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Book Burning and Other Light Topics of Conversation: Amazon.com & Censorship

April 16, 2009

toweringbooksIn the wake of the controversy surrounding Amazon.com’s debacle, in which they first claimed books with “adult” content were being de-ranked, then  called it a computer glitch, then retracted that and called it a cataloguing error, and so forth, I thought we might take a moment to consider the nature of the controversy itself. For those who considered it controversy, the name of the game is censorship. Or should that be Censorship? It is a Very Important Topic, after all.

I don’t mean to make light of the topic, or people’s responses to it—outrage and furor and apathy and acceptance and the entire spectrum of it—so much as I make light of how we display our responses. Censorship tends to evoke negative reactions. But to see how we communicate this in a world enamored with social media does cause in me a mild feeling of alarm and a very strong instinct to brood in a corner with a mug of hot chocolate, a notebook and a pen (a pursuit with which I am quite intimate).

As an active social networker, I witnessed firsthand the Twitter-based #amazonfail. (In Plainspeak, people on Twitter using a tag to identify the subject of their conversations, in this case Amazon.com.) I found it almost surreal to see peoples’ reactions reduced to highly punctuated 140-character bursts of emotion. We need only type a sentence and a protest is sparked.

Perhaps that is a bit hyperbolic.

It is true emotions ran high. That the books targeted—whether accidental or intentional I cannot officially say—were largely gay-themed was responsible for this. Gay rights is a tumultuous topic, but to add censorship to it is extremely problematic. Even a perceived act of censorship against books will have readers alike up in arms against the perceived call to burn the books. I had as strong a reaction as any.

On Twitter.

(I tell myself that responses being Tweeted does not trivialize them, and maybe nowadays I am right).

As a society we are on the whole not comfortable with the idea of censorship of books. Whether we condemn it as naïve, controlling or sadistic, or if we endorse it for whatever reason, we cannot be completely objective or fair. I’m not and never will be—one doesn’t grow up with generally unrestricted access to books without developing an almost motherly protectiveness of that access. But I recognize that the questions censorship sparks are boundless: How does freedom of speech fare against protecting our children? When can the government overrule the people and vice-versa? What are the rights of teachers versus students versus parents? et cetera. These questions are akin to asking what is right and what is wrong or what is good and what is bad. They are largely philosophical, and the only answers are opinions born of individual experience.

I would suggest that no matter where your opinion falls along the spectrum, the controversy stemming from Amazon.com—whether news of it lingers indefinitely or is forgotten next week—is significant at the very least because there was controversy. Thanks to the Internet, we have reached a new level of interconnectedness in our casual conversations. They are  swifter, more brutal, more efficient, and open for the world to see. Anything we find noteworthy spreads like wildfire. The case with Amazon.com and their inconsistent PR only made it easier (and, in all honesty, more tempting) for the public  to become involved.

People are fiercely protective of certain rights, and however the literary and publishing world may be changing, the challenge toward freedom of speech and of access is something no one takes lightly. Contrary to this post's title, book-burning is never a light topic of conversation. But hopefully you see my intent here—to draw attention to the implicit gut reaction you most probably to had to it.

Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “Every burned book enlightens the world.” I would propose that in consideration of recent events to expand his wisdom: that every threat to burn a book enlightens the world.

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The Magic of Digital Storytelling: Children’s Publishers and New Media

April 14, 2009

kidsreadlikewhoaWhen I was in elementary school, I experienced the advent of a life-changing new media as it became widely used by the public for the first time. That phenomenon was the Internet, and at twelve years old I was at an ideal age to become absorbed in this novel method of connecting with the world around me. I was impressed, but believed that this was merely a doorway to the virtual reality full-body immersive video game technology that they swore was just around the corner.

Needless to say, on this front I remain disappointed.

As a fervent book-reader, much of my time spent browsing was on the website of publishers and booksellers, authors and fansites as they sprang up all around me. For the first time there were easily accessible forums to learn about books and authors and connect with other fans. And I loved it.

(A few short anecdotes in no particular order: (a) I was an enthusiastic member of an extremely active website/e-mail fan club for YA author Christopher Pike based on his book The Midnight Club; (b) I played the Animorphs video game on my old-school PC; (c) I browsed the PBS website in search of trivia on my childhood television/book series, like Arthur and The Magic School Bus.)

Digital interconnectedness for today’s twelve-year-olds is as commonplace as any other marvel of the modern world, and today publishers and authors are scrambling to entice the ever-more technologically savvy youth to read an ordinary, paper book.  Especially with the advent of electronic book-reading devices, including the Kindle and Sony E-reader, and the increasing popularity of video and computer games, kids and teens today are coming to expect their entertainment on a digital platform.

