by Pat Holt
Tuesday, May 14, 2002
REVELATIONS FOR WRITERS AT OXFORD CONFERENCE FOR THE BOOK
Here we are among the dogwood and magnolia at Ole Miss, the college campus of the University of Mississippi in Oxford, Miss., where the 9th Annual Oxford Conference for the Book is underway.
We can tell that Southern irreverence will be a hallmark of this conference when University of Mississippi writer-in-residence and novelist Barry Hannah opens the first day's proceedings with this sage observation:
"I see that golfers are using Global Positioning software to measure how far they've hit the ball from the tee. Next thing you know, writers will be using the same technology to tell how far your poor ass is from getting into print."
That kind of craggy down-home humor comes up often at the three-day conference, sponsored each spring by the Center for the Study of Southern Culture, with author events hosted at Square Books of Oxford.
Some 300 hopefuls have traveled here from all over the country to hear more than 30 writers (Rick Moody, Paula Vogel, Tom Oliphant, Gloria Jean Pinkney, Tim Gautreaux, Mary Hood, Steve Almond, Larry Brown, Randall Kenan) as well as a dozen industry professionals (editors Carol Houck Smith of Norton, Fiona McCrae of Greywolf, Amy Hendley of Grove/Atlantic; booksellers Neal Coonerty, Richard Howorth, Tim Huggins; agent Nat Sobel) as well as professors, theatrical directors and literacy experts.
Two surprises await the audiences who attend the many panels:
The answer? Get the author to submit a one-page idea for a 2nd work of fiction - this time a full-length novel, which is considered far more marketable - and make the deal a two-book contract.
Several writers on the panels said that they hadn't thought of writing a novel (indeed, didn't know they were ready for it) until they were told their collections would only be accepted if a novel was in the works. Then, ta da!
" 'You want to write a novel, don't you?' Brady Udall said he was asked after his story collection, "Letting Loose the Hounds," sparked interest. He mimicked himself: "Well...uh...yeah," he said. Udall was then told, "Well, we need a proposal, so send a brief description by fax right away."
Thus was Udall's novel, "The Miracle Life of Edgar Mint" born, which Udall thinks now would have been his next work anyway. "But I can see how people who come up with the idea for a novel at the wrong time could face a painful process."
"It's painful for everyone," said Smith.
Amy Hundley from Grove/Atlantic suggested that "the conventional wisdom about short story collections may be changing." She noted the surprising high sales of collections like "The Girls' Guide to Hunting and Fishing" and said that sometimes, "when the stories are connected" or related in any way, the use of the term "short story" can be removed.
"It's a marketing thing and a tough game to play, but if the stories are linked together you might want to call it a 'work of fiction' or a 'novel in stories'." Carol Smith agreed: "Charles Baxter's 'Feast of Love' was built from that idea - it's a novel in which different characters tell their stories one night."
Honestly, a person sitting in the audience had to wonder: Does *every* book have to make a profit? Can't a good collection of short stories, especially if it gets great reviews, be considered an investment in an author's future?
Not, apparently, in the short term, and the short term is all there is, these days, indicated agent Nat Sobel. He commented that this kind of problem reflects "an enormous change, a sea change, in publishing."
He remembered that "when I started as an agent, my background had been in sales, and I didn't know anything. Then I met (editor) Shannon Ravenel at a writer's conference, and she told me to start reading the top 100 literary magazines. I did and wrote to every short story writer I admired.
"At the Mid-American Review in Bowling Green, Ohio, I found this short story writer who corresponded with me and, lo and behold, had a novel. I loved it and have represented him all these years." The author was Richard Russo, who only days before had won a Pulitzer Prize.
Asked to name the most influential literary magazines, Sobel and Smith offered five that came immediately to mind: Georgia Review, Gettysburg Review, Tin House, Glimmer Train, Mississippi Review, Virginia Quarterly.
But Sobel cautioned that the kind of slow nurturing that used to be a fundamental aspect of the publishing process has almost disappeared today. He referred to James Ellroy, who has been a client ever since he marched into a bookstore and said, "I am the demon dog of crime fiction, and I need an agent," and the bookseller recommended Sobel.
"Ellroy happened to have an editor who was crazy about his work. He kept saying to me, 'the next one's gonna do it.' Well, for none of the first five books that James wrote did he get an advance of over $8500, so it wasn't that big of a financial risk to stay with him for the sixth book, which was his breakout book.
"Today that's very rare. Grove Atlantic and Norton are the exceptions in publishing today because they're independently owned, not part of conglomerates; they don't pay that much money and are not competing with major houses. So they can take a position and support a writer for several books.
"But overall, the process has speeded up too fast" to allow for much nurturing, he said. "Richard Russo thinks he was lucky because he got in under the wire. As a matter of fact, his first novel was bought for $8500 after 12 publishers turned it down. Today he thinks that book would not have gotten published. So the odds are much greater against the writer today than they were a generation ago."
At times like these, moderator Barry Hannah cut in with his curmudgeonly optimism to stress the need for a "writerly consciousness," as he put it. "True, things are getting tougher and tougher for writers in a crasser, louder America. But you should never believe the negativity you hear.
