Google’s Laszlo Bock ’93 is on a crusade to transform the American workplace.
All the fun stuff from campus: Pomona College tidbits, traditions, lore and more.
From sculptors to screenwriters, creative Sagehens get the spotlight.
What’s Stressing Your Face?
In this “doctor’s guide to proactive aging and healing,” dermatologist and cosmetic surgeon Dr. Glynis Ablon ’88 discusses a variety of stress-related conditions, from rosacea to hair loss, psoriasis to shingles, along with treatments ranging from psychotherapy to electrical stimulation. (Basic Health Publications, 2015; 184 pages; $15.95)
Ira’s Shakespeare Dream
Glenda Armand ’75 joins with illustrator Floyd Cooper to tell the true story of Ira Aldridge, an aspiring Black actor who defied convention and prejudice to become one of the most celebrated Shakespearean actors of the 19th century. (Lee and Low Books, 2015; 40 pages; $18.95)
Leopards at My Door
Harriet Denison ’65 recalls her adventurous years in the Peace Corps during the mid-1960s, teaching at the Bwiru Girls’ Secondary School in Tanzania (where she had regular visits from leopards and an array of other wildlife), and later on, her work with Mother Teresa in Calcutta, India, treating people afflicted with leprosy. (Peace Corps Writers, 2014; 252 pages; $15.00)
In her second book for young readers, Beatrice Gormley ’64 offers a moving biography of South African civil rights activist, long-time political prisoner, author, Nobel Prize winner and eventually President Nelson Mandela, exploring the man behind the iconic smile—his struggles, his triumphs, and the sacrifices he had to make along the way. (Alladin, 2015; 256 pages; $17.99)
Our Dried Voices
This science fiction novel by Greg Hickey ’08 offers a vision of a far-distant future in which colonists on a planet called Pearl, where there is no longer any need for human labor, conflict or thought, suddenly find themselves struggling with the sabotage of the machines that their utopian lives depend upon. (Scribe Publishing Co, 2015; 234 pages; $13.99)
The Panchen Lama’s Debate Between Wisdom and the Reifying Habit
Kenneth Liberman ’70 spent a decade translating the principal work of the renowned first Panchen Lama, Lobsang Chökyi Gyaltsen (1570–1662), styled as a witty philosophical text employing the tension between shes rabs (wisdom) and bdag ’dzin (the reifying habit) as dramatic characters. (Motilal Banarsidass, India, 2014; 224 pages; $35.00)
Loving LA the Low Carbon Way
Grace Moremen ’52 and Jacqueline Chase offer a guide to the City of Angels by Metrolink, subway, light rail and bus, with 24 adventures that include such destinations as the Griffith Observatory, Watts Towers, the Observation Deck at City Hall, the Tar Pits and many other treasures hidden in plain sight. (Dream Boat Press, 2015; 230 pages; $15.00)
The Best Kind of College
Subtitled “An Insiders’ Guide to America’s Small Liberal Arts Colleges,” this set of essays, edited by Pomona Professors Susan McWilliams and John E. Seery, makes the case for the continuing importance of small, residential liberal arts colleges as a key part of America’s higher education smorgasbord. (SUNY Press, 2015; 314 pages; $80.00)
Daily Life in Wartime Japan, 1940–1945
Pomona Professor Samuel Yamashita’s new book puts a human face on wartime Japan, with an intimate picture of what life was like for ordinary Japanese during the war. Drawing upon diaries and letters written by
servicemen, kamikaze pilots, evacuated children and many others, he lets us hear the rich mix of voices speaking during the course of the war. (University Press of Kansas, 2016; 256 pages; $29.95)
As the great-great-grandson of the world’s most famous expert in etiquette and a fifth-generation steward of “the family business,” Daniel Post Senning ’99 is a co-author of the 18th edition of Emily Post’s Etiquette. He and his cousins Anna and Lizzie Post are part of a new generation working to keep that classic work relevant in the 21st century.
PCM: Today the word ‘etiquette’ has an old-fashioned ring. Is that justified?
Daniel Post Senning: It’s certainly a perception that I’m used to. The Emily Post Institute is a five-generation family business. The original Emily Post was my great-great-grandmother, and she wrote the first edition of Etiquette in 1922.
If you were to pick up that book today, it would read like a historical document. It’s actually quite remarkable as that. There are people who love looking at etiquette books that have been produced throughout history. One of my favorites, Castiglione’s The Courtier, predated The Prince. Oftentimes, a good book of etiquette will tell you a lot about a culture or a time.
