Monthly Archives: April 2011

What Do Children’s Brain Cells Do? Not Much Anymore

Long ago humans possessed a tail, but today it is vestigial.  Will the same be said one day about human imagination?

Reading Lawrence Downes’ thoughtful speculations in the New York Times about the impact of interactive books on children, we have to wonder if our descendants will be devoid of one of the key characteristics that separate us from all other species. His concerns are intensified by a study that “found children swimming in a media ocean.” “What,” he wonders, “does interactivity do for the imagination, as reading a book gets closer and closer to watching television?”

Downes’ dark ruminations were inspired by a visit to Apple’s virtual bookstore, “a wonderland of unbound creativity and astonishment. The text is just the beginning, an anchor for pictures that glow and unfold, characters who talk and tumble, words that pronounce themselves and music that enlivens everything…. But does digital interactivity engender mental passivity? As fingers flick and flit, making pixels work harder, what do brain cells do?”

What indeed?  If they don’t do anything, they will atrophy and fade into oblivion, making us little better than cabbages gazing at screens.

Richard Curtis

Every Blogger owes a debt of gratitude to newspapers and magazines. This posting relies on original research and reporting performed by The New York Times.


Brits Hit Pirates While Yanks Fiddle

We don’t know if British authors are angrier about piracy than their American counterparts but they seem to be doing more about it.  Parliament passed a law, The Digital Economy Act, that entitles the national utility serving its citizens’ computers to cut off service to illegal filesharers.

In just one week in April 2011, after receiving 831 reports of piracy, the British Publishers Association issued 2194 takedown notices, according to Nicole Kobie writing in The Association has even created a website for authors to report online piracy.

Compare that to the non-existent initiatives conducted by the US government. Remind us – just what are we waiting for, exactly?

Richard Curtis

For a full archive of our articles about piracy, visit our Pirate Central Page.


Richard Curtis at the Crossroads Where Agent and Publisher Meet

Richard Curtis did not just witness the evolution of the publishing industry from print to digital, he had a significant hand in shaping it.  In a Digital Book World interview conducted by Rich Fahle, the agent and e-book publisher candidly discusses his role. The video may be seen below or on DBW’s website.

From the interview:

“Agents find themselves more and more providing services they never needed to render in the past: cover approval, correcting cover copy, editing, spellchecking authors’ manuscripts, marketing and other tasks that should be the publisher’s, but publishers either can’t or won’t do some of these things. They keep pushing the burden of responsibility back on the author. And if the author can’t do it or is helpless or doesn’t want to, the agent has to do it…



My Friend, BB

I lost a client last week; no, I lost a treasured friend. And the writing community lost an author who was the very definition of professional.

“BB”, as she always signed her emails to me, was Beverly Barton. Prolific, organized with almost military precision, a Southern belle with an accent to match and a heart of pure gold, Beverly was for me the rarest of breeds: a happy author. I don’t know anyone who loves writing as much as Beverly did, who loves her editor, her publisher, her colleagues and her industry as much as BB.

I can’t imagine a Romance Writers of America conference without her. Beverly was my client for almost two decades and we shared countless social and business occasions, but when it came to the national conference she went into overdrive, a fountainhead of vivacious charm. She was passionately dedicated to her writing community, and her hand was perpetually extended to assist young authors. Among my younger clients, there are those who will never forget her warm and giving nature, her eagerness to help them share the profession she so adored.

Among the many tragic ironies of her shocking and untimely death at the age of 64 is that today is the publication date of her new novel Dead by Morning. Beverly, this one’s for you. We salute you for all you have given to us and mourn all that we have lost.

Richard Curtis

Here are links to her obituary and a lovely tribute by Barbara Vey.


That’s Right, Blame the Co-Author

Are you an And? A With? An As Told To?  A Ghost? Wherever you stand on the co-author ladder, there’s a good chance that sooner or later your partner will blame you for his own screwup.

The latest example is author Greg Mortensen’s  explanation for alleged factual lapses in his bestselling memoir Three Cups of Tea, written with David Oliver Relin.

