Thursday, April 28, 2005

Mad Max Survey, Vol. II: Keith, A Thriller Writer

KEITH: A thriller writer.

Keith’s career opened like a television ad for a European sports car: Zero to Sixty in Under Five Seconds. He was “an absolutely unknown 28 year-old” when his novel caught the attention of a powerful literary agent. The novel—an upmarket thriller featuring a female protagonist—went out to key New York editors. Keith was a publisher’s dream come true: a young, attractive thriller writer with commercial storytelling instincts, literary chops and—Halleluiah first novelists!—absolutely no prior sales track to have to contend with.

The submission generated instant buzz; an auction date was quickly set; and in the end, seven U.S. publishers came to the table. Novel #1 sold to a top editor at a venerated house for a hefty six-figure advance, along with “heady marketing promises”: an extensive tour, end caps at major chain bookstores, and national media appearances. The book quickly sold in numerous foreign countries. It seemed almost too easy—a dream score

Here's my story. I call it a cautionary tale about the trouble that big advances can lead to.

Though the editor under whose imprint I was to be published was one of the pillars of her house, I was assigned to her assistant, who was just beginning to come into his own. He was very excited about the book, and worked, I honestly believe, his hardest to promote it in house. (How much weight he had to throw around, however, is less clear.)

The book received a two-page spread in the catalog, and the first printing was in keeping with the sizeable advance. Yet there were problems from the start. The cover my publisher finally settled on was hideous—and though I had approval of the cover art written into my contract, the process was so belabored and fractious that by time the final cover was decided, it was way too late to do anything about it.

The book came out to stellar reviews, and many—from a starred PW to a glowing NYTBR, and pretty much everything in between. Yet the cover was so hideous that the major chains refused to feature it. In the end, despite the glowing reviews, my sales were disappointing. The mass market team (the publisher's sister house) took its cues from the hardcover performance, didn’t position it aggressively etc., and the results were exactly what you’d expect. r.

[For the record, I was sent on a book tour for the hardcover—an absolute waste of time and money, in my opinion.]

The same publisher acquired my second book as well, with the advance being a third less than the first advance; I saw it as a vote of confidence that they wanted to stick with me. But with the lackluster sales of the first book dogging them, the marketing department decided to position the next book less as a thriller than as a mystery, and focusing their promotion exclusively on mystery book stores. They said it was their way of finding a niche. Again, my book came out to perfect reviews—we picked up PEOPLE this time, one of the few who’d given us a pass on Book One. But they shipped a much smaller number; I went on a dismal book tour to mystery book stores; and hardcover sales were even lower than for the first book. At the time I didn’t grasp just how significant this downward track would prove to be. As before, there was zero marketing on the part of the paperback house, which made its (dismal) publication a self-fulfilling prophecy.

My original publisher offered me a two book contract for books three and four, though once more at a diminishing advance: I got the same advance for books three and four combined as I’d received for book two. By now the junior editor had moved on to greener pastures, but I’d formed a close relationship with the woman under whose imprint I was published, so we decided to proceed without another editor, with the implicit understanding that I wouldn’t get quite the same level of attention regarding the day-to-day as I had in the past.

Again, there were the same stellar reviews, the same dismal tours to mystery bookstores and appearances at Bouchercon, the annual mystery writers' convention. Only now the focus on the mystery world was seeming more and more like a bad idea: I write political thrillers, not mysteries. My third book was published just after 9/11, as we were poised to go to war with Iraq. This may sound heartless, but the fact remains that my book couldn’t have been more topical; had it been nonfiction, it might well have been a bestseller. The publisher made absolutely no attempt to tie the marketing in with current events; on the other hand I can't blame marketing entirely, as distribution was by now my real enemy.

Everyone—authors and editors both—has a story about how 9/11 took the legs out from underneath a promising publication. Yet unlike so many, I continued to get terrific media—all for naught. Here’s an example: one of the stops on my book tour was Minneapolis, and came immediately on the heels of three separate articles about me and the book in the Star-Tribune (a review, an interview, and a profile). But my publisher had managed to book an event in the Twin Cities; instead I wound up a tiny mystery bookstore thirty five miles away. Worse yet, the bookstore had NO STOCK. So my escort and I had to go to every bookstore in the area and buy them out of their few copies.

