Holt Uncensored

Holt Uncensored

 

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  #374
by Pat Holt

Friday, September 5, 2003

 







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'SOMETHING'S GOT TO GIVE' - AN INTERVIEW WITH M.J. ROSE
MICHAEL POWELL DOES IT AGAIN
LETTERS

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'SOMETHING'S GOT TO GIVE' - AN INTERVIEW WITH M.J. ROS

M.J. Rose would never take credit for the "author revolution" that many believe is underway (see #373), but she's certainly been a barometer of author-inspired changes in the book industry for - gad! has it been that long? - more than two whole years.

If you want to skip to the hot new stuff from Rose, scroll down to part II. If not, let's begin with her background and work to the present.

I. Rose Before and After

Rose is the former Wired Online reporter whose first two novels were declined by every New York publisher to which her agent, Loretta Barrett, submitted them in 1998. Barrett encouraged Rose to write #3, but, crushed by the rejections, Rose vowed to quit writing fiction forever..

Here's the comment that kills me (from the joyously lengthy interview in #212):

"I realized the reason I wanted to stop writing was true of a lot of writers. It had nothing to do with money or making a living as a writer. It had to do with believing I had no readers.

"All writers know writing is a stupid thing to do, The chances of succeeding at it are ridiculous. But the question was not how to get a book deal - it was how to find [out] if people wanted to read me."

Rose says she wanted to locate "one reader, two readers, a handful of readers" who might read her first novel, "Lip Service." So she searched the Internet for websites that would attract the kind of reader she had in mind, and in 2001, a motherload awaited her - readers like herself who were surfing around the still-nascent World Wide Web looking for something good to read.

Rose not only built up a following, she began offering to download the book at $9.95 as an unencrypted version ("nobody knew what 'unencrypted' meant at the time, but I sounded like I knew") and at $20 as a photocopied manuscript.

The response was eventually so positive that Rose learned two things right off the bat: 1) Even dedicated Internet readers preferred to unpeel their eyes from the screen when reading a "real" book. And 2) after 30 or 40 manuscripts had been duplicated and shipped off, it was time to try a spanking new concept called print-on-demand (POD).

To make a long story short, Rose survived the POD stigma ("if it's self-published, it can't be any good") and attracted the very industry that had rejected her. For the first time in history, Doubleday Book Clubs and Pocket Books took on a self-published book, with Pocket even buying the remainder of Roe's POD copies to use as advance readers' copies.

But Rose wasn't content to let her new publisher do the work. A former advertising executive, she started calling wire services like Reuters and Bloomberg.com and asking for the Culture Desk ("whatever that was"). Soon this story of the unknown novelist who used the Internet to get her first book published the traditional way generated stories in Forbes, Time, Newsweek, Industry Standard, New York Times, Wall Street Journal and others.

The funny thing was, both "Lip Service" and the second book, "In Fidelity," were examples of what Rose intended them to be - mid-list love stories (not romances) with a dash of mystery, psychology, erotica, thriller, even parental angst.

Not so surprisingly to Rose, the very mix of categories that spread the word of "Lip Service" to the tune of 70,000 copies sold had been the very "problem" that had caused publishers to reject it as "uncategorizable" in the first place.

But as Rose matured as a writer of fiction and in her next two books - "Flesh Tones" and "Sheet Music" for Ballantine - she became even more "uncategorizable." The explicit sex in her writing now has a tinge of irony and humor; a story of grief and bereavement turns into a mystery halfway through; characters are more complicated, distinctive.

Rose's huge Internet "fan base" loved every page, but at the same time, Rose discovered one of the hardest truths in publishing: With midlist books you either get out there and generate publicity, or you watch your sales slow. "I began to wonder about how much time I spent doing this one thing [publicity] and to wonder, 'Why did I go into this?' It was to write."

That's hardly an original thought, but coming from M.J. Rose, the self-initiator, the do-it-yourselfer, the magician who wrote, sold, published, re-sold, publicized and at one time even delivered her book out of the trunk of her car (not many takers), it's almost anti-American.

But M.J. Rose, that's the classic dilemma you exploded on the scene in 2001 to solve. If there's no "press," you figure out a way to make the news. You don't wait for the publisher; you get creative. Ain't that what you said?

"I am not the person with the answers," says Rose. "I'm the one with the questions." And for her part, that's where the author revolution stands today - knowing where (and when) to draw the line.

