The Root puts forward its list. What struck me most powerfully upon reading this was the relatively few business and political leaders here. But I am always interested in learning more about rising figures I've known nothing or relatively little about before encountering them here.
In which I talk to Chicago Publishes and am podcast. Hear what I think about being a Chicago-based publisher, the exciting opportunities facing independent publishers today, and my favorite things to drink.
Blogger and professor D.G. Myers on a subject that I raise with people all the time--e-readers are being adopted much more aggressively by older readers than younger readers, for lots of very conspicuous reasons. Sure, we all wish younger people read more; I was just reminded of this by a colleague who spent the past few years teaching composition at a state university. But the biggest mass-media phenomena of the past decade were two whopping multivolume book series that achieved enormous cultural prominence chiefly through their passionate embrace by young readers.
The Harry Potter and Twilight sagas have become even bigger through their conversion to film, but if you had tried to advance the idea fifteen years ago that the biggest media splashes of the early twenty-first century would be made by not one but two lengthy book series, comprising multiple fat novels eagerly lapped up by tween and teen readers the world over, no one would have believed you. The people who bought and read all those books over the past dozen years weren't inhibited by the books' expression as print products. Kids are fine with print. And Myers is very good on why older people are more likely to adopt e-reading devices than younger people.
Electronic reading devices are new devices for old readers. Younger readers do not come to books with the same personal history. In fact, their own history with books might lead them to prefer paper and binding. I’ve suggested as much before (here and here). Children first encounter books as physical things. Board books, lift-the-flap books, touch-and-feel books, pop-up books — their first books are three-dimensional objects that encourage children to explore them in all three dimensions. When they acquire their own books, the books they have selected for themselves, children are proud of them. They like to display them on their shelves and carry them everywhere. They may even begin to develop a love for good paper and fine binding.
I’m not saying that printed books will triumph in the end. I’m no better than anyone else at predicting the future. What I am suggesting is that older readers, excited about their Kindles and iPads, have become strangers to their first experience with books and reading. The newfangled devices are exciting because they appear to solve longstanding problems — the problems of older readers, who have spent a lifetime with books. Younger readers, who do not share that excitement and are not yet estranged from their own literary history, may not prefer ebooks to printed books after all.
Agate B2 is publishing a unique new title this November: I, Steve: Steve Jobs in His Own Words, edited by George Beahm. This is the first-ever collection of Steve Jobs's own sayings, statements, and quotations, and we're timing its release to coincide with that of his authorized biography, Steve Jobs, by Walter Isaacson.
If you are interested in Jobs's ideas on work, life, design, technology, and culture, I, Steve is for you. We couldn't be more excited to be publishing it.
Sweetly sharp and bracingly bitter with a grapefruity tang, Campari is the most widely famous and readily located of those spirits known as bitters or amari, as they say in Italy, where a preponderance of them were devised in the 1800s. Concocted as digestive aids or herbal tonics, they boast of having been compounded from 13 or 33 or 53 distinct ingredients—roots and rinds and rhubarbs, barks and beans and spices, myrrhs and mysteries. Each is hyped with a tale that its proprietary recipe is known only to a select committee of six members or fewer, or to a lone distillery manager trained in anti-interrogation techniques. All were complex, Sophie knew, and she fancied herself a complicated woman.
In November, Agate B2 will publish the newest book by Johan Van Overtveldt, author of two other Agate B2 titles: The Chicago School and Bernanke's Test. This time around, Dr. Van Overtveldt, who is based in Brussels, will be working on home turf: The End of the Euro deals with what he sees as the potential--if not likely--collapse of the euro currency in 2012. The book is available for pre-order now, but in the meantime, here's a Q&A with Dr. Van Overtveldt that outlines some of the book's basic concerns:
After the Second World War, preventing another pan-European military conflict was high on everybody’s agenda. A more unified Europe—one that buried, at long, the eternal conflict between Germany and France—was needed in order to achieve this goal. It didn’t take long, however, for everyone involved to realize that the means to more fully unify Europe were very limited. The path of economic integration was seen as the most promising to pursue. From economic integration it was a small step toward monetary integration. For many of the policymakers involved, these were steps toward the ultimate goal of a fully integrated Europe-wide political union. The monetary union, then, was seen as a means to an end. While travelling down that path over the past decades, however, politicians and policymakers too often forgot about the necessary conditions that had to be fulfilled in order for Europe to build an effective monetary union.
How serious are the debt woes facing Spain and Italy?
