Category Archives: original reporting

Whither Soft Skull?

Where's Soft Skull headed now that Denise Oswald has taken over for Richard Nash? Over at The Quarterly Conversation I talk to her about the press's future, which, Oswald says, will definitely include translations.

PEN Honors Chinese Dissident Liu Xiaobo

Liu-xiaobo
With the recent English-language publication of books like Yu Hua’s Brothers and Wang Gang’s English, Western readers might perceive a thaw ongoing in China. After all, these books and others like them were originally published in China, and they offer a frank portrayal of some of the worst excesses of the Cultural Revolution.

Make no mistake, however, not all Chinese writers are free to write and publish what they please.

That point was driven home on April 29, 2009 when the PEN American Center honored the Chinese poet and essayist Liu Xiaobo, following up on the April 16 presentation to Xiaobo’s wife of the PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award. Xiaobo could not receive the award in person because he is currently detained by the Chinese government.

In a press release, PEN called Xiaobo “one of China’s preeminent dissident writers and activists and a leading figure in the PEN movement internationally.”

Xiaobo was arrested on December 8, 2008. Although the authorities did not give an official reason for his arrest, many see it as significant that the arrest occurred the day before the publication of Charter 08, “a public appeal to promote human rights and democracy in China.” (Charter 08 can be read in its entirety in English in the January 15, 2009 issue of The New York Review of Books, available free online.)

Although Xiaobo was arrested for political activities, at the ceremony honoring Xiaobo’s work, his wife, Liu Xia, emphasized the connection between Xiaobo as a writer and as a dissident:

I understand that this award is not meant to encourage Liu Xiaobo, the poet, but rather to encourage Liu Xiaobo, the political commentator and initiator of Charter 08. I would like to remind everyone of the close connection between these two identities. I feel that Xiaobo is using his intensity and passion as a poet to push the democracy movement forward in China . He shouts passionately as a poet ‘no, no, no!’ to the dictators.

In a letter to The New York Review of Books, Xia elaborated on this idea:

In my eyes, he has always been and will always be an awkward and diligent poet. Even in prison, he has continued to write his poems. When the warden took away his paper and pen, he simply pulled his verse out of thin air. Over the past twenty years, Xiaobo and I have accumulated hundreds of such poems, which were born of the conversations between our souls.

Sarah Hoffman, a Freedom to Write Associate at the PEN American Center, said that PEN wanted to honor Xiaobo both for his dedication to freedom of expression and his dedication to PEN. Citing his four years as president of the Independent Chinese PEN Center (2003 – 2007) and his role in the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989, Hoffman said, “Throughout his entire life he has represented so fully what PEN is all about: freedom of expression, advancing literature, and promoting literary fellowship. And even beyond that, regardless of any of his political inclinations or desires, he has advocated non-violence–he has advocated words and dialogue. On Tiananmen Square in 1989, there’s this iconic image of Xiaobo trying to smash a rifle that he had taken from a worker who was there to defend the students on the steps of the Monument. He likely prevented even more bloodshed on the night of June 3-4 by calling on all students and workers to put down their weapons.”

Hoffman also noted that what separates Xiaobo’s writing from from other Chinese writers who have discussed politically sensitive matters in their work is that “it’s a different, more relaxed line that these novels are skirting–many aspects of the Cultural Revolution are now permitted to be discussed and dissected in China.” She contrasted this with discussing Tiananmen Square, as Xiaobo does, which she characterized as “very different.” Hoffman added: “The government that initiated the Cultural Revolution of the ’60s and ’70s is not the same one that oversaw the crackdown on pro-democracy activists in 1989. That government is still in place, and that is the government that Liu Xiaobo is criticizing.”

Xiaobo was previously imprisoned for his role in the events of 1989. Since then he has been placed in a reeducation-through-labor camp, regularly subjected to harassment and surveillance, and repeatedly placed under house arrest. PEN honored him for his persistence in speaking out despite this persecution, as well as for adopting a leadership role among Chinese writers and intellectuals. As Hoffman puts it, until their movement for freedom of expression is ineradicable, “Xiaobo and his fellows have made it clear that they will keep rebuilding it” in the face of setbacks.

Chinas-great-leap
None of Xiaobo’s books are available in English, although readers can find his essay “Authoritarianism in the Light of the Olympic Flame,” in the English-language collection China’s Great Leap: The Beijing Games and Olympian Human Rights Challenges, published last year by Seven Stories Press.

Despite Xiaobo’s ongoing incarceration and governmental efforts to charge him with incitement to subversion, PEN hopes that pressure from the international community will lead to his release. Hoffman found Xiaobo to be a “conundrum” for the Chinese authorities: although too well-known to keep imprisoned indefinitely, Xiaobo has repeatedly demonstrated that if released he would not cease to speak out against the Chinese government. Hoffman and PEN remain optimistic: “We hope that the PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award shines enough of a spotlight on Liu Xiaobo that the Chinese government can’t ignore the pressure from both the inside and the outside, and that they will free him immediately and unconditionally.”


For an image from the award ceremony and an interview with Sarah Hoffman, see this article at The Quarterly Conversation.

Dalkey Archive Becomes a Client Publisher of Norton

The Dalkey Archive Press has closed a deal to become a client publisher of WW Norton, which will distribute and sell Dalkey's books. This is similar to the arrangement that Norton already has in place with literary publishers New Directions and Verso.

Martin Riker, Associate Director of Dalkey, characterized the deal this way:

We remain an autonomous entity; we do
our own editorial, production, design, and marketing/publicity. It
will get our books into more stores and into more countries. We're all
excited to be working with a place as wonderful as Norton, and to be
in league with independent presses as unquestionably great as New
Directions and Verso.

He also noted that the partnership will be noticeable in Dalkey's fall catalog, which is "Dalkey Archive through and through, and in
some weird way it's more Dalkey Archive than ever."

Authors with new titles in the fall catalog will include a number of names familiar to long-time readers: Jean-Phillipe Toussaint, Gert Jonke, and Lydie Salvayre. The catalog will also feature a title by an author new to the press: Polish writer Andrzej Stasiuk, whose novel, Nine, discussed previously on this blog, won the attention of critical publications in the U.S., including The New York Review of Books.

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The Complete Cosmicomics: Full Contents and Details On Seven Newly Translated Stories

(This story is also available at The Quarterly Conversation.)

