Thursday, May 20, 2010


As if there weren’t enough change in the world, the American Booksellers Association has changed it’s name to Book Expo America. The event is next week in NYC but the consternation has already begun over things like the arrangements for publishers and agents to slip away from the general public floor to confer with each other privately. The onslaught of Internet comment is underway. Barrus and maybe a few of the Cinematheque boys will be there.

When Tim Barrus talks about publishing -- I don’t mean the frontal assaults that so easily provoke agents, publishers, et al -- but the rational discussions like the one below, he is shrewd and clear-headed. Only a few gentle (docile) readers have the illusion that publishing is enough like what it used to be to even be called publishing.

Tim and I are co-writers, not so much collaborators as writers in dialogue. This is an arrangement that has continued for three years with hardly a break in daily communication. I’ve archived it all. (Some of it in a manuscript called “Orpheus Pressed Up Against the Windows of the Catacombs.”) It utterly refutes the image of Barrus the crazy-man and faker. We are not in agreement about everything -- if we were, why would we keep talking? But we are in total agreement about publishing.

Not on the surface where Tim rails against “books” (paper between covers) and wants to develop a whole new narrative and imagist world on video and any other media that can be made relevant. I’m seventy. I stick to books. But I’m also Bibfeldtian: I believe in the both/and. Why can’t we have both? In fact, why can’t there be other venues besides? This is where we reach consensus.

I’m interested in the spoken word. My eyes are failing. Tim suggests NPR as a kind of publisher of sound, but they have the same game plan as the Manhattan print monopolists. Controller authority in both places equals capital, capital (advertising) equals popularity (sales), and popularity is controlled by the authority which cynically believes in mediocrity and repetition as the sure way to make a profit. They know how to promote that, though even NPR is moving to contemporary music now, trying to overcome its reputation for the stuffy and predictable. (They’re still afraid to say fuck or shit.)

The real problem of publishing is the same one sweeping the human institutions of all nations who participated in WWII and have clung to the institutions invented at that time. Now we see them fail: banks, environments, fuel sources, hospitals, universities, highway systems, the military, and all kinds of social infrastructures we took for granted. Even, unthinkably, the Red Cross has been in trouble. Young people never heard of the earlier heroes, never learned the practices, don’t share the same goals -- let alone ethics. Look out at the audience at the opera, the symphony, the Broadway hits, the mainstream Sunday congregations, the senior faculties, the galleries and museums -- the great cultural venues. The heads are white.

Publishers, as we like to think they are, were guarantors of quality. So, supposedly, were the doctoral committees who reviewed the Ph.D. theses, the medical review boards who certified best practice, the professional journals that peer-reviewed new meds, and the Supreme Court. All have been bought out -- if not by money, by status and prestige. There are a million little sliders of the truth. If the government is forbidden to kill civilians, out-source it to Blackwater; if the government is forbidden to torture, call it “extraordinary rendition” in a foreign country.

Publishers like to blame authors and authors like to blame agents and agents like to blame readers. That’s a loser’s game. Time to put all the cards out there and invent a new game. Not just on-line poker or computerized chess, but a human paradigm shift.

What’s really at stake is ideas. Ideas are likely to come from minorities. Minorities exist in plenitude right in the middle of majorities. They are not just defined by nations or races, but also by artists and explorers and -- most of all -- the marginalized and stigmatized. Tim and I often outrage each other -- you might say we are outragialists. It’s our metier and our medium. Packed with ideas. Tim plays the game with the Big Boys and Big Girls, but I’ve always been local. (I’m learning.) To outrage people it’s only necessary to tell them the truth they don’t want to hear.

Tim and I could easily break contact with each other. I’m not saying “outrage” in any superficial sense. We truly do horrify each other on occasion. But we don’t break contact. (Publishers and agents do that.) Instead we learn. The horrifying and unthinkable is sometimes exactly the most fertile and creative new idea. It just contradicts who we think we are.

Gays in the military. Female Roman Catholic priests. Single mothers. Gay married couples. Legal marijuana. Legitimate sex business. Unified continental currency. A black president. Books with unconventional content. Books that are electronic. Books that are videos. Books that aren’t even called books.

The scientists tell us that sight is not something located in the eyes but in the brain. (I don’t always recognize people now -- am I having small strokes?) Sex is not located in the reproductive apparatus but in the brain. Reading is not located in the eyes, the fingers, the ears or anywhere else but the brain.

It would be great if publishing were also a function of the brain again, a thinking person’s profession. Not a profiteers’, not just a capitalists’, not a function of a dominating class. I think there might be profit in it.



John F. Blair (a publisher) says... Yes, but... Kindle.

One more time...

I totally agree that a self-published Kindle book could be the most effective way to go for some writers. Especially the genre writer like McQuestion who is also selling film rights. Amazon doesn't make it impossible to do. But you won't appear on any of their "lists" that are constructed to get the reader's attention unless you've already broken into the mainstream mold which is a marketing paradigm. McQuestion is publishing material that can be readily marketed exactly like anything else that old media knows how to market. Build the box and put the writing in it. Or rather, mold the writing to the box.

This marginalizes writers who work outside that mold because their ideas simply cannot fit the box.

I cannot even imagine how a smaller publisher hangs on. Having been an editor in both magazines and books; having to predict what the price of paper alone will be in six months turns you into a fortune-teller with a crystal ball, and it's easy to be just plain wrong. Although, I've never seen the price of paper go down. The price of paper is going to become ephemeral, and not simply because of digital evolution, but because the carbon footprint will be assessed as worthy of extraordinary taxation, and it's coming. The writing is on the wall. The cap and trade legislation that doesn't render publishing as existing in a vacuum is already in legislative committee.

