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.


Anonymous said...

Dear Max,

I think a couple of good things about this entire sequence of posts are:

1. revelation of the passion you and other "industry" pros invest in what you do and how you do it.

2. a reminder of the raw-nerve irritability (in the clinical sense) of many authorial egos, which sometimes leads us to over-react. It's taken me more years than I'll admit to be able to "take it" (and, even then, there's always that first, defensive flash).

Lastly, I'm sure you'll want to know that it's "collard greens" rather than "collared greens"--although the image of a bunch of greens dressing for dinner is fun to contemplate.

Thanks for all you do.

Ray Rhamey
Flogging the Quill

Anonymous said...

:) Actually, the image it created in my mind was of green vegetation wearing black- and white-stiped prison garb.

I once wrote an email to a friend and told her about some "wild bore" I saw while driving. She said she laughed so hard her co-workers came running.

Sometimes it's those accidental images that really make for a good day!

Anonymous said...

Dear Mad Max,

I’d like to weigh in on the discussion from afar (Asia). The anguished cry from the heart of the literary writer and your supportive and insightful views about her plight touch upon the nature of the publishing world that has not been fully addressed. The publishing marketplace – and I am addressing this in the American context – is a rough and tumble street fight. Editors are more like trainers and writers more like someone who wants the top billing with the crowd cheering as they enter the ring. But it is the promoters, the Don King’s of publishing, who decide who gets on the fight bill, and who gets to fight in the big events. Trainers do their best but it isn’t up them. There will be the early fights way down on the event. No one goes to the fights to see those fighters. Often they fight alone. That doesn’t mean they aren’t good or professional. It is often a matter of luck and timing as is so much in life. Sometimes a winner in one of prelim fights advances up the ranks. But the main card is why people go to a boxing match.

The promoters in boxing and publishing know it is basically the same business model. If you are going into the ring as a writer, expect to get bloodied, knocked down, bullied, ignored, shoved into the part of the program that starts before the audience actually shows up for the main bill. Writers need to learn to take a punch – to take a lot of punches. Or don’t get into the ring. Do something else. Paint. Carve. Sing. That’s the lesson from champions. Most of the wailing and gnashing of teeth that comes from writers who get knocked down in the first round amounts to: how did this happened? I am dazed. It ain’t fair. He hit me when I wasn’t looking. I want a rematch. I deserve as much attention as the guy on the top bill. I am as good. I am better. Blah, blah, blah.

In my case, after 17 professional fights, I decided to only enter the ring off shore. I get top billing and people show up for my fights. I don’t want to go into the ring in New York. I don’t like or trust the promoters or kind of fights they organize. I don’t argue about it. It is their marketplace. Where I fight, I am guaranteed an audience. I have learned to take a punch. Not all the best fighters are in New York. The rest of the world knows. Apparently a lot of writers in America do not.

Writers have to learn there is more than one way to get into the ring, more than one way to stay in the ring, and more that a couple of good ways to show your stuff.

Anonymous said...

"one can (if one chooses) 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."

Max, this statement and its tone underscore everything I objected to that led me to post my original comment suggesting that the "passion" of various editors for the work that crossed their desks was all a matter of degree, varying one from the other the way, say, the major democratic presidential candidates did. It's the passion rhetoric that gets me, yes, infuriating and risible at the same time. It's like listening to a bunch of guys talk about how much they love women, respect women, admire women, and then snappng to the fact the women they're talking up all seem to look like Pam Anderson. Well, who wouldn't--those tits, that mouth--there's a lot there to admire, but you can't really confuse her with Katha Pollit (a nice looking dame herself). Now, this response will probably make that angry "book industry professional" (ugh) rush out of the doghouse to bark at me again, but can someone please tell me where the "right" editor was for, say, David Markson's "Wittgenstein's Mistress"? That book got turned down by forty five houses, including all the majors. Was it just a coincidence that the "right editor" happened to be at tiny Dalkey Archive Press? And here's the big surprise: "Wittgenstein" went on to do remarkably well, scoring to-die-for reviews, attracting ardent fans from David Foster Wallace to Ann Beattie, going into seven or eight paperback printings to date. How nice! The right editor found it! Of course, if one of the big trade houses had had the guts--oh, excuse me, the PASSION--to publish it, then the book would have done at least as well, probably better, and Dave Markson wouldn't be trying to get by on social security, which in fact he is. Let that door hit your ass on the way out, "book industry professional." Hope that makes you spit fire. Back when Wittgenstein got published, it was all the Gen-X novels that every editor--strictly coincidentally, of course--was so "passionate" about. Oh, have we forgotten all about the Gen X novelists? How amazing.

