Thursday, March 31, 2005

Me & Liz: A Cautionary Tale; or, DEATH TO THE BLOGS!

Y'all must be feeling pritty darn good about yerselves, you super-cool revolutionary sweethearts of the blog, eh? Am I right? Written up on consecutive days in the Times...getting your names in bold-face (I won't name you, but you know who you are) on Tuesday, March 28--just a day after the same paper credited you with putting Liz Smith--the One, the Only, the Barbra Streisand of bold-face--out of business...

Hey, hotshots--a word of advice from someone who's been there, eh? Liz Smith's story--and, indeed, my own--demonstrates just how devastating the fall from great heights can be, and how fast it can occur. So keep that in mind as you turn your backs on the likes of Liz & Me.
Let's start with Monday's NYT Business section. The title says it all: "In the Blog Era, Liz Smith Wonders if There's Room for the Pro."

[An aside, if I may: is there such a thing as too exact a title? Should that particular NYT editor get a raise for precision? or a good talking-to about how, readers being scarce enough as it is, we don't want to make it too easy for them to skim past the article itself whilst walking from the kitchen to the den before they log onto Gawker?]

Tell the truth, cruel-hearted 21st century techno freak: the INSTANT you saw how Liz, that doyenne of discretion, but also the face of old-school gossip, had admitted defeat, what did you do? You dropped to one knee and performed that classic Tom Cruise "celebration of one's own greatness" maneuver, didn't you?

[You know the one, don't pretend otherwise: Clenched fist jerked crisply, Kung-Fu style, to shoulder, elbow pulled tight against your side-
--as you say, in a sharp whisper that sounds like a single blast of steam heat,

or, worse still,
"SCORE!!!" in,
"Score another victory for us renegade bad-a** anti-capitalist blogster dudes & dresses--we drove another anachronistic 'print media' sweetheart out into the cold." A triumph of NOW over THEN, of YOUTH over AGE, of INTELLECTUAL over INSTITUTIONAL, of WORKING JOE over THE MAN--

HOLD IT!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Listen up, blogmeisters! Before you get all gussied up for that TIME MAGAZINE TREND OF THE CENTURY cover photo, let's look at the facts. Nirvana, you're not. Sure, you represent the chaos and freshness of revolution, but in fact you graduated from a fancy college just like the rest of us--

[worse, you probably even have an M..F..A..!--]

and, sure as shootin', you didn't have to work an on-campus food service job, struggling madly to keep up as wave upon wave of blue dining-hall trays marched toward you with conveyor-belt doggedness; were never put in the position of having no choice but to dig, with your own sorry fingers, into the depths of those scratched-plastic juice glasses to retrieve from their bottoms the soggy, half-eaten remains of tapioca pudding, + innumerable cigarette butts; all this for $1.25 an hour, just to make ends meet...

C'mon, admit it! You're living in Park Slope or Hoboken, Berkeley or Ann Arbor or Toronto, with a bijillion-dollar sci-fi rack of computer gadgetry to make your blog smooth and shiny. You've got a cushy day job--OK, maybe you even work hard, and even like it (sorta), or at least like the bon-bons your paycheck pays for; or else you're milking the interest on Grand-Mama's inheritance; either way, this is a secret you keep from your blogroll regulars so that you can present as a Terry Malloy down-the-docks scuffer ("I coulda been a contenda," you bellow with anguish at your 84" flat-screen t.v.)

(But I digress...)

We were talking about my close personal friend, the lovely Liz Smith, who at 82 looks better than I did at 22--and about how all you Dave Eggers-trained smarty-pantses cluck dismissively at the old values--sweat kept secret, secrets held close, true to yer school, et cetera. And about the little snicker you won't admit to at the thought that you & your gang are taking over the world... Same as the way you pshaw publicly every time the NYT or some other establishment rag tries to get a "handle" on you and your funknographic gaggle, which of course they always, like, get so wrong... And yet if a Cool-Factor judge were to issue me a warrant to search your place of fiction commission--that is, the place you do your blogging, the place where you assume your Alt-Shift personae--I guarantee we'll find you've got a secret scrapbook of printed mentions that you keep under your floorboards, and this week's Times' articles will be right on top.

Oh, Liz--I feel your pain! Like you, I'm too principled to play the Nasty Nellie game--and look at the cost. They email me; they say, Hey Max--serve us some Dish or we're gonna cut you off. They want the nitty-gritty on why Y got fired; how M maneuvered around A to wind up with J's job; which literary agent is consumed with Reefer Madness; and which top editor swizzles the spit between her teeth, driving her assistant mad. I know all this stuff, of course I do--but I've never forgotten your advice: when in doubt, imagine the shoe on the other foot. What if this were said about you?

So I stay between the white lines--and because of this, they turn away. Oh, Liz! In the beginning it was magical! We here at BookAngst had no business plan, we were operating by the seats of our pants. But it worked, Liz! And, oh, the accolades! We went from 0 to 60 in no time flat. Suddenly NPR was calling, Oprah was calling; Publishers Weekly wanted to do a profile; there was a whole blog devoted to trying to figure out our true identity. [No, they never did get it right.] Meanwhile, at BookAngst 101 we had 6,000,023 hits in a single day. That's a lot of hits!

