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You’re going to love my new website

OK, well maybe not love. But like? I hope so.

What you’ll see

After several months of effort — most of it by Wayne Marshall of Kaizen Marketing — I’m transitioning “Mal Warwick on Books” to a new site on WordPress with lots of great new features.

Soon, when you visit the new site, you’ll find not just the latest post but the most recent posts in each of the four categories I’ve established (Nonfiction, Trade Fiction, Mysteries & Thrillers, and FAQs & Commentaries).

You’ll also see that I’ve set up subcategories under each of the categories. That way, for example, you can find Historical Novels under Trade Fiction, or reviews of Science books under Nonfiction.

The new site will make it possible for you to gain easier and faster access to the information you want. 

You signed up to receive my posts by email, and that won’t change. But I hope you’ll also check into the new site from time to time. You may find something there that will hit the spot. Whatever that spot may be . . .

There’s a catch: no posts for a week or so

But here’s the price to pay: to complete the work of building the new site, I’ll be offline for a time. I do hope I can resume my twice-weekly posts beginning a week from today. If not then, then soon after. Either way, you’ll get an email announcing the next post.

BTW, if you subscribe to this blog through WordPress and don’t receive email notices, you’ll need to send me your email address so you can continue to follow my reviews. The new site works differently, I’m told.

Cheers,

mal

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A small publisher that thrives in a declining industry

By Steve Piersanti

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Editor’s note: For the past year I’ve been serving on the board of directors of the remarkable little publishing company in San Francisco that will release my new book, The Business Solution to Poverty, in September. Berrett-Koehler publishes nonfiction exclusively, concentrating on business, personal fulfillment, and current affairs. Unlike so many other publishers, the company has been consistently profitable throughout the past decade, outpacing industry standards with rising sales as the book market shrinks. Berrett-Koehler was founded 21 years ago by Steve Piersanti, who continues to serve as editor and president.

In keeping with Piersanti’s inclusive style, more than 100 of the company’s stakeholders—board members, staff, authors, suppliers, service providers, customers, sales partners, and shareholders—as well as several industry experts unconnected to the company gathered on June 18-19, 2013, to participate in Berrett-Koehler’s strategic planning process. (Full disclosure: I also serve on BK’s Strategic Planning Team and helped prepare the event.) What follows is adapted from Steve’s opening remarks for the two-day event. He entitled his presentation “Secrets of Berrett-Koehler’s Success.” 

The article that follows is long (more than 5,000 words) but it’s well worth reading if you want to know what it takes to flourish in an industry—any industry, actually—that is experiencing disruptive change.

1.     Multiple Stakeholder Focus

This is really the foundational concept of Berrett-Koehler. This concept came before our publishing programs, our mission, our books, everything. It goes back to before Berrett-Koehler existed. Before founding BK, I had been president of Jossey-Bass Publishers during its challenging transition from being an independent company to becoming part of the media empire of Robert Maxwell and being placed as a division of Maxwell Communications Corporation. I quickly discovered that our new corporate parent was calling all the shots, and none of the other Jossey-Bass stakeholders really mattered. Not the Jossey-Bass employees who were central to the company’s success; not the authors with whom Jossey-Bass had longstanding relationships; not the suppliers and service providers on whom the company depended. All that really mattered was the call from my boss in New York City.

What was especially troubling about this new balance of power was that there was nothing our new corporate parent was doing that made Jossey-Bass more productive or profitable. Yet, without adding any value, the corporate parent presumed to unilaterally govern our company. It was easy to see that something was deeply wrong with this equation.

And so, when I created Berrett-Koehler’s founding document, “Vision and Plan for a New Publishing Business,” the starting place for my attempt to “rethink the concept of the publishing company” was what I called “Multiple Stakeholder Focus.” “Five ‘stakeholder’ groups – authors, employees, suppliers, owners, and communities (customer, societal, and environmental) – contribute to the success of publishing ventures. Each has a ‘stake’ or investment in the publishing business, whether that investment is time, talent, money, or other resources . . . Berrett-Koehler believes that more balance and equity is needed in the dealings among the stakeholder groups, so that the employees, authors, suppliers, and communities benefit more from the investment each makes and the value each creates for the publishing business. Berrett-Koehler also believes that the relationship among the stakeholder groups needs to be more of a partnership and more fair, open, humane, ethical, and interactive among all of the groups.”

An early manifestation of this focus was that our very first catalog in May 1992 listed many of our stakeholders by name in the catalog. We’ve done this in every catalog since then.

2.     Stewardship

This has gone hand-in-hand with multiple stakeholder focus from the beginning. We were deeply influenced by the ideas in Peter Block’s book Stewardship, which I started working on with Peter right after I began organizing Berrett-Koehler Publishers. In our first catalog I wrote: “If I were to choose one word to describe our vision, it would be ‘stewardship.’ By this I mean a deep sense of responsibility to administer the publishing company for the benefit of all of our ‘stakeholder’ groups.”

Block defines stewardship as “the willingness to be accountable for the well-being of the larger organization by operating in service, rather than in control, of those around us. Stated simply, it is accountability without control or compliance.”

So here was our role as BK managers and employees: to be accountable for serving the interests of all of BK’s stakeholders without needing to do so through control or compliance. Actually, we hope that all BK stakeholders will view themselves as stewards who are accountable for serving the interests of other stakeholders and the whole without needing control or compliance to do so.

3.     Community Engagement and Support

A couple of years into my service as president of Jossey-Bass Publishers I got a call from my boss in New York in which he said that there was a corporate-wide workforce reduction going on and all units were required to cut their headcount by 10 percent. Jossey-Bass had 68 employees, and we were instructed to reduce our headcount to 60 employees. This made no rhyme or reason for Jossey-Bass because we were highly successful and growing rapidly; we had just finished a year in which our sales were up 22 percent and our profits were up 46 percent. Moreover, our business plan of adding 8 more employees had already been approved, and now we were told that we had to instead cut 8 employees. This would have required us to lay off 8 employees, which was unjust and unjustified to me, given the circumstances.

Long story short, our management team fought this edict for two months and I refused to carry out the corporate order. On the afternoon of May 29, 1991, I was fired and told to clean out my desk. But the grapevine worked very quickly and the very next day at my home my phone started ringing with calls from Jossey-Bass authors, suppliers, and service providers who expressed their dismay at this chain of events, their belief in my work and stance, their encouragement to start a new publishing company, and their offers of support. These calls continued for many weeks, as one person who had heard the news would tell another person and encourage that person to contact me, and so on. It was through the support and engagement of all these people that Berrett-Koehler Publishers was born. Listed on the screen are some of the many people who became part of our original community in the first few months when Berrett-Koehler was being organized.

Today there are hundreds of ways that BK engages our communities and receives support from our communities. In the interests of time, I’m going to mention just one. BK authors and other community members are an army of scouts out searching for good authors and good book projects for us and recommending to those authors that BK would be the best publisher for their books. They are the most credible and influential scouts we could possibly have because they know so much about their fields and about BK.

Here’s how bestselling author Peter Block describes this engagement: “I have been a constant source of new authors. When someone comes to me about publishing a book, BK is the first place I send them. I do this partly because I know they will be treated with respect, and they will learn something about the market for their ideas. Most people I refer to BK get refused, but in a useful and sensitive way. So this publisher has a low cost feeder network for new properties, the life blood of the business.”

And here’s how bestselling author Richard Leider describes this engagement. “I have proudly referred dozens of would-be authors to BK over the years. So many that they have offered, partly in jest, to print a BK business card for me! Whether an author landed a contract with BK or not, EVERY single one of them thanked me for the care and insights that they received from BK. Now, that’s walking your talk!”

