And Now I Wish I Could Make This A Real Thing

So Rose Lerner recently noticed that Booklikes had substituted a scholarly book cover in place of the proper cover for Cecilia Grant's A Woman Entangled. But Rose is gifted with a sense of fun in addition to her keen observational eye, and she quickly had put together a series of faux-scholarly romance covers. They are delightful!

And now everyone's getting in on the game. Isobel Carr has a roundup post, but here is my own hasty contribution.

Screen Shot 2013-11-14 at 1.14.20 PM

Because what form would a Greek robot romance take, if not that of the marvelous Loeb Classical Library?

How Do You Read a Clinch Cover?

Recently the glorious Sequential Crush posted a link to Scott Edelman's thoughtful reflection on the differences between romance comics covers and romance novel covers. He points out that he's never noticed this variation before -- that makes two of us, to my chagrin -- and then he says something about clinch covers that surprised me:

They depict (or seem to anyway, since we have no idea what the characters are really thinking) people in love. And more than just in love, happy in that love. What you’re seeing is the aspirational goal of a romance—its, yes, “happily ever after” loving conclusion.

And I realized there is another disconnect here: Scott Edelman assumes that a clinch cover depicts the happily ever after.

Cover for Sandra Hill's Frankly, My Dear. A tan-skinned shirtless man with dark hair holds a tan-skinned, dark-haired woman in a yellow historical gown. Red background. The cover pose references the famous movie poster for Gone with the Wind.It has never occurred to me that clinch covers were meant to be happy. Angsty, of course -- impassioned, sure. But happy? Never. For one thing, as Smart Bitches loves to point out, there is a distinct tendency for the couple to look constipated. Or sleepy. But I always interpreted the clinch as the moment where the hero and heroine have recognized that Doin' It Is A Bad Idea, but have decided that We Just Can't Help Ourselves. (Leaving aside questions of ravishment and forced seduction, which were definitely operating in many an Old Skool clinch cover. I'm looking at you, Kathleen Woodiwiss -- though most of your clinches were stamp-sized mini-clinches glued on top of a misty landscape, for some reason.) Clinch cover from Victoria Alexander's The Emperor's New Clothes. A pale-skinned blond man with a blue neckerchief half-wears a lighter blue button-up shirt while standing hip-deep in a pool of water. His arm is wound around the waist of a pale-skinned, red-haired woman in a damp white chemise with her hand on her hip, looking tempestuous. This view of the clinch might explain the Mysterious Wind, which will often be tugging the hero and heroine's flowing locks in opposite directions at the same time. They're caught, you see, in a literal storm of passion -- they lean toward each other even as the wind swirls around, about to tear them apart. The clinch is danger -- the love is under threat -- separation and destruction are looming.

Then again, this is all my own interpretation. I went through my collection, looking for clinch covers that showed scenes from the actual text, and came up empty-handed. (Curse my tendency to cull my shelves every other year!) The closest was the Victoria Alexander cover above, which is from a book I found recently at a library sale and haven't had a chance to actually read yet. But judging from the title and the synopsis on the back (mistaken identities, actresses in the Wild West, and untrustworthy ladeez), I'm going to go out on a limb and say that the scene on the cover is almost certainly not the happy ever after.

I don't have a conclusion here. I'm just kind of fascinated. Thoughts, o Reader?


How NOT to Promote Your Book

Scene: an independent bookstore, less than a week before E. L. James will be arriving to sign books. Phone rings. I answer. The following dialogue is as accurate in quotation as my stunned memory would allow. ME: Bookstore -- this is Olivia -- how may I help you?

CALLER: I have a question about getting a ticket for the E. L. James signing.

ME: Oh, I'm sorry, we're all sold out.

CALLER: I have a secondary question.

ME: Fire away.

CALLER: I'm a photographer with a book out. It's about women and beauty and self-esteem and has been carried by the University Book Store. I would like to attend the E. L. James event and hand out my business card to people in the signing line.

ME: ... No.


ME: I would strongly encourage you not to do that.

CALLER: Why not?

ME: Really? Well, because it's inappropriate. The people in the signing line are here for E. L. James, not because they have issues with their bodies or their self-esteem.

CALLER: But I'm trying to help people!

ME: I can't consent to your help on behalf of my customers.

CALLER: But I'm watching Katie Couric right now ... I miss the next few sentences, wondering what on earth Katie Couric has to do with this. Though it's clear she really believes she's doing something important.

ME: Again, I would caution you against this.

CALLER: Are you going to have me arrested?

ME: What? No!

CALLER: So it's not illegal, then.

ME: ... Can I take your name down, please?

CALLER: Only if you agree that I can hand out my business card.

ME: Well, it looks like we're stuck. Thanks for calling, and have a wonderful afternoon.

Exeunt omnes, pursued by a bear.

