Monday, January 31, 2005

RANKIN ON RANKIN: Just when you thought it was safe t'go back in the pie shoppe...

Having donned the riot gear and taken a shelling, Mad Max tried a diversionary tactic--an ale-fueled HOORAY! for Ian Rankin--that allowed me to slip unnoticed through the bathroom window, crawl along a narrow ledge, then leap two stories into a passing haywagon--whereupon (the plan was) a lovely maiden would salt my wounds and lead me to safety.

Ahh, but wouldn't you know: application of the salty salve was barely underway when the rogue swordsman known as Deadly D upended the haycart (farewell, my Florence Nightengale!) and held me at knifepoint, backing me dextrously toward the mouth of an open-air sewer.

nice move, max [quoth he]. you side-stepped the riot. only your pie-proof rankin hardcover has roots in the other story. seven books in, low sales, a handful of readers in public libraries, and rankin's editor decided to drop him off the side in a cost-effective re-shuffle. a timely golden dagger award...and guess who took the credit?

My first impulse was to say--yea, kind sir, tell me: who did take the credit? Does it not always (and rightly) belong to the author himself? Worse, I nearly began to argue on behalf of the loathsome publisher--after all, had they not stood by Mr. Rankin for seven books despite what D. had described as "low sales"? Is that not worth something? But I bit my tongue, knowing that, otherwise, I'd wind up drowning offally, or with a cut throat.

So instead I said:

Forsoothe, Gallant D.--spare me a moment longer, for I believe the man who knows the truth lives in the straw hut just up the close [translator's note: that's "alley" in American]--on Scrivener's Block, I believe they call't? If we find Good Man Rankin home, perhaps we can sort this out without further harm?

D. was reluctant, having earlier witnessed (nay, anticipated) my hay-wagon escape; but the gentleman eventually granted my request. He tied (and loosely enough, causing no more pain than was necessary) a yoke about my hands and led me up the hill; whereupon a handsome if unshaven fellow did emerge, squinting into the late afternoon sun; and, after hearing the nature of our debate, did admit himself to be IAN RANKIN, and, being somewhat knowledgeable on the subject, he had this to say:

"I don't think my editor took much of the credit... but it's true that when I delivered BLACK AND BLUE, knowing in my heart that it was a meatier, altogether better book than my previous outings, my publishers saw it as 'just another Rebus'. By that time I was seen as mid-list, selling a few thousand from book to book, but not growing fast enough to make me worth promoting. However, my agent campaigned on the book's behalf, and my publisher eventually put some marketing money behind the book, as well as introducing a new livery which worked so well we're still using it (and being copied by every second crime novel coming out of the UK, it sometimes seems)...

"The book was to be published mid-January, and on Jan 2nd there was a review in the London Times which said 'There won't be a better crime novel published this year'. That gave me a real thrill. The book got further rave reviews and sold
moderately well (I think it was my first hardcover to go into a reprint). Still didn't make the UK top ten, but got close. Come November, it won the Gold Dagger, and the paperback went on to sell four times as many copies as my previous efforts. My next hardcover scraped into the UK top ten... and my publishers decided they really did like me after all.

"Prior to this (my editor later confided) she'd been fighting my corner, as her bosses wanted me dumped. Their point was: they'd laid out money on me, tried marketing me and touring me, and I was staying resolutely mid-list... so why not release me and let someone else take a shot?

"I am still with my publisher; still use the same editor. In fact, when she left the company, I asked her to keep me on in a freelance capacity. She's a good editor."

I was honored (and relieved, now that my hands had been unbound) that Ian Rankin himself would speak so freely; and Dexter, too, seemed satisfied; and soon we three were tossing down tankards of ale and clapping each other on the back; and later, after dark--wouldn't you know it, a Mr. Smith emerged from his hut, and a Ms. Rowling from hers, and we sat round a great fire telling tall tales and drinking a peaty single-malt and toasting the likes of Peter Robinson and Michael Connelly and...well, the list was long, but my recollection isn't.

...and when I awoke, I was back in the 21st century, with the residue of several shaving-cream pies still on my face, and sand in my hair, and I wondered where I was and whether any of this had really happened...had Dexter and I really been transported, somehow, to some back-in-time Edinburgh? Had we really drank into the wee-hours, it wasn't possible, it must've been a dream....

Then I reached into my pocket and found a print-out of several emails...
"the story about the murder in my neighbourhood is entirely true - first murder in this 'toney' suburb for around sixty years, and happens six months after I cross the tracks from Deadville..."

[signed] Ian Rankin

Thursday, January 27, 2005

I [heart] IAN RANKIN!

And if you don't, already, yourself, it's almost assuredly because you simply haven't read him yet. And to demonstrate why you, too, might love Ian Rankin, we need look no further than the epigraph to his new Inspector Rebus novel (set, as they all are, in and around Edinburgh, Scotland), FLESHMARKET ALLEY.

"The climate of Edinburgh is such that the weak succumb young...
and the strong envy them."

--Dr. Johnson to Boswell

Run, don't walk...

Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Riot Gear to the Ready

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...

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"
In the end, of course, none of these suffice. And so forward we stumble.

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 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.

Sunday, January 23, 2005

There's No Accounting for Taste; or: "'Subjectivity' for $500, Alex"--Mad Max Finally Speaks in His Own Defense

Or perhaps I should say: broccoli rabe, collared greens, zuccini. Because, while there is (to my knowledge) no individual or coalition thereof who couldn't find something satisfactory in a presentation of peaches, pears & chocolate eclairs, I can think of at least one such--namely, me--who'd choose creamed corn over broccoli rabe & co.

I know, I know: this doesn't reflect well on me--which is exactly the point. There's no accounting for taste.

As much as I want to like collared greens, know that I should like collared greens, and tend to scarf up everything else that appears on the same plate as collared greens, the truth is, I'm not a fan. Zuccini and eggplant? My mother, who was not gifted in the practice of the culinary arts, compensated for lack of skill (especially where these vegetables were concerned) by sheer volume, and so zuccini remains, essentially, a lost cause. [I must gratefully acknowledge, however, that my wife's exquisite (slow-cooked) eggplant parm has removed at least one topic of discussion from the psychoanalytic checklist.]

Broccoli rabe? Anthony Bourdain himself couldn't turn the tide.

But food is not the topic today. Today's goal (from my perspective, anyway) is to finish at last a "post" I've been working on (but, for a variety of reasons, have been unable to finish) for days; and by now so many people have weighed in on the subject that the comments I'm prefacing now are almost entirely beside the point. But--hey!--I wrote this stuff, what am I gonna do now, just gonna toss it out?

LATE-NIGHT SURPRISEOn Jan. 18 '05, M.J. Rose posted on Buzz Balls & Hype a literary writer's honest assessment of her experience in publishing. Despite getting wonderful reviews and having several New York Times Notable Books to her credit, she had nonetheless become marginalized by her publisher(s), as payback for her having committed the unpardonable sin of writing serious literary fiction that never won the Oprah lottery. This was complicated by the firing, over time, of two editors who had been terrific advocates for her work. She refused to wallow in self-pity, and expressed real generosity toward the best intentions of her editors; and her remarks struck a chord with me. I wrote what I'd meant to be a sympathetic, empathetic response that I posted here sober dopeat BookAngst 101.

The next night she responded to my comments (M.J.'s Jan. 19 '05 entry) in ways that surprised me and which seemed, on first glance, to be a complete misreading of my meaning—which is to say that the “generosity” I'd so regally bestowed (high-powered editor speaking to discouraged author) turned out to be (from her perspective) nothing of the sort. She inferred from my comments that the real problem with work that doesn’t succeed in the marketplace is that it’s just not good enough.