II: The Current Rose

If you are an author of a "midlist" book, which is to say a drag on the market until it becomes a bestseller or a "genre" book that will sell forever, here are some ideas Rose suggests that might break you (and the rest of us) out of the doomed-to-remainder syndrome:

  1. Convince your publisher to bring the book out as an original paperback

    If everybody knows, as Rose believes, that hardcover editions of midlist books are too expensive for most readers, that people buy trade (large-size) paperbacks by the handful, that booksellers know how to merchandize original paperbacks; that reviewers no longer attach a stigma to original paperbacks, why are we all persisting in this myth that publishing in hardcover first is the only way to go?

    True, there *is* a slight stigma attached to publishing in paperback, but if so, let's change it, she says. Spending $30 for a hardcover about which the customer knows nothing is not gonna happen for a midlist book. Risking $15 for a paperback edition of the same book obviously has a greater chance.

  2. Turn the industry's (dreadful) statistics to your advantage.

    "We've figured out that 35 novels are published a day," says Rose. "The average *avid* reader buys maybe 25 books a year - not even 1 percent. I'm not saying we should publish fewer books; I'm saying that at some point, something's got to give.

    "With 10-15,000 novels published a year, if you can't get a publisher that's really going to promote you, the industry is going to have a lot of stillborn books."

    In an article for Poets & Writers, Rose wrote that a successful literary agent typically "gets 200 queries a week," that "70,000 authors have self-published" and that "130,000 books [are] published every year."

    The idea is, if so many books are published and so few are read, no wonder publishers feel they can get away with "industry absenteeism" (not her term). Telling authors they should feel "incredibly lucky" just to be published and then publishing them poorly is no longer acceptable, says Rose.

    Writers can turn these statistics to their advantage right now, she suggests, by starting to dismantle the "fear factor" that Rose believes latches on to every author as soon as a manuscript is accepted.

    "Writers don't always feel empowered because they aren't really in on the process," she says. Even when authors know the publisher isn't doing a good job, they're afraid to complain. As one agent tells Rose, "God forbid, the squeaky wheel might get replaced instead of oiled."

    Rose says: "That fear is part of why we crawl away, convincing ourselves we should be grateful instead of acting on our anger."

    All right, then: anger, what a concept. Anger is that very thing that launches, you know, revolutions.

  3. "We're the writers, aren't we? Let's rewrite the rules."

    The old rules used to say, Authors, Stay Out - Let the Publisher Decide. But Rose was one who wouldn't have it that way. Rather than not be published; rather than get lost in statistics, rather than watch her books sink in the midlist, Rose publicized her novels on the Internet and made her own relationships with print and TV/radio editors, bookstore owners, book groups and whatever mover-and-shakers she could find.

    To say she's exhausted by it all would be an understatement. "I have gone through a real seismic shift in the last year," she says. For one thing "everybody's entered the same field," meaning many more authors have become self-actualized marketing experts.

    For another, the well is running dry. Some reasons:

    • "The public isn't running out to every bookstore reading to meet an author, because authors are no longer so unusual no matter what city you live in," she says.

    • "We've all hired freelance PR people, but that's not necessarily a solution any more either, because often there's no PR to get."

      Author interviews are old hat, media-wise, and "there's nothing I can do about it short of murdering someone so I can get on the 6 o'clock news. Otherwise, the message is, 'Oh, here's another nice writer; she's written another nice book.' I mean, where's the press in that?"

      Wait a minute: You don't mean the author can't turn the nonfiction subject of a novel into a news-related interview? "Of course not," Rose says. "But I also mean you have to weigh the time and effort it takes you to come up with legitimate material for PR with the time and effort you're losing at the keyboard."

    • Book club appearances may be fun and gratifying - after all, even though everybody in the group has read and loved your book, they buy more copies after they've met you - but the fact is that book clubs are a slow and time-consuming way of building word-of-mouth. That time takes you away from writing.

    • The same can be said for Internet publicity, says Rose: "I still have an Internet presence, and with that, you can sell 4-5,000 books, which is good, but it's still only one step." Internet publicity has not become the gold mine many thought it would be. Working on it takes a huge amount of time.

    So Rose believes the rules should be rewritten *again* - and again and again until they fit the needs of the author. Just taking that position, she believes, is revolutionary.

