Publishers Doomed by Predatory Book Pricing? So what?

John Grisham on NBC’s Today Show discusses his new book, writing novels versus short stories, and so-called predatory book pricing by large retailers like Walmart, Target and  I like Grisham in this interview.  He’s a good interview and he seems sharp.  He talks about how it’s much more difficult to fix a problem in the middle of writing a novel than to do so with a short story.  So he advises writers to ‘not have a problem.’  The trick is to thoroughly outline your entire novel before you even start to write it so that you know every single thing that happens along the way.  Pretty sound advice in most cases.  Not all.  Some of the greatest novels in the world were written by writers who had absolutely no idea where the novel was going from page one.  It depends on what kind of book you’re writing.  I think his advice is perfectly good for most books that are intended for sale in a grocery store.  Certainly.  But writers should never listen to famous writers.  They’re full of crap.  You write what makes you sweat and drink lots of coffee late into the night and bang your fingers on your keyboard until they hurt.  Or not.  Whatever.  I hate outlines.  Especially in word processors.  Awful things.  They destroy good minds and belong mostly in PowerPoint presentations for corporate managers.  I’m not sure what the hell Grisham is talking about quite frankly.  But then again, I’m not selling thrillers in the grocery store either.

But what mainly interests me in this interview is the discussion about ‘predatory pricing’ by the giant retailers.  Apparently, if you listen to publishers, this spells doom for publishing and book selling as we know it.  When asked what he thinks about his latest book being available for nine dollars at Target, Grisham says:

It’s shortsighted. Short term, they know what they are doing, I think. But if a book is worth $10 then suddenly the whole industry is going to change. You are going to lose publishers and book stores, and though I’ll probably be alright, aspiring authors are going to find it difficult to get published.

Yeah? So what.  So we lose publishers and book stores.  Who cares?  The key in Grisham’s statement is where he says, ‘…and though I’ll probably be alright.’ He means writers will be alright.  The big scary fact of the matter is that we simply don’t give a tiny damn whether or not a publisher prints a book or an author does.  Publishers read, accept, edit, design, print and promote books.  At least they used to.  I don’t care what anyone tells you, but we do not need the editors.  Writers can do that.  You write the book and you edit it and you’re done with it.  Readers are getting used to reading writers without editors.  That’s why blogs are so popular.  No editors.  If you have an editor poking around in a blog, trust me, it’s not a blog.  It’s a corporate front-end.  A writer can also design and print a book.  And sell it.  Writers are publishers.  No reader cares about Penguin.  They care about the guy holding the gun.  The guy holding the gun is put there by the writer.  Writers will make guys, guns and gals forever.  It’s what they do and it’s what readers want.

I don’t care if the guy with the gun says, ‘I’ve been looking for you for a long time, Mr. Peabody.  Smile, because it’s the last thing you’ll ever do.’  Or if he says, ‘I’ve been looking for you.  Smile.  It’s your last.’

The writer can pick.  The editor can go watch Kitchen Nightmares.

There is absolutely no excuse for a writer to work hard on a story, hammering it into existence from nothing, polishing it and making it exactly what he or she wants it to be… and then sit around to wait for some agent or publisher to get back via the U.S. mail so that said writer can be allowed to move on and send out yet another plea for acceptance.  This is old technology.  Twentieth century.  It’s gone.  In this century a writer writes and edits and publishes and sells.  His book can sell in Target for nine dollars or three dollars.  Magnificent.  Literature available to people who don’t make lots of money.  What a novel idea!  If you’re griping about Target selling books for nine dollars, you must not be buying books.  Go watch His Girl Friday and pretend that typewriters still make newspapers.

And you know something else?  The guy with the gun doesn’t care.  He’ll always be there.  He’s not going anywhere.  All the publishers and book stores could burn and all the editors could go to their early graves, and you know what?  The guy with the gun is still gonna getcha.  He’s going to find you wherever you go.  He’s alive.

Essay on the Editing of ‘The Great Gatsby’

gatsbycover1The excellent literary blog called The Elegant Variations has a 4-part post that reprints an essay by Susan Bell about F. Scott Fitzgerald’s revisions to The Great Gatsby through his close work with editor Max Perkins.  Bell discusses the absolutely crystal sharp writing in Gatsby that was the result of meticulous rewrites from Fitzgerald and a strong editorial viewpoint from Perkins that the author was more than willing to acknowledge after publication.

Critical reaction at the time of the novel’s publication noted its incredibly polished writing:

For H. L. Mencken, the novel had “a careful and brilliant finish. . . . There is evidence in every line of hard and intelligent effort. . . . The author wrote, tore up, rewrote, tore up again. There are pages so artfully contrived that one can no more imagine improvising them than one can imagine improvising a fugue.

