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 revealed...in this country, at least, we're too busy actually trying to publish our books to find the time for such scintillating sport] that might make the difference between an invisible publication (i.e., of the "well, at least it's out there, right?" variety) and one that actually reflects months of advance planning, strategizing and an infinite number of one-on-one conversations with various people in the bookselling chain, from publisher to marketing director to publicity team to subsidiary rights people to sales managers to individual sales reps to individual booksellers (yes, many of us do that too), the scratching and clawing that constitutes pretty much our every working day--

--do you honestly think, after all that effort, under these circumstances, that those of us without a massive "brand name" author on our list at this particular moment of time, are going to sit back passively and watch our books simply go down the drain? That we'll be content to sit back and say, well, it's Zadie Smith's month, so I don't want to create waves? Oh, Patricia Cornwell is more important, so I don't want to distract "the team" from doing what matters most?

--if that's what you think--and, clearly, it's the way a lot of writers see it--then it's time for Mad Max shed his sonorous baritone and robes of false benevolence and step out from behind the podium from which he delivers his Sunday morning pastorals to say--no, scream--

You haven't got a f**king clue!

Because--guess what? We editors are ambitious fuckers too, just like writers are. We want our books to succeed not simply because we want the best things for the authors we care about, the authors who bust their asses to the same extent that we bust ours, but because their success is ours too! Contrary to what Dexter the Delightful says, there is no Gentleman's Safety Net in which editorial mediocrity is rewarded with a plush new job someplace else. My books don't sell over a period of time? Guess what: I'm toast. Time to see if there are any openings at the post office...

So when I talk about "passion" I'm not talking about that which is bathed in the heavenly light of beneficence--or have we forgotten that, sometimes, passion=urgency, stridency, desperation even? And so it is that publishers and associate publishers and marketing managers and publicists and local sales reps come to hate editors--not because we're trying to ruin their lives, destroy their careers, crush their spirits, etc. (as is the case with writers, or so it's reported here), but because we won't stop hounding them! We won't stop bitching and moaning, pinching and pulling, begging, bartering, cajoling, asking for more of their time, more of their resources, offering up our own time--doing whatever we can to make sure our books, our authors, get a slice of the marketing pie; that opportunities are seized; that, despite the odds against it, smaller books, too, get published. Not just printed and distributed, but published.

A little less passion, a little more scratch, you say? Here's a story: when, several years ago, an editor was hired away from Pocket to take a new job Doubleday, there was an author he loved that he insisted on bringing with him. A thriller writer whose previous novels had netted--TOPS--8500 copies, who probably hadn't earned out his relatively modest first advances, who after just a couple of books, already had a downward sales track. Is this guy a winner, a slam dunk? No: what he is is a thriller writer that his editor, Jason Kaufman, has worked with from the start, somebody he believes in and wants to stick with despite (let's say) modest sales. When Jason tells his new publisher about this writer, his publisher hasn't even heard of the guy, and probably couldn't care less. Doubleday already has John Grisham, Mitch Albom, James Bradley, and lots of other big best-sellers. But Jason convinces his new employer to let him bring this decidedly midlist author with him. Why? Because he's personally invested, because he feels PASSIONATELY about him--because he believes that the guy has what we publishing whores refer to as "break-out potential."

Dynamite Dexter, Sad Saxe and many others out there may not admire Dan Brown's THE DA VINCI CODE. But what started the fire that lead to TDVC becoming one of (if not the) bestselling hardcovers in modern history was not some by-the-numbers calculation by some hooded group of marketing executives, but the passion--yes, I'll say it again: the PASSION, and follow-through, of one editor; of his belief in an author's talent; of his confidence that the author had a book in him that could catch fire at a larger level.

If Jason Kaufman had NOT taken Dan Brown with him to Doubleday; if another editor, equally smart and talented but perhaps less personally invested in Dan's career--me, say--had inherited, edited and published it, THE DA VINCI CODE almost certainly would not have become anything like the phenomenon we all know it to be now.

So go ahead, rake me over the coals for citing a middle-brow thriller instead of the more serious work of Robert Coover or Dexter Petley or David Markson or Toby Olson--I assure you, I've published more than my share of extraordinary writers who have not yet had the day in the sun they deserve. An editor's passion guarantees NOTHING--except, perhaps, an honest chance. Something can go wrong; in fact, something usually does. But the absense of passion? That situation does come with a guarantee: failure, pure and simple.


