Favorite Book Columnists & The Slog of Self-Publishing

The other day I was thinking about book columns.  I have always preferred columns to reviews.   And then I was startled to realize I read only two book columns now, “NB” by J.C. at the TLS and “Well Read” by Robert Weibezahl at BookPage.

There must be more than two book columns.  Do you know of any?  We like the personal voice.  When a writer publishes a column, we get to know his or her taste. No pretense of being objective:  columnists are  allowed to speak out.

There are witty columnists, and there are serious columnists.  J.C., the author of NB, falls into the witty category.   In a recent column, one of the items he wrote about was “the George Gissing Book Club.”  He says, “We do our bit for the cause. Most recently (NB, October 20), we listed the works of Gissing available in Italian, mentioning in passing a short novel we admire, Eve’s Ransom (Il riscatto di Eva, in case you’ve forgotten). It is, we suggested, ‘hard to find in English.’”

Then an irate reader wrote a note to him claiming Eve’s Ransom was not hard to find: the Idle Bookshop in Bradford had seven copies.   J.C. pointed out that Bradford is four hours away  by train.   I myself have now ordered a copy of Eve’s Ransom (Dover, 1980) online:  it’s cheaper than Bradford.

Robert Weibesazhl, on the other hand, devotes his literary columns to criticism:   Ursula K. Le Guin’s essays, Russian translations by Pevear and Volokhonsky, and James Wright’s poetry.  He does not write in a personal voice, but I take his criticism as seriously as I do  The New York Times.

Who are your favorite book columnists?  There must be more columnists out there.

THE SLOG OF SELF-PUBLISHING. Poets publish chapbooks.  Self-published memoirists take control of their  lives.  There is always a local writers’ section at bookstores.  One day I was buying a copy of a novel by the Native American writer James Welch when a man briskly entered the bookstore and asked if anyone had bought his self-published book.

He said to me, “You look like someone who would enjoy it.”

“Thank you,” I said, for no reason I can fathom. I hurried out of the store.

I did not fall into that trap with my own book,  Between the Pages:  Reflections on Reading, by Kathleen Adelaide.  (You can find it by typing  in Kathleen Adelaide at Amazon.)  I published it only as a Kindle e-book, because the readers would be family, friends, and a few bloggers.  My husband has given me my first blurb, “A good book to read at the gym.”  And he is now reading Pamela Hansford Johnson, as a result of reading at the gym.

The book is very short, really a pamphlet.  Most of my reviews and essays were published in the 20th century in little magazines and newspapers.  Most of the books are now forgotten or out-of-print.

The  process of self-publishing was difficult for me, a techno-primitive.   How could I upload the manuscript at Kindle Direct Publishing?  I had to convert the document into plain text or epub or something.  I had no idea how to do it. I got it after a couple of hours.  My husband thought I should change the cover.  I found a nicer image, but it took an hour to adjust the pixels.  And now I am far too tired to figure out how to superimpose the title on the cover. The Amazon-generated cover is fine.

The cheapest price for an ebook is now $2.99.  I had thought more in the spirit of alternative papers:  I do wish it were free.  I used to organize readings by novelists at conferences and colleges.  My students would attend for extra credit, but hardly anyone bought the books.

The best thing about publishing my book? I want to reread all these old books I loved. And I recently reread Susan Richards Shreve’s Queen of Hearts, and it is even better than I thought in 1986.  Why is it out-of-print?

Here is an excerpt from my review of Shreve’s novel.

In The Arabian Nights, cunning Scheherazade tells a thousand and one magical tales that divert a bloodthirsty sultan’s murderous intentions.

If the legendary Scheherazade were cast as the heroine of a contemporary novel, she might be a lot like Francesca Woodbine, the pop singer with second sight who stars in Susan Richards Shreve’s enchanting novel.

Francesca is no ordinary pop singer. It takes an artist as intuitive as she to penetrate “the secret lives of ordinary people.” Thwarted composers, teenage Don Juans, would-be snake charmers, and lion tamers range the streets of her seemingly humdrum hometown in the guise of housewives, sexy boys, harmless booksellers, and cat lovers. In her songs, Francesca unveils their hidden passions and crimes.

Let me know about your own experiences in self-publishing.  Isn’t it wonderful that we can all have our own books now for family and friends?

The Future of Self-Publishing: I Double-Dare Ya!

woman on computerSelf-publishing on the internet is undermining publishing, the professional writers say.

Sometimes I think this is nonsense.  Sometimes I think there’s something in it.

In 2010, Garrison Keillor wrote a comical op/ed piece for the New York Times  speculating on the end of book-publishing. He believes that his own child, with her skimming, surfing, and writing on little screens, is hastening the death of publishing.

And that is the future of publishing: 18 million authors in America, each with an average of 14 readers, eight of whom are blood relatives. Average annual earnings: $1.75.

First, let me say I am a friend of the book. A very good friend of the book. I have spent my life reading books.  I also enjoy reading book reviews, book news, and book blogs.

But I recently took a week off from reading blogs, and was disconcerted when I returned to them.  I was dismayed by the poor quality of the writing at most. And I wondered if our bloggers’ mutual admiration society is a shadow world of the book review publishing world (almost certainly), or if it is a populist short cut to coaxing us to accept the second best (possibly).