I read this at 1:30 in the morning at the end of a day full of frustration and petty disappointment, and was quick to don the martyr’s robes unapologetically. Huff, thought I: Her bitterness hath bent the eye. In retrospect I realize what troubled me more was that her response undercut notions of myself I’m quite attached to: that I am an editor of the Old School, someone keenly attuned to the hardships of the writing life, a patron, a kindred spirit, et cetera, ad nauseum. It also introduced the possibility that my unconscious motivation hadn’t been sympathy/empathy per se, but rather to use the opportunity to present myself in some sort of grandiose/self-aggrandizing light… [Look up grandiose in the dictionary, somewhere in there you’ll see the phrase “self-aggrandizing.” But if the shoe fits…]

With fresh eyes, and the guidance/insights of a number of the “comments” posted by other readers, I was able to see this from her perspective. Was I high-handed, patronizing, self-congratulatory? Perhaps I was all these things.

In the time it's taken me to respond to her comments, she has written another, friendly clarification of her views, and lots of others have posted their comments, here and at M.J.'s site. Here at last, for what it's worth, is my reply.

I'm sorry my comments missed their mark so awfully. I confess it has taken me some careful scrutiny (aided by the comments of other readers who have helped identify where I misspoke) to understand how you came to infer from my comments that the many

"powerful and beautiful and excellent books published that do arouse passions all along the yellow brick road, and which still do not succeed"
in the marketplace are in any way a reflection of the excellence of those books. For all the reasons you detail, and for perhaps a dozen more besides, the universe of bookselling is a horror-show, a source of disappointment and frustration for virtually every writer I know. A million things can, and usually do, conspire to derail a worthy publication; and, for the most part, it’s virtually impossible to predict ahead of time what they might be—only that they will.

At the risk of infuriating you further, though, I'll say again, emphatically, that I do believe the most critical piece of the equation is the excellence of the work itself. That's only part of the equation, though; and I didn't mean to suggest “that the book fails because it [is]n’t quite good enough to arouse the editor’s passion”; nor that the blame for a lackluster publication belongs to the author. The reason these positions--that A) the work matters most and B) the lack of success isn't some sort of "objective" accounting of the merits of that work--aren’t contradictory is this: the notion that there's an objective standard of excellence that articulates itself through the marketplace is bunk.

AND because [bear with me a moment longer]: if the quality of the work is the most important part of the equation, a close second is the chemical bond that forms between the author, her work, and the person who will chaperone it through the publishing process. And that person is your editor.

In your 2nd response (M.J.'s Jan. 21 '05 post) to my email, you said I'd implied that

“if a book arouses passion in the heart of the editor, and in other hearts along the way - that is, if the book is really good - then it will succeed. Declaring that a book will succeed if it's really good has an inverse corollary, that is, if it doesn't succeed, the implication is that it's not really good.”
I do, of course, see what you mean, except for one thing: I wasn't suggesting that your book had failed to arouse your editor’s passion, not even for a second. To the contrary, I'm quite confident that it did; and I’ll wager that part of what makes your editors (as you say) “great” is because the strength of the bond between you, the confidence you have that they really have understood what you were trying to accomplish. They've read your books, they've loved them; perhaps they helped strengthen them in some ways editorially; they conveyed to you from time to time their admiration for your artistry and craftsmanship, and that they were proud to be publishing you and your work. You came to trust their judgment, to feel that (for the most part) they’d be there with you in the trenches—a true ally who had your best interests at stake.

[For the uninitiated, I’m not saying that editor/author relations are always peachy-keen; but that, most often (in my experience at least) the dust-ups and arguments that periodically transpire between author and editor reflect not essential antagonism, but a shared sense of the stakes, of the extent to which this thing--the book, and publishing it well--matters. There are sometimes disagreements about what the proper course of action might be at one time or another; but I’d argue that these arise from what is, ultimately, a shared desire.]
Now I return to the importance of, and nature of, the close chemical bond that forms between the author, the work, and the editor; and to a couple of things I took for granted or failed to communicate clearly in my original, perhaps-not-so-sympathetic comments.

As I mentioned before, you took from my comments “that the book fails because it wasn’t quite good enough to arouse the editor’s passion.” Starting there, then, it's clear: my saying "the work itself [must] bear up again and again to the scrutiny of the many, many sets of readers along the yellow brick road to publication" implies that only the great books survive this scrutiny. That, in other words, there really is some sort of objective standard by which books are judged, and a book's success or failure in that regard is a direct reflection on its [somehow quantifiable] literary merits.

What I took for granted was that we all know this not to be true; that we all have far too much experience of the maddeningly arbitrary and quixotic nature of our business to believe there’s any real correlation between quality and success. Many worthy books get published (though there’s little doubt that the amount of truly literary work published by mainstream houses has diminished by a significant proportion in the past 15 years), but only a small proportion enjoy more than modest success.

In this way, of course, you’re quite right: few of the books that inspire an editor’s deep confidence and passion succeed. This, again, would seem to undermine my argument about the importance of an editor’s passion. But now we must take all that we know about the brutally arbitrary nature of what hits and what doesn’t; and then add to the mix something else that I perhaps took for granted in my original comments--

--that individual taste is a completely subjective beast.

This expresses itself in all sorts of ways*–which, if looked at from one perspective, is at the core of freedom of expression, democracy and all that other crap. (But that, as they say, is a whole nuther story.) An editor, perhaps moreso than the general populace, has to learn early—and sometimes even take solace in—the nature of this subjectivity; otherwise he would become incapable of making decisions, slowed as he is by doubts that this [manuscript, proposal, etc.] might be worthy, according to some objective standard. We must leave issues of “objective standard” to the academics; the only useful yardstick for an editor is his own personal judgment. What lights an editor's fire is some combination of intuition, admiration, recognition--things that (for me at least) are impossible to define. Which is why the notion of there being some quote science unquote to the publishing process is, in any number of ways, hogwash. From an editor’s perspective, at any rate, the only science that enters in is the aforementioned chemistry.

Therefore: it’s not an editor’s job to assess material from some sort of balcony of objectivity, but rather to find material that strikes a personal chord in one way or another, material for which the editor has an innate sense--of who its natural readers are, of how to market to those readers, and so forth. It doesn’t matter to me (though, in retrospect, it would likely matter a great deal to my boss…) if somebody else thinks COLD MOUNTAIN is a great novel. I didn’t; and had that submission come to me, the chances are very good that I would have passed on it—despite knowing full well that somebody else would fall in love and buy it…

(For the record, editors often do know this when we pass on a book—we can often recognize its merits, and know that someone else is going to buy it, and that there's the possibility that we're going to look like fools if this book turns out to be a huge success. It's a fear I can live with, because unless those merits organize themselves in patterns that set my heart pounding, I’m not the right editor for that book... There are, of course, many other occasions where I absolutely fail to recognize a book's merits, and have only my own subjectivity to blame… Think what you will about THE BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY—some editor read it, was moved by it, convinced her bosses to buy it, and wound up selling a bi-jillion copies…)
At the risk of sounding like a mamby-pamby creative writing cheerleader, one can (if one choses) take some solace that even a slew of rejection letters doesn’t truly represent the actual, objective quality of a manuscript—it simply means that the right editor hasn’t read it yet.

ANYWAY: My thesis is this: the book's success is linked, in some alchemic way, to the quality of the manuscript--as understood/experienced by your editor! This isn't to say that s/he is responsible for the quality of that manuscript, or even that the manuscript is, in fact, more or less excellent--objectively--based on your editor's response to it. But it's an inescapable part of the calculus that your editor [assuming s/he is your editor by choice--circumstances in which an editor leaves and a project winds up being handled by someone else are extremely difficult, I recognize. That, too, is a topic for another day.] is your editor because s/he loves your f-ing work! If someone doesn't love your work? See above, under "subjectivity": s/he is not the right f-ing editor for you.

Does it seem I'm still laying the blame for an unsatisfactory publication at your feet? There's no guarantee that anything will ever go well--as you yourself put it,

"there are powerful and beautiful and excellent books published that do arouse
passions all along the yellow brick road, and which still do not succeed."
I couldn't agree more! But more often what happens is that--even with the passionate support of the editor--the journey down this yellow brick road is perilous, and (because of the subjective nature of reading) very rarely elicits the same passionate response from a majority of those stationed along the parade route. But sometimes--and this was the lottery-like, pie-in-the-sky one-in-a-million circumstance you took issue with--sometimes it does happen.

