Saturday, December 25, 2010

Happy Holiday

I can think of no better way to wish you all the blessings of this Holy Day than to share a video, which you have probably already seen because it's been viewed almost 27 million times. A flash mob descended upon a food court in a mall in Canada to share a bit of Handel's Messiah with the shoppers.

The Messiah was first performed in London before King George II. The king stood during the Hallelujah Chorus--either in tribute to the Lord of All or in tribute to Handel. Since then, the tradition has been to stand during that chorus.

Wishing you the joy of this Season.



Monday, December 20, 2010

A Memoir on Life with Stieg Larsson

Last week, Publishers Weekly reported that an independent publisher, Seven Stories Press, has signed Eva Gabrielsson, the long-time companion of author Stieg Larsson, to a book contract.

Larsson who died six years ago last month was the best-selling author of the Millennium Trilogy which included The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played with Fire, and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest.

Larsson and Gabrielsson had been together for 32 years, but never married. Six months before he died, he was offered a three-book contract with a Swedish publisher. When he died, because he and Gabrielsson had never married and he did not have a valid will, his estate--now estimated at $30 million--went to his father and brother.

Gabrielsson's relationship with her lover's family has been stormy. After Larsson's death, they offered to give her Stieg's half of their apartment if she would turn over his laptop, which supposedly held an unfinished fourth novel. She refused to give in to what she called "extortion." Bad press led to the family finally signing over Larsson's half of the apartment.

According to Publishers Weekly:
The memoir, which will be published in French, Swedish and Norwegian in January 2011, recounts Larsson and Gabrielsson’s 30-years together, traces sources of episodes and characters in [Larsson's books], discusses Larsson’s sudden death in 2004, and describes the ongoing saga of the lost fourth book. It’s sure to be a huge seller among ravenous Larsson fans.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

A Ruling in Costco v. Omega

Back in early August here, I talked about Costco v. Omega, a case scheduled to be heard by the Supreme Court during this session, which could have a huge potential on the publishing industry.

JCK, a jewelers' website, summarized the case here:

The case began in 2004, when Omega sued Costco in federal court in California over its sales of grey market watches. The term refers to a practice in which retailers buy brands from unauthorized dealers located overseas and resell them at lower prices in the United States.

The case differed from past fights in that Omega used copyright infringement to fight its case. Since Omega watches sold by Costco carry the watch company’s copyrighted icon, the company argued that selling them without its authorization violates U.S. copyright law. But Costco argued that the case could impede the ability of retailers to sell products without authorization ...

Justice Elena Kagan recused herself from the decision, leaving eight justices, who split 4-4 in a decision handed down on Monday, December 13.

A split means the lower court's ruling is upheld, Omega wins, and this case did not create a precedent.

According to Publishers Weekly here:
The Association of American Publishers (AAP) had "filed an amicus brief in September urging the Supreme Court to uphold the Ninth Circuit ruling in favor of Omega, maintaining that allowing Costco to sell the watches would in essence 'legalize the importation of books that were manufactured abroad for distribution in foreign markets and never intended for sale in the United States'.”
As I explained in my previous post, a decision passed by the Supreme Court on June 1, 1908 established what is called the "first-sale doctrine":
... one who has sold a copyrighted article, without restriction, has parted with all right to control the sale of it. The purchaser of a book, once sold by authority of the owner of the copyright, may sell it again, although he could not publish a new edition of it.
Publishers Weekly shared consumer groups' perspective on the case who wanted Costco to prevail:
“What happens to Netflix, Amazon and eBay if they have to find out where each item was made, whether it has a copyright logo made outside of the U.S., and then buy licensing rights from the copyright owner if the item was made abroad?"
Although this case did not establish a precedent, it is likely another case will come along to do so.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Survey on e-Books

Wednesday's Publishers Weekly had an article here about a survey of 600 publishers conducted by Aptara, a company that specializes in providing technical expertise to publishers.

The survey revealed that 74% of trade publishers now offer e-books while 64% of all publishers are offering e-books. That 64% is up from 11% earlier in this year.

The largest gains in number of houses offering e-books were in the trade and STM (scientific, technical and medical) sectors.

When the 36% of all publishers who are not releasing e-books was asked "Why not?," 71% of them gave no reason for sitting out.

To me, the scary part of the article was this:
The profitability of e-books has been a point of contention between publishers and authors, and according to the survey 66% of trade houses have no clear picture if the return-on-investment from e-books is better or worse than for print books; 15% said the ROI was better, but 13% said it was worse.
You can go to the Aptara site here to read additional details about the survey. Aptara says:
The main eBook production challenge facing publishers is still eReader/content compatibility issues. Even with the near universal EPUB eBook format standard, today’s fragmented eReader market makes quality eBook production a moving target, with expert, manual manipulation required to retain consistent formatting across device-types.

Sunday, December 05, 2010

In Cold Blood Revisited

Until one morning in mid-November of 1959, few Americans--in fact, few Kansans--had ever heard of Holcomb ... But then, in the earliest hours of that morning in November, a Sunday morning, certain foreign sounds impinged on the normal nightly Holcomb noises--on the keening hysteria of coyotes, the dry scrape of scuttling tumbleweed, the racing, receding wail of locomotive whistles. At the time not a soul in sleeping Holcomb heard them--four shotgun blasts that, all told, ended six human lives.
Those words are found in the early pages of a twentieth-century classic: In Cold Blood by Truman Capote.

Capote described the book as an "unexplored literary medium" which he called the "non-fiction novel." In Cold Blood tells the story of the real-life murder of a wealthy rancher named Herbert Clutter, his wife and two teenaged children on November 14, 1959 by two killers who entered the house in the tiny town of Holcomb, Kansas while the family slept. The book spawned entire generations of true crime books.