But it doesn't last, does it? (Though your run has been far, far longer than most.) Quite recently I was having lunch with an agent, and we were talking blogs. Unaware of my own pointed interest in the conversation, he was raving about all those po-mo lit-crit tech-head groove-sters, Marvelous Maud and Bookslut and Sarah the Idiosyncratic and ElVar and Beatrice/ix and Nathalie the GalleyCat and--well, pretty much everybody in the known lit-blog universe... except... AHEM...

"Sure, sure," I said, "But what about that, whatzit, BookAngst, the publishing blog?"

He squinted a moment as though trying to concentrate in a loud restaurant. (OK, it was a loud restauant.) I prompted him further: "You know--that Mad Max guy?" Finally the squint gave way to a flicker of recognition--and then

He. rolled. his. eyes.

"Oh, God, yeah, I know that one--isn't it such a bore? The guy obviously doesn't know anything about publishing; maybe if he had some good gossip or something it'd be worth it--instead he goes on and on about the dullest topics. Reaganomics, corporate mergers, blah blah blah."

That night I dragged myself home and discovered that I'd had nine--9!--hits in the previous 24 hours; and two of them were come-ons from porn sites.

Well, Liz, at least they're still writing about you. Whereas Tuesday's lit-blog-fete made no mention of....well.... Anyway, now that the writing's on the wall, Liz, I depend on your example to show me the way to a graceful exit. As to all you hot-shot blogsters riding high atop the crest of the moment, just remember:

Payback's a bitch!
Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Trans-actional Query

A Two-Parter:
1. Those of you urbanites (readers, writers, riders, writers who read, riders who read, etc) who travel by mass transit (subway, bus, light-rail, barrel-rolling-down-hill, etc):

A. Do you pay attention to the adverts that one sees in subways, on the sides of buses, etc. --1-800-LAWSUIT ("You, too, may want to sue the producers of VIOXX"), e.g.?
B. Have you ever seen BOOK ads in such places?
C. If yes, has an ad ever (even just once) caused you to say (to yourself), Oh, I didn't know that was out--that is, did it register in a favorable fashion?
D. Have you ever, even just once, bought a book because of such an ad?

2. Those of you publishers (editors, editorial assistants, marketeers, publicists, persons working in the mailroom, actual publishers, etc) who've ever been involved with a book that included mass trans adverts in its marketing bundle:

A. Have you ever had the experience of someone saying (aloud), Hey, I saw your book ad on the M1 bus uptown, on Madison? [That's just an example; answers need not be limited to viewings on Madison Avenue.]
B. Did you feel that the ads played a role in increasing the book's visibility?
C. Would you do it again? If so, what did you like about it? If not, why not?

As always, feel free to respond to me directly (via email: and/or anonymously.

Thursday, March 24, 2005

What Makes It All Worthwhile

So I bought this novel recently: a foreign publisher gave me a tip, long story short, the agent and the author and I, it's one of those love-at-first-sight things... Thing about it is, you know from the first clause of the first sentence of the first page that you're in the hands of someone great, a real god-damn talent. So we do a deal, I could not be happier, and I know for sure the feeling's mutual.

Life's hard in some ways, though, so despite the good vibe, it takes me a little while to edit the manuscript (yes, even love-at-first-sight things get all scuffed up in the margins, at least the ones I edit), so now I've read it, close, two times. I call her up, tell her all over again how great the book is, that the ms. is on its way, just a few minor things. She says great, look forward to seeing your comments.

Yesterday, 6:07 p.m., I realize I've got a phone message from herself, this writer I mentioned earlier. I call her; she's gone through the manuscript now, has some questions. We talk through a couple of points, then we get to this one note I scribbled up the side of a page. She says, I have no idea what you're talking about here. I laugh, I re-read it, re-orient myself, finally figure it out. Oh, OK, I say, she can't do it that way because back here on page...

...and suddenly it occurs to us--her first, then me--that even though I'd given this book two pretty close readings, and knew it to be a thing of genius, there was one thing I didn't know: what the book meant. Turns out that I'd totally misread something really important--which meant two things at once. First, yes, that I'm a dumb-ass; but second, that maybe she hadn't built her scaffolding quite so cleanly as she needed to to avoid dumb-asses like me from maybe missing something really important.

OK, I can hear you writer-folk out there: OUCH! You wanna know how bad things are in publishing? An editor, and a supposedly stand-up guy too, buys a book HE DOESN'T EVEN UNDERSTAND! The only thing that could be worse is if he then tried to get her to change it to fit how he'd (mis-)read it in the first place--Oh, please God don't tell me he...

Well, OK, it does sound bad, I admit it. Especially since about 30 minutes of our one-hour conversation was, indeed, spent on my trying to sell her a line of bullshit about how, even though it wasn't the ending she intended, she should give her subconscious the benefit of the doubt, one knows not how worketh the creative process, et cetera.

