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Everybody Needs a Vacation

IMG_2509.JPG“The water was that clear turquoise color you get with a white sand bottom. I had never seen such a place. I wanted to take off all my clothes and never wear them again,” wrote Hunter S. Thompson about a particularly beautiful stretch of Puerto Rico, reminding us that everyone, from publishing folks to crazed journalists, needs a vacation.

Starting this afternoon, GalleyCat editor Jason Boog is leaving for a week-long vacation. He will return relaxed and refreshed on Monday, October 26, along with more unexpected publishing news, tech-savvy author interviews, Darwinian writing advice, and good old fashioned Apple Tablet speculation.

If you have any breaking news in the next week, you can still email GalleyCat your tips. Our senior editor Ron Hogan will hold down the GalleyCat fort next week, both on the site and on Twitter.

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Book Pros Put Biz School Observer in the Corner

clipart-wrong-mailbag.jpgAfter we started poking holes in Anita Elberse‘s rationale for why publishers aren’t going to stop chasing “blockbuster” manuscripts any time soon, we heard from other people in the industry who disagreed with her analysis—as one commenter put it, “she understands the culture she describes so poorly,” it’s hard to take her conclusions seriously.

“Her argument seems to be that the only way to have a blockbuster book strategy is through huge advances, which means the publisher accepts a lot of risk up front and is them compelled to try harder to sell the book to earn back,” another reader told us. But should publishers really shoulder all the risk while the agent and author sit back and count their money? That’s clearly not the way HarperStudio, to take one highly visible example, approaches the business—and they don’t seem to be having a problem making deals with high-profile authors who stand a good chance of delivering hits.

Furthermore, a senior editor at a major publishing house confided, “many of the bestsellers that keep us afloat are not the blockbusters, they’re the ones that we bought for relatively little (six figures or less) and sold the hell out of.” (Examples: The Kite Runner, The Secret Life of Bees, The Memory Keeper’s Daughter, and Eat Pray Love.) This, by the way, would seem to contradict Elberse’s assertion that “it [is] harder to get best efforts from sales and marketing representatives and other internal constituents” when a publisher doesn’t start out by spending huge amounts of money to demonstrate how strongly it believes in a book’s potential.

Not everybody believes Elberse was wrong, however. One reader suggested that if the subject was confined to “the big A-list books and their importance within a major publisher’s portfolio,” Elberse’s description of how publishers convince themselves that certain book proposals are worth spending millions to acquire is dead-on. The problem with that defense is that Elberse is the one who takes the conversation further by speculating on the damage a publisher would do to itself by not pursuing the blockbuster strategy—and her limited understanding of how people in the industry would behave under various circumstances undercuts her conclusions.

We Want No Part of Your Death Culture

We weren’t the only ones who felt zero sympathy after reading yesterday’s iteration of the constant wallowing in publishing doom-and-gloom from an industry veteran—and our rejection of her pessimistic mindset turned out to be rather subdued, compared to what some of the rest of you thought. Literary agent Janet Reid had the most forceful reaction, writing on her blog that this person should “just shut the fuck up already.” Reid took issue of the characterization of the publishing industry as a place where everybody’s out to put one over on everybody else, and said, “If you’ve worked for ten years in an industry you don’t value or respect, with people you find distasteful, that says more about you than it does about the industry. So take a piece of advice from me: quit your job.”

A senior editor at one of the big publishers was more polite in her response, even willing to stipulate the assertion that, if Borders fails, author advances will quickly slide downward: “She says it like it’s a BAD thing, but it’s not,” this editor told us. “Unearned advances are bleeding publishers dry and they can kill an author’s career too, when the author becomes the literary equivalent of box-office poison. Everyone loses their livelihoods in this scenario, and it’s been going on for far too long.” This editor saw another positive aspect to the predicted upheaveals:

“Frankly, if these recent seismic shifts mean fewer agents and less business for them, so be it. Agents have helped created a climate where huge, unearnable advances are the cost of doing business for publishers. If those huge advances kill or cripple publishers then yes, agents will suffer too. But they’re not innocent bystanders, by any means—they’re suffering for their own bad business practices, just as publishers are.”


And it should surprise nobody to learn there’s very little pity for someone who still has a publishng job after all the latest layoffs declaring “I am so frustrated right now that I think flipping burgers would be more rewarding.” As one GalleyCat reader put it, “I flip burgers. I also write, and I’m caught in the quagmire of attempting to get published… Guess which one I’d rather get kicked around by?”

