Saturday, December 18, 2004

Happy Holidays & All That Crap

No, but really...
Friday, December 17, 2004

Letters of Protest

The replies to the last couple days' posts ("Part I: An Entrepreneurial Proposal" & "Part II: An Editorial Response") have in turn sparked their own round of outcries from several heretofore unknown Political Action Committees.

From the Self-Help Authors' Tandem:

As members of "the caring profession," we have had enough of the constant defamation of our collective character by the media, starting with the charge that our raison d'etre is making "Infomercials" and hawking "product"! Indeed, we feel that our membership has proved, time and again, that we're no less deserving of being painted with the brush of the "delicate flower" than are the so-called "literary" types of the sort that your contributor (who identifies herself as "Laura") seems to represent. "Laura's" insinuation that we are somehow coarse self-promoters, or that we went to college "to learn how to become marketing gurus," is patently false, and represents a cruel bias against our membership. In fact, our affinity for the frailty of the human condition (which is what makes us self-help authorities in the first place) requires that we be able to tap into our own sensitivity/vulnerability all day long. By contrast, you literary types are only "exposed" for only as long as you're at your computers--which, rumor has it, is often just an hour or two a day. How hard can that be?

P.S. The "beasties" remark seems especially uncalled for.

From the Trade Organization Of Break-Able Devices:

To the writer who complained about wearing out 4 computer keyboards per year: in para. 5 (A) of your warranty, you'll see that neither anger management nor snow removal are listed as acceptable, reimbursable applications for our word processing products.

From the Publishers Legal Office--Printing:

Frankly we are shocked--SHOCKED!--at the insinuation by one of your contributors that we would EVER expect an author to "kick in for printing and binding." However, this might be a good time to ask: were you thinking you might want a cover for that book?

Thursday, December 16, 2004

PART II: An Editorial Response

RECAP: I received a posting recently from a businessman/unpublished writer whose remarks left me divided: one portion made good sense to me, while another set off alarm bells in my head. So I decided the best chance I’d have of dealing with them both in a semi-cogent way was to split the conversation into two halves.

The first half of that conversation ran Tuesday, Dec. 14 ("Part I: An Entrepreneurial Proposal"), and generated some heated response from other writers. Some agreed with the Entrepreneur about the value, potentially, of investing extra $$$ (or €€€, as the case may be) in the marketing of one’s own book; others were appalled that anyone w/in publishing (namely, me) might advise such a course of action (one contributor felt doing so blurred “the distinction between Vantage and Vintage”); while still others took issue with the Entrepreneur’s definition of “investment” (or “risk”), which seemed to exclude the vast array of costs associated with becoming a writer—not just material costs (“four toner drums a year…two-four computer keyboards a year” etc) but also opportunity costs, the money one might have earned via a steady paying gig—all of which are sunk by the time the writer finally boxes up her manuscript, mails it off to a literary agent, and is at least potentially in a position to recoup some actual income from her labors.

Now, about those alarm bells…

PART II: An Editorial Response

Let's start with another excerpt from the same anonymous posting. [To read The Entrepreneur’s original post in its entirety, click on the following link and then scroll down to the comment that begins, "The biggest downer about this blog, to me, isn't the anonymity. It's the debate over anonymity. So let's get back to some of that famous dialog."]
“I'm an unpublished writer and a business man. I've written my first manuscript and for the last year I've been researching the publishing industry, preparing my business plan, marketing plan, etc. My hope is to switch careers one day… I truly view my career change as a business decision and, to that end, I want to invest in my future. I hope to find an agent and a publisher that will understand my desire to invest my own capital, money out of my own pocket that is budgeted to marketing & promotion activities. My goal is to remove some of the financial risk from the publisher and create awareness for my name and my book. Rather than make any money from an advance, I plan to invest all of the advance plus $10k of my own money.

Dear Entrepreneur:

As you know, I found compelling the parallels you drew between a writer’s investing in his own marketing and a student taking out loans to get a college education, or an entrepreneur investing capital in a new business venture. Simultaneously, however, there was something about your comments that gave me pause. You talked at great length about your research and your careful preparation for aspects relating to the marketing of your book. What was missing was any discussion whatsoever about the work itself. The book, I mean; the writing

—and so we enter now into a discussion of what perhaps makes books different from other products, publishing different from other industries. Because despite my admiration for your views on self-promotion, an alarm goes off for me the instant I hear someone purporting to be a writer who gives the phrase “business plan” top billing over the book itself.

There are a couple of reasons for this. One is experience: the dumpster outside my window is filled with some of the shittiest writing of all time; and while not every item in that dumpster came with a business plan, virtually every proposal/sample/manuscript I’ve ever read that was accompanied by a business plan wound up there. In the dumpster, I mean.