  4. When in doubt, compartmentalize.

    "I love writing, so I separate being a writer from being my own publicist. Writing is an art; publishing is a business. Yes, there's a bridge between them. But some days you want to cross it and some days you don't.

    I've learned in just the last 18 months how to spend days and days being a writer. It's a HUGE relief to know that marketing has its place; it's simply not going to overwhelm the editorial part." It would be great if the industry thought that way.

  5. Know going in exactly how much your publisher plans to do

    In her Poets & Writers piece, Rose quotes Writers House literary agent Simon Lipskar, who suggests that when a publisher has paid less than a $25,000 advance for a first novel, it's foolish for the author to expect a large print run, expensive author tour or ad campaign.

    "It's the author's part of the bargain as a professional to know that, in most cases, these things will simply not happen," Lipskar advises. "Asking for them, begging for them, demanding them: This is part of what leads publishers to react with an attitude that implies that the author should shut up and take what's being given."

    But how is the author to know these realities when everyone at that very publisher has made such promises as: "the house is really behind you," "your book will get a bigger print run than usual," "we've had a positive reaction already from 'Good Morning, America,'" "you're getting a full page in the catalog," "the sales force is really 'placing' the book with booksellers." "BookSense is going to be a big factor," and so forth?

    Oh, you can get excited by such talk, says Rose, but don't believe any of it. "I've learned to back off a lot," she says. "It doesn't do anybody any good for me to badger the publisher. I've loved the publicists I've worked with, but they've been given their marching orders. They have the bestseller in the house, and that's their job."

    Huh. Well, this is definitely not sounding like the M.J. Rose of old.

    "I believe as authors we have to do two things, and these are the opposite of what I thought before: We have to concentrate on our books more than we concentrate on our sales. And we have to make a decision about what publisher and agent we are going to use, so that we can let them do their job, and we can do our job.

    Hey! You don't mean learning to shut up again, right? You don't mean letting them do a lousy job and pretending to be grateful?

    No, she doesn't mean that. Here is what she means:

  6. It's better *not* to be published than to be published badly.

    "If you have another job, it's not necessarily the worst thing in the world to hold your book back a year until you get the right deal. What I've discovered is that just being published isn't the solution. It's interesting. Before you're published, being a published author is all that matters. But then you and all the writers I know end up getting depressed because the experience is nothing like they imagined.

    "I'm one of the few who thought it was. After all, I was on the Today Show; I was interviewed by the New York Times - all that was exactly as I had imagined. It was so exciting. But sales? I never imagined sales. Media? I knew I wasn't pressworthy, so I decided to make myself pressworthy.

    "But you know what? We are the writers. We stay home and write books. Someone said that when you write a novel, you just hope that for a while, your writing will transport someone sitting in a hospital waiting room, or a train station or airport. That's a very big thing in my life right now."

    That's especially intriguing because Rose is no longer writing what genre folk call "stand-alone" novels. A year or so ago she got an idea for a series of mysteries that her agent has sold to Mira, a division of Harlequin. "I don't think I'm smart enough to write literary fiction that's going to take off. I think it would always be B-level. They all see me as a marketing person. They want a marketing person to write commercial fiction."

The key, she says, is to start with an agent who believes in you - don't wait for your editor or anyone else in the house to come through with answers along the way. But the point, Rose believes, is to become the kind of writer only you can be, and to insist on it. Maybe that's the heart of this new author's revolution, after all.

----

MICHAEL POWELL DOES IT AGAIN

That was quite a tap dance Michael Powell of the FCC performed recently in his stupendously misguided attempt to "quell fears about new [media] ownership rules," as the Los Angeles Times put it.

First Powell manipulated the FCC board to loosen up media regulation rules, allowing corporations owning TV stations that reached 35 percent of U.S. households to increase the reach to 45 percent. Then, following enormous public outrage, the House of Representatives overwhelmingly reversed the FCC vote, and the Senate is soon to follow.

And then Powell started tap dancing.

His solution, he now says, is to form a task force to determine if broadcasters "SHOULD BE COMPELLED to produce more local news and other programming" (all-caps mine, in case you're wondering).

Not only that, but the task force will "seek to answer such questions as how many hours stations already devote to local issues and 'WHAT WAS THE NATURE AND QUALITY OF THAT LOCAL NEWS,' " the New York Times reported, quoting Powell (ditto the caps).