We are very fortunate to be part of a tradition that has continued to update that original book. It was incredibly popular in its time. They couldn’t print it fast enough. But as times changed, they found that it was absolutely necessary to revise it. It’s that process of revision that I think has really become the substance of what we do at The Emily Post Institute.
PCM: Define ‘etiquette’ for me.
DPS: We say that etiquette is a combination of manners and principles. For us, the manners are time-, location- and culture-specific. They’re the particular expectations we have of others and ourselves in a particular social situation. The principles are what we use to guide us as manners change and evolve, or to help us make choices when we’re in a new situation. For us at the Emily Post Institute, the fundamental principles for all good etiquette are consideration, respect and honesty.
Here’s an Emily Post quote for you, “Any time two people come together and their lives affect one another, you have etiquette.” Etiquette is not some rigid code of manners. It’s simply how persons’ lives touch one another. Any time you have people interacting, you’ve got social expectations.
PCM: So how do you become an expert on etiquette? Is it something you just absorb?
DPS: I never thought a liberal arts education would prepare me so well for the work that I do. Being someone who writes about etiquette, researches about etiquette, teaches about etiquette, I find myself drawing from so many disciplines and so many skill sets. When I’m teaching and I’m presenting, my background in dance and the performing arts comes out. When I’m doing research, my background in critical inquiry comes out. When I’m assessing a new study that we’re getting, and I’m looking at data that’s come in from our survey partners, my background in microbiology and having the ability to look at data sets come into play.
Let me tell you a personal story. I was living in Claremont, working with the Laurie Cameron Company out of the Pomona College Dance Department, when I first started working for Emily Post. At the time, I was answering questions via email. My cousins and I cut our teeth on those emails. We would get batches of questions. We’d go through the books. When there was a particular question that had a historical precedent—questions about how you use formal titles or orders of introduction or protocol and courtesy around weddings—oftentimes we would refer to the book and find an answer that was pretty concrete.
Other times, there are relationship situations that people are trying to resolve, and that framework of consideration, respect and honesty comes into play. You ask yourself: Is the advice that I’m giving considerate? Is it taking into account all the people who are involved? Is it respectful? Is it recognizing their worth and their value? Is it honest? Is it something I can do with a sense of integrity and sincerity? It’s really a pretty powerful framework to give advice from.
PCM: How much of etiquette is timeless and how much do you believe is bound to the times?
DPS: Our whole approach is that etiquette is a moving, living, breathing thing. It changes and evolves all the time. That’s why the book is currently in its 18th edition. It’s never been out of print, and we think that’s really important. That’s why it’s important to continue to update it, because it is a moving target. If it were to ossify, it would lose its meaning very quickly.
When you look at the 1922 edition of Etiquette and the 18th edition of Etiquette, there’s some material that looks remarkably similar. You can probably guess that the way my great-great-grandmother described using a knife and fork is very similar to the way I would describe that today. Manners around how we share food and how we eat change relatively slowly. Those are cultural expectations that are very firm. The ones that we see changing the most rapidly are manners around communication.
PCM: So, do you have etiquette suggestions for Twitter?
DPS: We absolutely do. The framework that we use is relationships. When you’re assessing behaviors around new communication technology, you use the relationship as your guide. My cousin Anna’s really good at this. When she’s presenting, she’ll take her phone, hold it up and say, “This is my phone. It’s the newest, the latest, the greatest. It’s amazing. I can do incredible things with it. It’s not rude. It’s not polite. It’s how I use it that matters.” If you think about the relationships that are being impacted and affected, it helps you make good choices in those environments.
PCM: Still, there’s a lot of rudeness out there in cyberspace. Do you think this is a particularly bad-mannered period in history?
DPS: Sometimes we hear from people, “Oh, there are no manners today; manners are in a state of decline.” One of the nice things about having a generational perspective on this work is that every generation perceives that to be true, witnesses the changes that occur over time and thinks that the state of manners are in decline.
Like so many things in life, I really think of it as a pendulum. I think that people challenge and push the boundaries, and then there’s a response. New structures come into being. I think the generation that had the most difficult time with this was my parents’ generation, and even my grandmother, who was writing in the late ’60s and early ’70s. You had a generation that was intentionally trying to deconstruct the social order at that time.
I don’t think that happens in the same way right now. Quite the contrary, I think we might be in a time where, because there is so much choice, because we do live in an increasingly casual and informal world, people are looking for information to help them make choices in that environment.
PCM: You said it’s mostly about relationships. But a lot of modern communication is more like broadcasting. Emily Post didn’t have to worry about the etiquette of announcing one’s foibles to seven billion people around the world.
