Monday, July 13, 2009

What Pisses Me Off...

I consider myself to be a spiritual person, though not a member of any religious tribe. Among the great influences that have shaped my thinking (aside from frequent psychedelic trips in mid-life) is Buddhism and the Tao te Ching. The Buddha taught that desire is the cause of unhappiness: if one rids themselves of expectations, one rids themselves of disappointments. Lao Tse, in explaining the spiritual life says those who talk don’t know and those who know don’t talk. All of this is also summed up in the Desiderata, one of the dictums being that the universe is unfolding exactly as it should.
These thoughts are things I frequently fall back on so as not to get caught up in the frustrations life readily throws one’s way

Accordingly, I prefer serendipity to discipline when it comes to spiritual practice and believe that courses for self-improvement are doomed to fail. While sitting in a lotus position and meditating was worth trying, this practice was much more likely to make my hips ache than further enlightenment. And though I never considered myself “enlightened,” I do testify that I fully accept myself as who I am. Which means that while I can talk myself out of expectations, anger and disappointments, I also know that things come up that simply piss me off. So let me share some of them with you.

Today’s topic came about when I first read the Arts section of the June 26 issue of The New York Times. The lead story, written by Motoko Rich, was headlined "James Frey Collaborating on a Novel for Young Adults, First in a Series." Yes, that James Frey, who, as Ms Rich wrote, “was famously caught embellishing details in A Million Little Pieces.” And, despite the fact the Oprah disowned him for his deceits, “Two years ago he reportedly received more than $1 million as an advance for Bright Shiny Morning from Harper Collins. Although the book received mixed reviews, it garnered a notable rave from Janet Maslin in The New York Times. According to Nielsen BookScan, which tracks about 70 percent of retail sales, Bright Shiny Morning sold 71,000 copies in hardcover and 10,000 in paperback.” What is this new collaboration about? Frey “is working with another writer and anonymously shopping around a young adult novel called I Am Number Four.” This collaboration between Frey (acting anonymously) and “an unnamed up-and-coming writer,” is being pitched by one Eric Simonoff, a literary agent at William Morris Endeavor. Frey came up with the idea of a “proposed six-book series,” about “a group of nine alien teenagers on a planet called Lorien, which is attacked by a hostile race from another planet. The nine and their guardians evacuate to Earth, where three are killed. The protagonist, a Lorien boy named John Smith, hides in Paradise, Ohio, disguised as a human, trying to evade his predators and knowing he is next on their list.”

Reading this article set off a connected series of things that pissed me off. But before firing artillery at The New York Times, let me also say that I love this newspaper, which I’ve been reading for 60 years now, starting as a teenager, commuting from my parents’ home in Queens to The High School of Music and Art in Manhattan. It has consistently given the widest, fairest and best print coverage of news, political skullduggery, and the arts. I also had the opportunity to work there one year, while attending NYU’s College of Medicine as a “night intern,” seeing people who were sick and taking splinters out of the eyes of pressmen who set hot type way back then. So, naturally, I've always had high expectations for this Grey Lady.

When Judy and I began publishing 30 years ago, we happily found extraordinary support in Sunday’s Book Review section. To start with, Thomas Lask, in his “End Papers” column, somehow picked up on a letter we wrote to the Authors Guild, announcing that we were starting an imprint called Second Chance Press, seeking to give worthwhile books, out-of-print for at least 20 years, a second chance. This resulted in our being sent 600 books, and the six we chose made up our first list. Later, under editors Mike Levitas, Becky Sinkler and Chip McGrath, we often had review coverage of three or four of our 12 titles a year, nearly all for Permanent Press releases. If coverage is far less now, I can’t bellyache, for review space has been so drastically reduced. Insofar as the daily Times was concerned (an entirely separate division), Anatole Broyard wrote an exceptional review on Thursday, January 31, 1980 for Richard Lortz’s The Valdepenas, our very first review from our very first list. I mention all this in order to set the table about expectations and the “pissed off” phase one goes through when such expectations are not fulfilled.

