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From Harry Potter-style mega-hits to controversy over banned books to hot competition for literary prizes, there is never a dull moment in the book world. Chapter & Verse keeps readers up-to-date on the latest in literary headlines. Check in with us daily to learn about books and their people - those who write them and those who love them.

Writer Beverly Lewis inspired an interest in Amish fiction in 1997 with her bestselling novel 'The Shunning.'

Amish fiction remains a big draw in an era of 'Fifty Shades of Grey'

By Staff Writer / 09.05.12

As the “Fifty Shades of Grey” trilogy – along with various copycat titles coming in its wake – continues to dominate the sales charts, books on the opposite end of the spectrum are still selling well.

How opposite? Try quilting bees instead of handcuffs.

Amish fiction, a literary genre that began in the late 1990s and has sold well ever since, features romances more old-fashioned in their values than E L James’ S&M story – books that keep the reader outside the bedroom door. The genre kicked off with Beverly Lewis’s 1997 book “The Shunning,” which featured a heroine who longed for a life outside the Amish community. The title has since sold over a million copies. Since then, writers like Jerry Eicher, Marta Perry, and Sarah Price have all penned tales of girls in Amish communities looking for romance.

Vice president of marketing for Christian publisher Bethany House Steve Oates says that he thinks the appeal of Amish fiction for many readers is the return to simpler values.

“The books are aspirational,” Oates told Deborah Kennedy, who published an interesting survey of the genre in Salon this month. “It’s the ‘I wish my family were like this’ kind of thing.”

And while sales have slackened over the past couple of years, the genre is still a big draw.

“If you put a head covering on the woman on the front, you’re going to sell a lot more copies,” Oates said.

Author Lori Copeland started out writing racier romance novels like “A Taste for Temptation,” but switched over to Amish and Christian romances in 1995. Bodice-rippers and more conservative romances can co-exist just fine, said Copeland.

“Some want the rich, decadent flavors to sweep them away from the ordinary world,” Copeland told USA Today. “Others like to be swept away but find sugar and cream a little rich for their personal values…. The Christian market and my personal faith values allow me to write … wholesome stories about men and women of faith falling in love.”

'The Godfather' was produced by Paramount Studios. (AP)

Paramount Pictures and Puzo estate battle over 'Godfather' sequel rights

By Staff Writer / 09.04.12

The legal troubles between Paramount Pictures and the family of “Godfather” author Mario Puzo continue, with Puzo's family and Paramount Pictures meeting in court late last week.

Paramount, which was behind the “Godfather” movies, sued Mario Puzo’s son Anthony Puzo in an attempt to stop publication of the “Godfather” prequel “The Family Corleone” this winter, despite the fact that “Corleone” had been approved by the Puzo family. The Puzos filed a counterclaim stating that the studio had been given plenty of notice about the publication of the book and requested $10 million in damages.

The book “The Family Corleone” was written by author Ed Falco, uncle of “The Sopranos” actress Edie Falco, and was published in May despite the lawsuit.

Paramount claims that it bought all copyright interests and rights as well as “literary rights” to “The Godfather” from Mario Puzo in 1969, which the studio says would include rights to the “Godfather” characters in other books. Paramount says the Puzo family can only release the book "The Godfather” as well as any adaptations of that original story.

The Puzo family says the original agreement did not include book rights and is now asking the court to affirm that they have the rights to any “Godfather” sequels and that the studio does not have film rights to any possible movie adaptations of sequels.

US District Judge Alison Nathan presided in federal court in Manhattan on Thursday, when oral arguments were made, but did not issue a decision on the case or state when a verdict would be made.

Paramount said in a statement that it had “tremendous respect and admiration for Mario Puzo" and that it has “an obligation to and will protect our copyright and trademark interests.”

A lawyer for the Puzo family, Bertram Fields, told Reuters that if a new film adaptation of a “Godfather” sequel became a possibility, the Puzos would be disinclined to work with Paramount on a movie.

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The publication of 'No Easy Op' further complicates the debate over 'No Easy Day,' former Navy SEAL Matt Bissonnette's account of the raid on Osama bin Laden, published this week under the alias Mark Owen.

Navy SEAL wrote 'No Easy Day' after being pushed out of SEAL Team 6 (+video)

By Husna Haq / 09.04.12

As retired Navy SEAL Mark Owens’s (a.k.a Matt Bissonnette) “No Easy Day” hits shelves today, a new e-book on Special Operations offers fresh insight into why Bissonnette broke his code of silence with his tell-all account of the raid that killed Osama bin Laden.

