Cruise Ship Books

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I’ve discovered some of my favorite authors while perusing the books other passengers have left behind in shipboard libraries. While cruising in Alaska, I discovered Michael Frayn and couldn’t stop until I had devoured all of his novels and then looked around hungrily for more.

Spies is perhaps my favorite. A pungent aroma sparks a memory from a man’s childhood during World War II and compels him to return to his childhood village, where he tries to make grownup sense of things that happened there so many years ago, while he and his boyhood friend hid in the privet bush pretending to be spies. The dual perspective of middle age and childhood, as well as the contrast between the WWII setting and the “present” of 30 years later makes the book particularly evocative, and the mystery of what actually happened drives the story.

Frayn’s books often present a tone of detachment and loss, as expressed in these opening lines from A Landing in the Sun:

On the desk in front of me lie two human hands. They are alive, but perfectly still. One of them is sitting, poised like a crab about to scuttle, the fingers steadying a fresh Government-issue folder. The other is holding a grey Government-issue ballpoint above the label on the cover, as motionless as a lizard, waiting to strike down into the space next to the word Subject.

These hands, and the crisp white shirtsleeves that lead away from them, are the only signs of me in the room.

The separation of the action performed by his hands from his intentional, sentient will is also reminiscent of the book-burning fireman, Montag, in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451: “Montag . . . glanced to his hands to see what new thing they had done.” Both authors use synecdoche effectively to suggest the protagonist’s looming split with authority and his attempt to regain control over his life.

A pungent aroma sparks a memory from a man’s childhood during World War II and compels him to return to his childhood village.

It was on a cruise ship traveling around Australia and New Zealand that I discovered the historical novelist Tracy Chevalier. Her Girl With a Pearl Earring, in which she creates a compelling and poignant backstory for the supposed model of Vermeer’s famous painting, had recently been made into the film that launched Scarlett Johansson to stardom; but the book that hooked me was Fallen Angels, a name that refers to the memorial stones in a local graveyard but also to the fallen characters within the story. Beginning at the end of the Queen Victoria’s reign, the book’s multiple storylines focus on husbands and wives, friends and lovers, ruling class and servant class, and a gravedigger’s son.

From the moment I entered Chevalier’s world of shifting narrative perspectives set in turn-of-the-century England, I didn’t want to leave. I felt a profound sense of loss as I read the final page and reentered the 21st century. Similarly, while viewing Manhattan from across the river in one of the books I review here, a character observes, “You wanted to approach it for the rest of your life without ever quite arriving.” That’s how I felt while reading many of the books I’ve mentioned in this review — I wanted to approach the end, but never quite arrive there.

This past month I was cruising the western Mediterranean when I discovered Rules of Civility by the talented author Amor Towles, whose fresh metaphors and unexpected developments delighted and surprised me. I had barely finished reading it when, craving more of his elegantly crafted sentences and trusting his storytelling skills, I downloaded his second novel, A Gentleman in Moscow, to my Kindle for the long flight home from Europe.

I felt a profound sense of loss as I read the final page and reentered the 21st century.

The title Rules of Civility refers to George Washington’s Rules of Civility & Decent Behaviour in Company and Conversation, a dog-eared copy of which is discovered by the narrator, Katey Kontent, on the bedside table of the central character, Tinker Grey. Towles’ book is a novel of manners set in 1938 Manhattan and framed by a 1966 photography exhibition. As the book opens, a middle-aged Katey spies two candid photographs taken of her long-lost friend Tinker at the beginning and the end of 1938. This chance sighting becomes the catalyst for her recollection of that year, a year that became a turning point in her life as she navigated between boarding houses and mansions, trust-fund kids and dockworkers, the upper West side and the lower East side, in her journey to define who she would become.

Katey begins 1938 living in a women’s boardinghouse and working in a steno pool. She and her roommate, Eve Ross, meet the posh and elegant Tinker Grey at a restaurant on New Year’s Eve, and he becomes the direct and indirect catalyst for everything else that happens that year.