Such is the case (so far, anyway) with a first (and very literary) novel I'm publishing, for which I paid a five figure advance, for which my publisher had (upon its acquisition) admiration but modest expectations. I then began to do what all editors worth their salt do--I set out to stoke the engine, to fuel the fire of the publishing machinery, through a variety of not-terribly-original initiatives, as I've done for every book I've ever cared about. In this instance, though, the response has been just a bit different, a bit more...coherent. In this case, with exactly one exception, every person who has read this book has come back to me dumb-founded, amazed, astonished, delighted.

Will this book succeed? Only time will tell. Experience warns me: don't get too excited, fella--you've been here before. Yes, I have--I've had books that, in one fashion or another, seemed poised to explode and fell somewhat short of doing so; to date I have no DA VINCI CODE or Nathan Englander or Jonathan Safron Foer or (name another runaway outta-the-blue bestseller) on my resume. There are, needless to say, MANY gauges of a successful publication besides having a runaway outta-the-blue bestseller.

But back to our original conversation: in this case, the book I allude to but don't name--a book that is still many months from coming into the public eye--in this case, I have no doubt that my passion for the book, combined with the extraordinary quality of the manuscript itself, seems to be making a real difference.

Will the cash register go k-ching? That's impossible for me to know. The only sound I recognize for certain is the pitter-patter of my heart.


Mad Max Perkins

P.S. I hope that my ending like this doesn't come across as yet another stroke of self-congratulation and/or insensitivity, rubbing my author's good fortune (and my own) in the wounds of those whose experience has been different. The fact that this book is getting great reads up and down the line is, itself, impossible to explain. I've published books I've loved as much, books I believed in as ferociously, books for which my own expectations--and my colleagues' expectations too--were as high or higher. Everything seemed to be in place--yet "IT" didn't all quite come together in the spectacular fashion every editor, and every author, dreams of... Contrary to popular opinion, lots of books (though admittedly a small proportion of all books published) get the passionate support of their editors AND are beneficiaries of real marketing muscle. Of those, one in a million becomes THE LOVELY BONES.

Thursday, January 20, 2005

Did I say that? Really?

(There goes my last chance of being honored with the Author's Guild humanitarian of the month award...)

Here's a rather unexpected interpretation (M.J.'s Jan. 19 '05 entry) of yesterday's "sober dope" posting. Not sure what to say, so for now (uncharacteristically) I'll say nothing.
Tuesday, January 18, 2005

sober dope. :-(

M.J. Rose's January 18th post at Buzz Balls & Hype presents what, for me, is a heartbreaking letter from an anonymous literary writer.

Heartbreaking because this writer's experience--of traveling horrible distances to do a book signing that isn't promoted, and which nobody attends--is replicated to one degree or another by virtually every writer I've ever known.

Heartbreaking because it happens dozens of times every single day, to writers of all stripes (not just literary), reflecting a culture that does not treasure its authors as once it did.

Heartbreaking because writing a book and getting it published, and being the editor who discovers and gets the opportunity to work with that writer, can be for both parties such a deliriously beautiful experience, full of love and optimism and the promise of great things--and then, too often, even when everything goes as planned, things don't go as hoped; and the result, too often, is--well, heartbreaking.

But the final and most powerful pang comes for this author's unexpected generosity toward--and respect for--the editor(s) with whom s/he has shared this particular heartbreak. Says, "Rely on your publisher for nothing, when your book comes out. If they do anything, you'll be pleasantly surprised"; but also says, "Your editor is not betraying you. Your editor may well be fighting hard for your book, but [is] unable to surmount the opposing forces..."

That such kind-heartedness exists even in the face of such disappointment: this moves me. It motivates me. This author understands that, for so many of us, it's not about product or units or bestsellers per se--it's about publishing books we believe in by authors we admire, publishing them with as much care and pride and vigor as we can.

I don't concede. I don't think it's true that editors are powerless, or that the marketing departments call all the shots. I'm not saying it's easy; I'm not saying an editor can move the mountain every single time; and I'm not saying that the stack of disappointment--for editors, I mean--isn't always quite a bit taller than its opposite. Passionate advocacy won't carry the day even 50% of the time. But without passion, all is lost. And it's still the case that, sometimes, an editor's passion--even for a "small" book bought for an unspectacular sum--can set in motion a chain-reaction that ends happily for all--but only if the work itself subsequently bears up again and again to the scrutiny of the many, many sets of readers along the yellow brick road to publication. And in such a case, the power an editor possesses comes, ultimately, from a single source.

The work itself.
Sunday, January 16, 2005

Advancing the Notion of (...ahem...) Realistic Advances

[Ed. note: I want to thank all the editors and agents--including the three new "posts" below--whose feedback to my "midlist" queries have been featured here over the past week and which have inspired such robust and productive commentary. ]

1. "ADVANCES IN LINE WITH THE LONG ODDS" The true problem is that we all pay too much for these books. We often pay advances that don't truly take into consideration the odds against one of the books selling more than 7,500 to 10,000 copies. If advances for this type of project were more in line with the long odds, then perhaps "midlist" wouldn't have become such a dirty word.

Yet the truth remains that we're all eternal optimists; and every week one of us editors falls in love with something that's a long shot for breakout success, but that we want to place a bet on. And the fact that every once in a while something does break out--that these bets do, occassionally, pay huge dividends--allows our corporate overseers to encourage this sometimes-costly optimism.

I just wish we could all exercise some restraint, and not to make that bet too big, though, because it ends up hurting us all. Including authors. I'm sure authors and agents would hate to hear me say this, but there's really no downside for us trying to keep our advances more in line--because if the book is the one-in-a-hundred that does exceed expectations, authors will keep making money in royalties commensurate with the success of the book. And when they are overpaid, and sales don't meet expectations, it usually hurts the author's career in the end.
--EDITOR-IN-CHIEF (Anonymous)

2. "THE UPSIDE TO ADVANCES THAT EARN OUT" When I speak at conferences and authors bitch and moan about not wanting to be in the 'midlist', it makes me a little nuts. I tell them that 'midlist' applies to the majority of a publisher's list, and that it's not such a bad place to be. For one thing, a 'midlist advance' is usually in the $20,000-$75,000 range. While many authors and agents don't exactly have orgasms over advances of that size, the upside is that those advances are much more likely to earn out. And when the advance earns out, the author has a much better shot at selling his/her next book for a higher advance.

We also tend to expect a certain number of our midlist books to 'break out' and become more successful than we'd planned, either because the final manuscript is even more fantastic than expected, or because current events or something in the media happens that makes the book topical and gets it more press attention than we'd originally bargained for. I tend to think that's it's always better to be a come-from-behind midlist author than to be one of the hotshots who scores a $500,000 advance. Being saddled with great expectations can really suck. The hotshots can only watch helplessly when the book sells 25,000 copies and suddenly the publisher stops returning their calls. A midlist author who was paid $50,000 and sells 25,000 copies is going to enjoy a nice lunch at Michael's--and the likelihood of a much more substantial advance for the next book.
--EDITOR (Anonymous)

3. "SPEAKING OF PEJORATIVES..." I agree with you that the midlist represents a more significant portion of the business than it's commonly given credit for. In publishing as in so many other fields, everyone likes to talk about the stars, not the workhorses that carry the bulk of the load.

But what does this mean? That midlist titles deserve more respect than they get? I suppose that's so, but it's because of the quality of the ideas they contain or their execution or their ability to entertain, all of which is independent of their commercial impact. If you're just looking at commercial impact, the truth is that no individual midlist title does deserve a lot of respect, even if the category as a whole deserves more than it's generally afforded. And even as a whole, the category has shortcomings. Unfortunately, the overhead involved in publishing a book that sells 10,000 copies is roughly the same as for one that sells ten times as many -- you have to negotiate for roughly the same amount of time, you have to edit the same number of pages, you have to do the same amount of proofreading, you have to paint as many covers (i.e., one), you have to pay the same plate charges, etc. So from a business point of view you're much better off publishing one 100,000-copy seller than ten 10,000-copy sellers.