So here is Powell, who prides himself on being a laissez-faire Republican devoted to keeping government out of broadcasting, now bringing in Big Brother to determine the "NATURE AND QUALITY" of the news and to dictate who "SHOULD BE COMPELLED" to say certain things - government-directed, mind you - to the public.

That's censorship no matter how you put it. It's nobody's business, least of all Powell's, or a task force, or the government, what any radio station or radio commentator or newspaper columnist or book writer says to any audience. The most government can do is to keep the playing field level, so that nobody monopolizes the airwaves.

So here's what you never want in an agency like the FCC: You don't want some hotdog who's gonna politicize the board and push through a vote that encourages monopoly and damages free expression. What I can't understand is why nobody has called for heads to roll, namely Powell's.

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LETTERS

Dear Holt Uncensored,

Regarding the letter about Barnes & Noble and Sterling.

I seem to recall Publishers Weekly reporting that Borders and most (many?) independents deciding either to no longer carry Sterling titles or to carry only those that are essential.

This seems to me a wonderful sales opportunity for a publisher - major competitor pretty out of the picture? I'm sure the independent stores would leap at the chance to carry books replacing their returned Sterling inventory.

Michael Walsh


Dear Holt Uncensored:

I would echo the experience of the anonymous publisher from [last week's] column. We have experienced great declines on orders from Barnes & Noble, and on most books, NO orders at all. This just started this past Spring, so it seems coincidental.

I'm not sure anyone knows what to do, since B&N has put so many independents out of business. Their orders have accounted for 30-40% of my orders in the past couple of years. Their new buying habits are having a significant impact on our press runs. I have been told by my distributor that the buyer doesn't want to carry anything that they don't feel they "NEED." Which means to me there must be significant media to cause people to go in and ask for the book. We have had to resort to the following strategy: if no orders from B&N, we do our best to get major press and then shame B&N into ordering books after the fact.

>From what I have been reading over the past year, B&N has been boasting of their increasing income from their own publishing ventures and having their own shipping company, it seems that they are getting into the area of antitrust ...

As an aside; I'm not even trying to publish illustrated books anymore because B&N has flooded the market with their cheap imports and wouldn't order enough to even help with a press run.

I think that most publishers are scared to say/do anything about B&N because they will lose what small orders they do get at this point and be blackballed by B&N. No one in this economy can afford that. We are all hanging on for dear life right now and hoping that the fall will prove to be a better season cash flow wise. If anyone has any ideas about what to do about this situation, I would welcome them.

A Publisher


Dear Holt Uncensored:

I have been reading and enjoying Martha Grimes' books for years. In your last column, you neglected to mention the name of her book that takes the publishing industry to task. Which one is it?

Donna Lesley

Holt responds: The novel is called "Foul Matter" ($25.05; 400 pages; Viking), and thank you for pointing out my omission, as the meaning of the title is very important. Read on.


Dear Holt Uncensored,

Just a footnote of trivia to your entertaining column today. [Here is a letter I sent to the author of the New York Times piece about Martha Grimes.]:

Dear Ms. Smith:

I greatly enjoyed your piece in today's Times ("An Author Gets Back at Knopf," August 20th, 2003) about Martha Grimes' new book--both as a publishing veteran and a former Random House executive.

I hope you haven't been bombarded with this bit of trivia, but your definition of foul matter as "an unedited manuscript" is incorrect.

Foul matter is a term used collectively for the edited manuscript and, during the production of a book, for each previous set of proofs when they are successively superseded by the next set and, finally, by the printed book itself. Foul matter is so-called because it is seldom of further value and can be set aside or tossed when the book is printed.

And, as an even further nitpick, the term "foul matter" is sometimes not applied to the edited manuscript at all, for safety's sake, because according to a standard book contract, the original manuscript must be returned to the author in the physical condition in which it was received.

Jokingly, I have always referred to all of the above as FOWL matter, which it can often appear to be to a harried editor or publisher....


Dear Holt Uncensored:

Don't cry for the wealthy Martha Grimes. She's really an example of the kind of average mystery series author whose Richard Jury books are clever, but hardly in the same class as Toni Morrison, the kind of literary author Mehta might have been more willing to keep. Why not boot Martha if it means more money for Morrison?

I also had difficulty understanding where you felt Grimes implied that in the "good old days," Knopf chose books for their quality, also implying that her Jury books were quality. They are not, but they sell because of the steady mystery fan base. I would also venture that most of Grimes' income comes from paperback sales.

