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Jim Cox Report: May 2013
Dear Publisher Folk, Friends & Family:
Amazon is a corporation whose fiduciary goal is to make as much money from as many revenue sources as possible. That includes the attempt to sell the reviews that reviewers (professionals and amateurs alike) post on their web site at their invitation. I've long held this to be a foolish policy because all of the reviews generated here at the Midwest Book Review can be obtained for free.
Amazon (without any notice or explanation) banned several professional book review operations such as Reader Reviews, Midwest Book Review, etc. from posting reviews directly. Instead that burden now falls upon the authors and publishers.
I had long thought that Amazon's capricious and mysterious decision making process has ceased to surprise me. -- I was wrong.
This was sent to me by a long time friend and book reviewer. With his permission I'm able to share it with all of you as yet another example of what is wrong when Amazon's corporate capriciousness rules the day.
In a message dated 7/28/2012 3:57:16 P.M. Central Daylight Time, Hank Luttrell writes:
(((You always ask if I have any news, and I never do --- but this week amazon shocked me! A personal attack! I was very upset for a while, but I'm better now. I'll confess that I was concerned partly because I didn't think I had copies of my old amazon reviews, but I was able to find everything cached various places about the web. I wonder if you think the following might be of enough interest for your site?)))
It seems to me that I've been writing about books for most of my life. When I was in the forth grade, my school principle, the terrifying Mrs. Dart, created a book report contest. The student who read and reported on the most books during the school year won the contest. This really appealed to me, and of course I won walking away. When I was about 15 or 16 years old, I started publishing my own little amateur magazine about science fiction. We called those fanzines, and I printed mine for about 15 years, on a now long obsolete machine known as a mimeograph. When I was 21, I started writing about books for "The St. Louis Post-Dispatch". After I moved to Madison, Wisconsin, I started writing for newspapers and magazines published in this area. In the 1980's, I began writing book reviews for public access radio and television, and when the internet showed up I wrote book reviews for websites, including SFSite and Midwest Book Review. Over the last decade, I posted about a dozen reviews on Amazon. My reasoning was that since Amazon was the largest and most trafficked book-related site, my ideas and opinions might reach the largest number of readers. I think the value and quality of my reviews there varied, but some that were solid.
I was very upset recently when I discovered that all my reviews had been removed. I wasn't informed of this by Amazon, I discovered it when I posted a new piece and got an email from Amazon thanking me for my 'first' review. Thinking this must be a glitch, I checked, and all my work was gone. I still hoped that it might be some sort of error, so I inquired, and was informed merely that my reviews had been found in violation of Amazon guidelines. Now, I'm familiar with Amazon's reviewer guidelines, and I can't imagine how all of the reviews could have violated any rules. One might have been a little too long.
So I thought I would share with you two of the banned articles. Don't expect anything controversial! These are both concerned with comic strip "minutia". Of interest, I think, to enthusiastic fans sequential art narrative.
"Comics in Wisconsin" by Paul Buhle (Borderland Books, 2009)
At the heart of Paul Buhle's history of the comic strip and comic book in Wisconsin is his own experience and perceptions. In the late 1960's and early 1970's Buhle was a young Madison Wisconsin radical and scholar, involved in small left wing publishing ventures. Not only did he know most of the people in Madison who were publishing things like underground newspapers, through an amazing series of events he actually published an early, pioneering and innovative underground comic himself: "Radical America Komiks". One pertinent fact about Buhle's comic is that it sold out a print run of about 30,000 copies. In today's marketplace, that would have made it a spectacular small press success!
I didn't land in Madison until after the pivotal Army Math Research Center bombing, so most of this story is completely new and quite fascinating to me. For instance, I had never heard of an early Madison newspaper titled 'Connections' though I've seen most of the small papers that followed; I didn't know about Madison artist Nick Thorkelson; grandson of a University of Wisconsin administrator and brother of The Monkees' Peter Tork; nor did I have a chance to know Sharon Rudahl's work while she still lived in Wisconsin. For this material alone this book is an extremely valuable part of the history of American popular culture.
As for the rest of the book, it strikes me as more of an outline of what this history might be rather than a finished work. There are usually very good reasons for this sort of situation. Books have limited budgets of various sorts: the number of pages that can be printed, and also the amount of time the creators can afford to devote to the project. Part of my feeling about the incomplete nature of this book might be related to how my interests differ from Buhle's.