Speaking of pejorative terms, though...if you really want to talk about a term that has acquired an unfair connotation, how about "mass market paperback" or "paperback original"? Say those words at a gathering of publishing machers and it's as though you uttered the phrase "direct to video" at an A-list Hollywood event...
--PUBLISHER (Anonymous)

Friday, January 14, 2005

"The Majority List": Agents Join the (Midlist) Fray

THERE GOES THE NEIGHBORHOOD: Three Upstanding Agents Speak Out About the Meaning of 'Midlist,' Past & Present

The Creative Culture (literary agency)
I don’t use the term “midlist.” To me, it is one of those terms that are used by people not working in publishing (or at least not working as an editor or an agent) that sets up ridiculous divisions that enable the media to make unfair generalizations about what we do.

It seems to be true that many, many books published these days have first printings below 15,000 copies. This is our reality. But behind each of those books there is an editor, an agent, and, of course, an author, who believe that the book can sell many more copies. We go into this believing that our books can strike a chord with readers and the culture, and that if the right things happen for said book, then it can take off. I don’t think that editors and agents are so jaded that when we sign books up, we believe we are signing up “midlist” books—books that will never grow in sales past a certain point. So I guess I am saying that midlist seems, to me, to be a retroactive term, one that can be applied once all the dust has settled and the book in question has either taken off and sold lots of copies or has languished and everyone is looking for someone to blame.

* * *

My feeling is that the term is a holdover from a previous era in publishing, one in which midlist truly was the backbone of the industry. There was no pejorative connotation. In fact, I think the term "midlist" acquired its negative associations precisely because the word became hopelessly irrelevant and useless in describing a bookwith a certain level of sales, neither corporate-bottom-line-altering nor hopelessly four-digit.

The reason is that, today, the effort it takes to publish a "midlist" book is the effort it takes to publish a "top of the list" book. What I mean is that nobody can possibly hope to sell 15,000 copies of a hardcover novel -- by a debut author or one who's less than a brand name -- without spending the kind of marketing and promotional dollars one would associate with a lead title. In the last few years, I've had several novels get the real "big book" treatment from their publishers -- expensive marketing and advertising campaigns (let's say at a minimum cost of $75,000 and probably more like $100K+), printings from 30-50,000 copies, etc. -- all of which ultimately sold between 12-15,000 copies. And even though nobody was pretending, in each of these cases, that the sales numbers demonstrated any great success in the marketplace, in terms of establishing an author and making waves, the net results are that all of the authors are probably ones you've now heard of, unless you don't do much reading of contemporary fiction. Interestingly, all of them, without exception, have gone on to bigger and better deals for their future works (for the most part with the same publishers that made the efforts in the first place). Because what all those dollars bought were industry and bookseller attention, resulting in things like PW First Fiction picks, Book Sense picks, healthy piles of reviews, strong foreign market rights sales, etc. In other words, the money bought buzz, buzz which traveled from the industry to the general public (or at least the somewhat committed reader portion of that public), buzz that made the authors desirable and valuable commodities within the strange universe that istrade publishing -- but the buzz didn't really buy sales, or at least the kind that would have substantiated the money spent.

All of which underlines my point: to get solid "midlist" numbers, you have to publish in, if not the biggest way possible, certainly the next closest thing. Which means that the word, as used to describe books that sell 15,000 hardcovers or so, is past its expiration date. I'm not sure what word we can use to describe these books, but it does tell me that the old idea of midlist as books you love and publish and hope to get attention for, but that aren't going to get marketing dollars, is as moribund as the term itself.

* * *

Descriptions of the term have always struck me as disingenuous. The first definition I remember hearing applied to authors who sold in the 25,000 copy or less range. Some other usages seemed to suggest that it applied to authors who sold in the five figures. Huh? A net 60,000 hc sale is big stuff, seems to me. I think the term "midlist" was most often tossed around by people who believed the first print announcements they saw in PW. An announced 25,000 print means an actual of about 7,500, right?

Your 15,000 figure makes sense, though I might want to say about 90 percent of authors would meet that definition. I think all it means today is an author who is not hitting a national bestseller list. So yes, the term is out of date. It belongs to an era when our P&Ls posited routine 25,000 copy hardcover sales followed by a 3x trade paper reprint. Rather than a public relations campaign, I think it needs burial in a pine box, no obit. Why? First, because when people say "midlist" what they really want to say is "bottom of the barrel." Second, because absolute numbers mean nothing in this business. A clean net sale of 25,000 hardcovers could be a considerable triumph for a first timer with low expectations, or a disaster for the next book by David McCullough. The number should not carry a label with it. I think people should be clear that we are talking "majority list" here, not midlist, and that the threshold number separating those with routine publishing experiences from with breakout possibilities has to be around 20,000 copies first year hc net. Above that, things can start to happen. Below that, and you're getting the routine print-stock-ship-and-move-on treatment from your publisher. Of course, everything is relative to expectations.
Thursday, January 13, 2005

Hotdogs, Chickenhawks, Mustard & Cream: Two Editors Talk Midlist


Executive Editor-At-Large, Broadway Doubleday

To paraphrase "Born Under a Bad Sign" (and isn't it wonderful that Cream is reuniting at the Royal Albert Hall?), if it wasn for midlist, I wouldn't have no list at all. Well, that's not precisely true, but it is true enough. I don't know what it says about me, but the majority of the really successful books and authors I've published started life as midlist fodder -- and sometimes just barely that. To wit: Robert Mason's CHICKENHAWK, Chuck Palahniuk's FIGHT CLUB, Walter Mosley's DEVIL IN A BLUE DRESS, Irvine Welsh's THE ACID HOUSE , James Welch's FOOLS CROW, Paul Auster's IN THE COUNTRY OF LAST THINGS, David Foster Wallace's THE BROOM OF THE SYSTEM -- no sensible accountant would have looked at any of those books in their gestational period and said, "You know, I think this one's going to be a moneyspinner." Just one of many many differences between accountants and editors. Furthermore, the whole midlist-who cares? mindset scants the highly profitable activities of trade paperback editors, a lot of whose work involves careful list maintenance and below-the radar reissues that really pay off in the long run.

A story: In 1983 my friend Luann Walther, then at Bantam, gave me a tip that they were letting go a perfectly wonderful oral history of the civil rights movement by Howell Raines, MY SOUL IS RESTED, in its mass market edition. I was at Penguin and we both knew that this book could find a nice place in the high school and college adoption market. So we paid Putnam's, the original hardcover publisher, $5000 for reprint rights and off we went. That book is still in print in Penguin after twenty years and twenty reprints and I'm sure has sold well north of a hundred thousand copies.

Stick to your knitting and you eventually get a hell of a lot of sweaters.

* * *

VP & Executive Editor, HarperCollins

There are, as I see it, two different definitions of midlist. There are books that, by their very nature, represent the dreaded kind of midlist--and quite honestly, as an editor, it's this variety that I try to avoid. These are the books--and we all know them--that are often very readable, but in the end, just don't seem necessary. And I don't know any editor who wants to spend the kind of energy and time a novel demands on a book that's not necessary. Doesn't mean we don't like it--just that we can live without it.

Then there's the other kind of midlist, the kind that is necessary, but for which there might not be a huge demand. Think about a grocery store. While a grocery store might carry a great many jars of mayonnaise--everyone uses mayonnaise, and lots of circumstances call for mayonnaise--it's important to carry mustard too. Even, perhaps, in greater variety (spicy; Dijon; good ol' fashioned yellow...)--because while fewer people use mustard, those who do have a passion for it are very particular about which style of mustard best suits them. And furthermore, what would a hotdog be without mustard?

So, to twist this metaphor around somewhat unconscionably, midlist books--the good kind of midlist--are like the mustard of the bookstore. Maybe not as many people want those books as want you-know-which-book, but still, they exist--and they exist in part not because their commerce is instantly obvious, but because an editor is unable to walk away, unable to say no. Which, by the way, is what is called love--and what's meant when editors say "I have to LOVE a novel to buy it." That's not just something we say, it's true; furthermore, if I love a novel, isn't it logical to think that there's some small (or even not so small portion) of the readership who will love it too? Yes. Most definitely YES.