Yeah: sounds really bad. But--know what? It was actually fantastic. Two pros, a writer and her editor, working together on a thing they're both profoundly invested in. You wanna talk creative brainstorming? What's that old-saw college textbook essay about the writing process, the one that includes the actual marginal doodles, and the doodling reveals a moth, and thus Annie Dillard wrote "The Death of The Moth"--remember that one? Well, let me tell you: we had a whole goddamn room full of moths. Except they're not moths, thank God, they're bricks, and we're figuring out how to build a house, from scratch, just the two of us.

And, sure--say what you will about how this whole thing started with some dumb-ass editor misreading the work of an author he supposedly admires utterly--but as the dumb-ass editor in question, I'm here to testify that for the hour we were on the phone, dropping our plumb-lines and positioning our cinder-blocks, I was the happiest man alive. Because we were in it together. GOD what a great job I have sometimes, to crawl inside with the master crafters; and not just watching, either: for some inexplicable reason, I'm afforded the opportunity now and again to work alongside...

We knew we'd had a productive session--easy for me to say, because all I did was say, "What if?"; when we get off the phone at about 7:00 last night, I get to go home; she's the one who has to do the actual work. I tell her to give a yell when she's ready, figuring it'll be a couple of weeks, maybe more.


Tonight--the time-stamp reads 10:17 p.m.--she emails me back. Here's a new crack at the ending, she says. When you get a chance, she says. "It's still a little rough," she says. "But you'll get the general idea."

So I open the attachment and start to read, and it's l.a.f.s. all over again. In one try, she nailed it--solved not just the problem of, shall we say, my little misunderstanding, but in twenty pages (and 27 hours, no less) she amplified and intensified all of the central emotional currents. I was stunned, elated--moved nearly to tears a couple of times. In my reply (time-stamp: 11:36) I told her (in not quite these words) the simple truth, which is that she's a genius, and that she's turned a brilliant book into a masterpiece.

And then I wrote "this is what makes it all worth while." And then I hit "send." And then I felt so god-damn good that I sat down here to tell you all about my incredible good fortune. To give an example, in case anyone ever asks, of why someone might ever want to be an editor.

Time-stamp: 12:46 a.m.
Monday, March 21, 2005

Size Matters--but How?

Fascinating to note that, in the days immediately following Hachette Livres' Tim Hely-Hutchinson and others at the London BookFair speculating that the trend toward global publishing conglomeration would likely continue until the landscape was dominated by "three or four" major players, Geraldine Fabrikant reported a strikingly opposite trend in a series of articles in the New York Times, March 16, March 17 & March 18.

"Viacom said yesterday [March 16] that it was weighing a plan to divide its businesses into two public companies, a move that would unravel years of empire building by the chief executive, Sumner M. Redstone."

Ms. Fabrikant noted that Viacom's announcement was the second in as many days

"by a media company preparing to split up assets. On Tuesday, Liberty Media announced that it would spin off the Discovery Holding Company. Those plans raise the question of whether, after a decade of building media conglomerates, companies will start breaking them up. Already there is a drumbeat among investment bankers to promote such splits....

Fabrikant supported her coup de grace--that "with the announcement that he is now considering a breakup of that empire, [Redstone] has admitted his acquisition strategy did not work"--with the comments of Richard Greenfield, a media analyst at Fulcrum Global Partners:

"It is a momentous event that Sumner is willing to admit he was wrong and get smaller...He is totally reversing everything that has occurred since 1995 and totally undoing all the size and scale that he hoped to create through acquisitions."

As fashionable as it is--at this blog and elsewhere--to bemoan the seemingly endless publishing merger-mania that has created an industry dominated by seven or eight behemoths, it would be naive and dishonest to compare the enormous complexity of the composition of businesses contained within a multi-component entity like Viacom with the relatively like-minded goals of the publishing imprints Viacom has gathered beneath the Simon & Schuster umbrella--S&S's Adult and Children's divisions, Scribner, Pocket Books, The Free Press, Fireside, Touchstone, Atria Books, Washington Square Press, MTV Books and several others; collectively they make up but a small portion of Viacom's overall "media portfolio."

It would likewise be dishonest to suggest that, from an institutional perspective at least, there are not immediate advantages to be seen in, for instance, the no-longer-so-recent merging of the "Little Random" imprint of Random House with Ballantine Books. In terms of its ability to attract and build certain kinds of big, commercial authors, Little Random's hard-cover publishing arm was always disadvantaged (as have been Knopf, Doubleday and Hyperion, to name just a few) by not having a dedicated and closely integrated mass market division. Damn the purists who say Little Random has been corrupted: from a strictly-operational perspective, merging RH with Ballantine made sense. They could now offer the same sort of "full-service" publishing operations--hardcover, trade paperback and mass market, all carefully coordinated (theoretically, anyway) by unified management--that are found at S&S, HarperCollins, Bantam Dell, the Time-Warner Book Group and the Penguin-Putnam Group.

And yet....