My fourth book also dealt with timely, trenchant subject matter, and had a terrifically exotic setting—and received no marketing support whatsoever. It was only now that I came to realize that my editor, fantastic though she was on the page, and as a human being, had little interest in or grasp of the ins and outs of marketing a book, or even generating excitement for it in house. As my British editor once remarked, "J. is from the old school, and sees marketing as something altogether vulgar." Had I known then what I know now…

What had been obvious to my agent for some time now became plain to me: I had to find a new publisher. Yet this would prove much easier said than done. Many top editors at large New York houses were itching to read my manuscript, and I traveled to New York to meet with potential new editors, who were consistently "blown away" by the book, and "very excited to work with me." However, not a single one of these editors would be allowed by their marketing departments to make an offer, because of my sales track.

Moral: there really is such a thing a too-high an advance, and mine is a case in point. Had I started smaller and earned-out, it's possible that, in the aggregate, I wouldn't have made quite as much money. But I wouldn't be in the insane position I find myself in now. I've been published in a dozen different languages. All four of my books have received near perfect reviews. My European sales are respectable enough that I have made two promotional trips abroad this year alone. I have a contract with a major British publisher for two books. And yet if I'm going to continue publishing in this country, I'm going to have to do so under a different name.

Wednesday, April 27, 2005

A Baker’s Dozen: Mad Max Author Survey

“For me, it’s always been about the writing, and that’s what has saved me in the end.”—Patrick, novelist

In the very early days of BookAngst101, I asked writers to share with me their publication histories. 13 authors replied to my survey, giving frank and detailed accounts—not many happy tales here, I’m sorry to say—and then generously answered my follow-up questions. I’d like to thank Keith, Kitty, Lynn, Richard, Patrick, Allison, Rachel, Calvin, Elliot, Jesse, Mary,Willa and Carla* for being so trusting, and so forthcoming. (It’s especially valuable, I think, because your backgrounds represent a perfect cross-section of the business: writers of fiction and nonfiction, across the span of literary-to-commercial; adult books, childrens' and YA; published by major New York publishers, university presses and a variety of small regional presses....)

I’d intended to use your experiences as a database from which to sketch out a composite of the writing-and-publishing life. But as I sifted through the details I came to see that there weren’t a lot of larger lessons to be drawn that we didn’t mostly know already:

Editorial turnover breaks authors’ hearts and leaves them compromised in ways the consequences of which are sometimes never undone... Overwhelmed and/or inexperienced publicists—the closest thing to “marketing in action” that many authors ever come into contact with—rarely seem to be up to, or invested in, the task of promoting mid-list authors... On the other hand, be careful what you wish for: almost to a person, these authors came to the conclusion that the book tour, on virtually any scale, is not simply a waste of time & energy but, in fact, an exercise in public humiliation... To top things off, it appears there really is a special ring in hell for the nitwit radio and newspaper personnel who purport to be working the “book beat” yet fail to read the books (or sometimes even the press material) by the authors they’re interviewing.

These are all real and significant concerns, but I suspect they’re not much of a surprise to professionals on either side of the aisle. It’s taken me rather a long time to recognize that the larger value of your replies isn’t so much in the aggregate “data” they provide, but in the narrative particularities of your experiences, and in the way you expressed them.

Seven months, in fact. In retrospect I wish I’d crafted my “survey” so as to invite a more discursive approach: I asked for nugget-sized details and got them, but the form of my questions elicited replies that, in some cases, don’t translate well for a larger narrative. And so, while pieces of all 13 interviews have informed various aspects of this blog for months now, and excerpts from many will appear in a series of “survey recap posts” I'll run over the next couple of weeks, fewer than half of your replies have translated effectively into stand-alone entries. I apologize to those of you whose stories aren’t reflected here, or in much depth, despite your having taken the time and effort to give such full reports. But seven months is too long, already, to have held onto to these; and it seems it’s better to put out some of these narratives than to keep them all on ice because of my inability to frame the others in a fashion that does you justice.