OK: first let me apologize for the cheap shot. I haven’t read your manuscript, and have no basis whatsoever for judging whether or not you’ve got a writer’s chops, a writer’s heart, a writer’s stamina. [Writing is a goddamn hard job! Why anyone would consciously choose to become a writer is beyond me…] But part of the reason I structured this two-part reply as I have—“Part I: An Entrepreneurial Proposal” and “Part II: An Editorial Response”—is to convey (among other things) an aspect of how an editor thinks, what an editor does (and doesn’t) respond to, the extent to which editors, sometimes, aren’t squarely “rational” in their decision-making process. After all, the only cliché (‘and the reason they’re clichés is that they’re true,’ right?) about editors more popular than “editors don’t edit anymore” is that “editors know jack-shit about business.”

Now before we make too much of the split between the creative impulse and the professional impulse, it’s worth remembering that two of the great poets of the 20th century—William Carlos Williams (physician) and Wallace Stevens (insurance)—were also accomplished in other arenas. The two universes you inhabit—the professional and the writerly—aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive; nor is it impossible for one to be equally adept at a spread-sheet and a word-processor.

But I caution you against believing you’ve got all the angles covered, because what you can’t count on—the constant variable in this confounded equation—is the peculiarities of taste and passion. Publishing is itself a profoundly contradictory industry. On one hand it increasingly demands a higher and higher rate of return, thus suggesting that it has become (as many have insisted it is already) something like an efficient engine of commerce. On the other hand, the products it produces are to a significant degree selected not according to objective studies of “market potentiality” but according to something infinitely more subjective: individual taste.

Regardless of what the industry’s critics contend, very few acquisitions decisions of books not wholly driven by publicity (e.g. celebrity bios) or certain niches (e.g. business books, cookbooks, self-help…) are determined by some mean-spirited marketing-department council. It’s true, of course, that editors sometimes fail to get sufficient in-house “support” for books they might have liked to acquire; in my experience, however, such books (one respondent called them "unwanted-by-the-marketing-department books”) are, in fact, books that the editor himself was either insufficiently passionate about, or for which the editor failed, finally, to demonstrate—above all, to himself—that he had a vision for how to publish it effectively.

[The “marketing department” excuse, by the way—I’ve used it too—is a conveniently amorphous non-entity that one uses in rejection letters because, well, one sometimes gets tired of saying the simple truth: it’s quite good, I liked it quite a lot, there’s no reason someone shouldn’t publish it, but it’s not going to be me because, in the end, I just didn’t feel strongly enough.]

Does this mean that editors always get to buy what their personal tastes/instincts dictate? No. Does this preclude the possibility that editors have a built-in marketing “radar” that, whether they’re conscious of it or not, immunizes them from “falling in love” with material they don’t believe they can sell? Absolutely not. (Contrary to prevailing wisdom, editors by and large have excellent marketing instincts.) So is there such a thing as an editor making a truly “marketing-free” judgment of a manuscript’s qualities? Probably not.

Nonetheless, I repeat: in the vast majority of cases, editors buy books principally because, to some degree or other, they fall in love with them. With something about them. Which is why [and now, at long last, I circle back to our Entrepreneur, whose fist is no doubt poised in much-longed-for retribution for my aforementioned cheap shot] the business-plan approach never—rarely—wins the day. I say this despite the fact that this very forum (if you’ll forgive my pretentious synonym for “blog”) was launched in the first place because of my own desire to figure out how the hell to market my own books more effectively. So the business plan model should appeal to me; a strong sense that the author knows his market should enhance a book’s appeal. And it does—

—but first I’ve got to fall in love. And I’m an editor—so I don’t fall in love with business plans. I fall in love with words, with strings of words that make elegant sentences and create vivid (beautiful, terrifying, crisp, tender, unforgettable) images in my mind, with sentences linked together in such a way as to tell me a story I can’t stop reading. Marketing moxie is added value; an author with an innate (or learned) sense of how to reach more readers is always a good thing; and I spend a fair portion of my professional life trying to school my authors in these instincts, if they don’t have them already.

But these things are not—for me, not ever—the first thing. The first thing, above all other things, is the writing itself. And that’s one variable that cannot be accounted for in a business plan.

So write the very best book you can. Leave the business plan in the drawer.

Tuesday, December 14, 2004

Part I: An Entrepreneurial Proposal

Recently an unpublished writer--a businessman who is considering a second career as an author--offered some comments that provoked in me two somewhat contradictory reactions. In Part I we'll consider his plan to invest his own capital into the eventual publication of his book. In Part II (which will be posted in the next few days), we'll consider the ways in which an editor might respond upon receiving this manuscript.
[To read the entirety of his original post, click on the following link and then scroll down to the comment that begins, "The biggest downer about this blog, to me, isn't the anonymity. It's the debate over anonymity. So let's get back to some of that famous dialog." ]

Part I: An Entrepreneurial Proposal
Let's start with an excerpt from an anonymous posting.

"I'm an unpublished writer and a business man. I've written my first manuscript and for the last year I've been researching the publishing industry, preparing my business plan, marketing plan, etc. My hope is to switch careers one day. I hear many discussions about how authors can no longer remain solely in the creative mode, that they must promote their book. I find this amazing. Authors should not only promote their book, but they should also take on some of the financial risk. I truly view my career change as a business decision and, to that end, I want to invest in my future.

