Wednesday, November 25, 2009

The Value of Source Material

I met [EMI's chief executive] on a plane once. I said: "What is the problem? I want to do it, we all want to do it." And he explained that in the deal that we want, they feel exposed. If [digitized Beatles music] gets out, if one employee decides to take it home and wap it on to the internet, we would have the right to say, "Now you recompense us for that. And they're scared of that."

These comments by Sir Paul McCartney on why The Beatles have kept their catalog off of downloadable music outlets like iTunes have made the rounds of the blogs in the last couple weeks, and Sir Paul has been beat up pretty extensively for not understanding the Internet. I don’t find any of that very interesting (whether he’s daft or not, the bottom line is they own the rights and they can exploit them as they see fit).

Mixing Board by phil dokas.What I do find interesting is the suggestion that what Paul is actually concerned about is not mastered Beatles tracks finding their ways on to P2P networks (he’d have to be an idiot not to know they’re already there via ripped CDs etc.), but the studio source material—that is, the raw, unmixed results of the recording sessions, including, I guess, individual tracks for instruments and voices, etc. See the lower part of this Gizmodo post for further explanation. He’s afraid these will be leaked by EMI in the process of putting their catalog on iTunes et. al. (I cannot fathom how this would work, but I know nothing about the process.)

I get that this is a different thing than finished files getting leaked, but I’m struggling to fully understand the value in digitized copies of the unmastered multi-tracks and the harm in losing control of them (the actual acetate tapes are another matter still—their value I think I understand). Paul’s concern seems to me a little like a picture book artist worrying about unflattened Photoshop files leaking onto the Internet. I’m not saying this is trivial at all. Quite the contrary, I’m saying I don’t fully understand the economic or artistic harm.

Maybe it’s because I default to text when it comes to art, and I really don’t see an analogy here for novelists. If the digital folder full of Word files will tracked changes of a novel leaks, if it of interest to anyone other than future scholars and does it threaten the author economically? I think not.*

* Somehow, I should be able to tie this to Knopf’s publication of my favorite author all time’s unfinished last work, complete with facsimiles of his manuscript. But I can't.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Why YA covers are hard

Author Blythe Woolston asked a good question (possibly because I was begging for it): “Can you explain why covers for YA are always hard to do?”

Several reasons:

1. I don’t think you can look for a literal narrative image in the book for an effective cover. I mean, you could, but I think it’s a bad idea. I’ve said a million times, YA novels are generally more about character and voice than they are about plot or situation (obviously, there are exceptions, but the trend holds). But . . .

2. You really don’t want to use the cover to paint (literally or figuratively) a portrait of the main character.  This is why when you do get a “face” cover these days, it’s often done with partially obscured faces, extreme close-ups, or any number of other  tricks to keep the cover about character without intruding too much on the reader’s imagined vision of the character.

3. So you’re left with trying to convey some sort of emotional/metaphorical abstraction with design, photography (mostly stock), and type. All for an audience that can be incredibly discerning and picky about design. Fun stuff.

One book I’ve worked on provides a nice illustration of trends and challenges in YA fiction. It’s a novel called The Fat Girl by Marilyn Sachs, and it was first published by Dutton in the early 80s. It’s a first person, dark YA with an unreliable narrator (hint: it’s not about the fat girl). Here’s the jacket for the first edition:


I’d call this character focused, but too much in-focus—that is, too explicit. Even if the clothes and the hair weren’t dated, this cover would still be problematic in contemporary YA for the simple reason that it takes away too much from the imagination.

And here’s the cover for a later mass-market edition, still from the 80s. This is the cover that may have been on the book all the way into the early 90s when the book went out of print.

This cover is a scene from the book. I’d call it a narrative, plot-based cover, and it tells me absolutely nothing about the book’s voice and overall tone. Again, even if the look was up to date, it would fail as a cover now.

Fast forward to 2005. I heard about the novel on Roger Sutton’s blog* and was intrigued. I tried to find it, and discovered it wasn’t in print. I found a used copy, read it, and loved it. A lot. It’s a book that really rings true, even after 25 years. So, I bought the rights from Marilyn Sachs, and we republished it, with this cover in 2006:

Fat Girl

I can’t say this is a perfect cover (this is one of those cases where an excellent designer basically created the cover I always wanted), but I think it’s heading in the right direction at a minimum. It’s an intriguing image, a little disturbing, and it gives a sense of the dark tone of the book without prejudicing the imagination at all.