No one in publishing is talking about this because the business is almost done with a corporate fire extinguisher. You're putting out fires. Not planning for the future. And this problem isn't limited to just tree-and-ink publishers. If you take a look at what the digital experts are doing with their conferences and panels, you will find a focus TOTALLY limited to marketing where, in fact, not a single writer or journalist either attends or organizes. I can assure you that not one of the people involved in the future of digital marketing has a clue as to what is going on in legislative committees. They, too, will find themselves armed with fire extinguishers. When I deal with these people they look at me like I am speaking in Mongolian dialect. Become involved at the legislative level. Am I insane. They want Kindle sales figures.

The big corporate publishers are going to find themselves locked into a quid pro quo relationship with the big literary agencies like ICM to an extent that will make their relationships today seem like the epitome of independence. In fact, the big literary agencies today represent the interest of the publisher but it's not the kind of contractual oxymoron it's about to become. Why. Because the big literary agencies are also the big talent/film agencies, and they DO have an awareness of, and are directly involved in how that legislation is written. How do they do this. Easy. They hire lobbyists. What does this mean for the writer. It means he's going to be locked out of digital publishing unless he has an agent who can handle not only the digital contract (there will be no standard contract) but also the publisher. The agent won't be a liaison. He'll be directly involved in every aspect of the book including the writing of it. It is already common (it happened to me) for the agents at ICM, CAA, WM, to dictate what the "next work" will be. NOT the publisher. And NOT the writer. We've been there for some time.

When I say stranglehold, I mean stranglehold. Because this is where the money is.

To wit: Publishers are experimenting with the paradigm of the VOOK. The book trailer is not a new idea. I run the largest VOOK group on Facebook, and it could easily be turned into a full-time job.

Every major publisher has a new digital unit. This IS a new idea. The relationship (in terms of who will have the power to decide what gets published) between the publicist (who currently holds the power but not for long) and the web geek on the committee has not been resolved. The days of the publicist calling Courtney Lizt at Charlie Rose are over. The Rolodex is dead. The geek will win (the publicist won't even be able to speak the language). The editor won't even be invited to the table. The days of the editor deciding what the books will look like will be a distant memory. At the moment, they're still at the table, but just barely. They have lost weight, gravity, ground, and importance. They're dinosaurs. The real power is going to exist between the web geek and the agent. As soon as this gets institutionalized, the "little writer" is of no consideration whatsoever. Don't even bother.

This is how fast it's happening. A few weeks ago, the major publishers were reorganizing. Heads have rolled. But this is standard. They want to make sure this is done before the ABA. [BEA] Writers were even talking to one another about the IDEA of submitting video content to augment manuscripts. This will seem odd, but the analogy is to the speaking/reading gig. To say that the writer should just write is patently absurd. The writer as travel agent has existed for some time. The writer as speaker, too. Now, it's Chistopher Rice as professional video star. Who can compete with Hollywood film production values.

No one.

After the first of the year, the paradigm was set in stone. No video content submission from a writer can be even entertained. It won't get looked at.

Especially by the new video units.

The power struggle for that job is over. Last fall, agents were saying things like: "This video has too many jump cuts. The clips need more more transitions to tell the story."

This is a distant cry from let's revise chapter two.

Now, they're saying: "The publisher will make the video, and it will be advertising."

Because that is how the publishers SEE the idea of video augmenting writing.

How it gets to I-Pad is up to the geek. I saw Carolyn Reidy from SS give Steve Jobs the most enthusiastic hug I have ever seen in my entire life. I have never seen a publisher hug anyone. But she was truly thrilled. Because they see Jobs as saving them. The deals are being negotiated as I am writing this. Literally.

And they're not deals being negotiated with writers.

Okay, so it was almost impossible to get a manuscript published. Outsiders still talk about tweaking this and that and this and that. I guess it gives them something to do. Then it was going to be writing connected to the video. That's done. They've decided the video will be an ad. To wit: Bethenny Frankel's, The Skinny Girl Rules on YouTube developed by Simon and Schyster I mean Schuster's new video unit developed by Mark Gompertz and Ellen Krieger. Bethenny Frankel gets on YouTube and tells the females of today -- How to Snag a Man.

This is vintage 1950. But the publishers are timid. They're afraid. So they are reaching for what has sold before.

How to. Diet books. How to snag a man. It's pathetic and for the first time in a while I note that even the average reader is beginning to go: WTF.

Forget bookstore owners. They're not in this picture.

What if a writer doesn't want his work broken up by a video advertisement. Well, what's wrong with him they do it on television all the time.

Getting your book on Kindle is the least of it. Who cares. Kindle is going to change.

So is Lulu.

They ABHOR the idea of video (I'm not defending it, I'm just saying it's here) but they abhor losing money more than they abhor video and if they are going to be forced to go to that marketing paradigm, they want to control it.

My Bishop to your Pawn. The pieces move. It's the same chess game. It used to be rigged, but now the rigging has gone from the indifferent brick wall to the person doing the rejection sits in an office at Endeavor in Beverly Hills so be prepared to be screamed at on the phone. Where does that leave the little writer (with new ideas which are cute they just don't mean anything) and the smaller publisher.

A word they HATE looking at.


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