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Publishing 101

It’s the end of a busy week of lineups, schedule changes, bookstore browsing, and discussions about writing, publications and design. It’s the end of the first week of Centennial College’s Book and Magazine Publishing program, which will probably  take over my life for the next eight months.

Before entering the program, I had many conversations with well-meaning friends, family and acquaintances that went something like this:

“So, what are you studying in Toronto?”
“I’m doing a publishing program at Centennial.”
“Wow, that’s really interesting! Hm, but…isn’t publishing, like, dying??”

(side note: if you think you may have been one of those people, don’t worry – no offense taken!)

These kinds of conversations didn’t deter me from enrolling, obviously, but they did make me think a lot about what I was choosing to do. Some days I felt confident, but on other days I found myself questioning if I would find myself jobless in a year, or working somewhere other than the industry I’d aimed for. Is this an idealistic dream that I have, or a viable career path? It’s hard to say at this early stage, though a few  hopeful themes appear to be establishing themselves across our various classes and discussions.

1. Publishing, as an industry, is not disappearing, though it is drastically changing. This goes far deeper than the common “electronic vs. print” conversations that seem to keep cropping up. The emergence of ebooks doesn’t mean that publishing doesn’t happen; it just happens in a different manner. The industry is actually changing in bigger ways. Editors are increasingly becoming freelance, and the timeframe in which a book gets edited, revised, edited again and sent to press is shrinking. Not only that, but marketing may soon overtake editing as the biggest role-player in the whole  process. And self-publishing will probably show itself to be a huge revolution in terms of how people access, create and value books. All of this means a new set of conditions that publishers will have to learn to navigate, and possibly even the growth of new types of jobs.

2. No matter how good you are with words, you will still make mistakes. This should be self-evident, of course. Almost every time I write a post, I come back later to correct the typos that I was previously unable to spot. The more eyes on the page to catch mistakes, the better. This means that, no matter how jobs change and shift, the skill of editing will never become irrelevant.

3. Design Matters. This has little to do with whether or not I’ll be able to find a job in the future, but is something I thought I’d mention as I’m definitely more interested in this aspect of publishing than I thought I’d be. In terms of book selling, visuals play a key role. It’s not just about words. Loving books and being able to shape words is a good place to start in publishing, but someone has to design those book covers, too. And choose the typeface. And get the spacing between the lines just right. The visuals should tell a story, just as the words do. Truly, my favourite books in my personal collection are not only fantastic stories but also beautiful, beautiful things. This is an area where, in my opinion, ebooks have a long way to go. Perhaps there are future jobs to be created in this area?

Finally, I may have fallen in love with the idea of design just a little more while listening to this hilarious and eccentric talk by Chipp Kidd, designer of many famous book covers, such as Jurassic Park and IQ84.

“Much is to be gained by ebooks….But something is definitely lost.”
“I am all for the iPad. But trust me. Smelling it will get you nowhere.”

This is why I love books – paper-ink-and-binding books: There is more than just a story there. It’s a whole sensory experience.

“Try experiencing that on a kindle!”

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A Bookish Affair

the ayre affairThe Eyre Affair – Jasper Fforde, Hodder, 2001, 384 pages

As a fan of Jane Eyre and, well, books in general, the premise of Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next series has intrigued me for years. Imagine a fantasy world designed specifically for book-lovers. The first in the series, The Eyre Affair, follows the life of Thursday Next, literary detective in Fforde’s surreal comic fantasy version of England. When the nationally-treasured manuscript of Martin Chuzzlewit goes missing, Next immediately recognizes the work of her former professor Acheron Hades, who is now considered the world’s most dangerous and devious man. Cruel and unrelenting, Hades is bent on a kind of evil that far ouweighs petty theft and ransom, and as he moves onto bigger and arguably better manuscripts (such as Jane Eyre) it’s up to Next to catch him before he does great damage to not only the manuscript but the book itself. This is a world where literature takes on a life of its own, where entering the world of a story is possible, and characters can be pulled from their books into real life. It may sound hokey, but Fforde does a good job of outlining the physics of this world enough to be accepted by readers and yet leaving them vague enough to avoid pages and pages explaining the mechanics of things.

I enjoyed everything I expected to in this novel – the many literary references, the fact that Fforde has created an England in which everyone passionately cares classic literature (and seems to know a great deal about obscure subjects like alternate theories for the authorship of Shakespeare). I sometimes felt that this series was mostly an outlet for Fforde to indulge his interest in such critical literary ideas. The “behind the scenes” look at the Jane Eyre narrative was delightful, and I think Fforde did a wonderful interpretation of Rochester’s character.