Look, my point is, I respect all the good that a good editor does. I have one. I'm with a good house. But I never ever lose sight of the fact that this is a business, and yes, it does make me want to head for the hills when someone tries to sell me a bill of good about that mysterious X quotient, passion, as if it's all somehow free-floating, divorced from the crass commercial considerations of Hollywood or widget sales. I mentioned David Markson but I might have mentioned Toby Olson, a Pen-Faulkner winner who can't find a commercial publisher, or Robert Coover, who publishes for $0 advance, or Keith Waldrop, whose incredibly brilliant memoir (published by Sun & Moon during the Reign of the Memoir) received exactly ONE review. Hey, I'm passionate about all those guys. How about hiring me on to be the "right" editor for them?

Anonymous said...

i want to throw my weight behind mj rose here, especially her latest comment. i can't really improve on what she's said, only offer solidarity as i'm sure she'll be coming under fire again. our publishing histories are similar. 3 novels, good reviews, though in my case dumped for low sales. though i'm published in the uk, mjr's observations seem true enough to me.
given the chance, as we've seen on this blog since
inception,publishing executives, editors, agents, industry insiders have nothing to say which isn't defensive or perverse, or just nothing to say at all. the fact that we're supposed to hide behind anonymity means essentialy that there's something to hide. the real debate, the insider philosophy within publishing becomes distorted by recycled mythologising. what is said here is not what is said between editors themselves. any writer who's gone on a pub crawl with their editor knows what is said by the inner circle, and it's far from max perkin's kind and innocent sunday talks. the duplicity of editors, the disparities in the standard language they employ, is obviously a subject highly taboo. (let's dispense with anonimity and be at least responsable for what we say: my name is dexter petley and i was published by fourth estate by the way.) i think mad max is probably a good guy whose backed himself into a corner and darent talk his way out for the revelations it would entail. like mjrose, i've never believed in this "passion" thing either, not as a workable model, not as a means of trust. a novelist has to to trust an editor or the whole relationship conspires against further books or any success with the one in hand. in my experience, and that of other writers i know, editors do very little to inspire all-round confidence. the problem is the "passion" model. as in all passion, it's very quickly spent when the book flops. the editor's had his fuck and you're dumped for someone else. there's no follow up, just a company christmas card at the end of the year with a fake signature from the md who remaindered your book in the first place and sacked the best editors in the takeover. (mine this year said "harper christmas" on the front, "happy collins" on the back). you hear from your agent that your editor was seen slumped on a bar stall weeping into his beer and saying "i don't understand what happened...i still consider it the best book i've published this year so why did it go wrong?" well, try asking me. they soon bounce back, the bleeding heart editors, they're in a career structure with a party line, an aquisition quota, a shaggers paradise after all. the whole writer-editor set-up is disproportionate anyway. i think most novelists when pressed would prefer some cold logic from an editor instead of passion. some strategy instead of this "well at least it's out there now" rubbish you get told two weeks after publication and no reviews. under those circumstances i'd rather not publish. my editors just scratch their heads when my books fail to sell. short of passion, and that other false editor's friend "the midwife" for christs sake (and how i cringe when i hear them say a book is like their baby but they ALL say it without realising the enormity of the error), short of passion they've no back-up except the unimaginitive marketing budget reserved for others, the big-name buy-ins to get on the top 100 list or the last six in some big prize. this is vanity, not shrewd publising, but it rules.
