Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Conventions

On October 12th Judy and I head for Frankfurt and the Book Fair which runs from the 13th to the 18th. After giving up on the London Book Fair in the mid-90s and America’s Book Expo ten years ago, Frankfurt still remains vital. It affords us a chance to meet with all our overseas agents, several of our overseas publishing partners, and always seems to provide serendipitous encounters with foreign editors that often lead to translation sales.

We abandoned the London Fair for a variety of reasons. For one, if we could see the same people in Frankfurt in the fall, why bother attending London in the spring? And then there was the problem of the paucity of traffic. We’d spend days with only one or two visitors, and it seemed that those who attended were all chasing the “big book,” as opposed to seeking out good “little books,” which is what we offer. As for Book Expo, previously known as the American Booksellers Convention, it had deteriorated over the years. Once a convention that drew attendees from film people, book buyers and newspaper reviewers, it had morphed into a late spring playground for people who worked at bookstores and wanted to take their family on a domestic, tax-deductible vacation. These attendees traveled up and down the aisles with giant handbags or even carts, grabbing posters and free books, or stood in line for signings by name brand authors of their latest releases. It had become, in fact, a promotional event for the large corporate publishers, getting newspaper coverage for the big and famous, while the rest of the exhibitors simply served as background—fodder to fill up the stands.

All this frivolity, other than providing necessary income from exhibitor rentals and attendees at the American Booksellers Association (which, representing the independent bookstores of America, I have great respect for) led to an increasing decline in attendance among more serious book people, something the ABA tried to reverse by changing the venue: New York one year, Las Vegas, Chicago, Baltimore, Washington DC, San Francisco, and Anaheim—conveniently close to Disneyland. At one time they had settled on Chicago, a lovely city and central between the coasts, but found that attendance kept slipping. Booksellers just couldn’t bring themselves to vacation in the same place year after year. Still, attendance continued its downward slide even as exhibition space grew, limiting sites to only the larger cities. I remember back in 1998, when we went to the Javitz Center in New York for the first time as visitors to collect the 1997 RR Bowker/Literary Market Place Award for Editorial Excellence (the book industry’s “Oscar” at the time, voted on, electronically, by all those in the publishing world), that the number of attendees was almost identical to the number of people manning the exhibitors stands. Walking around the halls after Judy and I received this honor was a sad experience: akin to holding a sale at Saks Fifth Avenue sale during a hurricane, with hardly anyone else wandering the halls. Yet, there was also a feeling of joyous liberation knowing that after 20 years of exhibiting we could catch a Jitney back to the Hamptons and get back to work—and not be trapped in the Convention Center for another couple of days. It was clear that it was time to move on.

Given the current free-fall in the book industry, even large corporate publishers have been trimming staff—and even attendance—at Book Expo because they, too, see it as increasingly unnecessary: that the promotional value does not measure up to the expenses of money and time, as print media declines and so many of the newspapers still standing have trimmed book coverage substantially. How, then does one let the reading public know about your books?

If book conventions no longer supplied sufficient publicity, and if your primary goal is to sell books, you go to another tried and true “convention”: working even harder to select books written by public figures that can easily generate television and radio appearances, and also make news. Steve Rubin, former executive v-p and publisher at large for Random House worked this avenue by riding the success of decent writers with large followings, such as John Grisham and Dan Brown, as well as publishing Bill O’Reilly and “contributed to shaping Random’s global strategy and helped land several promising projects, including the book to be written by former President George W. Bush,” according to the September 24th daily online issue of Publishers Weekly, which also announced that Rubin was “leaving the company” after 25 years. A good idea, one would think. But then again, on August 31, PW had earlier reported that Random House profits were down for the first half of 2009, according to results issued that morning by parent company Bertelsmann. Profits fell 35.5%. So, perhaps Bill O’Reilly and George Bush were not the answers.

Or take the famed editor Judith Regan, whose imprint at Harper Collins managed to take on Toni Bentley’s The Surrender: An Erotic Memoir. A former Balanchine dancer, her memoir was named one of the “100 Best Books of 2004” by The New York Times Book Review, which extolled it as expressing “the joys, both physical and spiritual, of anal sex.” I’d read several book reviews Bentley wrote in the Times which I thought were quite masterful, but despite her bold willingness to write about her anal obsessions, I found the book lacked passion and was about as erotic as taking a cold bath. It reminded me of an article the great social critic Paul Krassner wrote in The Realist when he mocked a Supreme Court decision concerning pornography. His take was that the designation of pornography was dependent on whether or not the judge got an erection while reading. While The Surrender promised titillation, and coverage, it would never have been called pornographic if I were a Supreme Court judge. In 2006, Judith Regan was fired by her parent company, Harper Collins (and her Regan Books imprint shut down three months later) after she signed up another “newsworthy,” promotable book by O.J. Simpson: If I Did It, a hypothetical telling of how he would have committed the killings of his ex-wife and Mr. Goldman. Angry protests caused the book’s cancellation. Interestingly enough, Publishers Weekly reported on April 6 that Harper Collins also ended a difficult year on a down note, posting an operating loss of $4 million on a 20.6% decline in revenue in the fourth quarter ended June 30.

