Well--hasn't this been fun! A rage-riot, right here on my own doorstep!
I'm torn. Part of me wants to do a riff on Rodney King and say, Hey, can't we all just get along? Can't you see, authors? Deep down we really want the same thing... But of course it's not as simple as that, and far too many writers out there have sufficiently unhappy experiences in the world of publishing not to respond to this sort of pie-in-the-sky view with some pies of their own (tributes to Johnny Carson, perhaps?)--delivered not by silvery tongue but by tin-foil pie-dish, filled with shaving cream, delivered one after another in rapid succession to the face of the would-be silver-tongued editor with the nostalgic, or is it sentimental, or is it duplicitous, view of the relationship between writers and editors... All in good sport, though, right? Well, not really; and so, having failed with the non-aggression pact, I feel a sudden urge to wander into the fray, like Bill Buford AMONG THE THUGS. After all, this kind and well-meaning Max, you never really believed in him anyway, right? So fuck it: let's rumble...
But ol' Max isn't the only one wiping shaving cream from his eyes--we here at BookAngst 101 are equal-opportunity nasty-bashers; the vitriol seems to be fairly evenly dispensed. [Though I find it fascinating to note that AGENTS seem to escape the barrage--how is it Dexter the Delightful has thumb-tack-filled pies for every editor he's ever worked with or even heard of, yet has crap-all to say about his agent, who presumably presided over those crucial introductions in the first place?] So Max ultimately chooses the path of fewest bruises, opts for fingertips and keyboards over elbows and two-by-fours--especially since, if hooliganism were to win out, Max himself would find himself down for the count in a pitifully few seconds...
DIFFERENT POINTS OF VIEW
How best to describe this "discourse" that has gone on here over the past few days? Here are a few nominations:
From an Editor, in response to writers
- "Welcome to the bitterberry patch, where contributors are paid by the bushel"
From a Published Author, in response editors
- "Beware the word 'passion,' which is code for you're about to be f**ked up the a**, prison-style"
From a Blogger, in response to fatigue
- "21 good reasons to shut this f**king blog down and return to my just-60-hours-a-week work schedule of yore"
MAD MAX, MEET SAD SAXE
There are a whole lot of comments I'd like to respond to that people have posted on this site in recent days, some positive, some negative and some flat-out lunatic, but the one that most efficiently gets at what, for me, is the crucial, centerpiece issue of our recent conversation is this comment from writer who identifies himself as Sad Saxe Commins and who, in response to Sunday's riff on subjectivity, said:
"I'll take a little less passion and a little more scratch."To which I respond: say what you will about the limits of passion--but the inescapable fact is that,
Without passion, there IS no scratch.
A particular imprint publishes, let's say, ten hardcover books a month. That's one imprint within (as in most cases) a larger publishing entity whose other imprints--let's say there are four more--are also publishing, respectively, eight, seven, five and four hardcovers a month. In this model that's 34 hardcover publications per month. And let's assume for the moment that the very worst suspicions articulated here and elsewhere about publishers are true: that, left to their own devices, the only books to which publishers will allocate any marketing attention are those authored by the likes of Michael Crichton, John Grisham, Mitch Albom, Phil McGraw, and anything bearing the words "Perricone," South Beach" or "Atkins" in their titles--
So: what do you honestly think? --that those of us (editors) NOT represented on that list of "brand-name authors," who've nonetheless invested, say, two years of our lives into helping an author craft the best book possible, attended to the million and one details that actually constitute the bulk of our days and nights [as opposed to attending those revelatory "pub crawls" Delightful Dexter regales us with, wherein the true "duplicity of editors" is revealed...in this country, at least, we're too busy actually trying to publish our books to find the time for such scintillating sport] that might make the difference between an invisible publication (i.e., of the "well, at least it's out there, right?" variety) and one that actually reflects months of advance planning, strategizing and an infinite number of one-on-one conversations with various people in the bookselling chain, from publisher to marketing director to publicity team to subsidiary rights people to sales managers to individual sales reps to individual booksellers (yes, many of us do that too), the scratching and clawing that constitutes pretty much our every working day--
--do you honestly think, after all that effort, under these circumstances, that those of us without a massive "brand name" author on our list at this particular moment of time, are going to sit back passively and watch our books simply go down the drain? That we'll be content to sit back and say, well, it's Zadie Smith's month, so I don't want to create waves? Oh, Patricia Cornwell is more important, so I don't want to distract "the team" from doing what matters most?
