By April 2002, Frazier had already done some legwork on the book, but knew what he'd written was too woolly to show prospective publishers: "It'd go from a pretty finished scene that was five or 10 pages long, to 10 pages of plant names, to the recipe for yellow-jacket soup." Instead, he wrote a one-page proposal for "Thirteen Moons" before coffee one morning. Random House paid $8.25 million for it, and producer Scott Rudin ponied up $3 million for the movie rights. Frazier was admonished in some newspapers for leaving the small publisher, Grove Atlantic, that had discovered him, though he's still friends with his former editor. (Grove had bid $6 million in partnership with Vintage paperbacks.) It was not an entirely pleasant time for such a private person, although, sure, there are worse problems a guy could have.
We're then told the new novel has "pacifist undercurrents." Huh. And then the poor author explains himself:
Even now, after advance raves for the new novel, there is still the occasional snipe in the media about Frazier's rich deal—evidence of our peculiar, self-fulfilling notion that art should never sell and that only hacks should get the big bucks. "All that stuff about money—I sort of understand where it comes from. Do I like it? No, I don't, but it comes with the territory," says Frazier. He's sitting in a coffee lounge, waiting for a meeting about a translation project he's funding to render portions of the novel into Cherokee, part of an initiative to keep the language alive. "I saw something that said I was 'the symbol of greed in the publishing industry.' I'm not the one who decided what the offers were gonna be on the book. And it's not like I went into this just looking to take the highest offer." Several offers were in the same vicinity, he says, but the strength of Random House's marketing team was a factor. The publisher could hardly be handling the novel with more gravitas. [my emphasis]
Art can sell, and great, literary writers can make money, but an artist in it for the art, who has a true love of writing and reading and books, would not join up with a corporate body intent ONLY on making money. Random House with a strong marketing team... amazing. It's like saying you should move to America because of the strength of security offered here. And just as companies that make sneakers cut costs in the manufacturing end with sweatshops so they can boost their marketing budgets, relying more on sales than production, so publishers boost their marketing budgets and load up on these big sellers while ditching mid-range books - and then authors who know they can sell celebrate this move by letting these companies publish their books! And for Frazier to shrug and say, "I'm not the one who decided what the offers were gonna be on the book. And it's not like I went into this just looking to take the highest offer." It's criminal, and he should be ashamed.
A friend rightly pointed out to me that not all bestsellers are crap - I truly agree with her. But my point is not that a book automatically is crap if it's a bestseller, or if its published by Random House. Charles Frazier's new book sounds incredible (though at least buy it at an independent bookstore, people). My point is that authors at a level like Frazier or like Updike, mentioned in my earlier post, could do other writers a service, could do the book culture a service, by showing some solidarity and publishing at independent presses - even Grove Atlantic, large and powerful but independent. And mind you, the offer was with Vintage already in for the paperback, meaning there was no fear of the book being dropped after hardcover publication and certainly no real concern about publicity and marketing.
I just had to add to my last rant, as I think bloated advances from corporate houses are just as responsible for the weezing of quality book publishing as these new fangled electronic-manuscripts-as-books. Maybe that's just me.