Italy has a very high public debt (120% of GDP and rising) whereas Spain has a much smaller public debt (75% of GDP, and also rising). But Spain has a much larger private debt (estimated at 180% of GDP) that, moreover, is largely owed to foreigners. Markets will likely respond as the recession deepens in Spain, when a substantial part of that private debt will probably turn into public debt (not least because of Spain’s weak banking sector, especially the regional cajas). These two countries also have very poor growth prospects; aging population is a very pronounced problem in both Spain and Italy.
How about France?
France is the second largest economy in the eurozone after Germany. France has been running budget deficits since 1974. The debt ratio is approaching 100% of GDP and France also has a weak banking sector, despite its relatively good scores in Europe’s “stress tests” of its banks. If France’s problems were to escalate and the country needed wider European support, the euro would unravel within weeks.
How is Europe’s debt crisis related to the Great Recession?
The Great Recession hit public finances in the eurozone-countries very hard. The cost of the rescue operations necessary to save the banking sector was very high. Then, the recession itself caused a drop in tax revenue and an increase in government expenditures. This double whammy made markets more aware of the precarious state of public finances in large parts of the eurozone. Even without the recession, though, public finances were deteriorating, mainly due to the aging of the population, but the Great Recession accelerated things in a way that caught everybody’s attention.
Why did Germany adopt the euro in the first place?
Two main factors combined. The first was the general guilt Germans felt after two world wars and the atrocities that went with them. The second was the clever maneuvering of former French president François Mitterrand. The French had always been resentful of Germany’s power position in Europe’s economic and monetary affairs. They saw monetary union as a vehicle through which they could “europeanize” German hegemony. After the implosion of the Soviet Union, Mitterrand made former German chancellor Helmut Kohl fearful about whether the international community would accept a reunified Germany. The loss of the deutschmark and acceptance of the euro may have been seen as the price Germany needed to pay for that acceptance. At the time, the Bundesbank lobbied furiously to stop the euro initiative, but in vain.
How high is the risk of Germany withdrawing?
The more Europe’s economic and financial stability become endangered by the crisis, the greater the risk of a German withdrawal. No other people in Europe (apart, maybe, from the Dutch) seem to have as great a national desire for economic stability as the Germans. Even young Germans grow up fully aware of the disasters the financial instability of the 1920s brought upon the country (and the rest of the world). Furthermore, the youngest generation of Germans is clearly less oppressed by the country’s heritage of historical guilt. The imperative to support the European idea, at any cost, is less pressing today than it was ten or twenty years ago.
What needs to happen for the European monetary union to stay afloat?
There are three main aspects to resolving this crisis. First, the structural shortcomings that characterized the euro arrangement from the beginning need to be fixed. This means basically two things: creating a fully empowered political union and redesigning the markets—especially labor markets—in order to improve flexibility and mobility. Second, the crisis in public finances must be addressed. These are intimately linked to the lack of structural growth opportunities; tax increases are no longer a viable option in Europe. Third, the European banking industry is still very weak. It’s imperative to eliminate the least viable institutions, in orderly fashion, and substantially reinforce those that remain.
What would a failure of the European monetary union mean for global markets?
Without a doubt, the end of the euro would mean very negative things for markets worldwide. Uncertainty would shoot through the roof and markets would become extremely risk-averse for an extended period of time. Direct monetary financing of public deficits by central banks would be unavoidable. Inflation would shoot up immediately and the business cycle would nose-dive. It’s not a cheerful prospect.
An announcement: Agate is creating a new line of memoirs and autobiographical books by African-American writers. I'm calling it Bolden Lives, and we'll begin publishing the first books in the line in the fall of 2012 as part of our Bolden imprint. To that end, we are seeking out both new manuscripts and previously published books that are deserving of reissue. Our plan is to publish two books in the Bolden Lives line each season.
I have been contemplating this move for years now, and I am very gratified that Agate has grown to the point where it's feasible to take this on. I believe there are lots of readers out there who are interested in this kind of writing--readers of all ages and colors--and that a dedicated series like Bolden Lives is a great way to bring these kinds of books to those readers. I welcome your submissions, suggestions, ideas, and any other feedback.
So it's been a pretty good past two years here at Agate Publishing, Inc. We have been fortunate; our business has grown steadily, even as the broader economy has faltered, and we have diversified and expanded the range of publishing work that we do here. Over the past year, in particular, our staff has grown accordingly--we now have 12 full-time staff people, plus one intern, which is almost three times the number of people working here two years ago. About half our staff works in our office on a day-to-day basis, while the rest work from home most days of the week. On Tuesdays, everyone converges on the office for meetings to discuss the various matters that are best dealt with face-to-face. We bought a very large table last winter to accommodate these meetings but we've just about exceeded its capacity when we all crowd around it every Tuesday morning at 10. Lately, we have had a lot of good news to share.
