Penguin Sues Elizabeth Wurtzel, Ana Marie Cox, and Other Authors Who Can’t Deliver Books

On Tuesday, The Smoking Gun reported that Penguin Group (USA), Inc. had filed a number of lawsuits against several authors for failing to write their books in a timely manner. In short, Penguin wants the authors to pony up the dough for manuscripts they didn’t deliver. In response to this, as Galleycat’s Jason Boog was quick to observe, Trident Media Group chairman Robert Gottlieb offered a tough, no nonsense statement at The Smoking Gun insinuating repercussions if any of his authors were crossed:

Authors beware. Books are rejected for reasons other than editorially and publishers then want their money back. Publishers want to reject manuscripts for any reason after an author has put time and effort into writing them all the while paying their bills. Another reason to have strong representation. If Penguin did this to one of Trident’s authors we could cut them out of all our submissions.

On Wednesday morning, Reluctant Habits learned that Penguin had filed a total of twelve lawsuits in the past week with the New York State Supreme Court. The full list of author defendants and damages sought is listed below:

1. Ana Marie Cox: An $81,250 advance, “as well as interest of not less than $50,000,” for “a humorous examination of the next generation of political activists.

2. Bob Morris: A $20,000 advance, “as well as interest of not less than $4,000,” for “a narrative about fishing lures and their history. The Work will examine early creators of fishing lures, the rise of Bass Pro Shops, cutting edge research behind the development of high-tech lures, and the science of why fish go for some lures and not others.”

3. Carol Guber: A $35,000 advance, “as well as interest of not less than $10,000,” for a two-book deal involving “a guide to managing Type II diabetes for women” and “a cookbook for diabetes with approximately 125 recipes.”

4. Reverend Conrad Tillard: Tillard received a $31,833 advance for a memoir “tracing his epic journey from the Ivy League to the Nation of Islam, his eventual fall-out with Louis Farrakhan, his crisis of faith, and the epiphany (at Harvard’s Divinity School) that brought him back to the religion of his youth.” Tillard paid back $5,000 of this advance after Penguin terminated his agreement. Now Penguin seeks the remaining $26,833, “plus interest of not less than $9,500.”

5. Deborah Branscum: A $10,000 advance, “as well as interest of not less than $2,000,” for Stuffola, which “traces our national journey from impoverished colony to Pack Rat Nation.”

6. Elizabeth Wurtzel: A $33,000 advance, “as well as interest of not less than $7,500,” for “a book for teenagers to help them cope with depression.”

7. Herman Rosenblat: A $30,000 advance, “as well as interest of not less than $10,000,” for “the amazing story of a Holocaust victim who survived a concentration camp because of a young girl who snuck him food. 17 years later the two met on a blind date and have been together ever since, married for 50 years.” (As Snopes observed on February 21, 2011, this story was revealed to be false. Thanks to Alex Heard for reminding us about this.)

8. Jamal Bryant: A $56,250 advance, “as well as interest of not less than $13,500,” for “a second book from the dynamic pastor of the Empowerment Temple, which inspires men and women to be empowered through faith in God.”

9. John Dizard: A $40,000 advance, “as well as interest of not less than $18,000,” for Gold Now, “an analytical forecast arguing the future success of gold investments and prophesying the decline of the American and European national currencies.”

10. Lucy Danielle Siegle: A $35,000 advance, “as well as interest of not less than $7,000,” for To Die For, “a reporter’s eye view [sic] of the environmental and human rights toll of the fashion business, and a look at the real story behind the clothes we wear, by Observer columnist Lucy Siegle.” (9/27 UPDATE: As Michael Orthofer observed on Twitter, To Die For was published in the UK.)

11. Marguerite Kelly: A $25,000 advance, “as well as interest of not less than $5,000,” for a “comprehensive guide” to “behavioral problems — their symptoms and cures.”

12. Rebecca Mead: A $20,000 advance, “as well as interest of not less than $2,000,” for “a collection of the author’s journalism.”

It remains unknown whether Penguin filed these lawsuits as an insurance measure against recent legal setbacks. A few weeks ago, after HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster, and Hachette agreed to settle in the Department of Justice’s collusion suit, Penguin vowed to fight with Apple and Macmillan. Penguin is also facing an age discrimination suit filed by former veteran employee Marilyn Ducksworth, who left, along with other employees, under mysterious circumstances. (It’s worth pointing out that Gottlieb has also been outspoken in his support for Ducksworth.)

