Holt Uncensored

Holt Uncensored


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by Pat Holt

Friday, November 10, 2000


  Jeremy Tarcher
  David Loye
  Jane Smiley
  The Big Shift



What a treat to barrel on down Highway 1 along the coast of California with nothing but streaks of hunter green on the left (artichoke plants as big as monster fists) and foamy turquoise on the right (the roiling Pacific Ocean).

The latest fashion among windsurfers (surfboards with sails) is the released sail, a colorful curl of canvas popping out into the air that captures wind pockets far out from the sailing board. So popular are these sails that sometimes a dozen of them floating in the breeze look like a forest of commas or, when the wind changes, the start of dozen pastel question marks.

And how appropriate it is to see punctuation flooding the senses when the destination for today is the locally famed Monterey Bay Book Festival, sponsored by MBIB, the Monterey Bay Independent Booksellers association.

I'm always struck by the fact that Americans are raised to think we won't find a publishing hotbed in a place like Monterey, or anyplace outside New York for that matter. And of course, compared to the mainstream scene 3000 miles away, Monterey's publishing industry hardly compares.

But as we walk through the Fairgrounds and look at booths devoted to bookselling and publishing, it's fun to see that regional needs - travel books, histories, memoirs - are being met locally and that a fervor seems to be bubbling up among the many booths that showcase everything from maps and cookbooks to memoirs and poetry.

Indeed, where there used to be an old-fashioned colonialism that made one feel the only important books were published by mainstream firms in New York or literary small presses elsewhere, now as we walk into the fair's two-hour publishing workshop with Jane Smiley, Jeremy Tarcher and David Loye, a feeling really does hit us that The Revolution is Here. Well, okay, it's Dawning.

May Waldroup of nearby Thunderbird introduces the panel and hints that the publishing spectrum has become so wide that nobody can predict what any professional in the field is going to say about it at any given time.

Jeremy Tarcher

For example: You would expect Jeremy Tarcher, one of our gifted publishers, to present the more traditional side of publishing to an audience filled with writers, and he does: If you want to be published, he says, be sure to get an agent, remember that barely one out of a hundred manuscripts gets selected, don't expect a big advance, be prepared to wait a year or two, read Publishers Weekly so you know the realities of the industry, learn how to publicize your book on your own, and don't expect miracles.

But Tarcher is not only a veteran publisher of the old school, he's also one of the earliest mavericks who insisted for years on publishing spiritual books nobody thought would sell (they did), and who kept his office in Los Angeles, where nobody thought he could make it (he did).

So Tarcher offers his own brand of belief in the publishing process. A good book is worth everything to a publisher, he indicates, whether the house is independent as Tarcher's was for 20 years, or part of a larger company as the Tarcher imprint is now (Penguin Putnam).

No matter how chaotic or condensed the industry has become or how tough the process is for the writer, all barriers can be leapt o'er, as they always have when good books are in the making.

David Loye

Speaking of leaping, on comes David Loye, an established author (Norton, Wiley, Jossey-Bass, Bantam) who tells us that he and his wife, Riane Eisler ("The Chalice and The Blade," etc.), were among the first writers to leap to the other side of the publishing spectrum by reprinting their out-of-print titles with iUniverse.

"I speak from the perspective of an old hand who's become a newcomer," says Loye. "I've watched these sharks - the Murdochs and the Bertelsmanns -- buying up the other publishers, and in my observation, a pretty uniform degradation is going on. The packaging remains beautiful, but the content is going down, down down."

Loye says he's "now cynical" about print-on-demand (POD) publishers, having been "snookered" into a deal with iUniverse in which "huge promises" were made regarding distribution, promotion and royalty rates. "Then a strange thing happened: Barnes & Noble bought up a controlling interest, and suddenly all the promises went out the window."

Loye has similar doubts about MightyWords - "at least you can pull out after six months, but here's the catch: The moment this company ran into trouble financially, Barnes & Noble came and whomp! MightyWords is now controlled by B&N."

Booklocker.com may offer a better service, Loye conjectures, "but the titles listed on its website look saccharine and sappy to me." Xlibris offers "a very good-looking site, but I'm wary. After Bertelsmann bought Xlibris and made an experiment out of it, something turned slick and dead on this site."