Like the original “novels of manners,” set in manor houses and often populated by governesses or impoverished heiresses who make satirical observations about the ruling class, Rules of Civility contains biting, cogent cultural commentary. Katey is paid well as a secretary, but when she decides to move on to a job in the literary world, she must accept a huge cut in pay. She wryly observes, “A secretary exchanges her labor for a living wage. But an assistant comes from a fine home, attends Smith College, and lands her positions when her mother happens to be seated beside the publisher in chief at a dinner party.” I worked under an executive director who landed her position in the same way, and it was just as galling. Katey also notes, after guests at a dinner party heap praises upon the hostess at the end of a fine meal, “This was a social nicety that seemed more prevalent the higher you climbed the social ladder and the less your hostess cooked.”

Sudden changes in tone or circumstance permeate the book and provide elegant twists that would create envy in the heart of a mystery writer.

Katey is a philosopher by nature, and her thoughts begin to resonate with the reader. As she looks back on 1938, she recalls, “To have even one year when you’re presented with choices that can alter your circumstances, your character, your course . . . shouldn’t come without a price. I have no doubt [my choices] were the right choices for me. And at the same time, I know that right choices by definition are the means by which life crystallizes loss.”

Sudden changes in tone or circumstance — in this case, from the bright optimism of making right decisions to the mournful grief of cutting oneself off from other options — permeate the book and provide elegant twists that would create envy in the heart of a mystery writer. Consider the span of emotion in moments like these: “I tore the letter into a thousand pieces and hurled them at the spot on the wall where a fireplace should have been. Then I carefully considered what I should wear.” And: “Something fell from my jawbone to the back of my hand. It was a teardrop of all things. So I slapped him.” And this cautionary reflection: “In moments of high emotion — whether they’re triggered by anger or envy, humiliation or resentment — if the next thing you’re going to say makes you feel better, then it’s probably the wrong thing to say.”

Katey wants everything to be neat and orderly and open. As a secretary, she “suture[s] split infinitives and hoist[s] dangling modifiers,” and she wants life to be as simple as that, with rules that allow no ambiguities and people who are who they say they are. But soon she realizes that “it’s a bit of a clich√© to refer to someone as a chameleon, a person who can change his colors from environment to environment. In fact . . . there are tens of thousands of butterflies, men and women like Eve with two dramatically different colorings — one which serves to attract and the other which serves to camouflage — and which can be switched at the instant with a flit of the wings.” Katey herself is a chameleon, adapting to her different environments by adjusting her clothing until she decides which environment will become her natural habitat.

Katey is not well-bred, but she is well-read, and her running references to such books as Walden, Great Expectations, Washington’s Rules of Civility, Agatha Christie novels, and others add depth to the story. I especially like the way she combines insights from Thoreau and Christie to deliver this:

In the pages of Agatha Christie’s books men and women, whatever their ages, whatever their caste, are ultimately brought face-to-face with a destiny that suits them. . . . For the most part, in the course of our daily lives we abide the abundant evidence that no such universal justice exists. Like a cart horse, we plod along the cobblestones dragging our heads down and our blinders in place, waiting patiently for the next cube of sugar. But there are certain times when chance suddenly provides the justice that Agatha Christie promises.

We all have turning point moments in our lives — moments that occur during the years when we’re deciding who we will be and making decisions so profound that they change our course completely and irrevocably. They often seem insignificant at the time, and the people who influence us most profoundly move on from our lives. Although we may never see them again, we think of them frequently. I have one such friend from my childhood who moved on from my life when we were 11, yet much of who I am today comes from the experiences I shared with her during the three profound years we spent together, just as Michael Frayn’s narrator in Spies is forever influenced by the events he experienced with his childhood chum.

Katey herself is a chameleon, adapting to her different environments by adjusting her clothing until she decides which environment will become her natural habitat.