Of course, when anyone fights a two-front war, it can’t be done without resources. Should Penguin prove victorious in its legal battles against these authors, the grand total to be earned is well over half a million dollars. Assuming that most of the authors opt to settle, this would still land Penguin a fairly comfortable sum.

The twelve lawsuits continue Penguin’s ongoing efforts to tap revenue through “outside the box” thinking. Penguin’s August purchase of Author Solutions, which Smashwords’s Mark Coker has identified as “one of the companies that put the ‘V’ in vanity,” suggests that Penguin’s new business strategy involves squeezing authors. The biggest surprise is that Penguin has extended this tactic to established authors.

It remains unknown whether Penguin will continue to file more lawsuits, but, in recent months, the company has proved more aggressive in its pursuit of lost monies. As Publishers Lunch’s Sarah Weinman reported on September 20, Penguin filed a lawsuit seeking $22,000 and interest from MacAdam/Cage over the ebook rights to Susan Vreeland’s Girl in Hyacinth Blue.

Representatives from Penguin did not wish to speak with us on the record.

Against the Status Galley

The so-called “status galley” — that is, a prepublication edition of a book, generally of massive size and/or literary challenge, possessed by an underpaid and often illiterate member of the publishing world who has no intention of reading beyond the first few chapters — is among the most vexing amalgams of materialism and literature that the 21st century has ever known. It is a relatively recent phenomenon, augmented by the Brobdignagian burst of journalists attending trade shows. The good ones are savvy enough to recognize a mini-Hubbert’s Peak among some publisher upon sight. I’m quibbling about those who take the galleys that they will never read or write about, who hector certain publicists and editors and peck away at the diminishing supply. This is admittedly a pedantic vexation, hardly commensurate with the junket whores in the film world or the predatory bastards who cripple working stiffs with a sneaky high-interest subprime loan that will cause them to toil unduly in their seventies, their eighties, and their nineties. But it bothers me nonetheless.

The status galley reduces a book not merely to a thing (let us accept that fetishism is ineluctable), but to a vapid item that is trotted around like a fashion accessory. And we’re talking about an item, often a work of art, isn’t even finished. If you have a status galley and boast about it, it is very likely that you have no particular interest in reading it. Nor are you courteous enough, like most avid literary people, to give it to someone who may be in need of it. You take a vital galley from the limited supply, horde some volume that has taken an author many years of hard labor and treat it like a bag of Doritos that you toss into the street.

This seems to me worse than the book pirate (largely mythical), who at least has some vested interest in reading a book or getting excited about an author. This seems to me worse than some guy at a book signing who asks an author the same question that she’s heard several hundred times. (At least, that hypothetical guy has enthusiasm.) Such actions may be executed through clumsiness or cluelessness, but they are at least sincere and enthusiastic in intent. However, to obtain a galley just so that you can have it is perhaps one of the most disrespectful acts you can perform. It does not come from a place of passion. It comes from a onyx sinkhole of consumerism. It comes from a place of needless competition, whereby you have the book that someone else does not. It works against the book’s undeniably communal nature. And it reveals you for the superficial con that you are.

Again, this is a highly pedantic concern. Probably nothing worth shooting up a post office over. But it bugs me.

Hachette Imposes Salary Cuts Across Board

An anonymous source has informed me that Alain Lemarchand, CEO & President of Hachette Filipacchi Media, has sent a memo to his employees.

Today’s business environment requires decisive and quick action for the welfare of the company. This includes a number of difficult decisions on my part, some of which impact you personally. In this case, I deliberated long and carefully before coming to the conclusion that one of the steps that needs to be taken immediately is a cut in base salaries. Effective April 27, 2009, the salaries of all exempt employees will be reduced by 6% and the salaries of non-exempt employees by 3%. In addition, we are changing the regular work day from 7 ½ hours to 8 hours. For non-exempt employees, overtime will continue to be calculated on a weekly basis and will be paid for all hours worked over 40 hours.

I understand that this economy has already had an impact on each of you and that this represents another loss. I am sorry for that. We hope that taking this measure across the company will save headcount in the long run. I know you join me in wanting this company to remain competitive in this challenging marketplace. I want to assure you that once the economic picture improves, we will reevaluate this decision.

I thank you for your continued dedication to your work. Your professionalism and contributions are essential to the ultimate performance and success of HFM U.S.

It remains unknown whether a similar memo involving similar salary sacrifices was distributed to the Hachette Book Group or Grand Central. But investigations are ongoing. And a bitchy and decidedly unprofessional comment left on this site today by executive editor Reagan Arthur would seem to suggest that she’s only 94% herself today.