The best bet so far, says Loye, may be Greatunwashed.com. "What a horrible name! Yet the concept is inspired. It's put together by writers and editors FOR writers and editors, with a production cycle of 48 hours and editing services of all kinds."

What intrigues me about Loye is his conviction that some kind of corner has already been turned in publishing. A shift of consciousness has moved from mainstream houses to every location in the country with a writer struggling to be worthy of other people's reading.

"I'm reminded of the Catskill Mountains, where many great comedians got their start," he says. "They worked for poor pay and long hours, but they learned how to hone their skill, to find their own gestalt and their own audience.

"If you're a writer, one of the most important things is to complete the loop to get published. The great advantage of POD is that it allows you that satisfaction. Every once in a while there is a fluke in POD in which a book takes off, but by and large these books are for your friends, and if you go out and work very hard, you'll find sales going beyond that limit.

"I can see some good and potentially great writers coming out of a process where they have the chance early on to grind out one or five or ten titles before they get their feet on the ground. This sounds like a lot of books, but that's what Balzac did. Believe it or not, there was a time when it was easier to get published and learn on the job, and that's what great writers did."

Heavens! I thought. What a concept: Publishing the POD way, you as author find your readers one by one, and print up books one by one. Changing the text on the disk will not change the unit cost, or the timing of bound books, so it's conceivable you could write your way to excellence with every bit of feedback on every book sold.

Perhaps I'm elaborating on Loye's point a little bit. He's not talking about practicing your craft through several printings of a single book but through several books, learning as you go from book to book. But I do think his idea of finding one's "gestalt" - the give-and-take of getting where you want to go in publishing -- is refreshing and positive at a time when the barriers for writers in the mainstream seem higher and more bamboozling than ever.

Jane Smiley

As a respected and successful novelist, and as a teacher of fiction writing, Smiley could offer the standard fare (work hard and write the best book you can), and she does - but with some walloping surprises along the way.

Her first story is comforting and gets a good laugh as she describes a time she fell off a horse and broke her leg so badly that extensive surgery was required. When her orthopedist tried to explain how badly her leg had been fractured and what he had to do to fix it, the gory details so unnerved her that "I would faint dead away," she said. "I never heard a word."

Now, having listened to Tarcher and Loye, she turns to the audience and says, "that's how I think about you writers, especially fiction writers, hearing these stories of the obstacles to publishing. Your best option when people start telling you how hard it is to be published is to faint dead away so you won't hear it."

"Writing your novel is very much like telling your dreams," she adds. "You get up in the morning and say, 'Well, honey, I had this dream last night . . . ' and after 10 seconds his eyes are already glazed over - unless of course he's in the dream, and then he listens long enough to find out what he did in it. In order to learn to write a novel you have to learn how what you're saying comes to mean something to somebody else."

It's true, she says, that "publishing a novel has to do with who you know as much as what you know. True, nobody publishes your novel because you're Danielle Steel's best friend. But they might read it because you're Steel's best friend, and that's what you want. The novel must speak for itself. You have to get it into somebody's hands so it can.

"I always tell my students: If you are determined that your work will be published, it will be. It's inevitable. It may not fulfill your fantasies about what you want in terms of publishing - it may not earn you 600 million dollars or win a Nobel or be published by Random House - but that's part of your education.

"What you set out to do when you write your novel is to find out what your book could possibly mean to someone else, and as you progress in your novel and complete it and find people to read it, you'll get feedback about whom your novel appeals to. That will tell you essentially what the fate of the novel is - if it's to be published by S&S or iUniverse; if it's to have limited appeal or win a big prize."

Whoa. This isn't what I expected to hear. I thought someone like Smiley would say: Go into a dark room and write the book that is truest to your vision. Then find a place for it in the world.

Smiley does tell writers not to pay attention to the crazy publishing industry while they're writing. But this idea - that one must be attuned to the reaction of that 'somebody else,' whether it's your honey hearing about your dream or fellow writers or editors at a publishing house - shows a more acute attunement from the beginning to what people think than one would expect.

Listening to readers is part of the writing process, says Smiley, "as long as you keep in mind that this is part of your education - that your fantasy life about the novel is not going to dictate what will happen, that there's a give and take about what you put out there and what other people think about it and how you transform it.

