Another reason to sit at your computer

Here comes a great idea from Simon & Schuster as reported by Alexandra Alter in the New York Times on January 11: “…a new website offering online courses from popular health, finance and self-help authors.”

The idea is that since book sales have dropped at S & S, why not squeeze more out of authors who have boffo fan bases and deeply important messages to convey? Like Dr. David B. Agus, who wrote The End of Illness and Tosha Silver, who offers spiritual advice in her book Outrageous Openness. Authors will set their own prices for the online courses, and if it all works out, S & S will release a dozen or more additional courses this year.

And eventually, Ms. Alter tells us, “the online courses, which are planned as stand-alone products rather than supplements to books, could include videos by entertainers and experts who have not yet published books.”

In other words, unless I misunderstand this completely, S & S is simply going into the online course business. Or heading in that direction, anyway. It’s easy to imagine an expert in, say, hair styling doing a video about hair styling. Or a gardener demonstrating something gardenish.

But what kind of course is an entertainer going to offer? Lessons in how to strut? How to be a diva? Tell a joke? Come to think of it, why would an entertainer offer a course through the Simon & Schuster website at all? Entertainers have their own websites. So do plenty of authors, but the authors probably need the S & S promotion a whole lot more than the entertainers do.

A couple of years ago the Times published a piece called “The Year of the MOOC,” a comprehensive look at Massive Open Online Courses. The writer of the article, Laura Pappano, said:

Traditional online courses charge tuition, carry credit and limit enrollment to a few dozen to ensure interaction with instructors. The MOOC, on the other hand, is usually free, credit-less and, well, massive.

Because anyone with an Internet connection can enroll, faculty can’t possibly respond to students individually. So the course design — how material is presented and the interactivity — counts for a lot. As do fellow students. Classmates may lean on one another in study groups organized in their towns, in online forums or, the prickly part, for grading work.

The evolving form knits together education, entertainment (think gaming) and social networking. Unlike its antecedent, open courseware — usually written materials or videotapes of lectures that make you feel as if you’re spying on a class from the back of the room — the MOOC is a full course made with you in mind.

It looks as if S & S is going to take the MOOC model, tinker with it a bit, glamorize it with celebs, and put it out there for consumers who aren’t interested in course credit, but want to have a little fun online and feel like part of a great big group of groupies.

So even more people will be glued to their computers for more hours per day taking courses on stuff they didn’t need in the first place, getting even less exercise, talking to each other even less (except online). And paying for it. Sounds like a plan.


FYI / Independent Bookstores from Coast to Coast

Books & Greetings, Northvale, NJ

Magic Tree Bookstore, Oak Park, IL

Once Upon a Storybook, Tustin, CA


marketplace report

The article linked here is exactly what I was writing about on November 17 (after that epiphany on the crosstown bus), in a post called “Returning to center.”

The Publishers Weekly piece is “The Rise of the Seven-Figure Advance.” Subhead: “Major deals become the ‘new normal,’ thanks to steeper competition for fewer high-profile projects.”

It’s a good job of reporting, and no fault of the reporter (Rachel Deahl) that the information is simultaneously all true and all nonsense. The article addresses why publishers are throwing huge amounts of money around right now; when the same publishers decide it was a mistake to hand out seven-figure advances, they’ll tell a different story. Wait, watch, and see.




1295225429_2893_FT0_dsc09298_No cops (we hope), no sitcom families (we hope), no lawyers (that’s too much to hope), no crime scene investigators (not going there)—just…the Miami Book Fair.

PBS is going to stream live coverage of the fair on November 21, 22, and 23. It’s kind of a cool idea—it might just work. Read about it here. This is one of the very-big-deal book fairs, so there’ll be very-big-deal authors to view and listen to. Give it a try?

Thanks to book cheerleader Laurie Duncan of MacSamurai Consulting for bringing this to my attention.