Watch this space for more Author Survey posts in the near future.


P.S. Don't forget, folks--we're still accepting applications for the Rant Room. space is going fast, though, so get yours in soon!

*For the record: with the exception of self-proclaimed “Paperback Writer” Lynn Viehl (whose response to the survey was posted back in January), all the other writers are presented by alias, and in some cases with a detail or two changed, in order to safe-guard anonymity.

Monday, April 25, 2005

Max for a Day: Rant this Space

A reader of this blog recently suggested the need for
"a forum where publishing insiders can vent (anonymously) about the challenges of their industry, and maybe offer/get some sympathy and support."
I don't know about the sympathy/support side of the equation, but I can attest to the psychic benefits of ranting. And then there's the confidence boost that comes from deceipt: by posing as a publishing insider as I've done, and posting pseudonymously, I've come to see myself as being more steeped in the pubishing process than most mailroom employees can claim.

And so I thought it might be interesting to open up the gates a little--to give you (Dear Reader) not just a chance to vent but also to bask in the glory that comes with being a part of the glamorous blogging community at this particularly glamorous moment in time. Think of it (as I do) like being Super Hero for a day--the chance don the brightly-colored cape & costume, and to demonstrate to all the world the full range of your genius [sic], your keen insights, your ability to take a bullet for the good of human-kind. Sure, there's the risk of public humiliation--on the other hand, what if you emerge from the experience not just alive but with a broader, stronger sense of your own self-worth?
[In my own case, there's little doubt that my time at BookAngst 101 has contributed directly to my best performance evaluation ever, and I'm currently on the short list to be promoted to Assistant Manager, Mailroom Operations. (Keep your fingers crossed, will you? I'll let you know how it turns out...)]
Remember the ad for the 96-pound weakling who, sick of getting sand kicked in his face, turns to Charles Atlas for guidance? That used to be me...except that my dyslexia prevented me from getting Charles Atlas's phone number right, and my apathy prevented me from trying again... As you can well imagine, this inaction (combined with many others, of which this was but one example) contributed to a low self-image and a predilection toward conspiracy theory, fast food and video games. And so, for much of my adult life, I've had the rather unsatisfactory experience of being a 96-pound weakling stuck inside a MUCH larger body. Think Ignatius J. Reilly. Think Gilbert Grape's mom.

But that all changed when I became a pseudonymous blogger. Donning the Mask of Max is the opportunity for the office-bound to (as the ad says) "Be all that you can be." To vanquish, in this newly (if only metaphorically) buff and bodacious state, those bullies who tormented us on the personal beaches of our respective pasts.

And now, for a limited time only, you too can share in this liberating experience! Here's how!!!

1. Pick a topic about which you feel strongly, and draft a "rant" of whatever length works for you.
2. Send it to me via email.
3. If I like it, I'll post it to BookAngst 101.

Now for the fine print:
Mad Max, that is, the original Mad Max Perkins, distinct from potential "Max for a Day" candidates, reserves the right to make all final decisions about content to be posted at BookAngst 101. Max is not so much worried about sloppily constructed arguments as he is about someone having something of genuine insight to say, which could reflect poorly on Max's perceived expertise. Max is willing to edit/comment on topics that strike him as worthy or serious or cogent or exceedingly silly, but warns in advance that there's a inverse corrolation between the amount of work to be done on a piece and its likelihood of getting posted. This offer is subject to alteration or cancellation without warning.
Let the venting begin.

P.S. Anonymity is optional.
Thursday, April 21, 2005


Sorry for the hiatus. Right now I don't seem to have the juice to be posting regularly, and have decided neither to force it nor to force a decision about when--or whether--BookAngst 101 will be back in session.

So for now I'm setting my solar panels in the yard and letting them recharge awhile.

Thanks to you e-mail pals who've checked in w/ me to offer good cheer and make sure all's well. All is well, and is better still because of your good wishes.

