Category Archives: Book Publishing

Review of ‘Tinkers’

SHORT NOVEL, HUGE DESIGN

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

WHEN TRADE PAPERBACKS WORK

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

A NEW KIND OF PARALYSIS?

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…

WHEN PAPERBACKS DID THE WORK

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

Blaming Michael Korda

AN EDITOR RESPONDS

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

DON’T BLAME MARKETING; BLAME LITERARY AGENTS

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

The National Book Foundation Responds

Dear Readers:

I don’t want this response from Harold Augenbraum of the National Book Foundation – sponsor of the National Book Award ceremony I wrote about Monday – to get lost in the comments page so I’ve brought it up front here.

It’s a stirring defense of an evening I will always regard, I’m afraid, with “unrelentingly negative” thoughts, as he puts it, but there is information here we should all celebrate regarding the hard work the NBA has done (and that I didn’t mention in my column) to get these awards noticed outside New York. At the same time – well, my reply follows his letter below.

Dear Pat,

Your column is interesting, but missing many facts: Continue reading

Three Things I’d Love to See #2.2

#2:  PUBLISHERS LEAVING NEW YORK

[Part Two]

What a piece of work is mainstream book publishing in New York! Yesterday’s column looked at how remote and exclusive it’s become, how isolated from the rest of the country. The National Book Awards fiasco was cited as a humorous example, but two other influences (see below) demonstrate how serious the stakes have become.

Philip Roth Makes a Demand

I admit another side of me is saying about the National Book Awards debacle, So they had a little party (all right, a big party) — you don’t have to make a federal case out of it. Life in book publishing is not easy, and these people work hard to survive, so give ‘em a break. It was just one night.

Right. It’s what that one night represents that we should look at – indeed what Philip Roth has been railing against with his Nathan Zuckerman novels for years. That same Page Six mentality that turns the arts into a gossip machine has moved the focus of publishing away from books that are literature and put the spotlight on the authors who create literature. Roth doesn’t mean we’re honoring authors more than books – quite the contrary. He means we’re exploiting famous authors by writing biographies that deliciously and salaciously accent their hidden pasts, their secret inspirations, their dark side. It’s more lucrative to do that, he says, than to publish serious literary works.

In Roth’s latest novel, “Exit Ghost,” he especially indicts “cultural journalism” as presented and practiced by the New York Times. Continue reading

Three Things I’d Like to See #2.1

#2: PUBLISHERS LEAVING NEW YORK

[Part One]

Right, they’ll never do it, but shouldn’t mainstream publishing houses want to explore a world beyond the Hudson River? Maybe talking about it will shed light on such fiascoes as the recent National Book Awards (see below) and the defensive reaction to a Nobel Prize judge’s accusations that the U.S. publishing community has become “too isolated, too insular.” (Honeys, it is.)

I’ve never understood why American publishers duplicated the British model of placing mainstream houses in one location so they would dictate to the tastes of the rest of the nation.

Why didn’t we load our printers and binders into the wagons as we went hacking and slashing across the Plains to the West? We certainly brought our newspaper presses. But for some reason – perhaps it was the independent wealth of publishing founders — we kept book publishing on the East Coast and eventually in New York City itself. We decided to depend on a “cottage industry” ideal in which literary ideas would foment within the social exchange of like-minded people.

By now, however, working in close proximity has made New York book publishers appear inbred and clannish. If you can’t get them on the phone, it’s because they’re calling/emailing/texting each other, lunching at publishing “in” spots, complaining about hotel rates at Frankfurt or BookExpo and working the room at author receptions as if a world outside publishing doesn’t exist. Continue reading

Three Things I’d Like to See #1

#1: ONLINE ROYALTY ACCOUNTS FOR AUTHORS

(Note: This seems like an obvious next step for the book industry, although publishers hit the roof when I’ve shown it to them, as you’ll see. — Pat)

If you were an author, wouldn’t it be great if your publisher gave you a password to your own royalty account?

This would be an online, frequently updated, always accessible, entirely confidential page on your publisher’s website that would replace the current system.

As frequently as you wish, you could check sales of your book, the rate of returns, the percentage taken out for reserves and varying royalty rates for bulk sales, special sales, premium sales, electronic sales, and so forth.

As it is now, most authors have to wait six months for a printed, snail-mailed royalty statement that’s filled with outdated information that’s mired in financial gobbledygook their own agents can’t decipher. Continue reading