editors distrust "midlist" writers because they let them down eventually. they know we can see through their critical deficiencies. (the fact that editors resort to the language of food to try and explain their reaction to a book is always disappointing). taste, and relying on taste to provoke the passion, is a fickle tool to go to the boardroom with, there to argue for a title against an accountant who knows how much money you've already cost the firm. i've had several books turned down at boardroom level because the editor has gone ill-prepared, relying on some very amateur enthusiasm. they live to fight another day, but we dont. they queer the pitch and your agent tells you to change your name next time. look at what publishers and agents do discuss when they're given the opportunity. definitions of "midlist". like sociologists talking about the working class. they never look up from their notes. they rely on the numbers. the figures. anything to avoid the problem, the problem at the heart of mad max's initiative when he launched this blog. the problem for which the publishers' have only themselves to blame. they've created monsters and lost control. they've no insight, too busy digging a hole to stop a leak. they fear the "midlist" because it is from here the insisive criticism and insight comes, and not because of failure, far from it. it's no coincidence that one stock-in-trade of the literary novelist who expects only modest sales and due recognition, (only that, not the chat shows and the world book tours)is being critical within subjective worlds. from the very start of my publishing career ten years ago, i made it clear that i wouldnt do publicity. i have a life and it doesnt involve signings, readings, interviews... of course, this gives your editor the cop-out he needs. anti-social, sabotaged his own book, poxy attitude to all the goodwill in the office. refuses to live in london. it's always the writers fault, no matter how many crocodile tears an editor sheds. he's a serial bigamist. he shrugs off his failure by the time the next catalogue is out with another litter of vain hopes with dreadful blurbs. it becomes clear soon enough, that once you enter publishing as a writer there are few strategies employed by editors that the majority of "literary" novelists would themselves adopt or approve. there is nothing tangible between "passion" and "taste", between aquisition and publishing, nothing except hype and marketing money. this reduces the book to commodity. that's fine, i accept it, but editors can't admit that if they produce a commodity then it should be treated as "product" and not a "love child" which is the result of "passion". without the backing of the publicity machine, it stands little or no chance of even getting into the shops. the editor says dumb-fucking things, as if the writer is subnormal, like: we'll just have to hope it wins a prize. or: let's hope someone notices it. what other industry launches a product costing 10.99 with such complete lack of care, ideas, intelligence? oh sure, the editor's passion for your book is worth more, in the end, than the modest sales you might expect them, as professionals surely, to garuntee? no? so editors are what, clairvoyants? psychiatrists? just what is it they're employed to do in the first place? if its a lottery, if it's guesswork, if it's all vain hope, we'd all be better off self-publishing. we dont need them. this is what gets up a writer's nose. the profound lack of insight publishers seem to have into their "workers" and their "products" and their vision. the greed with which they seize your product and the speed with which they turn down your next if it doesnt bring them credit. well who created this quagmire? who created such an absurd critical structure that you can pass by a book that you know someone else will buy and be successful with? i know an editor who didn't buy a book for a year because he relied on the"passion" which had led him to a string of best sellers with another publisher. a new job and he was petrified into indecision by fear of failure, a common editorial disease. anyway, his boss said if he didn't buy a book within 3 months he'd get sacked. so he went on a spending spree and wasted millions and created the climate we have today, the one where you get, and let's use some good old culinary cliche that editors understand, you get chocolate flavoured broccolli, you get apple cross-overs and a load of drive-thru bloggers who think writers should eat humble pie with editors who wear hearts on their sleeves.

Anonymous said...

Oh... poor darling Max:
Opens a can of worms and gets pummeled with the stinky, over-ripe fish it attracts.

Anonymous said...

I sympathize with Dexter's post and I agree with him, mostly. Let me clarify something, though: I'm the author of two posts in this discussion, an initial one rejecting the idea of "passion" and a second one amplifying on the idea, and it seems as if a few people (including Dexter) have confused me with either MJ Rose or her anonymous correspondent. I'm neither person.

As to the "overripe fish" comment. Well, up yours. You're either one of the brownnosers around here endlessly thanking Max for setting up what I guess he'd hoped would be an extravaganza of self-congratulation here or you're one of those "book publishing professionals" who're so put out when writers, clever folks that we are, refuse to genuflect in the face of all your "passion" and "heartbreak" and insist on, what? Decent advances that pay the rent and buy food, a modest promotional budget, an honest report of how many copies per print run, ditto for royalty statements, etc., etc.

