Category Archives: The Interesting Bits

GORE VIDAL, 1925-2012 – Prolific, Elegant, Acerbic Writer By CHARLES McGRATH

Published: August 1, 2012

Gore Vidal, the elegant, acerbic all-around man of letters who presided with a certain relish over what he declared to be the end of American civilization, died on Tuesday at his home in the Hollywood Hills section of Los Angeles, where he moved in 2003, after years of living in Ravello, Italy. He was 86.

Bernard Gotfryd/Pictorial Parade—Getty Images

GORE VIDAL in a 1969 portrait. An author, screenwriter and essayist with definite opinions and no inhibitions about sharing them, he took great pleasure in being one of the larger-than-life figures of his time. 

The cause was complications of pneumonia, his nephew Burr Steers said by telephone. Continue reading

INTERVIEW: talkingbooks

 | 8th July, 2012


Ajmal Kamal is an editor, writer, publisher and bookseller. He edits the Urdu literary quarterly, Aaj

What are you reading these days?
For the last five years or so, my reading seems to have become more focused. It was a time when I encountered a vague idea in the course of a personal quest that all, or almost all, that is happening with us today as a society and as individuals members or groups of the society can be contextualised and understood in the perspective provided by what we have been writing and publishing ever since the printing press became an influential part of our lives. Continue reading

Why Book Publishing Can Survive Digital Age: Echoes

Gold Medal Books from Fawcett Publications
By Ellen F. Brown Feb 16, 2012 11:52 PM GMT+0500

Word on the street is that the publishing industry is under attack by technology. Inc. has launched a bare-knuckled assault against independent bookstores. Print-on-demand firms make it possible for anyone to get his work on the market, and thus threaten to render agents and editors obsolete. And with e-books priced so low, how can authors and booksellers earn a decent living?

Yet the publishing industry has a long history of weathering these sorts of challenges, and its past offers some optimism for the future.

In the 1920s, drug, grocery and department stores gave booksellers fits by offering popular titles at cut-rate prices. An old industry yarn tells the story of a flapper looking to buy lipstick. She walks into a bookstore and excuses herself when she realizes she had made a mistake. “I’m sorry,” she says, “I thought this was a drugstore, I saw books in the window.”

Also problematic was the Book of the Month Club, a distribution company founded in 1926 that sold inexpensive hardcover versions of popular books through mail order. Within 10 years of its founding, the club had almost 200,000 members. Ten years later, there were more than 50 imitator clubs in North America with more than 3 million participants.

And, of course, there was the ultimate competitor to bookstores: public libraries. Throughout the first half of the 20th century, communities across the U.S. funded the construction of facilities where books could be had for free, albeit only on loan.

Then came the “paperback revolution.” According to Publishers Weekly, word spread at the 1939 American Booksellers Convention that “some reckless publisher” was going to bring out a series of paperback reprints of popular novels to be sold for only a quarter a piece. The industry was equal measures aghast at the nerve of such a plan — American readers had proved notoriously resistant to paperbacks — and terrified that it might succeed. Major publishers fretted that, if the books proved popular, the reprints would kill hardcover sales of the featured titles. Most booksellers refused to stock the series, unwilling to compete with their existing inventories of full-priced books.

Undeterred by the negative buzz, publisher Robert de Graff advertised his New Pocket Books directly to readers with a mail-order coupon system and to wholesalers who sold magazines to newsstands and grocery stores. He touted his books as small enough to be carried in a pocket or purse and “as handy as a pencil, as modern and convenient as a portable radio — and as good looking.”

The industry watched with amazement when the books sold like wildfire. Skeptical publishers couldn’t remain aloof for long in the face of such obvious success and rushed to produce their own lines of paperback reprints.

The real test of the industry’s mettle came in 1949 when Fawcett Publications announced a new series of 25-cent paperback originals. A vigorous debate arose over the propriety of original work being released in such an inexpensive format. Mainstream publishers predicted that paperback originals would undermine the entire structure of publishing and threatened to blackball agents who negotiated contracts with Fawcett. Critics said quality authors would never be interested in selling their new work at such a low price and that the series would only be able to offer books unworthy of publication.

Once again, readers responded to low prices, and the new books were a sensation. Fawcett boasted of selling more than a million books in the first year. Copycat publishers rushed into the marketplace, and many fine writers who had struggled to make it into hardback — including Kurt Vonnegut and John D. MacDonald — readily signed contracts.

So how did all of this competition affect the traditional trade?

In the long run, low-cost books — whether reprints or original, paperback or hardback — posed a vigorous, but bearable, threat. Although there was much grumbling along the way, the industry gradually accepted that the new products and distributors, including libraries, were not evil incarnate. To the contrary, they were something of a boon in that they generated interest in reading among people who didn’t frequent bookstores.

The new products also had a hard time maintaining their early successes. It’s a simple matter of economics: Delivering a high-quality product at a bargain-basement price is difficult. Once competition heated up in the cheap-book market, signs of strain began to show. Editorial standards slackened, paper quality declined and, in a desperate attempt to catch the eye of readers in the crowded marketplace, many discount publishers resorted to covering their books in lurid images that often had nothing to do with their content. Readers eventually balked at the increasingly shabby products, and publishers were dismayed to find themselves stuck with warehouses of books they couldn’t give away. One firm resorted to burning its excess stock in an abandoned canal outside of Buffalo, New York.