But how to reach them? What's the difference between a very good, freshly told coming-of-age story from the midlist and THE SECRET LIFE OF BEES? Is it marketing? Word of mouth? Does that book have something that no other coming-of-age book that was published that year have? What's the difference between a book like THE JANE AUSTEN BOOK CLUB and any other non-romance "smart women's fiction" (yes, that's how I would describe that book and NO, it's not a pejorative)--the title? That's the big question.

The optimistic me is always looking at books like the two mentioned above, and others that find their way onto the bestseller lists (THE LOVELY BONES; THE CURIOUS INCIDENT...) or even just break out of the clutter that makes up the New Releases wall at B&N (THE FAMILY TREE; LITTLE CHILDREN...). These are books that through whatever magic, are neither "literary" or "commercial"--the standard neither-fish-nor-fowl derogatory definition of midlist--and yet, they found "their" readership...and beyond.

So yes, for two reasons, the midlist is the back bone of publishing. One, because everyone needs to spice up their hotdogs, even if they don't eat hotdogs every day; and two, because you never know, one day everyone wakes up and on the very same day, has a taste for something that cries out for mustard. And then you got yourself a bestseller.
Wednesday, January 12, 2005

'Does a rose by any other name....' Further considerations of the malodorous connotations of the term "Midlist"

As noted in a previous post, I've been thinking about the notion of "midlist," and recently sent out a bunch of queries to a bunch of editors and agents; and received a number of responses, which you'll find here in due course. Here's the core of my letter, followed by the first of many replies.

I’d love to know your thoughts on the term “midlist”—partly because I think it’s a term that has an unfairly pejorative connotation, which, in turn, perhaps fuels misconceptions about the realities (even today) of the vast majority of the titles that are published today.

If, for instance, we were to define midlist as books for which the (actual) first printing is less than 15,000--and in my opinion a considerable majority of first printings fall into that category--then mightn’t it be argued that midlist publishing still, in some way, constitutes something like the back-bone of publishing? Or is it, in fact, our equivalent of the Mendoza Line?

I’m thinking the term is in need of a public relations campaign… I would love to hear any thoughts you have, including, even, what you see as the category’s first-print parameters.

The very first response came from Daniel Menaker, longtime New Yorker editor and currently Executive Editor-in-Chief of the Random House Publishing Group.

DANIEL MENAKER: I’ll expose my ignorance and say that the only thing I know about the Mendoza Line is that it sounds like cocaine jargon. If midlist publishing refers to books that go out at 15 k or less, then the situation resembles what it was at Starbuck’s until recently, in which the smallest coffee you could get was a “tall.” Is there a term for lower-than-midlist books? What would it be? Hypolist? Lowlist? Teeny-tiny books?

Publishing seems to me at a point where it wants to be (and to some extent, for the time being, anyway, is managing to be) increasingly “hit-driven.” The trouble is that as with movies, there is no way to guarantee that the key to the ignition of the hit you’re trying to drive will actually turn and the engine will start. So I’m not sure about ["midlist as"] backbone—to rather violently switch metaphors in mid-paragraph—but I do think that books that go out at less than 15k do and will continue to function as stem cells that can and occasionally do develop into those fully formed organisms called bestsellers. And even when they don’t but receive wide critical acclaim or add in some significant way to our culture of letters, they add luster and pride to the house that publishes them and may help to attract new hitdrivers to that house.

We all have to continue to publish such books, it seems to me, and do so with pride and with as much imagination--which is not the worst substitute for a big marketing budget--as we can, in the hope that, unless what appears to be a recent change in reading and book-buying habits becomes permanent, eventually more readers will rediscover the joy of discovery. If you and your readers will visit the website of Nassim Nicholas Taleb, a Random House writer and author of “Fooled by Randomness,” you will find a number of brilliant analyses of the phenomenon of outlier events, one of which is, for instance, the emergence of this or that movie star, and another of which is the surprise bestseller.

Yes, I think a useful first-print-run definition of midlist books is 15k or less.

Tuesday, January 11, 2005

The Tortoise and the Hare...In Which We Attempt To Rehabilitate the Term "Midlist"

Recently I've been thinking about the term “midlist.” What does the word mean? What characteristics does a midlist title possess? Is a book born a midlist title, or does it become one, retroactively? Is membership determined by the size of the first printing? by the net sale? If an editor pays $250,000 for a book, can it, under any circumstance, be deemed a midlist title? Why is the term "backlist" viewed so favorably, when the connotations of "midlist" are so all-fire nasty? At what point did the word acquire such...smelliness?

Seems there's no insult more insulting than being characterized as a midlist author... But why? When did the term cease to mean "dependable seller" (similar in this way to "backlist"), as it had for generations? And is there any hope of "rehabilitating" the term, giving it a make-over, a face-lift--of returning to it, if not glory, then at least a modicum of its former dignity?

Hopeless, you say? [Yes, a lot of you do...More posts on this subject to follow.] I say, maybe not. Let us consider the parable of the Tortoise and the Hare...

I buy a stunning literary debut from Nicole Aragi for $175,000. There is much in-house enthusiasm. The author is young, smart, leggy and well-connected. Her book garners glowing blurbs from Ann Beattie, Emily (but not Charlotte) Bronte, and Rick Moody. It gets rave reviews in EW, People and USA Today--but a blah book report (errr, review--sketchy plot summary + curious commentary on dubious issues of grammar...) from Janet Maslin, and NO ANNA QUINDLEN ENDORSEMENT. There was only one printing, 14,300 copies in total; a net hardcover sale of 7900; and another opportunity (still t.k.) to pick up additional readers in the forthcoming trade paperback.

In the post-mortem, how do I grade this performance? how do I spin it? Well. It's not easy to drop into casual conversation phrases like "a memorable debut," but it can be done. Then I shrug knowingly--conveying factors that were outside the realm of my control--and explain that we gave it a genuine front-list push, generated lots of buzz, lots of good will for the author, et cetera. "It just didn't quite catch fire. " Another shrug, Tony Soprano-style--whattaya gonna do? Then I declare my passion for the writer, my determination to make hay with the paperback, and to start all over again with the next book...

We lost money, yes, but--hey, literary fiction's a tough racket, and we did a respectable job of setting the table for an author whose star is only going to continue to rise. (Next time around, though, the advance'll be a bit lower...)

Another literary agent, Emma Parry, calls me up, says she's got this wonderful work of narrative nonfiction by an unknown historian, a book about a somewhat obscure 18th-century mesmerist. Sounds small, I say (to myself), but Emma has a good eye for this sort of thing, and convinces me that the guy has cured himself of the dread palsy of the academic writer, so I say, Sure, I'd like to take a look. And she's right, it's good. The author's not at Oxford or Harvard--try Boise State--but he's written an impressive book about a fascinating character whose life intersected with all sorts of Important Characters. Three publishers offer, but at a lower level than Emma is accustomed to; and eventually we settle on an advance of $50,000.

The timing gets screwed up--he'd committed to teach summer school when the book is published; and, smart though he is, he's neither got Clark Kent looks nor a charismatic personality. [Memo to self: talk to Au. about his comb-over.] Publicity opportunities, subsequently, are limited, but the book is nicely, broadly reviewed. Nonetheless, we're mildly surprised to hear that the NYTimes will be reviewing it, then terrified when we discover that it's Michiko Kakutani who's chosen it. But she gives it a thumbs up, and a nicely blurbable quote for the front cover of the paperback. It caps off a satisfying if modest publication.

At post-mortem time, we review the numbers. The first printing (of 7200 copies) is followed by three more; at the end of the day we've shipped 13,200 and netted 8600. With a trade paperback to follow. The author plans to write another book; with his teaching load it'll be three years at least before he delivers; but the experience is a good one, and we give him a raise to what we'll euphemistically call "high five figures."

So how do I talk about this one? Well, naturally, I describe My Guy as the next Simon Schama. But set aside the hyperbole a moment, and the answer's simple: what we've got, in this case, is a classic midlist success story.