The NY Times story was really a coup for Viking publicists who were afraid that another non-Jury book would bomb, like the others, so they pitched a softball at the paper aimed at its anti-publishing bias, most obviously expressed in its recent slam of Peter Olson. It worked.

Bob Hoover

Holt responds: I do agree with you - Grimes has become one of the duller police proceduralists around - but early on she was considered classy, and the reason Knopf let her go (of course this is her version) was not quality but sales. But say, do you really think the NY Times has an anti-publishing bias? Perhaps a better term would be pro-gossip bias. Witness Grimes "getting back" at her former publisher and editor. And witness the Peter Olson slam, far more deliciously gossipy (his megalomanical remarks! his wife's embarrassing book proposal!) than anti-publishing, I thought.


Dear Holt Uncensored:

I can't wait to read the next installment of "What It Means When Authors 'Get Back." I've given up on big, mainstream publishers (they all seem to boil down to Pearson, anyway) and have gone back to being published by a smaller press. I'm not going to get much PR help from the big-budget guys, anyway, so I'm not losing anything, and little guys like Career Press/ New Page Books treat me like a valued person, keep my books on the backlist (because some have sold for 20 years) and do a lovely job on the books themselves.

I've been through a lot of publishing ups and downs since 1978, when I signed my first book contract, and my bones are telling me that, with all the cheap PR available through the Web, the obvious "one size fits all"shallowness of the big chain bookstores, and lots of frustrated authors, we're in the beginning throes of a new publishing revolution -- small presses, special focus online bookstores and new, small special interest bookstores are about to experience a boom. Only time will tell if I'm right.

Tina B. Tessina, LMFT, PhD
Website: www.tinatessina.com/


Dear Holt Uncensored:

Great, great great stuff on the Grimes. Appropos of that I just read an article on author Carolyn Parkhurst article in the Boston Globe

http://www.boston.com/news/globe/magazine/articles/2003/08/17/playing_by_the_book

and I'm really fuming, disgusted and angry and getting very tired of reading & having to write articles like this - it reinforces everything that is wrong in our business, our attitudes, our lack of foresight in looking towards the future and trying to build authors. Where are we going? Towards a world with a lot of authors are nobodys, with nobody caring.

I know a lot of authors are wishing they could stage a revolt. Or maybe readers should revolt. Because readers still care about books that don't get the buzz or make the list.

Publishers might want to read message boards at places like Readerville and iVillage and listservs like DorthyL and Murder and Mayhem - just to name a few. Or talk to Suzanne Beecher at DearReader.com about the letters she gets from readers of the midlist books she introduces them to. Letters from readers thanking her for introducing them to authors that they never heard of, who they love, who they want to keep reading.

Readers stay loyal to even "nobody authors." Maybe not in the numbers that publishers need, but in numbers that keep the authors feeling they aren't nobodys.

Here are my least favorite but most disturbing quips from the piece:

"But you're smart enough to know that, even with all that going for you, you're still not guaranteed to make the New York Times bestseller list. You know that if you don't, given all your publisher has riding on you, you're doomed to be seen as damaged goods."

"In today's book business, you're either a bestseller or you're a nobody."

"Some will make it, determining the novels that book clubs from Tacoma to Tewksbury will read this year. Many won't, and those unlucky authors will join the swollen ranks at the bottom of the list, left to fend for themselves. It's no fun down there."

I would gladly put my name on this letter, except that since I am not a bestselling author, it would sound like sour grapes. And this is not jealousy talking; it is passion - passion for reading and writing, and passion to encourage the industry to take another look and try to be creative in coming up with solutions.

A Midlist Author


Dear Holt Uncensored:

It seems to me that you and Ms. Grimes gloss over a contradiction. She appears routinely to accept advances she considers excessive. Though she tries to pass responsibility for this to her agent, one has to ask why she did not restrain or fire him, if she believed he was demanding so much that it put her relationship with her publisher at risk.

It is common for authors to demand up front all the money -- and more -- that a book is likely to earn for them in its lifetime. Larger publishers will acquiesce in this demand (for a while) if they think they can turn a profit anyway, but for the most part it puts a manuscript beyond the reach of smaller publishers (like the one I work for) who would give authors the attention and care they claim to want.