A group of Special Ops veterans released its own e-book Monday, “No Easy Op: The Unclassified Analysis of the Mission that Killed Osama bin Laden,” which suggests Bissonnette “was willing to break the code of silence honored by many commandos because of ‘bad blood’ with his former unit, the elite SEAL Team 6,” writes The New York Times.

According to the NYT, the e-book claims Bissonnette was “effectively pushed out of SEAL Team 6 after he expressed interest last year in leaving the Navy and starting a business.”

“How was he repaid for his honesty and 14 years of service?” the Special Ops writers ask in the e-book. “He was ostracized from his unit with no notice and handed a plane ticket back to Virginia from a training operation.” After that treatment, Bissonnette “felt less compunction” about writing “No Easy Day.”

 “No Easy Day” was published as scheduled Tuesday despite a storm of controversy about the firsthand account of the top-secret raid and threat of a government lawsuit. The Pentagon has threatened to sue Bissonnette for breaching his contract by not submitting the manuscript for review early enough in the publication processs.

The publication of “No Easy Op” further complicates the debate over Bissonnette’s account. The e-book was produced by sofrep.com, a website about the news, culture, and weaponry of the Special Ops produced by former commandos. Brandon Webb is a founder of the site and a former SEALs sniper, according to the NYT. In the NYT article, Webb says the e-book is based on “conversations that he and his co-authors had with current members of SEAL Team 7, none of whom are identified.”

(Incidentally, Webb also wrote his own account of his military experience, “The Red Circle,” which was also not submitted for review. But he was not penalized, he says, because the book came out years after missions it describes, and included details already made public.)

“No Easy Op” is largely sympathetic to Bissonnette, according to media reviews. It describes the former Navy SEAL as “an operator’s operator” and says it is highly unlikely “No Easy Day” revealed any vital information about SEAL tactics and procedures. Nonetheless, the e-book does scold Bissonnette for not submitting the book for review, suggesting that move would have placated government officials and put to rest concerns about security breaches. And it emphasizes the point that Bissonnette was less likely to abide by protocol after having been slighted by his former unit.

Whatever Bissonnette’s motivation may be, the former Navy SEAL’s co-author in “No Easy Day,” Kevin Maurer, said in a statement that Bissonnette’s account has nothing but praise for other SEALs and military personnel. “After spending several very intense months working with Mark Owen on this book, I know that he wrote this book solely to share a story about the incredible men and women defending America all over the world,” the statement reads. “Any suggestion otherwise is as ill informed as it is inaccurate. What’s more, Mark has an unshakable respect for the U.S. military, in particular the men he served with. That’s why not one negative word was written about anyone he served with.”

Still, the ongoing controversy over “No Easy Day” has the authors of “No Special Op” predicting Bissonnette’s book may be a game changer in the field. As Americans’ interest in commando culture swells and more retired Special Ops veterans consider sharing their accounts in books, movies, and more, the Pentagon will likely crack down on tell-all revelations like this – making firsthand accounts like these rarer, suggests the e-book. “No Easy Day” it writes, “will result in blowback that will drive policy change across the entire Special Operations community regarding operators’ ability to write books in the future. Hollywood and media access will be virtually impossible for the foreseeable future.”

Husna Haq is a Monitor correspondent.

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'It’s a novel that reads like nonfiction – that reads like a novel,' Nelson said of 'Sutton,' by J.R. Moehringer.

Amazon's Sara Nelson shares her favorite fall books

By Husna Haq / 09.04.12

Readers are in for a literary treat this fall, says Sara Nelson, editorial director of books and Kindle for Amazon.com.

“September and October are always a bumper crop of books,” says Nelson. “There’s a lot of anticipated books from well-known writers like Zadie Smith and Junot Diaz, and it’s also a time for debuts from new writers. [We’ve seen] serious literary titles but also strong ‘commercial’ picks.”

Each month Amazon’s editorial team meets to select its list of the 10 books it believes are the best of the month, a process Nelson describes as “a bunch of people in a room all screaming about what we liked and didn’t like.” When you have as many good books come out as in September, says Nelson, the argument is particularly passionate.

One book everyone was passionate about, she says, is “The Signal and The Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail – But Some Don’t,” by Nate Silver, author of the New York Times’s popular FiveThirtyEight blog.