"People invest in their future when they go to college. They do it again when they start a business. Why do writers somehow feel they should be immune from financial risk when publishing their first book?

"I'm an unpublished writer. Am I extremely naive? I have the impression that first-time novelists, even the ones with the financial means to take on some of that risk, feel they should be immune to financial risk...that their creativity should be all that is required. I just don't think that's reasonable in today's business climate."

Dear Entrepreneur: I want to applaud your progressive views regarding writers investing in their own careers. Especially for those who plan to write multiple books within a single category--for example, business books, self-help books, mysteries, thrillers, romance novels--the sooner you establish an identity in that field, the better the chance of your career taking off. The textbook example of an author investing significant personal capital toward establishing a "brand identity" is thriller writer James Patterson, whose first several novels hadn't found much more than a niche market. That changed with the first Alex Cross novel (ALONG CAME A SPIDER, 1993), in part because Patterson took matters into his own hands, investing huge sums of his own money into national television advertising--a medium that, presumably, he understood extraordinarily well, given his long and high-profile career at J. Walter Thompson.

So Patterson's the model for someone like yourself--a successful professional who, at mid-career, made a decision of the sort you've described (though his contribution to his own marketing efforts ran into the hundreds of thousands of dollars). He had the means to do this, apparently, and put his previous professional expertise to great advantage in his second career. The result, needless to say, is that Patterson is one of the most dependable "brands" in book publishing.

The first issue, then, is means: many writers simply aren't in the financial position to apply your model, much less Patterson's. But my private advice to my own authors, especially those whose advances A) extend into six figures and/or B) are not the sole source of income for their families, is that they consider making precisely the sort of investment you describe. Many writers, and many agents on their clients' behalf, might feel that such a suggestion constitutes an act of bad-faith--perhaps because they fear that this lets the publisher off the hook in terms of its responsibility for marketing and promotion. My experience suggests the opposite, however: such willingness to contribute in some fashion tends (if presented strategically) to motivate the publisher to raise its game in kind, to devote more resources than might otherwise be the case.

There are those who'll debate such a scheme on principle, speaking in indignant tones about how it's the writer's job to write the book and it's the publisher's job to publish it. Perhaps that's how things ought to be. But the potential cost of such a perspective, especially if something misfires in the publication of those first couple of books, is almost always going to be far greater to the author than to the publisher; publishers are infinitely better equipped to weather the failure (say) of an individual title than is the writer; and when booksellers check their computers for sales histories on prior books, it's not the publisher whose name they're searching for.

Week after week, year after year, we read in Publishers Lunch, Publishers Weekly and elsewhere about writers getting staggering six-figure advances in hotly-contested auctions for their first novels. What we don't read about are the huge proportion of those writers whose careers barely survive that first pay-day, because the first book failed to perform anywhere close to the level of expectation. And so the level of expectation drops (and with it, the level of the advance) for the next book; and often this spiral continues to devastating effect. One can only guess how many of those writers, if they had it to do all over again, would have invested a substantial portion of their large advance into supplemental marketing.

This is such an important point. Those of you able to dig into your pocket to contribute to the marketing of your books--at any point, but especially early in your career--should do so aggressively. In the end, righteous bitching about the various ways your publisher may have failed you offers no solace whatsoever--the damage is already done. If you have the means to invest in your own publications, do it. Plan ahead. Talk to your agent, your editor, other authors. Find out what your publisher intends to do to promote your book, then figure out what ways you can supplement those efforts.

I feel duty-bound to say that no such investment will guarantee a more satisfactory outcome; nor is a writer who isn't able to follow such a plan relegated to failure. I've had plenty of experiences of books for which I paid a relatively low sum that, having won early in-house enthusiasm, have gone on to enjoy robust publications, supported beyond the level that might have been expected given the size of the advance. But in these days of instantly-accessible sales figures on one's previous books, there are no do-overs; so the earlier in your career you're able to make this sort of investment, the greater the potential benefit.


Monday, December 13, 2004

'Here I Come, To Save the Day!' or; Dispelling the Rumor that Mad Max is, in fact, Karl Rove

It's a fact: I do have copies of MAX PERKINS: EDITOR OF GENIUS in every room of my penthouse apartment. And yes, sometimes—when I'm at a fundraiser at Trinity, say, or turning over my Jaguar XK to the parking attendant as I join Matthew and Sarah Jessica at one black-tie event or another at Lincoln Center—sometimes I cough into my hand, expelling (rather loudly) the words "MAD MAX" as I do so. And it's true, the story you've heard, about how at a dinner party held in Bill Clinton's honor, I borrowed my Belgian mistress's lipstick (Chanel Hydrabase--I believe the color was "Flamenco") and wrote "MAD MAX WAS HERE!" across the mirror in the powder room.

And yet, somehow, nobody inside the publishing biz seems to notice. It's been six—no, almost eight weeks now: when the hell you people gonna give me my props? I mean, how long's a fella gotta wait before he gets his (pseudo) name in PAGE SIX bold-print? For Stephen King and Amy Tan and Ridley Pearson to name me an honorary member of the Rock Bottom Remainders? For somebody to say, with genuine curiosity, "Who Is That Masked Man?!" I hate to bring this up myself—but hasn't anyone considered me for 'Man of the Year'?