Mailbag Trick-or-Treat

Joe Hill Heart Shaped Box.jpgThank goodness for GalleyCat readers. You’ve filled our mailbag with goodies.

Following our 2008 Whiting Writers’ Awards coverage, one reader sent us a copy of Barry Lopez’s keynote address at the awards–download a copy of his classic speech about these troubled times.

Then, we received these frightening book recommendations, just in time for Halloween: Chasing the Dead by Joe Schreiber, Heart Shaped Box by Joe Hill, and another idiosyncratic mind posted Kelly Link’s scary book list.

Responding to our IMDB for Books musings, The Millions reminded us of a great post that pondered that same question. Finally, after our literary mixology post, a few readers wrote in with pun-filled cautionary tales for writers: “For some morbid Halloween ‘joy’, think of all the authors whose alcoholism destroyed and even ended their lives. It is a staggering list (pun intended),” wrote one reader.

Then Again, It Could Be Dan Brown’s Fault… Or Could It?

DD-logo.gifWe indulged ourselves in a bit of sarcasm yesterday when the NY Times raised the possibility that the recent layoffs at Doubleday might be Dan Brown‘s fault; our exact words being “Yes, we’re so sure Doubleday has been making ongoing financial projections for the last three years based on the possibility that Brown might finally turn in the manuscript of The Solomon Key.” This morning, though, somebody suggested to us that the publishing company might indeed have been dutifully mentioning the book in its budgets—although our source didn’t know whether that was in the form of projected earnings with a real number attached, or just a mention that “hey, if Dan gives us the manuscript, we can probably get it in stores within 90 days.” Or, for that matter, if it was true.

We have absolutely no idea whether it’s true, either, but even secondhand information gives us an opportunity to speculate—and it still seems to us that three years of expenditures based on the hypothetical revenue from a non-existent book would be no way to run a business. If we were going to propose reasons Doubleday decided it needed to save money, we would start by looking at more concrete factors, like the cost of building Spiegel & Grau‘s frontlist, long before it occurred to us that the company had been spending imaginary Dan Brown money since 2005. (Which, as we said back in 2007, is not a judgment on our part of S&G’s expenditures; in the same position, we might well have made the same financial decisions in order to acquire the same books… and feel that it’s too early to second-guess the strategy behind them… unless circumstances are really that drastic.)

Literary Mixology

home_bg.jpgAs news of publishing and media cuts mount, GalleyCat readers have prescribed different kinds of alcoholic solace. Following Bookninja’s lead, readers submitted their favorite author and drink pairings–popping the cork during these dark days.

Abbeville Manual of Style recommended: “Read Hart Crane’s collected poems the way he liked to write them: on a full bottle of wine while listening to the Bolero on loop at top volume.”

Another reader advised to drink “Winner’s circle champagne” with Dick Francis’ horse race mysteries and to research the recipes in J.A. Konrath’s Jacqueline “Jack” Daniels detective series.

Finally, one alert reader reminded us of Mark Bailey’s Hemingway & Bailey’s Bartending Guide to Great American Writers, a boozy guide to some boozy writers. Drink up!

Readers Imagine a Digital Book Review

compbook3.gifEarlier this week, GalleyCat pondered the future of digital book review sites. A number of readers weighed in with commentary, sketching out an opportunity for bookish web designers with some free time.

Patmcell wanted more ways for publishers to find online reviewers before a digital book is published: “I applaud the recognition that Herley gives to small publishing organizations. If there were a common site where reviewers could go, small press e-books about to be released could be listed as available for review.”

Lisa Amrine told perspective designers to look into aggregating digital book reviews of particular genres. “The romance genre has a plethora of online book review sites. Its the other genres that I have problems getting reviews for,” she wrote.

Debbsmith stressed that small presses would love to see more consolidation in digital book reviews: “As a small press publisher I heartily agree that having more online review sites would be great … I’m tracking down appropriate genre bloggers and getting cordial welcomes from them and lots of coverage for my titles. If only there were a kind of clearing-house site for these things.”

In This High-Stakes Game, The (Publishing) House Doesn’t Always Win


Yesterday’s warnings in the New York Observer about the seemingly inevitable publishing crunch prompted a counter-argument from a reader named Luke Myers, who says his experiences as a book editor lead him to an unsettling conclusion:

“The idea that in the near future there will be fewer books and publishers will have to compete for them is probably true, but the article did not answer one question: Will those books earn out? Answer: No.”