4.     Publish Books That Make a Difference

When our Editorial Director, Neal Maillet, applied several years ago to work at Berrett-Koehler, he wrote: “As a business and leadership editor whose titles frequently competed for shelf space with BK, I can only express my deep sense of admiration and, to be honest, envy, for the consistent sense of mission and values that BK titles communicate. BK books are for people who are determined to improve themselves and their organizations – not just to rely on corporatespeak or easy answers. BK titles always present a challenge and an invitation – the challenge to do the hard but rewarding work of making positive change, and the invitation to seek beyond self-gratification to community . . . More than anything, a BK book isn’t just a product to be sold. It is invariably part of a message that is consistent across the entire organization.”

It may surprise you but publishing books with a difference-making message was not part of the original concept of Berrett-Koehler. The original concept was more mainstream, which I described as “Leading-edge publications that make new contributions to professional audiences.” But this quickly changed. The books we attracted – and the books that most interested us – were books with big, path-breaking messages about changing individuals, organizations, and the world.

This started with Leadership and the New Science, which was one of the first three books BK published. When a former college advisor of mine sent me Meg Wheatley’s manuscript, I immediately saw that this was different from all the hundreds of books that I had worked on in my previous thirteen-year career as an editor and book marketer. The Library Journal review captured the difference: “Hold onto the top of your head when you read this book . . . Using exciting breakthroughs in biology, chemistry, and especially quantum physics, Wheatley paints a brand-new picture of business management . . . nothing less than an entirely new set of lenses through which to view our organizations.” A newspaper columnist called “The Lazy Literate” expressed the uniqueness of Meg’s work on her next book in a less flattering way: “Yikes! These folks have been eating too many avocados in their hot tubs!” Either way, Leadership and the New Science went on to not only sell nearly 400,000 copies but also to profoundly influence the work of thousands of other book authors, organizational thinkers, and organizational leaders.

In our 20th Anniversary Celebration a year ago, I cited the case of how a single BK book, Future Search, has made a positive difference for tens of millions of people around the world through the many thousands of future searches in more than 90 countries that have been conducted by the more than 4,000 people who have been trained in the future search methodology.

To give a very current example, the annual meeting this month of the foreign ministers of the thirty-five member countries of the Organization of American States focused on drug problems in North America, Central America, and South America. This meeting was organized around the methodology of Adam Kahane in his new BK book, Transformative Scenario Planning. For the past year the president of Columbia and other country presidents and prime ministers have been working to develop new approaches to drug problems, and they turned to Adam Kahane and his book’s transformative scenario planning methodology to help create and articulate those new approaches.

5.     Eat Our Own Cooking

From the beginning, we have been striving to learn from the books we publish and to practice our book’s ideas in our own company and community.

For example, a central concept in Stewardship is to avoid class systems in management, employment, and compensation practices. One manifestation of class systems is that most organizations have two compensation systems, with the executive compensation system designed to pay those at the top as much as possible and the employee compensation system designed to control costs. Inspired by Stewardship, Berrett-Koehler has just one compensation system for everyone in the company, and it is designed to pay a living wage to everyone, to minimize the disparity between the lowest and highest paid employees, and to direct our company success to raising the whole boat. Accordingly, the difference between my salary and the salary of the lowest paid full-time BK employee has always been less than four to one from the beginning of our company until now. And the same benefit programs and incentive compensation programs apply to everyone.

Another example. Anyone who interacts with Berrett-Koehler soon learns that our culture is all about sharing information openly and freely, so that everyone knows everything. We are open source with authors, suppliers, customers, service partners, and even competitors. And I have always perceived my job to be continuously sharing information in many ways with all of our stakeholder groups. But you may not know the source of this culture and practice. It all started with internalizing the ideas in Chapter 6 of Leadership and the New Science, which is called “The Creative Energy of the Universe – Information.”  Read that chapter, and you’ll see what I mean.

BK has also been influenced by another of the first three books we published: Getting Things Done When You Are Not in Charge. Give up the illusion that you are ever in charge. None of us is ever in control. But we all can get things done when we are not in charge. Of course, this lesson applies to this event. We all can get important things done by acting on ideas that inspire us here even though none of us is in charge of others here.

Finally, here’s an example in the words of our tremendous Director of Subsidiary Rights, Maria Jesus Aguilo: “I was hired as a production and marketing assistant in 1996. At about that time we were publishing Managers As Mentors, so my boss at the time, Pat Anderson, took me aside and told me: I just finished this fantastic book and I really feel like I need to be a good mentor to you. Therefore, I would like us to talk about what it is that you expect from your work here at BK and help you all I can. I told her that I was very happy with my position and learning a lot, but what I would really like to do is rights licensing. A couple of years went by before an opportunity presented itself for me to do rights, but when it did, Pat offered me the position. I learned two things early on in my career at BK: that BK really walks the talk in ways that deeply affect others, and that my managers at BK really listened to my needs and acted upon them. Almost twenty years later, I still derive a lot of inspiration for my work from how the ideas in our books change lives in big and small ways. They changed mine!”

6.     Mission: Creating a World That Works for All

For the first eight years of BK’s history we were in search of a way to express our mission. A mission articulates the fundamental purpose of an organization or enterprise, succinctly describing why it exists. We tried many different ways of expressing our mission. Some are shown on the screen. All had good points, but we were not satisfied with any of them. So we made articulating our mission one of the central objectives of our strategic planning process in the year 2000. “Creating a World That Works for All” emerged from that process and has been our mission ever since.

What has happened over the past thirteen years is that “Creating a World That Works for All” has come to be shorthand for everything that BK community members love about Berrett-Koehler. It has come to signify – all wrapped up in one short memorable phrase – our multiple stakeholder focus, books that make a difference, stewardship, partnership, sustainability, and many other dimensions of BK. It has come to have great meaning for many BK community members, who use it frequently in telling others about BK and expressing their own connection to BK. It has also served to communicate to authors and others a BK point of view, and this point of view is one of our major competitive advantages, as book marketing consultant Todd Sattersten recently pointed out to us.

What does this mission mean in terms of seeking changes in the world, selecting publications that advance these changes, and striving to pursue these changes in our own company and community?

7.     Partnership

Partnership is the way we seek to run Berrett-Koehler and to interact with all of our stakeholder groups – with collaboration, invitation, dialogue, consent, respect, openness, integrity, and mutualism, instead of compulsion, force, violence, or hierarchy.

Partnership is at the heart of the relationship we strive to establish with authors. One manifestation of partnership is our publication agreement, which has many clauses that create a more collaborative relationship between the publisher and authors than is the norm in other companies’ publication agreements.

The fullest manifestation of our partnership with authors is the BK Authors Cooperative, the one-of-a-kind organization where our authors come together to help each other in many big and small ways to increase their success and impact.

We are now seeking to establish a Berrett-Koehler Foundation that would further extend our partnership approach to helping young leaders around the world put into practice systems-changing ideas and methods that help create a world that works for all.

This partnership approach extends to our relationships with our suppliers, service providers, sales partners, and other stakeholders, as I’ll describe in later examples.

8.     Quality and Value Added

All of our systems and approaches are designed to add value and create quality throughout the publishing process. For example, we create high quality in our books by forming longstanding, close, collaborative partnerships with about twenty of the best book production teams around the country, then by sending each new book to the book production team best matched to the unique requirements of that particular book, then by that production team, the author, and the BK staff all working closely together to customize and enhance the book.