Italo-calvino Later this year, Penguin U.K. will publish a "complete Cosmicomics." The volume will bring together short stories by Italo Calvino which had previously been spread our across several volumes, or which were untranslated.

According to Rachel Love, Editorial Coordinator at Penguin Classics and Reference, the forthcoming book, titled The Complete Cosmicomics, will include:

According to Love, "Calvino published different cosmiscomics throughout his life, in Italian, and they were collected at different times by different publishers." The seven stories in the new edition "are not newly discovered" work from Calvino, but they are pieces that have not previously been translated and collected into English-language Calvino collections.

Translator Martin McLaughin explains the provenance of the seven new stories in his introduction to The Complete Cosmicomics:

A little-known third collection – La memoria del mondo e altre storie cosmicomiche ("World Memory and Other Cosmicomic Stories") (1968), a volume not available commercially in Italy – offered 20 fictions in all, 12  from the previous two collections [Cosmicomics and t zero] and eight new pieces (seven of these new items are translated here for the first time into English; the other new 1968 tale, the title story, was translated by Tim Parks as "World Memory" in the 1992 volume Numbers in the Dark).

Three of the stories have landed in U.S. periodicals. The May issue of Harper's magazine has published two of the new translations under the title "Two Cosmicomics" and in The New Yorker published "The Daughters of the Moon" in its February 23, 2009 issue.

Cosmicomics was first published in Italy in 1965, and subsequently translated to English and published in the U.S. in 1968. Called by Salman Rushdie "possibly the most enjoyable story collection ever written," it is narrated by an entity known as "Qfwfq," and the book's 12 stories create fables to explain and question various scientific theories. It won immediate praise in the United States, with D.J. Enright writing in The New York Review of Books, "These are short stories because they couldn't possibly be long ones. Cosmicomics is a truly original piece of writing, an engaging and refreshing book."

Although Calvino began his career with realist novels of post-fascist Italy, in 1952 he broke from realism with The Cloven Viscount, the fable-like tale of a 17th-century viscount, sliced into two parts by a cannonball. Calvino followed up Cosmicomics with Ti con zero in 1967 (t zero, 1969). Numbers in the Dark was published in English in 1996, translated from the posthumous Italian-language collection Prima che tu dica 'Pronto' (1993).

It is uncertain if the U.S. will see a "complete" Cosmicomics, as the rights to the stories collected in the U.K. volume are spread among Harcourt and Vintage. Additionally,  The Wylie Agency has rights to the seven newly translated works, meaning that all three parties would have to reach an agreement in order to publish the full book Stateside.

The “Complete” Cosmicomics: No U.S. Edition from Penguin

Last week I reported on a new volume of Italo Calvino's Cosmicomics, purporting to collect 7 stories previously untranslated. I noted that although a UK edition is imminent, there was no mention of a U.S. edition anywhere.

I've gotten in touch with one Rachel Love, an editorial coordinator with Penguin Classics and Reference in the UK, and she has confirmed that there is currently no U.S. edition of this book forthcoming from Penguin. The Wylie Agency has the rights, meaning that there probably will be a U.S. edition eventually, although who knows.

I'm still trying to track down information as to what exactly these 7 stories are and why they haven't been collected in a previous edition of Cosmicomics. More information on that as it becomes available.

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Reading and Publishing in Print’s Late Age: An Interview with Ted Striphas

Late-age Ted Striphas is an assistant professor of media and cultural studies and director of film and media at Indiana University. His book, The Late Age of Print, has just been published by Columbia University Press.

Scott Esposito: Your overarching argument is that books—their production, consumption, and dissemination—have been developing alongside capitalism, and in fact are very emblematic of capitalism. And just as we’re in what's known as "late capitalism" we're also in the "late age of print." Could you briefly explain what you mean by the late age of print?

Ted Striphas: “The late age of print” is a term I borrow and adapt from Jay David Bolter, a professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology, to describe this particular—indeed, peculiar—moment in the history of print in which we’re now living. It helps me to name a paradox. On the one hand, books and other printed materials exist—and for some, are becoming lost—in a media landscape more densely crowded than ever. On the other hand, printed books now enjoy an extraordinary prevalence and degree of accessibility, owing to the recent rise of big-box bookstores, internet bookselling, televisual book promotion, and the like. How could it be that books are dying and thriving all at once? This is the overarching question that the late age of print—both the idea and the book—addresses.

“The late age of print” also is a rejoinder of sorts to those who claim that we’re now living in a digital age and that, for better or for worse, print is consequently dead. The history of communication technologies tends to be written in terms of supercession, and usually it goes something like this. In the beginning was the word, which is to say, the human voice. Its predominance is challenged once writing, and eventually printing, appear on the scene. Print eventually gives way to first generation (i.e., analog) electronic media such as radio and television, whose pre-eminence eventually succumbs to networked personal computers and other digital media.

The problem with this type of history lies in the one-dimensional—antagonistic—relationship that successive generations of communication technologies supposedly share with one another. Where’s the complexity? For decades books and electronic media have been vying for people’s attention. That much is undeniable. But a singular focus such as this obscures the many ways in which electronic media have augmented both the presence and authority of books in society. Consider for example the bar codes appearing on most books today. These symbols work in conjunction with digital communication technologies to ensure that the book you want is available where and when you want it.

“The late age of print” is the phrase I use to underscore the complex relationships that books share with other media. It leads us to acknowledge the maturity of books as a medium and to deny claims that they are anachronisms today.

SE: In the book you describe something known as "The Cheney Report." This was a report published in 1932 urging greater efficiency and integration in publishing. Basically it chastised publishers for being sloppy and said they could do better if they got their act together. Even though the report didn't have much immediate impact, you argue that in the long run, with the introduction of things like standard sizing and pricing, more efficient warehousing, and the big one, ISBNs and EANs, that the industry has more or less reformed itself as Cheney said it should. A lot of people now view publishing in a similar way as the 1930s—an underperforming industry that has a fundamentally sound product and could be doing a lot better than it is. What would you put in a new Cheney report for the 21st century?

TS: What a wonderful question! Indeed, today’s book industry needs a comprehensive “Cheney Report” of its own. I suppose that The Late Age of Print aspires to be that type of resource, albeit in a modest way. The “Cheney Report” was 150,000 words, after all.

