Thursday, October 14, 2010

The Story of a Success

I went to a reading this afternoon by Paul Harding, famed novelist of the (surprise) Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Tinkers, published by the tiny, independent, non-profit Bellevue Literary Press. I will say first that Harding was great as a reader. He read a terrific passage that was entertaining, with impressive writing, wit, and enough hints at the larger story that it made all of us interested in reading more. He was also excellent in the Q&A, which both he and the moderator made clear was an important component of his talk, something he enjoyed very much. One could see why - he was candid and funny.

The first question asked of the author was how he came to get this thing published, and where he is going next. He explained that he finished an MFA at the famed Writer's Workshop at the University of Iowa, working with British novelist Barry Unsworth. A few years later, Barry called him out, saying he should have something ready to share at this point. Harding took out his "pile of prose" that he had been assembling for years. He printed out everything, then got a pair of scissors and a stapler, and started cutting and spreading things out and stapling things together. It was amazing to hear him describe even briefly this very physical process. He then re-assembled the salvageable parts and realized that he had a little literary novel.

He talked about how he sent this novel out, presumably in a more cleaned-up fashion, to "about a dozen plus" agents and editors, and got rejections, "with varying levels of class," from all of them. He then put things away and kept plugging away at his day job, teaching freshman comp and some continuing education courses, and raising 2 boys. A couple of years later, he was talking about it to a poet, who put him in touch with someone who worked at "a small literary press in NYC," but that person rejected the manuscript, too.

That person, however, put him in touch with Erika Goldman, publisher and editorial director of Bellevue. Goldman obviously fell for the novel, and they had a 2 - 3 hour phone call about it. But Harding said the first half hour involved Goldman telling him what the novel was. She then explained that she wanted to make sure that she read what he wrote. He jokingly acted out his reaction to this, saying "I love you, where do I sign?!" It seemed to me a useful, smart part of the editorial procedure - I scribbled a note to remember to do that.

Harding said the book came out as a paperback original with a 3,500 copy print run, and "virtually no marketing or publicity." (Earlier, he had joked about first hearing about Bellevue, describing it as the literary arm of the NYU medical school, with an office in Bellevue itself that was akin to a custodian's closet pretty much.) Some outstanding booksellers got behind this li'l book, though, first on the west coast and then back here on the east coast, and it started to move. He said it showed him that there are still readers out there looking for books, and there are still great booksellers who can help those readers find the right books. This echoes what Motoko Rich reported in the NYTimes last April:

But he is quick to praise those who helped “Tinkers” become a darling of the independent bookstore circuit, including Erika Goldman, the editorial director of Bellevue, whom Mr. Harding described as a “deeply empathetic reader”; Lise Solomon, a sales representative in Northern California for Consortium, the book’s distributor, who passionately advocated for the novel with booksellers; and the booksellers and critics who embraced the book early on.
(In fact, much of this info can be found there, truth be told, but I swear I heard it live just today!)

Harding then said that he now has a 2 book deal with Random House, and laughed about how he's gone from one extreme to the other. You may recall that our own Christopher complained about this move in a comment on this post from last spring. I'm not sure what to think. I mean, I give the guy credit for calling out the folks that helped him get to the Pulitzer, and I'm not sure that he should stay with Bellevue. I'm not sure Bellevue is ready for him to stay there, and they have done very well with this book, which remains on bestseller lists. They are and will always benefit, especially given the paperback original (no paperback rights to sell elsewhere!).

I guess I appreciate it when big writers contribute books to small presses, something Howard Zinn often did for a number of smaller, often non-profit, ever-independent publishers. But a guy like Harding? He's not living that large. Maybe we're asking too much when we want him to sacrifice a living wage and the freedom to work just on writing for the benefit of independent publishing. Bellevue is not going to come up with a $100,000 advance, most likely, for his next book, but his next book may be 2 - 3 years in the making, and the advance would have to cover that whole time in order for him not to work. $100k over that time - and mind you, that's not a salary so it does not come with any benefits, including healthcare - is not a huge amount. I know there's other income possibilities - subrights, royalties from the first book - but anyone in the business knows it takes a lot to add up to anything substantial.

I differ from Christopher, clearly. I feel there should be an out clause for writers at this point in their careers. They have to be opportunistic, and I guess I see a lot of enemies of good books and good publishing out there - Amazon Shorts, capitalizing on shrinking attention spans thanks in part to their ridiculous gadget, for example. Writers at this stage in their careers are not the worst offenders. Let them make enough to get ahead, and then make sure they remember.

When Harding's next book comes out from Random House, I hope he still talks about those booksellers and independent bookstores like he did today, and I hope he still mentions the fact that Bellevue Literary Press believed in him and made his dream come true. Until then, I'm not ready to throw tomatoes at him.


Christopher said...

Bah humbug.

Anonymous said...

Let's throw tomatoes at Christopher instead!!
Come on, WHO'S WITH ME!!!
(just kidding)