--if that's what you think--and, clearly, it's the way a lot of writers see it--then it's time for Mad Max shed his sonorous baritone and robes of false benevolence and step out from behind the podium from which he delivers his Sunday morning pastorals to say--no, scream--
You haven't got a f**king clue!
Because--guess what? We editors are ambitious fuckers too, just like writers are. We want our books to succeed not simply because we want the best things for the authors we care about, the authors who bust their asses to the same extent that we bust ours, but because their success is ours too! Contrary to what Dexter the Delightful says, there is no Gentleman's Safety Net in which editorial mediocrity is rewarded with a plush new job someplace else. My books don't sell over a period of time? Guess what: I'm toast. Time to see if there are any openings at the post office...
So when I talk about "passion" I'm not talking about that which is bathed in the heavenly light of beneficence--or have we forgotten that, sometimes, passion=urgency, stridency, desperation even? And so it is that publishers and associate publishers and marketing managers and publicists and local sales reps come to hate editors--not because we're trying to ruin their lives, destroy their careers, crush their spirits, etc. (as is the case with writers, or so it's reported here), but because we won't stop hounding them! We won't stop bitching and moaning, pinching and pulling, begging, bartering, cajoling, asking for more of their time, more of their resources, offering up our own time--doing whatever we can to make sure our books, our authors, get a slice of the marketing pie; that opportunities are seized; that, despite the odds against it, smaller books, too, get published. Not just printed and distributed, but published.
A little less passion, a little more scratch, you say? Here's a story: when, several years ago, an editor was hired away from Pocket to take a new job Doubleday, there was an author he loved that he insisted on bringing with him. A thriller writer whose previous novels had netted--TOPS--8500 copies, who probably hadn't earned out his relatively modest first advances, who after just a couple of books, already had a downward sales track. Is this guy a winner, a slam dunk? No: what he is is a thriller writer that his editor, Jason Kaufman, has worked with from the start, somebody he believes in and wants to stick with despite (let's say) modest sales. When Jason tells his new publisher about this writer, his publisher hasn't even heard of the guy, and probably couldn't care less. Doubleday already has John Grisham, Mitch Albom, James Bradley, and lots of other big best-sellers. But Jason convinces his new employer to let him bring this decidedly midlist author with him. Why? Because he's personally invested, because he feels PASSIONATELY about him--because he believes that the guy has what we publishing whores refer to as "break-out potential."
Dynamite Dexter, Sad Saxe and many others out there may not admire Dan Brown's THE DA VINCI CODE. But what started the fire that lead to TDVC becoming one of (if not the) bestselling hardcovers in modern history was not some by-the-numbers calculation by some hooded group of marketing executives, but the passion--yes, I'll say it again: the PASSION, and follow-through, of one editor; of his belief in an author's talent; of his confidence that the author had a book in him that could catch fire at a larger level.
If Jason Kaufman had NOT taken Dan Brown with him to Doubleday; if another editor, equally smart and talented but perhaps less personally invested in Dan's career--me, say--had inherited, edited and published it, THE DA VINCI CODE almost certainly would not have become anything like the phenomenon we all know it to be now.
So go ahead, rake me over the coals for citing a middle-brow thriller instead of the more serious work of Robert Coover or Dexter Petley or David Markson or Toby Olson--I assure you, I've published more than my share of extraordinary writers who have not yet had the day in the sun they deserve. An editor's passion guarantees NOTHING--except, perhaps, an honest chance. Something can go wrong; in fact, something usually does. But the absense of passion? That situation does come with a guarantee: failure, pure and simple.
"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."
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