The Publishing Industry: An Economic Thought Experiment

Case Study 1: During Presidents Day Weekend, the software company Valve tried out an experiment. Valve, the company behind the successful Half-Life franchise, temporarily halved the price for Left 4 Dead, a cooperative first-person shooter title, from $49.99 to $24.99, over the course of a few days through its centralized Steam client. The results exceeded Valve’s wildest expectations. Sales rose 3,000 percent, and the revenue generated over the weekend dwarfed the game’s sales during its launch. By temporarily offering the game at a price point that was affordable to everybody, and making the game instantly downloadable, not only was Valve able to breathe life into a four month-old game, but they were able to get more people attracted to the product. Valve’s DRM policy is fairly straightforward. If you purchased a game, you can download the game on another computer, should you login as that user. (This was, incidentally, how I was able to redownload Half-Life 2 last year after a move, when I had accidentally deleted my Steam files and couldn’t find the original disc that I had purchased. One overnight download and I was back in action, happily fragging alien creatures.)

There are a number of important points here.

1. Unlike the Kindle or the eReader, there isn’t an expensive entry point here. You don’t have to pay $400 to get started on Steam. You can download the client for free on the hardware you already have and just pay for the games. The cost is minimal and affordable.

2. Unlike the Kindle, the DRM rights aren’t limited to the device or a singular computer (unlike last year’s Spore DRM controversy). If your hard drive goes kaput, then you can download the game again on another computer. Simply identify yourself through your Steam ID, and you can download the game on as many PCs as you want.

3. By offering a variable price point that considered what the general (and probably out-of-work) consumer wanted, Valve was able to generate more interest in the title than they anticipated.

Case Study 2: For seven years, the comic book industry has offered Free Comic Book Day. The idea is this. The general consumer goes into a store, gets a few free comic books, and is reminded why comics are great in the first place. The consumer divagates through a store and purchases more titles. And the whole thing gets considerable media attention.

The smart retailers, like Mike Sterling, spiff up their stores and offer additional in-store sales: 10% off graphic novels, four for the price of three on manga. (And in Sterling’s case, the graphic novel sales alone paid for the cost of the FCBD floppies.) You get the community involved by making celebratory cakes. You get to find out what titles get people excited. You get to form relationships with potential new customers. You move product. (For Heroes Aren’t Hard to Find owner Shelton Drum, FCBD is one of the top three sales days of the year.) You get to demonstrate to people why they need to keep going to a comic book store. And, like the Valve experiment, there’s no expensive entry point. Plus, the consumers will walk away from the store with something.

Case Study 3: Board game manufacturers are now considering something that worked very well during the Great Depression. If you offer an American family a reasonably priced form of entertainment that will last for a long time, they may very well set aside $20 to buy the product during lean times. (According to a Hasbro spokesman, board games and puzzle sales rose 2% in 2008.)

Case Study 4: Soft Skull had a surprisingly profitable year in 2008 because the efforts here were focused on (1) knowing the audience and (2) working hard to connect the audience as intimately and personally as possible. (In other words, if you treat your audience like some dopey general demographic, why on earth would they bother to buy your product?)

* * *

So what do we take away from all this? How did these successes emerge during a recession? In each case, the individual’s daily realities were respected. There probably isn’t a lot of money to go around in the household, but there was just enough cash for a micropayment. The individual wasn’t asked to invest money she didn’t have in some fancy-schmancy technological doodad before purchasing an affordable form of entertainment. The individual received an affordable long-term option that would keep her entertained or occupied for many hours. The individual did not have to deal with invasive DRM that suggested she was a criminal. The individual was listened to and treated with respect by the retailer. And the retailer never assumed that it would make a sale. But the retailer likewise had opportunities to listen to what the audience wanted and to find out what it may be doing wrong.

So if there is a modicum of money to be made in a limping economy, why aren’t today’s publishers and book retailers accounting for these realities?

Most people who are now out of work cannot afford a $30 hardcover, let alone a $400 Kindle. And yet corporate arrogance keeps these units at prices unreasonable to someone unemployed who needs a little entertainment during an economic downturn. And what is the result? Anger boils to the surface. Long-term relationships with potential customers suffer because the corporate overlords remain inflexible on price point.