How are co-authors selected? How are their qualifications evaluated? What is the legal relationship between authors and co-authors? The answers can be found in a two part piece we’ve posted, Collaborations,Part 1 and Part 2, but to summarize:

Generally speaking, co-authors are usually recommended to principal authors by their agents or publishers. The writers are seasoned professionals and are considered reliable, responsible and reputable. They are almost invariably skillful and, like members of an elite guild, proud of their craftsmanship.

Because in most instances they are equally liable with the principal author for libel, plagiarism or other claims, they must be diligent researchers who double-check every fact, take scrupulous notes at interviews, and accept no statement at face value made by the author. In fact they must be doubly diligent, covering not just their own ass but the author’s, too, because that author is all too often too busy, distracted or impatient to bother with details. Co-authors know that if they screw up, they may never work in this town again.

In the case of Three Cups of Tea, co-author Relin was recommended to Mortensen, presumably because Relin possessed the above qualifications.  Certainly, when the book rode high on the bestseller lists and minted tons of royalties, the choice of Relin was regarded as brilliant.  When doubts were cast on the book, however, the blame game began, and questions about Relin’s role were raised.  Rather than stand up for his co-author, Mortensen pointed a finger at him.

In an exclusive interview with Alex Heard posted on, Mortensen explained himself thus:

It’s really complicated, but I’m not a journalist. I don’t take a lot of notes. David and I collaborated. He did nearly all the writing, and along with hundreds of interviews of those involved in the story, I helped him piece together the whole timeline, and from that we started creating the narrative arc and everything.

David insisted on writing the book in third person, which is really awkward. The publisher said, Greg, you’re too understated, so this needs to be in the third person. My wife, Tara, also told me that if I wrote a book, it would be a pamphlet.

What happens then is, when you re-create the scenes, you have my recollections, the different memories of those involved, you have his writing, and sometimes things come out different. In order to be convenient, there were some omissions. If we included everything I did from 1993 to 2003 it would take three books to write it. So there were some omissions and compressions, and … I don’t know, what that’s called?

Literary license?

Yeah. So, rather than me going two or three times to one place, he would synthesize it into one trip. I would squawk about it and be told that it would all work out.

What Relin’s role was in errors of fact, we don’t and may never know, but we’re pretty skeptical that it was his fault. Writers take the fall all too often for the foibles, follies and failures of their higher-profile principals. Co-writers don’t complain when someone gets rich riding on their backs. But they have every right to speak out when their riders kick them.  We need to stand up for collaborators.

Richard Curtis


Can Lagerfeld’s Book Aroma Outdo Crunchy Bacon?

Karl Lagerfeld has developed a new fragrance – the smell of book.

Simulating the aroma he inhales in his 300,000-title personal library, he will capture and sell it in an actual book hollowed out to contain a flacon of “Paper Passion.”

Lagerfeld is by no means the first to try to emulate the smell of books.  Here’s a piece we ran in November 2009 called “Aerosol Makes Your Nook Smell Like Crunchy Bacon.”


A while back we wrote up a book lover who said she was reluctant to buy a Kindle “unless Amazon comes out with a special ‘book scented’ Kindle.” (See If They Can Make the Kindle Smell Like a Book, Maybe She’ll Buy One). It was all kind of a joke, but an enterprising manufacturer took it seriously enough to produce a line of aromatics simulating book scents. The aromas include New Book Smell and Classic Musty. The product is trademarked as Smell of Books™ and here’s how their website describes it:

Does your Kindle leave you feeling like there’s something missing from your reading experience?
Have you been avoiding e-books because they just don’t smell right?
If you’ve been hesitant to jump on the e-book bandwagon, you’re not alone. Book lovers everywhere have resisted digital books because they still don’t compare to the experience of reading a good old fashioned paper book.
But all of that is changing thanks to Smell of Books™, a revolutionary new aerosol e-book enhancer.
Now you can finally enjoy reading e-books without giving up the smell you love so much. With Smell of Books™ you can have the best of both worlds, the convenience of an e-book and the smell of your favorite paper book.
Smell of Books™ is compatible with a wide range of e-reading devices and e-book formats and is 100% DRM-compatible. Whether you read your e-books on a Kindle or an iPhone using Stanza, Smell of Books™ will bring back that real book smell you miss so much.

