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“Thank you, but No.”
December 1, 2020
I’ve always had faith that I could write, which I began doing seriously when I was in my early twenties. A couple of my books were published in the late 1980s and early 90s. But after that, I couldn’t get anyone interested. This was pre- or early-internet time, and we had not yet seen the founding or early struggles of a couple of important businesses: Amazon particularly, Facebook, Twitter, et.al. In those times, the road to publication lay through a series of bottlenecks that made publication very difficult indeed. Those would be the community of literary agents and then the publishers themselves. Both these groups had a kind of monopoly on who would get published and who wouldn’t.
For the majority of fiction writers in the United States, if not all writers, the bottlenecks became the bloodied fields of failure. There are thousands and thousands of writers with completed manuscripts, and a few hundred who get published every year. Those few are the ones selected by literary agents (most of whom are in New York City) for representation. Established publishers will not look at any projects that are not represented by an agent. So, if you write and wish to be published in that system, your chances of success are slim to none. (I read a statistic once that, on any given day, there are 120,000 manuscripts in the U.S. postal system, making their ways from the authors to some publishing person or another. Of those, few will indeed be published. The rest lose.)
It has been this way for many, many years.
For the first few years of my writing with serious intent, I put myself firmly in the middle of it all by following the rules. I wrote earnestly and often to agents. I followed their stringent rules to the letter, for submission to their agencies. I waited the de rigueur two to six months for a response, which was almost always “Thank you, but we find your fine work not quite right for us,” or some such. Those responses, of which there were hundreds…many hundreds…put me completely out of the running for establishment publishers, for years.
In the past twenty years or so, however, we’ve seen the advent and growth of viable publishing possibilities that circumvent this self-important and ruinous system. The possibilities came about with the advent of the internet and those companies I mentioned above, with some others. Prior to those events, if you were an author and self-published your books, you would be committing professional suicide, even if your books had real value. Agents and publishers, once they learned that you had self-published, would not look at your work at all, since self-publishing was viewed as an instance of authors accepting their own failure. Also, as a side-issue, the companies that did do self-publishing expected the author to carry the entire burden of producing and distributing the books. They charged the author handsomely for both those services. The reading public for such books was made up of the author’s family and a few friends. Otherwise the author was sunk.
But now, all this has changed. Books can be tastefully designed, produced, and sold using all the tools of online marketing that we now know so well. Also, because of Amazon (and Apple Books, BN.com, and other companies) the author has an open door to the world book-reading market, in printed and digital products. Also, the author will usually make a per-copy royalty that is twice or three times the amount he/she would receive from the established publishers. So, if you get $1.50 per copy sold as a royalty from Houghton Mifflin, you’ll receive a royalty of three or four dollars for each copy produced and sold outside the established publishing system. The established publishers used to carefully edit, market, and publicize their products. Budgets for those things have been uniformly slashed by all the established publishers, especially since most of them have been taken over by corporate conglomerates.
So…there is that expense that the author must shoulder himself/herself. The good news is that the author gets to control what’s happening there, in ways not even imagined just a few years ago.
With all this, the influence of the long-established publishing community, which is still gigantic and worldwide, has lessened. But the fact is that now, for the first time in publishing history, the means of production are in the hands of the author. One noted literary agent of my acquaintance said this to me two years ago: ”Terry, the great literature of the 21st century will have been self-published. Don’t even consider wasting your time with the New York crowd.” A very noted editor with years of experience in the New York trade, who worked with me on two of my novels, said this to me: “Having your book come out these days from a huge publishing house is like having played on the 1947 New York Yankees team. Who cares?”
Of course, Amazon is not perfect, as we all know. But that is another story.
(Terence Clarke’s new novel, The Moment Before, will come out in 2021. The translation to Spanish of his novel about perilous events in the life of Pablo Neruda, The Splendid City, is being published today, December 1, and is available everywhere worldwide. The title? La espléndida ciudad.)
Alan Rinzler, On Publishing Past, Present and Future
When you are reading the Acknowledgments page of a newly purchased book, and you come across effusive thanks from the writer to his/her editor, you can reasonably ask, “Just what does an editor do?” Is such a person merely a handy helpmate who corrects grammatical errors? Is the editor the person who keeps the writer’s creative rampages in check, so that eventually an actual book with a beginning, a middle and an end will arrive at the book store (or, in these times, on your iPad)? Is the editor a soul mate to the writer, without whom the poor sot may never finish the sanity-threatening project on which he/she has embarked?