Rachel Deahl of Publisher’s Weekly discusses the publishing industry’s response to this trend in her article “The New Storytelling: Multimedia Children's Publishing,”  which examines the multimedia platforms being developed to add multidimensional layers to the book reading experience. In short, books are developed that have several interlinking elements outside of the paper copy, including websites, forums, media content, cards, and even handheld games. Fourth Story Media’s The Amanda Project is one such example. The company, which focuses on new media content, describes The Amanda Project as an “interactive, collaborative mystery series” targeting teen girls. The intrigue of title alone would certainly have grabbed my attention when I was twelve.

But the challenge of any book that seeks to extend itself beyond its traditional form is in maintaining the integrity of the storytelling. Scholastic’s The 39 Clues, a collaborative book project utilizing a card set and website tie-in, marketed itself as a “built-in bestseller” meant to follow the success of Scholastic’s flagship title, the Harry Potter series, but has so far seen little of the media and public attention that its traditional predecessor received. Reviews of the series have been generally positive, though not enthusiastic, and make frequent reference to the “gimmick” behind the books. Such is my personal fear and trepidation about many of these projects—that story will play a secondary role to technological entertainment.

cathysbookRick Joyce of Perseus Book Group, which in 2006 published the highly unique Cathy’s Book, a predecessor of young adult interactive fiction, acknowledges the difficulty of keeping a story focused and characters interesting by asking the essential question: “Do I want to spend time with these characters?”

But publishers and authors alike seem to realize that whether or not they choose to embrace it, the future is already here. While multimedia and multiplatform young adult (and perhaps even adult) fiction are still at an experimental level and do not seem poised to replace the book-reading experience as we know it now, it certainly offers this newest generation a chance to shape for themselves how they choose to consume a story.

Tell us your thoughts on digital content and multimedia in young adult fiction. Intriguing new element to books or publicity stunt that detracts from them?

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Big Bad Bookstore Q&A: BookPeople (Austin, TX)

April 13, 2009

This is the first in a series of interviews the Big Bad Book Blog will conduct with independent booksellers across the country. For our inaugural post, we started with local hero BookPeople, the largest independent bookstore in the state. Marketing Director Alison Kothe Nihlean answered our questions.

What's the hottest genre in your store right now? Any surprise best-sellers?

Kid’s books and general fiction are the two best sections in the store right now.  The “surprise” bestsellers aren’t really surprises to us, because our bestsellers are things that our staff champions and gets behind.  For instance, The Hakawati by Rabih Alameddine was a book we sold better than pretty much any store in the country because we loved it so much, and we have a hard time keeping Craig Johnson books in stock because our staff loves this mystery writer.  We’re very lucky, being an independent bookstore, that we can pretty much sell and promote what we love.

What’s the most successful or creative store event you remember hosting? What do you look for in an author or book when setting up an event?

Our Harry Potter 7 party!  This party was a team event from just about every person at the store, and we were planning it for a good six months.  With the staff in costumes; working with other local businesses like REI, Amy’s Ice Creams, the Austin Symphony; creating games such as real wizard dueling; constructing a Diagon Alley set; showcasing wizard rock bands—it was just spectacular.  Over 5,000 people were in our parking lot with us as we counted down till midnight.  As a true Harry Potter nerd myself, it was just magical.

When I book authors to come to the store, I look at their previous books (if they have them) to see how they were received and how well they sold here at the store.  I also look at the subject matter and see if it’s a good fit for Austin and is topical. There are so many variables into bringing authors to BookPeople—definitely not an exact science!

Do you ever bring self-published books into your store? If so, how often and under what circumstances?

We do carry quite a few self-published books here. We have a consignment agreement with those authors that stipulates how long the books will be here, what the selling arrangement is, etc. We always look through the book first to make sure it is of good quality as well.

What are the benefits of physical distribution when so much is available cheaply on Amazon and other online retailers? Do you see the recent popularity of eBooks or the economic downturn significantly affecting your store?

One thing you can’t get on Amazon.com is a recommendation by someone who really loves talking about books.  You also can’t see author events, have fun at a puppet show, learn about a new book in a subject you’d never read about before, or perhaps see a long lost friend sitting at the café.  Sure, online stores (and big box stores) may sometimes have cheaper deals, but I always look at where my money is going as well.  If I buy online, none of my money is staying in Austin, and, frankly, that’s pretty crappy.  I’d rather pay regular price for something and support a place I love than get $3 off and send my money to a different state altogether.

As far as eBooks go, I don’t see them as “the death of books” or anything like that.  It’s a change in medium, something new and exciting happening in the publishing world, but nothing that will forever change the love people have for holding a solid book in their hands.  BookPeople will soon be able to sell eBooks as well, and we’re excited to offer something for our tech savvy customers out there.  The times man, they are a’changin’.

If you feature staff picks, how are these selected? Does the staff have complete freedom to give face-out placement to any book they like?