I know, I know—Karl Rove is 'Man of the Year'—besides, how do you know I'm not Rove himself? Or maybe that’s where these "trust issues" come from--is that it? (...would certainly explain why you’ve been deleting my emails, unopened…) And all these anonymous testimonials—that’s right up ol’ Karl’s alley too, huh?


To put the Karl Rove rumor to rest once and for all, I refer you now to PublishersLunch Deluxe, December 8, 2004, in which Michael Cader, the proprietor of Publishers Marketplace, wrote,

"Last month we noted the arrival of blogger "Mad Max Perkins." Max has been trying, through a variety of questionnaires and posted challenges, to coax industry insiders to share true-life experiences (anonymously, like Max himself) and join in an online exploration of how to sell more books and re-inject vigor and hope into the publishing process.

"Lunch knows the man behind the "Max," and we can vouch that he is indeed as advertised: a highly-respected, longtime big six publishing veteran trying to help change things for the better—and serious about wanting to hear from (and protect the identity of) others in the publishing world."

OK, so it’s not God’s work, exactly, but “help change things for the better”—not a bad aim, right? And who among us doesn’t think that things could be better, that the industry could use some fresh juice? Yet generally when I reach out to y’all, it’s like, HEY, MISTER—HANDS OFF THE COAT! For instance: a week or so ago I sent out a questionnaire to about 65 marketing folk; I got 1 (one) substantial response. Couple days later I sent a one-sentence query to a bunch of literary agents—45 or so—and got 1 (one) reply. I’m burning the midnight oil, hoping to distill—or evoke—the occasional blogsize morsel that might prove useful, all for the greater good…and what do I get in return? I get bupkiss! (Bubkiss? Bubpkis?) Nothing. Nada.


Here’s another commentary--from a VP/Editor In Chief--that may allay your fears.

"For ye of little faith, I can hereby testify that Mad Max is a highly respected senior level publishing person, who possesses the best possible intentions, and can be trusted to protect your anonymity. And while it's possible he wrote this testimonial himself, he never would, because he's also a highly modest individual."

--Anonymous, VP/Editor in Chief of a division of a large New York publishing house

Possesses the best possible intentions”? Hmmmmmmm. The time is now, my Brothers and Sisters of the P&L! In this mentorless age, in this time when the half-life of the average book-editor is shorter than ever before, let us help each other by putting aside our differences and sharing our hearts and minds (if not the proprietary databases we're each secretly collecting) for the great good.


Besides: you're not going to have good ol' Mad Max Perkins to kick around forever... Next thing you know there'll be a memorial service in my honor (after my "untimely demise"), at which dozens of the Great Men and Women of the Industry will elbow each other aside for the chance to talk about my contribution to the world of letters. People known principally by their first names—Sonny, Binky, Gary, Phyllis, Star, Sloan, Suzanne, Jane, Esther, Nicole, Andrew, Marty, Morgan, Mort... Never mind that they didn't know me while I was alive. Now I’ll be remembered as the (plodding) "relentless," (desk-bound) "dedicated," (unremarkable) "enigmatic," (pain-in-the-ass) "always-scraping-for-his-authors" editor who went by the moniker “Mad Max.” The straw that stirred the drink, the pot that brewed the coffee, the pipe that smoked the pot—a selfless visionary who (according to legend) overcame humble roots to re-energize a staggering industry, to re-empower midlist authors, to put the nobility back in Barnes & Noble...

Ahh, but now he's gone, and what a tragedy--if only we'd appreciated him when he was.... sob...


OK, so I admit it: I AIN'T NO SUPERMAN! [I do, however, own a very smart red cape.] I ain't Max Perkins, or Cork Smith, Allen Peacock, Roger Straus; ain't nobody gonna confuse me with Jonathan Galassi, Dan Menaker, Katherine Court, Gerry Howard—though I confess it's a thrill to string these names together in conjunction with mine, even if "ain't" is the, errr, conjunction.

Point is, I’m trying. Now—what great things will we accomplish if you trust me and add your experiences/ideas (anonymously) to the greater data pool? Yeah, I know: probably bupkiss. There are institutional issues that we don't have much hope of addressing, of course. Then there’s the fact that I seem to have mislaid my Mensa membership card, and I’m not know widely known as a man of great vision, except as pertains to my own self-interests, and (to the best of my knowledge) I’ve never been short-listed for a Nobel Prize in economics.

Great thinker, man of letters? Moi? Imagine instead the Fuller Brush Man. Or—better yet—picture Andy Kauffman's first appearance on Saturday Night Live: Dorky guy standing stiffly (like "Latka," the character he later played on the show "Taxi") beside a 1940s-style phonograph on which turns a scratchy 78-rpm record. Utterly still, except for his eyes, which shift back and forth in stage-fright panic, as the phonograph plays the "Mighty Mouse" theme song. At last he stirs from his rigor to raise his arms in operatic grandeur as he lip-syncs the words "HERE I COME, TO SAVE THE DAY!"—the one line only—after which all animating drops away instantly, arms returnly limply to his side. There he stands, motionless but for the eyes, waiting, desperately, for his line to come around again.