“It’s a book about science and forecasting everything from baseball, to weather to politics,” says Nelson. “It’s a brilliant book, surprisingly easy to read, and it makes science accessible… It stands out in a lot of ways.”

Another standout was Christopher Hitchens’ “Mortality,” the late author’s vivid account of his battle with esophageal cancer and the last months of his life.

“It’s very intense,” says Nelson, “you feel like you’re right there with him…[He writes] with such wit and with great humanity…For a book about dying of cancer, it’s surprisingly not depressing.”

“The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo,” by Tom Reiss, was one book that surprised Nelson. Part history, part biography, and part swashbuckling adventure saga, “The Black Count” tells the story of the little-known Gen. Alexandre Dumas, father of the better-known novelist Alexandre Dumas. Dumas was the mixed-race son of a count and a West Indies slave who would become one of Napoleon’s greatest generals and become the inspiration for many of his son’s books, including “The Count of Monte Cristo” and “The Three Musketeers.”

“It’s partly a history of France, but the book is way more than that,” says Nelson. “You learn a lot in it, it’s interesting and unusual.”

Another surprise, says Nelson, was “How Music Works,” by David Byrne, a book that explores the physics, business, technology, and cultural history of music, from African villages to Wagnerian opera houses.

“This is a very brainy book, but not so 'musicologist' that the average person who likes music couldn’t understand it,” says Nelson. “You’ll learn something, but it’s not homework.”

Another book that’s definitely not homework is “Sutton,” by J.R. Moehringer, a book that much of Nelson’s team fell in love with, based on the life of America’s most successful bank robber, Willie Sutton. “It’s a novel that reads like nonfiction – that reads like a novel,” says Nelson, laughing. Moehringer captures Sutton’s rhythm perfectly, she says, making “Sutton” a “fascinating... walking tour of his life.”

One trend Nelson says she is seeing in publishing this fall is a slight pivot toward nonfiction, especially politically-oriented books and books about war.

One such book is “500 Days: Secrets and Lies in the Terror Wars,” by Kurt Eichenwald, a gripping chronicle that recounts the first 500 days after 9/11. At 640 pages, it’s a far-reaching account that spans events from the White House to Guantanamo Bay to al-Qaeda training camps to torture chambers in Egypt and Syria, including “never-before-reported details about warrantless wiretapping, the anthrax attacks” and more, according to Amazon.com.

“We’re seeing a wave of literature about the wars,” says Nelson, including “Yellow Birds: A Novel,” by Kevin Powers. Nelson calls it a “poetic novel about two soldiers during the war.”

“You can tell he was a poet, each word is carefully chosen, and the book is not about the politics of war, it’s about two guys, about their relationship.

“It doesn’t attempt to be this giant book about war,” adds Nelson. “This is not that. It’s more in the vein of 'The Things They Carried,' or 'Dispatches.'”

Nelson says she expects Zadie Smith’s “NW: A Novel,” about class and identity in multicultural, working-class Northwest London, to continue getting rave reviews, all well-deserved.

Another book with a strong sense of place and culture is “This is How You Lose Her,” by Junot Diaz, a collection of nine stories about love.

She’s also keeping her eyes on “My Heart Is an Idiot: Essays,” by Davy Rothbart.

“’My Heart Is an Idiot’ is a book I didn’t think I would necessarily get,” says Nelson. “He’s a young man and this is an essay collection about his messed-up romantic life. I took it home, thought, ‘Well, everyone else likes this, so let me take a look.’ I was laughing out loud.”

A final fall treat on the “Best of Month” list is “Every Day,” by David Levithan, a tale about ‘A,’ who wakes up in a different person’s body and a different person’s life every day. “Don’t you wish you could do that?” says Nelson. “It’s a brilliant conceit.”

Amazon's September "best of" recommendations come together to create "a really hard-won list," says Nelson. "It’s a very busy, big time of year [in publishing], a great time of year for readers.”

Husna Haq is a Monitor correspondent.

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Aldous Huxley said of summer reading ambition, 'All tourists cherish an illusion... that they will find time, in the course of their travels, to do a lot of reading.'

End-of-summer reading regrets? They're nothing new

By / 09.03.12

As Labor Day arrives, signaling the end of another summer reading season, you might be wondering why you didn’t read as many books at the beach as you thought you would.

But that problem isn’t a new one, as evidenced by some remarks on travel and reading that Aldous Huxley offered back in 1925.