Since our interests are in publicizing fiction that has merit, these conventional strategies—whether they work or, as above, sometimes fail, are decidedly unappealing. My faith lies with internet reviewing by people who value substance over flash, who appreciate good writing and write well themselves. Did any of you notice that September 14th -18th was Book Blogger Appreciation Week? In recent past blogs I’ve referred to some of the extraordinary bloggers we’ve come in contact with this past year, and what an eye-opener it has been. More than that, its provided a high that I can only compare to the high I’ve gotten when jamming with other musicians when you are in sync and the music connects you in the most intimate way. It goes beyond words and becomes a spiritual thing, sending a message from your heart and having it returned by another.

Over our past three decades, our relationship with most newspaper or magazine book reviewers was largely one way. The publisher was a supplicant and the reviewer royalty who might grant a favor. Print media was overwhelmingly in favor of the well-known writers and the promotional efforts of conglomerate publishers and publicists who could curry that favor much more effectively that we could. In response to my August blog, Criticism versus Narcissism, there were numerous posted comments from book bloggers, many to the effect that few of them will cover a book they dislike; that there is so much stuff out there, why bother with negative reviews. There were also two email responses from critics who did not want to be identified, for fear of offending, but have allowed me to share these comments anonymously. The first comes from a person who is involved with a daily online book site, who says: “What I want to know is, why does The New York Times over-cover so many authors? I've seen, for one author, a review in the daily, a review in the Sunday section, AND a profile in the Lifestyles section. I realize that these are different departments, but you'd think that—ethically? morally?—in light of shrinking space for book news, that they'd stop doubling or tripling up. If reviewers/columnists are interested in devoting as much space as possible to talk about books, wouldn't it make sense to spread the largesse, so to speak, around?”

The other comes from a print and radio critic who had just finished reading Michiko Kakutani’s review of E.L. Doctorow’s novel, Homer & Langley, about the Collyer Brothers (“A B-plus novel reviewed by a B-minus reviewer”), with both parties being literary “Superstars,” deservedly or not. “Kakutani’s review violated a basic rule of reviewing. It was a summary of the plot with no assessment of whether she liked it or not and for what reasons. But then, of course, Kakutani is reviewing all of Philip Roth’s novels, which she shouldn’t be doing because she hates him. It’s another violation. One would think that if you detest what this writer has to say, why would you not recuse yourself?” But this, of course, is one of the perks of superstardom. Nor did this critic find favor with another article on Doctorow’s book in another section of the Times, “which was an essay, really, by the writer, who called attention to Doctorow’s book to basically make his own essayist points. That’s not what I consider a proper review either.” Incidentally, in the September 7 issue of The New Yorker Joyce Carole Oates called Homer & Langley “a subdued, contemplative, and resolutely unsensational recounting of the brothers’ fatally intertwined lives,” her abbreviated online review ending with “Doctorow has evoked an American folk-myth writ small.”)

Fortunately, for those interested in calling attention to creative writing by gifted but unknown novelists, bloggers don’t follow these superstar conventions. That’s why I passionately share the sentiments of those who started Book Bloggers Appreciation Week two years ago.


Final Words:

Two glorious blog reviews of Maud Carol Markson’s Looking After Pigeon appeared in mid September: Danielle Bullen’s was on Mostly Fiction.com and can be read in its entirely on Amazon.com when you click on the novel’s title. And Anne Hite's can be seen on the Internet Review of Books.

I also want to salute two mystery alumni who are finalists for this year’s Shamus Award, for Best Hardcover, the winner to be chosen at the Bouchercon convention on October 16. They are Reed Farrel Coleman’s Empty Ever After and Domenic Stansberry’s The Ancient Rain. We have four of Reed’s mysteries in our backlist and three of Domenic’s, and wish them both much success.

Lastly, we’ve had two very solid advance reviews for our Middle East novels: Mehrdad Balali’s Houri, which comes out in December and is set in Iran (“Journalist Balali’s bitter first novel about Iran, from which he is now banned, contrasts his native country before and after the Islamic revolution. Comparisons to The Kite Runner are unavoidable.”—Kirkus) and Anastasia Hobbet’s Small Kingdoms which appears in January (“Hobbet's extensive knowledge of Kuwait's people, customs and political landscape combine to make an immersive, authentic, compelling novel about Middle East life”—Publishers Weekly). Both are “must reads” for anyone desiring to understand these very different Muslim countries, for they tell you more about how people live, and the conflicts in their societies, than non-fiction reporting.

I also must add that Louise Young’s Seducing the Spirits (due in November) was featured on page one—the contents page, of Publishers Weekly on September 7, with a half page spread—as their Book of the Week. It’s the first time this has happened with one of our authors. Here's a briefest summary: "Young has turned decades working with the indigenous Kuna people of Panama into a compassionate, passion-filled novel. Enthralling, entertaining, exotic."

Marty

2 comments:

  1. Seducing the Spirits is definitely one I'm looking out for. Thanks for this article - much more interesting information on books and publishing than I find in our paper.

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  2. Good thoughts, once again, on the book industry. I particularly like the reference to "name brand" authors. The mainstream book market, such as it is, has a tendency to reduce authors to commodities and, in general, flatten the entire canon of popular literature into a dull smear of sameness. Which explains why, frequently, the only thing mainstream media outlets can discuss in relation to books is number of units sold (or something equally tangential to books themselves). As a result, we get stories about how Harry Potter and Twilight sold however many millions of copies in much the same way McDonald's boasts "Billions and billions served."

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