For instance, I feel that two of the most important comic book histories in Wisconsin are business related: Capital City Distribution, an innovative venture started in 1980 and ultimately sold to a competitor in 1996; this book mentions rather than recounts this history. Western Printing & Lithographic Co. (also known as Western Publishing) in Racine is my second nomination for most neglected history; they were leading producers of children's books and games for many decades - and also, germane to this book, packagers (editing, designing, etc.) and printers of Dell Comics from the 40's into the 60's. When the relationship with Dell ended, Western continued many of their exceedingly successful comic book titles with their own imprint, Gold Key. (The relationship between the East Coast publisher, Dell, and Western is complicated and confusing, and Buhle barely alludes to it; I really can't try to explain it in this brief space! I do want to caution everyone about the distinction in meaning between the words 'printer' and 'publisher,' which is very important in this context. Dell was the owner and publisher, with an address in New York; but Western, working with their own editors, writers and artists, produced and printed the comics on contract with Dell.) In both these examples I think Buhle's interest in artists and creators, rather than businesses, lead him away from important stories. I'm interested in artists too, but argue that business climate has a profound affect on creative environments.
I was disappointed that Buhle didn't write more about Carl Anderson's newspaper comic strip "Henry." It was popular in it's day, although it might look a little old fashioned now, and unusual in that it was a pantomime. Anderson was important to Wisconsin as a founding member of the Madison Area Technical College art department. Buhle's only mention of the strip was a note about one of Anderson's assistants.
As part of a general context in comic book history, Buhle briefly deals with the suppression and self-censorship of the of comic book publishing in the 50's. He tells an interesting story about a Wisconsin woman who burned comics as a protest about their content, but misses a more important Wisconsin contributor to comic book censorship. Sterling North was a resident of Edgerton, WI, a bit south of Madison, and a successful author of children's books and a critic for a Chicago newspaper. He is mainly remember today as the writer of "Rascal", about a pet raccoon. But he was also one of the first significant voices to criticize comics books as harmful for young readers. His essay on this topic first appeared in a Chicago paper, but was reprinted and gained national attention, long before Frederic Wertham and others began better remembered attacks. North wrote that comics were a poisonous mushroom growth. I can't help but think that some of North's attitude was caused by professional jealousy -- comics were a lot more popular than his work!
Buhle dismisses the entire community of comic book "fandom" before the dawn of academic interest in popular culture in the late 60's as "groupies and collectors." I thought this was a disappointing attitude, and one that demonstrates of lack a familiarity with the sub-culture. Comic book fandom is and always has been diverse, and while there certainly were groupies, and plenty of collectors (and anyone who has worked in the comics field says thanks for that!), I think it is very clear that the amount and quality of useful attention, criticism and bibliography to emerge from fandom has been at least similar to that which has been produced by more formal academia, if not more important. Also, many of the most popular, successful and talented of the writers, artists, editors and publishers in the field had their start in the fan community.
I don't want to understate the importance of this book! It is an useful part of popular culture scholarship, and I enjoyed reading it! The book "Underground Classics The Transformation of Comics into Comix" (Abrams, 2009) supported an art exhibit at the Chazen Museum of Art in Madison. Buhle contributed an essay to this wonderful book (which is in itself part of this history, as it centers on Denis Kitchen's career as an underground comic book publisher/editor/cartoonist in Wisconsin), and there Buhle writes, ". . .the book publishing industry (including comic books and pulp magazines), had never strayed much farther [from New York] than Connecticut." The Wisconsin story represents an important and vital exception to this rule, and Paul Buhle's book represents a significant step in recording this history.
Popeye by Bobby London (St Martins Press, 1989)
Bobby London was born to be the artist/writer of Popeye. King Features' brilliant editor Jay Kennedy knew this, and hired him for the job. London's background was in underground comic books, and he was a popular contributor to National Lampoon. London's work always showed his interest in early comic strips such as George Herriman's Krazy Kat, but especially E. C. Segar, creator of Popeye.
The strips collected in this book, while great, aren't as good as his later work on Popeye. Eventually he started to tell longer, more ambitious story arcs -- but when the strip began to deal with somewhat controversial topics, London ran afoul of the King Features' marketing people, who brought his run on the strip to an end. It is incorrect to write that London's most controversial story concerned Olive Oyl being pregnant. Olive was sort of addicted to a cable shopping network, and it seems she had ordered too much stuff, including a doll. When she decided she needed to return this doll, some busy bodies spying on her misunderstood the situation, jumping to the wildly incorrect conclusion that she was seeking an abortion. A complex, clever, funny story! As far as I know, this volume is the only collection of London's Popeye, and as such is a treasure.
