Holt Uncensored

Holt Uncensored

 

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  #373
by Pat Holt

Thursday, August 21, 2003

 







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WHAT IT MEANS WHEN AUTHORS 'GET BACK'
LETTERS

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WHAT IT MEANS WHEN AUTHORS 'GET BACK'

I love this new phenomenon of authors like Martha Grimes and former Pantheon editor Tom Engelhardt writing books that "get back" (New York Times) at the people and the very culture of publishing they perceive as greedy and manipulative.

Granted, satires and send-ups of mainstream publishing have been around for centuries. But these are post-merger, post-global, post-millennium books. They describe a pretentious, power-addicted publishing industry that for too long has given authors the back of its hand yet expected gratitude and obeisance in return.

Grimes told the New York Times yesterday that she got "fired from Knopf" by Sonny Mehta during a period 10 years ago in which her Detective Richard Jury mysteries weren't earning back her advances. She implies that Knopf once chose books for their quality and stood by its authors through the thick and thin of commercial appeal.

This was not the case, she says, when Sonny Mehta (who's spoofed in her new book) took over Knopf in 1987 and "fired" Grimes in the early '90s.

Now, the NY Times writes, "nearly 10 years later, Ms. Grimes speaks as if the hurt lingers."

Well, good for her. Enough of this increasing baloney that authors have to embrace the business side of publishing, understand the bottom line and feel good about getting kicked out the back door. The time for mainstream publishers to be accountable - to readers, to authors, to posterity - has, perhaps, arrived, and it's coming in through the front door.

I know this because Grimes and Engelhardt aren't the only ones. Everywhere you look, authors have changed their approach. They don't depend on agents or editors any longer. They're ready if their editor suddenly leaves the house or worse, stays on but is too busy to read the author's book.

Today's savvy authors hire their own manuscript consultants and their own publicists. They go into the process knowing exactly when and where they'll compromise when the marketing department (not the editor) says they've got the wrong title, wrong protagonist gender, wrong plot and wrong dying scene.

Nonfiction authors are ready rather than shocked to hear publishers announce that really, the photo insert isn't necessary, there's no room for an index, and don't even think about footnotes.

Fiction writers are ready rather than abashed to hear that chapters should be changed to keep readers from feeling "depressed" or simplified to keep readers from falling into confusion or shortened to keep readers from being "bored" by "historical digressions."

Then there's the constant push of fitting books into fashions. Mainstream editors live and work closely together and exchange information all day by phone or lunch, thus creating a narrow and cruelly exclusive view of the world - witness today's "pink" New-York-mythology "Sex and the City" spinoff novels. Before that it was military techno thrillers of the Clancy et al sort. Before that the Scott Turow-initiated courtroom mysteries. Before that the Danielle Steel gushy romances, Before that the Whole Earth Catalog, Whole Earth gardens, Whole Earth tennis tips. Fashion, fashion, fashion. Fit in or step out.

So why shouldn't authors be ready to fib: Oh, this true story of growing up in the Midwest isn't a *memoir,* say authors of memoirs who know that publishers - not readers - are sick to death of the memoir genre. This true story of growing up in the Midwest is American history; it's biography; it's ethnography. Okay, it's a garden book with commentary.

Or oh, this book isn't "midlist." It has "platform," it has "niche capacity," it has "book group potential" with a companion guide for facilitators already written. (It does *not* have "special sales," since for some reason authors who can guarantee thousands of extra sales to special-interest groups are given unseen demerits for suggesting it.)

And formerly taboo questions are now standard fare at writer's conferences and bookstore events. For example:

Q: Is it true editors don't read the books they acquire?
A: Often enough for authors to worry about.

Q: Is it true the promotional support a publisher gives each book is proportional to the author's advance?
A: Most of the time.

Q: Is it true that agents and editors read a writer's marketing plan before they read the submitted manuscript?
A: Increasingly so.

Q: Is it true publishers hate it when authors hire their own publicists because it means the publisher loses control?
A: It doesn't matter - the author ends up doing all the work anyway.