* * * * * * * *
Remember the Laffer Curve? The Laffer Curve was a crudely drawn illustration of a "theory" (I use quotation marks because, as far as I'm aware, it was utterly unsupported by data, but was nonetheless given credence by economists and policy makers in the early 1980s) documented (legend has it) on a martini napkin, whereupon one Arthur Laffer drew for a like-minded Milton-Friedmanite (of the sort who then dominated Ronald Reagan's inner circle) a bell-shaped curve. The outline of the bell represented represented a theory of the psychology of taxation and the relationship between tax rates and total tax income. The tax rate was charted along the horizontal axis (because, after all, this was a graph, not simply a drawing of one of the bourdon at the Cathedral of Notre Dame), while revenue was plotted along the vertical axis The principle was simple: as the tax rate (charted along the horizontal axis) increases, so does the income the government collects...
...until it reaches its apex, the very top of the bell...
[Now I need you to visualize the outline of our martini-napkin cathedral bell: it starts at the bottom left edge and flows upward with ballerina-like grace as it move from left to right--until it reaches its apex, at (roughly) the center of the napkin, and then, in a perfect mirror-image of its ascent, begins to fall.]

The principle that Laffer's curve so elegantly protrayed was that, once tax rates become too high (i.e. once the bell reaches its apex) investors will be so disincentivized to continuing investing, and wage earners to continuing producing--that all parties to the economy will be so demoralized by the intrusive effects of Big Government upon their wallets--that productivity will diminish. The natural consequence, of course, is that tax income will also fall--ultimately, to nothing, zero. Nada.

This simplistic (and no-doubt Max-imally mangled) explanation of Laffer's simplistic theory (upon which, for the record, Reagan's infamous "trickle down" theory of economics derived: cut taxes, and the money will come! Cut, especially, the tax rates of corporations and the wealthy, and they'll continuing striving, building, investing, ever upward, thereby expanding by virtually unimaginable proportions the tax base!) is, I acknowledge, wearisome. The point isn't really to discuss Laffer's laughable notion, but to discuss the principle (considerably better supported by documentary evidence, I might add) behind the principle, called

The Law of Diminishing Returns.
[As defined in The Columbia Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition. 2001]

"In economics, law stating that if one factor of production is increased while the others remain constant, the overall returns will relatively decrease after a certain point. Thus, for example, if more and more laborers are added to harvest a wheat field, at some point each additional laborer will add relatively less output than his predecessor did....The principle, first thought to apply only to agriculture, was later accepted as an economic law underlying all productive enterprise."

It's fair, by now, to ask where the hell I'm going with this ramble, given my concession that the organizational differences between publishers (even as currently, and inelegantly, configured), and the infinitely larger media conglomerates of which they are a part, is a bit like comparing grapefruits to grapevines. The answer is the question: have we, as an industry--as currently configured--reached the point of diminishing returns?

It cannot be insignificant that, within days of each other, Sumner M. Redstone and John C. Malone both concede that their respective plans for global market domination have not yielded the results promised to their shareholders? And, let's face it, there's only so much back-office compression/"redundancy reducing" that can be done before the workers themselves become overwhelmed to the point of, umm, diminishing returns.

Back to Geraldine Fabrikant in the New York Times. "'In large conglomerates, size and complexity is the enemy,' said Bruce Greenwald, professor of economics at the business school at Columbia University. 'Often, executives can't focus carefully on each of the businesses, so they don't run as well.'"

Is it not possible that our industry, too--pared to the bone as it is in terms of personnel, so as to deliver up the best short-term results possible to our share-holder--suffers, and increasingly so, from these very same disadvantages? Might there not be some wisdom to be gleaned from reconsidering Mr. Hely-Hutchinson's course and looking, instead, for ways to decentralize, to break down into smaller, more narrowly focused units?

Techno-spaz strikes again: I really did create a Laffer curve, but can't figure out how to "implant" it

Max's home-made replication of the historical martini napkin upon which, it is alleged, Arthur Laffer made history...
Thursday, March 17, 2005

Bravery at the Top: Rainmaker R & D

Recent corporate restructurings / layoffs /call-them-what-you-will at Bertlesmann, Penguin Putnam and HarperCollins continue (it might be argued) to beg the question of whether, or to what ultimate end, there are real gains to be made in the merger-mania that's consumed publishing (and the rest of the corporate world) in the last umpteen years. In the short-run, of course, such "internal tinkerings" (here I mean personnel cutbacks rather than mergers--the elimination of redundant positions and/or expensive employees) are one way of better serving the "needs" of MultiMerge shareholders, in terms of cutting cuts and thereby increasing profits--again, I stress, in the short run.

There are of course many other views about how shareholders' longterm interests might be as well (if not better) served by the publishing divisions of these larger companies--one that comes to mind is that we make sure to support the up-and-coming writers of today to ensure that we will have bankable "brands" capable of getting around without canes and wheelchairs ten years from now. When one considers recent full-page "milestone" advertisements in the New York Times for books like THE DA VINCI CODE, BEL CANTO and THE KITE RUNNER--books that have sold (according to the ads) in excess of 10 million, 1 million and 1 million copies respectively--one can argue that such ads are good for the publisher's profile, and perhaps crucial to author/agent relations. And--perhaps--celebrating such "breakout" successes is good for the industry, in that it sends signals to those outside the typical book-buying demographic that "reading is fun." (Whether that demographic is found reading the New York Times is debatable, but even so...)

