Author Archives: Pat Holt

A Personal Look at ‘Tinkers’

One of the best qualities of a good book is that it stays with you long after book’s end — and occasionally adds something to personal experience. “Tinkers” by Paul Harding (reviewed here, and with publisher’s terrific  background story here) keeps doing that and more.

I find myself  pondering one passage -  passed over at first reading -  in which a father who has severe dementia wanders away from his family home in rural Maine. 

His son has watched his father “receding from human circumstance” and sets out to find him. 

As the boy walks through a corn field, he imagines “breaking an ear from its stalk, peeling its husk, and finding my father’s teeth lining the cob. They were clean and white, but worn like his. Strands of my father’s hair encased the teeth instead of cornsilk.”

Later “as I hiked through the woods, I imagined peeling the bark from a birch tree, the outer layers supple, like skin… I would cut a seam in the wood, prying it open an inch at a time, and find a long bone encased in the middle of the trunk.”

The Opposite of Death

These images provide another example of  “the opposite of death,” Harding’s notion that our bodies  are reabsorbed by nature in such a wondrous exchange of matter that the human mind tends to glorify and even itemize the body’s contributions.

Granted,  the boy’s vision of his father’s bodily parts reorganized in nature seems a bit fantastic. But like so much of this extraordinary book, events in the characters’ lives have an unseen effect on readers’ lives.  

This past week I remembered having a similar experience going to the theater in New York after the death of my brother, who was for many years a stage manager, director and producer. He won a Tony for “La Cage Aux Folles,” but his lengthy climb to success had stretched through many plays and musicals up and down ol’ Broadway. 

For a long time after he died I would attend a play and not just imagine him in rehearsal but see his tall (6’4″) body embedded in the smooth wood of the stage, or stretched along the proscenium walls, or shining down from the ornate chandelier. If I went to a theater where he once had a production going, unless the drama onstage proved absolutely riveting, I’d find myself weeping  right in the middle of the play, even if it was a comedy. 

The sense that my brother was there surrounding me would become so intense that I had to open my mouth to let the tears stream in so that others in the audience – who may have been falling off their chairs laughing  – wouldn’t be alarmed by the wipings and snortings of this strange escapee in their midst. Continue reading

“Ms. Cahill for Congress”


Well, this is the most upbeat and inspiring story I’ve heard in a long time.

It came out in joyous original trade paperback last fall but somehow fell through the increasingly narrow slats of our distracted media (see *personal note below). Now there’s a chance of resurrecting it, but more about that later, too.

The book is “Ms. Cahill for Congress” (written with Linden Gross; Ballantine; 246 pages; $14), and here’s  how it starts:

In 1999, a  gifted teacher named Tierney Cahill was introducing the concept of democracy to her sixth-grade class in Reno, Nevada, when she pointed out that in America, anybody can run for office.

Nobody believed her.  “You can’t run for office in this country unless you’re a millionaire or you know a lot of millionaires,” one girl said.

Cahill tried again. “All citizens in our country have the right to run for office,” she said. “Would having a million dollars make things easier? I’m sure it would. But not having the money isn’t going to prevent someone from being able to run.”

And the class shot back. “Well, then, why don’t you prove it?” they asked. “Why don’t you run for office?”

*A Personal Note

It just kills me that during the presidential election,  Barack Obama stood for exactly what Cahill was telling her students – that anybody (even “a mutt like me,” as Obama half-jokingly to himself) can run for office and be taken seriously. Obama’s belief that the biggest lessons come to us from the ground up, not the top down, couldn’t find a better example than “Cahill for Congress.”

What stopped the media from seeing this book as a great story during and for the presidential campaign? Well, here is one idea: traditional media are failing because they’re  addicted to reporting ONE STORY ONLY – Olympics, Election, Super Bowl, 9/11, Oscars, Bank Disasters, War Hot Spots, or Environment [if fun, like electric cars for everyone]).

And newspapers have dropped to the lowest of the low, following rather than leading TV/radio  news. No wonder three more just failed. What newspapers have forgotten they do best is to give readers a feeling of community through stories all around us that we don’t know exist.  IF editors would get off their own addiction to the ONE LOCAL STORY (mayor, murders, teams, colleges, events, scandals) and assign some real reporting on long-unseen districts and neighborhoods, neglected arts and offbeat human interest features [plus wouldn’t advertisers love to appear in a center spread with a hundred fascinating websites per day called NEWS FROM THE INTERNET], the print version no matter how brief might find a grateful audience returning.  It would be great to see newspapers launch a simple  campaign that shows people enjoying the morning paper with their coffee under a headline like AH, THE LUXURY OF DOTS ALREADY CONNECTED or some fun thing. Of course they have to connect those dots first.