Q: Is it true that unsolicited, unagented manuscripts haven't a chance in hell to be read by anyone in mainstream publishing?
A: Not only that, unagented submissions and the SASE (self-addressed, stamped envelopes for returning manuscripts) that accompany them are shunned, judged and shamed in today's publishing world. Read this:

"... her partial manuscript had arrived in the mail unagented, a sentence that now seems as odd as, 'The knight entered the field of battle on foot and without armor or a sword.' When I came to Byzantium [a formerly prestigious publishing house], most manuscripts were unagented and we thought it a good thing. Now none are. It's unappetizing to be too vulnerable in our world. You automatically devalue the manuscript of such a person. And it's not wrong to do so."

That's from Tom Engelhardt's delectable "The Last Days of Publishing," mentioned above. I'm going to review this novel soon but offer this quote here because of its lovely ambiguity. I mean, pardon me for asking, but why *isn't* it "wrong" to devalue the manuscript of a person who's innocent to the ways of publishing sharks today? What does the author's understanding of publishing have to do with whether the book is any good or not?

Ah, but just asking this question has that "unappetizing" repugnance that Engelhardt's protagonist mentions. In today's industry, it's not considered wrong to distance yourself from the unwashed because everybody else does. You don't want to be seen by others as a maverick or on the fringe or too open to outsiders - that might make you as "unappetizing" as the canape at the last Knopf reception that Sonny Mehta started to select but declined. So protect yourself. Go along with the thinking of the industry. If you don't, you might get booted out yourself, as do many of the colleagues of Engelhardt's protagonist.

What we learn from Grimes and Engelhardt and others is that fear has corrupted the publishing ethic just as surely as corporate mergers and politics (which of course initiated the fear). The result is that the industry takes out its fear on authors, one way or another: Dismiss them as innocent fools or buy them off with big six- or seven-figure advances - it doesn't matter. The point is to keep authors in your grip so you as player can stay in the game.

Yet here is the New York Times writer insisting that Martha Grimes' attitude is untenable. "Why would Ms. Grimes, who admits to an annual income of over a million dollars from publishing, have a grudge against the industry?"

The reason is that the industry treats them like garbage - still patronizes them, condescends to them, dismisses them, doesn't read them, sends them out on exhausting tours if they're lucky, and dismisses them if the numbers don't work. Grimes has learned the hard way that as long as she earns back the $1-million advance and gives the publisher its projected profit, she's tolerated. When that picture changes, she's out.

I know it's easy to complain about publishers, and certainly authors do this mightily. But until the late 1980s, I had never seen an industry turn against the people who pay all our salaries the way publishers have turned against authors. Too often it seems that originality, the life blood of literature, has become too risky for publishers to "get behind." No wonder authors like Martha Grimes - and a host of others, apparently - want to "get back."

Enough of this. More about an "author revolution" to come.

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LETTERS

Dear Holt Uncensored:

Talk about media conglomerates [and mergers].

I have to request anonymity for a variety of reasons, but this deal between Barnes & Noble and Sterling seems to be shaking up negatively for some small presses, and maybe some large ones, too.

Sterling has a line of books that competes with us in some ways, and lately our pre-pub orders to B&N have plummeted. Where we could normally expect an order of 500 or more, we are now getting orders for under 100 or iced out completely on some titles. Of course the buyer at B&N has come up with with a lot of different little reasons for the low buys/no buys, but we can't shake the suspicion that they're giving most-favored-nation status to Sterling titles.

Are you getting any scuttlebutt from other publishers on this or am I spinning a conspiracy theory that just isn't there?

A Publisher

Holt responds: Before B&N bought Sterling I heard that the art book field had been gutted because of packagers selling exclusively to B&N at list prices so low that nobody could compete. However yours is the first to reflect a direct decline of orders. I wonder if other anonymous publishers have any thoughts?


Dear Holt Uncensored:

Peter Cox's letter in Holt Uncensored #372 identifies a problem not unique to him. Until recently I worked in a corporate library, and repeatedly attempted to subscribe to your newsletter through my work address. I would receive one issue, and then our firm's censorware would decide the newsletter had no "business value", and I would no longer receive it. My solution eventually was to subscribe through my home e-mail, delete the word "uncensored" from the subject line, and forward it to my work address. There is no censorware product currently available that has the nuanced sensitivity to language to prevent such episodes.

Jim Reed

Holt responds: Thanks so much for your note. Not only am I grateful to hear in detail about the lack of "nuanced sensitivity" as you describe it of censorware filters, I'm kind of floored at the lengths you went to, just to get my column back into your company. It's amazing - one doesn't need *any* sensitivity to know that the word "uncensored" by itself isn't subversive or pornographic or without "business value." (Just realized - maybe it's "Holt"?) Perhaps the point to filters is not to cut out problem words but to control employees' interests. That's not very comforting in business, but in public libraries it's really a killer.