Questions? Comments?
Monday, January 10, 2005

Holy Grail According to Max

Recently I sent out emails to about 600 of my closest pals (editors, mostly), asking a handful of the important questions --
  • if you're having lunch with Mort Janklow, where should you take him?
  • what's a good place to get collar stays (the brass ones)?
  • when you take a nap in the middle of the day, is it best to A) close your office door, or B) turn to face the window and pretend to be reading a manuscript?

-- that every young turk in publishing (whether or not your "Turkishness" was officially acknowledged recently by PW) needs answers to. I've sent out any number of similar email queries to my colleagues in publishing over the last several months, and have received replies to virtually none of them--until very recently. Based on the tone of some of these recent replies, it appears that I've reached a tipping point of sorts--that is, I've officially become a nuisance (or worse). One of the best & coolest editors in town brushed aside my question and referred obliquely to

"people who pretend to know something about publishing but in fact do not." [Could he mean me?]
Another top editor went into somewhat greater detail.

"Max, I saw Michael Cader’s column vouching for your being a good guy, etc. I have to say, though, that I don’t really understand why any editor would want to give away – beyond his own firm – knowledge capital he or she has amassed over the course of a career. It is effort expended without tangible return. I understand that you see this enterprise as working in everybody’s favor, and maybe I’m shortsighted for not “getting it,” but it seems to me that the best can be hoped for is that somewhere accessible on line there’ll be a sort of “best practices compendium” for everyone to access – and I wonder if most houses don’t in fact already create something tantamount to that by pooling staffers’ ideas."

To the first comment, I say, guilty as charged: I don't know jack; how I got as far as I have in this business is anybody's guess; and I'm scrambling now to see if I can learn a few things before it's too late.

But this second comment? If only!

The "best practices compendium" is precisely what I've been looking for (call it the Holy Grail According to Max)--a database full of good ideas; it's the reason, in fact, I started this blog, in hopes of stumbling across material worthy to be included therein... We used to have such a compendium here (where I work), but its contents have been badly pilferred... Remember the library's copy of the 1977 Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue that you snuck into some behind-the-stacks cubby, only to discover that the pictures themselves had already been ripped from the binding? Well, it's like that: there's a folder here marked "best practices compendium," but the only things it contains are a 10-year old Esquire article on "Publishing's White-Hot Center," a yellowed pamphlet from 1962 that instructs "gentlemen" on the art of tying a bow-tie, and an advertisement for a cutting-edge personal computer called the TRS-80.

A "best practices compendium"--just think of it. Question is, do any publishers exist today that actually have/make time to pool the ideas of their employees, to brainstorm in hopes of coming up with fresh approaches to the same old problems?

I suspect there are a lot of us inclined to thing that the better question is, What's the point anyway? Is a bright baker's dozen gathered around a conference-room table going to come up with a practical & implementable alternative to virtually unlimited bookseller returns? to the centralization of all aspects of our industry? to the collapse of the mass market business? to the virtual disappearance of serious literary publishing by mainstream presses?

Well, pessimism be damned. It's time for me to make my first big acquisition of 2005--so if anybody's got a "best practices compendium" less than five years past its expiration date, I'm buying. And let's move quickly--I'm in the mood for a pre-empt...
Thursday, January 06, 2005

PAPERBACK WRITER: Vol. I of the Collected Responses To the Mad Max Author Survey

Long ago, in a land far, far away—that is, back in October ’04, just a couple of weeks after the launch of BOOKANGST 101—Mad Max sent out a “Call to Writers” survey asking for intimate responses from published authors to a series of questions about how their books had been marketed and published.

By now most of those who were brave enough to respond are surely convinced the whole thing was a hoax; the plain truth is, Max bit off more than he could chew. The writers’ experiences were so different one from another that it was impossible to extrapolate from them the kind of “quantifiable data” he’d hoped they’d yield. Each had its own distinct arc and required its own distinct narrative. Today’s is the first of those…

[GENERAL NOTE: Thanks to all the authors who've participated in this survey; and thanks, too, for your patience. More pieces based on your comments are in the works. --MMP]
One of the most unexpected responses to the survey came from a self-proclaimed "Paperback Writer," a woman who makes no bones about writing “genre” fiction—indeed, there are few genres she hasn’t mastered—who writes six to eight novels a year, under such names as S.L. Viehl, Rebecca Kelly, Jessica Hall and Gena Hale. Six of her novels have been Locus science fiction bestsellers. (Memo to tyros: don't call it "sci-fi"--the proper shorthand is "SF".) Beginning in March '05, writing as Lynn Viehl, she launches a new series called the Darkyn novels--the first of which is IF ANGELS BURN.

[Announcer's voice over p.a.: Ladies and Gentlemen, please give a warm Mad Max welcome to LYNN VIEHL!!! Crowd roars as LV enters, STAGE RIGHT, and sits in a chair across from The Host, who is wearing a handsome Brooks Bros. Haz-Mat suit. Interview begins.]

MMP: First off, Lennon & McCartney's "Paperback Writer" is one of the hippest & catchiest songs the Beatles ever recorded. It also happens to be the title of your blog. I suspect this is not a coincidence—because in the same way there's not a hint of irony or apology in the song, I get the sense that you've had your fill of authors looking down on you as a "paperback writer" and, in fact, you're pretty damn proud of what you've accomplished. Care to comment?

[As LV begins to answer, the Announcer's voice can be heard over the p.a., singing, in operatic baritone: It's a steady job/And I wanna be a paperback writer]
LYNN VIEHL: I did name the weblog after the Beatles tune, which always makes me laugh when I listen to it. I'm very proud and happy to be a working writer.

M: I have to say: of all the people who responded to my "Call to Authors," questionnaire, your story struck me as the most upbeat. You seemed not to have met the same level of disappointment and frustration that a lot of the other authors spoke about. Were you sugar-coating? Or is it that, because you're writing paperback originals, you come at this with a different—perhaps more realistic?—set of expectations than many so-called "literary" novelists? LV: I've had my disappointments, but not many, and they made me work harder. I didn't know anything about the industry and I never met another writer until after I was published, so that may have something to do with it. My only expectation was simply to see my name on the cover of a book, and I've done that twenty-six times in five years.

M: You also seemed to be among the best paid of all of the respondents.
LV: The reason my writing income is in six figures is because I write very fast, I'm aggressive about finding work, and I'm willing to work 12 to 16 hours a day at the job.

M: If you don’t mind my asking, what's the most you've ever been paid for a book? And how many do you generally write per year?
LV: The largest advance I've been paid for a single novel is $25,000.00. I write six to eight novels a year.

M: So far you've written science fiction, inspirational fiction, romance, romantic suspense... and now you're about to launch the new "Darkyn" series (from Signet), which is described on your website as "dark fantasy." The first of these, IF ANGELS BURN (great title, b.t.w.), comes out in March '05; its sequel, PRIVATE DEMON, follows in Dec. '05, and Book III, DARKNESS HAS NO NEED, about 8 months after that. Tell me a little about the series.
LV: The Darkyn novels evolved from a series of short stories about vampires that I wrote for my readers and posted on my old web site. The basic premise for the series is, what if humans were the monsters, and vampires the victims?

M: Have you finished writing Book II yet? And will the series continue on past Book III?
LV: I am right in the middle of writing book two. My contract is for three novels, but it's an open-ended series, and I've outlined five more novels. If the series does well, I'll keep writing them.

M: Back on November 22--so 3+ months prior to publication of IF ANGELS BURN--you launched a very spiffy website,, that features a nifty animation--you described it as "big, splashy, almost like the traler for a Hollywood movie," as well as dramatic use of audio, a chat room... And in a little over a month, you've already got more than 30 fans actively interacting on the message board. Whose idea was the site? Who designed it, and how did you find them? How much did it cost? And who paid--you, or Signet?
LV: The site was my idea, but it was designed by Metro DMA. I wanted the best designers in the business, and several people in the industry recommended them. The site design, hosting and publicity for it cost about 20% of my advance for the three books. I paid for the entire thing myself.