For Myers, the logic is simple: “The number of books published per year has nothing to do with the likelihood that readers will buy a specific title,” he explains. “On the other hand, the number of books published per year will affect the amount paid for the work as the Observer so rightly states.” So what happens if publishing becomes an environment where only “brand-name” figures can get book deals? “Most of the books by cultural figures today do not earn out,” Myers asserts, “so more money paid for so-called big names means more red ink for publishers. Publishers are going to find themselves in a no-win situation if they publish fewer books. They are all going to be like blackjack players who place big, Hail Mary bets on the table only to have their chips taken away by a passionless dealer.”

Wait: Aren’t we supposed to be approaching the end of “the gambling spirit that has kept book publishing exciting,” according to the Observer? Sounds to us like Leon Neyfakh might be depicting a future where publishers sweat bullets over just about every single new release, praying they’ve found the right celebrity this season and that their franchise “literary novelist” doesn’t accidentally hand them the next Thirteen Moons.

(UPDATE: Neyfakh emails to clarify that he and Myers aren’t so far apart on this issue: “Everyone’s going to crowd around the high-stakes table making plays for Michelle Obama‘s memoir etc., and they’re going to be willing to spend more there than they were back when they had some wiggle room to sometimes do just OK,” he tells us. “The ‘gambling spirit’ was a poorly chosen phrase—I was referring to the heart it requires for a publisher to go out on a limb for something, not the blind luck approach to acquisition that so many editors think is the only way to make a career.”)

Now America’s Literati Know What Scorn Feels Like

caridad-ferrer-headshot.jpgHere’s another take on Horace Engdahl‘s condemnation of American literature: Novelist Barbara Caridad Ferrer zeroes in on what National Book Foundation head Harold Augenbraum said when he learned that the secretary of the Swedish Academy described American literature as “too isolated and too insular” to deserve the Nobel: “Such a comment makes me think that Mr. Engdahl has read little of American literature outside the mainstream and has a very narrow view of what constitutes literature in this age.”

“‘Mainstream’ lit is more than accustomed to being slammed by the American literary establishment,” Ferrer emails us. “Kind of interesting to see the shoe on the other foot—the American literary establishment being dissed by the Europeans for, in essence, the very things they tend to slam mainstream lit for. Which, once again, begs the question, who the hell decides this stuff? At what point did deeming something ‘mainstream’ or ‘commercial’ automatically render it less worthy than something dubbed ‘literary’ and what does it all mean anyway?”

“I don’t even pretend to know,” Ferrer says. “I just write books.”

Disgruntled Reader Joins in Literary America-Bashing

In response to yesterday’s item about some arrogant Swede dismissing American literature, a reader named “Kerstin” commented that it was “a pity that your misdirected patriotism makes it hard to take in [Horace Engdahl's] frankness,” adding, “American insularity in publishing is a tragic fact.” The thing is, we never disagreed with that; it would indeed be very nice if American publishers gave us more world literature in translation, and we applaud those publishers who are challenging conventional marketplace “wisdom” to do so. We still don’t see how that makes American writers inherently worse than their European counterparts.

nick-mcdonell-headshot.jpg“An appalling reminder is that France publishes American writers that American publishers find too politically incorrect,” Kerstin continues. “Most recent example is Nick McDowell with his devastating portrait of the young American elite at Harvard Law School (title: Guerre à Harvard or War at Harvard).” We assume Kerstin means Nick McDonell (left), who does in fact have a new book in France that has not been published in America, although our rusty French suggests to us that it’s not set at the law school, just the college, and that it’s really more of a long, long autobiographical essay. We fail to see, however, how something Google’s translator describes as “a striking portrait of a youth nurtured at Fox News and video games that tries to forget the war, at the risk of forgetting itself” could possibly be considered too politically incorrect for an American publisher. More to the point: While we don’t know the status of this particular project (we’re waiting to hear back from his agent), it’s not like Nick McDonell is a literary outsider suffering in obscurity. The man has published two novels with Grove Press, after all. According to Nielsen Bookscan, Twelve sold 34,000 copies in hardcover after its publication in 2002; The Third Brother, published three years later, sold just 2,000 hardcover copies to Bookscan-reporting outlets.

If War at Harvard isn’t going to be published in the United States, there are many possible explanations—somehow we doubt “American publishers can’t handle the truth” is the one that’s applicable.

(photo: Wikipedia)