"The odds are always against your getting published or being heard of at all. Oxford itself is not that successful as a writers' town. Oh, it's billed that way - I'm a mini-mall celebrity myself. [Laughter] Larry Brown sells some books. But it's got this aura around it as if we are blessed with very successful writers here, and that's not true.
And it should make no difference to serious writers. "There is *always* room for another voice," Hannah said. "An original voice will hit me in a class like one out of a thousand."
Are there publishers out there who want to hear that voice? Fiona McCrae, director of Greywolf Press in Minneapolis, said that one of the joys of not publishing in the mainstream was the chance to publish writers who are so original they may have been turned down by traditional houses.
"I see Greywolf as an antidote to the conglomeration of publishing," she said. "Our role is to publish writing that's 'commercially challenged,' to take up the anti-track-record author. For the author with the high-priced book that 'only' sold 15,000 copies, disappointing publishers so that a 2nd book can't be sold, we come along as a white knight."
McCrae admitted that "I sometimes think we're exaggerating the difference between a press like ours and conglomerate publishing. But then comes along a story we could never imagine, such as the recent news that Charles Frazier (author of "Cold Mountain") received an $8-million advance for his next book, based on a single-page synopsis, to be delivered in 2005. Grove, which built 'Cold Mountain' into a bestseller, can't pay that kind of money.
"We're here to counteract this trend, to add variety, and we have had success. The first book of poetry by Natasha Trethewey [a speaker at the conference] is in its 3rd printing. We don't need to have a bestseller or even a 15,000-copy seller - for us a 2,500-copy sale is very good.
"So the idea of whether quality sells to a continuing audience is a question of scale. We can break into the black with fewer sales." McCrae said later that grants provide a great deal of sustaining income, and this allows the press to be ever more adventurous.
Meanwhile, Sobel commented, help for writers from agents has gotten a bit murky. "A few years ago there were about 200 agents," he said. "Now there's about 8000. So the question for writers is not how to get an agent, but how to get a good agent. Anyone can hang out a shingle - there's no license required."
And Hannah reminded the audience: "To put yourself in the proximity of a person with literary taste, you have to be quite marvelous as a writer. The most wasted act in America is peddling something before it's ready."
UPCOMING: NATIONAL WRITERS UNION SEMINAR FOR "WRITERS AS PUBLISHERS"
I'm usually embarrassed (come on, it's possible) to plug an event in which I'm a speaker, but this Saturday's all-day "Writer As Publisher" seminar hosted by the National Writers Union in Oakland, California, promises some real nuts-and-bolts information for writers who are considering the idea of self-publishing their books. I'll be there with my usual baseball bat to give the keynote address, but the folks with the *real* knowledge are the ones to hear in lectures and panels throughout the day. Among the speakers:
*Dan Poynter, pioneer of self-publishing and author/publisher of over 100 books. I used to visit Dan when he was producing beautiful trade paperbacks in his back room long before the computer age. He knows how to exploit or eliminate many of the steps involved in the traditional publishing model and his insights on the "new" (not to him) print-on-demand movement are incredible. A copy of Dan's bible, "The Self-Publishing Manual," is included with the cost of registration.
*Naida West, author of two books. Her self-publishing income allowed her to found Bridge House Books. She will speak on the "Creative and Commercial Aspects of Writing Fiction and Poetry."
Other speakers include Andreas Ramos, web guru and technical writer; Don Monkerud, high-tech journalist and fiction writer; Adam David Miller, poetry author and the founding editor of the Graduate Student Journal at UCB; Carla King, successful self-published travel and technical writer; Jeanne Powell, local poetry writer and publisher; Rand Richards, the author of Historic San Francisco; Stephanie Cota, a Silicon Valley web design and marketing expert; and Andrena Zawinski, the Feature Editor of PoetryMagazine.com.
The cost is $105 for NWU members; $135 for nonmembers. See http://www.writeraspublisher.com.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
About your item, "Guardian Sends Spies to Test U.K. Booksellers" and the ways that bookstore employees answer questions from customers:
I was fortunate to attend bookseller's school in 1992 and to have as an instructor Mrs. Haslam, who at that point had been a bookseller for more decades than I had been alive.
She impressed upon us the importance of answering every book buyer's query respectfully and seriously, and gave us marvelous examples that have stuck in my mind ever since.
To the customer who came in looking for "Bullwinkle's Mythology" for his daughter, the first in their family to go to college, Mrs. Haslam merely asked if he'd like it in paperback or hardcover, and put "Bulfinch's Mythology" in his hands.
She also told us that she spent a long time looking for a book on "eunuchs" for a customer and came up with nothing. Remember, this was 1992. She called the customer back to report, and the customer asked, "Mrs. Haslam, how are you spelling..." Mrs. Haslam had no trouble afterward finding books about UNIX.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
I don't know much about the people who work in British bookstores, but in the U.S. most retail employees are pretty low on the financial totem pole, and if they're not much help, it's usually because they've not been given much training.