Karen Junker said...

Max - 1

Whiny writers - 0

Anonymous said...

"Kill them all! God will know his own."

Anonymous said...

well, dexter says, someone left the light on… firstly, i didn’t mention agents because we weren’t discussing agents. but seeing as the passion discourse is turning biblical, the sufferings of max on his cross, we can slice the pie more evenly. in uk there are more agents than books. the new generation are, probably like most of the last generation, ex-publishing editors. either disillusioned, dumped in the takeovers or lured by the idea of 15 percent of a celebrity’s advance. (they cant all start 6 book independents, but they do have the redundency pay-off and the option of taking their authors with them in the good old british tradition of switching sides if the grass is greener). it must be galling, when you’re paying a million for a book, as a midlist editor, to endure a salary of around 30,000 dollars ? between 15-26 thousand sterling, which i must admit is extremely low for a 60 hour week, in comparison to your average plumber. (how much is your own passion worth, max, before you start weighing the maunuscripts in the post office instead of buying them ?) right now i dont have an agent and do my own plumbing. this may be folly. unrepresented, my advance for novel no.1 was three-hundred pounds sterling. with an agent, advance no2 was 25,000 pounds sterling. the day of the deal i was actually fixing a leak when the phone rang. my agent said the buying editor was a pratt but the best editor for me in london, so go for it. that is scratch par excellence. that’s how you deserve your cut. he was the best editor too, till emasculated by a takeover.
as for my irregular sources of publishing intelligence, perhaps the brits gossip more than you. they certainly drink more. what the drinking undoubtedly reveals, less revelation than essential assembley instructions within the trade,is the despair, the sub-strata of daily publishing. it’s latest advice, on the agent front :before you submit, find out how much they drink and the size of their debts. in other words, they’re holding out for the big one, and even if their brief is to get the best deal they can for their authors, incurring credit card expenses for wasted lunches on behalf of their literary backlist is not why they became the literary agents they are today. all passion spent ?
in france, where i live, (in a caravan-trailer- in a field, far far from that mad crowd, and not on the cote d’azur i might add), they do not have literary agents. and it’s so peaceful. there’s no such thing as a literary agent. now why is this ? traditionally, the role of an agent was to keep the author at arms length from the editor who must not be disturbed. nowadays it’s to secure the best deal possible. this wouldnt be because, without an agent, an editor would rip the author off would it ? let’s just say, that without my ex-agent, my ex- editor wouldnt have paid me more than 3 grand. and quite rightly perhaps. it would, undoubtedly, benefit everyone concerned, if the state legislated a maximum advance. then, and only then, would the best book win and we’d all have a modest but adequate income from royalties. agents, the parasites they are, would then all go back into publishing as reformed alcoholics. writers would revert to being driven by passion too, and not greed. this would relieve the martydom in the publishing house.
max, your passion argument breaks down under its own logic. for all the dedicated activity around a title, a selection process has already taken place which dooms a book to inexistence short of the miracle you hope takes place. saxe commins nailed this one eloquently to the barn door. the hardback. redundent, costly and elitist. a fake commodity produced for reviewers. add to the equation your own admission that production costs for a larger printing of an author with a track record is these days the same as that for a smaller print run of an unknown author. then determine who gets the marketing budget and who gets the " please take two copies and see how it goes" . kill the hardback and call it a crime of passion.

Anonymous said...

Hate to be a stickler, there, Max, but Kaufman came in at book #3. And frankly, whoever was responsible (aside from Brown himself) in seeing Digital Fortress (a book whose only redeeming value is in backlist bucks) make it into print really had no business in publishing in the first place, and in a perfect world *is* working in a post office somewhere.

As to the passionate Kaufman... did he spot potential? Yes. Was he able to stick handle that into book sales. Not with Angels & Demons... here, in his own words:

"The first book we worked on together was Angels and Demons. It just blew me away when I saw the manuscript. I thought, `This guy should be a very big best seller,' but it just didn't happen; at least, not then." ...

That book, as well as the two others Brown published before The Da Vinci Code, Digital Fortress (1998) and Deception Point (2001), sold perhaps 25,000 copies altogether. Today, Angels and Demons is on the New York Times Bestseller List, not too far off from the top-listed Da Vinci Code.

