Friday, October 09, 2009

On Steve Ross, a minor clarification to really kick his point in the ass.

First, let me say, dear readers, that I too am surprised by Brian's recent tone in his past few posts. Surprised and in love with it, that is! Yes, publishing is a polite business but sometimes you have to holler...and so he has. Bravo! Look, when something is bullshit there really shouldn't be any other way to deal with it other than call it what it is, try not to step in it, and address just why it is. While Brian has written much in the most recent post to delight in, my favorite part was when he took Mr. Ross to task for trying to use the old Rodney King canard and just have everyone buy a corporate press book already. Much like Noah Cross's Christmas Eve special in the movie Scrooged, you can almost here Mr. Ross's sales pitch ending with "your life might just depend on it!" Like the executives who had to watch the Cross commercial for his Christmas vision, I too, have become ill from his presentation that we are all in it together. Brian writes:

Ross frustrates me with his feeble defense of corporate publishing, because he wants us to change our focus. Don't worry about the owners, whom I too can't stand, but think of the people: "Why do we demonize publishers as greedy, monopolistic and backward when they are peopled by such idealists and lovers of literature trying their best to navigate a ship that was corroding from decades-old rust well before the economic collapse placed icebergs in the water?" This might be neoliberalism, though it's too early in the morning for me to tease out why and how. I just know it's short-sighted and, again, meant to merely silence critics. Ross wants to make salient points about posts and publishing, but would rather others just run out to a chain and buy a Random/Harper/S&S book already - for the industry's good.

The problem is that I don't know who the hell Steve Ross is talking about. "Idealists and lovers of literature?" I don't doubt that there are some out there, but I seriously question the altruism at the root of the plea. "But, I need an example of what you are talking about," I can hear you asking me. Glad to help. For weeks and months now here on SotB, we have often put up snarky little posts about the newest, stupidest idea to get published. First, it was a book about Facebook. Next, it was a book based on the blog Hot Chicks with Douchebags. As if that weren't enough, soon after arrived Flirtexting, or how to flirt on you cellphone (you minx!). Cynical, money making books all but the corporate publishing world does have to make a little scratch from time to time. However, these three books and that kind of merchandise publishing isn't really even the problem (though it certainly sucks). No, the problem is the economic system those poor, handwringing presses have had to live under since the go-go '80's. The corporate publishers may read Jane Austen, Dylan Thomas, C.P. Cavafy, or Carson McCullers while they are falling asleep in bed at night, but they certainly aren't out looking for next one of any of them. The big houses want the next big thing. Period. No development. No taking a chance. Nothing. Just give me the next big thing. My proof? Even after the presses swear that they are just "peopled by such idealists and lovers of literature trying their best to navigate a ship that was corroding from decades-old rust," that only goes so far.

To wit, from this Wednesday's New York Times comes this beautiful nugget from Mokoto Rich's column about declining book sales:

Her Fearful Symmetry, the second novel by Ms. Niffenegger, author of the best-selling Time Traveler’s Wife, sold just 23,000 copies in its first week, according to BookScan. Publishing insiders suggested that was a disappointment given that Scribner, the unit of Simon & Schuster that published the book, paid Ms. Niffenegger close to $5 million for it.

We all expect miracles, and some miracles take a little while,” said Susan Moldow, publisher of Scribner.

First, 23,000 copies is only 23,000 more than me, and I've never published a book. But, I digress. The real kick here is the advance paid to an author who has only had one other book-Time Traveler's Wife, which did sell incredibly well but other than that doesn't have a track record and, if I may be so bold, isn't really a book people will read in 15 or 20 years. [Editorial opinion. Take it or leave it.-CV] Now, why was one author's second novel worth 5 million? Yes, agents have something to do with it. It seems unlikely, however, that they will earn their money back now after a disappointing roll out. Publishing, in case you don't know, is all about "the launch" so-uh oh-there could be a lot of red ink on the ledger for a while to come.

But, is it possible that maybe-just maybe-some of that 5 million could have been spent in some more constructive way by executives who are "idealists and lovers of literature?" Of course. You know it could. There are hundreds of voices out there writing right now who deserve a chance to be published by the major presses. Instead, most of the exciting new voices come from the smaller literary presses and then are whisked away by the major presses too busy to go out and find the writer in the first place. Ms. Niffenegger's first novel was published by one of the 5 best literary presses in the country if not the world-MacAdam/Cage. There are others...so many others. Um, Alison McGhee, who has become a major press darling-"a miracle," in the words of Susan Moldow, was first published by Papier Mache Press in California. Enough.

The point being is that Mr. Ross is either naive or fooling himself when he writes that he can't understand why people demonize corporate publishers as greedy, monopolistic and backward." I think we all know why. When something looks like a duck, quacks like a duck, and swims like a duck, chances are...

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