Stop The Presses: Tired Writer Cannot Write

Okay, so it's been two weeks now that I've been working full-time at the bookstore. Nights and weekends. It's fun, I get to look at pretty books all day and alphabetize -- I am one of those nerdy types who finds alphabetizing a soothing and engaging activity -- and help customers find books as best I can. Even the foot-killing four-hour register shifts haven't really dampened my enthusiasm. Except...

I haven't been able to write since I started.

It's not a question of inspiration. I still have all my ideas, I'm still doing research, still fine-tuning outlines. The stories are somewhere, waiting. But every time I sit in front of the keyboard, all I can think, over and over, like the phonograph inside my head is stuck on this one groove, is this:

I'm so tired.

I'll try to push through -- I know that voice can be made to go away -- but every time I put down a sentence I know it is wrong. Know, deep down in my bones, that there is no life in it. Everything feels so absurdly shallow, suddenly -- not in terms of subject matter, but in terms of my own engagement. And a writer disengaged from what she's writing is not going to write anything worth reading. Especially not in romance.

And it hurts, because I like to think of myself as disciplined, as determined, as a writer who works and does not wait for inspiration to strike. I've gotten stuck before -- who hasn't? -- but when one story is stuck another one is sure to be working, so I bounce from one to the other until the first one unsticks itself, like they always do.

This is the first time I can ever remember where nothing is working.

And it feels as though I have failed on some profound moral level. Chuck Wendig, penmonkey patron saint, would certainly disapprove. But it seems, to my shame, that I am somehow fundamentally incapable of working full-time and also doing anything substantive in the wordsmithery.

I tell myself to just get on with it. But the listening half of me has that same gut-level revulsion as when your coach in the sport of your choice looks at your broken ankle and tells you to walk it off.

Other writers do this. They do this all the time. 

What on earth is wrong with me?

In comments: please leave sympathy, tips, and any good jokes you may have heard lately. Bonus points if they involve terrible puns. You see what I've been reduced to.

Here's How a Trilogy Can Outsell a Septology on Amazon (and What it Means for Your Weekend)

Word came via The Mary Sue that, on Amazon, Susanne Collins' Hunger Games trilogy has outsold Harry Potter both in print and digital. The article raises the question: how is it that a young trilogy can outsell a seven-book series with a devoted generational global following? The answer that occurred to me, and to numerous commenters on the original piece: bookstores, and how there's still more to the bookselling world than just Amazon's dominance.

I was an early adopter of Harry Potter, having discovered the first one when it was brand-new in one of those eyes-meet-across-a-crowded-room scenarios that normally only occur in 50s romance films and Frank Sinatra songs. I was literally across the room, and my eye snagged on that famous purple cover, and a jolt of electricity went through me. I knew I was going to love that book even before I picked it up and read the cover blurb. By the time the third one came out, I was dragging my friends to midnight release parties, standing in huge lines of kids our age and younger with lightning bolt temporary tattoos on our foreheads.

Later, I attended events at small, dedicated bookstores like Walla Walla's Book & Game and worked huge release events for the sixth and seventh books at the marvelous Third Place Books. Those midnight release parties -- they're common enough now, but I can't emphasize enough how revolutionary they felt at the time. Reading is often depicted as a solitary pursuit, an escape from other people, the consoling hobby of lonely kids and adults isolated by any number of factors (temperament, geography, what-have-you). Midnight release parties were where the non-literary book world showed up en masse: it's where we looked around and recognized ourselves in others on a vast, unprecedented scale.

And if you'll pardon me some adult language, those book events sold a metric fuckton of books over the course of an entire decade.

It's not surprising that The Hunger Games and its sequels have sold plenty of copies: they've got a gripping story, compelling emotional resonance, cross-generational appeal, and the kind of kickass female protagonist I would have Quarter Quelled somebody for in high school. They've also been released at a time when digital reading is at an all-time high-water mark. The same is not true of Harry Potter, whose digital release was significantly delayed (though exquisitely managed -- I approve full-voicedly Pottermore's avoidance of DRM).

But popular as they are, the Hunger Games have not (or not yet) performed the kind of literary and cultural sea change that Harry Potter did. It seems like a safe bet to say that Susanne Collins' success is very indebted to the culture of reading nurtured by J. K. Rowling. And nurture it she has -- through charity work, interviews, fan events, and numerous other avenues designed to engage kids with a culture of reading, not just her own series and its brand.