Throughout the book publishing world there are constant lamentations about decades of decline in how much editorial guidance and support publishers offer to authors. In contrast, one secret of BK’s success is the extensive editorial guidance and support we provide to authors. We do this in three ways, of which only the third way is common today among other publishers. First, we do a great deal of up-front editorial coaching of authors to improve the core ideas, organization, and framing of books, even before draft manuscripts are written. Second, we send all draft manuscripts to multiple outside reviewers who provide readers’ views of how to improve manuscripts. And third, we arrange top-notch copyediting of manuscripts.

This quality pays off in helping many BK publications to be bestsellers, not just upon publication but for many years following publication. Three BK books have each sold well over one million copies: Confessions of an Economic Hit Man by John Perkins, Eat That Frog! by Brian Tracy, and Leadership and Self-Deception by The Arbinger Institute. In each case BK provided editorial guidance that made the book sell far more copies and have greater impact than otherwise would have been the case. For example, my and our manuscript reviewers’ guidance tremendously strengthened John Perkins’ messages in Confessions of an Economic Hit Man, anticipated the major challenges from critics, and helped Perkins add and clarify materials to address the challenges before the book was published.

9.     Author-Friendly Practices

When Corporate Responsibility Officer magazine gave Berrett-Koehler its award for “Stakeholder Accountability,” it told the following story in the article announcing the award. “At first, Howard Karger says, he couldn’t figure it out . . . A two-time Senior Fulbright Scholar, Karger is the author of multiple books. In late summer of 2004 he found himself working for the first time with Berrett-Koehler . . . [He said] ‘After 25 years of book publishing, I was suspicious . . . I was made to feel like a part of the organization. Almost like staff.’  He grew more wary when the publisher insisted that he travel to San Francisco to meet editorial, marketing, design, and publicity staff. Finally, he realized, ‘these were people doing what they believed in and producing books they were proud of. Democracy for Berrett-Koehler is not just a slogan.’ [The article concludes] In the rough-and-tumble world of book publishing, Berrett-Koehler stands out not only for its treatment of authors, but also for the manner in which it engages employees, business partners, readers, and community.”

This article is describing one of Berrett-Koehler’s many unique practices: launching each book with a full-day Author Day that connects the author to the whole BK staff, gets everyone excited about the book, and creates close collaboration between the author and publisher on all aspects of making books successful.

BK’s author-friendly practices include the following:

  • Author-friendly publication agreement
  • Collaboration in publication decisions
  • Collaboration in cover and interior design
  • Extensive sharing of information
  • Open access to BK staff on ongoing basis
  • Responsiveness to authors’ contacts and requests
  • “Author Day” for every author
  • “Bill of Rights and Responsibilities for BK Authors”
  • and the unique BK Authors Cooperative, an independent nonprofit organization.

10. Integrity and Transparency

These are two elements of partnership. I’ve decided to feature them separately because they pull together so many other dimensions of what makes BK work, as does Jamie and Maren Showkeir’s book Authentic Conversations.

One example of the power of our sharing information openly is our how our partnerships have worked with our two principal book printers, Malloy and Hamilton. There have been times in BK’s history, such as from 2001 to 2003, when we faced severe cash flow shortages and probably could not have kept operating as an independent company without agreement from our printers to extend substantial additional credit to BK even though we were far behind in payments on previous printing jobs. Here is the explanation from Bill Upton, Malloy’s president at the time, for why Malloy continued supporting BK: “One experience that stands out is how open you were with financial information, both current and projected, as you worked with Hamilton and Malloy during the years of loans and past-due payables with us. That openness is what made it possible for both printers to hang in there and continue to support BK.” He continued: “The obvious integrity and commitment of you and the entire staff was a very important factor. We’ve had experiences with other publishers in the past where they expanded their trade credit by working with additional suppliers – our old invoices were left unpaid while the publisher worked with new suppliers on a cash terms basis. We’ve also had publishers simply throw in the towel. Those scenarios were unimaginable with BK.” Fortunately, this trust paid off both for our printers and for BK. For some years BK has been, in Bill Upton’s words, “a model of correct, prompt, complete, problem-free bill paying.”

Our focus on doing what we say we will do, not overpromising, creating systems to fulfill promises, and holding ourselves accountable is especially noteworthy in the area of sales and marketing. Publishers are notorious for making lofty sales and marketing promises in their early discussions with authors and then not fulfilling their promises. Berrett-Koehler has just the opposite approach, which begins with being straight with authors about “The 10 Awful Truths about Book Publishing” [which can be accessed by clicking on its title here]. The rubber really hits the road with the extensive systems that our Sales and Marketing Department has set up (1) to explicitly tell authors all the things we will and will not be doing to market their books, (2) to follow through on everything that we said we would do, and (3) to report back to authors that we have done what we said we would do.

We strive to create systems of integrity and transparency in all areas of the company. For example, our book production systems are set up to enable us to publish books almost always on the schedule laid out at the beginning of the production process.

All of this is extremely challenging in an industry as complex as book publishing. BK Editorial Director Neal Maillet reflects this challenge when he reports, “I once asked the manager of a publisher’s royalty department how she kept track of all the tricky contractual exceptions editors negotiated and was told ‘We don’t – we just use the boilerplate and apologize profusely when an author or agent catches the mistake.’”

BK’s approach is to only commit to things that we can deliver, to create systems that enable us to actually fulfill our commitments, and to share information with our stakeholders that show how we have performed what we promised to do.

11.  Sustainability

Here I am focusing on two dimensions of sustainability. The first dimension is the thrust of many of our books, such as those pictured here, to establish lifestyles, institutions, economic systems, environmental systems, and other ways of living and interacting that are sustainable for generations going forward. The second dimension is establishing strategies and practices that make Berrett-Koehler Publishers sustainable both in terms of being able to stay in business and in terms of the environmental and social responsibility of our own business practices.

One embodiment of our commitment to sustainability is that Berrett-Koehler is a Certified B Corporation. B Corporations meet rigorous standards of social and environmental performance. To qualify as a B Corp, Berrett-Koehler had to complete and pass a 230-question “Impact Assessment” that examined BK’s performance on measures of corporate accountability, transparency, compensation, benefits, employee training, worker environment, worker ownership, social benefit, community service, local involvement, diversity, job creation, and environmental practices.

12.  Multichannel Marketing and Sales

This has been part of BK’s formula from the very beginning. Our June 1991 “Vision and Plan for a New Publishing Business” listed 17 sales and marketing channels for the company. Today we still are active in all of the original 17 channels and have added many other channels, such as online booksellers and social media, which did not exist in 1991.

Our multichannel approach is good for authors and book sales because it increases each publication’s chance to succeed in the marketplace by giving each publication many diverse channels in which to find a market. For example, some books do poorly in bookstore sales but do well in special sales or foreign language translations.

Of course most publishers market through multiple channels. But most do not market as extensively in as many different channels as does BK.

The downside of BK’s approach is that it is very expensive. Berrett-Koehler devotes over 20 percent of our revenues to sales and marketing, which is far above publishing industry averages.

13.  Independence

In an age of corporate consolidation, BK has remained fiercely independent. Berrett-Koehler is owned by our stakeholders, including our employees, authors, customers, suppliers, service providers, and sales partners.

This independence allows us to chart our own course and to not have our unique values and practices submerged in a giant corporate bureaucracy. And it allows us to own our own future and to not be governed by short-term stock market pressures and shifting corporate edicts.

14.  Continuity, Constancy, Fidelity

One of BK’s great strengths has been our ability to keep good people and the resulting continuity of our staff. 18 of our 25 employees have been with BK for 5 or more years. And our average staff tenure with BK is 10 years. Love ‘Em or Lose ‘Em has not only been a bestselling BK book, it has also been a guide to our company.