All of these will do, and many others. If you are a writer yourself, you know the intellectual and emotional intimacy that can result between you and your editor. It can be a sanguine conversation or a grittily difficult one, and every shade of talk in between. A very good primer on what the relationship can be like is A. Scott Berg’s Max Perkins: Editor of Genius. Among others, Perkins was the editor for much of the work of Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Thomas Wolfe.
There are few editors today who can claim to have edited such a list of major writers (either in terms of the quality or of the sales of their books). But one who can is Alan Rinzler. Having edited several of the books by Hunter S. Thompson, Clive Cussler, Toni Morrison, Tom Robbins and many, many others (including – full disclosure – two of mine) Rinzler occupies an almost unique place in contemporary publishing.
And he has much to say about the current state of that publishing.
For one, things look very good indeed, for a very real reason. “I don’t think people will ever stop writing or reading,” Rinzler says. “Human beings are hardwired to tell stories, compelled to write them…and to read stories for pleasure, information, inspiration – all the vital knowledge that we need to survive.” Every editor knows that the essential quality needed for a successful book is that it be written well. It’s the writer’s most important task, and has always been. What is new in successful books these days is the way they get published and sold, and Rinzler is very upbeat about current and future prospects in that realm, too.
“I was lucky to start out in publishing in the early 1960s when youth culture was a very important factor in book acquisition, production and marketing. Since I was young myself, I was able to make a connection with what was happening and that actually sold books.”
Rinzler’s rise was meteoric, starting with the mentorship from the legendary Robert Gottlieb at Simon and Schuster.
“After S&S, I went to Macmillan, and then Holt, which was owned by CBS at the time. So right away I had the kinds of resources that allowed me to sign up and develop books for the so-called youth market. A book about Bob Dylan and Joan Baez in their folk-music phase. A book on civil rights called The Movement, because I had been a member of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee. And most importantly the first book written by a street kid growing up in Harlem, Manchild in the Promised Land ,which turned out to be a big NY Times best-seller.”
This youthful rise also included Rinzler’s editing and publishing Custer Died for Your Sins by Lakota Sioux Native American Vine Deloria Jr, and Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of The American West by Dee Brown. Published in 1970, it remains the best-selling book that Rinzler has ever worked on, and has been translated into more than 20 languages. It is still in print.
“Meanwhile, I had always loved rock ‘n roll as well. I had done a book on Woodstock by the rock ‘n roll photographer Baron Wolman, who told his friend Jann Wenner about me. Jann was in the process of founding a little newsprint four-fold publication in San Francisco named Rolling Stone, and we met.”
Agreeing to come on board, Rinzler moved his family from New York City to the west coast, and Rolling Stone became world famous. “Jann and I both wanted to start a book division, which we did, and I was in charge.” The publishing arm was called Straight Arrow Books. “Ultimately we published about 50 titles, most of which are still in print.” Among the most iconic titles published by Straight Arrow are Hunter S. Thompson’s legendary Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail, as well as Kerouac, the first biography of Jack Kerouac by Ann Charters.
When Wenner decided to move Rolling Stone’s operations to New York City, Rinzler demurred, having decided that the San Francisco Bay Area was where he and his young family wanted to stay. He went to work for Barney Rosset at Grove Press and Evergreen Review. “Rosset was another great American publisher,” Rinzler says, “who paved the way for a lot of things that were actually, in those days, against the law to publish, like Lady Chatterly’s Lover and Tropic of Cancer.”
Rinzler has continued on from there, to edit books for innumerable writers. He was for some years the west coast editor for Bantam Books, for whom he edited work by Tom Robbins, Jerzy Kosinski and Shirley MacLaine, among others, and until recently, Rinzler was an executive editor for Jossey Bass, the west coast imprint of John Wiley & Sons in San Francisco.
Much has changed in the way that writing gets published…and read. Two things, however, remain unchanged: the creative talent of the writer and the intellectual curiosity of the reader.
“The book business,” Alan Rinzler says, “ has always only been marginally profitable.
“Even in the halcyon days of publishing, when I was fresh out of college, when Richard Simon was in one office and Max Schuster in another…when Alfred Knopf was down the street and Bennett Cerf was running Random House, most of the books being published by those titanic icons lost money.”
A business model, if there was one, was based on “the publisher’s passion,” Rinzler says.
“In those days, an editor would acquire a book because he loved it. He believed in it. But only a few books made enough to compensate for all those that failed. It was the old 20/80 rule.”