OK, I know what you’re thinking—Jeez, this Max is a study! He feigns modesty but compares himself to a variety of publishing legends AND maybe the most original comedian of this, that, or any other generation.... Hmmm, and to make matters worse, the Kauffman analogy actually fits—not in terms of originality, but in the way that, with Kauffman, you never knew for sure: is this guy for real?

"For all you publishing types out there, who may be too nervous to converse with an anonymous blogger, I can vouch, in my own, anonymous way, for Mad Max Perkins, a trusted colleague, who with all good intentions is trying to get a dialogue going about an industry that is seemingly at a crossroads. For all the excitement of acquiring books, and seeing who bought what, for how much, on Rights Alert, the real crunch comes when it's time to publish. And we all know what we're facing. What we don't know is what to do about it. So let's start here, by talking to one another. Venting is ok, grousing is satisfying, but let's also share ideas, experience and optimism. Talk to Mad Max!"

That one sez it all, it seems to me—touches on some of the best aspects of my job, and some of the worst; and that discrepancy is the bog from which this blog was born. So I hope the next time you see an email with a question from MAD MAX PERKINS in your In Box (and/or recover it from “Spam”), you’ll give some serious thought to responding.

And now I’ll shut up—except to say, to last week’s Anonymous poster who remarked, basically, "Who CARES about this anonymity crap, let's get back to the conversation itself"—I hear you loud and clear. Fresh meat will be forthcoming. But we need data, help, ideas—real tried-that-and-it-did/didn't-work feedback from people inside the industry.

You show me yours, I’ll show you mine.

Thursday, December 09, 2004

A Love Letter to Booksellers

There's a bookseller named Robert Gray (of the Northshire Bookstore in Manchester, VT) whose lovely, essayistic "postings" (seems an inelegant word for such thoughtfulness expressed so gracefully) at his blog FRESH EYES: A Bookseller's Journal are must-reading not just for those in the industry but for anyone who cares about books and good writing.

A couple of days ago I did a "call-out" post to booksellers, asking for some opinions about what the publication of a new "blockbuster" (in this case, the new Michael Crichton novel) meant to them/their store ["In Defense of the Blockbuster"]. I've been impressed by the smart and impassioned commentary that's come as result. [Side-bar #1: I especially want to thank Anonymous Poster #1, who despite my own snippy retort came back again to amplify impressively on the original post.]

Bob Gray was the first to reply to my post--and, so far, he's the only bookseller to do so. [Sidebar #2: this reflects what, to me personally, is a saddening pattern--that for the most part the people inside the business aren't responding to the content of this blog; which suggests, at least to some degree, that I still haven't convinced them of my trustworthiness. More on THAT subject very soon, I promise!] He said he had his own piece coming soon on a related subject, and told me to check back with him on Thursday.

Thursday, as in today. So I went to his site, at dawn this morning, and discovered that sometimes the early-bird really does get the worm... It wasn't the worm I was looking for, though--I was so much the early-bird that I got to Bob's site before he'd posted the essay he'd told me to look for. [Afternoon update: his Crichton piece, dated Dec. 9, is now posted.]

...and thus I got the worm (which, in the context of the early-bird metaphor, of course, means the juiciest, fattest, most satisfying morsel), a post from a couple of days earlier (December 6), an essay called "Booksellers Hate Rejection, Too". In which he explains how the process by which a bookseller falls in love, or doesn't, with a galley a publisher sends him mirrors almost exactly the process by which an editor falls in love, or doesn't, with an author's unpublished manuscript.

It's an ironic circumstance--and frankly one that, at first glance, had me quaking in my boots. Because, in addition to being a bookseller, Robert Gray is also a writer; and though he doesn't describe this in gorey detail, he has clearly--as has any, no, every writer--received his own fair share of rejection letters. I myself have written thousands, not all of them compassionate or encouraging... And all of my sins in this regard bubbled up into my chest as I read the beginning of Bob's essay. Oh boy, I thought: it's payback time.

It's easy to see how this would be a satisfying "shoe-on-the-other-foot; how-d0-you-like-it-now-asshole?" topic for a post. You turn down our books, as is your right. But karma has its way of coming full circle; and now it's out turn. And the subject leads, potentially, to a whole lobby of door behind which lie all sorts of legitimate opportunities to bash 21st century publishing.

But like any writer worth his salt, Bob shows you the lobby but then takes you someplace else entirely; goes past the good (and easily-defensible) jabs to arrive at something completely unexpected:

The author encourages the publisher to keep trying. So I don't fall in love with this particular galley, he says. I know you want me to, by I love what I love, and that can't be faked. It's not the end of the world. The fact I don't love this one doesn't mean I won't love the next one.

The bookseller tells the publisher: Don't give up. Keep trying.