By 1969, the New York Times Book Review was asking, “Is the Paperback Revolution Dead?”

Fast forward to today’s digital revolution. History suggests there’s reason to take heart. Despite years of cheap books, readers have consistently shown a willingness to buy quality material in a quality format. And as much as electronic retailers have to offer with their expansive inventories and cheap prices, and no matter how egalitarian self-publishers are in providing new opportunities for authors, the truth is, not all books deserve to be published, nor are they all worth sifting through. For decades, our reading experience has been incalculably enhanced by the editors, agents and booksellers who work behind the scenes culling books for us, and there’s every reason to think readers will be willing to pay a premium for such services.

This isn’t to say the industry won’t have to make adjustments, especially the bricks-and-mortar stores. They’ll have to be alert to changing dynamics and get creative about generating demand. Many already have dived in by offering e-books through their websites and by increasing the number of live events that bring readers into their stores. Some are even venturing into publishing. Hub City Bookshop in Spartanburg, South Carolina, for example, operates a nonprofit press that emphasizes books on the Southern experience. Such specialization — also known as expertise — is likely to be the distinguishing hallmark of independent sellers in the future.

Electronics are here to stay, but someday the digital revolution in publishing may well be seen as just another phase in the natural evolution of a vital and resilient industry.

(Ellen F. Brown is a freelance writer and co-author of “Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind: A Bestseller’s Odyssey from Atlanta to Hollywood.” The opinions expressed are her own.)

For more from Echoes, Bloomberg View’s economic history blog, click here.

To contact the writer of this post: Ellen F. Brown at

To contact the editor responsible for this post: Timothy Lavin at

The art of writing an Urdu column By Tazeen Javed

The writer is an Islamabad-based freelance communications consultant. She tweets @tazeen and blogs at

I write a weekly column for this newspaper, an English language daily and at times it becomes difficult to comment on things with a perspective that is fresh, relevant and not dated — week after week. Not only that, but one is also required to be coherent and appear sane most of the time (there are some exceptions to the rule, though).

I envy op-ed writers of Urdu newspapers; most of them are not encumbered with the notions of relevance and coherence. If one reads Urdu op-ed pieces for a week, it becomes clear that the art of writing an op-ed in Urdu is quite straightforward. It mostly starts with a story of a brave king of the days long gone and how he took care of his people, somehow linking it to governance issues of fighting a multi-pronged war, the energy crisis or overpopulation. More often than not, the king will not have a name but when there is a name, that particular incident is not found to be a part of history. At times, I have even looked into Dastan-e-Amir Hamza for references but the stories were so fantastical that I could not find them in the centuries-old tales of Amir Hamza.

Introspection is alien to Urdu columnists; Pakistan is never to be blamed for its ills. It is always foreign powers who are trying to sabotage the fort of Islam. Foreign country bashing is not limited to, but is generally aimed at, the US and India — depending on the topic of conversation. And the really creative writers do not just blame India for all slights and transgressions — imagined and real — but they invent a fictional European character they have met in trips abroad and make him say that India is a horrible place where everyone is evil and that Pakistan is the ultimate Shangri-La. After all, the hidden racist within us would agree more with a learned white man than a Pakistani, even if that Pakistan happens to be an esteemed columnist travelling to these foreign lands.

Some Urdu columnists also like to reproduce the fan mail they get, usually from cities like Layyah and Narowal. English op-ed writers cannot do that because they generally do not get fan mail from Layyah. What they do get — and this generalisation is solely based on the mail I and two of my columnist friends receive — is hate mail for being (a) liberal fascists, (b) English medium elite or, best of all, (c) agents of the foreign variety.

At times, I envy Urdu columnists. I like the idea of starting a piece with a fairy tale but it is not that simple. For starters, I like to be historically correct and my editor, who is cyber-savvy, even asks me to provide hyperlinks for the internet editions of any topics mentioned in my piece in order to provide context and to substantiate my argument. This puts any fantasies I may harbour about introducing fictional characters in my pieces to sleep. For Urdu columnists, however, if fantastical historical characters and fan mail from Layyah are not viable choices, they are left with the option of blaming it all on the unholy trinity of India, Isreal and the US. This is how one masters the art of becoming an Urdu columnist.

Published in The Express Tribune, May 19th, 2012.

LIT BUZZ: Comic book drawing sells for 1.3 million euros

 | 1 day ago

A rare 1932 cover drawing of a Tintin comic book has been sold for a record 1.3 million euros at an auction in Paris. The previous record — of 764,000 euros — was also set by this Tintin in America cover, hand-drawn by Belgian writer and illustrator Herge. Tintin in America is the third title in the comic book series, The Adventures of Tintin.

The cover shows the young adventurer Tintin, dressed as a cowboy and sitting with his dog, Snowy, as axe-wielding American Indians creep up on them. The plot revolves around Tintin and his dog traveling to the US to report on a crime syndicate.

The drawing was bought by a private collector.

The Indian ink and gouache drawing work is one of only five remaining such works by Herge — real name Georges Remi — who died in 1983. Only two of those are in private hands.

Saturday’s sale was part of a rare larger sale of Tintin memorabilia, reportedly including draft sketches of Tintin and a copy of Explorers on the Moon, signed by the first people to walk on the Moon, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, and fellow astronaut Michael Collins.