The way that this news about sales rank is being framed -- HUNGER GAMES NOW OFFICIALLY THE BEST BOOKS, as indicated by lots of headlines that use the word 'surpass' -- illustrates the trouble with assuming that Amazon rankings and sales data represent the whole of the book industry or reading culture. I'd argue that most Harry Potter books are not sold via Amazon -- they were picked up in print bookstores, or in airports, or grocery stores, or Walmart. I know I've picked up paperback copies of Harry Potter books in Seattle, Chicago, San Francisco, and Helsinki. Those sales do not, cannot factor into Amazon's numbers. (This aside from the fact that Amazon's data on sales can only be verified by Amazon, and not by chain or independent retailers or publishers -- a sinister point that seems to get glossed over quite a bit in print-digital conversations.) And while Amazon's promise to ship you a new release on the official day is convenient and customer-friendly, it doesn't bring the giddy elation of witnessing two hunded black-clad wannabe witches and wizards waving wands and cheering at the top of their lungs because you've just sliced open the first red-taped box of Book Seven with your trusty Exact-o knife.

So, though I'm as guilty as any author of checking my Amazon sales rank like a gerbil going back for a food pellet, it bears repeating: Sales are not substance. Amazon is great at getting books into people's hands -- I've yet to be convinced that they're great at getting books to change people's lives.

Library-Inspired Business Cards

We here at Olivia Waite are terrible at office jobs, but love a well-made business card. In the past we have gone with elegant black text on a matte white background because it stands out in the sea of glossy cover images and author photos (and also because it is cheap). But since we're going to the Romantic Times convention in Chicago in a few weeks—all the cool kids are doing it—we decided it was time to step up and get ourselves something fancy. Behold!

These are masterpieces in miniature, tactile and luxurious. The design and letterpress printing (letterpress! I swoon!) were accomplished by the marvelous Boxcar Press, who were an absolute delight to work with.

And yeah, I'm a digital author, but I grew up loving print books and moveable type and the Book of Kells and old book smell and libraries with narrow aisles and all those bibliophilic things that are comfort food for the soul. I've illuminated manuscripts before just for fun. I still get fizzy with delight when someone sends me a letter in the mail, too. The prophets of doom (cough cough Konrath) would have us believe that print is dead, or very nearly so.

They can have print books when they pry them from my cold, dead hands.

Make Yourself A Victorian Doll

We here at Olivia Waite have a long history with paper dolls—not merely the basic kid kind, but the fancy and detailed presidential kind you can buy at the Smithsonian. Jane Austen paper dolls. 1920s flapper paper dolls. We had sharp scissors and infinite patience for fiddly tabs and zigzag edges. But the magic of the internet provides instant gratification, infinite customization, and increased safety for our scissor-scarred thumbs. So it is with great delight that we point you toward today's discovery: The Victorian Doll creation page on Doll Divine.

Here is my first try, which is pretty much me in Victorian gear—note that I am something of a bluestocking:

Here I am with blue stockings:

Here I am as a vampire:

And as an adventuress:

Leave your own creations in the comments, or on my Facebook wall!

Always Be Closing: A Farewell To Borders

We here at Olivia Waite never worked at Borders—but we worked with plenty of other booksellers who had Borders on their résumés. And we still nourish perpetual gratitude for that time in high school when we found that Borders was the only game in town—even in bookish, nerdy Seattle—that had the complete Discworld series still in print on a regular basis. (Back before they started reprinting them, Pratchett paperbacks were hunted down like rare treasure in all manner of used bookstores by incredible nerds like me.) Any time any bookstore closes, readers and authors and booksellers mourn. On the one hand, the book business is a business, and the invisible hand of the market must do whatever it is the invisible hand of the market does. (Giving the middle class the invisible middle finger?) But while it's true that many of us are doing our best (writing, marketing, networking) to sell books and make a living at it, nobody comes into the book business thinking solely of profit. Except Jeff Bezos, maybe—but that's whole other can of blog-worthy worms.

Rachel Syme at NPR's Monkey See blog has a very illuminating post on how the Borders news is terrible news for the whole publishing industry:

Kathleen Schmidt, a book publicist, provided this perfectly concise explanation on Twitter: "Here is how the Borders closing will impact publishers: Say you have a bestselling author and you usually do a 1st printing of 100K books. Out of that 1st print of 100K, B&N/Amazon would take a large quantity, then Target, maybe Costco/BJs/Walmart, then Borders, then indies. If you're an author with a 1st print of 30K (a lot), you prob don't have price clubs or Target. You have B&N, Amazon, Borders, and indies. Now, take Borders OUT of that 1st print equation. Also consider that B&N is conservative with numbers these days. That 30K turns into 15K."

Read the rest.

I'm a digital author, a huge proponent of independent bookstores, and a lifelong fan of libraries—and I would be the first to tell you that Borders' physical stores have definitely declined in quality since my high school days haunting the stacks. They'd focused heavily on CDs (whoops) and nick-knacks (what?) until the stores came to have this strangely hollow feeling, even though they were ostensibly full of things. Book people are sensitive to the hollowness of a shelf—our own are usually crammed full to bursting and we become attuned to fillable space the way that sharks in the ocean are said to sense even a single drop of blood. A bookstore with empty shelves worries us on a fundamental level.