Dear Holt Uncensored:

You wrote: "Such an innocent, that Sonny. Apparently he forgot that his division took the paperback profits away from Godoff's division, which then fell below its profit quota, eventually causing Godoff to be fired. Oh, well."

The New York Times Magazine article on Peter Olson was disturbing and unpleasant, but we can't help wondering why you are perpetuating the myth that Sonny Mehta "took away" the paperback profits from little Random's division? There are a few points to take note of - the Vintage imprint was moved from Random House to Knopf years before Ann Godoff headed Little Random, and it was handed over (I don't recall by whom) the way one hands over a loss-making burden, with considerable relief. From this weak start, Sonny Mehta turned Vintage into the most respected and successful paperback imprints in the US.

The most important point however, is that many of the imprints within the Random House Group feed the Vintage paperback line, Doubleday and the Nan Talese imprint in particular, and contrary to the simplistic, media-perpetuated myth, they share in the profits when Vintage publishes one of their books. As did Random and Ann Godoff.

Ann Godoff is indisputably a clever publisher, but her failures were of her own devising, extraordinary advances being one of them. The supposed rivalry between Ann Godoff and Sonny Mehta was much played up in the New York Times, and it was Ann Godoff herself who remarked that Sonny Mehta had only ever been supportive of her. As The New York Times Magazine reveals, it was Gina Centrello who turned out to have been in talks with Olson before Godoff was fired, Centrello's clearly no innocent.

And given that the only generous remark made in an otherwise very unpleasant article came from Mehta, it surprises us that'd you'd target his words for your ire. Peter Olson, who rubber-stamped all of Ann Godoff's decisions, then fired her, and who spent most of his time cavorting ludicrously for the journalist, seems much more deserving of this kind of comment.

We read holtuncensored because it usually digs underneath media myths, the New York Times article was worthy of considerable comment, but the tack your article took came as a disappointment. You've always seemed much more fair-minded than this.

Sally McMurray
Benjamin McMurray

Holt responds: You're certainly right about my dismissive quickie regarding Sonny Mehta - I had another paragraph that went into the details to back up my claims but thought it would be too much. And you're certainly right about the timing; Vintage went to Sonny Mehta before Godoff. But here's the background as I understand it: Vintage was always a respected line, at least by critics like me. It was the imprint's financial contribution that I guess was in doubt. But I'm not so sure Sonny Mehta "turned it around" when Vintage came under his division. At the time, a sales trend was building among readers who were turning to and buying more trade paperbacks like those in the Vintage line. This trend was stimulated by 1) the proliferation of book clubs, which favored trade paperbacks; and 2) by prices of hardcovers soaring through the roof, for one reason that steep hardcover discounts at Costco and Wal-Mart caused publishers to raise hardcover prices to recover the profit.

Anyway, whatever the contribution Vintage made to Godoff's division, she still felt a need for Little Random to reclaim control of trade paperback sales. Thus she asked for and received Olson's approval of Random House Trade Paperbacks, which was underway at the time of her firing.

If I got it wrong and, as you say, used the mythology coming out of the NYT to make a cheap joke, my apologies to Mr. Mehta and to readers. I still think it was a bit disingenuous for Sonny Mehta, a master of internal politics, to claim to being "absolutely taken aback," and becoming the reverse of "unscarable" when he learned that Godoff has been fired.

I used to think the job of the critic is to avoid office gossip along the nature of who fired who, or who was responsible for whose ouster, or who's been in the background scheming all along. After all, the worth of each book is measured on its merits, regardless of the hierarchy and changes in it inside.

But ever since I used to prowl around my office at The Chronicle looking for serious books in history, biograpy, fiction, works in translation, essays, science and the likes - and, not finding them, worrying that a certain "thinness" was settling into American literature as high-volume-turnover, highly commercial, star vehicles overwhelmed list after list, it's seemed incumbent on any publishing observer to ponder why this has happened or if any let up is in sight.