Another secret to our success has been the constancy of our purpose, vision, and distinctive practices over many years. Our list of 11 “Guiding Concepts for Berrett-Koehler Publishers” was written 21 years ago. All of these “Guiding Concepts” are still our touchstones today – such as multiple stakeholder focus and environmental consciousness and action. This constancy increases our ability to move Full Steam Ahead!, as the title of Jesse Stoner and Ken Blanchard’s book proclaims.

When people ask me what about Berrett-Koehler I am most proud about, my answer is our fidelity to our mission and values during the many challenging periods we have had over the years. For example, when the great recession hit in 2008 and 2009, like most publishing companies we experienced a substantial revenue decline. However, we decided to respond to this crisis by doing more of what BK stands for – under the headings of Integrity, Mission and Strategies, Participation, and Efficiency and Effectiveness – rather than compromising our mission and values. Whereas Publishers Weekly reported that approximately two thirds of publishing companies laid off employees and cut back their publishing programs during this period, Berrett-Koehler did neither. Instead, we shared full information with all employees, and the employees collectively decided to take a 10 percent across-the-board salary reduction (except for the lowest-paid employees, who received smaller reductions), which the employees then lifted after revenues recovered. My hope is that our identity as a company and community is so deeply imprinted that it will be our destiny and carry us through the many other challenging periods that are surely yet to come.

15.  Continuing Innovation

The previous 14 secrets may make it sound like BK is in good shape. However, it is clear that we cannot stand still. Everything is going through continuous change around us in our business and publishing environments. Unless we are leaders ourselves in making the future, unless we do new and surprising things to leapfrog over obstacles that have constrained us in the past, and unless we continue developing new ways of doing business that bring greater value to our customers and other stakeholders, Berrett-Koehler will not survive over the long term.

Larry Ackerman, author of Identity Is Destiny, recently observed that BK is now 21 years old and that this age can be viewed as having reached “adulthood.” I think that is a good image for where we are now. At 21, it is time to turn more of one’s focus outward to contributing to a larger work and to making a bigger difference in the world through service to others. This can be true of Berrett-Koehler as well and this event can help BK reach out in new and better ways to make a greater positive difference in the world.

As we seek to innovate in new ways, it is my prayer that we will continue to be guided by the secrets named in this address. I believe that there is great power within these ideas and that they will make our innovations better and more likely to succeed. We can do more to create a world that works for all. Thank you.

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A baker’s dozen of my favorite novels

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Fair warning: this is NOT a comprehensive list of my all-time most cherished novels. It’s merely a list of the 13 trade novels I’ve enjoyed the most among the many I’ve read and reviewed in this blog in the past three years. So, no bellyaching please, that I’ve left out Philip Roth or Leo Tolstoy or somebody else you think is the all-time greatest novelist! Please note, too, that I’m excluding the mysteries and thrillers I review as a category of their own. Which is not to deny that some of these books are thrilling in their own right. 

What follows are the 13 novels in alphabetical order by the authors’ last names. Each is linked to my review of the book. 

Maya’s Notebook, by Isabel Allende

A 19-year-old Berkeley woman hides out on a Chilean island from the FBI and the Las Vegas criminal gang pursuing her.

The Windup Girl, by Paolo Bacigalupi

By the 23rd century, the oceans have risen by twenty feet, and only a seawall protects the city of Bangkok. Genetic engineering has run amok around the globe, leaving only the Thai Kingdom to resist the “calorie companies” that are the only source of food for most of the world.

People of the Book, by Geraldine Brooks

A Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist portrays the five-century history of conflict surrounding a cherished religious book, from the Spain of the Inquisition to the Balkan Wars of the 1990s.

They Eat Puppies, Don’t They?, by Christopher Buckley

Political satire of the highest order. Like all superior satire, this book isn’t just funny — its droll treatment of politics in Washington and Beijing is spot-on accurate.

The Round House, by Louise Erdrich

A National Book Award-winning novel about a brutal crime and its consequences on a Chippewa reservation in the Upper Midwest.

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, by Ben Fountain

A 19-year-old Iraq war hero on a Pentagon tour of cities around the country encounters the reality of American civilization today — and finds he doesn’t like it much.

Sea of Poppies, by Amitav Ghosh

Set in 1838, an extraordinarily rich tale of class conflict, exploitation, and forbidden love in South Asia against the background of the opium trade.

The Fear Index, by Robert Harris

Set in Geneva, this taut thriller takes the reader into the world of a brilliant American scientist who has developed mathetical formulas that make billions in profits for his hedge fund.

The Orphan Master’s Son, by Adam Johnson

A novel that digs beneath the artificial veneer of life in North Korea to examine  the mindless lives of its people, from the lowliest convict to the Dear Leader, Kim Jong Il, himself.

Stardust, by Joseph Kanon

A tense and beautifully-constructed story set in Hollywood in its heyday as the euphoria of victory in Europe and (later) in the Pacific gives way to the hysteria of the Red Scare, the Hollywood Blacklist, and the notorious House Un-American Activities Committee.

11/22/63, by Stephen King

A high school English teacher in a small Maine town is lured through a portal in time that leads directly back to September 9, 1958. Jake’s mission: to hold out until 1963 and kill Lee Harvey Oswald before Oswald can assassinate JFK.

The Debba, by Avner Mandelman

A naturalized Canadian citizen, formerly a trained killer for the Israeli armed forces in the 1960s, returns to his homeland when he learns of his father’s murder in Tel Aviv. Suddenly he is pulled back into the ethically murky environment he had fled seven years earlier.

Super Sad True Love Story, by Gary Shteyngart

In a future USA with a tyrannical right-wing government in power and privacy a thing of the past, a hapless Russian-American seeks love in vain as New York enters into the final stage of total collapse.

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My 21 favorite mystery and thriller writers

Over the course of the past three and a half years, I’ve reviewed well over 100 mysteries and thrillers. A great many of these novels were written by well-established authors with long lists of widely read books to their names. In every case of the 21 writers listed below, I’ve read several of their books (some of them before I launched this blog in January 2010). 

If 21 seems a large number of “favorite” writers, consider all the names you won’t find on this list. Those include several — Ross McDonald, Graham Greene, and Eric Ambler, for example — whom I last read years ago. Also excluded are the potboilers and slapdash works by the likes of James Patterson, Mary Higgins Clark, Patricia Cornwell, Robert Crais, Janet Evanovich, Sue Grafton, Tony Hillerman, Val McDermid, and Robert B. Parker. I read most of these when younger and am happy to leave them behind. 

What follows here is a list of links to my reviews of individual mysteries or thrillers by the 21 prolific authors I most enjoy. The list is in alphabetical order by the authors’ last names.

The Midnight House, by Alex Berenson

Berenson is a former New York Times reporter who writes beautifully researched stories about soldier-spy John Wells, featuring plots centered on contemporary military and foreign policy issues.

The Drop, by Michael Connelly

Most of Connelly’s 30 novels to date center on the life and work of Los Angeles Police Detective Hieronymus “Harry” Bosch and criminal defense attorney Mickey Haller. 

Now May You Weep, by Deborah Crombie

Crombie, a Texan who spends extended periods in Great Britain, has written 15 English detective novels that read as though she was born and bred in England.

The Trinty Six, by Charles Cumming

A Briton who has written superior six spy novels, Cumming is often mentioned as a spiritual heir to John Le Carre.

Buried Secrets, by Joseph Finder

Finder is the American author of 11 beautifully crafted thrillers. So far, just two of his novels feature Nick Heller in what appears to be the beginning of a series.

Mission to Paris, by Alan Furst

Since 1976, Furst has written 16 historical spy novels, most of them set in Europe between 1933 and 1944. Furst’s work recreates the mood and atmosphere of the Continent in that era like few others.