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Stacked and Packin' : Alive & Well in the Land of Books

Books, books, everywhere you look! Stacked to the rafters, high on the hip; on the front page of the New York Times, in high-rotation ads on Fox TV, in obits and litblogs and AP Wire postings. Suddenly the book biz has a personality again. Watch out, Teach for America: you'll have to fight a lot harder for those young Yale Dartmouth & Amherst grads next year.

Here's Judith Regan announcing her move to Los Angeles, promising Left Coast culture a shot in the arm--and my favorite kettle-calling-pot comment, from an unidentified Hollywood exec, who said, in the Daily News:
"Judith has succeeded by going for the lowest common denominator...While that makes her a standout in the book-publishing industry, it's not really so special out here."
Here's Pamela Anderson giving a boost to our collective silhouette in STACKED, the sit-com (premiering tonight) that the Calgary Sun describes as "FRASIER with boobs" [Headline: "Stacked not a bust"] and showing Middle America just how much fun reading can be. Speaking of fun, producer Steve Levitan compares (perhaps optimistically) STACKED's potential for romantic high-jinx with CHEERS's Sam-and-Diane [with Elon Gold in the "Sam" slot], and admits he had another sexy, literate, laff-riot couple in mind:
"I thought a lot about the Marilyn Monroe-Arthur Miller dynamic when I was writing this," Levitan said [in the NYTimes]. "Here was this blond bombshell who surprised a lot of people by being with this New York intellectual and vice versa. That's always been a fascinating relationship to a lot of people."
Here's Saul Bellow, resplendent in death, coming across not as egghead-genius but as hip-cat Jimmy Stewart, inspiring financial brokers across three continents to whisper a single word of investment advice: "TWEED." [Methinks I see a t.v. movie on the horizon... Bellow, Hunter S. Thompson, Arthur Miller--A Bookish Brat Pack of the Dead, with a made-for-t.v. amalgam of Andrea Dworkin and Gloria Steinem as protofeminist sidekick.]

Here's the launch of the Litblog Co-op, offering at least the possibility that serious, unhyped literature isn't doomed in the marketplace.

Here's the Iowa Writers' Workshop conducting an American Idol-like search for a new director to replace the legendary Frank Conroy, bringing beloved-but-not-bestselling writers Richard Bausch, Jim Shepard and Ben Marcus an extra measure of attention before ultimately selecting Lan Samantha Chang.

Here's Harvey and Bob, given the opportunity to slip free, blameless, of the book trade, and chosing not to.

Here's Jonathan Burnham and Rob Weisbach and Carole Baron and Ivan Held and Lee Boudreaux and Jennifer Hershey taking on new gigs, new challenges, and sending an energizing ripple through the industry.

Smirk if you will--and the opportunities are numerous--but can this really be a bad thing? Sure, Pamela Anderson's co-stars in STACKED are sure to be chubby, cross-eyed dorks. Sure, if there's reason to celebrate Judith Regan's move west, it probably has more to do with the notion of "addition by subtraction" than with culture per se. And--sure--the shifting of leadership players of late doesn't address, in any way, the more fundamental concerns of the industry.

But you can't have everything. Meanwhile, there's always this low-tech 19th century truism that is no less a rallying cry today, nor any less true:

Change is good.
Saturday, April 09, 2005

Read This! United by Love

"Marking a departure from the solitary life of reading and writing, about 20 independent literary bloggers announced Friday that they will begin working together in hopes of drawing readers to books they feel deserve more attention, while seeking to generate more and deeper public discussions of literature....Mark Sarvas, who drew the project together, described the effort as less an awared program than a conversation starter.

"We want to shine a light on literary fiction likely to get overlooked and lost in the shuffle...The mission is to see what happens when 10 to 20 lit bloggers get behind a title and push hard. Does it make a difference?"

--L.A. Times article [April 9, 2005] on the Litblog Cooperative
Tuesday, April 05, 2005

One Night in the Heart of the City...

Scribes in tights...super-duper lit-kits--except, hey! Where are the washboard abs?

Let's face it: when you need somebody to see behind the mask? To comprehend what (dr)evil lurks in the hearts of men?

Call a woman.

Patricia Storms has BookLust. Pass it on.
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."