Cheney’s brilliance lay in the way in which he resisted popular wisdom about how to jumpstart the ailing book industry of the 1930s. Nearly everyone at the time was saying, “more advertising!” Cheney didn’t exactly reject this view, but he forcefully insisted that advertising wouldn’t be enough. What was lacking in the book industry, he claimed, was adequate intelligence about who buys which books, and why. He also suggested that the book industry pay much more attention to improving its behind-the-scenes technical infrastructure. In a sense he was asking the industry to listen better, and to find a more productive balance between competition and cooperation.

These days the book industry is quite logistically savvy, and in significant respects it resembles the one that Cheney imagined almost 80 years ago. Many new challenges have emerged in the intervening years, however, and only some can be addressed by looking to the “Cheney Report” for inspiration. One thing Cheney clearly tells us is that advertising will never be a cure-all for the book industry’s woes. It is at best only a partial solution—often a haphazard one at that.

To my mind, Cheney’s insight about listening endures above all else. But the book industry of today needs to do more than just figure out who buys which books, and why. It needs to become significantly more intelligent about how, where, why, and with whom people engage books. This is, incidentally, one of the reasons for the success of Oprah’s Book Club. Oprah has been adept at recommending strategies for how people might fit book reading into their busy schedules. She doesn’t perceive a lack of interest in books to be a moral or intellectual failing as much as a technical problem—one that requires relatively straightforward, “everyday” solutions. When her followers complained about lacking sufficient time to read, she suggested that they ask their loved ones for alone-time—as opposed to material things—at the holidays. The book industry needs to engage in exactly this type of listening, plus it needs to be much more proactive in terms of educating people about how to creatively align book reading with everyday routines.

SE: Throughout Late Age you elaborate the idea that the book is in many ways the quintessential capitalist good. It's gone from being a somewhat uncommon item that's sold to a certain subset of consumers to a mass marketed good that is aimed right at the heart of capitalist society, i.e. the middle class. Ebooks fit very much into your vision of books as the representative capitalist good. In fact you write that "ebooks don't suggest a waning of consumer capitalism. . . . They point to its intensification or, rather, to the emergence of new practices of controlled capitalism." Could you discuss this idea a little bit?

TS: The historical trajectory I trace in The Late Age of Print is “from consumerism to control,” which is the book’s subtitle. I begin by exploring how books provided a kind of alibi, or moral license, for the growth of a conspicuously consuming middle-class in the United States. People often forget that the system of consumer credit that sustains this group today (until the recent financial crisis, at any rate) was virtually unknown a century ago. Guided by the Protestant ethic, most ordinary Americans used to consider consumer debt to be a fool’s paradise. This type of thinking posed a problem for the industrialists of the early 20th century. They realized that capitalism would continue to thrive and expand if and only if they could open up markets beyond the wealthy minority to whom they’d generally catered. Books served this purpose unusually well, in that they tended to be looked upon as vehicles for moral, aesthetic, and intellectual uplift. That is, books could be marketed to the adherents of the Protestant ethic as productive investments, rather than as frivolous things. This belief also helped the burgeoning middle-class to justify its use of consumer credit to purchase books (along with sewing machines and the like), which helped pave the way for more liberal practices of consumption later in the 20th century.

The eventual result is the emergence of a true mass market for books in and beyond the United States. But this in turn created all sorts of anxieties among publishers, and to a somewhat lesser extent authors, particularly over the ways in which this mass of books could circulate beyond their control. At first the worry was that people were passing on their books too frequently to friends, family, colleagues, and acquaintances. Later, the book industry fretted over the duplication of books using photocopiers. Today, the bête noire is the digital scanner. In all cases, the overarching concern—and perhaps the erroneous assumption—is that the uncontrolled circulation of books and book content leads inevitably to lost sales.

Given this history, it’s unsurprising—if ultimately disappointing—to me to see the book industry now scrambling to find ways to micromanage the circulation of books in everyday life. The paradigmatic case for printed books is Harry Potter. Each new installment of the series brought with it ever more stringent legal guidelines and technological control mechanisms. These were aimed at regulating precisely when, where, how, and among whom the books would move up until their release dates. Many commercial ebook systems, such as the Amazon Kindle, employ digital rights management and other technological protection measures to achieve a similar end. The broader result of all this is the emergence of a variant of capitalism that is deeply suspicious of, and at times even hostile to, the consuming public, whose relationship to books is now monitored and regimented to an unprecedented degree.

SE: Speaking of the Kindle, you discuss the idea that ebooks are evolving our idea of copyright—from a concept of copyright that more or less says "you bought it, you can do whatever you want with it," to an idea that your rights over what you buy will be managed even after you buy it (built-in digital rights management would be an example). Do you think that ultimately copyright will evolve toward greater restrictions along these lines, or do you think a backlash along the lines of what we're seeing with Creative Commons licenses and open source will change that?

TS: My inclination here is to agree with Lawrence Lessig, who, in his recent book Remix, suggests that we’re presently moving in the direction of a “hybrid economy.” By this he means that a more restrictive (i.e., copyright- and DRM-intensive) mode of cultural production is likely to exist side-by-side, or perhaps in some combination, with more sharing-oriented systems such as Creative Commons, open source, and the like. If indeed this assessment is true—and I think Lessig offers compelling evidence to suggest that it is—then it seems to me that two challenges will present themselves.

The first will be to develop strategies so that the latter doesn’t merely become the appendage of, or “free labor” for, the former. I’m thinking of the photo sharing site Flikr, for instance. Some budding photographers who’ve posted their images there have, as a gesture of goodwill, offered them under a Creative Commons license, only to discover those images being used for commercial purposes because they chose the wrong type of Creative Commons license! There have been fewer instances of this type of disrespectful behavior in the book world, but clearly the temptation will be there as more material is made publicly available on- and offline through various open systems.

The second and related challenge, then, will be to preserve choice in a hybrid economy—and thus to keep the hybrid economy hybrid, as it were. The Late Age of Print will soon be offered for free online under a Creative Commons, Attribution 3.0 BY-SA-NC license. The printed edition will continue to be available for purchase, and perhaps one day Amazon.com will offer a digitally rights-managed Kindle edition. The tragedy for me would be if only one of these versions of the book were made available—the latter one, in particular. Like other industries, the book industry needs to learn that its clients will expect more and more choice as the years go by, and that they will find always ways to revolt if their choices narrow or become artificially restricted. As Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point shows, disrespectful behavior begets disrespectful behavior.