When I was my mid-twenties, I encountered a man who scared me. One of my best friends met and married him in less than a week. All she could see was his remarkable good looks and his expensive car; all she could hear was his smooth patter.

I had never met anyone like him before. He lied even about details that didn't matter, he believed he was entitled to anything he could take or swindle, and his casual brutality startled even me--who had grown up around alcohol-fueled violence. Part of the reason he scared me was because he was cruel without cause or reason.

I began reading true crime books to try to understand where people like this came from. Eventually my burgeoning interest in psychopathy catapulted me into graduate school. But, before then, I amassed a library of over two hundred true crime books.

Of course, I purchased In Cold Blood, which had been released many years earlier and was regarded as the gold standard in the "true crime" genre. Of all the true crime I read, that book stands out because it was one of a half dozen I could not finish. There were a couple of books I didn't finish because the gory details were so disgusting that I had to put them down. There were another couple so badly written that I put them down in frustration. In Cold Blood did not fit into either of those categories. Masterfully written and not gratuitously violent, the book was in a class of its own.

I didn't have the writing experience back then to recognize why the book bothered me so much. I just knew I couldn't finish it. And I've never gone back to pick it up again, not even when the film Capote came out in 2005. In Cold Blood sits on my shelf, untouched and unloved.

Recently a website I visited directed me to a 1966 interview the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation did with Truman Capote. I found the interview fascinating.

When the film Capote came out, there were lots of old TV inter-
views with Truman Capote replayed in order to compare Philip Seymour Hoffman's portrayal to the real man. I was not terribly impressed by those old interviews. To me, Capote seemed superficial, self-aggrandizing, and frequently a bit malicious.

However, in the CBC interview, you get to see Capote, the writer. The contrast is startling.

Capote is initially very defensive of his "non-fiction novel":
People keep confusing my book with the subject matter … they keep talking about ... crime books ... Well, the subject matter of my book was purely incidental. I mean, it’s the least interesting or important thing about the book. The interest of the book is in how it sets out to explore what I consider an unexplored literary medium and what one does with it ...
Although Capote never went to college, he clearly spent a great deal of time thinking about his craft. At first, when he begins talking about "reportage," as he calls "journalism," I thought, "What a pompous little man." But then he said this:
... there is a great difference between fiction and journalism that is almost irreconcilable ...

In journalism … one is moving horizontally. One never moves vertically. You almost never go down inside. You are moving horizontally on a … superficial surface, [in a] horizontal narrative.

The whole point about fiction is … that you start out horizontally and, at the first opportunity, you go vertical. You’re inside of the characters, deep inside the situation… You’re [like] God moving … vertically and horizontally at the same time, simultaneously … All reportage that I can think of moves horizontally. One is always on the surface.
Perhaps because I had been so dismissive of the man, I was profoundly struck by Capote's analysis of the two mediums.

His next words suggested to me why I had instinctively recoiled from In Cold Blood:
The other thing is that the technical innovation in that book … is that I, the reporter, never appear... This is the most single most difficult thing of the whole thing and the reason I did it. It was almost a technical impossibility ... I wanted to prove that the reporter could be completely absented from the thing as a person.
I spent a good part of this weekend reading In Cold Blood. I found myself admiring Capote's skill as a writer and as an artist. How- ever, this time around, I could clearly identify the two issues that probably prevented me from finishing the book years ago.

First, I still find it creepy to have the last day of the Clutter family's life recreated in novel style so that whole conversations and feelings are included as fact. As an example, here's an excerpt from a phone conversation between the teenage Clutter daughter Nancy and her best friend Susan:
“What are you eating?”


“I know-—your fingernails,” said Susan, guessing correctly. Much as Nancy tried, she could not break the habit of nibbling her nails, and, whenever she was troubled, chewing them right to the quick. “Tell. Something wrong?”


“Nancy. C’est moi. . . . ” Susan was studying French.
Capote said every conversation in the book has its basis in an interview with one of the involved individuals. However, he also claimed to have recreated from memory all the interviews he did with the people of Holcomb. He said he did not use a tape recorder and found that note-taking during an interview inhibited his subjects. He would do the interview and then sit down to write his notes. So we have his recollection of what his subjects told him, not a word-for-word account.

And Capote selected which interviews and which comments to include and which to exclude from the book. Over the years he was in Holcomb, he amassed a huge amount of material. I found an interview he did with George Plimpton here for the New York Times in 1966. In that interview, Capote says, "My files would almost fill a whole small room, right up to the ceiling."

I think Capote was either being disingenuous or kidding himself when he claimed that he was completely absent from the book. He said it himself: "You're God" when writing a non-fiction novel. The underlying dishonesty of his approach bothered me as much today as it did when I first read the book. I'd far rather read a book by Jack Olsen or Ann Rule where the writer openly acknowledges his thoughts on the crime being recounted.

Neither of my complaints diminishes Capote's accomplishment in producing a remarkable narrative, although I would call it a fact-based novel. I will always wonder whether the confessed killers Smith and Hickock had a homosexual relationship as writer J.J. Maloney claimed, and whether Capote's own homosexuality led to his burying that fact. Maloney believed that it was Smith's jealousy over Hickock's interest in the sixteen-year-old Nancy Clutter that acted as the catalyst for the needless murders.

The CBC's rules won't let me embed the interview on my blog, but you can listen to it if you go here.

You can also read In Cold Blood online. It was first released as a four-part series in The New Yorker in September, 1965. Part I is here.