Saturday, January 30, 2010

Publishing in the Age of Blah, Blah, Blah

Last Wednesday I made the trek out to Brooklyn to attend indie publisher Melville House’s local author panel. This was the debut of their four-part series “Publishing in the Age of Blah, Blah, Blah” and was hosted by Melville House’s co-founder Dennis Loy Johnson.

Featured writers included, in no particular order:

Lev Grossman, The Magicians

John Wray, Low Boy

Myla Goldberg, Bee Season

Joshua Henkin, Matrimony

Heidi Julavits, The Uses of Enchantment

Joe Meno, Hairstyles of the Damned

Sarah Manguso, The Two Kinds of Decay

Tao Lin, Shoplifting from American Apparel

The topic on the table was e-books and what they may or may not mean to the people writing them. Appropriate enough considering earlier that same day Apple gave its much hyped announcement for what Johnson cheekily dubbed the “unfortunately named iPad.”

The turnout was impressive and by the time the event actually started (in true New York style, a good twenty minutes late) it was standing room only. Well, some people chose to plop down on the floor. So I suppose, if you want to get technical, there was also plopping room available.

The first question asked was addressed to both the authors and the audience. How many of us had ever read an e-book? From the author section, two hands raised. In the audience of 50ish, maybe seven. There were sheepish titters of laughter.

Johnson then asked the authors how many of them had also released their books in e-book format. About half raised their hands, a couple knew they definitely hadn’t, and a few of them laughingly confessed that they actually didn’t know.

Nevertheless, the authors had a lot to say about the possible implications e-books might have on their work. Emotions were mixed.

“It’s churlish to be upset about this (e-books)” proclaimed Heidi Julavits, editor of The Believer. But a few moments later she voiced concern over the iPad’s internet capabilities. “It’s like if you’re reading a book like Moby Dick and you’re on the subway, you’re committed to it. It’s the only book you have (with you) so you sort of have to force yourself to push through the tough parts. On the iPad someone might be like ‘this is getting boring, let me check my email real quick.’”

Author Joe Meno half-joked about the potential ramifications for e-book readers’ first dates. Snooping through people’s apartment bookshelf collections while they’re in the other room might become a thing of the past. According to Meno, there’s nothing like seeing the copy of Gravity’s Rainbow dog-eared a quarter of the way through in your date’s apartment. “You can say, ‘I couldn’t finish Gravity’s Rainbow either!’ and that’s when you might start making out!”

A lot of attention was given to the possibility of losing the bookshelf as we know it. Blogger and novelist Lev Grossman said “a part of the booky-ness of books is that… when a book is closed, it lives on in your life.” Grossman described the bookshelf as “a tribute to your brain."

Several additional topics were discussed, including but not limited to:

-how hardcover books might become for book lovers what vinyl records are for music lovers

-how the e-book may limit a person's ability to browse and discover new titels

-how the internet boom has put pressure on authors to also be self-promoters

-the general history of publishing and of the novel, which inevitably led to posthumous shout-outs to Faulkner and Fitzgerald

In other words, a complete nerding out on the part of us in love with books and publishing.

After the panel, follow-up questions from the audience were encouraged. That's when the woman sitting next to me, a Marketing Assistant with Penguin, raised her hand.

"I read a lot of e-books," she confessed. "I love my Kindle and carry it with me everywhere I go. For me, the reading experience isnt' that different. I still watch for how many pages I have left to go and slow down when I near the end. And, when I read a book I love, I buy it in hard copy. So, I guess my questions is, do you think there's a chance that e-book sales can help paperback sales?"

The answer seemed to be a resounding "yes." Host Johnson brought up the exampe of some authors like this one who have elected to offer free e-book downloads and watched their hard copy sales soar as a result.

The discussion wrapped up shortly afterward and we all mingled and drank wine from clear plastic cups. It was, in short, a lovely Wednesday evening.

What I took away from the panel discussion was this: despite what writers, readers and book publishers may think of the e-book, it's here to stay. And, though I too am Team Paper, I'll admit that the e-book has its endearing qualities (among them, for example, the potential to save publishing from a long, slow and agonizing death).

As a tech geek friend of mine so eloquently put it, "Leigh, the iPad is a revolutionary piece of technology that's very likely going to save your job. Embrace it."

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Manhattan Price Gouging

You always hear about how expensive it is in New York City. It’s almost a source of pride for the people dumb enough to live in Manhattan (like myself). I spend an atrocious amount of money on my basic needs. Light bulbs, for instance, can cost $5 per 2-pack. Same with Kleenex and paper towels (per box and per roll), which is why I buy toilette paper and use it for all of my paper product needs, including table napkins. Buying all three items would literally clean me out. Pun not intended.

