Holt Uncensored

Holt Uncensored


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by Pat Holt

Friday, February 1, 2002


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If it's true that mainstream publishers push authors to write a certain way - more commercially, more simply, less creatively than, say, 25 years or even a decade ago - what can authors do about it?

To the 12 founders of EdgeWork Books (see #296), even if a writer could fire the editor and demand a new one, not much would change. The publishing industry sees as its bedrock the kind of feel-good, high-turnover, easy-listening books that risk nothing and demand little of the reader.

EdgeWork founders believe an audience exists for the serious and often risky books they like to read and now want to write, books that are both erudite and inventive enough to push notions of reality and even sane thinking right up to the edge (thus the Edge).

The question is, how will these founders know if the risks they take as writers succeed? Without a traditional editor giving wise and careful attention to their ambitions in print, how can they tell what parts of their books work and what parts don't?

"Well, how did we as authors ever know?" asks co-founder Kim Chernin. "I regret to this day some of the passages I took out of my published books for the sake of what my editor called 'streamlining.' Even now, they sit there inside me somewhere and ask why were they taken out. Some passages did meander a little, but I wanted them in there. Maybe I'm a meandering person; maybe I needed to slow down. And maybe I needed to write 13 books to say okay, now I'll write them the way I want to."

The editing function at EdgeWork is served by a lively and sometimes cantankerous peer review in which the founders actively comment and critique each others' works-in-progress. "We edit each other," Chernin explains, "and it works. The sense is that finally, writers are bringing their work to other writers, to people who really know language, know form, know content."

With eight to 12 people offering criticism, though, what happens when conflicting viewpoints emerge? What does the author do then?

"Oh, people disagree all the time - that's the wonderful part about it," Chernin says. "The subjectivity of response is very meaningful. Some people might like the meandering, slow, spreading-out nature of narrative. Others might say it could be cut; it could be streamlined. So what do we do? Fortunately we leave it to the writer to choose what she thinks are the comments that best improve the work."

But isn't the writer sometimes the last to judge such things? Often the very fact that an author has slaved over a piece of writing for months makes it extremely difficult to change that piece or let it go.

"Exactly. And very often she's the first to know, too. But let's say you get eight writers in the circle. Somebody will say idiosyncratically, 'I got confused - I couldn't follow that part,' and another four will say 'No, it wasn't confusing; it was very clear there.'

"That's helpful to the writer, because when she hears a consensus, she can weigh it against the one who doesn't agree. And when she thinks about the one, she may consider, 'Well, what do I know about her? Why would she be confused?' and conclude that there's something subjective there. Her suggestion is more a comment on the reader than the book."

I admit that as a lay person, I thought to myself, "Holy cow, they're all therapists! They're analyzing each other before they change a comma!" But the point Chernin made was an important one: The writer under scrutiny makes the decision about what is changed and what isn't. Everyone knows this and defers to her.

Of course in the classic relationship between editor and author, the author gets the final say. But here the editor is a trusted voice, and a single voice, so rather than a cacophony of conflicting reactions, the author hears a consistent and analytical form of advocacy.

More important, the editor has a professionalism and experience to see hidden potential in an author and know how to bring it out. When peers act as editors, they also seek the best in each author, but they may want it too much. They're peers, yes, but colleagues and friends, too, and at EdgeWork they clearly are rooting for each other in ways that editors would never allow themselves to do. Doesn't that skew perceptions?

"Not in our group," Chernin says. "I think it makes a huge difference when a group of one's peers is planning to publish one's book and stand behind it. Believe me, each one of us brought to the press a book we thought was done. But after going through this process of editing each other, everyone did a lot of rewriting."

The Look of EdgeWork Design

And someone at Cypress House, which handles the distribution for EdgeWork, put a lot of thought into the look and feel of each book. Pick one up, and you realize immediately that its pleasing aesthetics distinguish it from most other books in the store.

That is a startling achievement, since it has no book jacket (and you don't miss it). The (sometimes simulated) cloth binding wraps around the spine but extends only an inch or so onto the front and back cover. At that point laminated paper takes over, and it is here that title and illustration are presented against a solid background.