Huxley, who died in 1963, was best known as the novelist behind the celebrated science fiction story “Brave New World.”  But Huxley was also a travel writer, and in “Along the Road: Notes and Essays of A Tourist,” he offers this reflection:

“All tourists cherish an illusion, of which no amount of experience can ever completely cure them; they imagine that they will find time, in the course of their travels, to do a lot of reading. They see themselves, at the end of a day’s sightseeing or motoring, or while they are sitting in the train, studiously turning over the pages of all the vast and serious works which, at ordinary seasons, they never find time to read. They start for a fortnight’s tour in France, taking with them ‘The Critique of Pure Reason,’ ‘Appearance and Reality,’ the complete works of Dante and the ‘Golden Bough.’ They come home to make the discovery that they have read something less than half a chapter of the ‘Golden Bough’ and the first fifty-two lines of the ‘Inferno.’”

Huxley conceded that although he was still far too optimistic in judging how much he’d read on a trip, he’d become more prudent, not carrying quite as many volumes along. But he welcomed the innovation of India paper, which allowed very thin pages, meaning that long texts could be carried in lighter formats. “All Shakespeare... gets into a volume no bigger than a novel,” Huxley noted with satisfaction.

Which leaves us wondering what Huxley, an early champion of compact books, would have thought of the e-reader.

Danny Heitman, a columnist with The Baton Rouge Advocate, is the author of “A Summer of Birds: John James Audubon at Oakley House.”

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'You are in material breach and violation of the non-disclosure agreements you signed,' the Pentagon wrote to 'Mark Owen,' which has raised speculation that the US government may seize the book’s royalties.

Potential problems for Navy SEAL author of 'No Easy Day'

By Husna HaqCorrespondent / 08.31.12

There’s more trouble ahead for the US Navy SEAL behind the controversial account of the Bin Laden raid, “No Easy Day,” recently revealed to be retired commando Matt Bissonnette.

In a letter obtained by Reuters, the Pentagon warned Bissonnette it was considering legal action for breach of non-disclosure agreements in his first-hand account of the raid that killed Osama bin Laden – and hinted that the government may seize the book’s royalties.

“You are in material breach and violation of the non-disclosure agreements you signed,” said the letter from Pentagon General Counsel Jeh Johnson, according to Reuters. “The Department of Defense is considering pursuing against you and all those acting in concert with you, all remedies legally available to us in light of this situation.”

The letter was addressed to “Mark Owen,” the pseudonym under which Bissonnette wrote. His identity was revealed by Fox News and confirmed by Reuters soon after the book was announced.

The Obama administration and Pentagon officials have said they were surprised by the announcement of “No Easy Day,” and had no prior knowledge of it. Early reviews suggest Bissonnette’s account in the book contradicts previous accounts by White House officials, particularly as to whether Osama bin Laden presented a threat when SEALs first fired at him. The differing accounts could potentially raise a public relations nightmare for administration officials.

According to the terms of Bissonnette’s non-disclosure agreements, he would have to submit any manuscript for pre-publication review and obtain permission before publishing it, according to the letter obtained by Reuters. The book was not vetted by government agencies prior to publication. Disclosure of classified information is a crime and the US government may be entitled to all “royalties, remunerations, and emoluments” from Bissonnette’s disclosures, the letter warned.

“The letter did not say what classified information the book revealed but the book says an unarmed bin Laden was looking out from his bedroom door when he was shot in the head during the May 2011 raid on his hide-out in Pakistan,” Reuters reported.

(Reuters is also reporting that – in addition to possible legal troubles with the US government – Bissonnette also faces threats against his life, as an al Qaeda website last week posted his name and photograph, calling him "the dog who murdered the martyr Sheikh Osama bin Laden.")

“No Easy Day” has stirred a media controversy in recent weeks, with many in the White House, Defense Department, and Special Operations community expressing unhappiness with the book and the attention it has received.

For his part, Bissonnette said in a statement released through his publisher that the first-hand account was written “with respect for my fellow service members while adhering to my strict desire not to disclose confidential or sensitive information that would compromise national security in any way.”

Earlier the Navy SEAL said he hopes to give a majority of the book’s proceeds to military support groups.

At this point, it’s unclear if he’ll see any of those royalties.

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Millard says that when she began to learn about Garfield she was "blown away by how brilliant he was and the huge heart he had."