"Such is the world of publishing," Kaufman admitted. "Sometimes you get a writer who is not perceived — for one reason or another — as a potential commercial success, and the publishing house just won't put a lot of resources into promoting the book."

Hmmm... what does that tell us about an editor's passion? And what changed, with TDVC? Did Kaufman get *more* passionate? Have an epiphany? Or did a change of house, new readers on Brown's publishing yellow brick road, folks with thoughts on how to build a better mousetrap come into the mix? If we swear the gloves are off, will you come out from behind that mahogany dais and tell us, Max, cause we want to know...

Anonymous said...

Thank you, Dexter, for coming to the defense of literary agents, among whose ranks I proudly include myself. And while I hate to join in the mudslinging, at this point it seems like little more than another drop in the bucket, so fuck it. The reason I believe the frustrated writers involved in this discussion haven't focused more of their venom on their agents is that (good) agents have, for the most part, taken over the roles editors used to hold -- handholder, promoter, friend, confidante, and yes EDITOR. How many times have I received letters and phone calls from editors who LOVE the manuscript I've submitted to them but feel they must pass because of some perceived problem with pacing or because there's one too many characters or as a result of some other small, and certainly fixable, flaw? Essentially they're saying, "I see this as a worthy, well-executed project, but it's not quite perfect, so I'm going to move on." And yes, there are a million and one reasons for this sort of response (most, I'd say, having to do with corporatization, which requires a unanimity on the part of publishers that's frankly nearly impossible to achieve in a completely subjective business), and while the quest for projects that invoke unbridled passion is an excellent scapegoat, I have to say there's little point calling it anything else. And at the end of the day, I'd say it's an agent's ability to empathize with clients, to sit back and say, "You know what, publishing is flawed, but let's you and I try to take it on together," that exempts him or her from the flogging editors seem to be getting around here.

Anonymous said...

OMG. . . .

Anonymous said...

1) Thank you, Mad Max, for your response. I feel slightly vindicated in being an optimist. I guess in my short life I've always felt that being confident, an optimist, and constantly striving to better whatever I'm working on (raising kids, writing books, working my day job) -- even if something goes wrong -- I can know I did everything I could.

2) To the librarian who had a comment on the last post -- you nailed it. It's about the reader. It's always been about the reader. Readers buy books (or ask for them at the library so the library will buy the book). While I write what I love -- suspense -- I write with the reader in mind. It's not all about me--it's all about them.

3) Regarding agents -- I wouldn't wade in the waters of publishing without one. There's good and bad ones just like there are good and bad editors. I think I found a good one. She negotiated a great deal (and yes, that is their primary role IMO -- to negotiate a fair deal, make sure the author doesn't get screwed in the contract because agents know far more about publishing contracts than most writers, and to be the go-between between the author and editor on the difficult issues.) Why? Because I want my editor and I to focus on my books -- I don't want a dark cloud hanging over us if we're working on one novel while trying to negotiate for another. That's my agent's headache and why she more than earns her 15%.

4) The agent who posted made some interesting points and I agree with a lot of them. One I disagree on, though I have little basis in my assessment and I'm sure she/he will be able to tell me why I'm wrong.

My manuscript that sold was far from perfect. It was 99% grammatically correct, typo free, etc. etc., but as I saw in the revision process my editor had a lot of suggested changes, including re-writing a huge, 50 page section of the book just before the climax. My editor didn't tell me HOW, she just said it didn't work. I rewrote it and she loved it.

I believe that editors reject near-perfect books because they didn't love them. Wait -- that sounds like they weren't PASSIONATE about them. This is where subjectivity comes in. Oh, the editor may give excuses to the agent (too many grammatical errors, I didn't like this secondary character, it's too short, too long, etc., etc.), but ULTIMATELY, the editor did not fall in love with the author's voice. And THAT is the reason the editor didn't buy it.

When I sold, I had a couple offers and a couple rejections. The editor who loved me upped her offer. The other editor who offered didn't. Why? She didn't love me. She might have liked me a whole lot and saw potential, but it wasn't worth it (for her) to go to the publisher and ask for more money for my book. The first editor was willing to go to bat for me because she felt passionate about my work.