M: What do you hope to accomplish with this site?
LV: My schedule doesn't allow me time for most of the traditional methods of self-promotion, such as book signings and appearances at conventions, and I don't think they work anyway, so a web site was the logical alternative. I'd like the site to be a place where readers gather and talk as well as find out more about my work.

M: And how do you go about getting attention for it? Do you have your own database of names that you've collected from your previous books, people you notified when the site went live? Does Signet have a list?
LV: I've never done this sort of thing before, so I've never had a database. For the site launch, I contacted people in the industry I thought might be interested, obtained their permission to send them a press release, and built a one-time-only mailing list (I hate SPAM so I was careful to ask first.). I also sent PRs to all the newspapers in my home state, the major national newspapers and a select number of industry and trade magazines. Signet probably has their own list, but I didn't involve the publisher.

M: How is this potentially different from what you've done before? And what's your sense, at this point, of how well it's working?
LV: I've only ever done active promotion for one novel before this, StarDoc—my first novel, which was a LOCUS bestseller, as were all four of its sequels—and did the usual postcards/flyers/ bookmarks/book signings/convention appearances. Despite the expense and time sunk into that publicity, it did virtually nothing for the book. I wasn't comfortable with it, either. I'm not much of a public figure and a lot of traditional self-promotion has a desperate feel to it that I don't like. Or maybe I'm just not that desperate.

After StarDoc I dropped all the self-promotion, built my first web site for my readers and from there just stayed home and concentrated on writing books. My numbers gradually built and all of my books sold well. The web site became a place where I interacted with readers, and many of the stories I wrote for them eventually became novels that I sold.

The Darkyn site is basically growing at the same rate that my first web site did. If pre-orders keep rolling in, I'll probably get a larger first print run (that was one of my strategies, to build momentum for the books.) My readers are delighted with it. Signet tells me the book buyers are very interested in the first novel, and they've assigned a publicist to handle the press inquiries. I've made a bunch of new contacts in the industry. I'm invested in this for the long-term, so all this works for me.

On the down side, I had hoped to see more buzz on the internet about the Darkyn site launch, but that didn't happen. Could have something to do with the fact that my press release collided with Thanksgiving week, and I was polite and conservative with distribution, but it's easy to make excuses. I’d thought that the fact I haven’t promoted myself in quite a while, combined with Metro DMA's reputation would generate some interest, but the lack of self-promotion may have actually worked against me this time. As one industry pro told me, "I've never heard of you. Why should I bother checking out your web site?"

Even the down side is good. Writers don't like being served humble pie, but without regular helpings we become total ego monsters.

M: Aside from the online piece, what plans does Signet have to promote the series? And/or what plans do you have, separate from them?
LV: Signet has planned to promote the series over on their author promo site, They've been very supportive in providing me with everything I needed for the web site designers, too, especially the art department. I will be maintaining a presence at the web site, and sending out excerpt chapbooks to select conventions, but my writing schedule is very tight, and that's all I have time to do.

M: As I mentioned earlier, you have a blog called “Paperback Writer. Do you see blogs principally as vehicles for a more intimate kind of communication, or do you see them potentially benefiting writers in a commercial way? Differently, I mean, from the posting boards at the Darkyn site?
LV: I had some second thoughts about even mentioning my weblog in this interview. My first weblog, StarLines, became a magnet for trolls and stalkers, and I got tired of dealing with that. Paperback Writer was something I started writing privately for my friends, and I've been journaling almost daily since 1974, so I enjoy it, too. I've disabled comments, and I'm trying to be more politic, so this one might work out better than the earlier one did. It's a wait-and-see experiment.

M: In the original author survey, I'd asked what marketing efforts, in your experience, had been the least effective in terms of selling books. You answered "self promotion, going to conventions." Yet to my next question--What would you like to see happen for you/your books in the future—you gave an answer that concluded "I'll do the rest on my own." Is that not self-promotion? Can you clarify what you mean?
LV: I should have said "traditional self-promotion" because the whole booksigning/postcards/ bookmarks/convention thing is outdated and virtually worthless in a marketing sense. Writers need to pursue new, inventive avenues to market their books. That's what I've tried to do with my website.

[Announcer's voice over p.a., as author exits: Ladies and Gentlemen, IF ANGELS BURN, the launch volume of Lynn Viehl’s Darkyn series, goes on sale in March 2005. Interview ends.]

Wednesday, January 05, 2005


Young Turks

OK, time to raz the young'uns...

Yessir: it's time the Young Turks celebrated in this week's Publishers Weekly (The Next Hot Young Thang(s) by Steven Zeitchik, PW, 1/3/05) get their well-deserved ritual hazing--for being hip, young, talented, and not publicity-averse. Not an actual shit-kicking, mind you, but enough of a heckle to bear witness to the sort of public embarrassment befitting their crime (youth, talent) over the next few days--enough to raise more than the occasional blush to their youthful cheeks. For legal reasons I can't be explicit as to how you might accomplish this.

[I expressly do NOT condone swirlies, paddle-wacking, keg-chugging or any of the other college fraternity shenanigans that might appear, say, in a Tom Wolfe novel.]
And you'll find, those of you who partake of this particular sport, that it has a residual benefit: it allows you to rid yourself of the green slime of envy in a quasi-acceptable fashion! Instead of pouring glue into a Young Turk's keyboard, say, use a congratulatory slap on the back as a way to plant a sign that reads

"I love my mommy!"
All in good fun! And in case you don't know the targets of these high jinks (and most every house has one), the under-35 so-and-so's who've been designated for greatness are:

[Tuxedo-clad announcer enters, stage right, steps into a boxing ring, and is handed a microphone bearing the World Wrestling Federation logo. "LADIES and GENTLEMEN! Let's give a LOUD WWF Smackdown welcome to the FUTURE of AMERICAN CULTURE!" Crowd goes wild.]

[From stage left, ten YOUNG TURKS are seen waiting in the wings, clad in hooded silk robes, each carrying an armful of carnations. As their names are called, they enter the ring and raise their fists over their heads, acknowledging the ecstatic crowd.]


Tim Duggan, HarperCollins!
Chris Jackson, Crown!
Gillian Blake, Bloomsbury!
Geoff Shandler, Little Brown!
Sean McDonald, Riverhead!
Molly Stern, Viking!
Becky Cole, Broadway!
Richard Nash, Soft Skull Press!
David Levithan, Scholastic!
Nancy Hinkel, Knopf Books for Young Readers!

[Crowd goes wild, begins chanting: "OUR YOUNG TURKS! OUR YOUNG TURKS!" The Turks, embarrassed, humbled, but undeniably proud, blow kisses and toss carnations. CREDITS ROLL.]

But seriously: congratulations to all y'all. If the last list of Turks PW selected, seven years ago, is any indication--Eamon Dolan, Jon Karp, Ira Silverberg, Carolyn Carlson, Alane Mason, Amy Einhorn, Geoff Kloske, Matt Weiland, Holly McGhee--your futures are very bright indeed.

In the meantime, enjoy the vast quantities of unsolicated manuscripts that are already on their way to you now!

Old Farts*

*Old Farts is a time-honored title of respect for those no-longer-so-young Turks who've been around long enough to reap the benefits of experience...
Attention Young Turks:

Your first order of business (once you've recovered from the hazing and celebrating) is to read an invaluable work of publishing history-slash-scholarship that appears this month at, by literary agent Richard Curtis, which describes (with the drama of a train-wreck) the changes in the paperback business that have so drastically altered the business.

It's must reading for anybody interested in the state of publishing today. Imagine a time, not so long ago, when supermarket and truck-stop mass market book racks were stocked and managed by scores of men and women--"jobbers"--working out of the back of their station wagons...

"Publishing in the 21st Century, Part II: Paperbacks--The Tail that Wagged the Dog"

(Thanks to novelist Jenny Siler for alerting me to this article.)

Monday, January 03, 2005

"Hail the Litblogs"

"The recent explosion of literary weblogs has to be the most encouraging development in recent memory," writes novelist/"Book Beat" columnist David Milofsky in Sunday's [Jan. 2 '05] Denver Post. In which he converses w/ Mark Sarvas, Maud Newton, Carrie Frye and Traver Kauffman, among others (including yours truly).