Does anyone see anything in Hank's reviews so objectionable that Amazon's unannounced deletion of his reviews would be justified?
And even so, Amazon continues to be the 800 pound gorilla of on-line book selling and vital as a marketing resource for self-published authors, small presses, niche publishers, and the rest of the industry to which we all belong.
Now on to something a bit more pleasant: Reviews for new titles of interest to writers, publishers, and the occasional bibliophile.
The Writing/Publishing Shelf
Writing the Science Fiction Film
Michael Wiese Productions
12400 Ventura Blvd., #1111
Studio City, CA 91604
9781615931361, $26.95, www.mwp.com
A new world of wonder and adventure is what is offered with science fiction. "Writing the Science Fiction Film" is a guide for filmmakers who want to best understand the ins and outs of what makes a sci-fi film great by studying the classics. With black and white film stills all throughout to illustrate the concepts. With a focus on world building and keeping the movie flowing with it instead of in spite of it, how to blend in tropes well, "Writing the Science Fiction Film" is a strong addition to writing and publishing collections, highly recommended.
Writing the 10-Minute Play
c/o Hal Leonard Performing Arts Publishing Group
19 West 21st Street, Suite 201
New York, NY 10010
9781557838483, $19.99, www.halleonard.com
A short episode can tell quite the story. "Writing the 10-Minute Play" is a guide for those who want to produce these short episodes of fiction to be acted quickly and efficiently, and tell the story they seek. With plenty of examples and solid advice for general success in theatrical production... "Writing the 10-Minute Play" is a strong addition to any collection for writing collections focusing on stage acting, highly recommended.
1100 Words You Need to Know, sixth edition
Murray Bromberg and Melvin Gordon
250 Wireless Boulevard
Hauppauge, NY 11788
9781438001661 $13.99 www.barronseduc.com
Now in its sixth edition with the addition of "The lighter touch 100" (silly one-line jokes using these words that every English speaker should know), 1100 Words You Need to Know remains as invaluable today as it was when first published 45 years ago. Organized in a day-by-day, week-by-week format, 1100 Words You Need to Know is a consumable book offering simple exercises to practice and enhance one's enriched vocabulary. A choice pick for high school students preparing for the SAT or ACT, college students looking to broaden their command of English, writers of all backgrounds, or those who are honing their command of English as a second language, 1100 Words You Need to Know is enthusiastically recommended!
Here is "The Midwest Book Review Postage Stamp Hall Of Fame & Appreciation" roster of well-wishers and supporters. These are the generous folk who decided to say 'thank you' and 'support the cause' that is the Midwest Book Review by donating postage stamps this past month:
Ingud Ricks -- "Fochs"
Kathleen Walls -- "Kudzu"
Sneed B. Collard III -- "Cartwheel"
Betty Kreisel Shubert -- "Out Of Style"
Peggy Parsons Sands -- "A Cup Of Joe"
Paul McComas -- "Fit For A Frankenstein"
D. L. Burnett -- "In The Kingdom Of Dragons"
Ruth Frechman -- "The Food is My Friend Dies"
Sunny Franson -- "The Secret Lives Of Chickens"
Donald W. Kruse -- "That's Not A Pickle!: Part 5"
Perry Westmoreland -- "The Prophet's Protégée"
Great River Books
Owl About Books Publishers
Liz Ball -- Hidden Pictures
Nicola Cuti -- Moonie Books
Erica -- The Mother Company
Mack R. Hicks -- Splenium House
Marion White -- Wise Owl Publishing
Sandra Bowman -- Intrigue Publishing
Barbara C. Wall -- The Barrett Company
Deb Vonderau -- Lapis Moon Publishing
Harry C. Friebel -- Golden Ratio Publishing
John R. Buevin -- Biographical Publishing Company
Elizabeth Waldman Frazier -- Waldmania!
In lieu of (or in addition to!) postage stamp donations, we also accept PayPal gifts of support for what we try to accomplish in behalf of the small press community. Simply log onto your PayPal account and direct your kindness (in any amount and at your discretion) to the Midwest Book Review at:
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If you have postage stamps to donate, or if you have a book you'd like considered for review, then send those postage stamps (always appreciated, never required), or a published copy of that book (no galleys, uncorrected proofs, or Advance Reading Copies), accompanied by a cover letter and some form of publicity release to my attention at the address below.
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So until next time -- goodbye, good luck, and good reading!
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James A. Cox
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