Archive for September, 2007

What’s in a name?

I recently heard Bernard Golden, a practicing clinical psychologist, discuss his new book titled Unlock Your Creative Genius, published by Prometheus Books. Dr. Golden had originally wanted to call his book Starting Over, but his publisher told him that sounded too much like a primer for recently divorced persons, and Prometheus gave the book a new and more accurate and salable title.

An aside: It’s interesting that there are words for a divorced man, divorcé, and for a divorced woman, divorcée (both are pronounced the same: di vôr say´), but there’s no nongender-specific word for divorced person. Divorce comes from Latin, but we have plenty of other Latin-based words for which we’ve devised gender-collective terms, collector being one of them. Why do we rely upon French to indicate who is now spouseless? But I digress.

Back in the 1971, just after the turbulent Days of Rage, there were two books that gave bookstore managers fits: Abbie Hoffman’s Steal This Book and William Powell’s The Anarchist Cookbook, a guide to bomb building and other antisocial behavior. You can see the problem with the first one: They disappeared from the shelves in record time without a penny being paid. The second one, in addition to making bookstore buyers and the public in general nervous, had one unanticipated effect: Even though it might have originally been shelved under Counterculture or some similar classification, the book kept ending up in the cookbook section. Imagine the reaction from a gentile suburban matron when she came across The Anarchist Cookbook while searching for just the right gift for her niece who would soon be getting married and setting up a household.

Book Group Online lists a few other “unfortunate” book titles and, in some instances, their authors:
Flashes from the Welsh Pulpit (1889)
Whippings and Lashings, Girl Guides book on knots (1977)
Handbook for the Limbless (1922)
Punishment by Robin Banks
Motor Cycling for Beginners by Geoff Carless

I especially like these examples found at Lori’s Book Nook:
The Social History of the Machine Gun (1975)
1587: A Year of No Significance
Highlights in the History of Concrete (1998)

Sometimes an unexpected title works, as with Leadership Secrets of Attila the Hun (1995) by Wess Roberts, PhD, which was a huge bestseller.

Keep in mind as you decide what to call your book that, in general, you can’t copyright a book title. So if you want to write a book and call it War and Peace, you can do so. I think I’d avoid The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, though, simply because it’s way too specific. It would be a tough sell to stand up in court and defend its use on any book not written by L. Frank Baum. JK

A Muslim, a Christian, and a Jew walk into a library . . .

Suppose Tom Cruise were to be busted for a federal offense and packed off to prison. Now suppose that during his incarceration, Tom decided that he’d like to delve more deeply into Scientology, his avowed religion, and the life of its founder L. Ron Hubbard.

Sorry, Tom. You’re out of luck.

Under a provision of the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Prison’s (BOP) new Standardized Chapel Library Project (SCLP), only “about 150 items for each of 20 religions or religious categories” may now be shelved in any federal detention facility, according to the New York Times. Is Scientology one of the named religions? Nope.

Here are the approved religions, as listed by Justice Fellowship.

• Baha’i
• Buddhist
• Catholic
• Hindu
• Islam
• Jehovah’s Witness
• Judaism
• Messianic
• Mormon
• Native American
• Orthodox
• Pagan
• Protestant
• Rastafarian
• Sikh
• Yoruba
• Miscellaneous Religions

Might Scientology fall under the last entry? How about Zoroastrianism, or Shintoism, or Atheism, or Ethical Culture. Who knows? The bureau won’t say, nor will it release its list of book choices publicly. But it has sent the list to the administrators of its penal institutions. The Times quotes a Muslim inmate at the minimum security Federal Prison Camp in Otisville, New York: “[He] said his chaplain showed up in the chapel library with garbage bags one day last spring and removed ‘hundreds and hundreds’ of volumes. The only thing left on the sole shelf devoted to Islam was a Koran and a few volumes of sayings of the Prophet Muhammad.”