SE: In your discussion of Amazon you argue that it has made the business of bookselling more of a science than anyone has previously been able to. That is, its success is basically due to being able to sell more books more quickly and efficiently than anyone in history. You cite some incredible stats: books sit on Amazon's shelves an average of 18 days, compared to 161 in a traditional bookstore. Amazon turns over some books as much as 150 times per year, compared to 4 times a year for traditional stores. And, in fact, recent stats indicate that Amazon is growing its booksales while traditional bookstores are flat or in decline. First, what is the downside to Amazon's model? What do they do poorly? And secondly, what can traditional bookstores do to compete with does Amazon's incredible efficiency and reach?

TS: The major downside of the Amazon model is what goes on behind the scenes, out of site and essentially out of mind. Most of us interface with the company through its website, where we’re greeted with an extraordinary range of books and other consumer goods. But what do we really know about Amazon.com, beyond its attractive website?

Indeed, many of us forget that the website isn’t just a portal through which we enter the Amazon store. It’s also a conduit through which Amazon quietly enters our everyday lives to engage in intelligence gathering. Amazon knows more about which books we’re interested in and have purchased than just about any bookseller around. This occurs as a result of its sophisticated client tracking capabilities, which transform our browsing around the Amazon website into an opportunity for data mining. The problem here isn’t surveillance per se. I would be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy Amazon’s personalized recommendations, which are the result of my own and others’ computer-aggregated browsing and buying habits. The problem lies with the asymmetry of this relationship. There’s little possibility for opting out of any or all of Amazon’s surveillance practices, much less of finding out what the company thinks it knows about us—erroneously or otherwise. Its data gathering and retention is all the more worrisome in a political climate in which, despite whatever thaw we’ve seen under the Obama administration, the USA PATRIOT Act remains the law of the land.

Another downside is the labor practices that Amazon must engage in to supply books and other goods as efficiently as it does. I document these issues in some detail in The Late Age of Print, so I won’t delve into too many specifics here. Suffice it to say that Amazon has quite stringent performance expectations for its warehouse workers in terms of item storage and retrieval, packaging, and more. It’s also been quite aggressive about staving off their unionization. In these and other ways, Amazon.com doesn’t at all resemble the image of the genteel bookstore that most of us would conjure when we hear uttered the word, bookstore. For that matter, it doesn’t much resemble a Borders or a Barnes & Noble, either. Amazon is a bookseller stripped down to the bare bones.

To be blunt about it, traditional bookstores cannot compete with Amazon.com unless they’re prepared to abandon the mantle of the “traditional” bookstore—by which I mean, a retail outlet where something more than an economic calculus holds sway. Nevertheless, I would suggest that they make more of an issue of Amazon’s data policies, while doing their best to ensure their own client confidentiality. Traditional bookstores also might take on more of an educative function as well, along the lines of what I mentioned above in discussing the success of Oprah’s Book Club. Finally, traditional bookstores must recognize that they cannot simply rest on tradition, and that more and more people have come to expect both off- and online bookselling experiences. What this means is that, where possible, they’ll need to invest in digital infrastructures that allow their customers to interact with the store and with one another wherever they may happen to be on the network. IndieBound is an important, if still somewhat limited, step in the right direction.

SE: You’ve mentioned Oprah a couple of times in this interview, and indeed in Late Age you devote a chapter to Oprah's Book Club. Therein, you advance what I think is an interesting argument: the book club's success was far from pre-ordained and in fact rested on Oprah's ability to make people who previously did not read much (or in some cases at all) enthusiastic about reading. Certainly this is exactly what a lot of people concerned with reading want, and you say that there's a lot to be learned from Oprah. However, you also note that Oprah's method doesn't necessarily promote a book for its aesthetic or literary value but for its ability to be vital to the lives of its readers. Some people won't like this message, and they'll be of the opinion that literature doesn't need those kinds of readers, or that this will water down literature as art and reading as something special and unique. What's your response?

TS: The belief that “literature doesn’t need those kinds of readers” is short-sighted in any number of ways. In a crudely economic sense, it’s completely self-defeating for authors and publishers. If the book industry is indeed under-performing, shouldn’t it be doing everything in its power to court any and all would-be readers, instead of freezing some—and perhaps many—of them out? That type of exclusive attitude is a pathway to one thing and to one thing only: irrelevance.

Another concern I have with this view is that it is short-sighted historically. People often forget that “pure aesthetics”—by which I mean aesthetics for their own sake, or aesthetics divorced from the immediate realities of daily life—is largely an invention of the 18th or 19th century. For most of human history (at least in the West), what made good art good was its relevance, utility, or connection to people’s everyday realities. The idea that a book’s beauty is inversely proportional to its usefulness forgets two essential facts: first, there is more than one way in which to relate to art; and second, the definition of art is neither essential nor trans-historical.

Finally, it seems to me that a “literature doesn’t need those kinds of readers” attitude is short-sighted with respect to the future. Just because a person may learn to engage with books in one particular way doesn’t mean that she or he will engage with books that way for all time. I used to chew on my books as a toddler, but do I continue to do so today? Absolutely not! This example is pretty glib (and kind of gross, admittedly), but it’s roughly analogous to one of the more interesting features of Oprah’s Book Club. Oprah often follows easier titles with more challenging ones. So, for example, Barbara Kingsolver’s Poisonwood Bible was followed by a “breeze” (Oprah’s word) of a book, Elizabeth Berg’s Open House. There are many more examples like this in The Late Age of Print. What the broader pattern suggests is that Oprah sees reading as a trajectory to challenge, rather than a challenge in itself. And this to me is a profoundly respectful way in which to welcome people into the world of books instead of turning them away at the door.

Graywolf to Publish Daniel Sada’s “Almost Never”

DanielSada_CL
I've just heard from Graywolf that they've acquired the rights to Mexican novelist Daniel Sada's book Casi Nunca ("Almost Never"). The book is scheduled for U.S. publication in 2010 or 2011. You can read a review of Casi nunca at Letras Libres.

This is great news, as it marks the first English translation of a major contemporary Mexican author, a man often compared to the likes of Juan Rulfo and even Roberto Bolano.