Garfield: America's most obscure president may also have been one of its best

By Randy Dotinga / 08.31.12

 A while ago, I stumbled upon a photograph of President James Garfield and his young daughter Mollie. (You can see it here.) Even though it was taken in the 19th century, a time when just about everyone looked stern in front of a camera – maybe because exposures lasted forever – Garfield appears to be positively delighted.

Are his eyes filled with humor because he's about to tell a joke? Is he just ecstatic to be spending time with his daughter, who's giving the evil eye to someone outside the shot? Or is that grin hidden under his beard just a sign that he's a jolly guy?

Whatever the case, the photo hints that Garfield was a remarkable man. Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President, one of last year's top bestsellers, confirms it.

"Destiny of the Republic," which our reviewer Erik Spanberg  wrote brings back to roaring life a tragic but irresistible historical period," is now out in paperback. I contacted author Candice Millard, who previously wrote the bestselling "River of Doubt" about Theodore Roosevelt's treacherous African trip, to ask about the reaction to the book and what she found when she looked into the fascinating life of this most obscure of presidents.

Q: How did you come across the little-known story of President Garfield?

A: I came in to this book without an interest in Garfield. I didn't know anything about him other than he'd been assassinated.

I was actually interested in Alexander Graham Bell and looking at a book with a lot of science in it. I stumbled upon the story of him trying to find the bullet in Garfield.

I wondered why Bell would do this. He's young, he just invented the telephone a few years ago, and he abandons everything he's doing to work night and day on an invention. I start researching Garfield, and I'm blown away by how brilliant he was and the huge heart he had.

It took me three years to work on the book, two years of doing research, and I was far into it by the time I wrote his death scene. I called my husband in tears.

I didn't want to write it. That's ridiculous: It's been 130 years since he died. But I felt like I knew him. I cared about him, and I admired him, and I was surprised by all of that.

Q: Four presidents have been assassinated, but we remember just two: Lincoln and Kennedy. Why have we forgotten Garfield?

A: We forget because it's been so long since his assassination, and he was in office for such a short time.

It was interesting to me in the National Museum of Natural History they have a little alcove about presidential assassinations. Fortunately for Garfield he's right across from Kennedy. But when I was there one day, I'd watch people come in, and they'd look at Kennedy and Lincoln and leave. They'd never turn around to see anything.

We forget, and we don't know the tremendous tragedy this was for the country at this time.

Q: What made him unique as a leader?

A: He was trusted, and he's really the first president since the Civil War to be accepted by the whole country as its leader. The assassination was shocking and devastating.

Q: He was a major advocate for black people, wasn't he?

A: From a very young age, his religion was the Disciples of Christ, and they were fierce abolitionists. He cried when John Brown was hanged, hid a runaway slave, and was a staunch fighter in the Civil War and a hero in the Union Army.

For him, it was mostly about abolition, and he was instrumental in bringing about rights for freed slaves after the Civil War, including suffrage.

During his inaugural, freed slaves were openly weeping in the crowd. A party of 600 black men formed after his assassination to lynch the assassin, Charles Guiteau.

Q: Some presidential rankings don't include him because he was only in office for a few months. But those that do typically rank him toward the bottom. Is that fair?

A: It's unavoidable. He was in office for only four months, and I think that's the reason for that.

But he was in Congress for almost 18 years. And what he accomplishes in four months is to defeat arguably the most powerful and most corrupt man in the country, Senator Roscoe Conkling, by sticking to his own ideals and believing in himself.

What makes him very rare was that he was his own man. I can't think of another presidential candidate, at least in recent times, who didn't hunger for the presidency. He didn't have presidential fever.

At the Republican National Convention, he didn't want to be a candidate but to give a nominating address for another man. He found himself thrust into this role, and never had to compromise his own values and ideals along the way. He was his own man as president, and that would have made him very powerful.

Q: The assassin, Charles Guiteau, is a fascinating character in this own right, a deranged stalker who kept pestering the White House for a job. What did you learn about him?

A: He was delusional and mentally ill. He had been for a long time, and should have not been near anyone, let alone the president.

It was a time when people could sort of slip away. His family tried to have him institutionalized, and he'd disappear. He'd move from city to city, skipping out on his bills, and being very isolated and on his own. He lived in his own foggy, deluded mind, becoming more obsessive.

He believed he would personally make Garfield president by delivering the speech he'd written, and then, through gratitude, Garfield would make him ambassador to France.