But Borders was good to the romance community—better than a lot of independents, better than Barnes and Noble—and there are many small towns out there whose only physical book outlet will disappear after this week. The tales of corporate mismanagement are equalled by tales of dedicated retail staff and support staff who organized readings, made connections within the industry, and generally kept up with the good work of spreading stories from one person to another.

Because that's the secret of the book business, the one we rarely talk about because it seems so painfully obvious: books are different than other objects. Books subvert their own thing-ness. Ask Umberto Eco, or Jasper Fforde, or J. K. Rowling. And when Borders disappears, a lot of stories will disappear with it.

You Had Me At "Demon King"

We here at Olivia Waite love illustrated myths—especially when the illustrations are done by the marvelous Vladimir Verano, whom we are honored to count as a friend. And Saturday, June 11, if you're in the Seattle area, you should stop by Elliott Bay Books because Vlad will be on hand signing copies of The Prince, the Demon King, and the Monkey Warrior, a book of illustrated stories from the Ramayana retold for younger audiences.

The cover for an illustrated retelling of the Ramayana aimed at younger audiences.

Vlad is not only a superb artist and a well-read man of letters; he also runs the Espresso Book Machine (code name "Ginger") at Third Place Books.

You can get a sneak peek at the illustrations on Vlad's Flickr page—and if you're far away from Elliott Bay, you can buy the book online from Powell's Books.

Some Reactions to Amazon's New Library Lending Deal

1. I admit, when I first heard that Amazon and OverDrive were collaborating to make Kindle ebooks available through libraries, my very first reaction was to download the Kindle app for iPhone so I could finally check out library books on the go. Free reading on those hour-long bus rides to downtown? Hooray! 2. On the other hand, I've spent about ten years working in/around independent bookstores, and I've seen firsthand how Amazon has progressively chipped away at the rest of the print book industry. If only I had a dollar for every time I helped a customer locate some book they heard about on NPR, but they couldn't remember the title or the author, and they think it was something about history—and when I am able to actually find that title and author and often the actual book in a matter of seconds, they look at the price tag and hand the book back and say, "I'll get it for cheaper on Amazon …"

If I had a dollar, I tell you, for every time that had happened, I still couldn't afford the fancy French jet that Jeff Bezos reportedly uses to get around.

Cover image for The Great International Paper Airplane Book, with a paper jet, paper helicopter, and some other fancy folded paper in the background.

3. On the other other hand, it's nice to feel justified in the opinion that library patron access to books is a largely untapped customer base. Like I've been talking about here on the blog, libraries are vital to what I'm increasingly thinking of as the book ecosystem—they allow discovery without regard to an individual's budget, which ultimately leads to more book sales and a loyal readership.

It's obvious that making all Kindle books available through libraries is going to make a lot more titles available to a lot more people—especially since the technology threshold is much lower, thanks to the Kindle app being free across so many platforms.

And that sneaky little detail, that any notes/highlighting you put in a Kindle library copy will transfer to your own copy should you purchase the book at a later time, is designed to add impetus to the move from library patron to Amazon customer.

4. Back to the other hand—is there a more Orwellian technology name than Whispersync? Josh Hadro spells out a concern worth tracking on Library Journal:

At the very least, I’d like to opt out of this “give Amazon my interests” data program, and I’m hoping once more details emerge that we’ll see such an option.

What that line from Amazon implies is that some amount of data—the annotations linked to the title and an account identifier at the very least—are stored in perpetuity. Anything tied to library patrons stored in perpetuity by a retail operation makes me uncomfortable.

With this and the Elastic Compute Cloud they've lately developed, Amazon is making forays into Google territory, and trying to establish itself as a major Place Of Internet—with the same general heedlessness for privacy concerns. And I trust Amazon even less than I trust Google (or Facebook, for that matter) with my personal information. Library patron records have been such a citadel of the privacy battle for so long that it's hard to see Amazon as anything other than a threat to this ideal.

5. However: this means you could potentially read "Generous Fire" for free! It's due to appear in the Kindle store any day now. Further bulletins as events warrant.

Of Titles and Time

{This is Part 2 in a series on libraries and digital books; Part 1 can be found here; Part 3 will appear tomorrow.} It is a plain fact that people who read more buy more books. And like any other reader, I have a list of favorite authors I discovered at random in the local library stacks—authors such as Terry Pratchett, who I found in battered paperback form in the library back when Borders was the only place Stateside you could find new Discworld novels, which I know because I checked that Borders shelf every week and bought any one I didn't already have, even if I'd already checked it out and read it at the library. And what's more, over time I've bought half that series in hardback and all of it in paper, and I have three copies of Good Omens, and when I worked in bookstores I hand-sold countless copies of Pratchett's works to untold numbers of customers.