Peter Olson was the publisher who cut the jobs of key editors some years ago before such a thing as "flat sales" or "the end of the dotcom era" were discussed. I remember at a discussion of heads of houses sponsored by Publishers Weekly, many stated they didn't known why Olson was rushing to make such punishing (my word) cutbacks when, as far as they were concerned, there was no need. Granted, years of hardship in publishing have passed, and a lot of houses have made severe cutbacks. But at the time it seemed premature for Olson to do so - unless he wanted to impress the parent company back in Gutersloh with a tough-guy stance that brought in more pennies.

Benjamin responds:

I do think you've still got it wrong I'm afraid. Are you genuinely arguing that Mehta wasn't responsible for remaking Vintage into what it is today? That's amazing.

But I feel you've missed my larger point - the odd way in which you read something unpleasant into Mehta's compliment. Such an assumption. Don't forget that Godoff herself "singled him out for praise" after she was fired and stated that she and Mehta competed but had a good relationship. Essentially the same thing Mehta was saying about her.

Looking back over your articles I see you've championed Godoff mightily, but had it occurred to you that your piece both wrongly insults Mehta and demeans Godoff? How did Mehta become the bad guy, and Godoff the poor unfortunate victim? I doubt she'd appreciate this interpretation.

The focus should have been on Olson, where it belongs.


Dear Holt Uncensored:

Nice gloss on the Olson excretions in the NY Times profile; it reminded me of the Harry Hoffman profile. it too signaled his imminent departure. It's almost like the Sports Illustrated cover jinx. The pathetic joke is that these media titans know so little of the publishing process, their authors, or their customers. It's all just a balance sheet to be tricked-up for the shareholders, in this case the Germans.

Christopher R. Kerr


Dear Holt Uncensored:

To respond to S. DeWine's letter in Holt Uncensored #372, I wonder if DeWine actually understands what harassment is. Under United States Code Title 18 Subsection 1514(c)(1), harassment is "a course of conduct directed at a specific person that causes substantial emotional distress in such a person and serves no legitimate purpose." In the personal examples that DeWine cites, the conduct of these library patrons, while juvenile in nature, is not expressly directed towards her or any particular person. DeWine may be distressed by the public display of anatomy, but the turmoil is hardly as substantial as, say, a professional singled out and ridiculed in a business environment, overlooked for a promotion or a salary increase because of her gender. DeWine's "distress" cannot possibly equal the long-term emotional distress of a woman who is raped, or a woman who is the victim of domestic violence.

In our touchy-feely, politically correct age, it's very common for people of extraordinary sensitivities to be harassed by actions or pursuits that have absolutely nothing to do with them. But if one person was to litigate against every irksome individual that bothered him, we'd have endless litanies of meaningless lawsuits piling up in the courtrooms. Thankfully the legal definition of "harassment" establishes a very clear precedent.

What troubles me the most about DeWine's position is that it is essentially the same attitude which motivates hypersensitive "moralists" to lead assaults on "Captain Underpants" (it disturbs because it encourages children to disobey authority), the "Harry Potter" books (it disturbs because it deals with sorcery), "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" (it disturbs because it prominently features a racial epithet), and Phyllis Naylor's Alice series (it disturbs because it is sexually frank). According to the ALA's informative Banned Books Week site, all of these "crusades" went down last year. These amazing purges in the name of safety were pursued because, like DeWine, a few people felt uncomfortable (possibly "harassed") with the content available to the public. But much like DeWine's approach to the filter system, they concentrated their energies on the naughty bits of the book, rather than looking at the situation holistically.

DeWine is also out to lunch with her preposterous idea that, somehow, this all ties in with limousine liberalism. Since librarians are one of the primary voices of opposition in this issue, it might pay to check out how much they make. According to the September 2002 issue of American Libraries, the 2002 mean salary for a beginning librarian is $35,051. For a nonsupervisory librarian, it's $44,279. For a department head, coordinator, or senior manager, it's $54,260. The directors, of course, get the big bucks at $75,714. Thankfully, these figures aren't as dispiriting as one would presuppose. But it's certainly not the salary that allows a librarian to ride in a limousine on a daily basis unless, of course, they're personally acquainted with someone in the rental business.

Ed Campion


Dear Holt Uncensored:

About the matter of pornography and privacy: What about screens between computer users in libraries? These could be like "study carrels" so a reader would have privacy and also wouldn't be bothered by the choices of other readers. That's cheaper than challenging the Constitution. If librarians can't observe reader's choices, they can't be expected to monitor the behavior.

J. Spock


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