This approach, though, seems to come directly from the current Administration's theory about the proper allocation of scarce resources, which has as its theme song (mother of all ironies...) Billie Holliday's "God Bless the Child"

Them that's got shall get
Them that's not shall lose

What if, instead of the Bush/Chaney/Rove allocation of those resources, we were were to employ something like a WPA approach? Let's take the $150,000 ($50k per for a full-page black & white ad, more for color) those three ads cost and stread it around some--toward "emerging stars"--$30,000 each, say, for six writers "on the verge." To me, whether spent in additional co-op or in a series of small repeater-ads (the more impressions the better...), this constitutes an investment in the potential brands of the future.

Another double-page NYTBR ad for Danielle Steele? Full pagers for James Patterson...John Grisham...Nora Roberts... Robert B. Parker...Lisa Scottoline...Michael Connelly...Jackie Collins? They're done because, well, because that's what's done. But--and meaning no disrespect to any of these fine individuals--where are we as an industry going to be a decade from now if we're still promoting the same authors we've been promoting for the last decade? Brands eventually do lose their lustre (anybody know what John Gray's up to these days?), plateau, and fall off. So if Job #1 is reinforcing the brands that are working, Job #1A should be building the brands of the future.

Which requires being encouraged to take the the long view. The problem is, such planning is in short supply when Publishers' performances are measured not over a five-year span but, rather, quarter-to-quarter. They have to "make their numbers" each quarter, certainly each fiscal year, or they'll soon be on the street. Which places an almost impossible burden on the shoulders of these few individuals. There's your own private survival on one side--and then there's the responsibility of the very future of our business on the other... You publishers/eds-in-chiefs--Michael Pietsch and Michael Morrison and Gina Centrello and Bill Thomas and Jamie Raab and Will Schwalbe and John Sterling and Brian Tart and the rest of you--are walking an incredible tightrope. Because the constant scrutiny of your performance relative to your budgeted tagets functionally discourages you from engaging in what we might, in other industries, call R&D. And yet, for the business to sustain itself--and this is why your jobs are so incredibly stressful and demanding--you've got to be able to do exactly that: take chances on writers, and stick by writers, who won't necessarily become bankable brands (if they ever do) within three months, or even three books. With the fate of your kids' college educations on the line, you've got to be able to say to those people above you--the ones who talk to the suits above them, at Viacom and NewsCorp and Time-Warner and Bertelsmann and so on--that sometimes real money must be invested now on "product" that won't really come to market for five years. CEOs--and even shareholders--in pharmaceutical companies understand this. Why not in our industy?

It's a virtually impossible position you're in, and I admire and salute you for undertaking it. I wish you bravery and great success; that you're able to leverage the success (and even some of the assets) that a Sandra Brown or a John Sandford brings you to make sure that the 30 year-old second or third or fourth novelist has the time, and the support, to become the next-generation of hitmakers; and that you are blessed with CEOs with the long-term vision to match your own, CEOs with the vision and guts to explain to their shareholders why a 4% return is sometimes preferrable to an 8% return, because the difference has been reinvested into the piece of infrastructure most essential to our business: talented writers, the next generation of rainmakers.
Monday, March 14, 2005

"I Have Seen The Future, And The Future..."


VidLit [insert TradeMark symbol here, if you've got one handy; I don't] first came to my attention with its promotional animation for YIDDISH WITH DICK AND JANE; the book has been (I'll say, without any actual data in hand--perhaps someone else can help?) a terrific success, and it sounds like significant credit for this success goes to the VidLit promotion--and to Little, Brown's marketing department, for its out-of-the-box thinking.

More recently MJ Rose brought to our attention two new VidLit creations: one for a business-y book called HOUSE OF LIES (Warner Business Books)--which has the wonderful subtitle "How Management Consultants Steal Your Watch and then Tell You the Time"--and another for Bertice Berry's novel WHEN LOVE CALLS YOU BETTER ANSWER (Broadway Books) (a comedy, I take it, from the animation), both of which are totally engaging.

There's more to be said about VidLit--preferably by people who actually know something about it/them; and nobody's saying this is right for every book--

[Though I confess the thought of what they might come up with for Kathryn Harrison's THE KISS does give me a perverse thrill]


ALL YOU PUBLISHING MO-FOs ESPECIALLY--THIS STUFF IS GOOD! CHECK IT OUT! (And if you're NOT a publishing mo-fo, but know someone who is, please forward this along. It's easy: at the bottom of this post there's the universal "email-a-friend" back-of-an-envelope logo. Click on that icon, and go from there.)

Now: when I say "the future is VidLit," I don't necessarily mean VidLit per se, and/or VidLit exclusively. The proprietors of VidLit may, for all I know, be corrupt, foul-mouthed exploiters of Third World labor; and/or producers of what Judith Regan refers to as "smart sex" (otherwise known as "pornography"); and/or played some scurrilous role in the "Swift Boat Vets for Bush" campaign (in which case they'd know Carl Rove's secret handshake)... So we're not necessarily giving them any humanitarian awards at this point in time--we're just saying we like their stuff.

