Today is an occasion in our home. My partner’s new book has just appeared on Amazon. One copy. That’s all. But it’s there, and soon it will be available on the iPad too. Our entire household – me, him, and the cats – is elated.
But it’s way more significant than that. This represents a turning point. Liberation. Rejuvenation.
This is our Egypt.
I hardly need to tell you, the American publishing world is in a time of great transition. We’re entering a literary ice age. Printed books are slowly becoming an outmoded technology. Next week, Borders will announce it’s going into bankruptcy. Our local Borders in Hollywood has a ‘for lease’ sign on the wall, and it’s not even closed yet. Barnes & Noble, once so vibrant, is now a chain of graveyards and shutting down branches.
Many people see this as the last gasp of glory for authors such as myself, before progress sweeps away our livelihood and we’re forced to get real jobs. Within a few years, as the iPad and other tablets rise to consume us, most people will view long-form reading as a drag, an antiquated pastime, and printed books themselves as ridiculously clunky, much like the first cellphones that were the size of housebricks or the first laptop, which actually was so heavy it used to crush your lap and make it hard to walk afterwards.
But this development is really a good thing and authors should rejoice.
Over time, the idea of writers needing publishers to support their work will fade. I’m even setting up a small epublishing company myself this year and putting out my own mystery novel, which is now complete and getting rave reviews from friends, even though they were charged with criticizing it and tearing it to bits, sparing me no mercy. I wanted it to be as good a book as it possibly could be. This way, though, I won’t need to go through the usual laborious process, waiting until 2012 or 2013 to see my work in bookstores (the same bookstores that will by then have closed due to lack of business). Instead, my work can be on readers’ Kindles and iPads by this summer, all cute and pert and lovely and ready to go. I am very excited by this prospect. We all should be.
I used to work for a show on public radio called Marketplace. At our office in Los Angeles we had a very long wall lined with bookshelves up to neck height. On these shelves were stacked copies of new books sent to us by lazy PR people at publishing houses in the hope that we’d give them a free plug on the air. We didn’t. And the reason we didn’t was because the books were crap. With rare exceptions, they were poorly written, derivative, boring, badly-thought-through, and exploitative junk. Nobody read them – not us, not even the members of the public they were intended for. At best they were ornamental. Same way they are in bookstores. Eventually, after gathering dust on the shelves for a month, they were thrown into bags and tossed out. Hundreds and hundreds of them. Regularly. Year in, year out.
Frankly, I could stop this blog here. That’s all you need to know.
In that one short paragraph, I’ve explained why the publishing industry in America is gasping for breath, like an old aunt with emphyzema.
Editors were slow to see their own demise. They have continued for years putting out mediocre book after mediocre book, seldom investing in anything good or original. They played safe for fear of losing their jobs, sticking wherever possible to yawn-making celebrity tie-ins, self-help books that made huge promises but which were really just previous self-help books with a different jacket, and shallow, awful novels aimed at dim people who could only take chapters that were four pages long, Beyond that, things were too baffling. In other words, many editors abused their role. They became predatory opportunists rather than creators and instigators, which is what they were meant to be.
Instead of using passion as their baseline, making it a goal to discover and nurture good authors and stick with them from book to book until they attracted a strong following, they became fickle and coquettish, the way debutantes are in costume dramas, putting out any old book that took their fancy. If one author didn’t make it big immediately, the next one might. This same mindless policy was rampant in the music industry for a while too, and look what happened there.
Publishers plowed all their resources into the production of books, but left no budget for marketing them. That is to say, they’d launch a product, then tell nobody at all that it existed. I mean, jeez, what bright spark thought that system up? It’s tantamount to sticking your book in a garbage sack, leaving it by the side of the freeway, and hoping motorists slow down and go, “Hm, I wonder what’s in that bag?” It’s not going to happen.
So the industry is dying. Printed books are heading the way of CDs and newspapers. And it’s their own f’ing fault.
Success right now is a fluke. Without passion as their compass, book editors simply wish upon a star that somebody – anybody – will show an interest in their products; they neither put their weight behind them nor show courage in the convictions of their choices. That is no way to run a business.
