a reader’s perspective worked well. Happily, my story proved eerily parallel, with a twist: the German viewpoint in third person, past tense, and snippets of the Soviet viewpoint in third person, present tense. All this sandwiched between marginal viewpoints of the U.S. and British Air Forces. As a writer, I often fear I don’t see the forest for the trees. So it’s always great to reassure oneself regarding decisions made by reading a well done, successful novel.

Blindness, by José Saramago

I like this book.
Saramago, a Portuguese writer, knows what most of us writers don’t – how to tell a story, mostly in narrative, and to dole his suspense out over nearly every page, leaving no arid spots for the reader to skip over.
I’ll have to admit, though, that his narrative turned me off initially. His style—or as it has been translated (more on that later)—is difficult, to say the least. He eschews punctuation, particularly quotation marks and the usual placement of periods. In a given scene, his characters’ dialogue runs together, in a paragraph, even within a sentence. He changes from past tense to present, from declarative to subjunctive moods within these often-page long passages. But it’s done consistently, and eventually I fell into his way of writing. And stayed there with something approximating ease.
Blindness’ story is one of the most compelling I've read in years, perhaps better than J.M. Coetzee’s Waiting For The Barbarians. A man driving an urban street suddenly goes blind. His wife takes him to an eye doctor, who finds nothing wrong with his sight. Soon, everyone coming in contact with the first man goes blind, and the “contagion” spreads. Government officials attempt to contain the blindness by jailing those going blind.
And at this stage Saramago’s point in writing such a tale becomes evident. Without the visual sense, his cloistered people must learn to cope, both individually and as a group. The manner in which they go about such attempts becomes spellbinding as we learn more about them, their weaknesses, strengths, and personal histories. Saramago could hardly tell the tale in intimate fashion without some sighted person, and he allows one to retain sight, this seemingly fortuitous turn becoming a curse to the sole, female narrator.
Saramago has been termed a pessimist, but this story ends relatively well, without the nihilism Cormac McCarthy leaves his readers with at story’s end. But his perception of humanity isn’t Pollyanna stuff. He allows them to nurture every degree of depravity, including a spiritual void that seems only resolvable by death. That few of his characters survive does leave one with a bitter taste regarding what lies beneath civilization’s thin veneer, and that’s clearly where his human vision melds with that of Coetzee and McCarthy.
Blindness has, according to the book credits, been translated multiple times: by Giovanni Pontiero, who died during translation, by Margaret Jull Costa, who finished Pontiero’s work, and by Juan Sager. To my rather linguistically uneducated mind, these translators stayed extremely close to the characteristic tone of Romance languages while leaving the reader with a fluid, expressive English version of Saramago’s odd narrative style.
The book has been made into a movie, no small feat for such a narrative-obsessed piece of writing, crimped by character blindness. And here I have to say something more about Saramago’s style.
The normal convention of quotation marks, periods terminating sentences ending with a person’s dialogue or with the end of a thought, has its purpose. Such punctuation serves as silent stage directions to assist the reader. Today, many editors and critics refer to “reader’s comfort” or to “reader expectations” regarding style as something of a pejorative. Perhaps that’s appropriate. But writers as stylistically capable as Saramago come along once in a lifetime; such experimentation may eventually force new conventions, but in the hands of lesser writers, it can stand between writer and reader and/or attempt to conceal a writer’s literary shortcomings.
That I fail to hold Saramago liable for such sins is hardly faint praise.