The two-toned effect is so charming and fresh that when you hold the book by the spine and feel the texture of dark cloth roll into smooth and brighter paper-over-board, the book seems to open by itself. The type design is always chosen with care to reflect the content, and even the slightly blotterish feel of the paper invites you in.

Something about the heft and simplicity of the EdgeWork design reminded me of the first hardcover book I ever owned. It felt so adult yet so accessible - welcoming and adventurous at the same time. When you line up all six of EdgeWork's first "round" of books on a shelf, it feels like a little library you want to keep apart from other books because they're colorful and serious, and the look is so sweet.

So at least we know the EdgeWork design makes the books LOOK good. More to follow on the contents (finally) but just a quick word about why I've gotten so windy on this one venture. It's because at every stage that this new press breaks away from convention, something about the sameness and commercialism of the publishing industry seems no longer bearable.

I've felt that way watching many independent presses, and witnessing gifted editors carry on inside the system (and in spite of it). But the insistence here of authors finding their own path, creating their own audience, raising their own money, staying within their own budget ("after all, if each book sells a thousand copies, we'll be fine," says Chernin), striking out on a new design and even being their own editors is going to have, I think, a new significance for readers. See you next time for Part III.



Dear Holt Uncensored:

After calling A Clean Well Lighted Place for Books, Stacey's and the bookstore at San Francisco State University, I ordered a "Thesaurus of Slang" from Amazon, priced at $12.95 and discounted to $10.36. It arrived quickly, in good condition and sporting a regular price tag of $6.95. Feeling I'd been overcharged, I wrote to Amazon requesting a credit of $6.00. This is their response:

"Dear James,

"Thank you for writing to us at Amazon.com with your concern.

"Please accept our apologies for any misunderstanding regarding the price of 'Thesaurus of Slang (Wordsworth Collection).'

"I have checked our records and confirmed that the price you were charged for this item was correct. Occasionally, physical stores will return unsold merchandise to the supplier, and the supplier may send us these copies to fulfill our orders. In rare instances these copies will still have a discounted price sticker on them which was affixed by the previous store.

"Thank you again for shopping at Amazon.com."

Jim Van Buskirk

Holt responds: Honestly! Caught with their discounts down and they make up a story! When in doubt, blame it on the brick-and-mortars! Here's an even stranger twist: I looked up this title at various independent stores (including those using the BookSense and BookSite data bases) and found that it was indeed listed at $6.95; but when I looked it up at Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Borders, sure enough the undiscounted price was listed at $12.95. The ISBN # was exactly the same. Makes you wonder how many other books have a chain store price that's as much as five dollars more than the independent bookstore price.

Dear Holt Uncensored:

In your most recent newsletter you wrote: "Could this be the wireless version of Warner buying America Online?" Well, no, it can't be, because Warner (actually, and significantly, Time Warner) did not buy America Online; it was the other way around. This is the single most important media industry deal in my lifetime, and I am oh so old! And the significance is in large part because AOL did the buying.

I won't take sides on your general argument (i.e., that vertically integrated companies potentially restrict expression), but the AOL acquisition points to an important fundamental point: information, content, whatever you want to call it will increasingly be made available in networked environments, abetting transnational marketing strategies and influencing geopolitics. AOL did not create this trend, any more than Bill Clinton invented globalization; but both AOL and Clinton accelerated a trend that was already emerging. I am neither defending nor opposing this trend, but I am asserting that the trend is there and that the AOL-Time Warner merger is an important historical event.

Joseph Esposito

Dear Holt Uncensored:

I have to agree with your last article on PGW...I've experienced both sides of this coin, 1) being recently unemployed by small publishing companies that were eaten up by larger so-called "we can sell it better" pie-in-the-sky groups...2), I've worked with the bemoth AMS, and their inexperienced regional buyers, offering 2-3 cents per book price difference to distribute a book, or offering titles that would apparently never swell in wholesale chains like Costco...I as you, as others in this industry wonder where the state of affairs of the coming publishing world will lead us...