Furthermore, VidLit may be but one of several deserving wearers of the "the future is" mantle: surely there others out there doing similarly original and exciting work--like JibJab, perhaps? creators of "This Land," the most singularly, and hilariously, nonpartisan skewering of our two most recent political candidates--

Hey, JibJab--you given any thought to book promotions? Don't forget--publishers are cheap sons-a-bitches...
Well: there's good stuff going on out there; whether it costs a fortune or not I don't know; but everybody should CHECK IT OUT!

P.S. The VidLit fine-print says these demos won't perform properly on dial-up; they worked OK from my dial-up line, they were just a little slow to load. Be patient; it's worth it.
Sunday, March 13, 2005

Hoop Dreams* [This edition contains a new "P.S." for our friendly neighborhood Grammar Cop]

The very first response I received to last weekend's Pity Party/Invitation for Inspiration was from an inner-city high-school teacher in Los Angeles named Alan Lawrence Sitomer. His exploits in the classroom make for an interesting story--he won a prestigious "Teacher of the Year" Award in 2004, and also put together a free SAT essay prep site for students who couldn't afford the $1000 such a prep course normally costs. But Alan was writing to ask a question about his YA novel just being published by Hyperion's Jump at the Sun imprint called THE HOOPSTER. His question wasn't remotely like the usual authorial rant; he wasn't asking whether/how he'd been "dissed" by his editor, or whether his agent had gotten him a respectable deal, or why there'd been no billboards or launch parties or full-page ads for his new book. In fact he lauded the efforts made by everybody involved (including his editor, Wendy Lefkon) and said they'd done everything imaginable to "make me feel respected, intelligent and valuable."

What he want to know was this:

"How will I know when they [Hyperion] feel good about their return on investment in me? My advance for this this three-book deal (it's the first in a planned urban trilogy) was quite fiscally responsible and fair from the publisher's perspective - and by that I mean nowhere close to quit-my-day-job numbers but solid in my eyes.(Then again, I am a teacher, so any dollars look like big dollars... LOL!)

"What I want to know is, HOW WILL I KNOW WHEN THEY FEEL LIKE I WAS A GOOD BUSINESS PARTNER? Is it sales and dollars? Is it cachet* and awesome publicity for the publishing house? Good reviews? What is the yardstick an author such as myself should be using?"

My first impulse upon reading this wasn't to reply--it was to applaud... genuflect... give the guy a hug, and a noogie, and offer him a place on my couch if he's ever in NYC. Some of us on the publishing side have been doing this for so long, and have so often had guns held to our head regarding advances for high-profile authors, that we forget that the vast majority of writers (especially in their early days) are often deeply anxious about "earning their way." The simple explanation is that authors whose books don't sell have a hard time getting published again--but I'm convinced that Alan's question reflects that, at a more profound level, many writers have an old-fashioned (some will say naive) desire that the deal be a good one for both parties. I've worked hard on this, and I want to get paid as well as possible, but it's important that you come out of this more or less as well off as I do.

And this, folks, is one of the reasons that editors sometimes love writers, and love (despite the difficulty of doing so) publishing first-time authors. Because they (the writers) aren't jaded yet (some never become so) and actually want you (the editors) to benefit from this joint endeavor; for their book(s) to be checkmarks on the good side of the corporate ledger that somebody in finace is keeping on each and every editor. Above all, I think, it's that they really want this experience to be a good one, and a shared one--and that, at the end of the day, you the editor are really proud of, satisfied by, and stand to benefit from, the fruits of your author's creative blood sweat & tears.

So: God bless you, Alan Lawrence Sitomer; may THE HOOPSTER and its two sequels (the first of which is written and called HIP-HOP HIGH SCHOOL) bring you and your publisher great riches and great success. Now to your questions:

The simplist formula for assessing your book's performance is whether or not it "earns out" its advance. Your book retails for $16.95; assuming that YA book royalties are structured the same way adult books are, we'll average your royalties at 12.5% per copy sold; $16.95 x 12.5% means your royalty account "earns" $2.12 for every net copy sold. Thus if your advance for this book were $35,000 [Alan admitted that agent Al Zuckerman had secured him a three-book, six-figure deal], you'd need to sell 16,509 copies to reach $35,000 in royalty income. Do that--earn your advance back on the hardcover alone--and everybody's going to be very, very happy.

But let's say you only net 10,000 hardcovers--now you've "earned" $21,200, so to break even you'll need to earn $13,800 in paperback sales. A $10.00 trade paperback x 7.5% royalties= .75 per copy sold; so in this scenario you'd need to sell another 18,400 copies in trade paperback. You'd then have "earned out" the original $35,000 advance; any additional sales would then start to accrue to you in the form of royalties. (For the record, there are other pieces that can contribute to the royalty "pool," such as foreign rights income, book club sales, etc.)

This is a two part answer. The simplest view is that great reviews and cache matter to the extent that they wind up generating sales. If your sales have been mediocre but you get great reviews (like the positive Kirkus review and the numerous 5-Star raves on Amazon HOOPSTER has already garnered, for instance!), perhaps that will translate into being nominated for a Prize. And if winning that *rize means selling more books, terrific. [I don't know if there's a Newbery Award for YA fiction--but if there is, and you win it, I suspect the Los Angeles public school system will be looking to hire someone to replace you right quick.] And--yes--this, too, will generate terrific publicity for your publisher.