Yet there was something in Fforde’s work that didn’t quite capture me – not enough to read the whole series, anyway. I think it was a bit too tongue-in-cheek for me. I was so aware of the humor of his smart literary twists that it didn’t feel like a real world and setting; rather, it was a conglomeration of references intended for the dedicated bibliophile to enjoy, a series of functional characters, and a few ingenius reflections of Jane Eyre’s life in the events of Next’s. But never was I able to completely suspend my awareness of these devices and the purpose they were serving and genuinely get sucked into the book.

Though I was disappointed at some of the “oh look, happy ending!” elements, the climax of Next pursuing Hades from inside the story of Jane Eyre did keep the pages turning. Fforde also tied this narrative into the actual narrative of Jane Eyre in a way that was both surprising and quite clever. Overall The Eyre Affair was a good read, though not as lighthearted as I had naively expected. I would recommend reading it for a bit of a literary escape, especially if you have an appreciation for the classics but want something a bit lighter for a change.

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That moment we all fell in love with Darcy – now in Statue Form!

Remember that amazing scene  in Pride and Prejudice where Mr. Darcy  takes a dip in the lake by his country mansion, only to be surprised by running into Elizabeth Bennett, who is flustered at the sight of his handsome, dripping body?

No? Well, that scene wasn’t actually written by Austen; just a cleverly-placed alteration in Andrew Davies’ BBC adaptation. Clever in the sense that it was, and is, sure to make all female viewers swoon. I, for one, vividly remember that scene.

An Austen-loving friend just informed me that a giant statue of Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy from that very scene has recently been installed in the Serpentine lake in Hyde Park, London. Emerging from the water at 12 feet tall, Darcy gazes over hordes of swans and  park-goers alike in all his wet-shirted, sideburned glory. The statue is eye-catching, to say the least. As a friend of mine put it, “He is a bottomless nippled giant, swaying in a lake and commanding an army of ducks and swans!”

Photo from celebuzz.com

Photo from celebuzz.com

The statue is meant to tour the UK, making stops at various watery locations across the country before finally reaching the very filming location of the infamous scene in Lyme Park, Cheshire.

It is ironic that, among other nearby literary statues – such as the Peter Pan statue in Kensington Gardens – this one isn’t even directly inspired by the writing of the famous author. I’ll be honest: I think the sculpture looks a bit ridiculous, but as a fan of Austen as well as Firth’s Darcy, I can definitely appreciate it, at least for the sense of humour required to install it.

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A Curious Perspective


the curious incident of the dog in the night-time – Mark Haddon, Vintage, 2003, 240 pages

Here’s a genuinely novel concept for a book: write a first-person narrative. Make the narrator a young boy with a behavioural disorder (think Asperger’s or Autism). Make it a mystery novel, about a bigger mystery than just the titular Dog, and add copious elements of mathematics and the odd illustration of facial expressions.

I’m not sure I was expecting this to be “my” kind of book, but I was startled by how moving and emotional it was despite being told through the rather emotionless, logical lens of Christopher Boone. The feelings of his parents and everyone around him penetrate the story, even though Christopher himself is unaware of how much they are affected by his comments and actions.

It begins with a dead dog on the lawn. Christopher likes dogs, and he also wants to solve a mystery. He begins to write his own mystery novel as he unravels the case of Who Killed Wellington, giving an insightful glimpse into his well-ordered world. Difficulties arise between Christopher and his father who, as Christopher tells the reader near the beginning, has been parenting alone since his mother died two years before.

Christopher’s perspective narrows even the most complex of adult situations to a pure, rational simplicity. Human relations are mathematic, and without trust, in Christopher’s mind, there can be no love. This story deals a lot with trust issues, the ethics of honesty, and being different. Haddon wrote a really insightful blog post on what he truly intended the story to be about –  not Asperger’s or Autism, but “being an outsider” and “seeing the world in a surprising and revealing way”. It’s sad, then, that the only thing I really knew about this book prior to reading it, all from hearsay, was that it was about an (apparently) Autistic kid. However, Haddon never labels Christopher with a specific condition, preferring instead to “peel off labels” and “stand up for difference” through his writing. Well said, Mark Haddon; well said. Good books should allow readers to think outside the boundaries of labels, rather than reinforce them.