And the same goes for Diana Wynne Jones, and for Patricia C. Wrede, and who knows how many other names.

Yet HarperCollins and some other publishers believe that library lending does not lead to a "commercially viable solution." So all the royalties for all those books I bought myself and encouraged others to buy went—where, exactly?

And this is why we have to talk about entitlement again, because decisions like HarperCollins' much-maligned digital checkout implies a certain amount of entitlement on the publisher's behalf: We own these books and we will not let you look at them unless you meet our standards for proper readership. And if I do not meet those standards I will not get to read those books, and this will sting, because many of my favorite romance authors write for Avon (a HarperCollins imprint)—but it will not sting too long because like many others, I have a pile of other books at my elbow just itching to be read, and loved, and recommended. A publisher is no more entitled to my money than a reader is entitled to that publisher's copyrighted content.

Surely I'm not the only one who feels this is a little too close to the pattern of Mutually Assured Destruction? Publishers attempt to increase sales in ways that make things more difficult for readers to read the book, which makes readers of that particular publisher's books more scarce, which makes the publishers even more anxious to increase sales, and so on.

Two people, a white man and a white woman, each holding an open book smashed up against each other's face, so that they cannot see anything else including each other.

Before someone leaps up on a table and yells, "Information wants to be free!", let's make one thing clear: information does not want anything. People want things. And one of the things people want most of all is to participate in the culture or subculture that provides them with meaning, whether that's romance or religion or fantasy fiction. Books and music and movies have a value that is beyond the financial and does not correspond precisely with the dollar value such things may be assigned.

Is it a type of entitlement, that I want people to be able to participate in whatever culture they choose, regardless of their income level?

Here is one person who says yes: Cindy Orr, Overdrive Library Consultant and member of the ALA Presidential Task Force on Equitable Access to Electronic Content:

I would like to add that we need to educate ourselves and act within the arena that exists right now while we plan for, and try to influence the future. That doesn’t mean that we can’t work to revise copyright law, or try to negotiate new models, or change anything else, but it’s fruitless to argue that all works should be available to the public for free regardless of their copyright status.

As we saw yesterday with Leslie Hulce, Cindy Orr's example is an extreme one: that librarians want all books to be available free of charge to the public.

Let me say this again, though it's starting to feel like Broken Record Time: Librarians are not objecting to the purchase price of an ebook. They are not trying to deny the publisher's interest in making a profit. They are merely objecting to the imposition of an artificial expiration date. Especially since the number 26 bears an awfully strong resemblance to a year-long period of two-week check-outs, rather than any reasonable parallel to the number of times a print book will be checked out over the course of its lifespan.

The longevity of a text is not a secondary concern for libraries, because what makes a library a library is that it is an archive. Readers buy books to enjoy, bookstores buy books to resell, and libraries buy books to collect and preserve. Different libraries require different strategies—there's a whole post waiting to be written on the difference between a university library's special collections and your local public library's children's section—but every library to some extent is outside the ebb and flow of time as the rest of the book world sees it (new releases, bestseller lists, this year's award winners).

And I feel very strongly that there must be a connection between the point when I was scouring the library and used bookstores for all the Pratchett I could get my grubby little hands on, and the point when someone decided to bring all those earlier Discworld books back into print. The book world is not a feudal state with the publisher as king and the readers as hapless peons—it is an ecosystem, where every part of it both feeds on an nourishes every other part.

The real problem is not that libraries make books available to the public: the problem is that we do not have reliable data on how library readership affects book sales. And until we do, HarperCollins and other publishers will continue to treat libraries as retailers, and the book world as a whole will suffer.

{More about time, checkout time, and HarperCollins in Part 3 of this series tomorrow.}

On Libraries, Theft, and Entitlement

{Note: this post ran a little long, but I liked where it was going, so I have split it into two parts. Part 1 is here, and Part 2 will be up tomorrow.} Recently, and coincidentally with National Library Week, Our Idol Linda Holmes at NPR's Monkey See blog wrote an excellent piece on how, in all the fuss about ebook versus paper book pricing and sales, public libraries had slipped her mind. So she went in, got a library card, and took home a bunch of books and DVDs, which made her feel like she'd "committed a heist."

It's a telling phrase. Of course, she hadn't stolen anything—she had merely borrowed a few things, and would return them within three weeks or face financial consequences, small though those might be. She was also financially liable for any damage done to the materials in her care—as I was in high school when a teething puppy ate one entire corner of my local library's paperback copy of the Finnish national epic. If she lost any of those books or DVDs, she would have to pay to replace them.

An image of the spines of several hardback books with spine tags identifying them as library books.

Linda Holmes also linked to this recent article by Lynn Neary on the new challenges libraries face in the digital age, which includes another implied connection between library borrowing and lost corporate revenue.