Sada was among the authors selected for Dalkey's recent anthology, Best of Contemporary Mexican Fiction, and I found Sada's contribution good enough to single out in my review:

The feel of “The Woman in the Red Coat” is similar to that of Daniel
Sada’s “The Ominous Phenomenon.” Here, and for virtually the only time
in the collection, we finally see Mexico’s poor close up, and although
these rurals are possibly illiterate, this story still feels the most
Bolañoian in the collection. As with so much of Bolaño, “The Ominous
Phenomenon” narrates a perfectly purposeless tale full of trivial peaks
and valleys that finally just up and quits before reaching any sort of
climax. It is also the anthology’s grittiest work, the one that feels
the most in the tradition of Rulfo’s peasants.

This is the story: A poor man has been stationed by a landowner on a
“ranch” in the middle of the desert, where there is little for him to
do other than eke out a life of subsistence. One day the landowner
deposits another man with him and charges them to “make bricks,” a job
that necessitates a painful trek over the sun-scorched earth to bring
back precious water for mud, water that should more properly be drunk
by two men who, it becomes clear, are abandoned in the desert. Why are
they making bricks? Will the boss even come back to inspect their
progress? Who knows? After negotiating some minor brushes with machismo
likely to occur between two such men in such a situation, Sada leaves
them, the bricks unmade, the daunting task of dragging back the water
still ahead, neither man any closer to any sort of answer, or even an
explanation.

Interview: Fran Toolan of NetGalley

Advance review copies seem to be one aspect of the book business that has a lot to gain from the increasing digitization of publishing. After all, ARCs are meant to be disposable (all those "not for resale" warnings), and every publicist I've ever talked to has had the experience of shipping them out by the hundreds with little actual result.

So, when I discovered a new service that wants to make electronic galleys available to reviewers, journalists, librarians, and other people, I wanted to know more. To find out, I conducted this interview with Fran Toolan of NetGalley.

(for more interviews, see Conversational Reading's Interview Page)

Fran Toolan is Chief Igniter of Firebrand Technologies, owners of NetGalley.

Scott Esposito: What exactly is NetGalley and how does it work? Specifically, how does it connect publishers with people who might want to read advance copies of books?

Fran Toolan: NetGalley is a service for people who read and recommend books. Publishers upload their galleys, plus any marketing and promotional information; then invite contacts to view their title on NetGalley. Readers can also find new titles through NetGalley’s Public Catalog, and request to review those titles from the publisher.

SE: Who is this service geared toward? Book reviewers only, or do you envision other applications?

FT: Book reviewers, definitely, but also other groups of “professional readers” such as journalists, librarians, professors, booksellers, bloggers, etc. Anyone who reads and recommend books can use NetGalley.

One of the most interesting aspects of NetGalley is the ability for publishers to include multimedia files with their galley. We support a wide range of file types—could be book trailers, illustrations, audio files, videos, simple Word docs or PDFs. This allows publishers to send a dynamic galley “package” which can be as creative and wide-reaching as they want it to be, to entice readers to engage with the title.

SE: What is the cost to publishers and reviewers who want to use the service?

FT: As a new service for Firebrand (NetGalley was acquired by Firebrand Technologies in December 2008), we are revisiting the pricing model and structure. When the service was with its previous owners, the price was set at $499 per title. Almost universally publishers felt that was too high. We’ve dropped the price to $199 per title, which allows publishers to upload their galley and associated content, invite unlimited contacts to view the title, and list in our Public Catalog.

As we work with more publishers, we may move to a subscription-based model (where publishers would pay a yearly fee depending on size, for example). This is an area where we are really listening and learning from our customers.

The service is free to all professional readers/reviewers.

SE: What kind of functionality does the service offer book reviewers? How is access to a NetGalley granted?

FT: Book reviewers and other readers can view titles they’ve been invited to view, and request titles from the Public Catalog. The publisher sets which reading options they want to offer for the galley itself. This includes the option to request a printed galley; read the galley online (in a browser window); or download a protected PDF. We expect to offer some options for reading on an e-reader fairly soon.

Publishers control access to their titles; so, for example, requesting a title from the Public Catalog doesn’t mean you will automatically have access to it. We’ve been encouraging users to complete their profiles on NetGalley to let publishers find them and approve requests.

Finally, if they choose, reviewers can share an “accepted or declined status” with publishers, and even share their completed reviews or comments.

SE: A June 1 Business Week report from BEA said that NetGalley had begun a pilot program with "500 forthcoming books from publishers Bloomsbury USA, Hachette Book Group, Sourcebooks, and St. Martin's Press." How has this gone so far? What publishers and how many titles do you work with currently?

FT: In December 2008, Firebrand Technologies took over the management and operations of NetGalley from Rosetta Solutions. We’re a company whose expertise is exclusively in book publishing, and we’re 20-year+ veterans of the space. We knew almost immediately that we’d have to do some retrenching of the application and the business assumptions in order to make NetGalley work, and we’ve been doing that. A lot was learned from the publishers in the initial pilot, but we’ve got a lot to do to deliver repeat value as each new season of books is published.

We’ve got two large hurdles in our sights right now. The first is making it easier to get content into NetGalley. You can’t have a publisher with 500 titles inputting metadata one-by-one! One of Firebrand’s core competencies is title management and distribution; you can expect to see big changes in NetGalley in this area.

The second area is in scaling NetGalley for large publishers. NetGalley hasn’t been particularly adept for large publishers like those in the June pilot. Our experience in managing projects will definitely help us here.

In the next few months, we’re inviting 15 Eloquence (Firebrand’s title information distribution service) publisher customers to use NetGalley to promote their fall titles. We’ll take their title information directly from Eloquence into NetGalley as a test of that first hurdle I mentioned above. Look for good news on how it goes!

We’re also working with some mid-sized publishers like B&H and Barbour Publishing, and some innovators like Unbridled Books and Chelsea Green. You can check out our Public Catalog to see more.

SE: What evidence do you have that NetGalley can reduce costs for a publisher? Has there been increased interest from publishers trying to trim costs during this recession?

FT: Honestly, none yet, because we’re still in an experimental stage. But, what publishers are discovering more and more every day is that the production and distribution of galleys is a very expensive and very inefficient way of seeding the market prior to the publication of a work. We often use the analogy of dandelion seeds. Publishers print galleys, send them out to people they already have a relationship with, and hopefully some good reviews will come back. There is often very little, if any, evidence that a reviewer even looked at the title. And, there is no good way to establish new review relationships.

