Friday, July 25, 2014

NO EXPECTATIONS!


Part I

Twenty years ago, at the  1994 American Booksellers Association meeting in Los Angeles, in our 18th year as publishers, we planned to do something to attract attention to some newly published authors of ours—many of whom were pretty good musicians—and for our press. John Okas, a gifted tenor saxophone player who lived in the Hamptons and wrote Routes, Jean Warmbold, a native of the Bay area, who wrote her first Sarah Calloway mystery, June Mail and had an aptitude for drumming, Pete McCormack, a young Canadian and good guitar player who wrote Shelby, and Bruce Ducker, who wrote Marital  Assets, hailed from Denver and was a gifted jazz piano player who played regular gigs (as well as being  a lawyer and a pilot) collectively decided to form a group. Then there was myself, who lived in Sag Harbor, played the alto sax and often jammed with John, who had already cut a CD.
We were going to challenge the Rock Bottom Remainders, a rock & roll band whose members consisted of best-selling authors. They started their group two years earlier and for the days of the convention, dressed up and played nightly outside the convention floor. They consisted at that time of Stephen King, Dave Barry, Amy Tang, and Barbara Kingsolver among other—aided and abetted by a couple of pros and, in later years other famous authors came in and out, including Scott Turow and Mitch Albom. They may have charged admission for some good cause (though on this point I’m only guessing, for I never watched them play). What I do know is that they were all wonderful writers and had a blast. They also had a sense of humor for on their own website they wrote this:  A write-up in the Washington Post described it as “the most heavily promoted musical debut since the Monkees.”  Hailed by critics as having “one of the world’s highest ratios of noise to talent,” the Remainders have no music videos, no record contract, no Grammy nominations—but do have over 159,000 hits on Google.”

On the other hand, none of us were famous—though all were talented writers. We felt we were a “people’s band,” set up on the convention floor near our stand, and played for the last hour of the Fair every day. We called ourselves No Expectations, and decided to play jazz standards. I doubt that anyone from the Rock Bottom Remainders came to hear us play either.

Day one, May 26, we had what was more rehearsal than  performance, since everyone had been practicing by themselves for a week or two—except for John and me— in different parts of North America, and our timing wasn’t the best. And we were sorry to hear that there were complaints from other exhibitors. On day two, the music improved, and there were no complaints. By day three we were in a groove and received many compliments.

Did we wind up having a best-seller come out of it? Certainly not, but I’m sure we had as good a time playing together as did the Remainders.


Part II
There’s a line between Expectations and No Expectations that’s quite tricky. To quote the Buddha, “Desires are the cause of all conflicts. When you want something and cannot get it you become frustrated. Learning to be free from desires is learning how to stay peaceful.” In my shortened version, “Desire causes pain, End desire and lose unhappiness.” Or even more specifically, let me change the equation slightly to read that “There’s a difference between Hopefulness and No Expectations,” for I think this makes for a better balance. Still, it’s not always been easy for me to .walk that tightrope.

In our first 17 years, turning out 12 books a year, we published some very good writers, among them Berry Fleming, Marco Vassi, Richard Lortz, Harry Bloom, Clifford Irving, Halldor Laxness, Sandra Scofield, Larry Duberstein, Randall Silvis, Howard Owen, and Charles O’Neil, to name just a few. One was a Nobel Prize nominee, another a Nobel Prize winner, a third a National Book Award finalist, and three writers had their novels turned into successful films. There were a host of other lesser awards for these and other writers. Yet none of their novels were best-sellers in the United States either. 
During the next two decades (1994-2014), bringing our output up to 16 books a year, we’ve had even more critical success, paralleling a significant output of literary thrillers written by the likes of Leonard Rosen, Chris Knopf,  Domenic Stansberry, Jaden Terrell, Connie Dial, David Freed, Gwen Florio, J.J. Hensley, and a continuing output from Howard Owen. Over the last two years our thriller writers have been finalists or winners of every major mystery prize: two finalists for the Best First novel from the International Thriller Writers (Gwen Florio and J.J. Hensley), two finalists for the Shamus Award (Jaden Terrell and Gwen Florio), Chris Knopf, winner of the Nero Award, Howard Owen, winner of the Hammett Prize, an Edgar Award finalist in Len Rosen who also won the Macavity Award...with a lot of less well-known awards as well.

While no other publisher, on a book by book basis, has come anywhere near us prize-wise, and while we’ve been successful in selling lots of international rights, none of these book were best-sellers in the States either.