"I think the tension is, at the extreme, we could be making a book available to one national library on a simultaneous access model in perpetuity," says [HarperCollins senior vice president Leslie] Hulse. "And what that would mean is everyone in the country could check out that book for free at any time, and that's not a commercially viable solution."

Which: no. No, "everyone in the country" could not check out that book. For one thing, we don't really have "one national library" in the way this "extreme" example assumes. We have a patchwork of library networks at various levels, which are more or less interwoven with one another—public libraries, school libraries, university libraries, industry libraries, Interlibrary Loan, the WorldCat catalogue, my beloved JSTOR, the Library of Congress, and so on. It means that you can find a copy of To Kill a Mockingbird pretty much immediately, but that obscure book on the philosophical implications of editing in film will take you months to track down, if you can find it at all.

For another thing, since our hypothetical free-to-everyone book is an ebook, there's an initial financial investment in hardware that not everyone will be privileged enough to make—a fancy way of saying that to read ebooks you have to have a computer, or a smartphone, or an ereader, or a tablet device. Maybe everyone in Leslie Hulce's social circle has one or more of those things. But everyone in America certainly does not. To say that making an ebook infinitely lendable is like giving a free copy to every person in the country is a false equivalence.

Specifically, it equates librarians and library patrons to book pirates.

Which brings me to the question of entitlement.

Nothing can get me diving into a comments war faster than someone saying that library patrons and pirates share the same sense of entitlement to free reading material. (Example: this Smart Bitches comment thread.) Books borrowed from a library are not read for free: they are purchased by the library with actual human money, whether the book is print or digital (licenses for digital books are hugely expensive, by the way, so libraries are actually paying more for many digital copies than the consumer does on their own). The actual human money in the library budget comes from actual humans: donors, taxpayers, philanthropists, Benjamin fucking Franklin, and so on. On a fundamental level, libraries work just like any other book retailer: money goes in, books come out.

But the money-goes-in part of the library system happens far away from the books-come-out part—and it is not proportionate as it is in, say, a brick-and-mortar bookstore or even on Amazon, where more money going in directly leads to more books coming out for a specific individual. Therefore it is easy to forget that those processes are connected. So we feel, like Linda Holmes, that we are getting something for free.

It means we as a culture are confused about what libraries do, and therefore it is easy to become confused about what libraries are for.

And that is a conversation we need to change, or we risk losing libraries altogether.

A ruined set of columns yielding to greenery and decay stretches toward a foreboding dark blue sky.

The history of libraries has never been a direct line; you can't go from monastic collections of illuminated works to the Bodleian to Victorian subscription libraries to the New York Public Library and expect the narrative to be clear and straightforward. This makes it nearly impossible to predict the way libraries need to adapt in even the very near future—do you think anyone in 1986 foresaw that libraries would soon be installing banks of computers for public use, or filling requests sent in electronically from locations outside the library's own campus? And yet they did, and they were, and libraries became even stronger for it, I think.

For the record, if the question is, What are libraries for?, I do not have a clear answer. Or rather, I have several answers that do not seem to add up to the One Big Answer we're all looking for. But if the question is, Are libraries necessary? then the answer is a thunderous, resounding, and multivocal YES.

And if we can agree on that, then everything else is just a question of sorting out the details.

{Part 2, which talks a little more about the idea of entitlement in the book world, will be up tomorrow.}

Lost Stories

A recent tweet from Edward Champion (picked up by GalleyCat) brought to light this lovely Wikipedia list of lost works throughout history. It's enough to make any book-lover weep, and swear, and gnash their teeth. Highlights that are particularly close to my heart:

  • The second volume of Aristotle's Poetics. The first volume (which amounts to student notes on one of Aristotle's lectures) deals with the structure of a tragedy, and is where we get all our ideas of catharsis and hubris and in medias res. The lost second volume dealt with comedy; I know some might object to the study of comedy on the theory that explaining a joke makes it less funny. That's like saying that knowing how to fix your car makes your car break more often. Studying comedy means you learn how to make better jokes. I would be interested to learn what Aristotle considered to be a good joke.

A photo of a bust of Aristotle, with a large and curly red mustache drawn on.