Book publishing has forever been an industry with very slim margins. “A profit of 5 to 6 percent meant that you were doing well,” Rinzler points out. This was largely due to the up-front expenses that traditional book publishing incurred: typesetting, and then printing and binding a book in long press runs; warehousing the books and having to distribute them to innumerable book stores around the country; marketing and publicity. All these caused out-of-pocket expenses that were incurred before a single book was ever sold. And then, as the unruly frosting on the cake, unsold books could be returned by the stores to the publishers for refunds…further expenses.
“Of course, this in no way affected the impact of the publishing industry on the general scene,” Rinzler says. “It had a very high visibility because it influenced ideas and social change. It reflected what was happening in politics, the arts and the culture.”
When the first shopping mall store chains (B. Dalton, Walden Books, et.al.) came along, there was much worry on the part of the traditional publishers about what this could mean to their sales and profits. “Those stores were originally considered low-brow warehouses,” Rinzler says. “Paperback reprints for a dollar each. A lot of people in the business predicted the end of traditional publishing and independent bookstores.” In fact, however, sales increased and profits soared for the top best-sellers because of far greater volume over so many new outlets.
And now, electronic digital publishing and distribution, and self-publishing are changing the scene in ways that are even more dramatic. “Gradually, although kicking and screaming,” Rinzler notes, “traditional book publishers and sellers are being dragged into the 21st century.”
“And one of the biggest factors in this has been the rise of Amazon. Their brilliant new idea was to sell books on line and through the mail directly to buyers, in ways that traditional publishers had never before done. Also the idea of discounting certain titles, or offering chapters of a book for free, the result often being that readers buy the books in much greater volume…because they know what they’re getting.”
There’s an authentic revolution in book publishing that has greatly impacted the author’s potential to receive a greater share of the profits. In traditional publishing, the author’s royalty has always been 10-12-15% for a hard-cover; 7-1/2 to 10% percent for trade paperback; even lower for certain kinds of mass publishing. Now, with the advent of the Kindle, the iPad, and many quite legitimate digital and print-on-demand self-publishing programs, an author can receive as much as 70% of the retail price as royalties.
The growth of electronic publishing has brightened the future for individual writers in ways that provide new incentive for true writing talent, and new enthusiasm among readers of good books. With electronic publishing, more books that are well written are finding the light of day, and delivered much more quickly into the hands of avid readers. Traditional publishing is, to be sure, still doing fine. The printed book will not soon disappear, if ever, but the market share of ebook to print has grown from 5% to 30% over the past few years and is projected to surpass 50% of all book sales within two or three more.
“Yes, I think this is the best time ever for an author,” Rinzler says.
“The balance of power has shifted from the gatekeepers to the artists. Now the author is in a position to take control of the means of production, which has almost never been the case in the history of publishing. They can control the content, the design, the appearance, the production itself…and also, by the way, receive a much larger share of the profits from all that.”
Rinzler breaks into a grin.
“I understand that an author may want to do things in the traditional way, having the imprimatur of that important publisher’s brand name on the spine of his or her book. But to me, that’s like having a spot on the roster of the 1947 Yankees. Now I always ask my writers, ‘How much time have you got? How much patience? How much tolerance for frustration? Rejection? Or for just plain being ignored?’”
Rinzler’s questions reveal the reality, for most writers, of dealing with traditional publishing. And that’s why, he continues, self-publishing has now become such a viable alternative. What once was the worst thing for a serious writer to do, now offers very great potential value to that writer. No longer is self-publishing an embarrassing admission of defeat by authors whose work does not attract a traditional publisher. Now writers can hire their own developmental editors and jacket designers and skip over the big wait.
“If you’ve gone for a year or two with no positive response from traditional publishers, self-publishing begins to look pretty good,” Rinzler says. “And of course, there’s the precedent of self-published books becoming best sellers. Miracles do happen!”
Among the writers I know, Lewis Hyde’s The Gift is almost always required reading. It is a treatise on the differences between gift-giving cultures (mostly tribal and now disappeared) and the commodity-driven cultures born of the Industrial Revolution (still predominant and thriving stunningly in the glut of digital information).
Tribal societies grew and prospered through giving gifts, which is a notion barely recognized in commodity-driven societies. The notion of the gift is that it is proffered freely and openly, and that the giver does not expect to have it returned exactly as it left him, if ever. Indeed, the ideal gift goes from the initial recipient to another and on to another, growing in emotional value for the givers and the recipients, if not in economic value.