Reading Motoko Rich’s James Frey story made me realize how pissed off I‘ve felt in the past about the daily Times Monday through Saturday book coverage. Since Broyard’s review, there have been over 7,000 additional reviews in the daily editions over the past 29-and-a-half years, and not one other book of ours has gotten coverage: this despite the fact that in that period of time we published a Nobel Prize winning author (Halldor Laxness), 12 novels by a Nobel Prize nominee (Berry Fleming), had a National Book Award finalist (Sandra Scofield), Hammett Prize and Edgar Award finalists and winners (Randall Silvis, Domenic Stansberry and Reed Farrel Coleman) and, in 1998, won the equivalent of a publishing Oscar: Literary Market Place’s LMP Award for Editorial Achievement—a prize open to every publisher, large and small, in America, and voted upon by our colleagues in the book industry. This failure to reappear in the daily Times made me think of the remark by a frustrated Hollywood ingĂ©nue, who once said, “Who do you have to go to bed with to get into this motion picture?” Obviously I’ve never figured that one out, but if I have to sleep with Eric Simonoff, Frey’s agent, to command this sort of space for one of our authors, I’ll have to take a pass because—no offense Eric—I’m simply into women.

A few weeks ago I read a scathing Times book review by Janet Maslin. I remember when Janet went from film critic many years ago to being one of the daily book critics. I’d always appreciated her intelligent movie reviews and wrote to her, hoping that she might have an interest in some of our titles, while telling her about the drought we’d been experiencing. She responded positively and asked us to send her future releases, which again raised expectations, since Michiko Kakutani, the Critic Emeritus during this period of time would never answer queries. But nothing came of that, either. Which made me think “Why, in this age of reduced coverage, would critics bother to give scathing reviews when there were so many good books out there that never get covered at all.” This practice pissed me off as well.

In Motoko Rich’s James Frey coverage about I Am Number Four (with a plot that seemed perfect if you were either retarded or a teen-aged reader or writer), it’s important to note that no publisher in the United States had yet bought it. Therefore it was a non-story when it came to art and culture, though it might have made sense in the business section of the Times under a headline such as "Book Written by Two Famous Anonymous Writers Fails to Find a Publisher"… maybe a take off on "GM Fails to Find a Buyer for Pontiac." I was again pissed off that a guy who conned Oprah and the reading public with his first book was again getting so much coverage in the Arts section while far better and lesser known writers were getting no attention at all. One of my only compensations was reading that the million dollar advance paid for Frey’s Bright Shiny Morning would never be earned back by Harper Collins. Based on the sales Ms Rich reported, I would be surprised if it earned more than $150,000 to $200,000 dollars…an $800,000 plus loss for Harper Collins. And people in the business wonder why the book industry is in trouble?

Lastly, her article raised the question of why so many critics and columnists take the Nielsen BookScan figures seriously, despite their claim that they track 70% of retail sales. Last year, after one major publishing house expressed interest in reprinting one of Chris Knopf’s mystery novels, they told me that one problem was that, according to BookScan, we had only sold 400 plus copies, when in truth we were in a third printing and had sold 4,500 copies. It’s a fact of life that in today’s climate, reprinters only want to take on titles that have proved to be somewhat successful. When BookScan underestimates Chris’s sales by 90%, this poses an insurmountable barrier. So I called BookScan and spoke to one of their directors who informed me that they don’t track library sales or sales by small independent bookstores. They do track sales in some huge discounted superstores (think Target and Walmart), sales at airports, at the big chains like Barnes & Noble and others of that ilk, as well as Amazon.com. Since we never sell to any of the chains, for reasons explained in earlier blogs, nor airport shops, nor superstores, we are up the proverbial shit’s creek in getting accurate and substantiated sales figures out for our titles, as we rely heavily on library sales and sales to the small independent bookstores (and Amazon, too…which is where BookSpan probably got their 400 plus sales report from). I now think of BookScan as BookScam and get “pissed off” when their figures are taken seriously for anything other than blockbuster sales.