  • Augustus' autobiography, De Vita Sua.
  • Two-thirds of Livy's Ab Urbe Condita, a book on the history of Rome that is hugely inaccurate and fascinating and really useful from a critical standpoint and really trashy from a literary standpoint (bonus!).
  • Ovid's Medea, just about the only straight-up tragedy this naughty love poet wrote, and the very first thing he published. Having studied Latin for nearly seven years, I am a huge Ovid fan. If someone told me to cut off my right arm because this lost story would be found on a roll of papyrus in the center of my humerus bone (hee hee … humerus), I would do so quicker than James Franco trapped between two boulders with only a rusty Swiss Army knife and no painkillers.
  • Suetonius' Lives of Famous Whores. Can you think of anything more fun to read than a book about famous whores in ancient Rome? Me neither. Unless it's his Greek Terms of Abuse, also lost.
  • Anything by Sappho. We have two poems, mostly but not entirely complete, and a bunch of random lines like If you are squeamish, don't prod the beach rubble. Here is an awesome thing you can read about Sappho if you really want to see past all the hype.
  • The Gospel of Eve, which sounds delightfully filthy.
  • Shakespeare's Love's Labours Won. Obviously.
  • Mozart and Salieri's jointly composed (!) cantata for voice and piano.
  • Byron's memoirs.

What are your favorites on the list? Anything you'd give an arm for—or even a pinkie?

It's The Little Things

We here at Olivia Waite have been hit with the world's most efficient flu this week. It landed on us with both feverish feet the day our very first book was released (great timing, flu). Initially, we had a whole evening release party planned, with lounging and cocktails and the eating of decadent foods. There was in fact lounging, and there was the slow eating of grapes—but not in the fun way I'd hoped. {Have you checked out the book yet? If not, here is a handy link. The first chapter's free!}

And now, though the symptoms are gone, we are so exhausted that we are only barely able to raise ourselves up from the fainting couch. Actually, it's just a regular couch—but one of the allowances we make for ourselves when sick is that our suddenly limited range of experience gets redefined however we want. It becomes healthy to eat only popsicles for dinner, and the wearing of pants becomes unnecessarily burdensome.

Plus, we get to catch up on all the badass young adult novels we wish had been around when we were an actual young adult.

And when I opened this library book:

The cover for Starcrossed by Elizabeth C. Bunce

I found this tucked in the back:

Rosie the Riveter on magazine paper, tucked in the back of a library book of just the right size.

Thank you, anonymous library patron, for your patient work with scissors! Happy Women's History Month, everyone!

The Death of Books (It's Not What You Think)

We here at Olivia Waite signed on to Twitter this afternoon to find that the shit had severely collided with the metaphorical fan. Of course by now you've heard: HarperCollins has stated they want to restrict libraries from lending a single copy of an ebook more than 26 times. Once that (completely artificial) limit is reached, the library must purchase another digital copy. And to make sure that libraries don't get around that number—with their sneaky, sneaky Dewey decimal skills—the publisher would like access to patron records so they can verify the a particular library does not issue cards willy-nilly to unqualified patrons. There's a lot going on here, and much of it is infuriating. Courtney Milan and the always-excellent Smart Bitches have covered many of the immediate points about privacy and the way libraries foster a culture of reading, which in turn fosters actual book sales for publishers. I highly recommend both those pieces for clarifying precisely why this is such a colossally dumbass move on the part of HarperCollins.

I'm going to talk about a related issue: the question of book death.

A severely damaged book, open, whose pages are rippling and dark with mold and grossness.

The logic behind the HarperCollins move goes like so: physical books wear out and must be replaced by the purchase of another copy. Digital books do not wear out and so are never replaced, so we are losing sales on copies of ebooks purchased by libraries.

Leaving aside the questionable motive of 'losing' future sales where money hasn't yet changed hands, what HarperCollins is trying to do is force an equivalence between a digital book and a physical one. The physical book is considered superior in this case not because of aesthetics or nostalgia, but because it wears out and must be replaced.

But this assumes that the physical nature of print books always works to the publisher's advantage. This is not the case.

Let's talk about pulping.

When a paperback book fails to sell, a bookstore sends it back to the publisher and receives credit toward future purchases. Sometimes they strip the covers and return just that part of the book (mass market paperbacks), sometimes they send it back as is (trade paperbacks), and sometimes the book is marked as a remainder and sold on the cheap (hardbacks and art books and so on). And when the publisher receives these books back, they grind them up and recycle or otherwise dispose of them in a process known as pulping.

How much money do publishers spend on taking returns and sending books to be pulped each year? We don't know for certain (because nobody's talking) but we can be pretty sure it's a rather staggering figure. One site estimates the numbers to be somewhere around 30 to 40 percent of books—but that was two years ago, before the nasty economy really came out swinging.

You know what never needs to be pulped? An ebook, that's what. How much money would publishers save if they restricted print runs in favor of ebooks? (Hey, look at that, some publishers already do! Hi, Ellora's Cave!) How much better would that be from an environmental standpoint? An ebook is the most easily deleted thing in the world. I've done it myself a couple of times without even meaning to!

Giant square stacks of soggy pulped paper.

And ebooks themselves might never wear out—but the hardware they're attached to certainly does. I've bought my digital copy of the album Unforgiving Mistress three times from iTunes, on account of an unfortunate series of hard drive crashes. Ereaders are still a pretty new subset of technology, and we haven't seen what happens when the individual unit starts to break down and decay.