Continue reading

Review of ‘Tinkers’


Somewhere in the midst of discovering tiny Bellevue Literary Press and its incredible launch of an original trade paperback called “Tinkers” (191 pages; $14.95),  I decided to take a look at the book to make sure it was worthy of a whole column (or, as it turns out, two). 

Paul Harding

Paul Harding

Wouldn’t you know, this first novel by Paul Harding has so much originality and fresh writing that I could not believe — well, first, that the author is still in his 40s (see left; surely his mind’s age is about 142); and second, that the intricate and animated construction of the novel becomes a character in its own right.

My only regret is that as much as I admire Bellevue Press for its literary standards, I wish the cover copy for “Tinkers” weren’t so dreary. 

“An old man lies dying,” it begins. “As time collapses into memory, he travels deep into his past where he is united with his father and relives the wonder and pain ….” Sounds like a dozen other books to me, and misses a certain playfulness on Harding’s part. In most deathbed scenes, the soul rises gracefully to heaven, but here the house (which the dying man once built himself)  — in fact everything in his universe — comes crashing down on him.

As walls crack and foundation gives way, George Crosby, a former teacher lying in his rented hospital bed, remembers teaching his grandkids how to staple insulation in place. “Now two or three lengths of it had come loose and lolled down like pink woolly tongues,” along with shattered windows, caved-in ceiling, and “electrical wires that looked like severed veins” to George.   

There is no respite. “The second floor fell on him, with its unfinished pine framing and dead-end plumbing and racks of old coats and boxes.” Now he sees right through a crippled roof as “the clouds halted, paused for an instant, and plummeted onto his head. The very blue of the sky followed…Next fell the stars, tinkling about him like the ornaments of heaven shaken loose. Finally, the black vastation itself came untacked and draped over the entire heap, covering George’s confused obliteration.” Continue reading

Yes, They Can


Gee, I am still not hearing much enthusiasm from mainstream houses in New York about my idea that book publishers should stop putting out expensive and wasteful hardcover editions at the start of a book’s life and begin with original trade paperbacks instead.

(Here’s how most of the response went: You idiot. Original trade paperbacks are an old and outdated idea. Everybody’s tried it and everybody fails because trade paperbacks don’t get reviewed, don’t make enough profit for booksellers, aren’t taken seriously by TV/radio shows, and are too easily damaged in shipment. Even when they get to bookstores and even when they’re displayed face-up [too rarely!], the covers curl up on the table, so you lose about one out of ten.)

Remember, I’m not talking about established best-sellers that have found an audience willing to pay $30 per copy. I’m talking about books by new authors of midrange or serious literary books who don’t have a marketing budget behind them and can no longer depend on affluent readers who’ll take a chance on unknowns.

A Sales Rep Speaks

So: Do original trade paperbacks ever succeed? Thanks to Lise Solomon, a sales representative for the book distributor Consortium, here is a case in point:

“Last season I sold a first novel (‘Tinkers’  by Paul Harding), which I loved and wanted to make happen in my territory of Northern California. ” ‘Tinkers’  had the help of a Marilynne Robinson blurb on the cover and a great package from the relatively unknown independent publisher, Bellevue Literary Press, which announced the book as a trade paperback original. I had ARCs for key buyers and sold it passionately everywhere I could. Continue reading

Things I Worry about Seeing #1


I may end up posing quite a number of Things I’d Love to See in the publishing industry, but a recent email from an editor in New York points out what a tangled knot mainstream publishing has become — too tangled, it seems, to make any substantive changes. 

The editor’s message responds to a recent column about publishers ending the tradition of publishing a book in hardcover first, then waiting a year for the trade paperback (if any). I proposed that publishers start with the cheaper but still beautiful trade paperback edition first. Especially for books by unknown or midlist authors, the already wasteful practice of publishing hardcovers seems senseless.

And now that money is short, readers are far more likely to take a chance on trade paperbacks; book reviewers who used to require hardcovers (honestly! I haven’t heard that one in 20 years) have been overtaken by bloggers who LOVE paperbacks; and since even publishers dismiss hardcovers as “promotional copies for the trade paperback,” my thought is: Just reverse the process. Continue reading

And Then the Husbands Phoned In…


Last week’s column about publishing trade paperbacks first and letting them earn their way into hardcover publication (rather than the other way around) brought a delightful and informative email exchange with California writer Lois Levine.

If you read yesterday’s New York Times piece about authors establishing themselves on the Internet by selling enough self-published books to lure New York publishers into offering a contract, here’s how this was done in BC [before computer] times.

The only difference is that Lois and co-author Marian Burros didn’t have a clue to what they were doing, as evidenced by Photo #1.  (Burros went on to write for the old Washington Star and now the New York Times, but that would come much later.)