The worst is alcohol. If I buy a drink at a bar or a restaurant, a mixed drink can easily run me $15 a pop. Beer is slightly cheaper, ranging from $6-$10. And if I go to the grocery store, the cheapest six-pack costs $11. Which, considering the bar prices, is a deal. But when I remember college Wednesday dollar beer nights at bars in Dallas, I want to laugh hysterically and cry at the same time.

Which is why I try not to remember dollar beer night, or $2 wells specials, or the mythological "buy 1 get 1 free" deals. I think most New Yorkers live in a constant state of denial at the amount they spend on everyday products. There’s nothing you can do about it, so after a while, like anything else you do consistently, paying ridiculous amounts for groceries becomes the norm and you’re numb to the sting you used to feel when forking over $60 for a week’s worth of grocery items: milk, eggs, bread, beer, tuna, vegetables and fruit.

For that reason, when today while a brunch a friend told me he could find bottles of wine in Queens for $2, I wanted to slap him for telling me lies, because liars deserve a hard slap to the face.

But, since I valued our friendship, I restrained myself and politely informed him that that was impossible. The cheapest wine I can find at the liquor store near my apartment is $8. And that’s on a day with good specials.

Still, he persisted with his tall tales of a land mere subway stops away where I could find $2 wine aplenty. I decided to call his bluff. After paying our check we were on a train to Queens to settle the matter.

When we got there and, in fact, there existed a rack of bottles advertising $2 wine specials, I was truly, truly shocked. Then I bought three bottles and bottle of delicious looking golden cream sherry for the same price, and, for a brief moment, seriously considered relocating to Queens.
On the subway ride back though, with to-go shots of rum happily warming our bellies, I decided that, really, I could have the best of both worlds. I commute to work every day, why not commute to groceries as well?

So, lesson learned, Manhattan is a fun borough to hang out in when you have the money, but the other boroughs are definitely worth exploring. Something I’ve been meaning to do more of.

Next week I’ll be in Brooklyn for an e-book publishing conference. I’ll have to check out their prices on paper towels. :)

Monday, January 18, 2010

Carnivorous Pigeons!

Today I saw something truly horrifying: a gathering of pigeons fighting over a fallen piece of gyro meat.

Granted, I’ve had street cart meat before and it’s admittedly pretty tasty (especially around 2 a.m. after enjoying entirely too many PBRs…) So it wasn’t shocking to me that the pigeons found the fallen meat delicious, because it is. However, it was completely petrifying to discover that pigeons eat meat.

A little background information: I already have what my friends call an “irrational” fear of pigeons. Well, I pretty much fear all birds after in a temporary lapse of good parental judgment my father let me watch Hitchcock’s The Birds as an eleven-year-old child.

But, I hate pigeons the most and I think it’s entirely rational. Pigeons are dirty and carry diseases and, in New York anyway, have no fear of the human race. Which is why I think they should relax their gun laws here and allow hunting in Central Park. I know, New Yorkers, I know. Guns are the root of all evil. I’m just saying, I never had a pigeon fly into my arm while running the Katy Trail in Dallas.

That’s happened to me a total of two times since I’ve been here. After both incidents I was sure I would die immediately or have to amputate a limb or both. Thankfully, the only real consequence was a bad case of nerves and a temporary bout of Tourettes (at least that’s how I explained my colorful post-pigeon-impact outburst to the eight-year-old’s mom).

But today’s carnivorous pigeon sighting proves that in my past two encounters I narrowly escaped certain death. No one is safe. If pigeons have started experimenting with street meat, where does it stop? How long before they make the jump to human flesh? There’s more of it available and we’re completely outnumbered. We wouldn’t stand a chance.

These last paragraphs go out to the eighty-year-old pigeon lady who comes by Blockheads every morning around 10 a.m. Yes, I’m talking to you with the dyed-pink/red hair, and the fur coat, and the bag of bird seed you fling over World Wide Plaza with a scowl on your face like you hate that it’s your job to feed those goddamned ungrateful birds. You, Pigeon Lady, are our only hope.

Speak to your friends. Tell them they can always count on your bird seed. They don’t have to turn to flesh for sustenance. You may be eighty but from the bitterness in your eyes anyone can see you have another 20 years in you. That’s two more decades of free, vegetarian meals for our feathered friends.

Please, be our ally. Or we’re all doomed.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Times Square New Years Eve

So apparently New Years in New York is kind of a big deal.