Believing the Lie, by Elizabeth George

An American, George has written 18 complex and well-written novels featuring Scotland Yard Inspector Thomas Lynley (plus four other novels).

Long Time Coming, by Robert Goddard

Goddard is an English novelist whose two dozen excellent novels are typically set in rural towns, with the origins of their plots found decades in the past.

The Racketeer, by John Grisham

Most of Grisham’s 26 crime novels are set in the American South and involve lawyers and legal shenanigans. He has also written 7 other books since he began writing full-time in 1989.

John Le Carre

Though I wasn’t impressed with Le Carre’s recent novel, Our Kind of Traitor, I can’t help but include him in this list. I’m now immersed in his latest work, A Delicate Truth, which strikes me as on a par with his earlier, much praised novels. (To be reviewed soon.)

The Man From Beijing, by Henning Mankell

A Swede, Mankell’s 11 Kurt Wallander crime stories are dark, complex, and often politically tinged novels that reflect his experience as a long-time progressive activist. He has also written 25 other books.

The Leopard: A Harry Hole Novel, by Jo Nesbo

Nesbo, a Norwegian, has written 10 complexly plotted mystery novels about the troubled Detective Harry Hole as well as 8 other novels.

Breakdown, by Sara Paretsky

All but two of Paretsky’s 17 novels feature private detective V. I. (Victoria) Warshawski, who tackles Chicago’s corrupt establishment without compunction.

The Cut, by George Pelecanos

Pelecanos, best known for his writing on the HBO series “The Wire,” is the author of 21 novels, most of them gritty detective stories set on the streets of Washington, D.C.

Silken Prey, by John Sandford

Sandford has written 23 crime novels with the word “Prey” in their titles, all featuring Lucas Davenport, an independently wealthy senior investigator for the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension. Sandford has written 13 additional novels, 7 of them featuring Virgil Flowers, a colorful member of Davenport’s team.

Criminal, by Karin Slaughter

Of Slaughter’s 17 books, 14 are haunting crime stories set in Georgia about the lives of a set of interrelated characters in Atlanta and fictional Grant County.

The Limpopo Academy of Private Detection, by Alexander McCall Smith

Smith’s 14 adult novels (so far) about the #1 Ladies’ Detective Agency in Gaborone, Botswana, comprise just one of many series in a list of works that’s almost too numerous to count. The man must turn them all out through automatic writing in his sleep!

Three Stations: An Arkady Renko Novel by Martin Cruz Smith

The 8 fascinating novels in Smith’s Arkady Renko series about the Soviet, later Russian crime investigator are among a total of 27 he’s written under several pseudonyms.

Victory Square, by Olen Steinhauer

Steinhauer, an American who has spent extensive periods in Eastern Europe, is the author of a brilliant five-book series about the members of the murder squad in the capital of a fictional country in that region. More recently, the young author has written three thrillers about an American spy and his fictional agency.

Harbor Nocturne, by Joseph Wambaugh

A former Los Angeles police officer, Wambaugh has written 16 novels and 5 nonfiction accounts about crime and crimefighters since 1971. Nearly all his novels are police procedurals set in L.A., bringing the authentic experience on the streets to life.

Get Real, by Donald E. Westlake

Writing under his own name as well as 16 pseudonyms, Westlake produced a total of 111 novels from 1959 until his death in 2008, nearly all of them set in New York City, two of them published posthumously. My favorites are the many humorous caper tales about the sardonic master criminal, John Dortmunder.

In addition to these 21 writers, I’ve read excellent mysteries and thrillers by 12 other authors whose output is more limited either because they’re young and just beginning their careers, they write primarily in other genres, or, in at least the case of Stieg Larsson, they’re dead. 

Among the younger writers here that show special promise are Gillian Flynn, Tana French, and Tom Rob Smith.  

Following are links to my reviews of individual novels by these 12 authors. 

Case Histories, by Kate Atkinson

Disciple of the Dog, by R. Scott Bakker

A Trace of Smoke by Rebecca Cantrell

Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn

Faithful Place, by Tana French

So Much Pretty, by Cara Hoffman

The Silent Oligarch, by Chris Morgan Jones

Shaman Pass: A Nathan Active Mystery, by Stan Jones

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, by Stieg Larsson

The Ghosts of Belfast, by Stuart Neville

Primitive by Mark Nykanen

Agent 6, by Tom Rob Smith

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My top 20 nonfiction picks

For nearly three-and-a-half years now, I’ve been posting book reviews in this blog, typically twice a week. For my own benefit as well as yours, I like to look back every so often at the books I’ve read and think about what I’ve learned from them. What follows below is a list of the 20 nonfiction books (out of more than 100 I read) that have added the most to my understanding of the world. They’re arranged in no particular order: I can’t imagine trying to pick the best of this lot!

Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief, by Lawrence Wright

The definitive study of the belief system known as Scientology, with an emphasis on its human rights violations and the Hollywood celebrities it has gathered into its “prison of belief.”

Mary’s Mosaic: The CIA Conspiracy to Murder John F. Kennedy, Mary Pinchot Meyer, and Their Vision for World Peace, by Peter Janney

Revelations galore from newly unearthed evidence about the assassination of John F. Kennedy and his last years in the White House.

The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, by Stephen Greenblatt

The seminal role of a long-forgotten  ancient Greek poet and philosopher on the thinking of the geniuses who shaped the Renaissance and on the course of history that followed.

The Revenge of Geography: What the Map Tells Us About Coming Conflicts and the Battle Against Fate, by Robert D. Kaplan

Recent history and current events through the distorting lens of geopolitics, which views Planet Earth, and the machinations and foibles of earthly leaders, from a very different perspective than is found in most history books.

Freedom’s Forge: How American Business Produced Victory in World War II, by Arthur Herman

The astonishing story of America’s rearmament in World War II, with a focus on the two larger-than-life personalities who made it happen through sheer force of will: William Knudsen and Henry J. Kaiser.

Double Cross: The True Story of the D-Day Spies, by Ben McIntyre

The stranger-than-fiction story of the British double agents whose brilliant work in Europe played a pivotal role in the success of the Normandy Invasion.

The Power of Unreasonable People: How Social Entrepreneurs Create Markets That Change the World, by John Elkington and Pamela Hartigan

A comprehensive and well-informed view of the world of social enterprise and the extraordinary individuals who stand out in a field that attracts brilliant and inspired people by the carload.

The Self-Made Myth, and the Truth About How Government Helps Individuals and Businesses Succeed, by Brian Miller and Mike Lapham

An in-depth refutation of the myth of rugged individualism, lionized by Ayn Rand’s novels and enshrined in conservative and libertarian ideology for four decades.

The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, by Michelle Alexander

How the War on Drugs, and the institutionalized racism that undergirds it, has weakened American society and fostered a new underclass dominated by young men of color.

Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity, by Katherine Boo

A first-hand account of three years in a slum neighborhood in one of the biggest cities in the world, focusing on the hopes and challenges of two local families.

Infinite Vision: How Aravind Became the World’s Greatest Business Case for Compassion, by Pavithra Mehta and Suchitra Shenoy

A beautifully-written account of the history of a nonprofit South Indian eye hospital that has pioneered a revolutionary approach to eye-care which has brought relief to millions of poor people worldwide.

Steve Jobs, by Walter Isaacson

An unvarnished biography of the design and marketing genius who built  Apple and gained a place in business history alongside Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, and Sam Walton.

Top Secret America: The Rise of the New American Security State, by Dana Priest and William M. Arkin

The troubling story of the institutionalization of a new military-intelligence complex triggered by 9/11 and accelerated by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin, by Erik Larson

The long-overlooked story of FDR’s ambassador to Nazi Germany and his frustrated efforts to turn U.S. policy against Hitler in the face of horrific violence against Jews in Germany and anti-Semitism in the State Department.