Christopher is incredibly smart, and surprisingly adventurous. His solo train journey to London, in which he feels dizzy and overwhelmed by the crowds and new information, is inspiring. I was so proud of him when he made it to the city that I wanted to jump up and cheer him on, but I was quietly reading in a car full of people so I refrained. This is a quick read, written in a truly creative format, offering perspective into a world that most of us are otherwise unaware of, and I would highly recommend it for all of those reasons.

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The subtle nuances of snow

snow countrySnow Country – Yasunari Kawabata, translated from Japanese, Tuttle Publishing, 1996, first published in English in 1956, 175 pages

Living in Japan has inspired a slight foray into Japanese literature, and Snow Country was recommended by a few friends as a modern Japanese classic. I was especially interested in this novel as I live in  part of Japan that is not so far from the book’s “snow country”, and not so dissimilar either. Mine is also a rural area, dotted with mountains, fields, and hot spring towns. The setting took on special significance as I looked out the window at my own town’s 6-foot snowbanks, and its hills and mountains and snow-topped cedars.

When my friend lent me the book, she advised me to read it carefully, mentioning that it was very “subtle”. I can’t think of a better word to describe it, a novel deeply concerned with the intricacies of two characters’ relationship and the quiet ways in which it is irreparably broken. Not only that, but the setting – the Snow Country – is a central element of the book, embodying the sense of cold, loneliness, and isolation which characterizes Shimamura and Komako’s interactions. The book deals with the bitter love affair between wealthy Tokyo man Shimamura and Komako, a geisha in a remote hot spring town. Their relationship is destined for failure and Komako tries to fight her feelings for Shimamura, which only seems to make her more desperate and miserable.

I found it interesting how often Shimamura remarks on Komako’s “clean” appearance, or “clean” skin, almost in place of remarking on her beauty. It’s interesting – the word kirei in Japanese means “beautiful” but also means “clean”. I wonder whether the use of the word “clean” was just a translational choice, or if the two concepts are so intertwined in Japanese thought that it makes no difference to distinguish between cleanliness and beauty. Not only that, but the persistent association of a woman’s sadness with her beauty, which I have found in other works of Japanese art, can be seen throughout the novel.

Overall, if there’s one word besides “subtle” I would use to describe Kawabata’s work, it would be “delicate”. Perhaps even “fragile”. That is the feeling I get about Komako’s spirit, her whole relationship with Shimamura on which the novel is based, and her hold on happiness and life itself. Unfortunately I didn’t feel as engaged or invested as I would have liked for a book with a plot so heavily focused on two characters and their relationship. If you’re looking for something big on plot, this certainly isn’t it; however, do give it a read if you want gently nuanced writing and delicate, tragic beauty.

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Social Reading: Ebooks of the Future?

After a series of debates with myself, regarding the accessibility of English books while living abroad versus the perceived merit of tangibility (paper, pages, fresh book scent), the accessibility side eventually won out and I found myself the new owner of a Kindle. I should mention that thrown into those debates were considerations about supporting a company that seems to be ruthlessly aiming for a monopoly on the electronic publishing industry, but then again, as long as I’m living overseas, my only good option for getting ahold of new books is – you guessed it – ordering them from Amazon. So there.

I recently finished my first book, Kindle-style, and I have to say, it really wasn’t bad. Those devices are pretty slick, and their portability is definitely appealing. It’s light and comfortable to hold, and with e-ink technology the screen is easy on the eyes.

However, I do love the feel of a book in my hand. I like having a tactile awareness of how far along I am, and  the Kindle’s little progress bar doesn’t quite deliver the same satisfaction. To me, carrying a book makes me feel better, like my day has the possibility of being just a little more interesting. Just looking at a shelf full of books makes me excited to sit down and read.

While the whole sensory experience of reading is lacking (or at least different), I realized that, once I became engrossed in the story, I mostly forgot about those outer sensibilities; I barely remembered I was reading on an electronic device; it was the story that mattered, not the feel of the pages. And ultimately, when hard-copy books aren’t easy to obtain, I’d rather have the story than nothing at all.

But I digress. This post isn’t about that – at least not entirely.

I recently read a CBC news article that suggested “social reading” is the way of the future. The way books will come to be read. A new mode of reading from which people “won’t want to go back”. An app called Socialbook is already in the works to facilitate this great upheaval. Imagine this enticing possibility: instead of just reading and becoming involved in a story, you can let all of your friends within your digital network in on the experience! With notifications and comments and your friends’ underlines and notes popping up all over the place, your reading experience can be interrupted expanded to even allow you to “manipulate the information in weird and wonderful and highly informative ways” (Sean Prpick, CBC news).