How does one account for this? The answer seems obvious to me. There is a marked imbalance between the five large international publishing cartels and a small independent press when it comes to print reviews in major metropolitan newspapers and in national magazines. In the past few years this absence of major coverage took me away from my tranquility and caused me to write critical blogs about all this—and  some unfair blogs to boot, for we are not in a position to tell individual critics or newspapers what to review or not review. Since we get about 5,000 submissions a year we only want to choose books we love. When the big print media has such restrictive and vanishing review space, why do critics review so many books they dislike?

But again, this is a critic’s choice, not ours to make, and as long as “Desire” ran through my blood, frustration ruled, along with a barbed tongue.

By and large my approach for the last couple of years has been to publish books with “Enthusiasm,” coupled with “No Expectations.”

If you stay the course in this wonderful and absurd world-of-books it’s not hard to come to some important conclusions: one being that most artful fiction often sells the fewest copies. Another coping device is keeping a sense of humor and turning disappointment into a positive thing. The best example I can think of is this: that our first and last full review in the Culture Section of The New York Times (the daily and Saturday review section) occurred in 1980, when Anatole Broyard glowingly reviewed Richard Lortz’s The Valdepenas. That was 34 years ago, and when I talk about this now I refer to  it as a record-setting performance with a certain perverse pride—akin to the Philadelphia 76ers basketball team losing 26 games in a row this past season, setting a National Basketball Association record.

Records do end, of course, and in the past year or so we’ve had some very satisfying interaction with some lovely critics at the Times. I won’t be unhappy when our losing streak runs out. But whenever it does, we will still have far surpassed that of the ‘76ers.

 
Marty

6 comments:

  1. My ending line. But I expect the 76's do better this year. No I mean I desire the the 76's do better this year. I still have to remind myself

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  2. Hi Marty:

    Your blog raises questions us authors published by The Permanent Press have also asked.
    It seems that the NYT Book Review and other book review sections in major print media most always review books published by their major advertisers. Prize nominations and prizes awarded to novels published by The Permanent Press must be widely publicized to inspire sales. Although press releases announcing the awards may be sent to appropriate media, the news, if published at all, seldom gets adequate space and consequently, readers don’t know about the honors bestowed upon these winning authors. Finally, you pose another mystery: why has the New York Times Book Review ignored all the entertaining, readable, highly-acclaimed, prize winning books you and Judith have published over the years?

    As for a lack of best sellers among your titles, readers seem to buy the best-known brands – authors and publishing firms. Book stores in league with publishers hand-sell certain titles, display prominently books put out by the major publishing conglomerates, and the dynamics of hype – advertising, PR, personal appearances, national tours, TV shots, etc. – all help make best sellers.

    But Marty and Judith, despite what The Buddha said about giving up desire as the cause of all worldly pain, and even though you, Marty, describe yourself as a cockeyed pessimist, please continue to live and publish with at least some optimistic expectations.
    After all, The Permanent Press has survived all these decades and continues to thrive, if not financially, then at least as a paragon of quality publishing. PS. You forgot to mention that my 2013 novel, Bottom Line, was named one of the Best Business Book of the Year, by John Kador of Wealth Management, an extraordinary achievement for a work of fiction. Best always, Marc Davis


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    1. Marc:

      As for the questions you raise in your first paragraph, I'm reluctant to get into much speculation, one reason being that prior to Sam Tanenhaus replacing Charles McGrath as had of the Book Review, we had strong support from Harvey Shapiro, ,Rebecca Sinkler as well as McGrath, who all seemed to appreciate quality fiction. Once Tanenhaus took over, that support largely vanished as he deemphasized fiction and, I think, literary books from small independent presses However there's a new person in charge now, Pamela Paul. Chris Knopf and I visited her this spring to present some of our list, and our impression was a positive one. She was a good listener, thoughtful and obviously bright. Will this herald increased support for what we publish? Who is to say. We're hopeful, but refuse to have expectations.

      As for pointing out that your novel won a special award, I'm glad you mentioned it. As I said in this blog, less well known awards abounded, but I just trying to make a point with the better known ones and not burden the readers of this blog with an extensive laundry list of prizes. But since you did bring this up, I would add that several other novels--not just mysteries--were also honored, including David Schmahmann's The Double Life of Alfred Buber which won the $1,000 Dactyl Award as Best Novel and Christopher Davis' The Conduct Saints winning ForeWord Magazine's Award for Best First Historical Novel.

      None of these became best-sellers either--perhaps, like some of the others--too richly textured and original for the average reader.

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  3. Great post, Marty! Always with love & gratitude...

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  5. Thanks, Elise. Your novel Licking Our Wounds was, and still remains, one of my favorites, not to mention that it was one of those things that endeared you to me for life. Like Marc Davis' novel, you also received critical accolade after we published it in 1997, winning the Small Press Book Award and being featured in Suzie Bright's Best American Erotica

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