"Then your novel will find its niche. It will be published. It will find an audience and you'll discover who your readers are."

The Big Shift

Aha. The old "give-and-take" (Smiley), the "gestalt" (Loye) and the "process" (Tarcher). In the midst of all the upheavals in mainstream publishing today, it does seem that here, even in Monterey (or especially in Monterey), each one is talking about a definitive shift in our literary world.

Print-On-Demand may bring publishing to every writer who chooses it, in any location in the world. If so, American writers will have a chance to discover the kind of traditional publishing the nation never experienced - that is, the kind that would have happened if pioneers had brought their printing presses (right along with their newspaper presses) with them to every frontier.

Had they done that, book publishers would have sprouted up throughout the country. Writers would have felt a supportive publishing network available to them at every local level.

I think that culturally (Smiley) and geographically (Loye) the same thing is about to happen, thanks to POD. A book published at the most extreme local level ("for your friends," as Loye says), will have a chance to grow organically, selling outward in concentric circles through word-of-mouth spreading from one region to another, and certainly to a national audience, if warranted on a reader-by-reader basis.

At the same time, "the most extreme local level" begins from the most intimate exchange, as when the you want to tell your primary partner about the dream you had last night, and you have to learn to phrase it in such a way as to make the person want to understand what you mean. If you're going to tell this dream beyond your closest friend, you somehow must embrace what publishing means, not only as part of your "education," as Smiley puts it, but also as part of your responsibility to the work itself.

It's all very heady, as we artichoke fans might say. On the way back to San Francisco, we discover the luscious new craze at vegetable stands of deep-friend artichoke hearts go down with sizzling satisfaction and sit there like a bag of doorknobs for the rest of the day. It's all part of the bounty of the region.



Dear Holt Uncensored:

Thought you might find this interesting. It's from an email discussion I follow.

Doug Millison

Re: Poetry Readings. How about Borders and Barnes & Noble? I'd venture to say that these places are most successful at getting the general public's interest in open poetry readings/guest novelist speakers/ folk music artists than any other venue yet mentioned. Perhaps the question could be asked, "what is it about hearing poetry in a crowded, books & music & a small coffee shop tucked away inside the store - that's far more appealing than a university settting?"

I have to say when I do poetry readings at B&N with my colleagues, I am amazed at the initial turnout, plus those we draw into the crowd who were actually there to buy cookbooks. We did a two hour program on Homer's Odyssey and not a single person left until the end! But the staff of B&N are INCREDIBLY unhelpful about staging these events. They continue to page, they make lots of noise, and seem to encourage others to do so as well. It takes about 30 minutes of program to get people to realize there's something going on. I always feel that these readings are more like interventions than normal events. I wish we could find a better space...but then we'd end up with the few usual suspects. If B&N would simply get serious about their side of the participation, and realize it is in THEIR best interest to do so, we might fix the problem. But too often the people who work there know little, or care little, about books; they're experts in "sales."

Richard Armstrong

Holt sends query to Armstrong: I'm intrigued with your comments as I know some B&N stores are better than others, as are some staffs. Have you had any experiences in independent stores? Do you have any feelings one way or another about independents vs. chains?

Richard Armstrong responds: Brazos bookstore in Houston is famous for its poetry readings (though oddly I've yet to read there). Most people prefer that by far. But then one doesn't get to connect with the *unlikely* reader who has wandered into B&N for another reason, and finds herself transported by an unexpected pleasure. I guess it's a toss up, really: either a smaller crowd of the converted, or a large, unruly and occasionally clueless crowd of the yet-to-be-converted. I think some poetry is so impressive as a performance art that I am willing to risk it with the clueless. I'm thinking in particular of a night we did on Odysseas Elytis. His "Ode to Santorini" is a volcanic poem, and spell-binding if read well to even the dullest. I wouldn't take the same risk with other poets, though.

As for the chains vs. small bookstores, I am not of the opinion that small bookstores are inherently better. I have had good relationships with the small stores (usually used book stores) in Chicago and New Haven, but I have also had problems with snotty and obnoxious small business types. Still, I prefer that to simple vacuousness, which is the rule more than the exception at B&N. The kids who sell music are usually far better informed than those who sell books in those places. The virtue of B&N, if there is one, is the sheer volume they can handle. I can find Elytis's poetry, even if no one knows what it is. But I fear they mostly sell calendars and self-help books there....