Really? Do I really want one of my favourite solitary hobbies to become “socialized”?

As much as I, like almost everyone else, get sucked into the spiraling web of social networking sites, I can’t say I particularly enjoy them. If I had to list my hobbies, or ways I *like* to spend my time, social media would not be on my list. It is an incredibly useful tool, yes, but not a particularly pleasurable pursuit in and of itself, in my opinion. I honestly have no desire to incorporate that into my reading experience. And I think I can safely say that, for a large number of readers out there, reading is enjoyed precisely because it is solitary, an escape from the world, and a form of entertainment one can be quickly drawn into while the hours slip by unnoticed.

In some ways, I see the intrigue of generating ongoing discussions about books, and possibly even of viewing my friends’ margin notes. But it doesn’t interest me enough to let it distract me from what I actually want to do, which is just sit and read, uninterrupted. Because, as I’m sure anyone could imagine, adding social networking to the experience would most likely become a distraction in the midst of that very pursuit, should Socialbook be incorporated directly into the device on which one reads.

There is a reason why I opted for a simple, basic Kindle rather than a tablet or something with 4G capability – it’s because I don’t want something like this. I just want to read.

No doubt the way we enjoy books will continue to change, but I don’t foresee “reading alone” becoming a “thing of the past” just yet.

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The Age of Miracles: “Not Fear, but a Thrill”


The Age of Miracles – Karen Thompson Walker, Random House, 2012, 320 pages

This book was a breeze to get through – the plot unravels so smoothly you could sit down to read it and be halfway through before you’ve even glanced up at the clock. At least that’s what I did. This coming of age, speculative fiction novel is told through the eyes of Julia, a young adolescent just beginning to deal with the insecurities of that tumultuous stage of childhood. One day, scientists report that the earth’s rotation has slowed, suddenly and without explanation. Days and nights become longer – one day stretches from 24 hours to 25, 27.5, 30, 40 and more. Clocks and times and schedules are reset, social change takes place, health problems arise, relationships are strained. Seemingly mundane aspects of life become unhinged, and the reader is given the perspective of a child, on the verge of growing up, as she learns how to cope with the world around her and her own sense of self.

This is Karen Thompson Walker’s debut, and for a first novel it got quite a bit of pre-release hype. Apparently Random House paid a pretty nice sum for the publishing rights, an unusual thing to do for a first-time author. This got my interest, and the plot definitely didn’t sound boring either. It helps that it also has a simple, eye-catching cover, but seeing as this was the first book I read on an e-reader, I didn’t really have a chance to appreciate it. 

“…what I felt first was not fear but a thrill… the shimmer of an unexpected thing,” Julia tells us early in the story. For me, the most compelling aspect is the constant sense of fear and helplessness in such everyday situations as going to school or soccer practice. If the sun rises and sets at different times from the clock time you have always known, when do you go to school? To work? In the middle of the night? Do you call it a night the brightness of the afternoon sun? To think about the entire world as you know it falling apart – time, world clocks, the length of your days, the weight of gravity, the growth of vegetables and plants and food, not to mention the relationships you think you’re sure of – is chilling. Not knowing what’s going to happen, and knowing that you as a person and you as the human race have no way of controlling or guaranteeing your survival. The world very well could be near it’s end. How can life go back to normal, when the most base of normal certainties about the world have been removed?

Not only that, but it all happens very subtly. This isn’t a novel of dramatic mayhem, but rather one of quiet inner detail. Time becomes a danger and a source of anxiety, and the characters learn to live with a growing sense of despair.

This book is very quotable. Thompson Walker’s writing is succinctly poetic. I highlighted many thought-provoking lines throughout the first several chapters, especially. But I found that it slowed down a bit (oops, no pun intended) after awhile. It’s hard to keep a plot about a massive earth-changing natural disaster going forever – at some point, it has to end, or the changes have to be reversed, or…something. Even the poetic turns of phrase become sparser, or just get a bit old. I was hooked from the start, but perhaps the implausability of some aspects of the situation caught up with me. Nevertheless, I don’t think the “slowing” (as the earth’s declining rotation speed is referred to in the novel) is meant to be the centre of the plot. This is a book about the fragility of relationships, growing up, insecurities, love and fear, and dealing with everyday life in the face of such fearful uncertainty. It is this uncertainty that drives you to keep reading, and to think about how you would face such fears yourself.