Anonymous said...

from the stinky over-ripe fish: an ammendment. by mj rose, i obviously meant "anonymous literary novelist" first posted by mj rose.

Anonymous said...

Are we having an emperor's clothes moment? Self-publishing is looking better all the time. It's either the vanity press or the insanity press, eh?

Anonymous said...

At the risk of being flamed, I'm going to jump into this discussion with an unpopular comment: You have no right to be published. Authors, at least traditional fiction writers, are not employees for hire or even independent contractors in the traditional meaning of the word. Authors are artists. If someone doesn't like your "art", they're not going to buy it. It doesn't matter that all the art reviews glow over the brilliant use of color, the hint of social commentary in the black streak in the upper right hand corner, the original splotch across the bottom, if Joe Smith walks into a gallery and prefers simple pastel serenity of Monet for over his fireplace, he'll buy the Monet, and the wonderfully original, critically acclaimed, beautifully conceived masterpiece goes unsold.

It's sad because someone painted that beautiful picture with the hopes of arising passion in a kindred spirit so they could sell it and pay the rent for the month or the year. But there is no built in right to sell that picture. You painted it because it moved you and you hope it moves others. But if it doesn't -- go paint something else.

But therein lies the difference between those of us who go into the business of writing for the proverbial masses and those of us going into the business of writing for posterity.

I, for one, am tired of all the negative comments on bestsellers like Critchon, King, Roberts, Grisham et. al. To me, the DA VINCI CODE stunk. But millions of people bought and loved it and told everyone else how great it was. Good for Dan Brown. He hit a nerve and "appealed to the masses" and I'm happy for him.

I write (contracted, unpublished) because I want to make a living writing. I want to pay the bills. So I write 1) what I love (suspense) and 2) what I think other people will like within that genre. I don't write to make a point, though my books have them. I don't take it personally when someone doesn't "get it" -- I dive into edits so they DO "get it". I don't want to make my living on hand-outs from publishers or government grants to write books that will sit on a library shelf unread until assigned by some unpublished English professor in college as a poignant example of a particular social situation.

I write to entertain. To scare people. To give people a break from their busy lives. I hope people get lost in my books and come out of it saying, "That was good" and wait for my next one (hopefully telling all their friends that it was good, too!)

The best compliment I ever received on my book was one of the early drafts, the draft I actually sold, that I gave to the mother of someone in my daughter's school. She likes suspense and wanted to read it after I told her I sold. She told me two weeks later that when her kids were at their dad's house she sat by the pool and read my book straight through because she "couldn't put it down". That she got lost in it and didn't worry about her ex, her ex's new wife, or her job. She was totally absorbed by my characters and had to know what happened next. Exactly what I hoped to achieve with my book.

I have no sense of entitlement. It took me several books to find an agent to rep me. Did I lament over the fact that my first few books were duds? That no agent or editor understand my brilliant hidden mystery? That they weren't glued to their chair because I had written such a remarkable page-turner that scared them? No. I got over the rejection and started over and wrote something else, learning more with each book, and ultimately sold.

I'm sorry if I'm coming across callous. Publishing is a business. They need to make money in order to buy new authors and take on literary works that sell in smaller numbers (usually), but might break-out. I'm not going into the business with blinders. The books I'm contracted for could bomb and I could be dumped by my publisher and my agent tell me sayonara because I have pitiful sales numbers, but that's the nature of the business.

I come to this blog to learn and gather ideas so I can work with my agent and editor to help my books sell so that I won't be cut loose so that I can receive a higher advance for my next books and so-on.

By the way, I believe in editor passion. I certainly wouldn't want an editor who wasn't passionate about my book just because someone higher up the corporate ladder told him to take me on because I had some brilliant literary work of art. If the editor doesn't connect on some level with the book, they can't effectively market it in house. Their position becomes more of a mundane job shuffling books they couldn't care less about through the process.

Editor passion gives your book A CHANCE. It doesn't guarantee success. But without that editor passion, you're SOL.