And here’s my final report, this having to do with having read a piece called Book Brahmin: Steve Hockensmith in Shelf Awareness, an online book industry daily newsletter on July 10. There was a huge photo of the cover of his novel The Crack in the Lens, accompanied by the following text: Steve Hockensmith is the author of the Holmes on the Range historical mysteries for St. Martin's Minotaur. The first book in the series was nominated for the Edgar, Shamus, Anthony and Dilys awards. The latest, The Crack in the Lens, hasn't been nominated for anything, but maybe that's because it won't be out till July 21. Hockensmith and the narrator of his books, cowboy detective "Big Red" Amlingmeyer, share a blog at stevehockensmith.com.

What pisses me off about this posting is that these distinctions Hockensmith has supposedly earned are misleading to the point of fraudulence. Being nominated for all these awards doesn’t mean a thing, other than the fact that the publisher nominated it (publishers can’t nominate for the Nobel prize, however). For the thousands of books nominated for most awards, the only thing one can honestly brag about are ones that are finalists or winners, and very few nominees gain that status. But a member of the public reading this copy would assume that Hockensmith was a marvelous writer. If this copy is written by the people who run Shelf Awareness, shame on them. If, on the other hand, it is a paid advertisement from St. Martin’s Press, it should be labeled as such. In any event, it makes me skeptical about continuing to read this newsletter. Chris Knopf has been a finalist for three book awards and a winner of one, and some of the folks at Shelf Awarenss know this, though there’s been no mention of his actual accomplishment. I’d say that if you want to tap into a good writer's web site, try our mystery writer instead; Chris Knopf at http://www.sameddie.com/.

If books sell by word-of-mouth and coverage—which they do—and if one values quality over celebrity and spin, it should be clear that the things that piss me occur when the undeserving get coverage while quality novelists get the short end of the stick.

I welcome your comments.

Marty

14 comments:

  1. "Which made me think “Why, in this age of reduced coverage, would critics bother to give scathing reviews when there were so many good books out there that never get covered at all.” This practice pissed me off as well."

    Regarding the above statement, I know you are speaking to the choir, but I have to agree most enthusiastically with your perceptions that in my opinion are right on target.

    Writing for my blog Bookworm's Dinner, I will not waste the time writing a review to slam a writer for a book I consider below par. It is just not worth the effort. I would much rather promote and feature those writers whose books rock my world.

    I would really be pissed off having to review a book to post on my blog when I have stacks of books in my TBR pile that are so much more worthy.

    Great post Mr. Shepard!

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  2. Wow -- what a shock to find little ol' me cited here as "misleading to the point of fraudulence"? Ouch. But I should point out that I WAS a finalist for all those awards. As in "was among the top five final contenders announced to the public but didn't win any of them, dammit." Some folks simply prefer to use the term "nominated for," figuring people will make the correct assumption. My friend, a simple Google search or a glance at the bio on my website would've confirmed that I was, indeed, a finalist for those awards. Next time a little due diligence before the "fradulence" talk, perhaps?

    -Steve Hockensmith

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  3. Marty,
    Leonard Cohen said it well: 'Everyone knows the dice are loaded, everybody rolls with their fingers crossed,' the point being that you keep rolling the dice anyway and hope that you'll be lucky enough to bet on the side that's got the fix in. It's also maddening when you can't even get an answer out of the bastards, or only nonsensical, elliptical answers at best -- ground covered so well by Franz Kafka's 'The Castle,' an edifice that was clearly a model for the NY Times.

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  4. Wow. Fascinating post. I learned a lot - not that it made me feel any better, but at least now I feel bad with better reason. I'd never really thought about what "nominated for" means, so I'll read those reviews and articles with more intelligence now. And I'll continue reading Chris Knopf's books with great enjoyment.

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  5. Sorry about that, Steve Hockensmith, but whoever wrote that copy was negligent, becasue there is a big distinction between being nominated and being a finalist. They did you a disservice and I'm glad you called this to my attention. Besides, I never cited you as misleading, but put the blame on whoever wrote the copy. Was it an ad? Or just an oversight by Shelf Awarenss?

    Marty Shepard

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  6. Hey Marty...love your stuff after a cursory read...but you know what pisses me off? Someone snagging The Cockeyed Pessimist blog handle from me. I did a pretty careful search to determine that this wasn't out there in the blogosphere already before grabbing the name for my WordPress blog...for no other reason than I decided it would be a clever way to canopy my angst.