The fact that you have a three-book contract with Hyperion, though, means that the reviews and accolades you accumulate for HOOPSTER, even if they don't immediately translate to sales, gives Hyperion ammo to use for the next book, and the one after that. This is one of the advantages to a multi-book deal--it gives you some reasonable sense that your publisher is going to stick by you, just as it gives your publisher additional incentive--and addition time--to recoup its investment.

Keep in touch, Alan. I'm running a pool for who plays you in the movie... My money's on Topher Grace...

Special thanks to the (anonymous) eagle-eyed etymologist who both intuited that our use of the word "cache" instead of "cachet" wasn't a simple typo, AND who so generously explained the difference between the two! Next time, don't be so shy about your identity--we'd like celebrate the important work you do, pointedly policing petty-minded mediocrity whereever it raises its ugly, ungrammatical head.
Saturday, March 12, 2005

King of America / Son of Sam

Tonight is Soul-Restoration Night at the offices of BookAngst 101, and it's Elvis Costello who's driving the pink Cadillac. [To get this out of the way: we've forgiven him (and Diana Krall) for the travesty that is NORTH.] Tonight we're dipping into some personal favorites--IMPERIAL BEDROOM, PUNCH THE CLOCK, KING OF AMERICA, plus the odd hit here and there on some BEST OF compilation I've got handy.

And so we'll start with PUNCH THE CLOCK--forgive my craven pull toward topicality, for this is the album that contains the pop masterpiece (and, surely, every writer's secret fave Costello composition) "Every Day I Write The Book." No doubt I'll take grief from all manner of biblio-/audio-/Costell0-philes by starting here, with one of his most popular "hits" (with all the bad connotations that word carries) rather than something more obscure--but sometimes even masterpieces are popular, and masterpieces come in all shapes and sizes; and I defy you to play this song at high volume and not hook everybody in the room.
Chapter One, we didn't really get along
Chapter Two, I think I fell in love with you
You said you'd stand by me in the middle of Chapter Three
But you were up to your old tricks in Chapters Four, Five and Six
Meanwhile, the most swingin' background singers since Lou Reed's unforgettable Colored Girls in "Walk On the Wild Side" carry you away with their own version of "Doo, doo doo, doo doo, doo doo doo," singing back to EC the refrain:
I'm giving you a longer look
Every day, every day, every day I write the book

And if you haven't already fallen in love with EC yet:
Don't tell me you don't know the difference
Between a lover and a fighter
With my pen and my electric typewriter
Even in a perfect world where everyone was equal
I'd still own the film rights and be working on the sequel

[And then those exquisite background singers carry the song through the fade-out with a fabulous counterpoint to EC's lead vocal...]

Ahh! A thing of finger-snapping, hop-off-the-sofa beauty...

The funny thing is, I remember, about a hundred years or so ago--just when KING OF AMERICA came out (that would be, umm, 1986, kids)--about his explaining how PUNCH THE CLOCK was, for him, some sort of epitome of the lie that the "Elvis Costello" personae had become. I didn't really grok the whole story then, and so I won't try to reconstruct it now...but I don't know how any album that could contain both "Write the Book" and the heart-breaking "Shipbuilding," a love song that concludes

It's all we're skilled in
We will be shipbuilding
With all the will in the world
Diving for dear life when we could be
Diving for Pearls

Threaded throughout is Chet Baker's haunting trumpet solo, one of the last of his life, and quite possibly the one that brought everyone around to thinking that he was an unappreciated genius (a view I don't share, despite the loveliness of his playing on "Shipbuilding.")

Yet I did read that article in which Elvis disavowed PUNCH THE CLOCK and, more generally, the "thing" that Elvis Costello had become--a classic angry young man hiding behind a veil of irony. And I guess he'd grown tired of it, felt constrained by it. Then he put out the KING OF AMERICA lp, in which (for that album anyway) he abdicated the crown/persona of Elvis Costello; and claimed that henceforth he'd be known by his God-given moniker, Declan MacManus. Layering the complexity further is that the cover shows him looking vaguely ridiculous--but not hiding behind a wink-and-a-nudge--wearing a gaudy full-regalia pawn-shop crown. And there's this lyric in "I'll Wear It Proudly"
If they had a King of Fools then I could wear that crown
And you can all die laughing because I'll wear it proudly
KING OF AMERICA is a fascinating album; much of it reads like a immigrant epic, the sacrifice of identity in exchange for the promise of America's streets of gold. Here, in "Brilliant Mistake," he seems to be speaking of himself in third person:

He thought he was the King of America
But it was just a boulevard of broken dreams

By the end of the song he's dropped the disguise entirely, concluding (in first person)

I was a fine idea at the time
Now I'm a brilliant mistake
And then, in "American Without Tears," there's this:
Now it seems we've been crying for years and for years
Now I don't speak any English, just American without tears
Just American without tears
Of course, perhaps we shouldn't make too much of this notion of Elvis Declan Patrick Aloysius MacManus Costello's identity crisis--his next LP, BLOOD & CHOCOLATE, was released under the name Elvis Costello and the Attractions. Go figure...