Moving on: HarperCollins (and really, publishing as a whole) tends to treat the easy replication of digital media as a problem. Oh no! It's easy and quick and cheap to copy! The pirates will do it and we'll starve in the streets! This is a reaction based on fear—fear of what's happened to the music industry and the movie industry.

Oh, wait, those industries are still going strong and have not yet collapsed in a puddle of film stock and concert footage? But—but pirates!

(Bonus points if you just giggled to yourself and said, "Butt pirates." You must be a romance author like me. Or you are twelve. Wait, why are you reading this if you are twelve? Go see a Star War.)

What if publishers took the fact that ebooks are easy to copy and really ran with it? Books could stay in print much longer without the issue of what to do with unsold physical copies. Hello, midlist authors! Hello, perpetual backlist! Goodbye, finding an author whose new book you adored but whose older works are impossible to find because they've been out of print almost as soon as they were in print!

What if publishers offered the customer discounted prices for buying ebooks in sets, the way iTunes does with albums? (Some publishers—hi, Harlequin and Carina!—are already doing this. Glory be to the book bundle!)

And the Big Six publishers have spawned so many imprints over the years that rare is the person who can keep track of them all. What about a way for ebook customers to subscribe not to the publisher as a whole, but to particular imprints? The subscription model may be failing for newspapers, but it's doing pretty well for Netflix. And it's been done before in the book industry—hi again, Harlequin!—though not since the rise of digital media. And I can't tell you how fast I would move to subscribe to Avon Romance—or Pantheon Books. [Update: turns out Harlequin sells subscriptions to a few of their series imprints (Presents, Blaze, Silhouette Desire, etc.). Neat!]

And this is just a list I came up with off the top of my head, while waiting for the microwave to finish cooking my pot pie. Surely someone more well-versed in the industry—say, at HarperCollins? I'm assuming they know a lot more about the book industry than a fledgling author?—could come up with a longer, better list if they took a few minutes out of their busy day invading the privacy of library patrons. If not, they can ask around on Twitter. The Tweeps know everything.

Because this idea about punishing libraries for doing what libraries have done since the Greeks began collecting books in Alexandria? That feels like the real death of books.

Artist Books: Taking Off Emily Dickinson's Clothes

Sometimes, we here at Olivia Waite get a bit nostalgic for our graduate school days. We don't miss the overload of impossibly dry reading, the slave labor of our teaching assistantship, or the fact that we seemed to understand Kant less the more we read of him -- but we do miss the library. Especially the special collections part of it.

One semester I took a class on the history of printed texts: we learned how to set type, we went on a field trip to see an actual hand press, and we handled a lot more rare and antique books than we ever thought to see in our lives, much less touch.

We also learned about artist's books. And these are magical things.

My favorite was a book made by Charles Hobson called Taking Off Emily Dickinson's Clothes, whose text was a poem by Billy Collins.

Collins' poem is full of details about buttons and fastenings and the feel of clothing sliding from skin to the floor, so Hobson wanted the book to reflect that sense of revelation. The pages of the book are therefore tied shut with ribbons, or fastened with buttons and loops -- as you read further, you increasingly undress the book. It's an intimate, luxurious physical experience, and I wanted to own this book more than I wanted to own even that bit of the Gutenberg bible that we looked at the same day.

Here is the full text of the poem:

First, her tippet made of tulle, easily lifted off her shoulders and laid on the back of a wooden chair.

And her bonnet, the bow undone with a light forward pull.

Then the long white dress, a more complicated matter with mother-of-pearl buttons down the back, so tiny and numerous that it takes forever before my hands can part the fabric, like a swimmer's dividing water, and slip inside.

You will want to know that she was standing by an open window in an upstairs bedroom, motionless, a little wide-eyed, looking out at the orchard below, the white dress puddled at her feet on the wide-board, hardwood floor.

The complexity of women's undergarments in nineteenth-century America is not to be waved off, and I proceeded like a polar explorer through clips, clasps, and moorings, catches, straps, and whalebone stays, sailing toward the iceberg of her nakedness.

Later, I wrote in a notebook it was like riding a swan into the night, but, of course, I cannot tell you everything - the way she closed her eyes to the orchard, how her hair tumbled free of its pins, how there were sudden dashes whenever we spoke.

What I can tell you is it was terribly quiet in Amherst that Sabbath afternoon, nothing but a carriage passing the house, a fly buzzing in a windowpane.

So I could plainly hear her inhale when I undid the very top hook-and-eye fastener of her corset

and I could hear her sigh when finally it was unloosed, the way some readers sigh when they realize that Hope has feathers, that reason is a plank, that life is a loaded gun that looks right at you with a yellow eye.