Among the five smells offered is “Crunchy Bacon”. This is a welcome novelty for noses jaded by such natural book fragrances as grass, leather, printer’s ink, and decaying paper. Hopefully, the Library of Congress, the New York Public Library and the Bibliothèque Nationale de France will invest heavily in shpritzing their collections with Crunchy Bacon. Some other but lesser known aromas associated with books are baked lamb shank, General Cho’s Chicken, and asparagus vinaigrette.

On a more scientific note, Henry Fountain of the New York Times reports on research to quantify old-book odors to help librarians preserve books more effectively. Fountain describes how conservators “analyzed the volatiles produced by 72 samples of old paper of different types and in varying condition from the 19th and 20th centuries, using liquid chromatography-mass spectrometry. They found that some compounds were reliable markers for paper with certain characteristics — high concentrations of lignin or rosin, for example, which make paper degrade relatively quickly.”

There was apparently no manifestation of crunchy bacon in the spectrum analyzed by the scientists, but it is well known that subatomic bacon particles are even more elusive to detect spectrometrically than the Higgs boson, and the Large Hadron Collider at CERN may be required to capture one.

Read Digging Into the Science of That Old-Book Smell. And here’s the article about Lagerfeld: Karl Lagerfeld to create fragrance that smells of books

Richard Curtis

Every Blogger owes a debt of gratitude to newspapers and magazines. This posting relies on original research and reporting performed by The New York Times.


The Shape of Books to Come

How far can you thrust your tongue into your cheek without it punching through your flesh? You’ll find out when you read The Future of Books by James Warner on the website. Warner projects the evolution of books decade by decade until 2080, when we learn what dolphins will be reading.

Here’s a preview from 2030.



2030: All Books Will Be Crowdsourced and Cloud-Based

Novelists will start out designing their characters in the form of sets of vinyl figurines. If these generate enough buzz, fans will produce the actual novel collaboratively as a wiki. As you read it, thermal cameras will measure your physiological signals, including flickers in eye movement, facial muscle contractions, and heart rate, to determine where you want the story to go next—it will be expected to read itself to you, explain itself, and unobtrusively weave your incoming text messages into the dialogue. You will also be able to fine-tune details of how the characters are digitally rendered, fire at them, and (when imperative) indulge in cybersex with them. If a novelist is posthumously discovered, his or her vinyl figurines may wind up as collector’s items.



Specialty Bookstores Don’t Get Any More Specialized Than This One

We’ve heard of popup stores for Halloween costumes. We’ve heard of them for Christmas ornaments.  But we’ve never heard of one for books. And we’ve certainly never heard of one devoted to a single book.

But there’s a first time for everything, and credit for that distinction goes to Andrew Kessler, who “booked” a New York City storefront and, with a lot of help from his friends, opened a shop dedicated to sale of just one title – his own.  It’s called Martian Summer, and if you happen to be in the vicinity of 547 Hudson Street in lower Manhattan, drop in and support your local bookstore and its unique merchandise.

Jason Boog of Galley Cat reported Kessler’s “Monobooklist” store and you can read in detail here how he used up his ration of favors to enlist help.

In case the popup store has popped down by the time you read this, here’s a link to the print and Kindle editions on Amazon.  And you won’t want to miss the video (below) of Kessler infectiously describing what it’s like to do Martian science from a distance of millions of miles – “Like hitting the Nerd Lottery!”

Does Kessler advise other authors to follow in his footsteps? “I’d be very nervous to tell others to spend their hard-earned money on art projects (although I secretly want them to).” Thanks, sir, but, knowing the cost of Manhattan real estate, we’ll pass on that one.

Richard Curtis


Huffpo Sale Built on Bloggers’ Backs, Class Action Asserts

Jonathan Tasini has lent his name to another class action lawsuit, and if the last one is any guide, this one will be bitter and protracted and expensive. It may also be successful. New York Times Co. v. Tasini was waged on behalf of freelance authors and made its way up to the US Supreme Court where the authors’ rights were upheld.

