When Math Can Be Murder

I knew Wendy Lichtman was a good writer (Washington Post, New York Times), but I never thought she (or anybody) could pull off a book so inventive and winning as “Secrets, Lies & Algebra” (HarperTeen; 183 pages; $6.99 paperback).

It’s a great novel for young readers in the 6th-8th grades, but if you’re a math-phobic oldster like myself, it’s even better for mature(d) audiences.

The story takes off like a rocket and before you know it, principles of algebra and even a little non-Euclidean geometry (I never heard of it before but now find indispensable) fly into your brain as though destined to reside there. (more…)

The National Book Foundation Responds

Dear Readers:

I don’t want this response from Harold Augenbraum of the National Book Foundation – sponsor of the National Book Award ceremony I wrote about Monday – to get lost in the comments page so I’ve brought it up front here.

It’s a stirring defense of an evening I will always regard, I’m afraid, with “unrelentingly negative” thoughts, as he puts it, but there is information here we should all celebrate regarding the hard work the NBA has done (and that I didn’t mention in my column) to get these awards noticed outside New York. At the same time – well, my reply follows his letter below.

Dear Pat,

Your column is interesting, but missing many facts: (more…)

Three Things I’d Love to See #2.2


[Part Two]

What a piece of work is mainstream book publishing in New York! Yesterday’s column looked at how remote and exclusive it’s become, how isolated from the rest of the country. The National Book Awards fiasco was cited as a humorous example, but two other influences (see below) demonstrate how serious the stakes have become.

Philip Roth Makes a Demand

I admit another side of me is saying about the National Book Awards debacle, So they had a little party (all right, a big party) — you don’t have to make a federal case out of it. Life in book publishing is not easy, and these people work hard to survive, so give ’em a break. It was just one night.

Right. It’s what that one night represents that we should look at – indeed what Philip Roth has been railing against with his Nathan Zuckerman novels for years. That same Page Six mentality that turns the arts into a gossip machine has moved the focus of publishing away from books that are literature and put the spotlight on the authors who create literature. Roth doesn’t mean we’re honoring authors more than books – quite the contrary. He means we’re exploiting famous authors by writing biographies that deliciously and salaciously accent their hidden pasts, their secret inspirations, their dark side. It’s more lucrative to do that, he says, than to publish serious literary works.

In Roth’s latest novel, “Exit Ghost,” he especially indicts “cultural journalism” as presented and practiced by the New York Times. (more…)

Three Things I’d Like to See #2.1


[Part One]

Right, they’ll never do it, but shouldn’t mainstream publishing houses want to explore a world beyond the Hudson River? Maybe talking about it will shed light on such fiascoes as the recent National Book Awards (see below) and the defensive reaction to a Nobel Prize judge’s accusations that the U.S. publishing community has become “too isolated, too insular.” (Honeys, it is.)

I’ve never understood why American publishers duplicated the British model of placing mainstream houses in one location so they would dictate to the tastes of the rest of the nation.

Why didn’t we load our printers and binders into the wagons as we went hacking and slashing across the Plains to the West? We certainly brought our newspaper presses. But for some reason – perhaps it was the independent wealth of publishing founders — we kept book publishing on the East Coast and eventually in New York City itself. We decided to depend on a “cottage industry” ideal in which literary ideas would foment within the social exchange of like-minded people.

By now, however, working in close proximity has made New York book publishers appear inbred and clannish. If you can’t get them on the phone, it’s because they’re calling/emailing/texting each other, lunching at publishing “in” spots, complaining about hotel rates at Frankfurt or BookExpo and working the room at author receptions as if a world outside publishing doesn’t exist. (more…)

Three Things I’d Like to See #1


(Note: This seems like an obvious next step for the book industry, although publishers hit the roof when I’ve shown it to them, as you’ll see. — Pat)

If you were an author, wouldn’t it be great if your publisher gave you a password to your own royalty account?

This would be an online, frequently updated, always accessible, entirely confidential page on your publisher’s website that would replace the current system.

As frequently as you wish, you could check sales of your book, the rate of returns, the percentage taken out for reserves and varying royalty rates for bulk sales, special sales, premium sales, electronic sales, and so forth.

As it is now, most authors have to wait six months for a printed, snail-mailed royalty statement that’s filled with outdated information that’s mired in financial gobbledygook their own agents can’t decipher. (more…)

Suddenly This Summer: The Firing of Jane Friedman

Jane Friedman


No matter how many times it happens, I’m always surprised that a corporate mogul like Rupert Murdoch has the audacity to fire a CEO like Jane Friedman (right), who in her quietly visionary way brought a middling publisher, HarperCollins, into the 21st century and kept the bottom line thriving as well.

But fire her Murdoch did, in a meeting that took Friedman completely by surprise, according to “Pub Crawl” columnist Leon Neyfakh in the June 16th New York Observer.

And thank you, Robert Gottlieb, former editor-in-chief at Knopf (and Friedman’s superior years ago), for saying what needs to be said – that replacing Friedman is “a dreadful mistake. Jane rescued HarperCollins from decades of sleepiness and irrelevance. … What can be in the minds of these people, losing somebody that valuable, is simply beyond my comprehension.”

Of course “these people” are the swaggering power mongers who make arbitrary decisions that damage book publishing as well as the careers of very good CEOs like Friedman.

Over the years, hasn’t it at least rankled you to see book publishing houses depend on the largesse of some jackass who either robs the company pension fund (Macmillan’s Robert Maxwell), turns himself into a rock star (Bertelsmann’s Thomas Middelhoff), forces the top editorial staff to resign (Random House’s Alberto Vitali), overrules editors to cancel a book (Richard Snyder of Simon & Schuster) or chortles to the New York Times about the many people “I fired personally” (Random House’s Peter Olson)?

Rupert Murdoch

The reason this latest dictatorial act is significant is that Jane Friedman raised the standards of her company and kept the bottom-liners happy for 10 years, all the while working for the megalomaniacal Murdoch (left). Her tenure reminded us that book publishers are still the great caretakers of a nation’s literature (whether their CEOs want them to be or not). Any sign that an ideal is still being sought or new frontiers explored with integrity could harbor new health for a creatively and fiscally stagnant industry.

All of us in the book business can learn from Friedman’s leadership, but we can also abominate the cruel act that ended her career. Only a week or so earlier (at BookExpo in L.A.), Friedman told The Observer, “I love being CEO at HarperCollins.” You’d think she could say that with confidence after a decade of quiet vision, but no. Murdoch not only sent her packing but made Friedman pretend that she planned to retire all along to get the severance package she deserves. That’s demeaning and outrageous, and yet it’s become routine in the publishing industry we know today.

The only good thing about the Rupert Murdochs of our era is that they operate by Swivel-Headed Rule, which is to say they tend to scan one company at a time and usually leave middle management alone. Happily that’s where the real work of book publishing continues and where anybody with a personal philosophy about publishing (I think we all have one) can make a difference.