The Settlement Cookbook

My lovely, talented, smart, sweet niece Sophie Javna has been studying the history of settlement work in Chicago. Hold onto that information for a paragraph or two.

I don’t get to see Sophie often enough since she’s at Colorado College and I’m in Manhattan. However, we converged at her parents’ home in Ashland, OR Sophie/Lorrie at Sharon's b'day party(also home of a wonderful indie bookstore called Bloomsbury Books) in mid-October for her mom’s birthday celebration.

Sophie is a serious food person, but being a mere twenty-one she didn’t grow up with the same cookbooks that her aunt (formerly a serious food person, and author of ten cookbooks) did. I began cooking in the mid-1960s, when The Settlement Cook Book [sic] was right up there with The Joy of Cooking. 

1965 Settlement CkbkI owned the 1965 edition, and the recipes were wonderful—but the chapters that were not about food and that were addressed to young immigrant women in late nineteenth-century Milwaukee made it more compelling than any ordinary cookbook. And that’s what ties right into Sophie’s study of the settlement house movement, as you will see from my article below, written for Eater’s Digest: 400 Delectable Readings About Food and Drink, published in 2006.


the story of the settlement cookbook

Mrs. Simon Kander was not, reputedly, a warm and fuzzy person. She was, however, a formidable lady who got things done. IMG_02661In Milwaukee in 1896 she and a group of other Jewish women opened a settlement house for Eastern European Jewish immigrants, to teach them English and other useful skills that would assist them in assimilating into American society. Not least of these skills—at least in Lizzie Kander’s opinion—was cooking.  

In 1901 Mrs. Kander observed that in the cooking classes (some of which she taught herself) the high school girls were spending precious time copying down the recipes that the teacher wrote on the chalkboard. It occurred to Mrs. Kander that many hours could be saved and much more progress made if each girl were given a printed booklet containing those recipes, along with instructions on various other household matters such as cleaning, stain removal,, and building a fire. The settlement could sell the booklets, too, for a bit of income. 9781557094360_custom-9393f2dac1d4a79cd9d58d571c84b6ddc30a87bf-s2-c85 

She applied to the Settlement Board (all men, of course) for eighteen dollars to fund the project. They turned her down, though they added—famously—that they would be happy to “share in any profits from your little venture.”  

Little venture? The Way to a Man’s Heart…The Settlement Cook Book was printed with the help of Mrs. K’s friends and connections, and the 1901 edition was not a booklet after all: it came off the press at 174 pages.  The first thousand copies sold out in about a year. The cookbook committee enlarged the book and printed 1500 more. By 1910 it was doing so well that profits from the books were used to purchase land for a new settlement house, and more cookbook profits were used to help build it.  

In 1917 there was so much cookbook action that the ladies had to hire office help; in 1921 the committee incorporated as the Settlement Cook Book Company and agreed to take a twenty-cent royalty on each book.  UnknownMrs. Kander’s “little venture” continued to yield money for all involved, and along the way the book became a classic.  Many editions have been published, and over 2 million copies have been sold; in 1978 it was inducted into the James Beard Foundation’s Cookbook Hall of Fame. The popularity of The Settlement Cook Book spanned most of the twentieth century, and many a young woman started married life with a couple of saucepans and a copy of the book.  

From its inception, The Settlement Cook Book was not just a book of recipes; it was a document of culture, a manual of what was considered proper, important, and useful for girls and women to know in the kitchen and the home. When an immigrant girl read Mrs. Kander’s authoritative advice on what to serve for dinner or how to lay a table, she felt confident that she was on good, solid American ground. And she was.


SIDEBAR: Noodling around online, I found this delightful post about The Settlement Cook Book. I don’t know this writer at all, but I love the piece and thank her for it.


FYI / Independent Bookstores from Coast to Coast

 William Stout Architectural Books, San Francisco, CA

Subterranean Books, St. Louis, MO

Head House Books, Philadelphia, PA



The facts about platform

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What exactly is platform? It’s a slippery publishing concept. You’ve probably had an earful of the standard industry thinking on the subject, but it turns out that there’s more (or less, actually) to platform than we thought.