I love these meetings. I love to see all of my colleagues assembled this way; I love hearing everyone discuss what they're doing, advance their ideas, and ask questions of each other. And I love addressing the entire group. I usually have a rough idea of what I want to say to everyone, but I largely wing it, and I am very frequently surprised by what comes out of my mouth. A few weeks ago, for example, I found myself making reference to the French painter Nicolas Poussin.
There are those entrepreneurs known for their compelling charisma and vision and almost tangible will not to fail. I'm not that kind of entrepreneur. I'm in the camp that believes failure, if not inevitable, can only be staved off with constant vigilance and effort, and that maintaining a healthy regard for the lessons dealt by adversity is the only sensible way to function. In terms of my temperament as a business owner (and as a person), I do not incline to optimism. I spent too many years failing repeatedly at my efforts to start my company for that, and I make enough poor decisions and outright mistakes to keep my shortcomings near the forefront of my attention.
Don't get me wrong; I believe in what I do, and in what Agate does, and in a wholehearted commitment to good work. I am not a pessimist. A few years ago, when things were especially hard at Agate, I talked frequently to our little group about the basic soundness of our business and the brightness of our prospects. But I believe that it's when times are good that it's most important to make the necessary preparations--especially the mental and emotional preparations--for those times when things will be less good.
I think this is something most business-owners should keep in mind. I also think it's important to remind my staff of this, especially the newer people who weren't working for Agate during the times when we were going through our gravest struggles. Ours is a level-headed group, and most of us have dealt with career challenges of one kind or another over the years. I don't need to strike this note too hard. Which brought me to Poussin, who painted two different paintings called "Et in Arcadia Ego" in the 17th-century.
Above is what the first one looks like. I took five years of Latin (which I recommend to everyone), and I love a well-timed classical allusion. "And I too am in Arcadia," or thereabouts, tells us that even in the most beautiful settings, death still exists. Note the little skull at the top of the stone. Of course, people have been debating the meaning of these paintings for more than 300 years now, but for my purposes, I started telling my staff how the painting serves as a reminder to remain sober and grounded even during the most carefree times.
Above is the second version. It's the more famous one, but it contains no skull, just the memorial stone. I made particular mention of that skull when I was talking to my staff that morning, though, and joked that I sometimes wished I had one nearby as a prop in the office, to brandish when I was reminding them that even though we are doing well now, we always have to be stalwart and mindful to ensure the company stays strong. To my surprise, our latest intern took this offhand remark to heart (I certainly hadn't expected to be conjuring skulls, or Arcadia or Poussin for that matter, at this particular staff meeting) and showed up the following morning with a classic head-shop style candle composed of three stacked skulls in dark royal blue wax. This is now displayed on surface behind my spot at the foot of our meeting table. Thank you again, Sophie. As the new books come out, it's useful to see it beside them on our office shelves.
I admit, I am a sucker for business writing that uses unlikely examples to make its points. This intriguing piece from Fast Company shows how Lady Gaga has mastered the sort of community building that makes corporate marketers slaver. I am all for anything that helps those in the arts understand the business of audience-building, and helps those in business appreciate the broader lessons they can learn from the arts. And I am more appreciative every day of the remarkable 25-year-old savant who created Lady Gaga.
In the Chicago Tribune's recurring "Trib U" ("the university of you") feature, Jen Weigel does an excellent job of illuminating the virtues of our new B2 release If You Will Lead. One of the many, many things I like about this book is the way author Doug Moran uses narrative to illustrate his points about leadership. He tells the stories of great leaders from history to show how they exemplify what Moran sees as the key characteristics of good leaders. He frames all this in the context of Kipling's great poem "If--." As a result, If You Will Lead is one of the more literate new business books out this year. Perfect for the university of you.
So asks The Root, in detailing the president's new parenthood initiatives. Answer: no, but it can help. So can Leonard Pitts, Jr.'s searing Becoming Dad, the best book on black men and fatherhood available today. We're partial--we publish it, as we publish Pitts's other books. But read it and see for yourself. I'm on record opining that this book would be of particular importance to Barack Obama, considering his interest in strengthening black families. America's best-known black father: I hope you take note.