DPS: Absolutely, but here, too, there are lessons to be learned from the past. When I teach conversation skills, I’ll teach three tiers to a conversation. Tier one is safe territory—sports, the weather, pop culture, local celebrities, what you had for breakfast that morning. Tier two is potentially controversial. People have different and valid opinions about these topics. They were not table talk. They were reserved for private conversation—religion, politics, dating, your love life. The third tier, the most intimate, is family and finance. You don’t ask probing questions or offer too much information unless someone has already opened the door to that in some way.
Those rules for conversation around a dinner table or in the workplace function very well for the online space, where you’re talking about a much bigger conversation, but one where a sense of discretion and propriety are really important.
One of the immediate associations people often have with etiquette is that it’s common sense or that it’s the Golden Rule. It’s treating other people the way you’d want to be treated. You hear that a lot. I like to emphasize the Platinum Rule these days, the evolution of the Golden Rule. In an increasingly diverse and complex world, it’s really important to treat other people the way they would want to be treated. It’s no longer enough to go around applying your own standard to everybody that you meet. You need to make an effort also to take into account the different standards that different people have. That’s a challenge for all of us to continue to push ourselves to be aware of not just our own perspective, but that of others as well.
PCM: So what’s the future of etiquette?
DPS: Sometimes people ask me, “What would success look like in this business?” and I say, “If I can be a steward for this tradition, if I can hand it off to the sixth generation, I’ll absolutely consider that a success.”
We’re approaching the hundredth anniversary of the original publishing of Etiquette. The 20th edition will be out in 2022. They stopped, as you know, publishing Encyclopedia Britannica a couple of years ago. Being in the publishing industry, particularly publishing reference books, is a really challenging thing.
One of the challenges for our generation has been figuring out how to not just continue to evolve our content, but also to continue to find new mediums for it. The vehicle that I most like to promote these days is a podcast that I’m doing with my cousin Lizzie called Awesome Etiquette. It’s produced by American Public Media, the folks that do Marketplace, and Prairie Home Companion, and Splendid Table. It’s a Q and A show, kind of a Car Talk of etiquette.
To me, Emily was also a radio star. She was a lifestyle personality who was recognizable across America. The return of Emily Post to radio, I think, is a really big deal for us.
PCM: But is the printed book still the core of the business, or is it becoming less important?
DPS: It’s the backbone of what we do. There have been other etiquette experts who have done amazing work. A contemporary of Emily’s, Amy Vanderbilt, produced an amazing book. Letitia Baldrige in the 1960s, the Kennedy White House social secretary—her book is also very good.
Emily Post’s Etiquette is unique in the fact that we are a reference book that has continued to change and evolve, and has been in print for over 90 years now. There is no replacing that. We sometimes call ourselves a social barometer. In figuring out which manners have lost their utility and have gone out of fashion and which are emerging and coming into being, the process of editing and rewriting that book every five to seven years is substantively the most important work that we do.
Pomona College Professor of Sociology Colin Beck says the genesis of his recently released book, Radicals, Revolutionaries, and Terrorists, can be traced back to a student’s question during his course of the same name. “I’m just wondering why some groups get labeled as terrorists and others don’t?” asked Emily Miner ’12, an English major who was a sophomore at the time.
An excellent question, as there had been no large-scale case studies on how those designations were made, says Beck. So he, in collaboration with Miner over the course of two years, looked at organizations listed as terrorist groups by the U.S. and the European Union, and then compared it to a dataset on terrorist events that occurred.
Policymakers and those responsible for the designation of “terrorist,” seize on certain markers, Beck says. Beck and Miner couldn’t find clear geopolitical interests at play, but they did find that the labels weren’t given based on activity. Threat markers that landed groups on the terrorist list included whether they attack airplanes or U.S. and E.U. allies, and whether they are Islamic or not—just by virtue of ideology, not whether they had necessarily engaged in many or high-profile terrorist acts.
“What I concluded was that this is basically done in an ad hoc fashion. There’s not a shadowy cabal of government experts sitting around with lots of information,” says Beck, who calls that finding astounding.
“Looking through the terrorism lists, my sense was that most of the groups you’d want to designate are on there. But there’s also a number who really don’t make sense to receive sanctions when other similarly sized active organizations do not. Basically, it appears to be the irrationality of using markers—such as whether a group attacks airplanes or is an Islamist organization—that drives the results at the margins,” Beck says.
