"When is a book not a book?" The definition has become blurred in recent years, as it has become easier and easier to create something that fits the physical definitions of a book.
Is a book a rectangular object, comprised of many leaves of paper bound between a colorful cover? Does a book become a book when it has an ISBN (an International Standard Book Number, used to identify each individual book and its publisher)? Or maybe when it is registered with the Library of Congress? Or when you can buy it at a bookstore? Or, these days, order it from Amazon.com? What about an eBook, only available online? Or books-on-tape? I've even found a Web site that "translates" the written word back into the spoken for the reading impaired.
When do words and images cross the line into "book?"
Three of the rectangular "thingees" with pages and words are currently on my desk, representing different levels of publishing achievement. None of the three would pass muster in the glitzy world of Manhattan publishing, where the prevailing attitude is that the only real books published in America originate between Henry Hudson Parkway and FDR Drive. Luckily, those of us here in the hinterlands have more open minds, and we are rewarded with some "good reads" that will never be reviewed by The New York Times.
Cursed in New England: Stories of Damned Yankees by Joseph A. Citro fits almost any definition of "book." It is professionally published by Globe Pequot Press, a regional specialist located in Guilford, Conn. Although Globe Pequot is not a "big" publisher by industry standards, it is a behemoth compared to most Vermont publishers.
"Cursed in New England" has an ISBN. You can buy it in bookstores, at least in Vermont, where Citro is a literati luminary. And you can buy it from Amazon, where it currently ranks #161,632 on the best-seller list. It is praised by regional superstars Howard Frank Mosher and Ernest Hebert who say Citro's stories are "the best and most believable stories about the supernatural since Edgar Allan Poe" (Mosher) and "a must read" (Hebert).
Joe Citro has been cranking out books regularly (six since the dawn of the Millennium). He's someone who is moving up in the literary world, although at #161,632, he is not bumping into the glass ceiling yet.
Just below on the publisher's status scale is Stick-Season Grouse: And Other Stories of Hunting, Fishing, and Dogs, the first book by an experienced magazine writer, Ted Ross. It sure looks like a book, with a handsome cover photo by Peter Miller, whose own books Vermont People and Vermont Women occupy hallowed positions within the pantheon of local literature. Miller is an iconoclast (translation: "stubborn old buzzard") who became so frustrated at the commercial publishing world that he started his own publishing company, Silver Print Press. Now he can publish authors, like Ted Ross, who are clearly cut from the same, tattered flannel as Miller.
This book is rough around the edges (proudly so) both in terms of production values and content. I quickly found a few grammatical flaws that would not have passed a professional proofreader's screen, but it is on the scale of political correctness that the book either falls short or stands out, depending on your orientation. In the opening line of his chapter called "Tree Houses," author Ross warns "If there are any lady readers left thumbing these pages, I suggest that they skip this chapter ... (because) it will anger even the most understanding of women in this modern age."
This is a bold stance that hovers somewhere between "fiercely independent" and "foolhardy." After the bandwagon of Oprah-inspired books about women overcoming adversity, Ross's unabashed male bluster presents a refreshing change of pace, if you are open to it. New York publishers wouldn't touch a book like this with a 10-foot shotgun, but that's just what creates the opportunity for Miller and Silver Print Press. You may not find Stick-Season Grouse on any best-seller lists, on any coffee tables, or even on Amazon.com, but it's is destined to become a classic at deer camps.
The cover of Chester Sawyer Ketcham's Nonsense, No Nonsense, and Other Things pictures the author with his left hand holding the barrel of a rifle and his right the shaft of a golf club. The message is clear — someone is having fun with this publishing project.
The other two books were accompanied by professional press releases that summarized specifications and provided contact info for more information. Nonsense came with a slip of paper torn from a spiral-bound reporter's notebook, with phone number and email address for "Chet" scribbled in red pen. So I called.
Chester Ketcham comes from a Vermont family that came to the state in 1785. His book is a collection of memories, anecdotes, jokes and even a few emails. He became a lawyer, a legislator, and eventually deputy attorney general. His career in public service, distinguished as it is, is not the kind of fame-fueled celebrity that shoots WWF wrestlers to the top of the bestseller lists. The "celebrities" who endorse the book on the back cover include a former governor, a retired judge, and a Chittenden County probate judge.
I tracked Ketcham down in Port Orange, Fla., and he explained how his book came to be:
"Governor Phil Hoff suggested I write down some of my interesting experiences in government. From that beginning I expanded to incidents throughout my life, and included some Vermont humor, a bit of philosophy, and quotes from other Americans.
"I made no attempt to have the book commercially published, but, guided by my good friends Janet Burnham of Bethel and Jack Beckwith of Rye, New Hampshire, decided to publish it myself. Daaman Printing in West Rutland printed 500 copies that I distributed to bookstores throughout the state. I'm now sold out and will decide about doing a reprint when I come back to Vermont in the spring."
Ketcham notes that to get an ISBN he was required to purchase a block of 10. As a frugal New Englander, this means that he has nine more books to write!
By some definitions Nonsense, No Nonsense, & Other Things is not a real book. It lacks some the buff and luster that a commercial publisher provides. You can't get it on Amazon, and you'll probably have trouble finding it at more than a handful of locations around the state.
At my local bookstore, Cover-to-Cover in Randolph, I found Joe Citro's book displayed face out, with a back-up copy. The sales people thought they had seen "Stick-Season Grouse" but had none in stock. Nonsense and No Nonsense was new to them, although they were quick to say they would be glad to offer it shelf space. No one hesitated to consider all three as "books."
Books can be simple or elaborate, stark or glossy. The editing can be flawed or flawless and the design eloquent or ham-fisted. Production qualities may reflect on the experience and pocketbook of the publisher but do not define the product. If it looks like a book, walks like a book, talks like a book, and, most importantly, if it tells a story ... it's a book.
published in the Barre Montpelier Times Argus on January 2, 2005
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updated 3 January 2005 : 13:26 (m) Caspar (Pacific) time
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