by Pat Holt
Tuesday, June 22, 2004
I confess to feeling just irritated enough with Bill Clinton's speech at BookExpoAmerica that his admission Sunday night on "60 Minutes" - "I did it because I could" - was as much an indictment of bigness in publishing as of male entitlement or power in the White House.
Of course there's nothing wrong with publishing a big blockbuster, even and especially this one, which is huge in size (nearly 1000 pages) and first printing (1.5 million copies).
But as we have seen in the way bigness can overtake an entire book industry, a certain arrogance comes trumpeting in that is antithetical to the kind of publishing we'd all like to see in a democracy.
Let's start with BookExpo. Why was it, after nearly 3,000 booksellers waited patiently for over two hours to get a seat in the giant hall where Clinton was going to talk, that the audience had to wait again for close to 40 minutes for something to happen? Even waves of rhythmic clapping did not bring Clinton or anybody out. No one apologized or explained.
So fine. One sat there remembering publishing rumors that Clinton hadn't started writing soon enough, that teams of interviewers and writers were brought in to get him going, that he was exiled to a working residence with editor Bob Gottlieb to finish the book on time. He procrastinated because he could. It happens.
Then one did one's grocery list, called home on the cell phone, wondered why Ms. Manners always writes in the third person, and finally someone came out to calm the by-now nearly stomping-on-the-floor audience.
[This was the BookExpo Person who didn't mention the unprecedented snafu of using his sales staff to exploit publishers by selling face-time with Borders store managers, but that's another story (see #384). Then came Sonny Mehta with an unnecessarily lengthy introduction and more delays.]
Clinton finally arrived, and sure, he's charming and funny. In fact, I came to think of Bill Clinton as one of the few presidents who can get away with combining arrogance and modesty in the same breath. After law school, he said, one of his goals was "to write a great book. I have no earthly idea if it's a great book. But it's a pretty good story." Heavens, that word "earthly" is like his rutabaga nose - so down-home, so Clinton, so endearing that like everyone else in the hall, I was cheering him on.
And his speech about gauging historical trends through the minutiae of a sitting President would have been riveting if Clinton had not forgotten the audience.
For some reason, his gaze fell below both lights and camera, so that all we saw on the giant screen above him was a speaker talking to somebody in the first row. Not once did he lift his eyes to include the whole room. This seemed so forgetful and rude that for an instant, I wondered if he had much experience in public speaking. Then it hit me. He forgot the audience because he could.
So the joy of "60 Minutes" was seeing Clinton's crinkly smile up close and having the luxury of really examining his earnest Clintonian nose, which may one day explode with spidery capillaries but right now offered a way to study Clinton's capacity for heartfelt answers .... until he made that tragic statement about having sex with Monica Lewinsky: He did it because he could.
Wow. What a mantra for the mainstream publishing industry. Here are a few reasons that came to mind:
I'll wait to read Clinton's book tomorrow to see if he digs a little deeper into his soul about the arrogance that comes with too much power, too much bigness.
But if, as the Times' Michiko Kakutani has said, the book is sprawling, sloppy, self-indulgent and disorganized, it could end up like LBJ's memoirs years ago, which took up residence in the remainder dumps of every supermarket in the country until they were carted off to Australia, where they became landfill for a tourist island specializing in reality TV. Just because they could.
PMA'S HARD-WORKING 'UNIVERSITY'
When it comes to the hard work of publishing and a nice dose of humility for one maverick columnist, I had to hand it to the fact-filled, detail-oriented, customer-service orientation of the Publishers Marketing Association's "university," held several days before BookExpo at a downtown Marriott.
In workshop after workshop of about 10-30 people each, diverse independents learned a thousand new ways to approach everything from niche publishing to target marketing.
The premise at PMA, looked at from a mainstream point of view, might have been: When you can't barge or buy your way in, how do you interest booksellers/wholesalers/distributors/reviewers/media/audiences in your book?
Independent publishers know well that certain guidelines do exist, but basically you have to get on the phone and start making relationships. You have to learn how people work, and see if you can fit your books or your services to their needs.
Sounds simple, but it's not, and while sales reps for mainstream publishers understand it very well, often the point is lost in New York. In one PMA workshop, everybody got excited when one print-on-demand publisher said he had some luck selling dozens and then hundreds of copies of his book on consignment to a local gas station. Of course, you could never tell. He added that the gas station owner told him some books just fall flat. It didn't seem to matter what the book was about; the gas station owner always left the buying decision up to the customer.
It's difficult to think of many mainstream publishers who would want to pursue such out-of-trade sales avenues because the system is so big and usually so many titles are on each list that such down-home, person-to-person stuff like consignment sales are out of the question. Of course, selling books that way is exactly how self-publishers like E. Lynn Harris, Marlo Morgan, Ruby Ann Boxcar, Mark Twain, Ben Franklin, James Joyce and other unknowns got their start, but that's another matter.