The recent Wall Street Journal article by Meghan Cox Gurdon about the bleak character of much Young Adult fiction, "Darkness Too Visible," has spurred a lot of reaction (you can see a useful round-up of these at the PWxyz blog). I'm pretty much in favor of publishers publishing whatever writers want to write and readers want to read, but the phenomenon that Gurdon addresses in her essay hit home the past few years as my son made his way through middle school. At 14, he is an occasionally articulate critic of curricula in general and cultural topics in particular. His issue with the books he's been assigned over the past three years is less with the extreme problem/pathology titles Gurdon covers, which few school systems would make required reading, and more with what he sees as the uniformly bleak cast of the books, many considered contemporary classics, that he's had to read. As he sees it, his reading assignments have been one downer after another, to an extent that became depressingly predictable over the past three years.
I don't doubt that for many YA readers, the opportunity to see their own personal experiences, however difficult, reflected in the books they read is very important. My own love of fiction burgeoned when I discovered that it could help me understand, and eventually deepen, my own feelings about the world and how it worked, while at the same time it deepened my sense of language and its possibilities. But I was a gloomy teenager, and my son, I hope, is less gloomy than I was; I'm now able to see how the kinds of books that I enjoyed when I was his age, and a little older, could look unappealingly dark to those of less-dark temperament. And it's very easy to see how a steady diet of problem books, dystopic books, and just garden-variety "serious" books--which, when looked at as a group, might surprise an impartial observer with their unremittingly downer-ish cast--could turn off average young adult readers, in the same way that an absence of those kinds of books could strand those young adult readers desperate to see their experiences reflected in literature. There should be a middle ground here between the sweetness and light and the sturm und drang. But based on my son's experience at his middle school, it looks like the vast majority of that ground has been taken up by the dark and dystopic.
This recent piece from The Root illuminates just one of the chilling aspects of our foster care system--which, after all, exists to help a chilling problem: those children whose families have collapsed, disappeared, or worse. This is an ongoing crisis--and there are few better introductions to the human costs involved than Regina Louise's incredible Somebody's Someone.
Enjoy this terrific little piece by Michael Ruhlman from the new book Man with a Pan: Culinary Adventures of Fathers who Cook for Their Families, posted over at Slate. Ruhlman does a great job deftly tying in the many benefits cooking can bring to a busy household, but his key point is one that most of the dads I know can really get behind. I could quibble that it's a little repetitive in how it pushes its message, but as a father who cooks plenty for his own family, I'm happy to see this message pushed.
To deny ourselves either diminishes the creatures that we are, and to practice both with greater frequency and competency deepens our humanity, which leads to a more fulfilling life. All good things. Roast chicken and sex: They're good for you!
May 8-14 is Food Allergy Awareness Week. This year's theme has to do with the "heroes" of the food allergy awareness movement--the school nurses, teachers, principals, parents, doctors, and friends who all practice safe food allergy management and help protect the health of the 12 million Americans, including 3 million kids, who suffer from food allergies.
Here at Agate, we'd like to call attention to cookbook authors like Annalise G. Roberts, Claudia Pillow, and Kelly Rudnicki, who have all helped make the lives of people with food allergies a little richer and a little more safe. Roberts, Pillow, and Rudnicki all understand the powerful role that good food and eating well can have on people's lives, and believe that having food allergies shouldn't mean sacrificing flavor. Their books feature great recipes that are delicious and easy-to-make, thus empowering families with options that are healthful and allergen-safe. We call that, if not heroic, than at least a real service to those with food allergies.
From Doug Moran, author of our forthcoming If You Will Lead, on how it feels to see the first copies of your first book. One journey ends and another begins. Doug's book is an inspiring take on the leadership genre with an unexpected spin. He uses the classic Kipling poem "If--" as the basis for a leadership framework he fleshes out with illustrative stories from the lives of some of history's greatest leaders. Coming soon to a bookstore near you (and available for pre-order now).
We are happy to announce that the new book by Agate Surrey author Eric Felten has just been published by Simon and Schuster: it's called Loyalty: The Vexing Virtue, and it was excerpted in yesterday's Wall Street Journal, to which Eric has contributed for the past 20 years. It's already gotten a terrific review from Kirkus, and it's bound to get many more.
Eric is a terrific writer and a wide-ranging thinker, as anyone knows who reads his "Postmodern Times" column in the WSJ. That column succeeded his "How's Your Drink?", which was the basis of Eric's book by the same name that Agate Surrey published a few years back (that's him below, signing copies at our Chicago publication party for How's Your Drink?). We hope you'll buy his new book--and if you haven't bought his old one, we hope you'll buy that too. Congratulations, Eric!