As a commercial writer, I always look at the success stories of other commercial writers. At the high numbers of rejections Stephen King and Nicholas Sparks and Mary Higgins Clark pocketed before selling. You think that maybe the houses that passed regretted it? Maybe. Maybe not. I like to think that had another house taken them on with an editor less than enthusiastic about their work, they may never have been successful.

Ok, off my commercial soapbox. I don't want to offend anyone, but I know I have so I'll apologize up front.

BTW, I choose to remain anonymous on industry lists that get heated because I don't want to be blacklisted because of my passionate views, and I sure don't want to make my editor and agent mad at me. They are integral to my future and hopeful success.

Anonymous said...

i for one didnt say we had a right to be published. i earned that right, as did anon lit novelist i'm sure, by the same route as you, mystery writer. years of "passion" and a dustbin full of rejection slips, more than stephen king too. i think my argument followed the thread. editors. they are responsible for the publishing of our books. the process is less than transparent. the writer is marginalised. the written work is taken away from us by this wet nurse on the fifth floor who decides whether it will go into the bookshops or not. we, naively, think it should. that is where my questioning of the publishing process begins. all a writer asks is that the book, all books, get into the shops and thus to
the judgement place where the right to dislike them must be paramount, of course. no one is claiming otherwise. but my point is, for all the editor's passion, he cant get the fucking "midlist" book into a bookshop anymore. his bosses have made that impossible by entering the discount war and buying up window space and all the rest of the dirty game. your book is as useful as a carton of eggs now. shelf-life of a week. if it isnt in a bookshop no one can read it.
the industry seems to accept this. we're left asking why did they publish me? no other industry carries such a bunch of failures as publishing. maybe if we went to gamblers anonymous we'd come across mad max in his rubber mask. wrote dexter

Anonymous said...

I, anon suspense writer, wasn't singling out you, anon UK writer, or any others with my rant about being published. It was more a culmination of weeks of frustration and hits that best sellers have taken, before I even read your comments *g*

The problem with getting books in the stores is bigger, I think, than your second post suggests. Publishers don't own the bookstores. Bookstore owners don't even decide. It's the buyers for the bookstores who really hold your fate in their hands. That's why the sales force of a publisher is so important.

But it's also the market. People want to read Grisham's next book, so the bookstores have to order enough stock to fill the need or their customers will go to the next bookstore who DID order enough books.

Likewise, if a buyer takes a chance on some unknown masterpieces that didn't sell well in their stores, they might think twice buying another unknown masterpiece without a compelling reason -- they don't want to take up floor space on books that *might* sell when they can order books they *know* will sell.

So really, it's more the distribution system and the buyers who affect the business, often to the determine of literary authors and new authors (like me.) That's why sales and marketing is SO important, and writers shouldn't be jumping down their throats, either, considering how many cards they hold in their hands. If I was a marketing expert who worked 60-80 hour weeks to get books out in the marketplace and I heard that Author A was bad-mouthing me (as an individual or group) I'd be more likely to push Author B.

Anonymous said...

If you smell something rank, it's because THE HORSE IS DEAD! :)

I have a new topic for discussion if anyone (mainly Max, I guess, since he's the one running this circus) is interested. Since we have editors and other publisher insiders on tap, I'd like to know what ideas are being discussed, if anything, to end the tradition of bookseller returns. I would imagine that publishers are anxious to end this and booksellers are reluctant. I'd like to hear the inside scoop, if there is any.

Talk of author advances is giving me a headache.

Now I'm off to saw that dead horse into pieces and carry it away (I recently read Cold Mountain...Ewwwww!).

Anonymous said...

anon suspense writer, the disillusion was cumulative, over three books. throughout publication of those novels i lived and still live in france and was not there, in uk, to either pester or promote. so when the 3rd novel came out and i did make a rare visit to uk i was rather astonished to find only one copy of my second novel in the whole of central london's chain bookstores. i talked with the book buyers and was told that the reps hadnt even pushed my third novel. since then i've taken great interest in the duplicity of editors who show you the mock cover on the uncorrected proof that says "major radio and review coverage...national publicity campaign" etc, all complete fiction. standard practice, i'm told. john grisham doesnt take up the whole space in your average waterstones. the publisher buys the space these days, for the dump bins, the window space, the promotion 3 for the price of 2. if you dont get into front of shop your book may as well go straight to the remainder warehouse. my ex-agent told me this before i beleived it. but you're right, the bookshops call the tune and the editors dance to it.