So if you’re a publisher or a bookseller, consider this. If you know that people can afford a $10 hardcover (as opposed to a $30 hardcover), why in the hell aren’t you learning from these examples? Why aren’t you offering a Valve-like time window where people can walk into a bookstore and purchase a few $10 hardcovers over a weekend? And why aren’t you promoting the hell out of this? Why isn’t there a Free Book Day in which you get to introduce people to the joys of books and you get to know your customers? Why aren’t you forming intimate and personal connections with readers so that they’ll continue to buy your products? And why aren’t you considering that they really don’t have a hell of a lot of cash to throw around right now?

Are you willing to take a hit on the first spate of units, much as Valve did, if there’s the possibility that you may just hit a thundering mother lode after the initial curve? Or do you want to continue to turn off readers?

Can you truly afford to refer to the territory between the coasts as “flyover states” when there are good people there who want to enjoy books right now? If you’re an author or a publicist, can you afford to thumb your nose up at any media opportunity that isn’t the New York Times Book Review? Or are you not really all that interested in establishing relationships? If you’re a newspaper or a magazine, why aren’t you citing the blogs or providing helpful URLs to the blogs that break the stories or make the connections? Why aren’t you hiring bloggers to write the articles? Don’t you realize that online audiences might come your way if they know that a particular voice is attached? And here’s a bold concept to consider. If you took the top 10,000 bloggers on Technorati and paid each of them $40,000 a year — a livable wage that would permit them all to carry out their work, which could also include serious investigations — that’s a cost of $400 million. For $400 million a year, someone could get the top 10,000 bloggers reporting for newspapers and seamlessly integrate their content into the great whole. And the newspapers could offer copy editing and journalistic resources so that their voices might improve. (Of course, you’d have to accept their unadulterated voices. For these voices, differing from the mainstream, are what caused these bloggers to rise up in the first place.)

If today’s publishers, booksellers, and media outlets hope to answer these questions and produce results similar to the above four case studies, then bolder ideas and experiments need to be attempted and shared with transparency in mind. It is not economically feasible to sit back and wait for the magic results of the stimulus package to trickle around. The current Dow Jones declivity has demonstrated the follies of lame ducks. The previous ways of doing things may very well be at an end: possibly with some permanence. But we won’t know this for sure until those in positions of power attempt a little innovation and modify the current formulas that aren’t working. Change, it seems, was something we hoped somebody else would do. But it’s now become quite apparent that today’s real innovators are those with the courage to take hold of their own destinies.

[UPDATE: Since this post, like many of these lengthy ones, originated from thoughts and musings I expressed on Twitter, here are a few related thoughts from others on the subject. @jimmydare observes that Orbit is experimenting with the $1 ebook. @AnnKingman pointed out that Record Store Day was a huge success for her local record store. (More details on what goes on at Record Store Day here.) @thebookmaven suggests that a Free Book Day might be one way that independent bookstores can compete with ebooks, and also suggests a $5 Book of Your Choice Day.]

Macmillan Lays Off 64, FSG in Severe Trouble

Shortly after last week’s wage freeze, Publishers Weekly‘s Jim Milliot is reporting that Macmillan Publishing has eliminated 64 positions. This is 4% of Macmillan’s U.S. workforce.

The Observer‘s Leon Neyfakh has more. There are currently unconfirmed rumors that as many as 15 people could be let go before the end of today. Among the FSG casualties: head of production Tom Consiglio and editor Denise Oswald. The Faber & Faber imprint appears to be getting absorbed or is possibly toast.

A report from the New York Times‘s Motoko Rich reveals that current Henry Holt president Dan Farley will assume responsibility for the newly formed Macmillan Children’s Publishing Group. But who will lead Henry Holt? Is this where more cuts are going to occur?

More details as they come in.


3:45 PM: Based on tweets and emails, here is what I’ve been able to determine: The publicity department should be okay. Picador, Henry Holt, and Tor (latter bit via @pnh) appear to remain alive (for now). The cuts appear to be directed at FSG, aimed at fitting FSG imprints into the new reorganization. I am hoping to have specific reports to draw on later. But if you need to get some bearings on what’s happening today, this is the snapshot of things to come. Jonathan Galassi will be issuing a statement of some sort later today.

4:06 PM: @PublishersLunch: “Truman Talley, 84, is retiring after 11 years at the eponymous SMP imprint, and 60 years in publishing.”

4:09 PM: The Observer‘s Leon Neyfakh is reporting that the FSG children’s division is gone, and that it will be incorporated into the new Macmillan Children’s Publishing Group. No official word or statement yet from Galassi.

4:41 PM: No word yet from Galassi, and I’ve got to split. Do check out Twitter and the dependable Leon Neyfakh for any official word.