According to publishing pundit Jane Friedman, a writer with platform is “someone with visibility and authority who has proven reach to a target audience.” (And just to be clear: platform applies mostly, but not exclusively, to nonfiction writers.)

Friedman’s article “A Definition of Author Platform” explains the conventional thinking on the topic, and it’s depressing enough to push you in the direction of the nearest bar or a change of career. For instance, her “Side Note” says this:

Some people have an easier time building platform than others. If you hold a highly recognized position (powerful network and influence), if you know key influencers (friends in high places), if you are associated with powerful communities, if you have prestigious degrees or posts, or if you otherwise have public-facing work—yes, you play the field at an advantage.

And one of her explanatory bullet points is this:

  • Proven reach. It’s not enough to SAY you have visibility. You have to show where you make an impact and give proof of engagement. This could be quantitative evidence (e.g., size of your e-mail newsletter list, website traffic, blog comments) or qualitative evidence (high-profile reviews, testimonials from A-listers in your genre).

As you will see if you read the rest of the article, the expectations entertained by editors and agents are, for most of us, unrealistic in the extreme—no matter how much we want to break out of relative obscurity, no matter how much we long to please our publishers (or prospective publishers).

Writers have been plagued by this irrationality—the unrealistic demand for unreachable platform—from the day some p.r. person invented the notion. And social media have been cornerstones in the platform-building mythology. But here comes an important news flash from brand strategist Stephanie Bane, in a very good piece called “‘Platforms’ Are Overrated,” on a very good site called Creative Nonfiction: True stories, well told. 

The surprising subhead (better sit down…) is “Maybe you shouldn’t worry so much about building a presence on social media.”


“Any author starting out today,” Bane writes, “is likely to hear the same advice from agents, publishers, and even well-meaning writer friends. That advice? Build your ‘platform.'” And then Bane proceeds to point out the Platform Emperor’s nakedness in great detail, starting with this:

Conventional wisdom in the publishing industry suggests that a robust online presence, maintained by an author, will compensate for a non-existent marketing budget and that some uncoachable mix of wit and digital luck can propel an author from obscurity to fame. The reality is that successful online marketing, just like successful offline marketing, is driven by money. A social media presence with no cash behind it doesn’t do much for the average author when it comes to selling books, and squandering precious hours on building a platform that few people will ever see—hours that could otherwise be spent writing—is a mistake that can hurt your productivity and, therefore, your career.

But she doesn’t just leave it there: Bane presents cogent arguments, with statistical support, for the pointlessness of most efforts to create (unfunded) platform via social media. She takes apart and debunks the assumptions that pass for facts among publishers. For example, she posits a situation in which you’ve managed to acquire 1000 fans for your author page on Facebook, by spending some money to enlist more than your personal friends. After that, this:

What does this do for sales when you’re finally ready to release your book? There’s limited public data on return-on-investment on Facebook, but we can use old-school direct marketing numbers as a proxy. As a rule of thumb, a good response rate on direct marketing efforts is 1 percent. If you reach all one thousand fans of your author page no fewer than three times with an announcement of your book release, and include a link to Amazon, you could reasonably expect ten of them to buy your book. That’s right: ten. But we know that only 6 percent of your fans will see each post to begin with; so, to ensure that your fans even know about your book release, you will have to promote yourself to them relentlessly. Mercilessly. To the point that they begin to unfriend you, or at least hide your feed.

Bane also takes on the value (or not) of blogging, Twitter, and your personal (rather than author) page on Facebook. I find myself wanting to quote the entire article, because not one word of it is uninteresting. And that includes some good advice from Amazon. Despite my issues with the gorilla, in this particular case Amazon acquits itself well: it tells authors to skip the social media and write more.