I knew there would be some excitement over the dropping of a disco globe 12 a.m.ish, but was nowhere near prepared for what really happens New Years Eve in NYC. Last Thursday I exited my apartment and was transported into what looked like some sort of police state. There were guns, dogs, and concrete barricades. And that was on my 8 a.m. walk to work.

My original evening plans were low-key. My best friend was visiting from Houston and we decided to opt out of the high-cover-charging night club parties and have our own private soiree complete with classy lady champagne, hors d'oeuvres, an ample supply of vino and, if at all possible, pink feather boa crowns with the glittered numbers “2010”. Basically, all the essential ingredients for the best New Years Eve ever.

After I got off work, we braved the predictable crowds at the Amish Market, a specialty grocery store I sometimes go to when I have enough money to splurge on rich people food. An hour later we were back on the street wielding bags full of goodies: three kinds of smelly cheeses, a large baguette, salmon pinwheel sandwiches, an assortment of different types of olives, fig-orange preserves, rainbow sushi rolls, and blood-orange sorbet for vodka-freeze desserts. So, all was going according to plan and "New Years Eve of Awesome Delicious Things" party was soon to be well underway.

By this time it was 4 p.m. and we sauntered towards my apartment without a care in the world, both making the gross miscalculation that the crowds at this point, 8 hours until midnight, still wouldn’t be very bad.

We were all kinds of wrong.

All of a sudden the streets were teeming with people moving in the same direction, flowing in a steady but SLOW stream of tired, confused tourists. Beyond those people and between us, my apartment and our awesome New Years Eve, was a guarded barricade.

At first I wasn’t too concerned. My landlady had emailed the day before warning me that getting to my apartment near Times Square could be an issue New Years Eve, and advised me to carry a copy of my lease with me in case I had any trouble. That was last thing I’d grabbed before we left my place earlier, as an afterthought. Now I fished it from my purse and clutched it like a golden ticket.

Somehow we muscled our way to the front of the mob. I tried to get the attention of any of the three policemen talking to one another beyond the fence. I could literally see my apartment awning across the street, but it might as well have been in Russia.

“Sir! Excuse me! Officer! Can you help me, sir?”One turned. He was a youngish man. Probably 28. He had good skin.

“Excuse me sir, I live across the street. I have a copy of my lease. That’s my apartment right there and we’re just trying to get home. Can you let us cross?”
“You’re gonna have to walk up to 56th.”
“I’m sorry?”
“This is closed. Walk up to 56th.”
“I have my lease with me. I live right there—“
“I’m not calling you a liar. But you still can’t cross.”

He was grinning like an idiot.

“You’re laughing but this isn’t funny to me. I really want to get home.”
“Up to 56th,” he said and turned his back on me.

I decided his skin was the ugliest I’d ever seen. And that he probably had herpes. And that most likely, his mother had never loved him.

E. and I started to head up to 56th, a handful of blocks and an avenue out of our way, but it became clear pretty quickly that a detour that would normally have taken ten minutes was going to take over two hours. The crowd literally inched forward. Our grocery sacks packed full of goodies became heavy and we were miserable. That’s when inspiration hit.

I’d been apartment sitting all week at a place very close to mine on 49th Street. The place belonged to a close friend and under the circumstances, I was pretty sure it wouldn’t be a big deal if we crashed there for the night. The crowd covered the entire street from sidewalk to sidewalk. We took a look around and decided it was official, we’d seek refuge at T.’s and "New Years Eve of Awesome Delicious Things" night would be back on track!

But when we finally got to 49th street, I noticed a partial blue barricade. Not good. We quickened our pace.

E. and I had very nearly reached our goal—again, we could see the apartment awning— when another man in blue with terrible skin and a loveless childhood yelled, “49th Street’s closed! 49th Street’s closed!”

Only it wasn’t. Not yet, anyway. Not really. The barricade still wasn’t complete, but men in blue wore busily lifting the other side into place.

E. looked at me and yelled, “run!”

And we did. Actually, we flew. Or at least that’s what I’ve decided must have happened. We flew over oncoming traffic and the immovable mob because there’s no other way we made it through alive without somehow temporarily acquiring the power of flight.

I glanced back only when we reached the front door of the apartment, half convinced an army of men in blue would be following close behind, handcuffs out but, thankfully, the street was empty.

The picture above shows the view from the window of T.’s apartment where could see the masses inching forward in the sleety snow for the chance to watch the disco ball drop ten minutes til midnight.

We watched it in HD and toasted from the couch.