Of course, I know why authors seek the largest advance they can get from the most prestigious publisher that will pay it. They have (or will) put a lot of work into a book and want something to show for it. Nevertheless, in accepting a large advance from a house that publishes many books, authors exchange one set of risks for another. I don't find many authors willing to give this circumstance serious thought, even when, as in Ms. Grimes case, things don't go well in one way or another.

Mitchell Muncy
Spence Publishing Company

Holt responds: To me, the big question for Martha Grimes and other fashionable authors is that if she *refuses* a nearly seven-figure advance and tries to bring her publisher and agent down to more practical numbers, she's going to look like an idiot to many people in the biz. For one thing, if it's true that a big advance gets you the big advertisements and the big co-op dollars and the big window displays and the big chain buys and the big author tours, you *must* take it or watch your frontlist exposure and house enthusiasm fade. By the same token, if you go to a smaller house now, even with a lot of heartfelt statements that you believe in the goals and values of independent publishers, would the attendant publicity and your huge following take such statements seriously?


Dear Holt Uncensored:

I was planning to respond to the latest Uncensored point by point -- I read all my manuscripts, and I have bought some slush submission, although I prefer agented ones because another set of eyes has already found value in them, etc.-- but instead I think it would be more productive to ask how you would respond to the standard marketing and publicity dilemma:

Given finite dollars and manhours available for marketing and publicity, would you put the bulk of your money into doing something small for each book on your list or would you put the bulk of your money into doing something large for the few top-tier titles that promise the greatest sales?

Stephen S. Power
Senior Editor
John Wiley & Sons

Holt responds: First, thank you for pointing out my omission, for which I apologize: There are many pro's in the book business, many editors who are champions of every manuscript they bring in, many authors who would never have seen print if an agent or editor hadn't become invaluable advocates. For these we all thank our lucky stars as readers.

Second, how I used to love that old marketing formula that said you take 10% of projected net sales of the whole list every season and distribute it according to each title's promotional needs. Sounds Marxist but the attempt is to make it practical and balanced. True, it's arbitrary, but it does help finance support for say, a first novel that otherwise would have nearly no budget at all.

And at least it gives each title as much of a shot at success as the house can afford. I certainly prefer it to the P&L approach, which says that every book has to earn its own way at every stage. Thus if you take 10% of projected net sales of a first novel alone, you'll get pittance for promotion, and you start telling the author the things they say in Hollywood - "we'll wait to see if it 'takes legs,' " which means it's got to walk out of the store by itself.


Dear Holt Uncensored:

I've given up on big, mainstream publishers (they all seem to boil down to Pearson, anyway) and have gone back to being published by a smaller press. I'm not going to get much PR help from the big-budget guys, anyway, so I'm not losing anything, and little guys treat me like a valued person, keep my books on the backlist (because some have sold for 20 years) and do a lovely job on the books themselves.

I've been through a lot of publishing ups and downs since 1978, when I signed my first book contract, and my bones are telling me that with all the cheap PR available through the Web, the obvious "one size fits all" shallowness of the big chain bookstores, and lots of frustrated authors, we're in the beginning throes of a new publishing revolution -- small presses, general independent bookstores, special focus online bookstores and new, small special interest bookstores are about to experience a boom. Only time will tell if I'm right.

A Writer


Dear Holt Uncensored:

I'd like to think that I am part of the "author revolution." And I had to smile to myself when I read your paragraph, as follows:

"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."

For the record, I am NOT ready to fib. My book, "Christmas In Dairyland (True Stories From a Wisconsin Farm)", IS a memoir. And it IS American history. And biography. And ethnography. (I have to admit, though, that is not a garden book with commentary.)

Small family dairy farms have disappeared from Wisconsin at an alarming rate. Over the past 40 years, Wisconsin - always known as the dairy state - has lost two-thirds of its dairy farms. Economic conditions have forced small family farmers out of business. The same is true across the nation. During the same time period, the United States has lost 85 percent of its small family farms.

The price that farmers receive for their milk has essentially stayed the same for the past THIRTY-FIVE YEARS. Where there were once pastures and cornfields here in Wisconsin there are now residential subdivisions - and empty dairy barns scattered around the countryside - and creameries that have been converted into facilities for drying dog food, feed mills waiting to be burned down by local firefighters as a training exercise.