What kept bubbling up to the surface at PMA - and at a few BEA workshops as well (I'm thinking of Fern Reiss and Judy Safern's invaluable "PR Ideas" in particular) - was an Anything Is Possible energy you rarely felt among exhibits of the bigger mainstream publishers at BEA. Maybe bigness is its own reward.
HOLT'S EXPERIENCE IN HUMILITY
I had the treat of speaking on a panel about online newsletters, and here's the way moderator Steve O'Keefe showed everybody how to read Holt Uncensored.
With a typical issue projected on the screen, Steve said, "Okay, when I get Pat's column, the first thing I do is scroll down" - he scrolls through several *feet* of copy - "down, down, down; this is her first item and she gets a little ...."
"Windy," I contributed from the darkened dais.
"....passionate, and then I scroll, scroll, scroll down through the second entry, down and down, ah! To the LETTERS section. Now this is where you see a fascinating mix of fresh ideas from people all over the industry, so you don't want to miss going here first. Then if you have time, go back up and..."
I don't think I heard that last part. As I told the group myself, if you don't keep things short on the Internet, people aren't going to stick around very long to buy your books. Whether they finish my column isn't the point because I'm not selling anything, thank heaven. Or has everyone left? Never mind. Here comes the best part - you know, the Letters - according to Steve, who by the way is author of the indispensable bible, "The Complete Guide to Internet Publicity" (Wylie).
Dear Holt Uncensored,
David Schwartz, president of Harry Schwartz Booksellers here in Milwaukee, and recipient of this year's Publisher's Weekly Bookseller of the Year award, died Monday, June 7. His funeral took place Friday, June 11-- the same day as Ronald Reagan's.
I just got back from one of the Schwartz bookstores and turned on the television for the news, only to discover wall-to-wall coverage of the Reagan cortege marching up the street to the Capitol. I couldn't help but note all the hoopla for a man who has been mentally dead for years, as opposed to a young and vital man whose loss will be greatly felt by many readers and writers.
I have, up till today, been a fan of the CBS evening news, as opposed to the other networks. But I have been horrified at the incessantly admiring commentary by Dan Rather and the awful adulatory commentary by Edmund Morris (isn't he the guy who inserted himself into his Reagan biography?) and may have to find another evening news broadcast to watch.
That is, IF there is one out there. Whoever said that the press is "liberal"? I keep hearing that no one didn't love Reagan (like "nobody doesn't like Sara Lee?") Well, I didn't, and I haven't found anyone of my acquaintance who is going to miss the guy.
The comment that really offended me was Rather quoting a woman who said that "Reagan lived down here with the real people, not in some Camelot." At which John Birch society meeting did they find that woman?
The "Camelot" allusion was not one ever made by JFK. It was just a record he had liked to listen to -- with a message, after the fact, in one of its songs, beseeching listeners not to let a memorable time, cruelly cut short, be forgotten.
One of the commentators on CBS mentioned how Ronald Reagan had the bearing of a president. Well, one would hope so -- he was an actor, in the role of a lifetime! But within the love fest the press is holding for the late president, I would hope that they would recognize that there were those of us who didn't love him or his policies.
But the loss was far greater when JFK was killed. And the loss of David Schwartz is greater today.
Holt replies: The ABA has reprinted the Milwaukee Journal article about David Schwartz at http://holtuncensored.c.topica.com/maacnc8aa7PlWbUXeJab/ and go there RIGHT NOW to read it. It's a beautiful interview with Schwartz while he was still caught up with re-reading "War and Peace," and his love for the book, we can now see, is his bequest to us, because there's no way you can finish this article without wanting to run out to buy the small octavo edition of Tolstoy's masterpiece that comes in four volumes - which is good because you'll fall in love with the book so much you'll want to "fondle" it, says a friend of Schwartz's. The article follows Schwartz's life as the son of Harry Schwartz, founder of the famed bookstores. (David's life changed radically by such books as "The Making of a Counterculture," which inspired him to live on a commune where his marriage failed, his mental health suffered and he returned to the bookstore a stronger man and tougher bookseller). The p! iece also mentions David Schwartz's love of "Beowulf" - "it isn't hard to cast Schwartz as a Beowulf in his own life story,one of the last avatars of a way of life that some believe is disappearing forever."
Dear Holt Uncensored,
You wrote: "True, your average mid-list author is nothing but a thieving cheat who's been stealing from publishers for years."
I'm truly shocked. I am shocked that you think this, and even more shocked that you would print and promote such a demeaning stereotype.
I've really enjoyed your Holt Uncensored until now, but if "uncensored" really means "devoid of basic human respect and promoting degrading stereotypes" then please unsubscribe me now.