Beck believes this calls into question many of the justifications for the continuing “War on Terror.” This focus on a few markers that signal terrorism—especially the post-9/11 focus on Islamist organizations—suggests that governments are not well equipped to perceive and respond to emerging threats, he says. “The Islamic State was quite downplayed during its initial formation, as was Boko Haram, etc. Like in matters of grand military strategy, it seems that governments are always preparing to fight the last war rather than the next one,” says Beck.
Beck and Miner wrote a paper about their findings, which was published in the journal Social Forces. Miner, who is now an English teacher in Los Angeles, says of her work with Beck, “Researching together was an amazing opportunity; even though I felt vastly underqualified in comparison, Colin very deliberately involved me in every step of the process, and the study and paper felt completely collaborative. I learned a lot about the different pieces of sociological research, from data collection to analysis to publication,” she says.
So how do you know who’s a terrorist? Beck points to three aspects that are key to making the designation: First, whether or not the perpetrator is a legitimate wielder of violence—per international norms, governments are the only entities permitted to use violence, and so violent non-governmental actors are usually illegitimate, says Beck. Two, whether their violent action is routine or not routine; terrorism is non-routine violence, not actions during wartime. Finally, who is the intended target of the action? “If you just want to hurt the person, that’s murder, that’s not terrorism.”
In Beck’s “Radicals, Revolutionaries and Terrorists” course, students study groups and personalities from Che Guevara to Al Qaeda to Weather Underground. This semester, Beck will include ISIS and the Arab Spring in the curriculum. Beck says the class discussions and feedback from students gathered over the years were integral to the development of his book. “They were the first audience as well as the inspiration,” says Beck.
In his book—which critics have called “sweeping and powerful”—Beck examines eight questions about radicalism, including its origins, dynamics and outcomes. He points out that terrorism is not a new phenomenon. There was a wave of terrorist activity around the world starting in the late 19th century through World War I, when more heads of state were assassinated than at any other time in history, he says. Then as now, there were sharp increases in telecommunications technology and international trade, ups and downs in global economic cycles and demographic pressures, says Beck.
Beck says the impact of globalization is one factor that sets our current era apart from past ones. “Globalization gives movements a stage and a target. International connectivity makes it more likely that contention in one place will become contention in another,” he says.
ISIS is a fascinating case, says Beck, and its rise is no surprise, as it developed in ungoverned spaces left by the American invasion of Iraq and the Syrian civil war. They are here to stay for the near term, he says, but in the long term, “when radical groups tend to seize power, they tend to either do themselves in by becoming either more radical or moderate over time.”
Beck hesitates to make predictions, but he says the question is whether ISIS will change as other revolutionary movements have over time, like the Tamil Tigers or Hezbollah or Hamas. He says ISIS’s endgame is still unclear and he questions what their objectives are, despite their stated aims.
“What is important is to look behind their actions,” says Beck, “because the first wisdom of sociology is that things are not what they seem.”
Working Through the Past
Labor and Authoritarian Legacies in Comparative Perspective
Coedited by Teri L. Caraway ’89 with Maria Lorena Cook and Stephen Crowley, this collection of essays examines the clash of labor movements and authoritarian governments. ILR Press, 2015 / 296 pages / $27.95
A History of Asian International Adoption in America
Catherine Ceniza Choy ’91 looks at the complex history and impact of Asian international adoption in the United States. NYU Press / 244 pages / $25.00
Heterosexuality in Post-Closeted Culture
James Joseph Dean ’97 explores how straight Americans make sense of their sexual and gendered selves in a time of dramatic change in societal attitudes. NYU Press, 2014 / 320 pages / $26.00
Hitler’s Money Trail
How He Aquired It, How He Squandered It
David Green ’58 fills a gap in 20th-century history by investigating the financing of Adolf Hitler’s dramatic makeover of the German economy and war machine.CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2015 / 294 pages / $16.95
Two Women Against the Wind
A Tierre del Fuego Bicycling Adventure
Réanne Hemingway-Douglass ’63 recounts her 300-mile bicycle journey across the southern tip of South America, one of the most remote and beautiful regions on the planet. Cave Art Press, 2015 / 130 pages / $12.95
Faust, Parts I and II