With commodities, each item has a financial value, and without the agreement to exchange the item for something of equal value (money, for example) there is no exchange. The item remains the same as it has always been, hardly an acquirer of added feeling. Sitting on a shelf, it has no emotional value of any kind, and when sold, it is no gift, because it has not been given.
This is admittedly a crude explanation of Hyde’s fine essay. In its first 145 pages, he gives numerous examples of these two ways of running a society. There is even a chapter on the subject of usury that is the only piece of writing about the subject that I’ve found even remotely interesting (although, of course, there is Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, which isn’t bad.)
The second half of Hyde’s book is an attempt to point out how the making of art is the greatest gift of all. He does this through a description of the lives and work of two poets: Walt Whitman, who was the ultimate spokesman for the gift, and Ezra Pound, who eschewed the gift finally, in favor of imposed governmental order.
Walt Whitman’s poetry, Hyde explains, is the very essence of the kind of gift that an artist receives at birth, and the artist’s adding to that gift his or her own acquired craft as a creative spirit. Hyde also shows how Whitman’s very life was an exercise in gift giving, especially in the quite moving descriptions of Whitman’s care for and love of severely wounded Union soldiers during the Civil War.
Ezra Pound recognizes the erratic and anarchistic ways in which art first emerges from the soul, something every artist experiences. But he feels that the work can only be perfected by a constant effort of what he calls “the will toward order.” The will that Pound so admired had much effect upon his life, especially when, smitten by Mussolini and the fascists, he broadcast diatribes in English on Italian radio against Jews, democracies and the American government. He was an American citizen, and this took place during the Second World War. So the troops, much less the American government, were not amused.
It is a curse upon every artist to have to deal with being ignored by the public, and most artists are indeed so disdained. I whine about it every day, at least to myself. Sometimes, when especially down, I let my friends know…loudly. I used to worry about this, and to think that I was most probably a fool for wanting to write. I write anyway because the process gives me such joy that I cannot bear to miss more than one day.
But in 1983, when I first read The Gift, I realized that being ignored made my writing flourish in an important way. “To convert an idea into a commodity,” Hyde wrote, “means, broadly speaking, to establish a boundary of some sort so that the idea cannot move from person to person without a toll or fee.” If this is so, the fee is a barrier to what the act of writing can actually produce. It stunts the writing. The fee is a fine.
I spent decades in business selling things, while at the same time writing at lunchtime and at night. Being paid for my services was thus so ingrained in my thinking that the idea of giving my written work away was laughable to me. As Samuel Johnson once said, “No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money.”
But very little money ever came to me from all those words. Everyone I know who writes has labored in the desert of not being published. Some have perished in that dry landscape. Others continue wandering there, and I encounter them all the time. You become especially lost if you have bought traditional publishing’s idea that only through the marketplace does respectability as a writer become possible. So, corporatized publishing companies, a constant eye on sales figures, the literary agent’s assurances of no-possible-advance/no-publication, and all the attendant fees paid to all these entities come into play, leaving most writers to go on wandering.
Hyde writes about several authors and their perceptions of the gift they have been given, which they wish to pass along. One of them, the novelist and mariner Joseph Conrad, puts it this way in his famous preface to the novel The Nigger of The Narcissus:
The artist appeals…to that in us which is a gift and not an acquisition — and, therefore, more permanently enduring. He speaks to our capacity for delight and wonder, to the sense of mystery surrounding our lives; to our sense of pity, and beauty, and pain; to the latent feeling of fellowship with all creation…
Hyde gives us a summation of this process in a wonderful paragraph from The Gift:
The artist’s gift refines the materials of perception or intuition that have been bestowed upon him; to put it another way, if the artist is gifted, the gift increases in its passage through the self. The artist makes something higher than what he has been given, and this, the finished work, is the third gift, the one offered to the world in general.
Incidentally, Hyde does feel that there can be an understanding between these two poles of activity, in which the gift and the commodity can accommodate one another. The chapter on usury interested me as much as it did because Hyde talks about how usury under certain circumstances can be the way in which a commodity can become a kind of gift.
For myself, re-reading this book after a 10 year hiatus from business, during which I’ve written three novels and three story collections for very little money, was a welcome gift that allowed me to justify to myself all those nights I spent dreaming things up and writing them down.
Terence Clarke’s new novel The Notorious Dream of Jesús Lázaro will be published later this year.