I won't try to summarize this any further than I already have--believe me, it's far richer in the original. But I want to convey to Bob Gray, and on his behalf to booksellers the world over, how grateful I am that even one of you might express such a sentiment.

Sometimes I fear that you--booksellers--are so overwhelmed by the volume of books being published, and the numbers of galleys being shipped, and the number of "pitch" letters a you read, etc., that it becomes impossible to see the individual jiffy-bags as containing individual books. Seems a ridiculous thing to say to a bookseller, of course, because you obviously don't go into this business with profit/"product" in mind. You do this, presumably, because you love books. And understand them as individuals; understand that each contains its own world between two covers. The QUALITY of those worlds may differ; or, to use the more generous tone of Bob's essay, the reader's experience--in this case, the bookseller's experience--of those worlds is going to vary, inevitably, because such is the subjective nature of reading. But as an editor who is passionate about the books he publishes, encouragement from a bookseller, despite all the difficulties booksellers face, gives me unspeakable comfort; and reminds me of the extent to which (in principle if not always in execution), you and I--bookseller and editor--are, as ever, partners in this strange marriage of art & industry. Thank you.

Tuesday, December 07, 2004

In Defense of the Blockbuster--A Topic for Booksellers

Dear Booksellers,

As everyone knows [except perhaps for the occasional aesthete, whose eyes (closed), nostrils (flared), and all other senses have been completely engaged these past several weeks in an attempt to gain a fuller appreciation of Proust's madeleine, or some other similarly all-consuming endeavor], today is Michael Crichton Day: the day that STATE OF FEAR, his new bijillion-copy instant-bestseller blockbuster thriller, goes on sale. Everywhere. In bookstores, big and small, chain and indie; in price clubs (Costco, Sam's...), mystery stores, drug stores, airports, news stands and pet shops all across America--perhaps even all around the world.

Popular as it is in blog-dom to bemoan cultural de-madeleinization, and book industry conglomeration, and brand proliferation, and literary marginalization, and animal exploitation for the purposes of a better facial lotion, is there any bookseller--


--is there ANY bookseller who is not glad, in a dollars-and-cents fashion, that today is Michael Crichton Day?

On one hand, there surely is no better example than Crichton of the shift in the industy's priorities--this is precisely the sort of book that gets the big push from today's publishers, inevitably (or so the argument goes) drawing resources away from other deserving titles. On the other hand, the presence of his new book in your store will, all by itself, draw 1 million percent more traffic into your store, today and in the weeks leading up to Christmas, than all the National Book Award nominees combined. And--in theory at least--some of those Crichton fans are going to take something else with them, too, as they wind their way to the cash register.

So, Dear Bookseller, tell us: What does Michael Crichton Day mean to you? Does the increased bookstore traffic on behalf of a blockbuster like STATE OF FEAR actually have a beneficial effect on sales of other not-blockbuster books? Even if your sensibility is categorically literary, aren't you glad, nonetheless? And if you're one of the few out there (or so I imagine) who is not glad to see Crichton's pub date appear on your calendar--not because you're a fan, necessarily, but because of the ka-chung of the cash register--does that mean that you've chosen not to stock the title?

Sunday, December 05, 2004

Inside & Out: An Editor's View

Recently "William" agreed to share with BOOKANGST 101 the details of his successful publication of a work of nonfiction, which he felt made a strong case that, sometimes, ads do sell books. [When Murphy's Law Takes A Holiday, Nov. 22] Because of the degree of specificity William provided, and also because it's important for all of us to be reminded that some books really do find their audience--and that Mitch Albom and THE DA VINCI CODE are not the only models for success in publishing--it was one of my favorite "posts." I was consequently surprised that it didn't get more feedback, and wonder if it's simply that bad news is more energizing than good.

But a few days ago I got a wonderfully astute commentary from someone with experience on both sides of the fence--a senior editor at several top New York publishers who, after two decades, decided to pursue her own interest in writing, while also continuing to keep a hand in as a freelance editor.

Dear Mad Max Perkins,

For more than 20 years, I was an editor at several imprints of major publishing houses. Several years ago I left to become a full-time freelance writer and editor. I've found it fascinating to see the publishing process from both sides.

I read the account by the "no-name" author whose book went through eight printings, which I found fascinating. I wanted to add my two cents on a couple of points.

*"INSIDER" RE-DEFINED. Max, you described William as

'someone experienced in the world of book publishing but completely unknown to the reading public. No platform. No close personal friendship with Matt Lauer. Never shared a taxi with Oprah. Never went sailing with Walter Cronkite.'

Your readers should realize that this author--who as a publishing insider was first an editor and then a literary agent--was never quite a nobody with no platform. If he's one of the good agents, his publisher already had an extra incentive to do right by him and his book; they want good projects from him in the future. This insider positioning helped him from the start.

*THIS BATTLE WAS WON MONTHS BEFORE THE BOOK PUBBED. That the publisher selected the book for ARC's is a huge signifier for booksellers--only a very few per list get this treatment, since it can cost upwards of $50 for a single ARC (high production costs, low print run). The announcement of a 60,000-copy first printing was another huge boost. Some houses have reputations for honest first-printing announcements; others not so much. (Publishers often announce 25,000-copy first printings when what they really mean is 5,000- or 7500-copy printings.) But the announcement alone signaled booksellers that the house was behind the book.

