It's official. I've become a blogger. My aim is to find as many kitchen sinks about books, authors, publishing and toss 'em in. My initial entry is one born of frustration.
My economic indicators face me five days a week. They are the boxes of fresh new books hauled to me from the mailroom. This year there are more boxes - ‘way more, spilling out on to floor. (Publishers send tons of free books to the media.)
When I started this job maybe 20 years ago, I never thought I would resent the chance to sort through books every day, but now I do.
It takes me a hour on Mondays because of the weekend backlog. Vacations? A few weeks off, and a kind of panic sets in when I get back into the office. I feel like I'm in Charles Foster Kane's basement at Xanadu. Whole days are lost sorting the haul.
A few weeks ago, Chicago Tribune Literary Editor Elizabeth Taylor showed me her "book room." (She gets a room, I get three metal cabinets.) Books were everywhere, overwhelming her shelves, stacked on the floor. We exchanged knowing glances, but said nothing. One of the dirty little secrets of the book editor's job is that it's impossible to get a handle on the volume of volumes that publishers bombard the media with. We have no idea what the hell's out there; we just manage it the best we can. That's getting harder, too as space and budgets are cut.
You see, the other source of my resentment is the inability to get these books properly reviewed. I could put out a 20-page book review section every week if I had the money and still be forced to bypass what looks interesting.
American publishers have gone nuts lately, printing hundreds of thousands of new books, more every year since 2000. Will this economic debacle force them to rein it in, turn off the spigot and use their diminishing income to concentrate on quality?
Look at the stuff that came in to the Post-Gazette this week. "The New Yorker Cartoon Caption Contest Book: The Winners, the Losers and Everybody in Between" (Andrews McNeel, $24.95). The august magazine runs a weekly contest for readers to pick the best joke line to uncaptioned cartoons. Fine, but do we need a book of them?
The New Yorker has been recycling everything it's published since the 1920s, trying to wring every dime out of its archives by assembling dozens of books of old stuff. Note to publishers of these books: Don't send them to me. I don't want them and I don't need them. Fat chance.
"Is It Me or Is Everything Sh..? Insanely Annoying Modern Things: by Steve Low and Alan McArthur with Brendan Hay (Grand Central Publishing, $22.99). The obvious answer is "yes' simply based on the existence of this book. Even though it took three guys to assemble this useless piece of comedic detritus, it still is the ultimate in irrevelance. And the price, c'mon. The thing is a hardcover and there aren't even any pictures.
"The Optimist's Handbook: A Companion to Hope" and "The Pessimist's Handbook: A Companion To Despair" by Niall Edworthy and Petra Cramsie. With names like those, they have to be British and like many of their country's comedians, they delight in useless whimsey. The book's two sided -- quotes on hope and gloom are selected. And their point? I don't know.
That's enough for now, but as this blog goes on, I will be listing my "Bozos of the Week" in published books.
The world's biggest publishing trade show wrapped up this month -- the Frankfurt Book Fair where the focus is more international or at least more European -- than BookExpo America. The news, though, seemed straight out of the city of Oz as the official word was, despite the sagging economy, "the business situation for publishers would remain consistent." That statement means that for the near future, the glut of books will continue.
As reported by Michael Cader, the shrewd and cynical observer of Publishers Lunch, even the number of book agents was up 5 percent. "That's all we can do, keep selling," a source told Cader.
Across the pond and nation in Los Angeles, Times Book Editor David Ulin, still standing after layoffs and space cuts, sees a silver lining in the coming recession. He believes, somewhat Oz-like, that publishers will cut out the crap and produce "serious literature," pointing to the Depression days of the 1930s when even "popular literature got serious."
True, but then Hollywood stepped in and turned America into an Astaire-Rogers musical.
Ulin, a great guy and baseball fan, is a Pollyanna about publishing, I'm afraid. Serious doesn't sell, in hard times or good. As the times get tougher, the books get fluffier and more of it will be churned out, stuff as solid as the bubbles from Lawrence Welk's machine (developed at the William Penn Hotel, apparently.)