Towles suggests the importance of these so-called minor characters when Katey begins reading a Hemingway novel from the middle rather than the beginning: “Without the early chapters, all the incidents became sketches and all the dialogue innuendo. Bit characters stood on equal footing with the central subjects and positively bludgeoned them with disinterested common sense. The protagonists didn’t fight back. They seemed relieved to be freed from the tyranny of their tale. It made me want to read all of Hemingway’s books this way.”

And Katey learns to read life that way too — paying more heed to the side characters who influence us unexpectedly. Eventually she discovers that “when some incident sheds a favorable light on an old and absent friend, that’s about as good a gift as chance intends to offer.” Reading Rules of Civility gave me cause to reflect on many an old and absent friend, and that’s one of the many good gifts of this book.


Editor's Note: Reviews of "Spies," by Michael Frayn. Picador, 2002, 261 pages; "A Landing on the Sun," by Michael Frayn. Picador, 2003, 272 pages; and "Rules of Civility," by Amor Towles. Penguin Books, 2011, 338 pages.



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The Indie Revolution

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I would like to give Liberty’s readers an update about technological progress regarding a device that some thought would never change: the book.

A number of years ago Amazon.com, the huge online bookstore, developed an invention, the Kindle, which was a mini-computer (what would now be called a “tablet”) for reading books. Once the technology was perfected, the Kindle represented a paradigm shift in the book publishing industry. Previously the price of a book had been deeply connected with the cost of printing it. The bigger the print run, the more the publisher could achieve an economy of scale and lower the per-book marginal unit production costs. This meant that in order to be cost-effective a print run had to be large. And because of this a small group of highly successful publishers came to dominate the book publishing industry.

This group, sometimes called the “Big Six,” was, for aspiring authors, “both the gatekeeper and the gate.” If you found a literary agent who had connections to editors then you could get your foot in the door and get published and get into bookstores. If not, you were shut out. Self-publishing developed a horrible stigma, but this is simply because it was not cost-effective and there was no economic impetus to change popular perceptions.

Enter Kindle. The Kindle works by downloading electronic files from Amazon.com, which can then be read on the device itself — no printing costs. This made Kindle ebooks much cheaper than print books. Amazon.com began by instituting a practice of dramatically slashing the retail price of its ebooks, such that most of them cost $0.99 to $3, whereas comparable print books cost $10 to $14.

The Big Six rebelled. They used their pressure to switch ebooks to the “agency” pricing model. Under the traditional pricing model the publisher sets the list price, which is basically the wholesale price that the publisher receives, while the retailer sets the retail price, which is the price that consumers actually pay. Under the agency model, the publisher, not the retailer, sets the retail price. The agency model enabled the Big Six to force Amazon to sell ebooks at prices roughly comparable to paper books. The Department of Justice and FTC recently launched an antitrust lawsuit arguing that the Big Six were trying to prevent Amazon.com from competing on price. Several Big Six publishers have agreed to settle the antitrust litigation, although a few of the Big Six continue to fight in court. The antitrust litigation is interesting and complicated, and it also involved Apple, which used its iBooks store to help the Big Six exert pressure upon Amazon. It is still unclear how ebook pricing will look in the future.

Self-publishing once carried a horrible stigma, but this is simply because it was not cost-effective and there was no economic impetus to change popular perceptions.

Kindle instituted another major change. Now, with no production manufacturing costs, you can self-publish on a zero-dollar budget. In 2010 a young woman named Amanda Hocking wrote a “paranormal romance” novel (half fantasy, half romance) and self-published it on Kindle, using Amazon’s newly developed self-publishing program, “Kindle Direct Publishing” (KDP). She was working as a waitress at the time, and put her novel up on Kindle after many rejections from agents and publishers. She didn’t spend any money to promote her book, which she titled “Switched.” She just sent review copies to a handful of book blogs. Initially she sold several thousand copies, and she considered this a success.