[MMP: I agree that these are crucial pre-pub "signals," but these details alone hardly guarantee that the battle is won. I've had many books dealt a similarly promising opening hand--high announced first printing, ARC's, 2-page spread in the catalog--that, for one reason or another, failed to meet expectations.]

This aggressive positioning ups the initial buy at the chains--from the dreaded "skip" or "1's and 2's"--to a much higher volume, and ensures that the independents will pay attention.

*DISTRIBUTION IS A CRUCIAL COMPONENT. As you noted, 30,000 copies out the door is significant. I'd go further: It's astonishing. Only the teensiest fraction of books go out with these numbers, unless we're talking about the Grishams of the world. (I remember how shocked I was when I looked at the numbers for some novels from a prestigious literary house--the kind that got full-page raves in the NYTBR--and saw that they'd shipped fewer than 2000 copies.) The 30,000 out-the-door matters A LOT, since if you don't have stock in the stores the second the publicity hits, no number of ads will have any effect. Customers just don't come back when the book they want isn't there, and Amazon and other online retailers can't absorb all those losses. I'm sure all the major booksellers got an e-mail blast when the book hit the club trifecta, and another one to remind folks of the wonderful prepub quotes. This publisher did a terrific job in prepping its audience.


'William’s publisher kicked off a national advertising campaign with a Friday ad in the Wall Street Journal and ads two days later in the New York Times Book Review and Washington Post Book World [these on the heals of a] BookTV lecture and a single national radio interview, the results were instantly apparent....[Two weeks later] there were more print ads (WSJ and NYTBR) and a series of brief radio spots, plus concerted outreach—online and otherwise—to “related interest” sites and organizations, plus good word of mouth, kept the book in the public eye.'

It's hard to say which had more impact--the national radio spot, or the follow-up ads. I'm sure they were synergistic. However, the crucial part of the equation for me was that the book was already out there in enough numbers to be available for instant sale. I can't tell you how much it's crushed me to work with authors who got major national hits but saw no significant sales because the weak link in the equation--the quantity of stock in the stores--was weak at the very top. One author sold her soul and went on O'Reilly and watched her Amazon numbers soar (it was in the Top Ten), only to discover that it represented fewer than 200 copies for the bump because the book simply wasn't on the shelves to be bought in the bricks-and-mortar stores and Amazon hadn't bought enough copies to cover the publicity burst.

*DO ADS SELL BOOKS? It's hard to defend a blanket statement either way that ads do or don't sell books. It utterly depends. I've seen plenty of ad dollars wasted on a single spot in the NYT daily, bought because the agent clamored for it and the author's vanity demanded it. What strikes me in this example is how smartly the publisher in question managed to follow on targeted national hits. The fact that they went through 8 printings ( a second before pub date) also tells me that they managed the stock really smartly as well; it doesn't sound as if they were playing catch-up in this case--another mistake I've seen made so many times.

*THE DEVIL IS IN THE DETAILS: THE DIFFERENCE A GOOD EDITOR MAKES. It's so great to hear an author praise an editor so highly. For as long as I've been in the business, I've been hearing that "editors don't edit books anymore," and I've never found it to be so among any of my colleagues. It's also gratifying that the author appreciates how hard everyone inside the house worked to support his book--from the folks who doubtless read the early manuscript and "testified" at various launch meetings to the art director who came up with the great package to the sales and marketing folks who decided it would be a "make book"--a well-written book that delivered the goods and that deserved the gamble the publisher was willing to take. It's amazing how often great books fail--[former Random House publisher] Harry Evans once stunned the publishing world by laying out the dollars and cents of this, naming names--so I'm delighted that this agent had such a great experience. I wish that all authors appreciated that that level of effort goes into most books--even the ones that don't work.

Thursday, December 02, 2004

You Can Trust the Man Behind the Max

“You can trust Max!”
– L.A., Marketing Manager for a major New York publisher

If you're an editor, an online marketer, a literary agent, a publicist, chances are that you've recently received an e-mail (maybe several) from an odd but vaguely familiar address--mine. So you open up it up, and start to read:

"Hi, I'm Mad Max Perkins [NOT my real name], and I'd like you to share with me the hard-won secrets of your professional experience. You don't know me, but I'm a stand-up guy, completely trustworthy--I just can't tell you who I am. Anyway, as I was saying, I have some questions..." which point you say, "Wha--? Who the faaa--?" And then you hit the delete button.

It's weird, isn't it? to get these occasional emails from a complete stranger, someone claiming to have certain stellar credentials--a calling card, presumably, to reassure you that it's worthwhile to spend time (time you don't have) talking about the book trade--except he won't actually show you those credentials?