My book IS a memoir. And it's history. And it's the biography of my parents, who are both gone now. My mother was the daughter of Norwegian immigrants, and in fact, our farm was homesteaded by my Norwegian great-grandfather in the late 1800s. My father was the son of German and Scottish immigrants. My parents hung on during the Great Depression, and my mother hung on after being stricken with polio in 1942 and permanently paralyzed in both legs.

Is it a story that mainstream publishing houses would be interested in publishing? No.

Is it a story that small regional publishers would be interested in publishing? Apparently not because the several that I approached which seemed to be a "perfect fit" said "no thanks - who wants to read stories about growing up on a dairy farm?"

Is it a story for people who grew up on farms, for people who remember visiting Grandma and Grandpa on their farm during the summer, for people who live in the country now or wish they did? Yes. Because the response from people around the country who have read my stories on my website and from the people who read the 375 stories I published in two newspapers here in Wisconsin tell me that IS a story for them.

And that's why I self-published the book. And that's why I'm part of the author revolution.

LeAnn R. Ralph
http://ruralroute2.com

Holt responds: I've just spent a delightful hour reading your charming sample stories from the book at RuralRoute2.com. It seems to me there are two ways that memoirs can go - one way is nostalgia and the other is story. As far as I've read, I think yours goes in the direction of nostalgia, and I think if I lived in rural Wisconsin and read your stories in the local newspaper, I'd want to buy your book. It certainly offers some lovely scenes of a bygone era, and the portrayal of your mother hanging on to the stove with one arm because of her postpolio paralysis while cooking and baking for the family is inspiring.

But I can see perhaps the thinking of publishers who declined the manuscript, as it does appear that the audience for the book is comparatively small -- or is that what you are finding now that you have self-published the book? Could you tell us in more practical ways how it feels to be part of this "author revolution" as a self-publisher? Has the experience of getting it printed been smooth, rough, simple, complicated? Is the book selling well by your lights? Have you appeared at suthor events?

LeAnn R. Ralph replies:

Regarding the publishing experience, "Christmas In Dairyland (True Stories From a Wisconsin Farm)" is a publish-on-demand or POD book. I hold an undergraduate degree in English with a writing emphasis and a Master of Arts in Teaching. I am a reporter for two local newspapers, and I have worked as a freelance writer and as an English teacher. I am the editor of the quarterly publication published by the statewide writers' organization, the Wisconsin Regional Writers' Association. When books are self-published, authors must either hire an editor, a typesetter and a proofreader or perform those tasks themselves. The publishing process itself went smoothly, but without my experience and background, I imagine that it would have been much more difficult.

As for marketing and responses to the book: I received my first shipment of 100 books two weeks ago, and I am ready to send in another order. I recently started the process of emailing the 427 school districts in Wisconsin. State law requires that all elementary schools teach a unit on Wisconsin in fourth grade, and since dairy farming is part of Wisconsin's history, personal stories about growing up on a farm are an important resource for teachers. So far, the book is in three school libraries, and I have received enthusiastic responses from district administrators saying they will forward the information to their principals or directors of curriculum. I also plan to book classroom appearances.

Other strategies will involve mailings to the 400 libraries in the state and news releases to the 400 newspapers. When I finish this state, I can move on to Minnesota, Iowa, Illinois, and North and South Dakota. I won't finish within a month. And maybe I won't finish within 10 years. But that's the beauty of self-publishing. The book does not have to become a "success" in three months. I can give it all of the time it needs. And this will be true of the next book, and the next one, and the next one.

By mainstream publishing standards, the market will be small. How small? Only time will tell. On the other hand, at least a couple of million people in the United States have a farming or rural background. Here is my favorite reader response thus far: "You brought me back to a time of 'udder' enjoyment. To a time I still long for but will never see again. The valley was full of farms and everyone would see each other at the creamery where Dad and I would drop our milk cans off. Then it was off to 'The New's Room' or 'Emily's' for ice cream or hot chocolate. I love farming just as you describe it. Thank you for taking me back to yesteryear." - Jay from New York State.

What's interesting about a reader response from New York is that small family dairy farms have disappeared from there just as they have disappeared from Wisconsin. And just as they have disappeared from every other state in the nation. Thirty-five years ago, the United States had more than 550,000 dairy farms. Today, only 80,000 dairy farms remain.