He became more obsessive and desperate. He went to the White House and Department of State every day.

Q: Why didn't Garfield have better security?

A: There were all these assassinations going on in Europe, but people believed that's because they had these monarchies. They truly did not believe this would happen again. They didn't want any distance set up between them and their leader; they thought that's something for monarchies and kings.

One night, Guiteau follows Garfield and his secretary of state all around the city. They have no protection, and Guiteau is holding a loaded gun.

Q: It's amazing how this random person actually had direct access to the president and to the secretary of state, who eventually got so frustrated that he told him to get lost. How did that happen, just a couple decades after Lincoln was shot?

A: People believed even if they didn't have any experience or credentials they should be able to make their case directly to the president about getting a job.

It was a nightmare for Garfield. He had to spend 10:30-1:30 every day meeting one-on-one with office speakers.

Q: Guiteau's defense at trial was that he was insane. What can we learn from our debate today over the insanity defense?

A: Guiteau's was one of the earliest insanity defenses. If anyone should have gotten off, it was Guiteau, but the country was determined to see him pay.

Because he was he was delusional, he loved all the attention he was getting. He gave every interview he could, so I could be in his mind.

You can see this horrible danger coming toward this young president who has so much promise and life ahead of him. You see this threat coming, and there's nothing you can do to stop it.

Q: Has the reaction of readers surprised you?

A: When you write about Theodore Roosevelt, you've got a built-in audience. I knew I was taking a real chance writing about Garfield. It was thrilling to see that there was an interest, that people would give it a chance.

Q: Are readers falling for him?

A: They seem to be. When I go out and talk, I get big audiences, and people seem very enthusiastic. I follow things on Twitter, and every one in a while I'll see the hashtag #garfield2012.

Garfield was brilliant and had a heart to match his mind. People respond to that.

Randy Dotinga is a regular contributor the Monitor's Books section. 

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In a settlement that marks a major victory for the DOJ, three of the five publishing companies accused of conspiring to fix the prices of e-books have agreed to pay $69 million to consumers. (Shannon Stapleton/Reuters)

E-book price-fixing: three publishers agree to pay $69 million to consumers

By Husna Haq / 08.30.12

Big news in the Justice Department’s e-book price-fixing suit: Three of the five publishers accused of price-fixing – Hachette Book Group, HarperCollins, and Simon & Schuster – have agreed to pay $69 million to consumers to settle claims they illegally conspired to fix the price of e-books.

The publishers will reimburse consumers who bought books between April 1, 2010 and May 12, 2012, a total of $69 million, with reimbursements ranging from 25 cents to $1.32 per book, according to the Baltimore Business Journal.

In announcing the settlement, Connecticut attorney general George Jepsen called the payout “restitution to customers who were harmed by this price-fixing scheme.”

The publishers must also pay $7.5 million in fees and costs to states.

“We will not tolerate publishers colluding to overcharge consumers millions of dollars for some of the most popular e-books,” John Suthers said in a statement.

A spokesperson for HarperCollins said, “HarperCollins did not violate antitrust laws but made a business decision to settle to avoid the expense and distraction of litigation.”

According to the settlement, the settling publishers must also terminate their existing agency pricing agreements (whereby publishers set the price of books rather than retailers, as in the wholesale model).

The settlement, which must still be approved by the US District Court, is a major victory for the Department of Justice, which brought a highly controversial lawsuit against five of the country’s largest publishers, and Apple, for allegedly conspiring to fix the price of e-books. While Hachette, HarperCollins, and Simon & Schuster agreed to settle early on, Apple, Macmillan, and Penguin vowed to fight the charges and a separate suit against is continuing.

It’s a highly controversial lawsuit (remember NY Sen. Chuck Schumer challenging the DOJ and charging that “the suit could wipe out the publishing industry as we know it”), and this settlement marks a major victory for the DOJ.

We’re eager to see how this settlement impacts the continuing suit against Apple, Macmillan, and Penguin.

Husna Haq is a Monitor correspondent.

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Computer science professor Bing Lu estimates that one-third of all online reviews are fake.

Book reviews: too nice and maybe also too fake?

By Husna Haq / 08.30.12

For all the fuss about too-racy books, too-obscene YA books, and banned books, book reviews, it seems, sometimes stir more controversy than the books themselves.

