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.


Anonymous said...

Um. Somebody's blinded by their own sense of entitlement. I wonder if it's the whinging midlister who turned up on Salon last year?

Anyway, when I last checked, publishing was still a business. "Good" in this context means "with potential for success".


Anonymous said...

Dear Max,

Some sort of logical sin is being committed here, though I forget how the terms work: obverse, converse, something like that. Anyway, you wrote that an editor's passion can sometimes (<50% of the time, you even point out) be enough to bring success to a book. S/he's turned that inside out to say that if a book fails, the editor didn't care enough because the book wasn't good enough.

I have the image of a hurt pup that you've reached out to stroke, only to be bitten. Not your fault. [pulling you gently back by the shoulders] There's nothing more you can do, man. Let's go.

Beth Ciotta said...

Dear Max,

I'm stunned by the author's interpretation of your post. It seems that the business and circumstances have turned this author into a full-fledged cynic. Someone who is blind to what I thought was a kind gesture. I feel for this person, and for you who basically got slapped for being nice.

Jessica said...

Dear Mad Max,
I think you are Madnificent--for putting your heart out there. Your point is: We are all struggling to succeed and it's a challenge from whatever vantage point--writer, editor, publisher, agent--. Unfortunately, some people turn bitter in the process. Hey, I've got my own sagas to tell as a fiction writer but I think it's better to stay positive and open. Knowledge is power. The more I learn about the industry from those actively engaged in the publishing business, the better. Why? It gives me something concrete to work with and banishes false expectations. Your blog has been tremendously helpful in that regard. So keep the information flowing. All best,

Anonymous said...

I think you sorta did say "that," though I never took it that way the first time around. The problem arises where you say a publishing chain-reaction ends happily only if "a work bears up again and again to the scrutiny of the many, many sets of readers along the yellow brick road to publication."

The author took this to mean that books that don't make it fail to bear up to said scrutiny because the book wasn't good enough in some way, even if the editor is passionate about its worth, to survive the scrutiny of one or more of those many sets of eyes you refer to.

Whose eyes? The marketing department? An editorial review committee?

I guess her take is actually correct, as I read your statement. Seems to me that not bearing up means lacking the right stuff to leap all the hurdles, not good enough at meeting the expectations of those many, many eyes in the publishing gauntlet despite having the editor's full support.

My thoughts on what to do, so far, echo what the author had to say in her response posted on Buzz, Balls & Hype--that the current process of ponying up huge advances that too often don't pay out is the culprit. I think that if all publishers returned to the process she suggests for building an author--small advances, giving a first novel a good start and keeping it in print while building an audience through a series of books--would work today.

But which publishing house has the guts to return to a rational, book-oriented process and sit on their hands when the bidding goes up for a "hot" new property? Maybe your firm will give it a try. Might miss out on a few bestsellers, but might build a powerful new crew of successful authors.

Ray Rhamey
Flogging the Quill

Chaibat said...

C'mon, Max, you had to see this coming. You've worked with writers. My editor tells me my chapters are 'near perfect' and I indulge in a three-week meltdown, wondering which parts are so deeply flawed he can't even mention them. (For the record: my editor never said anything I wrote was 'near perfect.')

The problem is that, um, Literary Author is kinda right. If her book was so good it set everyone's desk on fire, there would be no lack of promotion, publicity, and popularity. Now, I don't write nearly that well--neither does L.A., neither do the vast majority of writers, living or dead. But despite that fact that I don't measure up, as I writer I -must- cling to the theory that if I write well enough, people -will- notice. They must, because that's the measure of the quality of the words on the page.

I'm a damn good writer, but I'm not -that- damn good--so if my books fail to receive the sort of attention I think they deserve ... the bottom line is I have nobody to blame but myself. If I wrote as well as Philip Roth, my shit would sell. Maybe not immediately, but readers would start to notice, and sales would start to climb.

Problem is, I'm a good-but-not-gifted writer. I'd bet L.A. is the same. Our books may break out if the publishers pushes them hard, but they probably won't on their own merits. In the end the only thing that matters is the writing; I believe that because I must.

Jimmy said...