Do other religions fare better? Not Judaism, certainly. Michael Gerson, writing in the Washington Post, says the Otisville Prison saw three-quarters of its Jewish books disappear, “ranging from the Zohar [interpretations of the first five books of the Old Testament: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy] to the works of 12th-century Jewish scholar Moses Maimonides to Rabbi Harold Kushner’s When Bad Things Happen to Good People.” Apparently the BOP considers it too risky to allow inmates to read Maimonides’ maxim, “It is better and more satisfactory to acquit a thousand guilty persons than to put a single innocent one to death,” or his warning against judges who may convict supposed wrongdoers according to “caprice.” Dangerous stuff, that.

Gerson explains that “[f]ew would dispute that prison security and the prevention of terrorism are compelling state interests . . . in the spring of 2004, the inspector general of the Justice Department issued a report warning of radical Islamist influence in American prisons.” Trashing long established library collections is not the answer, however; it’s going after gnats with a shotgun. Gerson quotes David Fathi of the American Civil Liberties Union: “The traditional remedy has been to remove specific books that incite violence. This policy [SCLP] turns that on its head. Anything not on their short, restrictive is prohibited.”

A class action law suit against the bureau has been filed by three Otisville inmates, a Muslim, a Jew, and a Christian; it has had an immediate and curious effect: reactions of outrage from both the religious and political left and the right. Take a look:
Republican Study Committee, a caucus of very conservative Republicans: “We must ensure that in America the federal government is not the undue arbiter of what may or may not be read by our citizens.”
Sojourners, a progressive evangelical Christian group: “Imagine walking into your local library, only to discover that the religion section has been decimated—purged of books even by such prominent theologians as Reinhold Niebuhr and Karl Barth . . That’s exactly what’s happening right now to inmates in federal prisons.”
• Aleph Institute, a Jewish group: “No religious library book that is otherwise acceptable should be removed from the prison library stacks because it surpasses an artificial numerical limitation.”
Atheist Diaries, a blog about the separation of church and state: “It is taking books from prisoners on the slim chance they will help prisons become a recruiting ground for terrorist groups; how long till books are banned from the general public for the same reasons?”
Prison Fellowship, a Christian prisoner and family ministry: “The BOP claims that this policy is the result of Congressional concern about the growth of radical Islam in prisons. [We believe] that this policy is not what Congress intended.”
American Academy of Religion, the world’s largest association of academics who research or teach topics related to religion: “Many AAR members find the Standardized Chapel Library Project highly problematic.”

So who’s making these decisions; who are the arbiters of religious propriety for the 199,485 prisoners currently incarcerated by the Bureau of Prisons? Well . . . it’s kind of hard to find out.

Traci Billingsley, a BOP spokesperson, told Laurie Goodstein of the Times, that the bureau “relied on experts to produce lists of up to 150 book titles . . . The lists will be expanded in October, and there will be occasional updates.” Goodstein added that “the identities of the bureau’s experts have not been made public,” but she was told by the BOP that they include chaplains and scholars in seminaries and at the American Academy of Religion. Academy staff members said their organization had met with prison chaplains in the past but was not consulted on this effort, though it is possible that scholars who are academy members were involved. The AAR denied all of these assertions.

The Post’s Gerson sums it up best: “In today’s American prisons—often places ruled by despair—religion is one of the few sources of hope, offering the assurance of a love stronger than past offenses, the possibility of freedom from hatred and compulsion even within prison walls, the prospect of a fresh start that begins only in the soul. This influence should be praised and accommodated instead of singled out for unreasonable burdens—especially by an administration publicly committed to promoting faith-based answers to social problems.”

If I were Tom Cruise, I’d walk the straight and narrow. Or buy my own copy of Dyanetics. JK

Under the covers

Is it true that people judge (buy) a book by its cover? Marketing directors at major publishing houses would loudly answer, “Yes!” Whether that’s true or not can be debated, but it is definitely true that well designed covers do, indeed, help sell books.