The Emperor of All Maladies: A History of Cancer, by Siddhartha Mukherjee

An oncologist’s critical study of the diseases lumped together under the label of cancer and of humanity’s halting efforts to arrest and cure them.

Cleopatra: A Life, by Stacy Schiff

A fresh new take on one of history’s most powerful and fascinating women, long caricatured in popular fiction and history books alike.

The Devil’s Casino: Friendship, Betrayal, and the High Stakes Games Played Inside Lehman Brothers, by Vicky Ward

An illuminating tale of the people who set off the Great Recession, bringing to light the greed, self-delusion, and miscalculation that came so close to collapsing the world economy in 2008.

Cyber War: The Next Threat to National Security and What to Do About It, by Richard. A. Clarke and Robert K. Knake

A profoundly troubling look at the rapid rise of cyber warfare and the existential threat it poses to American civilization, written by the top counterterrorism official in both the Clinton and Bush Administrations.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot

Based on ten years of dogged research, a science journalist’s deeply moving account of the African-American woman whose cancerous cells seeded six decades of medical discoveries.

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Two books I loved recognized by the Pulitzer Prize Board

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Adam Johnson’s extraordinary novel of life in North Korea’s gulag, The Orphan Master’s Son, received the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction yesterday. The board had awarded no fiction prize last year, creating an unusual level of anticipation about this year’s. I reviewed this richly deserving novel here. Johnson’s haunting story was also a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award and was named one of the best books of the year by The Washington Post, Entertainment Weekly, The Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Financial Times, and Newsweek/The Daily Beast. 

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One of my favorite recent nonfiction books, Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction. Here’s my review. This amazing little book was also winner of the National Book Award, a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, and was named one of the ten best books of the year by The New York Times, The Washington Post, O: The Oprah Magazine, USA Today, New York, The Miami Herald, San Francisco Chronicle, and Newsday and was named one of the best books of the year by The New Yorker and People. 

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Top 10 trends shaping the future of publishing

By Johanna Vondeling   

1. Everyone’s a publisher

Now that digital content is popular and relatively easy and inexpensive to produce, millions of individuals and thousands of non-book-publishing media companies have leapt into the business of creating and distributing digital content (often coupled with print-on-demand options).[i] [ii] The near-elimination of barriers to entry into the publishing marketplace has produced an ever-increasing flood of information and entertainment options for consumers.[iii]

Moreover, publishers’ primary competition today isn’t other books, but rather other forms of media, such as social media platforms, games, and streaming media. As the presence and relevance of physical retail for books continues to decline, so too will the necessity for other entities — including authors and other content producers — to work with established legacy publishers to bring books to market.[iv]

2. Content comes first

All content producers now need to approach format as a secondary consideration. The innovators are designing work-flows that prioritize the development and (pre-publication) tagging of content irrespective of format, knowing that the eventual outputs could be infinite: Print book? E-book? Online course? Webinar? App? Blog? Tweet? Tagging must be “semantic” (tagged for meaning, not just coincidence of terms), to facilitate discoverability. Content producers must make it as easy as possible for content to be re-purposed by its curators and leveraged and shared by its marketers and distribution partners.

3. Content marketing is king

Content is still king. And content marketing (defined as “marketing without marketing, or building soft power and social gravity for a brand through shared values and interests”) is edging out traditional push-marketing practices. By disseminating great quality and immersive content through social platforms, content producers can market themselves without interrupting consumers with more explicit advertising.[v]

Content marketing facilitates reader engagement. Engagement, in turn, produces strong brand ties, leading to increased purchasing, product loyalty, and customer advocacy. But there is no standard definition or metric for engagement, nor do most organizations fully understand the migration from engagement to revenue. The challenges are 1) understanding what’s happening within the dynamic ecosystem of content and social media and 2) being able to make tactical changes to increase conversion and revenue.

4. Big data rules

The amount of data in our world has been exploding. Analyzing large data sets—so-called big data—has become a key basis of competition, driving growth and innovation. The increasing volume and detail of information captured by enterprises, and the rise of multimedia and social media, have all been fueling exponential growth in data.[vi] As a result, businesses now have broad and deep visibility into their stakeholders’ behaviors and values. But which information matters most? Big data offers promise in making sense of this complexity.

The few businesses that have successful migrated from print-first to digital-first models have invested significantly in building in-house data and analytics teams.[vii] While the growing importance of data analysts should not be under-estimated, the need for creative thinking in the changing world of marketing has never been greater. Note the rise in recruitment of ‘data scientists,’ who are savvy in computer science but – crucially – also able to apply creative thinking to data-driven challenges.

5. Mobile matters

The number of mobile-connected devices will exceed the world’s population in 2013.[viii] In 2012, mobile subscriptions in China surpassed 1 billion and mobile Web users overtook PC access to the web.[ix] Millions of people in developing countries may never own a book or a computer, but they do own a mobile phone.

To move forward in “mobile optimization” means content must be conceived of and designed explicitly for mobile devices. Every experience offered through digital channels – every web page, shopping cart and piece of rich content – must work well on any device in any location. Customers generally understand that concessions need to be made for the smaller screen, touchscreen input, and slower speed, but they won’t accept unnecessary hassle or delay. Apps are a part of today’s approach to mobile, but they are not a cure-all to this challenge, as use of the mobile web increases daily.[x]

6. The Internet is the classroom

The education industry is experiencing dramatic disruption. Profits and enrollment at for-profit colleges and universities in the United States are growing at a staggering rate.[xi] We’re witnessing the proliferation of “massive open online courses (“MOOCs”).[xii] Education start-ups are creating and offering online study groups, flashcards, lecture notes, and a wealth of other tools for free. Investment in education technology companies increased from less than $100 million in 2007 to nearly $400 million last year.[xiii] And while digital textbooks have been slow to gain adoption, many education providers are turning away from print textbooks in favor of digital devices in classrooms and lecture halls. In response, some publishers are diving head-first into the growing business of online education.[xiv]

The disruptive power of information technology may be our best hope for containing the soaring costs that are driving a growing number of students into ruinous debt or out of higher education altogether. It is also a potential boon to those displaced workers under pressure to become “life-long learners.” But this disruptive power also poses a potential existential threat to many physical universities and traditional textbook publishers.[xv]

7. Get used to strange bedfellows

Legacy industries, like book publishing, are realizing that they can’t go it alone if they hope to survive and thrive. Many are forming unlikely alliances or funding start-ups to help them adapt amid the present flux and strategize for the future. In 2012, Pearson bought Author Solutions, one of the leading providers of self-publishing services. In 2013, Pearson and Kaplan have both launched incubator programs to help vet and mentor education-tech start-ups. Macmillan has been aggressively investing a fund of over $100 million in ed-tech start-ups.[xvi] Other publishers are leveraging ties with other branded media platforms and content providers. Hyperion is selling its backlist and will focus exclusively on content tied to its sister companies Disney and ABC.[xvii] Wiley is distributing material from (former competitor) OpenStax College, an open-source platform that makes introductory college textbooks available as free downloads.[xviii]

8. Set up high-value networks

Platforms like Craigslist and eBay engage in “commons-creation” by establishing virtual spaces in which strangers can pool their ideas, sell products or services, and make social connections. The platforms that can provide real value gain users (and often revenue) quickly. We’re also witnessing a dramatic rise in the use digital personal assistants networks like Task Rabbit.