The book has done very well for Flux and seems likely to remain part of its backlist for a long time.

Bottom line: over nearly thirty years, nothing about the text of this book has changed. Not one word. It’s held up for readers very well. Can’t really say the same of the covers, eh?

* Funny to look back at that blog post of Roger’s from 2005. I commented that I couldn’t find the book, and someone called “Sara Z” commented that she had loved Sachs’s books growing up but had missed The Fat Girl. Gee, I wonder what became of Sara Z.?

We’ve been busy.

As I’ve mentioned before, author Steve Brezenoff and and I have been working with a YALSA Galley Group in St. Paul called Teen Know Best to figure out the best way to put a cover on that guy’s book, The Absolute Value of –1 (|-1| for short). We’re almost done. I’ll let  Steve and TKB director Adela Peskorz tell how it’s going:, on his blog:

Last night was our last pre-final-cover meeting with the wonderful TKBs. It was a blast, naturally, and there were even more questions and comments for me, which was nice. See, there was more time at the end before the members had to scatter because we only looked at four comps on the old overhead. Anywho, the questions and comments were mostly very flattering and I probably went red once or twice.

The point is I think most of the members who read |-1| (at least those who spoke up) liked it.

Oh! And the covers. Well, I was pretty hot on one of 'em, and pretty cold on one of them, and downright unmoved by another, but one of them in particular has me more excited than a crawfish at a clambake. Unfortunately, the AE warns me that it's nowhere near in the bag yet, what with all the necessary approvals down the road from Sales and departments like Sales. So I can't say anything specific about it. You'll all have to be patient with me. But it won't be long, mind you, as we need finals pretty right quick for the catalog.

Adela, on the TKB blog:

The whole process was fun! We loved Brezenoff’s book (especially the controversial twist :0) and enjoyed the company of Steve, Andrew, Elizabeth, and all their friends at our meetings!

We can’t wait to see The Absolute Value of -1 in print!!

I can say that Steve’s preferred cover is in the process of being wrestled into the bag. Things look good.

For my part, I’ll just say it was great to have so much thoughtful feedback on this project. The teens in the group blew me away repeatedly with their insights.

Covers for YA novels are always, always, always hard. I’ve worked on scores of them, and it only gets more difficult. Sometimes I wish Steve had written a  self help book, in which case we’d have been done ages ago:

image I mean, it’s just a mock up, but see how I left room lots of for an Oprah seal?

-Andrew Karre

Thursday, November 19, 2009

All I want for Christmas . . .


Is to a book with photographer Mike Brodie. The photo above is from an exhibition of his work in San Francisco.

Here’s a bit from the Utata article on him (which has more photos):


Around that same time period Brodie and his girlfriend, both of whom lived near tracks utilized by freight trains, began to fantasize about hopping trains. A year later he was out of high school and had a job, but he hadn't abandoned the dream of riding the rails. His girlfriend, however, was still in school. One day, according to Brodie, "I said 'Fuck this, man, I want to ride trains!' So I quit my job and waited around for a while and she still wasn't ready so I hopped a train to Jacksonville from Pensacola. I didn't know what I was doing, and ever since then it's been a learning process, learning how to ride trains correctly." He's been riding the lines ever since.

Brodie took along his SX-70 [a Polaroid camera] and photographed the people he met and the things he saw. He discovered—and became part of—a subculture of young vagabonds who'd had similar dreams, people who also rode the rails for the adventure of it. Not surprisingly, this community of travelers was fairly tight. "Half the people in my photographs know each other," Brodie says. "[T]hey all are in a similar age range and they’re all traveling and hanging out in the same areas, most of them, same groups. So if they don’t already know one another, they will down the road. Or they’re MySpace friends. All those traveling kids all are on MySpace, all have cell phones and all keep in touch with one another."

-Greg Fallis

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Put down that screwdriver

I’m kind of surprised that there hasn’t been more blogosphere discussion of the article called The Defiant Ones in The New Yorker of a couple weeks ago. It’s a piece about picture books and well worth reading (even though it’s more about parenting ultimately than about books). There was one particular facet of the author’s argument that feels to me like part of a larger trend in the cultural relationship with children’s books—one that I find troubling. In the article, author Daniel Zalewski writes:

“In this confrontation-averse age of parenting, in which the “escalation” of emotions is considered a mark of failure, a favorite way of inculcating discipline is the reading of picture books. The language of a good children’s story is precise and consistent, offering a genial way for parents to address misbehavior.” [Emphasis mine.]