MS: The Elegant Variation.
MN: Maud Newton dot com.
CF: Tingle Alley.
TH: Rake's Progress.
Saturday, January 01, 2005

BEST OF BLANK: End-of-Year Ruminations & New Year Aspirations. [The Longest Post of the Year (So Far)]

1. The Making of Lists

So where do you stand on these ubiquitous End-Of-Year round-ups? As the clock winds down, the lists pile up; everywhere you turn, folks smart and dumb weigh in with their "BEST BLANKS OF 2004" lists. Best Book, Best Movie, Best Theater Experience, Best Album By A Teenage Girl Wearing Imitation Punk Rock Jewelry, Best Massage Parlor, et cetera...

It drives me crazy--so little variation, generally, in any category--so, naturally, I wanted to get in on the action. Nothing like conformity/unanimity to make a fella feel snog as a bog in a blog in such uncertain times....

You may say, ENOUGH with the g.d. lists already! Spare us, Max! Besides, look at the date! It's 2005 already--you missed your chance! Leave us be! To which I respond, Hey, brothers and sisters--do not constrain me with your bourgeois notions of linear time! Genius answers not to the tyranny of the clock!

No, indeed, brothers and sisters, there's a far BETTER reason for me not to weigh in on the BEST BLANKS of 2004. Like, for instance, the fact that I have no basis for forming any opinions about the quality of any of the cultural product the previous 365 days hath produced. Opinions of this sort require one to have imbibbed in some of this product... And the sad truth is, I was rather too much the teetotaller in toothousandfour.

Is it literally true that the ONLY books I read in 2004 are the ones I published? Nearly so. And while several of those really were, in my humble opinion, among the best books of 2004--
[several of them actually DID appear on "Best Books" lists put out by ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY, CHRISTIAN SCIENCE MONITOR, and KIRKUS REVIEWS--demonstrating once again why never to underestimate the benefits of end-of-year payola...]

--the real reason you didn't get a BEST BLANKS list from me (and I'm sure you were waiting w/ bated breath...) and won't hear my opinions on the merits of books by Phillip Roth, Bob Dylan, Margot Livesey, Stephen Greenblatt, Jenna Jameson (and so many others I'd have expected to include on my list), is simple. I didn't read 'em.

So, OK, Max: what do you have for us? Any delightfully off-beat recitations of idiosyncratic punctuation? Predictions about the five Scandinavian novelists most likely to appear (in translation) on the New York Times bestseller list in 2005? An opinion, perhaps, about the spinetingly-ness of the newest Clive Cussler novel?

Alas, no... (Though I will say, with the unshakeable confidence of one who has neither seen the movie nor read its reviews, that MEET THE FOCKERS is surely a piece o' shite, regardless of what $46.1 million in opening weekend boxoffice receipts might say to the contrary. Cripes a-mighty, folks--do we as Americans really miss DHARMA & GREG that much?!)

Nor do I have anything perky or encouraging to predict for the year ahead (2005) in publishing--except (again) to crow that a number of my own books, coming soon to bookstores near you, have been getting wonderful starred reviews in the usual prepub venues, have been chosen by the kind folks at BookSense (not that I've ever seen evidence that being a BookSense pick translates into more than a six-pack's worth of additional sales...), and so on. Trends? Predictions? Hell: I just want my own books to sell lots of copies. The rest of you be damned.

Ahh, but enough about me, darling: how do you like my dress?

2. Data [Variety=Raw; Grade=Low]

The best I can offer by way of summarizing any piece of 2004, I'm afraid, on this first day of 2005, is a pitiful batch of numerals--blog-stats [drumroll, please] that report the results of a Visitor Survey I posted here at BOOKANGST 101 a couple of months ago. I was curious: who the heck reads this thing? --who, brothers and sisters, are you? So I asked, and you answered, and the data has been milled. Statistical analysis is a subject of great personal interest, and (as usual) my lack of expertise will not dissuade me from drawing a few fascinating conclusions. (Did I need to see the FOCKERS movie to render a reasonably astute judgment? I rest my case.)

Brothers and sisters, the raw data. You identified yourselves as follows:
26%....."Author--book(s) published or under contract"
17%....."Writer/Reviewer published in newspapers/magazines"
17%....."As-yet unpublished writer"
07%....."Media Reporter/Blogger"
10%....."Publishing: Editorial"
02%....."Publishing: Ed-in-Chief/Assoc Publisher/Publisher"
07%....."Publishing: Publicity/Marketing/Sales"
03%....."Literary Agent"
08%....."Other/Just Curious"

OK, kids--let's get out our calculators.

3. Conclusions? Just As We Feared...

Here now are the fascinating conclusions of our data, processed:

MadMax Statistical Analysis Reveals:
  • have too much time on their hands;
  • aren't working hard enough;
  • need to find some new hobbies;
  • all of the above.

So, dear authors: next time it takes you six months to come up with that sure-fire, break-through opening paragraph, remember that there are those out there--Stephen King, Nora Roberts, James Patterson Incorporated, Bernard Cornwell, to name but a few--who write two, sometimes three books a year. You can be damned sure they're not wasting time cruising the blogosphere...

MadMax Statistical Analysis Reveals:

  • Are a secretive and distrustful lot, inexplicably protective of the keys to their success
  • Are too busy packing for the Hamptons to respond to surveys from crank blogsters
  • Get too much junk email from porn-sites and crank blogsters
  • Love Bob Marley's song "Down-presser Man" precisely because they see themselves in the title role, and envision keeping their boot-heels planted firmly on the necks of writers till the end of time, or the end of publishing, whichever comes first
  • Know "expert" information when they see it (or, in this case, when they don't)
  • All of the above


MadMax Statistical Analysis Reveals:

4. Industry Folk: A New Year's Wish

SO THERE YOU HAVE IT: More of the patented Mad Max "Insider Scoop"--which, to be honest, tells us mostly nothin' about nothin', once you boil away all the bluster. But I refuse to be embarrassed by my own ignorance, or to be discouraged by the relative lack of response from those within the publishing industry--indeed, I'm truly grateful to those of you who HAVE responded, sometimes in considerable detail, to my entreaties; and (despite my jabs to the contrary) I recognize how overloaded we all are with the responsibilities of our jobs, and that to respond to my queries is to take on an extra night's work (at least).

I'm delighted & invigorated by the warm feedback I've received from so many writers. You need to remember, despite so much anecdotal evidence to the contrary, that for the most part the people working in book publishing do so for the right reasons, and with great hope that great things will happen on your behalf. When reality doesn't measure up (as, so often, it doesn't), they're very much more disappointed and demoralized than perhaps you realize. I'm not asking that you throw a pity party for editors & such, but that you keep your own hearts open to the possibility that they're nearly as deeply invested in the outcome as you are.

It's the disappointment we feel when things go wrong--or simply don't go right enough--that motivated me to start this blog in the first place; and why I think it's so important for others IN THE INDUSTRY to participate in the conversation, to use the cloak of anonymity to share a piece of what you know, in trade for someone else doing the same and, perhaps, giving you an idea about something you DON'T know, or haven't thought of.

I'm not blowing you writers off here, but I'm REALLY speaking now to my colleagues in the business, and not just editors either, but people involved in every phase of the publishing process, who care, deeply, about publishing good books well, and want, badly, for those books to succeed. It's a good thing if our authors know more about the process, have more realistic expectations, can be more active and productive partners and so forth--but, again, this isn't first & foremost for them.

It's for us: the many well-meaning dumbfcuks working in an industry that, on one hand, is based on things that we care about deeply--let's start with great writing--and, on the other, suffers often from certain aspects of institutional and practical entrenchment over which we (most of us) have very little individual influence. It's frustrating; our disappointments significantly outnumber our successes; yet I (for one) can't imagine working in a business that offers so many (potential) rewards, and, so, want (very much) for my frustration to be diminished. For more of my books (and their authors) to come to the attention of more readers. And I know you want the same thing.

Et cetera, dot dot dot...

Here's to 2005. Year of the book.
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."