And Amazon successfully launched Audiobook Creation Exchange, a platform that connects freelance narrators of audio books with the owners of content who are looking to publish audio books. As workers experience less job security and turn increasingly to independent and task-based employment options, such platforms provide value by leveraging the sponsor’s “right of way” to create credible networks that connect people seeking products and services with those eager to provide them.

9. Crowdfunding has come of age

Digital crowdsourcing platforms like Indiegogo, Kickstarter, Unbound, and Pubslush are proliferating, gaining both users and donors at a remarkable pace. Now, content curators can use these platforms to locate content that readers are attracted to and willing to pay for – before it is produced and distributed. Combined with the boom in self-publishing, this trend means more opportunities for cultural producers to identify content with proven market demand, and more ways to identify the hardcore fan base for a particular set of content, before making the decision to invest.[xix]

10. The means of production is going hyper-local

Paradoxically, globalization is both making it easier to purchase a product on the other side of the planet and moving the production of goods closer to the site of purchase. The emergence of “additive manufacturing” and 3-D printing holds the promise that individual creators and users can “make” anything in their own homes. Book and magazine publishers are printing closer to their customers through globally dispersed printing operations and print-on-demand programs. Espresso machines facilitate the printing of out-of-stock and self-published books in physical bookstores.[xx]

All these developments offer the opportunity to bring production closer to the customer, facilitating just-in-time sales and providing more sustainable alternatives to current distribution practices.

Johanna Vondeling is Vice President for Business Development at Berrett-Koehler Publishers. 

Notes

i.         “Shatzkin: Soon, Most People Working in Publishing Won’t Be Working at Publishing Companies.” Digital Book World. March 19, 2013.

ii.         “Ecco, MLB Team Up for E-book Series.” Publishers Weekly. March 20, 2013.

iii.         “The Ten Awful Truths About Book Publishing.” Steve Piersanti. March 6, 2012.

iv.         “Book Publishers Scramble to Rewrite Their Future.” Wired. March 19, 2013.

v.         Adobe/Econsultancy Quarterly 2013 Digital Intelligence Briefing. January, 2013.

vi.         “Big data: The next frontier for innovation, competition, and productivity.” McKinsey Global Institute. March, 2011.

vii.         “The FT has ‘crossed over’ to become a digital business—but can anyone else replicate that feat?” paidContent. March 18, 2013.

viii.         Cisco Visual Networking Index: Global Mobile Data Traffic Forecast Update, 2012-2017. February 6, 2013.

ix.         “2013: The year nothing but mobile matters for any business selling in China.” MobiThinking. December 20, 2012.

x.         Cisco Visual Networking Index: Global Mobile Data Traffic Forecast Update, 2012-2017. February 6, 2013.

xi.         “The Rise of For-Profit Universities and Colleges.” University World News. July 15, 2012.

xii.         “Massive open online courses: Time and a little money are a worthy investment.” Financial Times. March 11, 2013.

xiii.         “The Siege of Academe.” Washington Monthly. September/October 2012.

 xiv.         “Wiley Launches Digital Classroom, Video and Ebook E-Learning Site.” Digital Book World. March 19, 2013.

xv.         “The Siege of Academe.” Washington Monthly. September/October 2012.

xvi.         Publishers Lunch. March 7, 2013.

xvii.        Publishers Lunch. March 7. 2013

xviii.        “Wiley, OpenStax Team on College Biology Textbook.” InformationWeek.com. March 11, 2013.

xix.         “Veronica Mars Lives again: Lessons from a record-breaking Kickstarter campaign.” paidContent. March 17, 2013.

xx.         “Just Press Print.” The Economist. February 12, 2010.

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My most-visited reviews

If you’ve been reading this blog for more than week or two, you’ve seen the pattern — that I typically post twice a week, including one nonfiction book and one novel. All told, in the three years I’ve been writing this blog, I’ve produced a total of more than 250 book reviews out of 308 posts. Below, I’m listing the 10 most popular reviews in descending order of the number of visits. Six are nonfiction books and four are novels (including, uncharacteristically, one collection of short stories, which I tend to shun). 

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1. A review of 99 to 1: How Wealth Inequality Is Wrecking the World and What We Can Do About It, by Chuck Collins. A lucid analysis of how the 1% got to be that way, and how the 99% can fight back. Written by the founder and former executive Director of United for a Fair Economy, who made a study of this topic for many years before the Occupy Wall Street movement came to the fore.

2. A review of In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin, by Erik Larson. In telling the story of the U.S. ambassador to Nazi Germany in the 1930s and of the anti-semitic officials who headed the State Department, makes clear why the U.S. failed to speak out against the rise of Hitler.

3. A review of The Pyramid and Four Other Kurt Wallender Mysteries, by Henning Mankell. A collection of five stories that span the time from Swedish detective Kurt Wallender’s rookie year on the police force to his retirement decades later. The Pyramid lays bare the roots of his many, complex psychological problems. For any Kurt Wallender fan, it’s well worth reading.

4. A review of The Imperial Cruise: A Secret History of Empire and War, by James Bradley. Explores the racism rampant in America, and in Teddy Roosevelt’s administration, that dominated U.S. imperial policy in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. Focuses on the cruise of a U.S. battleship in 1905 carrying Secretary of War and Roosevelt’s “assistant president” William Howard Taft and a passel of Congressmen and Senators to extend the U.S. empire beyond the Philippines and onto the Asian mainland. 

5. A review of The Litigators, by John Grisham. If you’re a John Griisham fan, as I am, you’ll probably be surprised at how many chuckles and guffaws his latest novel forces out of you. The Litigators, on one level a legal procedural like so many other Grisham works, is also a comedy. Even the title is a joke, as you’ll learn once you’ve made your way into the meat of this book.

6. A review of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, by Michelle Alexander. One of the most important books in English published so far in the 21st Century. Lays bare the ugly reality of the “War on Drugs” and the mass incarceration it brought about, exploring both how they came about and how deeply they wound communities of color in the United States.

7. A review of The Self-Made Myth, and the Truth About How Government Helps Individuals and Businesses Succeed, by Brian Miller and Mike Lapham. A timely and brilliant contribution to the public debate about politics and the economy. Dissects the mythology that lies at the heart of Right-Wing economic ideology in America today, making it unmistakably clear that the so-called “job creators” lionized by Republicans achieved their success not through rugged individualism but within a society in which government lent them support in dozens of crucial ways.

8. A review of Agent 6, by Tom Rob Smith. A superb suspense novel set in the USSR, the U.S., and Afghanistan. The compelling conclusion of a trilogy that tells the story of Leo Demidov, a member of Stalin’s secret police as a young man. Involves a central character who closely resembles the legendary African-American Communist singer and activist Paul Robeson.

9. A review of Creative Community Organizing: A Guide for Rabble-Rousers, Activists, & Quiet Lovers of Justice, by Si Kahn. In this delightful and illuminating memoir, the celebrated singer-organizer provides the reader with a front-row seat on history from the vantage-point of SNCC (the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, one of the most militant elements in the civil rights struggle) to the UMWA (the Mineworkers Union) to the recent nationwide campaign to end immigrant family detention.

10. A review of Believing the Lie, by Elizabeth George. The latest installment in the running saga of hereditary earl and Scotland Yard Inspector Thomas Lynley, picking up the tale after a long hiatus following the murder of his wife.

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Ten Big Issues Washington Is Ducking

This is the time of year when most of us record the New Year’s resolutions that will load us with guilt throughout the year because we never follow through with them. So, for a change this year, I decided to take stock not of my own life but of the state of our nation. What follows is my best effort to list (in no particular order) the ten most significant issues that the White House and the Congress should be addressing – but aren’t, and maybe never will. I write in the wake of a long-delayed compromise between the two parties, a deal that nobody likes and that, in its superficiality, illustrates just how far off the mark our elected leadership has strayed.