I even heard that the marketing team at my publisher once refused to give Oprah a bunch of free books to hand out on her television show as one of her favorite things. They refused to give the Queen of TV 320 measly books. Oh my god. In the Kitty Kelley biography that was out not long ago, Oprah called this “the dumbest move EVER.” And it is. But that’s publishers for you. They have brilliant editors, but often, I think, total morons as publicists and marketing people, and they make one lousy decision after another. Why? Because nothing hangs on it for them. They get paid whether a book sells or not. They’re not personally invested in anything they put out. If they were, it would be an entirely different story.
Another instance: years ago, when my book Gullible’s Travels– which was a really funny book, and went on to win the Benjamin Franklin Award for Humor – came out, the marketing department at Globe Pequot, the publisher, mailed 150 copies to the press. But only in theory. In practice what they did was write their own address on the label. So within days all 150 books came back again. By the time they were sent out a second time, momentum had been lost. It was a tragedy.
With the US version of Naked in Dangerous Placeslast year, another piece of work I’m extremely proud of, about the amazing adventure I had making my TV travel series, the complacency of the PR people charged with promoting it grew to become the stuff of legend. The miniscule effort they did put in was the equivalent of going over to the window, leaning out, shouting, “Hey, everyone – look at us. We’ve published a terrific travel book,” and closing it again before anyone could catch the title. Result: not one radio interview, not one review of note, not one mention in any major magazine or newspaper. Nothing at all.
And you know what? They don’t care. Since Naked came out, the same company has published about fifty thousand more books. Some of them may even be good. And I bet they’re neglecting those as well.
“How the hell do these people still have a job?” I kept asking myself.
Well, actually, they won’t soon. That’s the gratifying part. Due to a gigantic volume of idiocy, greed, and short-sightedness that’s gone on for years, a fine industry is on the ropes, and before they know it, a good many of these apathetic losers will be out of work. When that happens, we mustn’t feel sorry for them. Remember, they slit their own throats.
For too long authors have been writing their books in order to appeal to, not the reading public as you might expect, but editors, trying to second-guess what editors would like, in the hope of pleasing them and getting an advance for their work. That’s the wrong way to go about things. It stifles passion.
Strangely, the editors, for their part, were not interested in quality or uniqueness. They showed interest only in books whose author had an established following. This system existed, again not for the benefit of the reading public, but because marketing people were drop-dead lazy and couldn’t be bothered to publicize their products, beyond sending out a press release or making a couple of phone calls between coffee breaks. This, thankfully, is about to change too. In time, authors will be empowered to take over the process and market directly to their readers, cutting out publishers entirely.
And that’s why I’m so proud of my partner. He put his money where his mouth was and produced his own cookbook. A cookbook stuffed, crammed, jammed with fine recipes, each one of which we’ve eaten about two dozen times while he refined, played with, and photographed it (OMG, his cheesecake is the absolute best, and I’m not just saying that!)
The result is called Completely Delicious, and every ounce of the love and patience and caring he put into it is on display. It’s the real deal. I know I’m biased, but you’d be hard-pressed to tell the difference between this and any other professionally-produced cookbook out there.
Now, he’s lucky, of course – he has his own store in Beverly Hills, where he’s currently shifting several copies every day! But even so, what a coup. Here’s a guy who’s never written a book before and he’s beating the system. I hope more authors are inspired to do the same.
Inspired by this, I’m following him into the trenches. I’ve hired an illustrator, who is currently turning out fabulous work for the cover of my novel, and a designer is waiting to put it all together. Expect it to be available this summer.
Seriously, this is the future, people. A bright, shiny, new democracy. Where we, as authors, no longer have to hand our work over to companies that don’t respect it or have passion for it, the way we do, and where we can finally take control of our destiny, make our own decisions, and our own money. Remember, when you publish your own book, ALL the money goes to you, not just the measly 12% royalty the publishers decided to give you. That’s incredible.
So you see why I find this period of change so intensely empowering. I get tingles in my legs just thinking about it, although it may be the onset of diabetes from eating too much cheesecake, I’m not sure. But I’m betting that this is how the people of Egypt are feeling right now, and they haven’t even got a book out!
TV Swami – he get sidetracked today. But he have a point to make and he feel strongly.