Writers have long argued that the book review was a silly exercise at best. Edgar Allan Poe called reviews a mere “tissue of flatteries,” as the Guardian recently reminded us. Virginia Woolf once said “the clash of completely contradictory opinions cancel each other out.” Perhaps most damning was Elizabeth Hardwick, who, in 1959, had this to say about book reviews: “sweet, bland commendations fall everywhere upon the scene; a universal, if somewhat lobotomized, accommodation reigns…. For sheer information, a somewhat expanded publisher’s list would do just as well as a good many of the reviews that appear weekly.”

Today's literati remain equally at odds over the value of the book review. Jacob Silverman stirred up a tempest in the literary teapot earlier this month when he suggested in Slate  that the online book culture has spawned an epidemic of "niceness" and turned book reviews  too tame. Salon's Laura Miller responded with a defense of positive reviews, while Dwight Garner of The New York Times made a case for "critics who are actually critical."

But all of the above is, at least, honest controversy about professional reviews. What to make of business-for-hire review writing, the less-than-ethical practice that had one entrepreneur advertising on Craigslist for folks to churn out positive reviews of books for $15 a pop?

According to an excellent expository piece in the New York Times, “The Best Book Reviews Money Can Buy,” Todd Jason Rutherford made a small fortune selling positive reviews of self-published Amazon titles. He started his website, GettingBookReviews.com, in the fall of 2010. “At first, he advertised that he would review a book for $99,” writes the Times’s David Streitfeld. “But some clients wanted a chorus proclaiming their excellence. So, for $499, Mr. Rutherford would do 20 online reviews. A few people needed a whole orchestra. For $999, he would do 50.”

Orders started pouring in for good reviews and Rutherford quickly realized he couldn’t produce all the reviews himself. “How little, he wondered, could he pay freelance reviewers and still satisfy the authors? He figured on $15. He advertised on Craigslist and received 75 responses within 24 hours.”

“Before he knew it,” writes the Times, “he was taking in $28,000 a month.”

Rutherford’s business was eventually outed and forced to stop churning out paid reviews – but by then Rutherford has flooded Amazon with scores of phony reviews (4,531, to be exact) by folks looking to make a quick buck, the vast majority of whom had never even opened the book they were reviewing. 

Amazon has said it took down some, though not all, of Rutherford’s paid reviews, according to the NYT piece. Still, Bing Lu, a computer science professor at the University of Illinois, Chicago, estimates that fully one-third of all online reviews are fake – and it’s nearly impossible to tell the fake from the real.

And though many users never put full stock in online reviews, literary or otherwise, this latest news has us wondering what to trust.

(For the record, Rutherford is now selling R.V.s in Oklahoma City and says “he is now suspicious of all online reviews – of books or anything else. ‘When there are 20 positive reviews and one negative, I’m going to go with the negative,’ he said. ‘I’m jaded.’”)

So what’s a reader to do?

Use smaller and more traditional outlets. For some quick feedback, turn to smaller, more specialized sites, like Goodreads or Librarything, where you’re more likely to find genuine reviews by trustworthy readers.

And don’t forget the traditional book review (we won't be shy about mentioning the reviews provided right here at CSMonitor.com/Books), those literary appraisals maligned by writers like Woolf and Poe, and which may now be making a comeback thanks to Rutherford and company.

“[I]t ... seems to me that the Amazon scandals reaffirm the importance of the much-maligned traditional book review,” writes the Guardian. “Reviews in, say, newspaper book sections ... are vital in offering a properly critical (often negative) opinion of new books…Yes, there’s only one voice rather than the wisdom of the crowd, but these critics are convincing, independent, entertaining and trustworthy enough that, time and again, they are paid to offer their opinion.”

“And not in the way that Todd Rutherford was paid, by the authors of the books themselves.”

Husna Haq is a Monitor correspondent.

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The BBC miniseries based on 'Wolf Hall' and 'Bring Up the Bodies' will air late in 2013.

Hilary Mantel's Tudor novels coming to TV

By Staff Writer / 08.29.12

Hilary Mantel’s bestselling historical novels “Wolf Hall” and “Bring Up the Bodies” will be adapted into a miniseries for BBC that will air in 2013.

The miniseries will be in six parts and will be adapted by “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” co-writer Peter Straughan.

“Wolf Hall” centers on Thomas Cromwell, an advisor to King Henry VIII, and his attempts to navigate the treacherous waters of the English court, while “Bring Up the Bodies” tells the story of Henry’s second, ill-fated wife Anne Boleyn.

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