Self-published edition in mimeo

1) Self-published edition in mimeo

Here’s how the email exchange went after Lois read the column asking publishers to start the publishing process not with hardcovers but with trade paperbacks:

Lois: You are probably not old enough to remember that my first cookbook, “Elegant but Easy,”  was published in paperback by Collier Books (1968). When it became their best-selling book, it  was then brought out in hardcover by Macmillan. It still sells, though Marian Burros and I revised it in 1998 for Simon & Schuster. It has sold more than 500,000 copies. Continue reading

Things I’d Love to See #4


(I began the series with Three Things I’d Love to See, but in the midst of a failing economy I think there are probably going to be quite a few more – you know, about 16. This one I’ve thought about for years and could easily have made the top three.)

Here’s why I know a book industry era has come to an end: One publisher after another keeps referring to hardcover books as “promotional copies for the paperback edition.”

Yes, hardcover books are selling so poorly that their only use for publishers is to get reviews, book interviews for the author and pave the way for a trade paperback edition that the real audience can afford.

True, the few hardcover books that hit bestseller lists can pay off big time, but these are known commercial hits that are worth giant marketing budgets from the beginning. Or so publishers think.

It’s a much more dangerous risk to try making an unknown author’s book a bestseller, which is why “The Story of Edgar Sawtelle” (before Oprah) was so thrilling: Ecco/Harper knew exactly how to manipulate the formula of big-sprawling-summer-novel+Hamlet gimmick+beautiful-writing+struggling author backstory+DOGS DOGS DOGS = Must Read.

A larger truth, however, is that mid-list and serious literary books by lesser-known authors rarely find their audience in hardcover. Those adventurous readers who watch and clip reviews, look for new voices and love heated book-group discussions most often wait for the paperback, and who can blame them? The cost of a hardcover book after sales tax is about $30. The cost of a trade paperback after sales tax is about $15. Continue reading

Blaming Michael Korda


It’s not that I actually blamed MIchel Korda for robbing editors of their power a few columns ago — rather I attributed the former Simon & Schuster editor-in-chief with causing the anti-editor dominoes to start falling in the 1970s.

Korda was the first influential publishing leader to say that editors at mainstream houses should acquire marketing savvy so they’d get out of their ivory towers and stop mumbling about literary values at sales conference. That fatal push into the commercial domain proved their undoing, I felt. Not to mention the loss of literary standards that had once made hardcover books worthy of their price.

But here is a current editor and publisher (quoted last time) and  “a longtime former colleague of Korda’s” who writes in his defense:

“Dear Pat.

“… Michael Korda can probably speak for himself, but my understanding of his feelings on the subject was that Michael wanted editors to reign supreme – so they needed a range of talents in marketing and deal making to make sure their dominion wasn’t overtaken by these other functions. So I think his intent was to protect the editorial position, not debase it. Of course I knew him at a later stage in his career. Perhaps his thinking evolved.” Continue reading

An Editor Responds


A veteran editor and publisher from a mainstream publishing house has taken issue with my claim that marketing departments have robbed editors of their power.

Here’s one of two challenges in his letter:

“…You leave out what to me is the key element in weakening the position of editors: (literary) agents. Agents need to prove their worth to a client, especially now at 15%, and one way they do it is by moving authors from house to house, editor to editor. That weakens the ties of editors to their authors, which I think is tremendously important to strengthening an editor’s ability to help a writer through the publication process.

“Ironically you often hear agents say they are closer to the authors than their editors, which of course would be natural if you move an author to a different editor every other book. Then agents often claim that they provide an editorial function. Again, I think this is an effort for them to protect and justify their percentage. In most cases they’ve never worked as professional editors themselves. Continue reading

Three Things I’d Like to See #3


I think the saddest thing that ever happened in the book industry was the gradual devaluing of editors and all they stand for – their high standards, their belief in readers, their ability to nurture authors, their love of language, their patience, their dedication, their eye.

And most of all, their power.

Today we hear it like this: An editor will tell the agent that the house is prepared to make a bid. The agent conveys this to the author, who is overjoyed. The day of the auction rolls around, but the editor tearfully tells the agent that the marketing department has decided the house cannot make a bid, and that’s the end of that.

Or this: The manuscript has been copyedited, the jacket design approved, a good-sized marketing package underway until somebody shows the ms. to a Barnes & Noble buyer, who doesn’t like it for the standard reason (too depressing), and suddenly the wheels go in reverse: The marketing budget is cut, the jacket goes on hold, the author is asked to do a rewrite, and the editor looks like an idiot. But hey, the difference may be tens of thousands of copies, so who’s complaining? This question has so easily undermines the editorial process that eventually no one considered the long-term consequences.

Or this: Neither the agent nor the author can believe it, but every single rejection from editors who’ve seen the manuscript has praised the writing and the content with such excitement you can almost see the tears on the page. “We all love this book,” say the decline letters. “But nobody can figure out how to sell it.” Continue reading