Part of our reasoning in lowering the price with NetGalley to $199/title is to make it possible for publishers to experiment—broaden the audience and reach of the galley distribution, for example; or use NetGalley for their “big mouth” list or author outreach. Some publishers want to use NetGalley for desk copies to professors. We have some publishers who say, “I wish every librarian could have a copy of this galley.” And now they can.

Books that are very expensive to produce in print galley form (more pages, highly illustrated, etc.) show really well on NetGalley. And of course there’s no additional production or shipping costs to include supporting material like an author interview, Q&A, etc with your NetGalley.

SE: As someone who assigns book reviews, I've noted a definite preference among my reviewers for hardcopies over PDFs. What's your response to people who say they'd prefer a printed ARC?

FT; This question is one we answer almost every day. There’s still a ways to go getting people to read digital galleys exclusively, no doubt about it. And, this is one of the major areas we are focusing on.

Printed galleys can be requested via NetGalley (if the publisher chooses) and we’re working to try and enlist POD printers to help streamline this process. Another development we’re working on is to enable the protected galleys on NetGalley to be viewed securely on reading devices. Publishers seem to like the idea of using their limited print galleys where there’s a request and thus a higher likelihood of coverage.

But most importantly, I think digital galleys have an important role to fill in the search and discovery aspect of reviewing books. Most editors and reviewers don’t read the full text of every book they receive to decide if they will review it; it would be impossible. Why not use digital to read the first few chapters? Just reducing the paper waste alone would be a benefit.

Another benefit to digital galleys is off-the-book-page coverage, particularly for non-fiction books, where searching inside the book is essential. And digital is fast—if you have an opportunity for your author you need to capitalize on immediately, or if the book is delayed and you’re rushing the galleys, for example.

We’ve tried to stop thinking about it as an “either print or digital” proposition, and instead try and accommodate all the ways professional readers consume the title (or parts of the title).

SE: Lastly, although there are signs that publishers and readers are beginning to read books online and on portable devices, there's still a good deal of entrenched resistance to electronic books and book criticism (for instance, the outcry each time a newspaper kills its printed book section). How do you think opinions about this will change in the future? Have you noticed any trends regarding who's more inclined to use your service?

Let’s answer the easier part of that question first! We have noticed some trends on who’s more inclined to use our service—bloggers, for example, and librarians—who are perhaps more digitally-inclined, or perhaps have access to fewer print galleys because they are such a large audience and publishers can’t accommodate all their requests economically.

We should be clear that NetGalley is not trying to hasten the adoption of electronic books. We are trying to enhance a publisher’s ability to find the voices that will encourage the reading of a work in whatever form it takes.

The entire world of book criticism and recommendation is changing right in front of our eyes into a more flat and fragmented system. Reviews are no longer the sole purview of key review organizations. The internet has enabled the individual voice to be recognized as easily as that of a respected organization. It also allows individual voices to naturally coalesce into ‘micro-communities’ that are highly segmented in their interests.

If NetGalley can help those recommenders discover great new titles, that’s excellent news for book publishing.

How to Publish in a Recession: Godine’s David R. Godine

Brief introductory note: This is the last interview in this series. However, I'm pleased to note that in  March we'll be having some interesting stuff. This includes:

  • Two more interviews with publishing folk who are doing some interesting things
  • A joint-reading/blogging project that I'm pretty excited about: I've managed to pull in two very sharp readers, and we'll be reading the same book and discussing
    it here. This is a very large, very important novel, and I think it will be one of my best reads of the year. More next week.
  • Don't forget that the Spring issue of The Quarterly Conversation publishes next Monday. I'm quite pleased to report that this is our largest issue yet.

Now on to the interview.

(This is Part 6 (Part 5, Part 4, Part 3, Part 2, Part 1)
in an ongoing series of interviews with publishers on what the
recession means for their business. I'm interested in getting past the
newspaper reports of trouble at the giant New York publishers and
seeing what smaller and/or independent publishers have to say.)

David R. Godine is the publisher at Godine.

Scott Esposito: Since November, newspapers have been full of reports of layoffs and cutbacks at large New York publishers, and the general mood one gets from reading these reports is gloom. Would you agree or disagree that things are gloomy for publishing right now?

David R. Godine: Looking around at the scene in Boston, and especially at what seems to be happening at Houghton/Harcourt, I would say the scene is gloomy. But I suspect much f the problem there derives from the pressures coming from the Irish owners, and not from the sales of books per se. I very much doubt that with a backlist as strong as Houghton's and Harcourt's', not to mention the excellence of their respective children's divisions, that some formula could not be worked out for their survival.

SE: The recession was officially declared a couple of months ago, and many economists have backdated its beginning to early 2008. Over this time what has business been like–better, worse, or about the same? What do you attribute this to?

DRG: For us, business has been about the same, maybe even up a hair. But I attribute this to a) the seasonal influx of orders we get in December as a result of our direct mail campaign and b) Le Clezio winning the Nobel Prize. Without these two factors, I think the last two months would have been fairly grim. I am waiting to see how this year develops.

SE: What in particular are you planning to do in 2009 to react to economic changes? What's your outlook for this year?

DRG: We are being very careful in what we decide to actually publish and what we decide to reprint. Not just the titles but also the quantities. It is not going to be a very ambitious list, but there are enough titles on both the Spring and fall list with a fairly sure potential t sell well that I would say I am cautiously optimistic. Which is, of course, the only philosophically tenable position for a publisher to maintain in any market.

SE: Do you think there's something about your business model (i.e. that of a smaller, more independent press) that will allow you to get through the recession with less crisis than a place like Houghton Mifflin is experiencing right now?

DRG: Sure. First, we are privately held and cash flow is far more important than profitability. We are not answerable to stock holders for ever improving scores on the bottom line or the balance sheet. We own our own warehouse and ship our own books, so we can print for three or four years, and not just for a season. We are not expected to offer huge advances or munificent royalties, so people aren't disappointed when we live up to our, or their, expectations. Finally, we provide a fairly identifiable "quality" product and we have a fairly loyal and predictable customer base- both consumers and bookstores. When times are tough, people inevitably move to quality. They may buy less, but they buy better.


SE: In your opinion, how well do books hold up in a recession?

DRG: I tend to agree with the conventional wisdom on this; books are the last to be hit in a recession and they are often the last to recover. But I was surprised that our direct mail drop did as well as it did–both in terms of percentage of returns and the average $/order.