    If this is something you've called yourself in books and in other media well before late 2008, I'm sincerely sorry I missed it. If not, weak. I've been told by my peeps that it was time for a change anyway, basically that nobody wants to hear a dude bitch all the time...maybe this is my cue for a name change. thanks for the shove and best of luck. Mark

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  7. Charles Davis (author of Walk On Bright Boy)had problems adding his comments and asked me to do this for him:

    "When I read the title, I thought, hang on, better set aside a couple of days for this. As it turned out, you were admirably strained.
    Apart from that quibble (you really shouldn’t hold back when it comes to being pissed off, Marty), the only thing I’d take issue with is your attack on James Frey. I haven’t read anything by him and, after googling him, I very much doubt I will, but if he can concoct a story sufficiently powerful and plausible to have Oprah Winfrey falling all over him (now that conjures an image) surely the man’s got some qualities as a writer. Quite apart from anything else, there’s the old chestnut about literary truth being more ‘true’ than verifiable truth. In any case, my apologies for not having had the nous to create a comparable level of free publicity. You don’t fancy promoting my next novel as a memoir, do you?"

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  8. Marty:

    As I have said before, if you read a novel, non-fiction or what ever, and you cannot say anything nice, do not say anything at all. There are short comings in everything, but to say the work is totally abject, is wrong. Critics do realize the blood, sweat, and often tears go into the work. It just not make sense to slam someone's efforts when you have such limited space and such limited audience.

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  9. Marty:

    I agree wth most of what you said about The Times. I, too have read it for about 40 years, but after the Sue Miller and House fiasco back in the 80s, I am leery of any reviews there. Usually, I read enough to get an idea of what the book is about, and if interested, I make a note of the review, then go back and read it AFTER I have read the book.

    I also agree with Wisteria. Why waste time reading losy books, and even more time reviewing them. I occasionally get commebnts on my blog, RabbitReader.blogspot.com that I only post positive reviews. Right! Too many (good) books; too little time!

    Keep up the good work!

    -Chiron

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  10. Marty's latest blog on the condition of the book publishing business and book reviews in the NYTimes and elsewhere was more reason for depression during an already depressing year or two. When I was in the advertising business, we were always told by trade journals and business magazines that their acceptance and use of our publicity releases had no connection to whether or not we advertised with the publication. This may have been true for the biggest, most successful magazines, but it certainly wasn't true for the run of the mill pubs struggling for survival which characterizes every print publication today including the NYT. I'm probably way off base suggesting such a venal motivation for how the NYT selects books for review but my shit detector tells me that there's a quid pro quo going on somewhere in the process. I love Marty's reference to the quote that people who don't know, talk, and people who do know, don't. My corollary is that it's all been said before. Jim Marquardt

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  11. Jim certainly has a point here. When a critic is assigned a book, there should be no holding back his or her opinion. But when a critic has more books on hand than can possibly be read, that's a far different story. I think it is likely that one as well known as Janet Maslin is in that category, where she can choose what to write about. I know this is true of most online reviewers and those who have their own web or blog sites, like Wisteria.

    In my August blog I'm planning on saying more about this very issue: the tentative title is CRITICISM AND NARCISSISM.

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  12. Christopher Brookhouse, whose first novel, RUNNING OUT received the Rosenthal Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and whose subsequent three novels we published (DEAR OTTO, A SELFISH WOMAN and SILENCE), emailed the following comments about book reviewers:

    Years ago I reviewed books regularly from the Greensboro Daily News, which had a good bookpage edited by Jonathan Yardley. Although I did pan a few books, I tried to find books to praise and simply to ignore those I didn't care for. The impluse, though, for many reviewers is to flatter the self at the expense of others.

    Christopher Brookhouse

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  13. I once had a gig writing restaurant reviews for a now-departed Berkshire magazine -- got a free dinner for a 100 words. I quickly realized that the fun was in getting off a witty line at the restaurant's expense. Like I once wrote that the Red Lion Inn was a charming place to have dinner..if they'd only let you order out. They soon pulled their ads from the mag. I've forgotten what the moral of this story is.
    Danny Klein

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  14. In the beginning, the plural of is is are.

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