This curatorial version of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s masterwork, intended to bring the tragedy back to the theatre, was translated into English by Douglas Langworthy ’80 and trims the 21-hour work to only six. Richer Resources Publications, 2015 / 247 pages / $18.95
Supporting the Dream
High School-College Partnerships for College and Career Readiness
Charis McGaughy ’91 and Andrea Venezia ’91 offer educators a guide to cross-system partnerships to support college-bound students. Corwin, 2015 / 152 pages / $28.95
Frederick Law Olmstead
Plans and Views of Public Parks
Coedited by Lauren Meier ’79 with Charles E. Beveridge and Irene Mills, this lavishly illustrated volume reveals Olmstead’s design concepts for more than 70 park projects. Johns Hopkins University Press, 2015 / 448 pages / $74.95
The author of the cult blog “Taxi Gourmet,” Layne Mosler ’96 takes her readers on a delicious tour from the back seat of taxis in Buenos Aires, New York and Berlin. Pantheon, 2015 / 320 pages / $24.95
Southern California Mountain Country
Places John Muir Walked and Places He Would Have Loved to Know
Photographer Glenn Pascall ’64 provides a delightful visual tour of the high country of Southern California, using the words of John Muir to tie the photography together. Sierra Club Angeles Chapter 2015 / 106 pages / $24.99
This futuristic retelling of the classic tale, in a new picture book written by Deborah Underwood ’83 and illustrated by Meg Hunt, gives Cinderella a fairy godrobot and an unladylike knack for interstellar mechanics. Chronicle Books, 2015 / 40 pages / $16.99
In his second book and first novel, Reuben Vaisman-Tzachor ’88 offers an intricately woven tale of betrayal and redemption spanning generations, places, cultures and languages. CBH Books, 2015 / 266 pages / $24.99
Impunity, Human Rights, and Democracy
Chile and Argentina, 1990-2005
Thomas Wright ’63 traces a triumph for human rights—the erosion and collapse of the impunity of former repressors in Chile and Argentina. University of Texas Press, 2014 / 206 pages / $55.00
Ideas With Consequences
The Federalist Society and the Conservative Counterrevolution
Assistant Professor of Politics Amanda Hollis-Brusky shows how a network of lawyers, judges, scholars and activists worked successfully to push American constitutional law to the right. Oxford University Press, 2015 / 264 pages / $29.95
From Trafficking to Terror
Constructing a Global Social Problem
Associate Professor of Anthropology Pardis Mahdavi challenges the anti-Muslim panic surrounding two socially constructed conflicts, the “war on terrorism” and the “war on trafficking.” Routledge, 2013 / 106 pages / $18.42
The Templars, the Witch, and the Wild Irish
Vengeance and Heresy in Medieval Ireland
In a detailed case study of witchcraft and heresy, based on Celtic sources, Maeve Brigid Callan ’92 examines the competing forces that guided Irish history during the story 14th century. Cornell University Press 2014/ 304 pages / $46.00
A Witherston Murder Mystery
In her 18th book and first novel, Betty Jean Craige ’68, professor emerita at the University of Georgia, folds a potent environmental message into a timely and down-home who-dunit that promises to be the first in a series. Black Opal Books 2014 / 318 pages /$12.99
Exploring the Salish Sea
An Artist’s View
Réanne Hemingway Douglass ’63and her husband,Don Douglass, cele-brate the beautyand ecological diversity of the inlandsea of Washingtonstate and BritishColombia in a textwritten to accompany the artwork of Margy Gates. Cave Art Press 2014 / 104 pages/ $10.95
More Studies in Ethnomethodology
Kenneth Liberman ’70 introduces his readers to this sociological approach rooted in phenomenology, with a focus on understanding unspoken rules people use to create order in unstructured situations, from game-playing to map-reading. SUNY Press 2014 / 312 pages / $26.95
Behind the Mask
Embrace Risk and Dare to Be Better
Donald F. Hastings ’51, with daughter and co-author Leslie Anne Hastings, offers a memoir of his career as CEO of Lincoln Electric Company that is full of shrewd business wisdom and inspiring, outside-the-box ideas. XLibris 2014 / 210 pages / $16.51
The Wood of Green
Poems, Stories, and Studies
Alan Lindgren ’86 offers a collection that varies in style—poetry, fiction and philosophical essays—and in language—poems in English, German and Spanish and stories in English and in German, with English translations. Sun Sings Publications 2014 / 558 pages / $18.95
Tokens on the Table (A Tip is Not Enough) and Contrary Mary (All in Good Time)
In this double book, J. Cris Miller ’59 offers a romance set in the 1870s in New Mexico and a mystery set in the Illinois/Indiana casinos of the 1990s. Each is the first in a planned series. JCMA 2002 / 500 pages / $11.95
Soundtracks of Asian America
Navigating Race through Musical Performance
Grace Wang ’95 considers the experiences of Asian Americans in Western classical and popular music, as well as “Mandopop,” to explore how they use music to construct narratives of self, race, class and belonging. Duke University Press 2015 / 272 pages / $23.95
By Adam Conner-Simons ’08
THE WORDS THAT galvanized a thousand authors to speak out against a powerful corporate retailer were written along a dirt road, in an 8-by-10 shack, by a wispy-haired, self-described “wimp.”