A Reader

Dear Holt Uncensored:

In your column about Edgework Books, I couldn't help but be amused by some of the examples used by editors in rejecting manuscripts. It reminded me of letter I wrote to the editor of the San Francisco Chronicle in which I lamented a column by Chris Matthews. In the column, Mr. Matthews referred to President George Bush as a "warrior and a man for all seasons." In my letter I reminded Mr. Matthews that while Mr. Bush may be a "warrior" in these troubled times, he's also still the same conservative Republican Mr. Matthews had blasted in former columns.

To support my position,I quoted comments made by former Supreme Court Justice William Brennen and by John Adams.

I few days later I received a call from the Chronicle informing me that all quotes must be verified before a letter can be printed. Who, the caller asked, is John Adams?

It doesn't happen very often, but I was speechless.

Bonnie De Clark

Dear Holt Uncensored:

In your very interesting piece on EdgeWork, you wrote: "But although she received a sizeable advance for her next book (over six figures, she says), Chernin decided to give the money back to her publisher and throw in her lot, and her next books, with EdgeWork."

Just a quick question. Is "over six figures" seven figures? Or merely any amount in excess of $100,000? Nice money either way, but quite a difference! Sharon Withey

Holt responds: Pardon me, I didn't realize how confusing that sounds when you try to figure it out. I meant the latter, $100,000 plus.

Dear Holt Uncensored:

I have many grievances against Barnes & Noble, but over the holidays a circumstance made me quite irritable.

I wanted to read Barbara Olson's book, The Final Days: The Last, Desperate Abuses of Power by the Clinton White House. I had told many people about this book, thinking it would be an interesting interlude between Halberstam's and Johnson's 90s-era summations. At least four of us visited five different B&N stores in two states several times to find the book without success. One friend upon inquiring about the book was told, "Oh, did you know that book has a political slant? The only reason so many want to read that book is because she died in a plane crash." In other words, we'll order it for you, but no, we're not stocking this book.

I'm astonished at this. I'm one of those who believe in free press. I wanted to read this book. So did several of my friends. Is it a common practice to censor B&N book store offerings? I can pick up Halberstam and Johnson, no problem, in the store, and they don't have all nicey-nicey things to say about former President Clinton either, but since when has history been nice? Olson's book was on the BN.com web site, so I could get it. I'm grumbling because it wasn't in the store. It smacked of something akin to censorship to me.

It showed up about two weeks later (by Dec 20) at my local B&N, out of the blue. I almost checked to see if they had experienced numerous requests in order to get it in stock, but I didn't think to ask when I purchased the book. (The book wasn't all it was cracked up to be either, but it was an interesting look into the Clinton pardons at best.)

It just makes me wonder what other books (of all kinds) have been purposely held back from B&N's stores? An interesting idea of the *control* these stores have on our book reading habits.

Tricia Toney
BookHouse Communications

Holt responds: When this happens I try to remind myself that booksellers have the right to sell or not sell any book they choose, chain stores included. It's not censorship; it's just the selection of the buyer. The problem is that chain stores boast that they stock the largest inventory ever, and if they don't carry a bestseller because of a "political slant" (granted, we don't know that's the reason), something does sound off.

Dear Holt Uncensored:

Ahh, Hollywood. I was trying to stay out of the debate about books adapted to the movie screen, as I was once a refugee from the "entertainment industry" and am now feeling somewhat nervous about the "book industry," BUT in response to the notion of "What Hollywood Is There For," it wasn't until I read Neal Stephenson's "Cryptonomicon" that I found an accurate description of Hollywood workings; allow me to quote:

"Hollywood was merely a specialized bank - a consortium of large financial entities that hired talent, almost always for a flat rate, ordered that talent to create a product, and then marketed that product to death, all over the world, in every conceivable medium. The goal was to find products that would keep on making money forever, long after the talent had been paid off and sent packing. 'Casablanca,' for example, was still putting asses in seats decades after Bogart had been paid off and smoked himself into an early grave."

Does this sound at all similar to how large publishers are viewing manuscript selection? That's why I'm nervous.

Edwin Bish II

Holt Uncensored provides this forum for the free and uncensored exchange of thoughts and ideas from writers of all callings. The opinions expressed here are not necessarily those of Pat Holt or the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association.

"Holt Uncensored" is an online column by Pat Holt
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