And by the way I'm not a mid-list author, and the mid-list authors I know are decent, honorable people that you have viciously slandered. I'll forward them a copy to be sure they know what you think of them.
Holt peels self off ceiling: Pardon! It seems my attempt at humor fell a little flat from your point of view. I've been wondering for years why authors are so often treated shabbily by publishers, so thought it would be funny to ... to do a little sendup ... but apparently not. For any readers similarly offended, please accept my apology.
Jessop replies: It didn't make sense, but I couldn't see the context that made it the joke I initially thought it had to be. The more I reread it, the more it felt nasty. If only our body language and facial expression came through in print, the missing clues would not lead to misunderstanding like this. ;-)
Dear Holt Uncensored,
I find your essay on "The Ten Mistakes Authors Don't See" to be practical, without a lot of the standard discussions of grammar that leave many cold (often because they don't know grammar, either the rules or the terms to describe the rules).
However, I do have one problem. You imply that editors and agents will somehow pick the works they represent based on similar criteria, going so far as to label these criteria the sign of a professional writer. Yet you give examples of the same mistakes by published authors, including bestselling authors and winners of prestigious book awards. My own experience tells me that no editor or agent cares about bad prose. Most of the stuff I read is like your own examples, replete with poor prose and, too often, cliches in prose, story, and characters. The chances of writing a first book accepted by a major publisher or hawked by a major agent have little to nothing to do with prose style.
In fact, my own experience in talking to and reading what these people themselves write indicates they are clueless about style. When I hear them drone on about a work being plot driven, character driven or style driven, I want to tell them that good writing is all three of these together. They are not mutually exclusive, but they are pitched as though they were.
I spoke to a number of agents and editors at a conference and was sad that one editor for a major publisher did not know the name Joseph Conrad. Of three black editors and agents looking for new writers of detective fiction, none had heard of Chester Himes. One had never heard of James Baldwin. And of a couple hundred attendees and a dozen agents and editors, only one knew of Lawrence Durrell. She was an elderly agent who still read.
The standard advice boiled down to opening your work with an earthshaking event, ending each chapter so it could be read within five minutes, with a serial-like hook, and using no words or sentences a standard fourth-grader would not stumble over. The agent who knew Durrell's work wondered aloud how Faulkner would be able to get published today.
For an example of dreadful writing published by a major house, look at "Bad Girlz" by Shannon Holmes. The editor of the series imprint classified it hip-hop, but what it is is laughable. Every rule imaginable of decent writing is not only broken but destroyed. It is a one-book example of bad writing in all possible aspects.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
In your column #7, you say a reader quoted Janet Reno, as follows
"A cultist is one who has a strong belief in the Bible and the Second Coming of Christ; who frequently attends Bible studies; who has a high level of financial giving to a Christian cause; who home schools for their children; who has accumulated survival foods and has a strong belief in the Second Amendment; and who distrusts big government. Any of these may qualify a person as a cultist but certainly more than one of these would cause us to look at this person as a threat, and his family as being in a risk situation that qualified for government interference."
As it turns out, this is an urban legend -- Janet Reno never said that, nor did she appear on "60 Minutes" on the date the legend says she said it. See here
The site deals with urban legends of pretty much every genre there is, political and otherwise.
Holt responds: Wow! What a HUGE mistake, and thank you! I'm an admirer of Snopes.com and do indeed find irrefutable evidence there that the quote is an urban legend. I'm not sure how it came to be that you went all the way back to column #7, which ran 5 years ago, but I'm glad to set the record straight: The problem with Internet sources is that even a respected "fulminator" from the "lunatic fringe" such myself can contribute to bad journalism. As Snopes.com quotes Liza Mundy of the Washington Post:
"It's probably also not surprising that [Reno] has attracted the ravings of a subterranean lunatic fringe. The fringe includes Internet fulminators upset by her Miami campaign against deadbeat dads or by Waco or simply by federal law enforcement in general. Among other things, the fulminators regularly fabricate bogus press releases (some of which have found their way into newspapers and provoked letters of inquiry from congressional offices) attempting to persuade the nation that Reno favors "parental licensing," or that she believes that "a cultist is one who has a strong belief in the Bible."
Dear Holt Uncensored,
I enjoyed reading the list of recommended books for 12-year-olds [see #385]. I've read most of them, as did my daughter when she was a kid. One fantasy series that wasn't mentioned is Ursula Le Guin's Earthsea trilogy: "A Wizard of Earthsea," "The Tombs of Atuan" and "The Farthest Shore." These were not books my daughter was caught up by initially. But when I read the first one out loud to her, there came a point (about the time the young wizard gets to the school for wizards, and conjures a terrible shadow-creature), when she was hooked. She also loved Judy Blume's books for kids and young adults, especially the one called "Starring Sally J. Freedman as Herself."
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.
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