“We can't remember a blog becoming indispensible as quickly as Mad Max Perkins' BOOKANGST 101 has.” Mark Sarvas, The Elegant variation: A Literary Weblog

Seems...fishy. For all you know, he (I) could be your boss (the one who's always had it out for you anyway), trying to ensnare you into divulging something that could be purposefully represented as a "fireable offense"; or a former assistant exacting revenge for some long-ago humiliation by attaching a nude picture of Karl Rove to your reply, then forwarding it to 400,000 of her (my) closest friends...

Who's to say I've not concocted some sort of viral voodoo designed to insert the "f-word" into every document you produce? that I won't sell your email address to one of those sites that send, on average, 75 pieces of spam a day promising the horniest housewives and/or the best prices for Prozac? Let's face it, there're a lot of scamsters out there. I mean, who can you really trust anymore anyway?

"Having worked both in bookselling and in publishing, I can wholeheartedly state that Mad Max Perkins is the real deal: a publishing executive with the heart of a gentle reader and the best advocate for books. Trust him, I do!" -T.A., Marketing Manager

OK, I'm starting to understand why so few of you--publishing insiders, I mean--have been inclined to respond, or have responded so warily, to my e-entreaties. (And--please!--don't give me that "too busy" excuse. This is New York, folks: if you're not too busy, you're obviously not working hard enough...)

“Max recently offered to paint the front door of a bestselling literary novelist in exchange for an advance reading of my not-yet-published first novel. (Don't ask.) He works the brutal, bloody hours of all editors; that he takes time out of his already pressed schedule to maintain this blog for the benefit of us is a testimony to his passion for the continued vitality of the publishing industry.”--P.K, Novelist

Writers and bloggers have, for the most part, been quick to overcome these "trust" issues. I know what you're thinking-- "Well, sure, what the heck else do they have to do w/ their time?" Besides, maybe they see this as a Publisher's Sweepstakes of sorts, a Literary Lotto designed to give the Industry some front-page coverage in the New York Post:


Writers and bloggers will tell you anything you want to know (and then some)--they can't help it, it's their nature... But YOU, you're an Insider, you know better than to talk to strangers. Some might say you've lived in New Yawk too long, become cynical, jaded (Godless and/or queer, that goes without saying)--but, let's face it, they're mostly Red-Staters anyway, we don't much care what they say. So let's bottom-line it: if you're gonna talk turkey about The Biz, you want to see those credentials, have some material reassurance that I really am the "SENIOR EXECUTIVE WITH A MAJOR NEW YORK PUBLISHER" that I claim to be--is that it?

“Mad Max Perkins is willing to ask the tough questions and try to get a dialog going to see if there is any way to solve them. Any one who thinks like that is someone who I trust. Yeah, even though I don't know his real name.” --M.J. Rose - Author of The Halo Effect and the blog: Buzz, Balls & Hype

Well, sorry: no can do. I need this fat paycheck; I can't afford my Jag & my Hummer AND keep my kids enrolled in Trinity if I get the ax. Besides, it's more fun wondering who I am than actually knowing--believe me! (Here's a hint as to why: the only person who ever called me "Sonny" was Gramps--and Gramps, he dead...)

But what I've done instead is, I've solicited some comments from people who've actually had occasion to deal w/ me and, in so doing, have found me to be--well, honorable, or at least not a back-stabber. (That's what they think!) Yeah, they're mostly anonymous, and, yeah, I could have written them myself (BOY! You really have lived in New York too long)--but I didn't.
"Mad Max Perkins is a terrific and utterly trustworthy editor and human being. (He's my boss, what else am I going to say? But still, it's true.) The purpose of his blog is to advance good writing, good will, and better sales for the kinds of authors and books that he truly cares about. Feel confident in sharing your experiences and stories with him -- they will be used only for good, and your identity and identifying details will never be revealed."--S.J., Associate Editor

There you have it, from a really trustworthy source: "YOUR EXPERPIENCES AND STORIES...WILL BE USED ONLY FOR GOOD." (Couldn't have said it better myself!) So be brave, Publishing Insider...And the next time you get an email from me asking you a question or two, and promising to protect your anonymity, don't be afraid! I'm one of you and--to quote Elvis Costello--my aim is true.

A VOCATION OF UNHAPPINESS [Courtesy Georges Simenon (1903-1985)]

"Writing is considered a profession, and I don't think it is a profession. I think that everyone who does not need to be a writer, who thinks he can do something else, ought to do something else. Writing is not a profession but a vocation of unhappiness. I don't think an artist can ever be happy."

PRACTICAL MARKETING [Courtesy Zornhau, 2005]

"They should put the 1st couple of pages up in subway adverts. Having read them several times, you'd feel compelled to try the book - if it was any good."

PLATE OF SHRIMP [Courtesy Alex Cox’s REPO MAN, circa 1984]

"A lot of people don't realize what's really going on. They view life as a bunch of unconnected incidences and things. They don't realize that there's this like lattice of coincidence that lays on top of everything. I'll give you an example, show you what I mean. Suppose you're thinking about a plate of shrimp. Suddenly somebody will say like "plate" or "shrimp" or "plate of shrimp" out of the blue, no explanation. No point in looking for one either. It's all part of a cosmic unconsciousness."