This past year Amazon spent many months in testy negotiations with Hachette, the fourth-largest book publisher in the U.S. When no agreement had been reached by May, Amazon began delaying shipment of Hachette books, shutting down pre-orders, and even removing the publisher’s titles from its all-important recommendation algorithms.
Such gestures aren’t trivial—when the entity responsible for selling 40 percent of America’s printed books makes yours difficult to buy, sales drop.
Sitting here on the deck of his spacious summer house overlooking Maine’s pristine Muscongus Bay, thriller writer Douglas Preston ’78 clearly isn’t worried for his own livelihood. He’s published more than a dozen best-sellers and cultivated a devout following that will find him with or without Amazon.
But what keeps him up at night—and what spurred him to write 500 words that put his name in the headlines and a sizable thorn in Amazon’s side—is thinking about all the young authors that he says have been “held hostage in the middle of a back-room deal between two big corporations.”
In June, Preston penned an informal letter about Amazon’s actions, with the idea that a few writers might co-sign. After famous friends like Stephen King and Nora Roberts started spreading the word, the letter went viral, and within a matter of days more than 900 of his peers had gotten on-board and joined the group that Preston had dubbed “Authors United.”
It wasn’t a completely united front—a vocal contingent of self-published authors posted lengthy screeds online calling him a “one-percenter,” a “pinhead” and worse, while Amazon reps dismissed him in the press as “entitled” and “an opportunist.” When Amazon found out that he planned to publish his letter as a full-page ad in The New York Times, the company’s head of e-books tracked down his phone number and called to issue veiled threats and try to stop him.
Preston shrugs when he reflects on how the situation escalated and how he, improbably, became the face behind a movement that he never set out to lead.
“I’ve never been much of an activist about these things,” he says. “But [Amazon’s tactics] felt like an act of betrayal. We writers helped a struggling start-up become one of the world’s largest companies, and this is how they repay us?”
Amazon’s path to global dominance hasn’t come without making some enemies. CEO Jeff Bezos has internally referred to his team’s business strategy as “the Gazelle Project,” in that Amazon approaches publishers “the way a cheetah would pursue a sickly gazelle.”
The Hachette dispute is far from Amazon’s first: in 2010 it deleted the “buy” option for all MacMillan books, which quickly forced the publisher to cave in during negotiations. The company often paints publishing houses as middlemen and gatekeepers—relics from another era whose skills at distribution and publicity have been rendered moot by instant downloads and viral word-of-mouth.
Many self-published authors agree. Sci-fi writer Hugh Howey has collected more than 8,000 signatures for a Change.org petition arguing that companies like Hachette are “resisting technology” rather than adapting to the changing times.
Preston, naturally, begs to differ. He sees publishers as vital curators, editors and investors, and believes that the biggest challenge for Authors United is, ironically enough, telling the right stories.
Here’s his: it’s 1978, and he’s a fresh-faced college grad creating communications content for the American Museum of Natural History. The job pays peanuts but lets him explore all of the museum’s hidden treasures, from majestic butterfly exhibits to a hair-raising “dinosaur graveyard” in the basement.
A few years into the gig, he gives a tour to an editor named Lincoln Child, who suggests that he pull his anecdotes into a book.
While novels can often be cobbled together on nights and weekends, Preston’s journalistic writing would require some heavy daytime reporting. As a first-time author, Preston isn’t in a position to drop everything to write, but his publisher St. Martin’s Press gives him an advance of $7,200 that lets him take six months off from his job.
“Without that cash, there’d be no first book and I might not even be doing this for a living right now,” he says.
The experience made Preston recognize the importance of publishers as venture capitalists for ideas—a tradition that, in a sense, extends back to the Renaissance, when royal families like the Medicis funded artwork by Michelangelo and Sandro Botticelli.
“These publishers supported me when I was unknown and believed in me enough to keep releasing my books even when the first few didn’t sell,” says Preston, who’s been with Hachette for 20 years. “What’s lost in the narrative is that, if authors couldn’t get advances, an awful lot of extremely important books wouldn’t get written.”