This one is on behalf of bloggers, specifically those who posted on Huffington Post.

“HuffPo,” as it is nicknamed, is one of the most successful media sites of the last decade. Its value was concretely recognized when AOL acquired it recently for $315 million.  But the deal soon provoked criticism because the site’s success has been built on the sweat of unpaid bloggers.

Granted that when they originally wrote for HuffPo the bloggers seemed okay with trading a paycheck for a byline. But when they heard about all that money being shelled out for the value that they had added free of charge, they began to grumble.  Those grumbles are now embedded in the claim filed by Tasini representing more than 9,000 bloggers.  They feel that $105 million out of the AOL money – precisely one third of it – should go to them.

We had observed the same thing when we posted Hey, Anybody Can Sell a Company for $315 Mil if They Don’t Pay Their Help

Tasini, whose fearless crusading spirit hearkens back to the days of two-fisted labor organizers, minced no words on the website dedicated to the lawsuit, comparing Huffington to “every Robber Baron CEO” who thinks that “they and only they” should profit while “peons struggle to survive”

Richard Chirgwin, writing in The Register, says “The complaint claims that the HuffPo lured contributors with the promise of exposure, but unjustly gained from them by keeping the income accrued for itself. (This is, of course, an old trick in the publishing game: any hopeful journalist will have been, at some time or other, offered the chance to ‘get exposure’ if they would let publishers use their articles for free, usually on a ‘trial basis’. This means ‘as soon as you ask us to pay you, we’ll stop running your articles’.)” See Writers sue Huffington Post for back pay

Tasini knows all those tricks, having documented them in the celebrated lawsuit that  bears his name.  That suit was born in the dawn of the digital era when magazines and newspaper republished in various digital formats pieces that had appeared in print written by freelance writers. With the Supreme Court’s affirmation he won the case, reaping some $10 million for writers (and $4 million for lawyers!)

Richard Curtis


Read This, Then Jump Out the Window

Booksellers usually divide the year into three seasons: spring, fall and Holiday. But you may not know about a fourth one, and maybe it’s just as well, because you’re going to get good and depressed when we tell you about Returns Season.

Returns Season “comes near the tail-end of the fiscal year, when we can delay the inevitable no longer and have to send back books which we’d been holding on to as long as possible for sentimental reasons; books which ‘should’ sell,” blogs Charlotte Ashley, who we gather is a bookseller.

The shipping of books back to publishers for credit towards  new purchases represents the triumph of market reality over hope. “After all,” writes Ashley, “our job isn’t to snobbishly insist readers should be reading one thing or another, it’s to provide them with a good choice of things they might be interested in. So why, after years of failing to sell some of these books, do we keep ordering them? Optimism, I suppose.”

So? What kinds of books will be consigned to ignominy?

Young Adult Literature Not Featuring the Occult (“good, insightful plain fiction aimed at young adults? Forget it. Not that that stops us from filling the shelves with Glen Huser, Polly Horvath, Alan Cumyn, Tim Wynn-Jones and Paul Yee. We just have to send them all away again at the end of every year.”)

Chinese Literature (“Oh man, China. Its day in the literary limelight has not yet arrived. Gao Xingjian won the Nobel prize in 2000, the first Chinese writer to do so, but I defy you to name offhand a single book of his.”)

Post-Soviet Russian Novels (“I think I’d be safe in saying that post-soviet Russian novels are being completely ignored by Western media, critics and readers.”)

NYRB [New York Review of Books] Classics (“We do tend to order absolutely everything they publish because their books are so damn good, so when it comes time to return and we’re sending back most of them, it looks particularly bad.”)

If it’s any consolation to retailers, they should remember that those books are going back to publishers, who will now have to refund money they had hoped they would be able to keep. Who can forget publisher Alfred A. Knopf’s rueful comment about returns: “Gone today, here tomorrow.”

Misery loves company. So, to honor the fallen during Returns Season, let your local booksellers know your heart goes out to them.

The Sadness of Books We Can’t Sell

Richard Curtis