Anonymous said...

From Anon Suspense Writer:

First to anon FRENCH writer (sorry for the UK slip!), I feel for you. I've had friends in similar situations, which is probably why I'm so focused as a pre-pub on doing what I can to prevent what I can (you know that poem, "I am only one, but still I am one; I cannot do everything, but still I can do something; because I cannot do everything, I will not refuse to do the something I can do."

Second, to Sad Sam: I sincerely hope I never become as cynical as you. It may happen. I may be dumped by my editor, treated like a worthless commodity, etc., etc., but I've always been a glass half full person and hope to always be, even if shit happens.

If everything you said were true, why in the world would any publisher still be in existence? While I'm not such a pollyanna that I think everything is perfect in the industry, I do think there are enough people who care to make changes for the better. I do believe that there are enough editors who love their books. I do believe that publishers want to make money and, therefore, want to publish good books that people want to buy.

My writing isn't perfect and I welcome editorial input. My editor has been great. "This scene isn't working for me. It's too slow/unnecessary/fill-in-problem" ... or "This seems out of character." Whatever. So I fixed them. If something isn't clear, isn't working, or makes my book drag, I want to know so I can fix it. My editor has edited hundreds more books than I have written, including writers who I love, bestsellers and others. I trust her. I think she knows the market and the suspense genre better than most and I hope to learn from her. I didn't take every suggestion, but I agreed with 9 out of 10 of them. And she was cool with that.

And you know what? I think my book is better for it.

I'm sincerely sorry you had such a bad experience with your editor. But that doesn't change my opinion that editors still want to publish books they think will sell and their judgment about what sells and what doesn't is, for the most part, better than mine.

Anonymous said...

One final point as I've been stewing for the better part of an hour over this. I know, what a waste -- but at least it's putting me in the mood to kill someone off (in my book, of course).

There are problems in the industry that people are trying to fix. Some will be, some won't. I won't like all the solutions, I'm sure. But ultimately, the industry wants to fix itself so that it can move forward and be profitable.

Writers write. Publishers manage companies with hundreds or thousands of staff; large publishers operate all over the world. They have to look at the bottom line because they run a business.

As a writer, I send my work up to be rejected or accepted; to be revised and edited. I knew that going into this business. I accept it was part of the "cost" of doing business. Fortunately, I get the benefit of it because I believe that -- for the most part -- editing makes books better.

The publisher pays their staff. Editors and assistants; the art department; sales and marketing; printers and paper; secretaries and lawyers and a host of others. I have no idea how many staff hours will ultimately be put into my book from sale to publication, but I'll bet it's equal to or exceeds the number of hours I spent writing and revising it.

For the most part, they know more than I do. They know what sells and what doesn't -- at least what's selling NOW. But it's not a science. It's luck and educated guessing. They're sometimes wrong because like mad max says, there's no accounting for taste.

I consider myself working WITH the publishing staff as one component to the overall process that takes a book from idea to shelf. I'm not in this alone.

I'm trying to envision my books failing and how I would feel. Devastated, of course. They're my babies, almost as real as my own children. I love my books. Who would I blame? Why do I have to blame anyone?

If anything, I'd blame the multi-media industry that has invaded the world. Movies and video games and instant gratification. Sitting for four or five hours reading? Most people can't sit still for four or five minutes! And THAT, ultimately, is the biggest problem with the publishing industry and the area we have the least control over.

Anyway, I had to get that off my chest because it's been bugging me and I need to focus on my writing tonight, not some argument on a blog.

S/Anon Suspense Writer

Anonymous said...

I know my hopes can be dashed, I said as much. I'm going into this business with my eyes open.

But your post implies that all writers will be disappointed after publication. I'm sure everyone is to some degree, but there are enough successful writers out there that there is hope.

Regarding the blacklist comment, I came up with my opinion on this not because I think I'll say something to upset my friends the publishers (I could have worse friends), but because good people get blacklisted for stupid reasons.