A beautifully designed dust jacket or cover may encourage a shopper to pick up a particular book from among its competitors on a display shelf, but then other factors come into play that help determine whether the book will actually deliver on the cover’s promise and cause the customer to carry his or her selection up to the cash register. Can the author’s name alone close the sale? If the author is not well known, will his or her credentials, as described on the back cover blurb or jacket flap, be convincing? How about other authors’ or celebrities’ quoted recommendations? Is the interior of the book— where the reader will spend many hours, even days—pleasantly and invitingly designed? Is the promotional blurb enticing enough to make the customer want to explore farther? What about the price: too high?

I had a conversation once about this topic with the sales manager of the mass market paperback division of a large trade publisher. He told a story about how the company presented its line of romance novels. At that time covers were even more formulaic than they are today.

There was always—always!—a well endowed and barely dressed damsel in distress in the foreground running away from a large castle or mansion behind her. It was nighttime. The predominant colors were dark, generally shades of blue to black. Within the castle one lighted window appeared. “Only one. We tried it with two. Didn’t sell.”

A lot of work and research goes into cover designs, probably much more than you would imagine. A mass market paperback, and to a lesser extent a hard cover or trade size paperback, is a product, a commodity that depends hugely upon the impulse buyer’s decision to take it from the shelf or rack and buy it. Therefore, compelling packaging is essential.

Like other product manufacturers, publishers test their wares before focus groups. They try eye-catching gimmicks. Sometimes they even recall their first effort, strip off the covers, and rebind the book with a new, more appealing, high concept cover. It’s not that unusual for a paperback publisher to release the same book simultaneously with two or even three or four different covers. Random House was one of the first to try this approach when they marketed their Bantam edition of Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock: one version bound in a bright shocking pink, another in vivid aqua, and a third in brilliant blue. I don’t remember which color sold best. What is important to remember, though, is that the books were so brightly colored that they were easily spotted on buses and trains and among stacks of other books. Every college dormitory in the country was probably home to dozens. When you see so many people carrying the same book, it creates buzz. You want to own a copy, too. Right?

Publishers and the distributors who put their books into bookstores and high traffic racks in drugstores, groceries, and malls have to compete for space. If they can fill rack pockets and shelves with differently designed books, even though they’re all the same inside, they have a better chance of selling more copies. Some ideas that have tested well with focus groups and have been adopted by publishers are embossing (watch a customer pick up a book with an embossed cover and absently rub his or her thumb over the lettering); gold or silver foil-stamped titles; die cutting; and holographic illustrations, although this last method hasn’t yet been perfected to the point that whatever image it portrays is very sharp.

How do you decide which books to pick up when you visit a bookstore? JK

Big language, little language

Languages come in sizes. English is a relatively small language; Spanish is a relatively large language.

Our client for a project several years ago was the Pan American Health Organization, which is part of the World Health Organization, which is part of the United Nations. PAHO wanted us to produce a procedures manual for the warehousing and distribution of medical pharmaceuticals throughout Central America.

Okay, we could do that.

But here was the hook: For some reason, one for which we never got an answer, PAHO required that both the English and the Spanish versions of the manual be exactly the same page length. That’s where a problem arose: Spanish is a bigger language than English, that is, it takes more words, roughly 10 percent more, and thus more space, to express a concept in Spanish than it does in English. Example: This entry is 235 words long in English; in Spanish it’s 256 words.

And our client wanted both versions to have the same total page count. What to do?

We agonized over this dilemma for several days. Finally, the solution came: We printed the Spanish edition in a type size one point smaller than the one we used for the English version, and we slightly reduced the space (leading, or “ledding” in typography parlance) between the lines of type. Result? Both books were easily readable, both were the same length, and everybody was happy.

