Publishing Talks: David Wilk Interviews Frank Rose

In this series of interviews, called Publishing Talks, I have been talking to book industry professionals and other smart people about the future of publishing, books, and culture.  This is a period of disruption and change for all media businesses.  We must wonder now, how will publishing evolve as our culture is affected by technology, climate change, population density, and the ebb and flow of civilization and  economics?

I hope these Publishing Talks conversations can help us understand the outlines of what is happening in the publishing industry, and how we might ourselves interact with and influence the future of publishing as it unfolds.

These interviews give people in and around the book business a chance to talk openly about ideas and concerns that are often only talked about “around the water cooler,” at industry conventions and events, and in emails between friends and they give people inside and outside the book industry a chance to hear first hand some of the most interesting and challenging thoughts, ideas and concepts being discussed by people in the book business.

Frank Rose is a journalist and author, most recently of a book called The Art of Immersion, How the Digital Generation Is Remaking Hollywood, Madison Avenue, and the Way We Tell Stories.  I could easily have interviewed him about that book, which is interesting enough in its own right (and later this year I plan to talk to him about it for WritersCast).

But for this conversation, I wanted to talk to Frank about how writers are adapting to the changes wrought in publishing by the advent of digital books.

Frank has recently reprinted another one of his books, one that has been out of print for a number of years; it fits the profile of a fine book from the recent past that cannot be published or re-published commercially anymore.  That book is called West of Eden: The End of Innocence at Apple Computer.  It’s about the power struggle at Apple that ended up with Steve Jobs being pushed out of the company he had helped found. West of Eden was originally published in 1989 at which time it was a national best-seller and was rated as one of the ten best business books of the year by BusinessWeek.

In 2009, Frank published an updated version of the book himself for Amazon’s Kindle, as well as a digitally printed paperback edition under his own press name (Stuyvesant Street Press) and the book has been doing quite decently.  One assumes that there are a fairly large number of people today who are interested in and knowledgeable about the history of modern computing and the computer industry.  Enough for an author, if not for a commercial publisher to make a reasonable profit from publishing this book digitally.

Currently Frank writes for Wired, where he has been a contributing editor for almost ten years.  Before this assignment, he was a contributing writer at Fortune, writing about Hollywood and global media conglomerates, he’s also been at Esquire, Premiere and Travel + Leisure, and has written for the New York Times Magazine among many other magazines.  And he began his writing career at the Village Voice covering the emerging punk scene in Lower Manhattan in the ’70s.

Chances are good that Frank Rose’s experience as an author turned publisher will be reflective of a myriad of similar authors in the next few years.  And perhaps will indicate some interesting opportunities for other segments within the publishing ecosystem. I think this conversation will be interesting to many in the book business who are thinking about how roles are changing in publishing, especially as digital publishing creates so many new opportunities for easy distribution to readers.

More on Frank Rose here.  More on West of Eden at Amazon.

Mary Sharratt: Daughters of the Witching Hill

March 11, 2010 by  
Filed under Fiction

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978-0547069678 – Hardcover – Houghton Mifflin Harcourt – $24.00

I really enjoyed reading this book and came to admire its author, not only for her writing skills, which are very good indeed, but because she was able to so deeply and movingly inhabit her characters in a place and time so foreign from our own.  Mary Sharratt’s novel is transcendent in many ways.   It centers around the years leading up to the 1612 Lancashire, England, witch trials that resulted in the executions of nine supposed witches.  Mary Sharratt has brilliantly imagined her story, in which witchcraft is real, albeit not evil in the way the accusers made out.  It’s much more complicated – in fact this witchcraft is the folk medicine and healing power of the local spirits of pre-Christian England.  Never preachy, Sharratt gives us a countryside where politics and money separate people from one another, and crushing poverty is the lot of so many.

Widowed mother Bess Southerns supports her family and friends by healing the sick, telling fortunes, and blessing those facing misfortune, conjuring charmes that combine forbidden Catholic ritual, medicinal herbs, and guidance provided by her spirit-friend, Tibb.  Bess is always careful, knowing the dangers her powers create for her but eventually everything unravels in a series of events that finally gets Bess, her family, friends and supporters into inevitable trouble with the law.  Sharratt has crafted a beautiful historical novel that brings this era to life and gives its people she writes about a deep and complex life that many will find surprising.   The conflicts between religions, as well as the conflicts between class are here, as well as mystery and suffering and beauty too.  The book is set in the English countryside where the author, an American, currently lives.  It’s clear to me that Mary Sharratt has allowed this place to inhabit her, as much as she it.  She has put together a beautifully crafted story, full of complexity and compelling characters, and even knowing how the book must end, I was hooked from beginning to end.

As a reader I was transported there with her, and found her story uplifting, painful, and beautiful all at the same time.  This is a wonderful book.

In my interview with Mary, we talked about her experience as an American living in the English countryside, and how she came to write this book.  We talked about the story itself, her characters, their lives, the nature of English witchcraft of the 16th century, power and politics and the warp and weave of her excellent story.

Joann Davis: The Book of the Shepherd

January 3, 2010 by  
Filed under Fiction

9780061732300978-0061732300 – Hardcover – HarperCollins – $19.99

The Book of the Shepherd: The Story of One Simple Prayer and How it Changed the World is a beautifully written parable that made me think of writers like Paulo Coelho and Kahlil Gibran.  The conceit of the book is that the author finds a manuscript in a house in Vermont, and has it translated, thus this story.  It’s a short book, and an easy read, but of course, because it is a parable, the book demands to be re-read and thought about deeply.

The story has no distinct place or time.  Joshua is the shepherd who is troubled by the code of “an eye for an eye” that governs his world.  He has a dream about “a new way” and sets off on a quest to find it.

Stone the builder who erects a house that falls on its occupants. Sever the hands of the criminal who pilfers livestock or grain or another’s garment. Whip the child who defies an elder. For such is the law and the law must be obeyed.

For generations, these ironclad rules had governed the people. Nobody questioned whether it was right to humiliate a child or execute a murderer. An eye for an eye was the way of the world.

But was there another way?

Joshua is accompanied by Elizabeth, a former slave who is kind and generous, and David, a boy who must learn to walk in new shoes. Joshua believes that “an age of miracles” will come when the new way is found.

As with any quest, there is adventure along the way. En route to a cave near the Great Inland Sea, the travelers meet a number of interesting and compelling characters, including the Storyteller, the Apothecary, the Blind Man, and the Stranger. Each passes on an important lesson as the travelers journey toward what we realize is their destiny. At the cave, Joshua must see if he can bring forth secrets long buried. But he, Elizabeth, and David will discover that what they have been searching for has been inside them all along.  In the end, The Book of the Shepherd is compelling and meaningful, whatever your political, social or religious outlook or beliefs.  It’s not heavy handed or preachy, and even for many secularists, will be well worth the investment of time to read.

Joann Davis is an experienced writer and former book editor.  She is extremely articulate and passionate about her work, and was a pleasure to interview.  We talked about her work as a writer, her own spirituality, and how The Book of the Shepherd can change people and the world for good.

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