SE: In a recent article in The Independent, Boyd Tonkin advanced the idea that an important group of British writers came on the scene during the UK's recessionary '80s. He speculated that the economic turmoil was somehow linked to the emergence of these writers–perhaps the recession helped open the field to emerging writers and allowed more innovative publishers to put out the work of talented writers who hadn't broken into the mainstream. Some of the authors he named were Kazuo Ishiguro, Ian McEwan, Salman Rushdie, Julian Barnes, and Martin Amis. What do you think of this idea? Would you say that in times of a recession you would be more likely to publish an unknown but largely talented author?

DRG: This is a tough question. I think we would be a lot more cautious about taking on an "unknown" writer in a climate such as this- mostly because the review coverage is also going to shrink, and the library budgets are being cut, and discretionary spending for any kind of book, but most especially for books with authors of unknown weight, is becoming more discretionary. It takes an enormous amount of effort, and luck to "break out" a new writer in this climate, although I think that talent will always tell.


SE: Another effect of the recession is that a lot of bookstores are going out of business, and large chains are cutting back on their retail space and the number of books they buy. Are these closings and cutbacks affecting you in any noticeable way?

DRG: No; we only sell to Barnes and Noble and they have been very realistic, cooperative, and effective. I will miss, and I do miss, the larger independents who have had to close. The closing of a store like Dutton's or Cody's does have a major effect on our ability to get our books into major markets.


SE: In terms of the nuts and bolts of running a press–e.g. costs of paper, costs of printing, staffing, etc.–what kinds of changes are you experiencing?

DRG: We are looking very seriously at the color of the headbands we select. Enough questions already.

How to Publish in a Recession: Coffee House Press’s Allan Kornblum

(This is Part 5 (Part 4, Part 3, Part 2, Part 1)
in an ongoing series of interviews with publishers on what the
recession means for their business. I’m interested in getting past the
newspaper reports of trouble at the giant New York publishers and
seeing what smaller and/or independent publishers have to say.)

Allan Kornblum is the publisher at Coffee House Books.

Scott Esposito: Since November, newspapers have been full of reports of layoffs and cutbacks at large New York publishers, and the general mood one gets from reading these reports is gloom. Would you agree or disagree that things are gloomy for publishing right now?

Allan Kornblum: Publishing is in a huge state of flux right now, but then again, it has continually changed since the days of the oral tradition. While the distant past may not be germane, we do have to go back to the middle years of the twentieth century. At that time, publishing was certainly a business, as it is today, but it was a business that had accepted a low rate of return on investment, in exchange for the thrill (and it is a thrill) of being part of the cultural life of the country, and indeed, the world. But in the 1980s and 1990s, bigger publishers began gobbling up smaller publishers, and then multinational corporations swallowed up the bigger publishers. Suddenly these houses needed to service the debt involved in buyouts, on top of the relatively modest six-to-eight percent return on investment that Bennett Cerf and Alfred Knopf had once been happy to receive.
When you throw the internet, DVDs, and other forms of entertainment into the mix, major publishers were having difficulty sustaining their business model even before the recession hit. Now with Borders on the brink, and former readers becoming would-be writers and self-publishing books instead of reading books, a major shake-up was inevitable. Where it’s going to end is anybody’s guess. But publishing isn’t going to return 20% or even 15% on the dollar—it never has in the past, and I don’t think it will in the future. I think all these changes that are making things difficult for the major houses provide an opening for smaller publishers. It remains to be seen how it will all play out, however.

SE: The recession was officially declared a couple of months ago, and many economists have backdated its beginning to early 2008. Over this time what has business been like–better, worse, or about the same? What do you attribute this to?

AK: For Coffee House Press, 2008 went very well. We had some books with regional appeal that found their market, and books with national appeal that received a nice boost from reviewers and we had a National Book Award finalist. Our break-out titles were The Latehomecomer: A Hmong Family Memoir by Kao Kalia Yang, and Blood Dazzler, poems by Patricia Smith, our National Book Award finalist. Other titles that helped make the year a success include Jealous Witness, poems by Andrei Codrescu; Open Line, a novel by Ellen Hawley; and Famous Suicides of the Japanese Empire, a novel by David Mura.

Just like movie studios, a few big hits can help carry a small publishing house. We’ve also been doing well with the sale of translation rights. We attribute our success to a combination of factors. First, we do all the little things right: our books come out on time; we get out review copies out to reviewers early, and include cover letters with all the information reviewers need; and our books are consistently well-edited, designed, and produced. Of course we definitely had a little bit of luck with some of our titles, but we were ready for that luck with a great staff. We believe in our authors, and in each other.

SE: What in particular are you planning to do in 2009 to react to economic changes?

AK: What we’ve been doing since we ran into financial trouble in the early part of the decade: try to keep our costs down, make our marketing dollars as cost effective as possible, be conservative on print runs, and be ready when opportunities appear.

SE: Chad Post at Open Letter, a nonprofit press, has already noted that some of the grant money he expected for 2009 might not be forthcoming. As someone who works at a nonprofit press, what do you expect the grants and donation landscape to be in 2009 in comparison to previous years?

AK: We are anticipating an immediate 10% – 20% drop in individual donations in 2009, and a subsequent, comparable drop in grants in 2010 and 2011. We believe the economy will start coming back in 2011, and grants and donations will start to improve in 2012.

SE: How sensitive is Coffee House to unexpected changes in grants and donations? For instance, if some of your expected grants got stuck in limbo due to budget cuts and freezes, would this force you to postpone titles?

AK: At one point Coffee House income was 60% donated and 40% earned. During the last two years, those percentages have flipped–not because of a drop in donated (which has been flat) but because of an increase in earned income. I know we’re in a world-wide recession–it’s not just a US problem. But between US sales and translation rights sales, we think we can continue to build on our recent growth in earned income. But whenever I say things like that, I have to remind myself and my listener that you have to have an "optimism gene" somewhere in your emotional make-up to be a publisher. I try to cock my head, get some distance, and coldly evaluate our books and the marketplace, and I think I’ve done that and I still think we can continue to improve our earned income. Time will tell if the idealistic part of my personality has fooled my realistic side.
But to answer your question—for the moment, we believe we will be able to live up to all the commitments we’ve made to authors. If the recession drags on longer than anticipated, we’ll have to reassess our resources and our plans.