Then in late 2010 and early 2011, her sales rose to several hundred thousand copies. From 2011 to 2012, estimates are that she sold over one million copies of her novels. Her books, priced from 99 cents to about $3, have made her a self-published millionaire. I have read what Hocking wrote about her success, and I don’t think even she knows how she sold so many copies, other than by writing a high-quality novel in what was then a wide-open market. These days the many thousands of novelists (me included) who have been rejected by the gatekeeper Big Six and their literary agents have been lured by the Amanda Hocking dream into self-publishing. We don’t even call it self-publishing anymore; we call it indie publishing, “indie” meaning “independent.”

When I decided to self-publish my own novel, Rob Seablue and the Eye of Tantalus (which can be found on Amazon), the selling points of going “indie” were simple. You make a royalty rate per sale of about 65%, in contrast to the Big Six’s typical 25% or less (not including the literary agent’s cut), you get published immediately instead of waiting three years for your book to come out (6–12 months to get an agent, 6–12 months for the agent to land a book deal, and one year of pre-release publicity), and you have a very tiny possibility of success either way. You typically have to do your own book promotion, even if you can get a Big Six book deal, because the Big Six care mainly about their established bestsellers, not their unproven debut authors. Within the last two years I estimate that at least 10,000 books have been indie published, and the number grows every day.

The Big Six are very much afraid of losing the “browse” effect. Most book sales used to happen, so it was said, from consumers browsing through shelves in a bookstore. Browsing’s ebook replacement is the book blogging community: there are now over 2,000 book blogs, where bloggers write a constant stream of reviews. The Big Six have some advantage in promoting their ebooks, but the book bloggers don’t favor them as heavily as the browse effect did.

Most successful indie authors write romance novels. The frequency with which e-readers like Kindle are used for this genre has prompted some to speculate that women feel less embarrassed reading soft-core erotica on Kindle than reading a print book with half-naked men on the cover. But indie fantasy and science fiction (which is what I write) are also growing. Hocking herself has said she thinks book publishing is moving toward a model in which most debut authors go indie, then successful ones attract the attention of the Big Six and sign major book deals, leaving the many unsuccessful authors to fade away. Hocking herself signed a major book deal, although she still uses an indie format for some of her books.

A postscript: enjoy your local bookstore while it still exists. After Borders went bankrupt, Barnes & Noble emerged as the only major chain bookstore left. B&N has come out with an e-reader, the Nook (which is very nice, but doesn’t sell as well as Kindle). It has a self-publishing program called PubIt, although it doesn’t yet care about PubIt as much as Amazon cares about KDP. Barnes & Noble’s fate is deeply connected to the Big Six, and to the public’s continuing to go to “brick and mortar” retail stores to buy books made out of paper. B&N is caught in a tight spot between clinging to the paper book business model and getting 100% behind Nook and the e-reader business model. I go to my local Barnes & Noble a lot, mainly to drink coffee and look at magazines, and the place still looks as if it does a lot of business in-store. But Barnes & Noble is in danger, and knows it: it has hedged its bets by promoting the Nook heavily within its stores.

Your local library won’t be around forever, either. The Google Books Project has tried to scan every book in ten libraries, so as to create a huge digital and searchable public library. Google ran into legal trouble about the copyrights of old books and is stalled by ongoing litigation, but it is only a matter of time before paper libraries are replaced by more efficient online digital ebook file repositories.

As for book publishing, it isn’t clear what the future will look like. But I think the indie movement and ebooks are not going away. The summer of 2012 might be looked upon as the birth of the indie movement. History has shown that technology and economics are two hugely powerful forces behind social change. So don’t be surprised if a dramatic shift happens within the next five to fifteen years, not unlike the “dotcom” shift of the 1990s, when the internet took off: the Big Six and paper bookstores will collapse, and the book universe will consist of hundreds of thousands of indie titles, all available for 99 cents with the push of a button.




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