This is reminiscent of the music industry in the 1980s. Remember when Van Morrison and Johnny Cash got dropped from their labels? Warren Zevon, John Prine, Nick Lowe, Graham Parker--I'm sure there are a zillion other examples. They were no longer the new new thing, they were selling fewer records and they weren't on the radio. Well, the business model changed--they were no longer on Columbia or Warner Bros, but they kept their core audience and they continued to make a living. They signed with independent labels or started their own. They reduced their overhead, worked with small, engaged companies and were no longer competing with U2 or Michael Jackson. Maybe I'm naive, but isn't it possible that many if not most of the midlisters will ultimately find healthier happier homes with the Greywolves, Algonquins and Soft Skulls? Is that really worse than being an afterthought at Random House?

Anonymous said...

Hi Max,
Love reading your blog. About this, I have to say that maybe the author thought you sounded a little condescending.
It's a strange business, and the author has practically no power over the end product or what happens with it.
You put in a year of work - the editor works with you for another few months - you polish and make it shine - and then the book is published and you are at the mercy of critics, buyers, and eventually readers.
There is nothing businesslike about this business for the author. In what other job do you put so much time into something that escapes your control so completely once it's finished?
You know the rules. 'Don't call us, we'll call you. Don't contact buyers, don't answer back to critics, don't, don't, don't...'
I think that people tend to forget that the author writes the book. Everything else is marketing.
You know, I was just thinking. I was once a model. I was expected to stand there, smile, and keep my mouth shut. No matter that I probably knew as much as the photographer about lighting, or as much as the stylist about setting...If I opened my mouth I was chastized. I started writing because I was sick of being treated as a brainless bimbo. Well, all I can say is that most of the time I feel about the same in the publishing business. It's 'Write the book and shut up'.
And heaven forbid you have been published, so what are you complaining about?
Authors are artists, and are not expected to stick your nose into the business end of things. And yet they are expected to act like professionals. Publishers will be the death of creativity, especially if they continue to search for best-sellers. Best-sellers cater to the public. The public has the collective mentality of a nine-year-old. (For example, today I was asked to change the word penumbra to something more 'understandable' by my editor.) If big business takes over publishing, books will soon become as bland as flour and water. Small publishers and independent publishers may make a difference. At any rate, the author, like Cassandra, has no power at all. Even when they submit their work, they are asked to wait for months, and only submit to one place at a time. As if the author was writing for pleasure, and not for pay.
Some myths are better shattered.

Anonymous said...

I read your comments twice, Max, and I didn't get why the anonymous literary writer was so upset. You were agreeing with her for the most part. I think she/he took your last paragraph out of context -- you were speaking big picture, and she/he took it personally.

Publishing IS a heartbreaking business for writers and editors and agents and even readers -- one of my favorite authors isn't writing anymore and I have no idea why. Her backlist is still at my local Borders. And sometimes, all the forces line up against you and it has nothing to do with the book. A lot of it is, simply, luck. Unfortunate, but true.

Anonymous said...

Wow, my first reaction to her response I suspect was much like your, shock. Did she read the same thing I did? So, then I went back and reread, and in the very last lines see what she jumped on. Sad. The whole tone of your piece was so empathetic to her plight, and then your general comment at the end was twisted and taken so personally. Obviously she is just too close and too sensitive to be objective. But she needs to be realistic. This is a business, and though there are thousands of wonderful, worthy, books, they just don't all find the readership they deserve because they don't speak loudly or clearly enough to the masses. But then, the occasional book does, like a Secret Life of Bees, or a Lovely Bones. Unusual books, that strike a chord, that move us enough to tell people, 'you have to read this.'

Katharine Weber said...

Secret Life of Bees and Lovely Bones ain't great literature, either one 'em. So now I am confused -- what are we talking about again? Whether it is possible for wonderful literary fiction to be well published? Or how to break out literaryish books that will sell and sell? Or why authors get hurt feelings? Why publishing is illogical? Remind me, please.

Anonymous said...