But let us return again to KING OF AMERICA and "Brilliant Mistake," and celebrate Costello's unparalleled capacity for the sort of precise, concise and unforgettable skewering that would, I dare say, make even Oscar Wilde bow his head in respect. Here we find the narrator meeting a woman about to interview him:

She said that she was working for the ABC News
It was as much of the
alphabet as she knew how to use
Her perfume was unspeakable
It lingered in the air
Like her artificial laughter
Her mementos of affairs...

I love Elvis. I no longer like every cut of every album he makes, but nonetheless he ranks, unquestionably, as one of the most consistently great songwriters since he appeared on the scene with MY AIM IS TRUE in 1977. Sure, there've been many other great songwriters in the interim, but none (in my opinion) who've maintained such a high level of songcraft for so long.

Which is what breaks my heart whenever I listen to the dearly departed Elliott Smith, who killed himself a year and a half ago. Elliott Smith was a brilliant guitarist (EC never pretended to be more than a rhythm ace); perhaps because of his superior musicianship, ES's compositions had a dynamic range and variability that EC's have never had; his melodic sensibility was (this is no exaggeration) of the same sophistication as the Beatles'; he had the same lyrical dexterity as EC--but never, ever, hid behind the veil of irony. Indeed, if there's a flaw in the fabric of EC's life's work, it's the extent to which irony is such a constant plaything.

And maybe that's what's kept him alive all these years. Smith seemed to have no filters whatsoever. The result is a catalog of genius that is virtually unprecented, but far too brief--and a life that ended in suicide. The last album that came out before he died, FIGURE 8, opens with a song called "Son of Sam," in which ES credibly inhabits the psyche of a murderer, and reveals, at the very end, a touch of what made him so different...

I may talk in my sleep tonight cause I don't know what I am
I'm a little like you, more like Son of Sam

Between that and undisguised anguish of "Everything Reminds Me of Her"
Everything reminds me of her
This evening
So if I seem a little out of it--Sorry
But why should I lie?
Everything reminds me of her

we find a rawness and vulnerability that Costello acheives perhaps once, in his aching inquisition of his lover's infidelity in "I Want You" (from BLOOD & CHOCOLATE).

I want you
Did you call his name out as he held you down
I want you
Oh no my darling not with that clown
I want you
You've had your fun you don't get well no more
I want you
No-one who wants you could want you more
I want you
Every night when I go off to bed and when I wake up
I want you

Here Costello strips it all away, bellows his heart-ache in a way that--like so much of Elliott Smith--is quite unforgettable.
Friday, March 11, 2005

Fruits of the Pity Tree

So a week ago I said: I'm gassed, I'm wheezin', I'm old & gray before my day. Hoping, of course, for a little tenderness--yeah, that's the truth, I threw a little pity-party, and am SO grateful that some of you came! Admittedly, not all of you did--most of you proceeded onward with the business of talking about the business (annoying well, in fact--my absence in this regard seemed not at all problematic). But enough of you said 'Oh Max, please don't go' that it reminded me of a quote offered up some while back by Ami McKay--who had, at an earlier time, detected a note of resignation and responded in a manner much beloved by the pity-prospecting proprietor of BookAngst 101:

"And Max the king of all wild things was lonely and wanted to be where someone loved him best of all. Then all around from far away across the world he smelled good things to eat so he gave up being king of where the wild things are. But the wild things cried, 'Oh please don't go - we'll eat you up - we love you so!"

from "Where the Wild Things Are" by Maurice Sendak 1963 - Harper Collins Publishers.

So thanks, to Ami and others, for the love & pity, and also for the several good topic suggestions--about which, hopefully, you'll be hearing more soon.
Monday, March 07, 2005

Print-on-Demand: Tell Us What You Know

Somebody--we'll call him Umberto--recently inquired as to the pros & cons of print-on-demand publishing. Fact is, I don't know jack about P.O.D., so I thought I'd turn this question over to all y'all. Anybody have an experience w/ P.O.D.--cautionary or otherwise--that they'd care to share? And we'd of course welcome any terrific success stories you've heard--about somebody like Umberto publishing in this regard, after which the book winds up in the hands of an agent, leading eventually to a fat contract....

It's important to note that Umberto is, shall we say, under-capitalized; he has no financial resources to promote his P.O.D. book... Here's his letter:

Dear Max,

I'm an unagented wannabe writer that has struggled to get published. I have a publisher who likes my latest work and they want to have a go at it. I'm tickled--but there's a catch. They are a Print on Demand publisher. No advance. Not much in the way of promotion. Ball's in my court on that end really...

Well, I signed their one year contract and am now a couple of months from my novel's release date. And I'm nervous.

There are no funds to promote my book beyond a meager website, a blog of nonsense, and frequent postings to genre related online sources...

So Max, tell me...was this a mistake on my part? or was it the best choice available (to be published or not to be published?)... Have I hurt my chances with big time publishing houses by going the POD route first? I'd appreciate any thoughts you and/or your readers might have on the subject.

Saturday, March 05, 2005


I'm running out of gas. If you have a topic you'd like to write about pertaining to the world of book publishing, or a question you'd like to see discussed that seems appropriate, please contact me by email [] and let me know what's on your mind. Thanks. --Max
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."