1.     Public corruption

The dominance of money in politics is the root cause of much that ails us. Massive campaign spending, combined with lavish lobbying efforts, is largely responsible for corporate welfare, our shockingly inequitable tax code, the dangerous bloating of the financial sector, and the corporate dominance of the news media. It’s also a major factor in the country’s continuing dependence on fossil fuels. Every one of these issues cries out for systemic change, but in a society where the U.S. Supreme Court’s outrageous Citizens United decision holds sway, it’s difficult to see how any meaningful change can be enacted. The source of the problem lies deeper than policy, in the values that corporate money has sold to the public – at heart, the delusion that freedom means independence from government oversight, that society offers a level playing field to all comers, and that success can only be fairly rewarded if the winners take all. In The Self-Made Myth (reviewed here), Bryan Miller and Mike Lapham expose this value set for the illogical and self-serving approach that it is.

2.     Military overreach

The United States spends more than $700 billion annually on what is characterized with Orwellian skill as “defense.” This amount is reportedly greater than the combined military expenditures of all the rest of the nations on Earth and is certainly larger than the total spent by all our potential adversaries combined. It’s also mostly money that could be so much more productively invested in advancing our true national security – upgrading our educational system, restoring our once-undisputed lead in science and technology, combating global poverty, and tending to our long-neglected public infrastructure. The late Chalmers Johnson’s Blowback series – Blowback, The Sorrows of Empire, and Nemesis – illuminate the extent of U.S. military overreach, and the steep price we pay for the dubious privilege of maintaining nearly 1,000 military bases around the world. We put Imperial Rome to shame.

3.     Secrecy in government

Most of what we read about secrecy in our federal government concerns the “classified” documents such as those unearthed by Wikileaks not long ago or the information turned up by investigative reporters, often after years of pursuing Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuits. Sadly, hiding mountains of written records behind a cloak of secrecy, reprehensible though it is, should be the least of our concerns. Far more threatening to our liberties and our future as a democratic nation are the top-secret operations of the National Security Agency, the CIA, and the Special Forces, as well as numerous other activities carried out both at home and abroad in our name under the veil of black budgets for agencies that have never seen the light of day or through seemingly innocuous contracts with private companies. The Washington Post’s Dana Priest and William M. Arkin did a spectacular job of reporting about this tragically overlooked phenomenon in Top Secret America: The Rise of the New American Security State (reviewed here).

4.     Overspending on healthcare

The U.S. currently spends an unsustainable 17% of GDP on healthcare – about one-half more than the second-highest spender in the world (Switzerland, at 11%). Americans frequently brag that we have the finest healthcare system in the world, but that’s true only for those who can afford to pay millions for the most advanced care when a health emergency strikes. Ours is the world’s most expensive healthcare system, not the best. Most of the rest of us would be far better off in France or some other industrialized country where government covers all costs and negotiates fair prices with pharmaceutical companies and other healthcare providers. And all the current talk about “reining in the deficit” is so much pointless chatter without two straightforward policy changes that could make a truly big difference: a drastic reduction in the Pentagon budget, of course, and adopting Medicare for All, otherwise hideously labeled “single-payer healthcare.”

5.     Mass incarceration

One of my greatest disappointments with the Obama Administration is its continued prosecution of the so-called War on Drugs, the congeries of policies, police practices, and court decisions that has resulted in locking away more than two million Americans and subjecting our inner cities to a profoundly racist police regime. Michele Alexander’s landmark study, The New Jim Crow (reviewed here), lays bare the startling dimensions of these problems and their deeply rooted origins in the politics of the Nixon, Reagan, and Clinton administrations. That such policies could persist two generations after the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s is abhorrent.

6.     Global warming

Rarely do political issues rise to the level of existential crisis. Here’s one that does. As Mark Hertsgaard illustrates in Hot (reviewed here) through interviews with leading climate scientists, the scientific consensus about the impact of climate change has become more extreme with every new report – but has never caught up with the private projections of the most knowledgeable experts. Absent dramatic policy shifts on a global scale, which are unthinkable without strong U.S. leadership, it’s possible that Planet Earth will eventually become unlivable for the human race. We’re already destroying a million species a year, and climate change is compounding the problems caused by human encroachment on animal habitat. With or without human civilization, our global environment will be very different in the 22nd Century from what it is today – at a minimum, far less hospitable to homo sapiens.

7.     The culture of violence

In the wake of yet another horrific mass murder that took the lives of so many innocents, public debate is focusing on such “solutions” as banning assault rifles and reducing the number of bullets permitted in an ammunition clip. Even if such measures could be written into law, which is unlikely, they would be laughably ineffectual. More than 9,000 people die every year of gunshots in the U.S. – rarely from assault rifles. Americans possess more than 200 million guns, most of them handguns, and can easily buy more at 51,000 licensed retail firearms dealers (compared to 36,000 grocery stores). None of this should be a surprise in a society that glorifies violence in film, television, video games, and comic books and obsesses about football, one of the most violent of contact sports. It’s time for America to grow up!

8.     Chemical pollution

Most of the 9,000 or more synthetic chemicals now used in everyday products in the U.S. were introduced after World War II. Hundreds of them leave residues in our bodies with largely unknown consequences. (Only seven percent of “high-production” chemicals have been fully tested for toxicity.) In other words, we have been carrying on a dangerous biology experiment with our lives and our children’s lives for more than two generations. What we do know is that health problems that were once unknown or rare are becoming common, including asthma, reproductive abnormalities in infants, many forms of cancer, and autism. A simple idea – the precautionary principle – could address many of these unwanted consequences by stipulating that the burden of proof about the safety of any product falls on its producer. Nearly half a century after Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, isn’t it astonishing that we should still have to make this argument?

9.     A dysfunctional education system

For decades, it’s been widely recognized that many high schools are simply warehousing young people to keep them off the job market. Now it’s beginning to seem as though that’s the case with so-called higher education as well at many colleges and universities. When employers (myself included) complain that some recent college graduates can’t write or spell and either can’t read or simply choose not to do so, you’ve got to figure there’s some truth to these observations – and that there’s something fundamentally wrong with the way our country educates its youth. Whether the root cause is that schools teach the wrong things, that they teach in the wrong ways, or that the wrong people are doing the teaching is impossible to tell, but clearly the truth lies in some combination of these notions – dramatically compounded by our society’s failure to invest enough money to do the job right. Taking into account the number of hours that American teachers work, they’re paid far less than teachers in almost any other industrialized country. Shame on us!

10.  A costly and dangerous food production system

An occasional outbreak of e coli infections or a newsmagazine exposé on the indiscriminate use of antibiotics in farm animals reminds us that all is not well with the way we Americans produce and procure our food. However, truth to tell, the scale and extent of the problem is far bigger than most of us understand. Ninety-nine percent of the meat we eat is produced in ways that are inhumane, ecologically unsound, and dangerous to our health. Our unrelenting hunger for meat is responsible for producing more greenhouse gases than all modes of transportation combined and is thus one of the single most significant factors in global warming. Pollution from factory farms is poisoning the water table in agricultural areas throughout the United States, and the dramatic overuse of antibiotics in farm animals that aren’t sick is exposing us all to ever more deadly antibiotic-resistant diseases. Jonathan Safran Foer’s recent book, Eating Animals (reviewed here), exposes these and other truths about our food production system.

If any of the above leads you to believe that I think the United States is in worse shape than other countries, you might consider the neglected issues I’d identify, say, in Bangladesh or Tanzania. If you don’t know from direct observation, take my word for it: they’re in far worse shape than we are.

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