As with most business disputes, Amazon and Hachette’s boils down to dollar signs. Their main disagreement has revolved around e-books, which now make up almost a third of the market. Currently 30 percent of each e-book’s revenues go to Amazon, and 70 percent go to Hachette, which then carves out a cut for the author (usually 10 to 15 percent). While nobody knows exactly what was happening behind closed doors during negotiations, Amazon was reportedly pressing for 50 percent of revenues.
What’s also at stake are e-book prices themselves. Amazon has famously been selling many e-books at a loss, and says that prices above $9.99 hurt overall sales. Hachette, meanwhile, has been reluctant to set a precedent for lower prices that might cannibalize hardcover sales.
Preston says he has no particular problems with $10 e-books, but at the same time is flummoxed by the animosity leveled at authors whose books are being sold for a few dollars more.
“Some people have said e-books should be cheaper because they’re ‘just words,’ but then why isn’t anybody out picketing the makers of ‘Grand Theft Auto’ for charging $65 for a video game that’s ‘just electrons?’” he asks. “It devalues all the work that goes into the creative process. Is every book really worth just $9.99 to you?”
Amazon has likened e-books to paperbacks, another technological advance that lowered literature’s costs but also allowed for its increased availability. Many authors would counter that the Amazon-driven trend toward lower and lower e-book prices threatens the long-term viability of the entire profession.
“Amazon is doing the same thing Spotify is doing—treating creative content as though it were a commodity, like a TV set or a vacuum,” Preston says. “They’ve spurred a massive price devaluation of books that’s caused consumers to expect artificially low prices—and the net result is that it’s now exceedingly difficult for young authors to make a living.”
It’s not just first-time authors who’ve felt the pinch, which is why many authors were wary about signing a letter like Preston’s that would pit them against such a massive retail juggernaut. Novelist Lucy Ferriss ’75 was gung-ho about Authors United last summer, but as the publication date of her next book approached, she started reflecting on the wide reach of Amazon, which owns both the review site Goodreads and Audible (the seller of the majority of the world’s audiobooks).
“It becomes much more real when your own sales are tied into it,” Ferriss says. “It’s startling to realize how much of my personal investment as an author is caught up in getting good results with Amazon.”
Despite her reservations, she’s stayed on-board—in no small part because of Preston’s dedication. She recalls that when he and his brother Richard ’76 (a fellow writer) joined Pomona’s literary magazine Passwords, it only took a matter of weeks for her team of editors to voluntarily hand over control.
“They were impeccably organized, they had goals, and we were hopelessly incompetent,” she says with a laugh. “With Authors United, it doesn’t surprise me that Doug’s been able to essentially herd an army of feral cats. Once he decides to get something done, he does it.”
Since the initial letter, Authors United tried to reach out directly to members of the Amazon Board, with no luck. Preston was also approached by a team of prestigious pro bono lawyers who will be submitting a formal brief for the Department of Justice that outlines Amazon’s antitrust violations. He hopes it will encourage, if not an actual lawsuit, then at least more transparency on the part of retailers and publishers’ business dealings.
“Amazon makes most publishers sign non-disclosure agreements, such that we don’t even know what’s going on with these contracts,” he says. “What’s the nature of these relationships, and what is Amazon asking for? The DOJ has to bring this all out in the open so the American people can look at the facts for themselves.”
When I met with Preston on a crisp autumn morning in October, he sounded frustrated and a tad overwhelmed. He was promoting the publication of his third novel of 2014, gearing up for a book fair in United Arab Emirates, working on the next installment in his popular “Pendergast” series, and fielding phone calls from journalists about the ongoing publishing feud.
“Truth be told, I’m sick and tired of the situation, and would love to get rid of Authors United and go back to writing books,” he told me then.
Less than a month later, Hachette and Amazon reached a deal that made Hachette responsible for setting e-book prices, but also gave Amazon the opportunity to offer “specific financial incentives for Hachette to deliver lower prices.”
Preston views the resolution as just the end of one battle in a larger war for writers, publishers and retailers. Despite the tedious and thankless nature of his role, he says he takes comfort in the fact that his efforts have put a spotlight on the changing landscape of his industry—and the tricky economics that come with being an author in the digital age.
“If nothing else, it’s reassuring to look at the list of folks who’ve signed the letter and see everyone from cookbook authors and sci-fi writers to poets and Nobel laureates,” he says. “I’ve been in this industry long enough to know that it’s rare to get writers to agree on anything.”
Axioms to Grind & Rhyme and Punishment
These posthumously published tomes by Richard Armour ’27 were edited by his son, Geoff Armour ’63. Axioms to Grind includes 900 of Armour’s famed aphorisms. Rhyme and Punishment is his autobiography.