Bring down the level of education (get people into business, not liberal arts), close down the publishers and newspapers, get everybody hooked on the internet (the giant conspiracy to interrupt our attention span by click-click-click), and people will stay inside and not interfere with the government clap-down on privacy.  There are no doubt grim days indoors ahead with the advent of climate change.

I am not completely sure that isn’t the plot.  Heavens, I read a lot of science fiction.  I read John Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar only last year.

Naturally, I have to stand with the bloggers here, not with the traditional writers.  The newspapers are shutting down.  Some book review publications and many book bloggers are, more or less, holding the line.  Many know the difference between good and bad books.  Joan Chase’s During the Reign of the Queen of Persia?  A classic.  TaraShea Nesbit’s The Wives of Los Alamos?  Mediocre.  Now don’t get me wrong.  I write informally about books here.  I am not reviewing books. But book reviews, even in book review publications, can be scatty.  I’ve decided to read award-winning books and finalists again, because the judges are at least recommending books above a certain line (at least usually).

But shouldn’t I revamp my blog and write more about books?  No. It is a small one-person operation.The book pieces I write here, even though they’re informal, take time.

But it’s wearisome predicting the future of books, isn’t it?  I wonder if Garrison Keillor is as exhausted by it as I am.


Mason's book was originally self-published.

Mason’s book was originally self-published.

An array of slightly too-shiny paperbacks with offbeat covers winks from a back shelf at the local bookstore.  These memoirs, mysteries, family histories, and science fiction novels are by unknown writers…and you have never heard of the publishers.

You know what that means.

The nouveau self-published.

Until a couple of years ago, self-publishing was frowned upon.

Writers who published in traditional venues, whether in the New York Times or the most lacklustre local magazines, tended to despise those who publish their own work.

The rest of us are not snobs, but we know that editors have probably rejected the books before the authors go this route.

And when people give us copies of their self-published novels or poetry chapbooks, we are polite, but do we read them?

Attitudes are changing as new technology, like self-published e-books formatted for free at  Lulu and Smashwords, makes self-publishing almost trendy.

Opus Print on DemandNot long ago, journalists wouldn’t have bothered to report on the self-publishing trend.  But in I recently read a story in The Washington Post about an Open Mike party for self-published authors at Politics and Prose, a Washington bookstore that has printed 9,000 books by self-published authors via an Opus Espresso Print-on-Demand machine.

It’s not just the Washington Post that is softening up.  Michiko Kakutani, a  tough book critic at The New York Times, chose  Alan Sepinwall’s self-published The Revolution Was Televised, a book of TV criticism, as one of her best books of 2012.

In Forbes last August, David Vinjamuri mused about the potential of self-published e-books in the midst of an Old Media publishing slump.  He wrote about breakthrough “indie” novels by Hugh Howey, Amanda Hocking, and John Locke.

But he says self-publishing raises the hackles of major publishers and writers.  He quoted Sue Grafton, who had told LouisvilleKY.com:

“Self-publishing is a short cut and I don’t believe in short cuts when it comes to the arts. I compare self-publishing to a student managing to conquer Five Easy Pieces on the piano and then wondering if s/he’s ready to be booked into Carnegie Hall.”

Yes,  we’ve heard this kind of criticism before.  Last year several well-known journalists said that bloggers, tweeters, members of GoodReads, social media users, and others they perceive as online cranks have wrecked the sovereignty of editors, critics, and writers.

Howard Jacobson’s novel, Zoo Time, centers on the death of publishing.  It’s very funny, and perhaps it’s true.

Bur as long as E. L. James, George R. R. Martin, and R. K. Rowling… writers with initials instead of names…and, oh, yeah, Stephen King…continue writing, publishing will survive.  That is, if the publishers stop and publish a literary book occasionally.

Self-published authors are only a threat to traditional publishers insofar as they are better able to distribute their work than they were, say, 20 years ago.

A self-published science fiction book.

A self-published science fiction book.

Naturally, some self-published writers get respect. Hugh Howey’s science fiction omnibus, Wool,  Amanda Hocking’s Y.A. books, Zachary Mason’s literary novel, The Lost Book of the Odyssey, and Collen Hoover’s romances have been picked up by major publishers.

Yet is this the point?  Do all self-published writers want money and celebrity?

I suppose it would be strange if they didn’t.

But perhaps some are doing it for fun.

Everyone in my family writes.  The older generation have been self-publishing books at Kinko’s for years, and I assure you that none of these books was submitted to a publisher first.  I have at least a dozen of their memoirs, poetry, family histories, genealogy (may I just say here I hated those trips to cemeteries off the interstate?), and The Kinfolk Cookbook, a collection of family recipes ranging from picnic hamburgers to peanut butter chicken (ugh!) to mustard pickles to crumb top rhubarb pie to Never Fail Syrup to soap.

I also have a book, kind of.  I wrote a number of light essays in my freelance days before I burned out and turned to blogging. The copyright reverted to me after three months.

Type them up and publish them in an e-book, my family says.


I described my  life without a car, how I lived in a rain forest of a leaky apartment, and bicycled long distances, even up mountains, on a fat-tired Schwinn.

If I self-publish it, I’ll let you know.

Poets are encouraged to self-publish their chapbooks.

Do you know a lot of poets?

Everyone’s a poet.

So many of my friends have self-published lovely chapbooks, small pamphlet-liked books, folded and stapled, with lovely covers.

Poets get respect.

They read their poems at Open Mike Night.

Some are good, some are bad.

I’ll stick to blogging.