Rakoff Revisited

Last week I saw Sarah Vowell on Stephen Colbert, there to publicize Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish: A Novel the posthumous book by the brilliantly acidic, but always self-aware David Rakoff. I interviewed Rakoff for The Montreal Mirror in 2010. He was here to visit the city of his birth, and to talk about Half Empty, the last book he lived to see published. This was the second time I’d interviewed him. He was a difficult interview, not because he wasn’t forthcoming, but because as the son of psychiatrist, he never stopped asking me questions. Listening back to the first interview there was way too much about me and too little about him.  To protect against this,  I scrawled at the top of my notebook “DON’T TALK TOO MUCH!!!” Needless to say he noticed it and  teased me about the whole time. But I did manage to get him to talk. 

Painfully Funny
David’s Rakoff’s latest collection is not as negative as it claims

David Rakoff’s book of essays Half Empty skewers optimism, utopian thinking, and positive psychology. It champions the less popular emotions, like anxiety and grief. Whoever wrote the back cover promises “his sharp observations and humourist’s flair for the absurd will have you positively revelling in the power of negativity. On the cover there’s a starburst sticker that reads: WARNING!!! No Inspirational Life Lessons will Be Found in These Pages.

But right now, eating brunch with Rakoff at Beauty’s, it seems like a bit of false advertising. Rakoff is hilarious as ever in Half Empty. He reminisces about group think at the turn of the millennia, his brief and ill-fated acting career, and serves as an acidic tour guide through Disneyland. Midway through writing this book, however, Rakoff discovered he had a malignant tumour in his shoulder. He’s currently undergoing chemotherapy, and there’s a possibility he’ll lose his left arm.

Considering this, he’s surprisingly upbeat as he wolfs down a normal sized plate of eggs. “My left arm is not the world’s best left arm right now, but it’s still attached. So that’s good.” I ask him for the prognosis. “I don’t know. I’m in this chemo right now that does seem to be working, or by my estimate seems to be working. But there are things where I’m as good a judge as anybody. Like, I can now sleep on my side, which I couldn’t do for a year and a half. At the top of my breath, in the left lung, there’s less pressure. So that would suggest it’s getting smaller. But is it getting smaller in the way my surgeon needs it to get smaller? I’m not a surgeon or an MRI machine, so I don’t know. I hope. I’d love to keep it. It’s a roller coaster I have to say. But it’s okay. It’s better than it’s been.”

When I point out that his relaxed attitude seems, frankly, a little inspiring, Rakoff explains that the starburst warning on the cover was mostly just a compromise with his publisher. It got him off the hook for the standard trite non-fiction subtitle. “It’s always a true story of three nouns. Money, madness, or murder. Or how the blank is blanking the blank. How the socialists are ruining America, or how the right wing is fucking you up the ass while you sleep.”

In fact, his book is not meant to advocate negative thinking as a way of life for everyone. “One size doesn’t fit all,” he says, happy to take the middle road here. “Some people are just going to be that way. Some people aren’t. It’s like having brown eyes. But I would advocate for a more realist thinking and more detail oriented thinking. It’s very nice to think in those sunny broad strokes. But eventually you do have to have detailed thinking. And optimism doesn’t really make room for that. Not on any level and not cognitively. That’s not a value judgment. That’s literally the way the brain works in an optimistic mode. It opens up, it widens, and it dilates. Which is great, but you’ll be fucked if you’re only on dilated mode.”

And being anxious, Rakoff insists, doesn’t necessarily mean being unhappy.

“I couldn’t tease apart those threads in the first chapter, about how one could be happy and anxious. And then by the end of the book I understood. When they test for sadness, anxiety may be something that they’re testing for, but it’s not the same thing. Anxiety is a sensitization to the world at large, but it’s not the same thing as fear. True fear is completely unproductive in that it leads you nowhere. At best it can evoke a kind of evolutionary flight response. So you don’t end up as somebody’s dinner. But if you’re actually not in the jungle, and you can’t fly—if the predator is in your own body, it’s useless.”

Maybe not the most feel good life lesson, but a valuable one, whatever the cover says.

Almost everything you need to know about the great e-book war, part 2

I tweeted my last post to Laura Miller at Salon.com.

Her reply, “@JulietWaters Good point, but so far they’ve had difficulty w/this because they lack physical stores: http://bit.ly/Yabi7d.”

Follow the shortlink and you’ll find Miller’s March article on Amazon’s problem convincing writers that they might want to give up print books, and bookstores that they might want to carry books published by Amazon.

This problem came to something of a head last March when Amazon published To Good To Be True, by Benjamin Anastas.  Bookstores refused to carry the print edition of this memoir by a once successful mid list writer who could no longer support himself and his young son.

But bookstores seem to have been mostly posturing. Three months later you can buy the book at Barnes & Noble. It’s listed as “Out of Stock” at their stores, but there are four copies of it at the Strand in NYC.

Miller is right. Writers want to see their books in print.  But  writers also want to feed their families. And maybe the first battles in this war are not going to be over bestselling writers. It’s not going to take a ton of investment by Amazon to pick up a few talented, but not as successful as they once were, mid list writers. If bookstores refuse to carry them, is the tide of public opinion really going to  stay on the side of bookstores, or the major publishers, and side against writers trying to make a living?

In a better world, this war that would be fought on content. Editors would set the size of advances, not marketing departments, and publishers would then be setting cultural standards that Amazon would have to fight to maintain. Talented writers would sign with the publisher that would help them write a better book.

But that would be world driven by cultural forces, not market forces.

So predictions of Amazon’s failure on this front are still very, very premature.

Almost everything you need to know about the great e-book war

Salon’s Laura Miller has written this great primer on the main issues involved in the U.S. Department of Justice’s anti-trust suit being brought against Apple. But I still think she may be missing a pretty important piece of the puzzle.

It’s a complex case, but the gist of it is: did Apple collude with the major publishers against Amazon, when Apple convinced them to move from the traditional wholesale model to an agency model in the distribution of e-books?

In the wholesale model, the publisher simply sells the book to the distributor at usually half the suggested price. In an agency model, the distributor is selling on commission and everyone–publisher, writer and distributor(Apple,Amazon)–takes a percentage of the sale.

The problem started back when Amazon, using the wholesale model, was selling kindle books across the board at $9.99. Since Amazon bought the books at more than $10, Amazon  was obviously taking a loss. Was there a longterm/longtail marketing plan afoot?

Miller lists Amazon’s possible motivations. Were they trying to draw readers to Kindle? Were they simply trying to lure customers to Amazon.com for other stuff. Or, the most popular conspiracy theory, were they trying to drive smaller distributors out of business?

Apple stepped in to “save the day” with its agency model, back when everyone was  mostly a subscriber to the last theory.

One important theory is, however, missing from her list. The cost and effort involved in the mechanics of publishing are now a fraction of what they once were. Was it possible that Amazon intended to become a major publisher?

A friend of mine has recently been working with an Amazon editor on a Kindle Single. Amazon seems to have a pretty generous deal going with its new writers. I don’t know of any writer with a big publisher who gets 70% of the profits.

With Amazon taking advantage of the New York publishing industry’s revolving door of editors, all it has to do is  poach a few mega selling authors, and the gates will open.

Publishers are essentially banks. They loan writers money based on how likely it is the writer will be able to pay the advance back, and expect to write off many of those first few loans. Anti-trust, or no anti-trust case, the biggest bank is going to win this one.

Now does anyone want to start speculating on why Google has been selling its  Nexus tablets under cost?