For example, I read a salon column that interviewed twenty-plus published authors about who they were going to vote for and why. All but four said they were voting for Kerry. Three of the four who said they were voting for Bush made a huge point over the fact that they were Democrats, but . . .

Well, you think I'll tell anyone in the business that I'm a Republican? Not attached to my name, thank you. Look at Hollywood. Unless you're Mel Gibson or Clint Eastwood, being a Republican is not okay. So until I sell as many books as Dan Brown, I think I'll stay safely anonymous in issues of politics and religion.

And, frankly, this blog because all I have to do is piss off one person who will bad mouth me and then I have to deal with crap when I should be dealing with my books.

I like MJ's blog because she offers reasonable, realistic solutions to the problems the publishing industry faces without the negativity and cynical garbage.

I'm a pretty tough person. I can take the hits, with my books or in life. I worked in a difficult industry before quitting to raise my family -- I'll take what comes in this one.

But I'll still do everything in my power to be a successful writer (read: able to support myself), understanding that not everything is under my control and I may fail through no fault of my own.

Anon suspense writer

Anonymous said...

Sad Sam: I apologize for calling you cynical. The tone of your post suggested it. You also got the brunt of my frustration not just with your post, but a few others.

However, I think I see where we are in disagreement. You are on the WRITERS side. Contrary to your statement, I'm not on the publishers side. I view this more as a team (bad analogy) where we're all on the same side with different roles.

I don't think it's a bad thing for publishers to want to make money. If they don't make money, they don't print books. Profit? What's wrong with a little profit to make the owners of the business -- those who put up the initial capital to start the business -- happy with their endeavour?

I am not a quid pro quo writer. I think there are problems with the industry that I am eager to address. You are right that books should be marketed. Why aren't all books marketed? Could it be because there are too many books out at any one time? That the public has such diverse tastes that they demand selection, thereby thinning supply -- more horizontal, with lots of books selling a few copies and only those "blockbusters" digging deep? That the public wants instant gratification and books don't provide it, but video games and movies and music do?

Why is that the sole fault of the publisher?

We have to think of this as a business and the bottom line is to make money. Yes, I'd like my pockets to be heavier. Yes, I'd like to see all books marketed. But I'm not so naive to think that this business is going to change overnight or that we need to blow it up and start over.

It's not us vs them. It's just US, together, working toward the goal of making money by producing books.

You're right that I may change my mind if marketing pushes my books aside in favor of a newer, fresher author. But that's a risk I KNOW I'm taking.

I commend you for your passion to your writing. I have the passion, too. I had a full time day job and a family while writing every night to complete several manuscripts before I ultimately sold. I would never have made the sacrifices necessary by giving up other things I love if I didn't have a passion for my books.

It didn't take me four years to write a book, but everyone writes at their own pace. I also knew I wasn't trying to write a literary masterpiece. I wrote what I have a passion for -- suspense -- and it takes me 4-6 months to write a book, three hours a night (which for me translates anywhere from 5-25 pages).

I don't think we are that far off in how we view our writing. I think where we really differ is on how we view our place in the industry -- adversarial or not.

s/anon suspense writer

Kevin Wignall said...

You know, I wonder if we all navel-gaze a little too much on this subject. Some books make it, some don't, so what's the big? My own books have been less successful than many had hoped, but frankly, I'm too busy writing to worry about it, and I'm certainly too busy to fix an industry that seems to be working pretty well as it is.
Kevin Wignall.

Anonymous said...

My confusion about the issue of editor "passion" comes from my own experience "selling" books. I work in a library. There are hundreds of thousands of books here. Some I've read; most I haven't. There are lots I love and many, many more I know I won't love. But when a person comes in looking for a good book to read, I can recommend one for them that I don't like, that I may even very much dislike myself. I don't have a "passion" for Suzanne Brockmann or Elmore Leonard or Joyce Carol Oates, but I can recognize when someone else might. I can see what it is about these authors' books that appeals to people, whether I have a "passion" for them personally or not. So why don't editors work the same way? Do editors not realize that this is not about them? It isn't about what they like. It is about READERS and CONSUMERS, and what they want. Books are for readers. If you make the readers happy, then you make your boss (the publisher) happy.

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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."