5) I think a lot less negativity and a lot more collaboration on solutions to the real issues would help. I think the problem, though, is that I see failures in different areas that writers like dexter and sad saxe see failures. Maybe it would be time for you, mad max, to reiterate your purpose for this blog. I think you stated your reasons clearly at the beginning, but maybe it's time to jumpstart your original intent.

s/anon suspense writer

TLG said...

Wow, crazy amounts of FB on that one (I'm impressed by the LENGTHS to which people will FB). Writers are total bastards. That post filled me with self-loathing :)

(by the way, been reading for a while, and I think this is my first time saying howdie) I think blogs that dish out the humble pie should be mandatory reading especially for narcicistic assholes like us ;)

Anonymous said...

Poor Max is eating his Collard Greens, halfway minding his own business and certainly not expecting what is about to come next. I am reminded of the 1979 movie Aliens. I am uncertain how to cast Max. Either he’s got the John Hurt role, eating in the mess with the others when a Dale Peck like monster rips through his ribcage. Oh my God, cry his colleagues. Or there is Max down in the lower decks, quietly calling, “Kitty, kitty.” And boom the monster nails him. Max, you had no idea that so many writers with Dale Peck like monster fangs and claws were out there.

I suspect your fellow editors must have warned you. But you just had to go below deck.

Segue to the Manhattan, and Max who claims never to have time for a drink, is at a downtown bar drinking a glass of organic fruit juice. On a barstool next to Maix, is a middle-aged literary novelist, cold, hungry, shabby in dress and grooming, drinking cheap bar whiskey.

The writer starts screaming, “I could’ve been a contender.”

Max screams back “You don’t have a fucking clue.”

Some movies open in art houses. Others open in 2,000 cinemas all across the blue and red States. Both are movies. One kind (so the producers, director and writer wish to believe) bestows on its makers a persona for rich texture, language, sensitive relationships evolved slowly on the screen and everyone in the audience applauds that the film makers have so knowingly captured the inner soul of mankind; the other movie makers count the car crashes, the dead bodies, and their money.

Writing books isn’t a whole lot different. Every writer needs to address the question of audience. You want an art house movie? Don’t expect a Hollywood blockbuster pot of gold. It doesn’t work that. Probably never has nor never will. Whatever the audience, publishing is Darwinian. Not everyone gets to be Sigourney Weaver who pushes the alien out of the space ship. Most of them end up in the lower decks, calling, “Kitty, kitty.” Some of the writers’ postings appear to fall in the camp of those who believe in Intelligent Design. They believe some act of God will intervene and elevate them onto the New York Times Bestseller’s list. It is a cultural difference of opinion. But Max, and your job, and your fellow editors are telling you again, doesn’t require you to go below where the Dale Peck’s are hatching and waiting for you. You never will find that cat.

Anonymous said...

Add me to those who'd like to hear more from Max on the issue of hardcovers versus paperbacks. As I recall, Max, your mission is to address problems that plague publishing. The difficulties don't seem to stem from a lack of passionate editors and hard-working writers and beleaguered agents but from the business of selling books, the product.

As pointed out, costs are a crippling factor. Cost of production, cost of advances, cost of marketing, cost of remainders. It makes sense to me to take a hard look at just how intelligent it is to put money into hardcover editions that price themselves off of many home bookshelves, including mine. I'll confess to loving it when I can acquire a hardcover, but far more often I wait for the paperback or until those remainders go on sale. And I think the point about the many book clubs out there waiting for the paperback edition is important--how much buzz might be created if the first edition of a book was approachable by those book clubs? If first sales number in the tens of thousands rather than thousands simply because the book is far more affordable?

So help us out here, Max. What can going directly to paperback--both trade & mass market?--do for launching a new work of fiction? Would your firm go for that? Can an editor influence this decision? What are the downsides? For example, I've read that it's harder to get a newspaper review if a hardcover version isn't sent.

Ray Rhamey
Flogging the Quill

Anonymous said...

Add me to that "wanna know more" list concerning paperbacks. As a consumer, I can't stand buying hardcovers. To me, publishers have got it backwards: they should offer paperbacks first so we can so we can first decide whether a story is worth buying in hardcover (for longevity).

Anonymous said...

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薬剤師 求人
看板 製作
ウォーター サーバー

Anonymous said...

クレジットカード 現金化
水 通販

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."