Richard Armstrong

Holt responds: One last question - you seem to have gone right to the notion that independent booksellers are "small" booksellers. Have you had any experience with large independent stores where you'd find quite a large customer base, some wandering in when they heard the poetry readings, but not so large as the Toys R Us feel of a chain store?

Richard Armstrong replies: As for a large independent store, I suppose you could count Powell's as one of those for used books, which I adore (I frequented the Chicago store in Hyde Park for years, and made the pilgrimage to the Portland original when I was in town). The Seminary Co-op in Chicago was another I loved (for new academic books) and still return to whenever I'm in town. I like hard-core academic bookstores (with things like German editions of Weber and medieval Latin texts), poetry specialty stores, and any store that does NOT sell the F*&*^(#%&*#& "Book of Virtues."

We do have some larger independent ones here in Houston, and the only reason I am not a habitué is simply that my lifestyle has changed. I have a small son, and don't get around much any more.

I will lobby to have any future soirées at some venue that at least knows what a reading is. I'm a little tired of B&N (known by us academics as "that ignoble barn").

Richard Armstrong

Dear Holt Uncensored:

Recent letters have looked at Amazon.com's (or any bookstore's) policy of selling used books at the same time the titles are available new, with both a publisher and bookstore wading in with their take. I'd like to add something from the writer's perspective. Used bookstores have been with us for many years (my cousin owns one), and writers' groups have endlessly discussed the pros and cons of their impact on our ability to make a living creating what other people then sell.

The reality is that the majority of published writers are barely hanging on financially, not -- as a recent letter writer intimated -- because they're not writing quality books, but because of our industry's complexity and structure.

Without writers there wouldn't be a product. Some day computers may make us obsolete, but until someone discovers how to plug creativity and soul and imagination into a hard drive, readers and bookstores are going to need those of us who seem to be at the bottom of the food chain in this business. Why do I say that? My fellow writers and I create something out of nothing, bleed that something into our computers and eventually from there to our publishers.

If a million factors, many that have nothing to do with quality of writing, fall together, we're offered a contract. Eventually we receive our advance, determined by the bean counters who, in the case of more publishers than I care to think about, set that figure at what equates to less than minimum wage. Eventually the book is published. Our advances and royalties (if there ever are any forthcoming after the advance) are calculated as a percentage of the suggested retail price, and that percentage can be as little as 2, rarely over 10.

The math here is simple. If a book is sold once, the creator of that "product" gets from 2 to 10 percent of the pie. If it's sold twice, both writer and publisher are no longer at the table. That, as evidenced by recent replies from Amazon following protests from me and my fellow writers, means nothing to them. The message rings loud and clear. "Write the book. Give us a product. Go away."

Vella Munn

Dear Holt Uncensored:

Two quick points about your comments regarding Book Sense. While there are "only" 1100+ stores with Book Sense out of ABA's 3000+ membership, it includes a huge majority of general bookstores -- it's the specialty and used stores that are lacking so far. Also, B&N under 1000 stores and Borders about 1200, so the 1150 Book Sense stores certainly offer the same kind of range that the chains do.

Also, according to the folks who created Book Sense with us, it should take us 3-5 years to brand it with consumers, given our grassroots approach and lack of Wall Street dollars to promote. They also predicted 500 stores the first year. We doubled that and have sold publishers -- a key component -- on the concept because we have proven that we can sell certain kinds of books as well or better than anyone. They are also branding for us by starting to use Book Sense in their marketing materials, and two bestselling titles, Girl In Hyacinth Blue and Mark of the Angel, acknowledge Book Sense in the paperback editions. The point of the stickers is to get customers to ask what it is; then we can have a conversation with them.

We're not there yet, but it will not be long before cunsumers equate the Book Sense logo with quality reading. That's why we have to connect it with good books as much as possible and why we've hired a Book Sense rep to visit Northern California stores with Book Sense (as the ABA has done in the Pacific Northwest) and help them maximize the impact of Book Sense within the framework of their store.

Hut Landon Northern California Booksellers Association


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