There’s more than one way to skin el gato. JK

The eye of the beholder

Here’s an interesting take on one of modern literature’s masterpieces as remembered by Cass Canfield in a section headed “Pornography and Censorship” in his memoir Up & Down & Around: A Publisher Recollects the Time of His Life (see also following post):

Lady Chatterley’s Lover, by D.H. Lawrence, was another novel which stirred the waters in the post-World War I period. Opinion on this book was sharply divided, and, of the reviews of it I have seen, a British one that appeared in Field and Stream in 1959 took a most original viewpoint:

“Although written many years ago, Lady Chatterley’s Lover has just been reissued. This fictional account of the day-to-day life of an English gamekeeper is still of considerable interest to outdoor-minded readers as it contains many passages on pheasant raising, the apprehending of poachers, ways to control vermin, and other chores and duties of the professional gamekeeper. Unfortunately, one is obliged to wade through many pages of extraneous material in order to discover and savor these sidelights on the management of a Midlands shooting estate, and in this reviewer’s opinion, this book cannot take the place of J.R. Miller’s Practical Gamekeeping.”

Obviously, some reviewers find what they want to find within the pages they are recommending to their reading audience. JK

Yes, publishers can make mistakes

Why is one author successful in placing his or her book with a traditional royalty publisher while another is not?

It may be that the writer has approached editors or agents who fail to grasp the true value of a manuscript they’re reviewing. Or perhaps the author’s timing is off, and the subject is too new, too controversial, too esoteric or obscure, or too outdated—the author has simply taken so much time preparing the manuscript that it is no longer salable; the trend has passed.

Maybe the author is submitting the manuscript to the wrong kind of publisher. Regardless of how compelling and well crafted a novel might be, for example, there is no point in sending it to a publisher that limits its output to self-help books or military history. Religious book publishers don’t sign computer books, and technical publishers don’t sign spiritual guides.

There’s always the chance, as well, that a publisher, no matter how prestigious or savvy, just doesn’t get it. Like everyone else, publishers often make errors in judgment; it happens every day.

Several years ago, when I worked for Harper & Row Publishers (now HarperCollins), I met the late Cass Canfield, who told a story on himself that might serve as an object lesson to authors trying to place their literary property with a big-time publisher—or any publisher, for that matter. In his memoir Up & Down & Around: A Publisher Recollects the Time of His Life, he expanded on his story and described how he hurriedly passed a manuscript on to a young editorial assistant, just out of college, and asked her to read and evaluate it. He was off to Europe and didn’t have time to review it himself:

George Orwell was another writer whose early career included service as a kitchen boy in a Ritz hotel—this one, the Paris Ritz. He wrote about it in Down and Out in Paris and London, a book which didn’t sell at the time of its publication but contributed to the author’s reputation. Orwell taught me two things: not to put uncritical trust in a reader’s (his assistant) report and to hold fast to a writer whose work you admire. After Down and Out Orwell wrote Animal Farm. The finished manuscript appeared on my desk in New York a couple of days before my departure on vacation and I asked for a quick report. The reader damned the book, taking the view that its fantasy was unconvincing, that Animal Farm fell between two stools; she felt it was not suited either to children or to adults. So we declined the manuscript—and the book has become a classic. The rejection of Animal Farm was disastrous, and this goof taught me to read a manuscript myself when there is the slightest question about its merit. However, occasionally a reading is impossible because the editor must make a publishing decision on the basis of an outline, sometimes on the basis of no more than a title and the author’s name. As bidding for potential big sellers has become more and more frantic, this kind of situation occurs more and more frequently.

Note that Canfield had a reader assigned to him. Most large publishing houses at that time (early 1940s) employed young people whose job it was to plow through the mountain of manuscripts that flowed into the office; they frequently were brand new graduates, more often than not from the Seven Sister colleges*, who were interested in careers in book publishing. The job was an entrée into what they perceived to be New York’s “glamorous world of publishing.” From such a position, often unless marriage beckoned (it was a different time!), a reader might advance to copy editor and eventually on to editor. A problem could arise though, as Canfield learned, when a reader was too inexperienced to recognize genius when it presented itself on the page. JK

* Mt. Holyoke, Vassar, Wellesley, Smith, Radcliffe, Bryn Mawr, Barnard.