Farmers are self-employed. They work long hours. They often receive a small return for their work. They don't do it for the money. They farm because it is in their blood and because it is an honorable way of life. For me, the same is true of writing and self-publishing. I am writing for the people who will read my books and enjoy them. I am not writing with the hope of increasing the bottom line for a publishing corporation.

Holt responds: One last question - have you been able to provide trade discounts to booksellers?

LeAnn Ralph replies: I published the book through Booklocker, and I receive between a 50 and 60 percent discount, depending upon the number of copies. That still doesn't leave much "wiggle room" for offering a trade discount, but it's a little more workable than some of the other author discounts I've seen offered by other companies.


Dear Holt Uncensored:

I'm writing because I know you share my commitment to challenging the "sex panics" of the last two decades that have landed many innocent people in jail on false convictions of child sexual abuse, from incest to bizarre acts of "satanic ritual abuse." As you reported in Columns #315 and #318, my book, "Harmful to Minors," which reports on the enduring legacy of these panics in child psychology, sex education, and the law, was attacked last year by some of the same people who fomented and continue to profit from that hysteria and sex phobia.

I am writing to ask for your support. While most unjustly convicted people have since been freed by successful appeals, there are still innocents behind bars. One of these is Bernard "Bee" Baran. In 1984, Bee was a 19-year-old daycare aide in Pittsfield, Mass. He had an excellent employee record. His only "mistake" was his decision to "come out." Bee is gay, and had decided not to stay in the closet any longer.

His announcement caused some homophobic parents to assume that he must be molesting their preschoolers. One parent relentlessly questioned his three-year-old. The child finally said Bee had abused him. You can imagine the rest. The only thing unique about this case is that Bee was the first daycare worker in the United States to be convicted of the absurd charges that typified the "mass sex abuse" panic. But because his family is poor, until recently he had little or no legal help. Since 1985 he has been locked up, for most of that time in a sex-criminal facility. For more information on his case, please see http://www.ncrj.org and follow the link to http://www.freebaran.org.

Thankfully, Bee has had two indefatigable supporters in the longtime champions of civil and sexual rights, Bob Chattelle and Jim D'Entremont. Understanding that Bee is not the only person in his situation -- and that to this day people are being falsely accused, and convicted, of hurting children -- last year Bob organized the National Center for Reason and Justice (NCRJ), a sort of "Innocence Project" for those falsely charged with crimes against children. Besides doing education to raise public awareness and challenge the pseudoscience, ignorance, and paranoia that fuel these injustices, NCRJ acts as a fiscal sponsor for efforts to appeal wrongful convictions. We're also doing some direct fundraising, currently concentrating our efforts on Bee Baran's appeal. When I say "we," I mean the small board on which I serve along with several prominent journalists, lawyers, psychologists, and others, and a few volunteers (again, see the NCRJ website: www.ncrj.org).

To support Bee's appeal and NCRJ in general, you are invited to a gala fundraiser in New York, at the Clearview Cinema in Chelsea, on September 18 at 7 p.m.

Featured attractions are a private viewing of the acclaimed documentary about a family falsely accused of classroom sex abuse, "Capturing the Friedmans." Afterward, "Nation" columnist Katha Pollitt, who has written about Bee's case, will speak. Debbie Nathan, the journalist who "broke" the satanic abuse story and is a member of the NCRJ board, will talk about the history and politics surrounding cases like Bee's. Jesse Friedman, one of the accused family members in "Capturing the Friedmans," will read some of Bee's letters from prison. Jesse, his mother, Elaine, and Bee's mother will be available for informal discussion during a reception.

Tickets are $125. Most of that donation is tax deductible. You can go on the website for more payment information at http://www.ncrj.org/FR/Index.html.

Or make your check out and send it to:

BENEFIT
The National Center for Reason and Justice
P.O. Box 230414
Boston MA 02123-0414

I hope to see you at this fabulous event. Even if you can't make it, please buy a ticket anyway -- or send as much as you can. Do it for Bee Baran. Do it for justice -- not just for the falsely accused, but for all of us who need to live in a world ruled by sense and generosity rather than baseless fears and meanness.  

If you have questions, comments, greetings, etc. feel free to call me at 802-472-6940 or e-mail me at the above address.

Judith Levine

Holt responds: I can't believe this man has been in jail for nearly two decades essentially because people panicked over his coming out of the closet as a gay man. My check to BENEFIT is in the mail.


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