Sunday, December 21, 2008

At a recent meeting with writers, editors, and agents, we heard a story of a fellow whose novel had just been taken by a major press. He was elated and could hardly wait to tell us the good news. But then one of the agents began pouring cold water on the proposition by explaining how much of his advance would have to be spent on promotion and how little the PR department of his publisher could actually do on his behalf.

In other words, promoting the book was up to the author. One thing he could do is make the rounds of bookstores at his own expense and pray that for whatever reason he might have an audience and some of them might buy the book. The last author I spoke to about this gave a reading to 22 people and 4 bought the book. That’s a very good ratio, and the truth is that the profit on his books did not pay for his gas to get to the book store.

Advances these days are not given out like bonuses. They are expected to stoke the fires of a professional PR person and a vigorous campaign to get the book noticed. How that happens is different for every author and we know how hard it is to stand out in a crowd that is also peopled by celebrities and scoundrels, who manage to hog the headlines.

Harper Collins is said to be experimenting with a line of books that have no advance. For some writers that represents opportunity because whatever happens these days the job of helping the book get some sales is on the shoulders of the writers no matter who publishes the book.

The advantage, for fiction writers, of Harper Collins’s deal over self-publishing is clear. Harper Collins has distributors that put the book in bookstores; having the Harper Collins imprint would make it easier for an author to publicize the book and get some local press coverage; and finally, having someone else design and print the book without involving the author’s expense makes life a little easier for the author. But in the final analysis no matter how one publishes, the author must do the work of getting the book noticed and reviewed.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Can Quality Writing Prevail in Publishing Today?

The New York Times’s Timothy Egan complained that Samuel J. Wurtzelbacher, known as "Joe the Plumber" in the current election campaign, has come out with a book. He also mentioned that Sarah Palin may command as much as seven million dollars for a book under her name, although it is clear from her general communiques to the public that she is a hopelessly inadequate writer. However, that never stopped celebrities from "penning" tell-alls.

Egan's complaint is based on some simple painful facts. There are many fine novelists who cannot get agents or publishers, just as there are fine poets and memoirists who have no hope of finding space on bookstore shelves. So many good writers will never command an audience on the scale of fabricated books of the kind Egan condemns that it makes us realize that self-publishing is not just for vanity seekers.

Quality comes in many forms, and right now it is very hard for good writers, writers of literary quality, to place a book with a publisher unless there is some previous media blitz or unless there is some powerful person who can promote the book with a powerful editor. Even some very fine novelists whose early books showed great promise tell me that there is no market for their current work. No commercial press will touch them because the early books did not sell well enough for them to take the risk. Of course one reason they cannot take the risk is that the publishers have lavished advances on non-book books. The result is that writers of quality prose will not have the chance to develop their talent in the open marketplace.

Maybe it has never been much different, but today with fewer "big" publishers and with many editors and support people losing jobs in publishing, things certainly feel different.

The end result is that the idea of founding a publishing house whose mission is to bring out good books that don’t fit the commercial mold seems more and more appealing. Hammonasset House Books is an artists’ cooperative dedicated to publishing a few good books. For people who like good books.