Staff picks are all over our store.  We encourage out staff members to write selections for any and every book they are passionate about.  Then, about once a week, our inventory managers rotate out the staff selection cards on the floor (we have so many we can’t display them all at once).  I’d say at any given time we have over 500 staff selection cards out on the floor.

Since BookPeople is such a large store, we love having such a variety of staff selection cards because they help us in suggesting and finding books for customers.  I know little to nothing about the real estate section, for instance, but I’m able to use the staff selection cards there as a guideline when helping someone else in that section.

If all books were sold on a non-returnable basis, how would this affect your buying? What if all books were printed without a retail price so you could set the price as you saw fit?

That would cripple us, as it would most bookstores.  We would not be able to host events, because if they didn’t go well due to unforeseen reasons what would we do with 50 copies of a single book?  We would be hesitant to order unproven titles, so say goodbye to debut authors, books in any of smaller sections, and there would definitely not be any special ordering (something we do dozens of times every day).

What’s the most embarrassing book in your personal collection?

I own (and love) most of the Baby-sitters Club series.  I will never get rid of them.  Ever.

Check out BookPeople's website, blog, and awesome "This Is My Favorite Book 2008" catalog [PDF alert], which collects picks from eleven BookPeople booksellers.

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Big Bad Link Roundup: April 6–10

April 10, 2009

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Have a great weekend and a Happy Easter!

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Adaptation II: Writing Books & Making Movies

April 8, 2009

wildthingsareFor just a moment, let’s take our eyes away from the books and up toward the silver screen (if you will please indulge my cinephoile rhetoric). Films such as Watchmen, Slumdog Millionaire, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, The Dark Knight, Inkheart, Harry Potter and Where the Wild Things Are* share a significant commonality: adaptation from a literary work. (And yes, for the umpteenth time, a comic book is a literary work. Just ask TIME Magazine.) Books have long been the fodder of screenwriters, directors and actors hungry to render favorite stories, bestsellers or classic tales as moving pictures. Nowadays it seems almost a prerequisite for certain genres—YA fiction, graphic novels, popular literary fiction among them—to have highly filmable elements.

My background is in screenplay writing, so it’s no surprise that I approach my writing, both scripts and prose, in much the same way—how to translate my story into a visual blueprint? The process is a delicate and rather complicated one. For those who believe that adaptation is simply a matter of filming the book, page-for-page (or as many complain, page-skip several paragraphs-page), you are gravely mistaken. Adaptation has long been considered as difficult as, if not more difficult than, writing an original screenplay. You are confronted with the rigid limitations of form and length, the expectations of an audience, and trying to reconcile your vision with both the reality of what you can film and what others want to see.

That being said, an author should by no means feel that they are obligated to the adapters of their work. That is the beauty of prose: your own imagination and writing skill are the only true limits to what you can create. The toolset of those who adapt the work varies greatly, but offers a chance to create your story in a totally new arena. While some authors are less than enthused about books-to-films (notably comic writer Alan Moore, who can be somewhat venomous toward adaptations), there are those who love the idea of seeing their story in a different medium that can then reach a different audience, which in turn can create a whole new audience for their book. (For instance, I never read the Harry Potter books until I saw the first film.) Films can even uniquely create a storyline from works of nonfiction, such as the box-office hit Mean Girls, based on Rosalind Wiseman’s Queen Bees and Wannabes.

I bring this topic to your attention as the influx of adapted works continues to inundate the big screen, in hopes of helping authors and viewers alike to understand the complex, sometimes rewarding, and oftentimes terrible trials and tribulations of words-to-pictures. The key in viewing these films is to understand that the word “adaptation” does not mean “re-creation” or “direct translation”; the word itself means to “alter or modify.” And that is exactly what these films do. Most attempt to remain true not to the exact details of the plot and nuances of the prose, but rather to the essential nature of the story. Not that all adaptations do this successfully, but the stickler for an exact rendition of any book is bound to be disappointed. Rather, try to look at the film as an extension or new level of a book—not only will it increase your enjoyment in something that may on the surface seem completely different from your beloved story, but it may give you more insight into the role of those who adapt the work.

A wonderful article that does just this is from Twitchfilm, written by Kurt Halfyard: “Twitch-O-Meter: Adapt That!  Five Grossly Unfaithful Book to Film Adaptations…That Worked.” Check it out, and maybe you’ll see what I mean.

What are your thoughts on adaptations from literary works to film? Give us some examples of your favorites, least favorites, why they worked and why they didn’t.

[* A note: The highly anticipated adaptation by Spike Jonze of Maurice Sendak’s 1963 classic Where the Wild Things Are should provide our best example in the upcoming months. Considering that Jonze was the director of the acclaimed (and highly appropriately-named) Adaptation, we can expect things to be interesting, to say the least.]

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