Monday, June 6, 2011

As the Page Turns

I work for a small press that publishes books about Asia. We take chances on unknown writers, edit them carefully, pay them a lump sum, and put their words into beautiful trade paperback editions that have weight and substance. We keep our titles in print and we pay for sales reps to present our books across the United States and Canada. So far none of our books have made a profit for us, but we continue to publish books that we believe are well-written and well-illustrated.

We should be an author's dream, right? Wrong.

This is what I hear from writers:

1) What! No royalties????

2) What! You only pay that much for a manuscript?

3) What! You don't have sales reps in the UK? South America? Cambodia?

4) What! You expect me to rewrite my blog pieces so they will make a coherent and logical book?

5) What! You won't send me on a nationwide book tour?

6) What! You expect me to revise my work?

7) What! You've deleted my prose in this spot?

8) What! You don't have a marketing department?

These are direct quotes except for the two words that usually follow What...

And in answer to these heartfelt cries of anguish, I have a brief reply:

Self-publish as an e-book. Consider print-on-demand and consignment sales. Take two aspirin and don't call me in the morning.

I am a writer. I've also been a bookseller at a store that is known to be one of America's best. I buy books for pleasure reading. I work for this small press and I am published by it too. I have covered just about every inch of this waterfront, which by the way, is not dead yet.

I have friends who were published by major houses, were paid a lot of money, and now have books that are out of print. I have friends who were published by major houses as paperback originals and saw their words put on grainy paper with cheap, curling covers. For me, it means a lot for my books to stay alive and to look as though they are worth more than a damn to the business that brought them into the world.

But that's me--and I am clearly an idealist. I still believe in books as physical objects that deserve respect. But that respect has to come from all sides of the publishing spectrum. It's not are not Prince Charming on that white horse, out to make every dream come true. But if we work together, we can make your book come true--in a way that makes everybody proud. Probably not rich or famous but proud to say, "See that book? That's mine."

Thursday, June 2, 2011

All the News All the Time

For the past fourteen years, when I have lived in Thailand, I've lived in the same neighborhood, and during that time the same woman sold me a paper any time I wanted one. Long after other stalls gave up on selling Bangkok's two English language newspapers, this lady continued to carry them. She looked rather gleeful when I told her she was the only person who now did. And when I came back from a trip to Laos, ecstatic to see newsprint in my language again, she looked almost as happy as I did.

She was on the sidewalk every day for the entire day, behind her little cart, owning that portion of the street. She always looked old from the first day I saw her until the day she told me it was her last as a newsstand proprietor. "I'm sick," she said, "I'm old."

"I'll miss you," I said, and I do. It's difficult for me to go to that part of my neighborhood now; part of my world has been diminished. One of the people with whom I've shared a history of sorts is gone and a piece of the fabric that tied me to this spot in the city has frayed. My community is fading, both with people departing and places transforming into something I wish they hadn't.

This street has several gigantic estates, with a thick green canopy of leaves rising above the walls that conceal them from the rest of the neighborhood. I've peered through the gates of these places for years, fantasizing about someday having one for my own. Then came the day that the gates swung open on the greenest of these compounds and the trees came down. My heart broke.

There are four air-conditioned restaurants on this street now, all of which serve mediocre food, often thawed and heated in a microwave. There are precious few people who make food in a wok--and when I think about it, I can't blame those who've stopped using one. It's hot and hard work, with fumes from frying chile and garlic that have to damage the lungs and eyeballs of whoever is frying them. Nonetheless, the stinging fragrance of sizzling food is one I never thought I wouldn't smell on the street of my neighborhood.

The tapping of sticks that heralded the approach of an itinerant noodle-seller, the mournful call of the kouay-chai man, the little Bozo-the-clown horn that meant ice cream was on its way were all sounds of my street which I rarely, if ever, hear now. Life is change, and it is changing all around me. It makes me realize that what I thought made this place home was merely cosmetic; more and more I feel as though my neighborhood has gone away, leaving me behind.

A friend who lives in the heart of Bangkok told me his neighborhood holds everything--department stores, supermarkets, hotels for visiting guests, bars, bookstores, fleshpots, Middle Eastern enclaves--the list could fill a Webster's Unabridged. It's an urban and urbane spot; highrises soar and so do the prices of meals in many of the restaurants. When many people think of Bangkok, they think of this part of the city.

My neighborhood holds Thailand. Resolutely without sophistication and largely homogeneous, it's a spot where the opening of a new convenience store means every street urchin gets a helium balloon and where a pair of shoes can die within a month because there are damned few sidewalks. Ancient food carts serve up delectable meals in surroundings of dubious hygiene. The same fat dog sprawls on the same sidewalk every day, forcing pedestrians into the street, taking up more room with each passing year.

But it's a village encircled by highrises and will eventually become indistinguishable from the rest of Bangkok--international, glitzy, on the move. There will be a Big C complex where now the huge food market sets up three times a week and condos will have sprouted where the trees tower behind walls. And residents in that future- to- come will buy their copy of the Bangkok Post or the Nation or even the International Herald Tribune as part of the way that life is meant to be, never knowing that once in this neighborhood, these could only be purchased from one stout little newsstand owner, a lady who kept on going until she no longer could.