Now perhaps someone working in a bookshop should be expected to know something more about literature, rather than how just to ring up a sale and make change, but if your shoppe pays employees at or near minimum wage, don't expect Ph.D.'s to be toiling there.
Dear Holt Uncensored,
I am unsure of your purpose for including "Guardian Sends Spies to Test UK Booksellers" in your latest newsletter. As a bookseller, and a smart one at that, I found the implication that the customer is usually smarter than the bookstore store employee extremely insulting. This piece seemed to feed into the snobby bookstore customers' belief that they know more than the staff because they are not making minimum wage. Never does it occur to that snobby customer that when one spends 40 hours a week surrounded by books and answering stupid questions by customers, we might know a little more about who wrote what and what a book is about than they do.
While you concede that staff cannot answer every single question a customer has, there was no other indication that customers (especially in bookstores) are rarely right, and the staff really does know what they are doing. Recently customers have asked me such questions as: "Do you have "To Kill a Mockbird"? (this customer was wary of the copy of Lee's "To Kill a Mockingbird" I brought her, although I assured her that this was what her son needed for his class reading assignment), and another customer who insisted "The Importance of Being Earnest" was a short story and not a play, after I informed her that she
would find it in Drama.
I felt the inclusion of this piece without telling the other side was very unfair and makes me wonder which side you're really on.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
I loved your gloss on the Guardian's "secret shopper" bookseller interrogation and was reminded of a conversation I overheard during my first week as a book salesman a quarter-century ago.
While inventorying a Washington D.C. bookstore, I overheard a clerk send a customer looking for Stendhal's "The Red and the Black" to the art section; this was on the heels of discovering that the religion section of another bookstore had been shelved alphabetically by article, with, as you might suspect, a very large section of "A's" and "The's."
This said, I have been guilty of the worst kind of questions myself, such as "I think it was on the TODAY show last month and was small with a red cover and about politics..."
God grant booksellers the patience to deal with us.
Christopher R. Kerr
Dear Holt Uncensored:
In November, during our latest visit to London, when I made my usual trek to Foyle's educational section for elementary education and asked my usual question a la mirror-mirror-on-the-wall, ("What do you have in the way of phonics instruction?"), the clerk ushered me to a section dealing with meaning and comprehension. When I repeated my request, she looked bewildered and replied, "I'm sorry, this is all we have. I'm not certain that I know what you mean."
Ever since our first visit in 1963, Foyle's once-magnificent collection of classical phonics reading and spelling texts has diminished - now apparently to the point of nonexistence. Those wonderful and much-loved old "Bangers and Mash" readers have disappeared.
Small wonder that illiteracy was a major issue in their last election!
Dolores G. Hiskes
Dear Holt Uncensored:
I believe that Bookscan will become pretty much everywhere, as its corporate parent and predecessor Soundscan has for music.
The revolution happened in music when Soundscan launched, as Garth Brooks shot right to the top of all charts - blowing away the long-held musical literati who thought country music was regional and didn't sell comparable numbers to rock, pop, etc. Yes, it tends to include/reflect chains and larger independent music stores, but the number and reach is growing all the time. It stands in marked counterpoint to specialty or genre charts - similar to your idea for the bookselling and publishing world.
Your suggestion of having both Bookscan AND various or periodic specialized / genre bestseller charts is appropriate and wise! It's also the growing reality of Bookscan/Soundscan larger scale systems and homogenization writ large, yet bookended by the "alternative" lists. I believe that gradually the USA Today and New York Times list influences will continue to diminish - or reflect an honest, more specialized portion of sales and interests.
Stephen Bond Garvan
Dear Holt Uncensored:
I am speechless at the words of Karen Z about independent booksellers vs. chains. I have worked in independent bookstores for 9 years and have worked alongside those who have worked in chain stores. Never once have I heard a former chain store employee extoll the virtues of the chain over the independent. We are simply a different beast who will never stop trying to show the Karen Z.s of the world what's truly important: books, not money.
P.S. About the book club started at "Live with Regis and Kelly": Aren't Kelly Ripa's comments about "frivolous" fiction a bit of a slap in the face to both the authors and their loyal readers? Perhaps not everyone will consider her picks frivolous. And I for one am glad to see the end of the Oprah reign. Now we might have a chance at escaping the "angst fiction" trend in publishing.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
As a long time attendee of BookExpoAmerica, I have thought long and hard on how to get reader copies in to the hands of those of us who hand sell the books. It irks me to see the boxes of advance copies, some autographed, being piled by a greedy few. These books seem to end up on eBay shortly after the show; just check a few sites. It is no wonder we see fewer ARCs available in the booths as a few people are ruining it for others.
Would it not be possible to make vouchers to be offered to legitimate booksellers to redeem at the show? Many of us spend a great deal of money to attend these shows, and part of the joy used to be getting our favourite book autographed. Now it seems such a game, with the hardy book collectors gaining all the tickets.
I agree with a mention of someone that the show was plugged with publishers' staff. The idea of the third day was a great one - even make it free for them to attend that day.
There just has to be a better way to get the books in the right hands. Let's all think about it for next year. Perhaps limiting the holding area and boxing of the books would slow a few people down.
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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