Sunday, May 01, 2005

Mad Max Survey, Vol. III: Big v. Small

PATRICK, a literary novelist, published his first book with a prestigious New York house, then published his next two with a university press.

BIG ......For my first novel, there was a generally good vibe leading up to publication. I had some issues with the publisher, though—the corporate behemoth and so forth—issues that seemed all the more clear-cut when my publicity director was fired the week before publication. The new pub director knew little about the book and as a result very little happened. Despite good reviews and moderately good sales (plus a good sub rights deal), the experience led me to want to explore other options.

SMALL ......I wound up publishing my next two books with a university press. I was drawn in that direction initially because I had heard they kept books in print and cared deeply about literature. In fact, I thought the editing was vastly superior with my faceless NY publisher. I'm not sure my editor at the university press ever read the book. They went into publishing fiction with the idea that they' make a lot of money to support scholarly monographs but they had no idea how to market fiction. Again, good reviews and even a minor prize, but low sales, due in part to lousy distribution and p.r.

I did a second book with this press, thinking we had all learned something from the first. In this case, I worked very hard for the book and sales were modestly better but many of the same problems remained. And while they sold out of their first edition within six months, they weren't willing to go back for a second printing. Another minor complaint is that while there was some movie interest, the publisher had no idea how to handle this, and fumbled the opportunity. Sub rights is a major problem with small press and university presses. Every so often they get a paperback deal but it's purely by accident, in my opinion.

BIG v. SMALL ......At the time I felt I’d been lost in the shuffle with my New York publisher; on the other hand, there's just no question that their professionalism and attention to detail made a huge difference. One small example: with my last book with the U.P., I almost didn't get noticed in PW or Kirkus because the press didn't get advance copies to them in time. This despite having gotten good notices on my previous novels—very annoying, given the importance of these publications to bookstores, libraries and the trade. On the other hand, while the first book was pulped within six months, my university press books are still in print. That means a lot to an author.

THE WORK ......Looking back on twenty years of frustration and some limited success, I think the most important thing is perseverance. Too many writers are willing to give in to pessimism because of the problems all mid-list writers face these days. For me, it's really always been about the writing, and that's what has saved me in the end. If I didn't love to write, I'd be in trouble.

I think that book tours and other publicity gimmicks are largely a waste of time. I know all the arguments for them, how they encourage booksellers, etc, but few things in life are more dispiriting that standing around in some bookstore in some distant place addressing five or six people and a pile of your books. Okay, you get to sign stock and sell a few that way, but in my view it's not worth it, especially in view of the way NY publishers view these kinds of sales. Ditto with interviewers, most of whom are clueless and have little idea of who you are and what you've done. A special place in hell should be reserved for these nitwits.

WHAT I KNOW NOW ......I just sent a new novel to my agent and have decided that unless I can get a decent deal with a NY publisher, I'm not going to publish it. For me, it's all about distribution and publicity. With the decline of review markets, it's just very difficult to get your book in front of the public without a big NY house behind you. Having said that, I'll also say that I think these literary blogs are the most interesting and exciting thing I've seen in publishing in twenty years. I have no idea what the audience is but I'm always impressed with the energy and intelligence of the bloggers.



Anonymous said...

Dear Patrick --

Your story breaks my heart, especially as I'm under the impression it's not rare. However, your experience with the large NY house sounds "common," whereas the experience with the university press sounds simply unfortunate to me -- it would be a mistake to lump all independent presses as similar. Distribution is the main issue, as you've observed; solid small presses have excellent distribution (one can visit Consortium Book Sales and Distribution ( a distributor exclusively for independents -- and find a wide variety of excellent small press with excellent national distribution; I'm not sure if there are any university presses among them, interestingly enough).

I hope that if your agent doesn't find the large NY house for your new manuscript, that you won't seek out some of these other publishers. For a writer as committed to his work as you obviously are, I'd hate to think of your new novel sitting in a drawer.

Jayme Lynn Blaschke said...

Ditto with interviewers, most of whom are clueless and have little idea of who you are and what you've done. A special place in hell should be reserved for these nitwits.

As one of those nitwit interviewers, I always make a point of doing my research on a subject beforehand--mainly because I'd read too many of those painfully clueless interviews referenced. When an interview starts out with "So, it's says here you're a writer. I guess that means books and stuff, huh?" the only real question remaining is "How bad is it going to get?" So yeah, a circle of hell is definitely in order.

Fortunately, I must've done something right somewhere, because the U of Nebraska Press has just published a collected volume of my interviews with science fiction authors... putting me squarely on the book promotion merry-go-round. Oh, how I see myself in so many of these BookAngst 101 stories!

Anonymous said...

Dear Patrick,

Putting your book in the drawer isn’t going to help. Is it? I stopped sending stuff out for almost five years because I was disgusted and confused by this non-writing side of the writing business. I found it terribly enervating but I think it was a mistake to stop sending out. I’m back at it and surprisingly hopeful. In the last six months I have to thank the lit blog community for enlightening me, for sharing facts and figures and true-life publishing stories. Only after reading story after story of other writers who have experienced similar fiascos (in my case, I was passed onto three different editors, and finally ended up working with the publisher, who left as soon as my book came out) did I realize that the universe had not singled me out for punishment. The lit blog community has a lot to offer. Writers are seeking and even gaining some control over the process—not enough yet, certainly, but I really believe this phenomenon is forcing a positive change in the industry. And you will benefit from it.

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."