Which is Ms. Bane’s point:

Multiple agents might respond to your query letter in part because you’ve got such an outstanding social media platform, but they won’t end up representing you if your book is mediocre as a result of your having spent hours building a presence on Twitter, Tumblr, and Facebook instead of writing.

When you have to make a choice about how to spend your writing time, choose your book first. Every. Single. Time. To approach your writing career any other way is a mistake.

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THANK YOUI learned about the “Creative Nonfiction” site from a Facebook post put up by artist Lorie Novak; I’m very grateful to her for sharing the link to Ms. Bane’s important article.


FYI / Independent Bookstores from Coast to Coast

Book Court, Brooklyn, NY

Heirloom Bookshop, Charleston, SC

Skylight Books, Los Angeles, CA




drowning in a sea of modesty

This morning I said to myself, Are you really feeling that mean? Do you really want to post a snotty comment AND an excerpt? What will your readers think?

It was a hard decision, so I cut it in half: the comment is out, the excerpt is in.

Normally The Book Under Her Bed is completely one-sided about the Amazon/Hachette mess, but today I offer a link to an article on BuzzFeed, a convo between Edan Lepucki and Stephan Eirik Clark. Yes, you do too know who they are. Think Colbert.

The article doesn’t change TBUHB‘s political position, but it does make me wonder about Stephen Colbert’s…impulsiveness.

Below, a sample of Ms. Lepucki in conversation with Mr. Clark:

I still can’t believe that I went on The Colbert Report myself; for the appearance I wore a lot of makeup, my hair was curled like a poodle’s, and I could barely breathe in my Spanx undergarments. But, hey — an authoress has to lean in, right? (By the way, Stephen Colbert is very nice.) The whole thing makes me giggle. One of the greatest parts about this whole surreal turn of events is that I had the chance to read your book, Stephan, and recommend it on national television! I got to be a reader again. And we got to email, and share our joys and insecurities, and just, you know, be writers together…

Now that my book is a best-seller… what do I feel? Of course I am delighted and grateful and flummoxed. I mean — seriously? That just doesn’t happen for unknown writers of literary fiction! 

(And not to be all cheesy, there’s also this: No matter what happened to my book, I felt like a success long before my publication date, back when my family read California. Their excitement magnified my own, and allowed me to be proud and satisfied with what I’d worked hard for. I did it! I am a novelist!)


creepy, creepier, creepiest

This is it: Amazon at its creepiest, aside from its business tactics. The Campfire Weekend.

You’ll notice that all Bezos asked and asks in exchange for this lavish, gift-loaded writers’ getaway weekend is…silence.

No attendee was or is supposed to talk about this event. And they pretty much have not–until now. And now they’re talking about it because they’re not invited this year, because they took a stand against Amazon.

That agreement to silence, by writers no less, is just as shocking as the Machiavellian weekend itself. I didn’t think it was even possible to silence writers. Didn’t certain writers who attended notice a slight cognitive dissonance in the Santa Fe air?

The last lines say it all: if it hadn’t been Hachette, it would have been another publisher. Amazon is being Amazon. Have a look at this, from the NYT.

autumn-wallpaper-widescreen-1-300x200Take a look at PW’s article “An Amazon-Free Partnership,” about a small Vermont publisher who’s offering his latest book, The Vermont Way by Vermont’s (Republican) former governor, ONLY to independent bookstores. Definitely Vermontcentric, but it’s still an interesting development.

What if every publisher did the same thing with just one book–one BIG book…Leverage.

in defense of libraries, as if they needed defending

What’s the matter with Forbes magazine’s Tim Worstall? Did he never have a lovely afternoon in a hometown library?  Has he never lingered in the stacks, thumbing through book after book, searching in a leisurely way to find the novel, history book, art book he was just exactly in the mood for?

Read “What the ‘death of the library’ means for the future of books,” an article from The Daily Dot, and deliver us from the tyranny of Kindle. How could the death of diversity–even in reading options–make for a better world? A world without libraries is a frightening thought.