Phoenix Publishing Group 2012 / 225 pages / $14.95
Phoenix Publishing Group 2013 / 122 pages / $14.95
In the visually stunning sequel to his Caldecott Honor-winning picture book Journey, Aaron Becker ’96 offers the second installment in an intended trilogy of brightly colored fantasy adventures without words.
Candlewick 2014 / 40 pages / $15.99
Clavichord for Beginners
Joan Benson ’46, a champion of the clavichord in the modern world, offers a method book for practitioners and enthusiasts alike, including a master class DVD and a CD of Benson performing.
Indiana University Press 2014 / 144 pages / $50.00
The Shelburne Escape Line
Reanne Hemingway-Douglass ’63 tells the little-known World War II story of an escape route that the French Resistance used to rescue Allied airmen shot down over France.
Cave Art Press 2014 / 104 pages / $18.95
Plato’s Rivalry with Medicine
A Struggle and Its Dissolution
Susan Levin ’84, professor of philosophy at Smith College, examines the famous philosopher’s evolving engagement with the subject of medicine and argues that his works have much to offer in the world of bioethics.
Oxford University Press 2014 / 320 pages / $65.00
In his sixth novel, Charles Neff ’54 revisits the Pacific Northwest, where a clash between an old family legacy, tribal land rights, and a marriage in trouble results in a suspicious death, threatening the lives of those who try to solve it.
Bennett & Hastings Publishing 2014 / 276 pages / $14.95
Sky Blue Stone
The Turquoise Trade in World History
Assistant Professor of History Arash Khazeni examines the origins, trade, and circulation of turquoise in the history of Islamic Eurasia and global encounters between empire and nature.
University of California Press 2014 / 216 pages / $29.95
An American Lyric
A National Book Award finalist, Professor of English Claudia Rankine’s meditation on race recounts the racial aggressions of daily life in America in a progression of revealing vignettes.
Graywolf Press 2014 / 160 pages / $20.00
Pomona College Professor of Spanish Nivia Montenegro’s latest book, Libro De Arenas: Prosa Dispersa 1965-1990, is a compilation of the work of the late gay Cuban dissident writer Reinaldo Arenas, commemorating the importance of the literary and political figure known for his bestselling memoir Before Night Falls. For Montenegro, editing the book was an homage to the experience of fleeing one’s homeland, living as an exile and building a new life—an experience that is her own. Co-written with her husband Enrico Mario Santí, and researched with the help of Margaret Munts ’17, Libro De Arenas was recently published in Mexico and will soon be published in Spain.
Two of Pomona College’s most prominent alumni authors, Vikram Chandra ’84 and Ved Mehta ’56, have new books out in India.
The latest from Chandra, author of the bestseller Sacred Games, is Mirrored Mind: My Life in Letter and Code, which explores computer coding and novel writing and the connections and trajectories of the seemingly opposing methods of expression.
Mirrored Mind will be released in the U.S. in September as Geek Sublime: Writing Fiction, Coding Software. Chandra, who has spent years as a computer analyst and years as an acclaimed fiction writer, creates a work described by the publisher as “part literary theory, part tech story, and part memoir.” The book ranges from discussions of the Silicon Valley coding culture to an analysis of the writings of the fourth century Sanskrit grammarian Panini to an examination of his own relationship to Western literature.
The Telegraph (U.K.) called it “a delight to read and never prescriptive… a thought-provoking set of linked essays that are part memoir, part analysis of geeks, part aesthetic treatise.” Meanwhile, Chandra’s bestseller Sacred Games may become a TV series.
Ved Mehta ’56, the author of 27 books and many articles, has released The Essential Ved Mehta. The book contains excerpts from almost all of his nonfiction writings, beginning with his first novel Face to Face, published in 1957. Mehta was a staff writer at the New Yorker from 1960 to 1993, writing prolifically during his tenure. The Essential Ved Mehta contains Mehta’s published pieces that include his many writings on India and politics, as well as family stories and personal memoirs that delve into living with blindness since the age of 4.
Mehta also offers personal commentary that he wrote specifically for this collection as a reflection on each piece. In an interview with WWD, the author “says that he feels that the U.S. and India have equal weight in his consciousness, and that he thinks of himself as belonging to neither of the countries as a writer. Rather, he’s a ‘rootless writer,’ he says, adding that good writing should not be limited by geography.”
Both The Essential Ved Medhta and Mirrored Mind are published by Penguin India.