Interesting. Secret Life of Bees and Lovely Bones are very well written, even literary books. Are they 'great literature'? Well that depends how you define it, doesn't it? Is the author in question here a creator of 'great literature', somehow, I doubt it. She sounds like someone who perhaps, is a legend in her own mind.

Anonymous said...

Ms. Weber is right. "Literaryish"--that's right on the money. And that's one reason why I head for the hills whenever editors start ladling out the horseshit about how they have to feel passionate about a work, how their great and boundless love for this book or that book led them to fight for it in the dim hollows of sales and marketing, etc., etc. What gets lost in the midst of this love-fest is that 98% of the books these passionate guardians fall for are exactly the same as the one their counterpart at the next house (or the next office) is ga-ga over. Passion? Sure. Going out on a limb? Forget about it. And even the passion takes the form of that which a physical therapist, bent on your rehabilitation, might express. As one editor told me, I love your book, I'm even more excited about it than I thought I'd be. Then he outlined his vision for it, which was to cut it by 50%. If your son or daughter were involved with someone with that kind of "passion," you'd tell them to pack and leave, by cover of darkness if necessary.

Anonymous said...

Let me chime in again, this time on the subject of "goodness." (The following comment is echoed on Buzz, Balls & Hype, where all this started.)

As a writer who spent decades in the highly competitive field of advertising and "published" a number of successful national campaigns, I can testify that an equal number of ideas that were equally "good" failed to be produced for the same reason that good books aren't. Those "failed" ideas were good at being ads and would have made the sale with consumers, but were not good enough at making the sale with decision-makers.

A book can be good at being a book and arouse editor and reader passions, yet still not be good at turning on the marketing department, or the chain store buyer, or an independent store buyer. Salability (i.e. "goodness"), in the eyes of people who have not actually read the book, has nothing to do with its bookish qualities.

Heck, first novelists run into this same syndrome when approaching agents. Many agents first decide whether or not to even consider a manuscript by whether or not they think the book is of a type that will sell to an editor. The question is will it sell, not is it good. My fellow novelists know how infuriating this is.

Sales goodness has to do with high concept, or a perceived "hook," or celebrity or, sometimes, luck. The sales fate of a book is not in the hands of the editor or the author, at least to begin with. Once an editor loves a book, the first sale it has to make is with the editorial committee and/or sales guys, and I'm betting many of those decisions are made without reading the book and, therefore, not based upon its book goodness.

The question becomes is it a good product, not is it a good book.

That's why, if the risk of publishing a book (lower advances, a solution for the 50% return problem, etc.) can be reduced, maybe its chances for being "good enough" to go to market could be improved with the folks who make those decisions.

And then the reader gets to decide, which is all an author can ask for anyway.

At least, that's the way I see it.

Ray Rhamey
Flogging the Quill

Anonymous said...

As a book industry professional, I have to confess that there is nothing that makes me spit fire as furiously as the author who took Max to task over at the other blog. If our saying that we are passionate about our work makes you want to head for the hills, as this author wrote, then, by all the means, get the hell out already. Don't let the door hit you on the way out, either.

If you (as a writer) think we're doing this (and in this case I mean, specifically, publishing novels) cynically, you're out of gourd. It's just not true. I don't know a single editor or agent who publishes novels merely for the marketing plan. We love them. Their failures break our goddamn hearts. Their successes makes us think all the suffering is worth it.

And, more than that, Anonymous Literary Author makes a major, major error in logic, which is presuming that what he/she views as literary is by definition what is to be loved. There are folks who publish what fiction that is the highest of the high brow, the lowest of the low brow, and everything in the middle. None of it, really, is done cynically. What would be the point? Just because Anonymous Literary Author thinks that HER work is so brilliant, doesn't mean that anyone else is obliged to love it -- or even to think it's "literary." Nor does it mean that The Lovely Bones, for example, wasn't deeply, deeply loved by the passionate publishing professionals who made it such a major success story. Because it was. And if you think it wasn't, or that some other book that didn't work was by definition not loved, not published passionately, you're dead wrong.