SE: Do you think there’s something about your business model (i.e. that of a smaller, more independent press) that will allow you to get through the recession with less crisis than a place like Houghton Mifflin is experiencing right now?

AK: Houghton Mifflin’s mission is to make money for shareholders first, and to serve literature second. As a nonprofit, our mission is to serve the public good. Survival is a key part of serving the public good, but we’re not under pressure to make the same kind of margins as a for-profit house must make to serve both of its missions. And expectations are different–our authors don’t expect to be picked up at the airport in a limo when they tour. They sleep on couches in the homes of friends, not at the Hilton, when they give readings. And we don’t get into pissing contests with our peers, bidding up celebrity memoirs so a competitor won’t get it. But all that being said, we’re all at the mercy of the moods of the booksellers. If they’re so worried about being stuck with too much inventory, if they see those images of empty aisles loaded with flat screen tvs going nowhere, if they see the same footage of car lots overflowing with inventory that I see on CNN, they may not order books this spring. And if the books don’t get into the stores, they won’t get into readers’ hands. So we’ll have to see what happens next.


SE: How well do books hold up in a recession?

AK: On the one hand, book sales did not experience a big boom during Christmas, with shoppers switching from $1,000 computers to $25.00 hardcover books, but in a year of disasters in one industry after another, book sales decreased by only 3%, if my memory serves me right. And according to the latest National Endowment for the Arts survey, readership is starting to rebound in all age groups, after years of steady decline. When almost everyone discovered the value of their retirement fund had been cut in half, in a year when literally millions of people lost their jobs, a 3% decline in sales looks pretty good. But again, you have to be a "glass is half full" person to devote your life to publishing.


SE: In a recent article in The Independent, Boyd Tonkin advanced the idea that an important group of British writers came on the scene during the UK’s recessionary ’80s. He speculated that the economic turmoil was somehow linked to the emergence of these writers–perhaps the recession helped open the field to emerging writers and allowed more innovative publishers to put out the work of talented writers who hadn’t broken into the mainstream. Some of the authors he named were Kazuo Ishiguro, Ian McEwan, Salman Rushdie, Julian Barnes, and Martin Amis. What do you think of this idea? Would you say that in times of a recession you would be more likely to publish an unknown but largely talented author?

AK: That sounds like a think piece by a journalist, not feedback from a working editor. It’s my job not to offend journalists, because someday they may be writing about one of our authors. . . . But to me, that just sounds silly. When a publishing house believes it has discovered a genius, it’s not going to wait for a recession to release the author’s book.


SE: By contrast, in a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, Anita Elberse argued that tough economic times will make the blockbuster publishing model more alluring than ever. She stated that in the past the blockbuster strategy has "worked wonders," and she argued that it made more economic sense to make a few high-stakes bets than spread your money around a number of low-payoff books. In particular, she stated that publishers that spend "an inordinate amount on an acquisition, will do everything in its power to make that project a market success," that large acquisition deals indicate seriousness to chain bookstores, and that publishers that don’t show a willingness to bet bit on manuscripts in recessions will be shut out in the future. Obviously these kinds of blockbuster books don’t pertain to Coffee House, but what do you think of this logic, especially as it pertains to publishing in a recession?

AK: It actually sounds like the strategy Borders has been following during the last few years. Hasn’t worked too well for a bookstore chain, has it. I don’t think it’s going be an effective strategy for publishers either. That doesn’t mean some publishers won’t try it, depending on whether book people are calling the shots, or someone from another industry called in to make a publishing house more profitable. But last season’s best sellers are next season’s overflow in the remainder racks. Meanwhile some of those midlist titles will wind up on teaching lists and keep selling for another ten years, long after cartons of those best sellers have been recycled into cartons.


SE: As a follow-up, would you say that in times of recession emphasis shifts away from publishing’s center?

AK: The recession isn’t the only factor driving changes in writing and publishing. Writers on the one hand, and book and magazine publishers on the other, are both trying to figure out what the changes in information technology will mean. Will books get shorter, so they can be read on a cell phone? Will nonfiction migrate to ebooks, while literature stays on the printed page? Will backlist titles become downloadable PDFs? Will future desktop printers include binding equipment? Newspaper and magazine ad revenue has been shrinking, and no one has figured out how to turn electronic publishing into a business model that works. Keep in mind that clay tablets lasted 3,000 years, papyrus scrolls lasted two thousand years, the handwritten rectangular book we recognize today continued for about a thousand years, and letterpress printing lasted 500 years. All of a sudden we’ve had desktop book design, the internet, and the ebook, all in the last twenty-five years. Writers, publishers, and readers have had to swallow these major changes as if we were all at a fast food restaurant, so it’s not surprising that we’re all suffering a bit of indigestion.
I’m not saying that the recession isn’t going to have an effect on publishing, but it’s not the only part of the ever-changing landscape we’re all trying to negotiate.


SE: Another effect of the recession is that a lot of bookstores are going out of business, and large chains are cutting back on their retail space and the number of books they buy. Are these closings and cutbacks affecting you in any noticeable way?

AK: Well as noted above, that’s my biggest concern. I believe Yogi Berra once said, "If people don’t want to come to the ballpark, you just can’t stop them." If booksellers don’t order books, we small press publishers can’t stop them. The demise of legendary stores like Cody’s on the West Coast and Robin’s in Philly is heartbreaking. But I still have that damned stupid optimism gene. And that leads me to believe that when the recession is over, new idealists will open new stores, and one in ten will find a way to make it work. And I do believe that booksellers know they need a variety of books to satisfy their customers, not a half dozen best sellers. In any event, we had a pretty good 2008–and I believe in the books we’re publishing, and I believe in the relationships we have, and Consortium’s sales reps have with good booksellers. We’ll see what happens next.

SE: In terms of the nuts and bolts of running a press–e.g. costs of paper, costs of printing, staffing, etc.–what kinds of changes are you experiencing?

AK: Advances in technology have cut some costs, balancing the increase in the cost of paper. As a result, production costs have been pretty steady over the last decade.
On the other hand, we just had an administrative staff person move on, and I received 110 resumes–four times the number we received the last time we advertised the position. And yeah, that’s the recession, no doubt about it. It’s tough out there. For all the optimism I’ve expressed, I’m holding my breath and, to use a Minnesota image, hoping we can skate over the thin ice and get to the other side of the lake.

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