Here’s another quote from Bell’s essay:

In autumn 1924, Fitzgerald sent Perkins the Gatsby manuscript. The editor diagnosed its kinks, then wrote a letter of lavish praise and unabashed criticism. “And as for the sheer writing, it is astonishing,” wrote Perkins. “The amount of meaning you get into a sentence, the dimensions and intensity of the impression you make a paragraph carry are most extraordinary.” A crucial problem, though, was the hero’s palpability. Perkins explained:

Among a set of characters marvelously palpable and vital—I would know Tom Buchanan if I met him on the street and would avoid him—Gatsby is somewhat vague. The reader’s eyes can never quite focus upon him, his outlines are dim. Now everything about Gatsby is more or less a mystery, i.e. more or less vague, and this may be somewhat of an artistic intention, but I think it is mistaken.

Book Trade Woes Mean Change

holmesbookThe Nation has a fascinating essay by Elisabeth Sifton called The Long Goodbye? The Book Business and its Woes.  She writes about the tidal changes facing the entire book industry from publisher to bookseller to reader.  Here’s a short excerpt:

“Books have had a kind of spooky power, embedded as they are in the very structures of learning, commerce and culture by which we have absorbed, stored and transmitted information, opinion, art and wisdom. No wonder, then, that the book business, although a very small part of the American economy, has attracted disproportionate attention.

But does it still merit this attention? Do books still have their power? Over the past twenty years, as we’ve thrown ourselves eagerly into a joy ride on the Information Superhighway, we’ve been learning to read, and been reading, differently; and books aren’t necessarily where we start or end our education. The unprofitable chaos of the book business today indicates, among other things, that slow, almost invisible transformations as well as rapid helter-skelter ones have wrecked old reading habits (bad and good) and created new ones (ditto). In the cacophony of modern American commerce, we hear incoherent squeals of dying life-forms along with the triumphant braying and twittering of new human expression.”

The image is of Sherlock Holmes disguised as an old bookseller in the film, Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon.

Western Publishers in Terror of Offending Someone

Extremely interesting post over on the MobyLives blog called Dangerous Books about how the radical Islamic outrage over Salmon Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses has led to a pernicious self-censorship by major publishers in the West.  Iran issued a death sentence for Mr. Rushdie who stayed in hiding for many years.  Publishers and translators associated with Mr. Rushdie around the world were killed.  Kenan Malik, in his new book about the Rushdie episode, says that the publishing industry has been forever changed by fear.  Publishers in the West are no longer willing to publish works that might be considered offensive by some other group, religion, or nation.

My take on all this is simple: Dump these publishers.  Yeah.  Seriously.  Ernest Hemingway was good with a hunting rifle.  Can you imaging that guy cowering in front of some outraged religious nut job from Iran?  No.  He would have shot the imbecile down with a high-caliber metaphorical bullet.  We don’t cower with our books and our thoughts in the West.  We write them and publish them and if you get in our way with your stupid radical religious idiocy, we’ll blow you right down into the ground.  That’s it.  We need a new kind of author.  A new kind of publisher.  Fearless.  Willing to shoot.  I have no respect for an editor or a publishing house that reads a book and says, ‘Well, gee… this will inflame radicals all over the world and could lead to riots and to another bloody death threat.  Let’s not publish this.’

I want to inflame with words.  I want words that are bullets.  The fire of the intellect destroys radical religious infections.

No more Western fear.  You want to riot over my book?  Good.  Go for it.  You want to shoot me because of my book?  Go for it.  I’m firing back and I’m not going to miss.  And I’m going to win.  I’m going to steamroll right over you and your culture and turn you into my private paved road.

That’s my attitude.  Live with it – or don’t.

Espresso Book Machine 2.0

Well… it better not jam. That’s my two cents. But really this is a neat idea. A book printer. It lets a user download, print, and bind a real book in just a few minutes. The New York Public Library has one. I’m not sure if one is expected to return the books it prints, but if they think it’s a good machine, it probably is. The Bibliotheca Alexandrina in Egypt has one. This is the kind of machine that makes online book printing services like really start making sense. Of course, the shops and libraries must keep themselves supplied with the right paper and cover materials. But it is quite obvious that the days of publishers shipping cartons of books to bookstores all over the world in such bulk are very numbered. Pretty soon there will be a book printer in many homes. That’s assuming that everyone doesn’t switch to ebooks. But with companies like Amazon building portable cash registers instead of real ebook devices, that will not happen for a long time.