I also think that, as this board has conclusively noted, success in the marketplace does not equal reasonable judgment of a book's being "good" or "bad," and failure tells you little as well. That is not what Max meant, obviously; what he meant was that as a professional, you have to believe in the book itself so strongly, because your only hope is that it will stand up to all the critical readings it will receive, from one's colleagues, from the booksellers, from the reviewers, and ultimately from the readers. To misunderstand him and then to attack him for implying that he's drawing a 1 to 1 relationship between failure and inferiority is just plain stupid.

So, as I said before, if you don't want to hear or believe that we do this for the right reasons -- and I include both passion and a belief that we can all make money on books if they're good and published well as good reasons -- I have a thought for you:

Get lost. You won't be missed.

Jackie B. said...

Ray summed up the matter perfectly: "The question is will it sell, not is it good."

Editors have to "sell" a book internally if the house acquires by committee. Then, they have to "sell" to sales and marketing to get the necessary support to launch the book into the marketplace. Sales has to sell the book to booksellers, who in turn have to sell it to the public. To imagine the process has anything more to do with salability (defined by different factors at different points in time) is idealistic at best, naive at worst.

Sometimes, though, passion DOES sell; and I think, in a way, that’s what both the author and Mad Max were saying. Since passion has more currency in the small press arena, though, maybe that's where the author should seek out the kind of success she desires, and quite possibly deserves.

Brenda Coulter said...

Am I the only one thinking maybe it's time to let go of these arguments and move on? Between the "anonymous author" and all the anonymous posters chiming in here, I've lost track of who's fighting about what. And frankly, it's not very interesting, anyway, when so many of the participants, including the two principals, have chosen to conceal their identities.

k.p. said...

Max and this author agree on one important point, which has been touched on in several comments. To quote the disenchanted author: In past decades, publishing houses "gave a good novelist a small advance for her first novel, a good start with it, and then they published her next book for a little more money, keeping the first one in print. Backlist was the thing, for building readership. The publishers expected readership to start small, they kept costs low, and they believed in the writer. They were in it for the long haul, and for the quality."

This is precisely the formula Max has advocated, and it's a point upon which both editors and writers seem to agree. So why has it disintegrated? The mere fact that Max appreciates this author's heartbreak gives me hope that editors, writers, and agents--working in an arena of mutual trust and understanding--can bring sobriety and elegance back to the literary market.

As a writer, this blog often scares the sh*t out of me, but on the other hand, it's giving me an invaluable lesson in understanding the (compassionate) editor's point of view.

Thanks, and bravo, Max.

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

"Why has it disintegrated?" Max has been around so long he can probably remember the name of the decision, but it was a Supreme Court case that classified a publisher's physical backlist as inventory, requiring them to pay taxes on them. With one fell swoop books started going OP. So much for the backlist. I suppose people who manufactured pulp must have experienced a real boom time.

Anonymous said...

"So, as I said before, if you don't want to hear or believe that we do this for the right reasons -- and I include both passion and a belief that we can all make money on books if they're good and published well as good reasons -- I have a thought for you:

Get lost. You won't be missed."

Nice comment from someone who claims to be so passionate about books and authors. How about this? If you don't want to hear an author criticizing a system that seems to become more conservative every year, with fewer editors willing to take risks (or, as a poster above put it--taking the same "risks" that a dozen other editors are also willing to take, gossipping about "hot" properties at three hour luncheons, paying a new writer three times what you pay the writers you have now because you got carried away with the status you'll get from wining the auction), then why don't you get lost? You'll certainly be missed less than any of your writers will, assuming they're good writers. If they're not, why are you publishing them again?

Anonymous said...

Same angry professional back again. Criticize away -- just don't impune my and our integrity by claiming that we couldn't possibly really love our books and that hearing that we're passionate makes you want to "head for the hills." I've probably got more criticisms than you, but if you think that my passion for what I do and for the books I work on is that disgusting, then I don't want to publish you and, frankly, you shouldn't want to be published by me. Because this attitude is belittling and insulting. And wrong.

Katharine Weber said...

Wow, all this animus makes me just want to hunker down, stop obsessing over who says what to whom about what on varous blogs, finish novel #4 (which is under contract for decent money to a great house with a superb and devoted old-fashioned editor), and count my lucky stars.

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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."