Category Archives: Book Publishing

‘SCROTIE MCBOOGERBALLS’ ELEVATES DAVID SHIELDS’ CAREER AT KNOPF

Silliness Seen as Brilliant

That semi-talented professor David Shields is certainly enjoying unprecedented acclaim for his new book, “The Tale of Scrotie McBoogerballs,” released recently from Knopf.

Just the other day on the “Today” show, Matt Lauer confirmed that the book is such a mixture — so brilliant and so offensive at the same time — that no one can read it without vomiting.

Lauer himself admired the book yet succumbed when he said, “My favorite part was when Scrotie McBoogerballs slid his head up into the horse’s — bleagh! awwwrrflgh!! ptui! pppt. ppt.”

As soon as he recovered, Lauer asked about the deeper significance of the book: “Was that chapter a slam on healthcare reform, as people have suggested?” he asked the author.

Answering from his home, where his parents have grounded him for using dirty words in print, author Butters Stotch said, “Yes, I pretty much think so.” Continue reading

THE DEMOCRATIZATION OF PUBLISHING, PART 7,326

Lowly Self-Publisher Educates Wise Publishing Veteran

This is the story of a self-publisher who did everything “wrong” to publish a charming and humorous gem that I’m recommending to everyone.

The big lesson I had to learn (again) is that “professionals” in the book business like yours truly can easily lose their trust in the reader and their eye for creativity. Instead of enhancing the publishing process, too often we pros get in the way of very good, very original and often even memorable books.

In my own defense may I say that 99 times out of 100, the self-publishing author needs guidance from a wizened (I used to think that meant wise; now in my declining years I see it’s right on the money) veteran of industry standards and procedures.

Too Shy to Paginate

The author in question is Niko Mayer, a member of the book group I facilitate at Book Passage in Corte Madera, Calif. When Niko asked me to endorse a collection of travel stories that she had written and illustrated, I felt a certain dread creep in.

1. First, there was the title: “Travelin’ Light Is Not for Me: Worries Weigh a Lot.”

Well, it’s a bit wordy and hard to follow, I thought, not to mention a little precious. A customer may read it several times and still not know what the book is about.

I told Niko a good rule of thumb about titles: If the reader has to look inside the book to understand the title, you’re not there yet. But if the title is catchy, and intriguing enough to lure the reader into the book — to make us curious, to make us open the book to learn more — you’ve nailed it.

Uh-huh… said Niko. Continue reading

THE DIY AUTHOR RETURNETH (AGAIN)

What To Do When the Mainstream Yawns: Pt 3

I never thought I’d see this in my lifetime: Unpublished authors so smart and so quick on the Internet that they’re selling their work through iPhones apps, iTunes and eBook readers without going through that cranky old sluggish machine called mainstream publishing.

Here’s author Seth Harwood (see last two columns below), who recently attended Bouchercon, the mystery writers’ conference, and sent this dispatch:Seth Harwood

The New Thing

“The new thing seems to be authors putting their unpublished works out on Kindle themselves and selling each title for .99 or $1.99, of which they keep 35 or 70 cents respectively.

“The idea is that you can get new Kindle owners to stock up on cheap titles to fill their device when they get it. A few authors have sold upwards of 4,000 copies of unknown books and are using that launching pad to get bigger deals from publishers. Who knows how many of those buyers actually read the book.

“Of course, there are still roughly 40 times more iPhones and iPod Touches out there sold than Kindles, so the biggest action among individual authors lies in getting their books sold through Apps at equally low prices.”

The Old Thing Reacts

I must say I wouldn’t have believed that people who love books would buy titles based on price rather than quality if I hadn’t found myself in the freebie sections of Audible.com and iPhones for months now or warmed to the notion of trying short stories for 45 cents and why-not-take-a-flyer thrillers by unknowns for .99 to $1.99.

(And just to show you those free first-chapter offers can stimulate sales, my apologies to psychologist/author Wayne Dyer for smirking when I saw the title of his new book, “Excuses Begone! How to Change Lifelong, Self-Defeating Thinking Habits” from Hay House (288 pages, $24.95). I used to think Dyer has been writing the same self-help book for the last dozen titles, but solid research and reference to a fresh plan of action in Audible’s free Chapter One convinced me to buy the damn thing.)

It’s not that any of these electronic versions replaces traditional books (and let’s stop talking as though they do; we won’t know for a long time). What we see now is new access to the printed word and new ways to build the reading audiences for books in every form possible. (For example, I’m hardly alone when word of a new book arrives via the Internet and I call my local independent bookstore to get a copy.) Continue reading

The Million-Dollar Sure Thing

BRANDING OUR CHILDREN

Last week’s New York Times arts section had a story about a travel writer with an autistic son whose “wild temper tantrums” abated only when he was riding a horse.

The travel writer had a bent for nonWestern medical traditions, so he and his wife took their son to Mongolia where shamans and horses helped the boy achieve “an amazing ‘recovery’ and ‘healing,’ ” or so the Times quotes the dad. He also said his son’s temper tantrums “all but disappeared” after the trip.

The story is meant to be inspiring, and it is, except for the many business deals that seem to trump and the son’s role in it all. For example:

1) the travel writer dad is well connected in NY, so before the trip he got a $1-million-plus advance from Little, Brown based on a 37-page proposal about the “prospective adventure.”

2) Dad also took a filmmaker along to create a documentary.

3) He made YouTube video of himself and his son riding a horse that “stoked interest” in the book’s auction.

4) He optioned the feature film rights to the producers who made “Lord of the Rings” and “Golden Compass” — with himself as scriptwriter.

5) He says part of the advance is going to a ranch he’s founded to treat autistic kids who like horses.

HOW THE BIG BOYS DO IT

I’m sure this travel writer dad started out with the idea of helping his son, and hey, maybe he needed to finance the trip so he started pulling deals together. It’s just worrisome to see every related industry kick in to make this a million-dollar sure thing with the boy as a much-scrutinized cog. Perhaps Dad realized he needed the PR value of creating the charity ranch in case somebody accuses him of exploiting both his son and autism.

At the same time, the NYT article is written as a kind of a model scenario for writers. It says, This Is The Way the Big Boys Do It. Don’t wait until you write the book or even know how your story ends. Build your power base now. Start the marketing process now. Remember Elizabeth Gilbert? She was writing magazine articles about exotic spas for the rich before jotting down a similar of “prospective adventure” submission, which earned her a sizeable advance that paid for an all-expenses trip around the world and resulted in “Eat Pray Love.” Continue reading

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