Picture books, in Zalewski’s estimation can be a means to an ends for many parents. If “inculcating” wasn’t clear enough, he writes it explicitly: “Many new picture books tout themselves as disciplinary tools.”  He points out that picture books often reflect trends in parenting and discipline over time.

“[T]he stern disciplinarians of the past—in Robert McCloskey books, parents instruct children not to cry—have largely vanished.”

All of this is fascinating, and I don’t disagree with much in his read on things (comparing No David to a Michael Bay movie is brilliant). What I wish he would have teased out more, though, is how an audience’s perception of discipline in children’s bo0ks can take two very different forms, and that we might be at a moment of imbalance between the two.

I’m sure parents have always used picture books as tools to teach, as exemplars of behavior, etc—that’s one form. But don’t forget that for a child, especially a very young child, discipline is a huge part of their day, whether they read or not. Disciplining the self physically, socially, and emotionally is a child’s whole educational concern for at least the first few years of his life, and to the extent that picture books are largely concerned with discipline, those books are reflecting a world and not necessarily projecting a lesson. It’s no more surprising or deliberate that picture book authors write about discipline than it is that Jane Austen wrote about domestic life on English estates in the late 18th century. And it’s not necessarily any more didactic.

It’s possible for a parent and a child (or especially a child alone) to read a picture book that depicts a disciplinary philosophy and not take a position on or come away with the philosophy on display. Or, to put it another way, it is possible—dare I say, desirable—to read a picture book for the sake of the pleasure of reading a story well told. It would be a great pity if this weren’t that case and if I could not read, say, Traction Man Is Here, to my son because the parenting on display in that excellent book is not up to snuff or because it’s not relevant to the disciplinary challenge my son faced five minutes earlier.  My Henry isn’t proving to be the least bit shy or afraid to speak out, so should I be worried that he loves Nancy Carlson’s Henry’s Show and Tell? I’m pretty sure he just likes the way Nancy draws shaky knees.

In the end, I think the most troubling word for me in the article is “tool.” Maybe it’s just that this comes so close on the heels of the end of Reading Rainbow or so soon after reading this post on the Shelf Talker blog, the one that begins "I've noticed a strange trend among grandparents these days, and sometimes among parents: the tendency to reject a book for not being specifically, literally representative of their child's world" (mirrors are tools, too).  Maybe it just feels like we’re becoming indifferent or even hostile as a culture to aimless reading, un-purposeful reading.

Reading doesn’t have to be a “tool,” a screwdriver to tighten the screws of a particular disciplinary scheme (or, later in childhood, of any other educational agenda). Yes, reading can be a means to an end, of course. But reading should also be an end unto itself, and if we fail to value that, we are in trouble.

-Andrew Karre

Monday, November 9, 2009

The Dress Code

There’s a decent article in the New York Times on dress codes in high schools that ought to be of interest to YA writers. One gets the feeling that the Times could create a Mad Libs version of this article and just fill in the new fashion trends every few years.

I’m inclined to believe that certain dress codes can be a kind of generally harmless restriction that is actually more valuable to self-expression than a policy of total acceptance of any wardrobe. I suffered no lasting consequences from “fascistic” no-hats policy enforced in my high school, but I certainly benefitted from my fruitless efforts to overturn the policy. (In retrospect, it’s a pity there was no policy that prevented me from sporting an Amish-style beard for much of high school.)

On the other hand, I can see a dress code becoming part of larger program of suppressing individuality in harmful ways. If a dress code has the effect of stripping away the element of individuality that is giving a marginalized kid the strength to get through the day, then that dress code is doing much more harm than good. Wardrobe can be a kind of armor, it seems to me.

Also interesting to me was this bit about the “traditional black drape” for girl’s senior yearbook photos”

At Wesson Attendance Center, a Mississippi public school, just that sort of fight erupted over senior portraits. Last summer, during her photo session, Ceara Sturgis, 17, dutifully tried on the traditional black drape, the open-necked robe that reveals the collarbone, a hint of bare shoulder.

I’d never heard of this, so wasn’t entirely sure what to picture. until I did some Googling. Sadly, it’s less dramatic than I was picturing. And here's an interesting and detailed policy for senior photos.