Alternate Final Paragraphs for the John Sargent Memo

Gawker recently republished a memo distributed to Macmillan employees that announced a pay freeze for anyone making over $50,000. The memo contained one of the most heartless final paragraphs contained in a publishing circular this year.

By a strange coincidence, Reluctant Habits has obtained a list of three alternate paragraphs that Mr. Sargent briefly considered:

1. I know that this news feels as if we’re ass-raping you and your family. And quite frankly, we are. But I trust that you and yours will have a happy and healthy holiday season as we are systematically sodomizing your relatives.

2. I know that I’m an insensitive clod. But the money men have insisted that I should reach out to you in some way. So a happy and healthy holiday season to you and yours. I’d take you to Malibu with me. But times are tough.

3. There is really no way that I can end this memo without coming across as an asshole. But thank you so much for your efforts, and for taking one for the team. A happy and healthy holiday season! It’s all about sacrifice!

Boris Kachka’s Original Notes for Article

After bribing a number of underpaid assistants with Duane Reade gift certificates (there was a stack here; don’t ask how we acquired it) and attempting to whisper sweet somethings into New York Magazine editorial interns who have been wrongly pegged as know-nothings, Reluctant Habits has obtained the early notes for Boris Kachka’s “Oh noes! The publishing industry is dead!” article. We don’t know what to make of Mr. Kachka referring to himself in the first person in these early notes, assuming the shaky provenance can be believed (and indeed we have grave doubts). But we presume that it’s the kind of casual hubris one employs when one is too embarrassed to refer to one’s self in the overused first person plural.

* * *

1. Okay, Boris, authenticity! Authenticity! Authenticity! Get the architectural details right! Employ modifiers like “drab” and “mysterious.” Use words like “demise” and “gallows.” Use Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy for reference. We need the audience to cry uncontrollably. We need to create the impression that everyone who works in the publishing industry is crying uncontrollably. And, Boris, as you sit at the keyboard to write this, perhaps you will cry uncontrollably. Never let facts get in the way of the emotions!

2. You can never use enough exclamation points! Remember, we’re pulling back the curtain. The publishing industry is dead and has no hope! Watch the end of Planet of the Apes every 200 words to get the appropriate apocalyptic feel here. You publishing maniacs! You blew it up! Ah, damn you! God damn you all to hell!

3. Well, if Bob Miller is setting this thing up, then he IS the story! Never mind that the imprint is unproven. If you can’t point to specific examples with HarperStudio, then go with Jane Friedman! After all, she’s the one who greenlighted this, yes? Even if you can’t figure out the precise details of her sacking, suggest authority by providing details about her post-retirement party.

4. Insert random quotes every 500 words. The quotes don’t have to match up with the text that follows. But this should create an authentic enough feel.

5. Still struggling for title for piece. Watch Burt Reynolds movies.

6. Find a way to work in Lenin reference.

7. There’s an alternative here to the standard conglomerates take over everything angle, isn’t there? Surely, it can’t be that simple. Think, Boris, think! Uh, dot com days?

8. Dale Peck angle? We need someone making low six figures here. I mean, that’s the New York readership! Surely, nobody who pays less than $2,500 a month in rent reads this magazine. Demographic will sympathize!

9. Work in “long tail” reference. Shit on Chris Anderson if you can. Still vaguely fashionable, I think, to take a dump on Chris Anderson.

10. Suggest that Markus Dohle doesn’t know what he’s doing, but focus on appearance if you can’t locate the facts. Maybe describe Sonny Metha as “dapper.”

11. Constant comparisons to the old boozing days of publishing. Things used to be better. That never fails, eh?

12. Okay, we’ll never know what happened between Richard Ford and Fisketjon. But go for the gossip angle if necessary.

13. Get sources to say that nothing matters. Need at least three quotes. Preferably anonymous.

14. Wait, how else is the publishing industry dying? Causation does not imply correlation? Fuck that. BEA attendance was down! Work that in.

15. Work in Kindle.

16. Need list of “Books Gone Bust.” Shit, only four examples come to mind. Well, that’s enough, surely! Nobody’s going to pay attention to the titles that actually sell, are they? They’re going to believe our “publishing is dead” angle because I’m Boris Fucking Kachka!

17. When in doubt of your shaky knowledge about the publishing industry, Boris, have a good wank. Or three.

Harcourt and Houghton Sitting in a $4 Billion Tree, M-O-N-E-Y and Glee?

Publishers Weekly reports that Houghton Mifflin’s purchase of Harcourt has been effected for $4 billion. The new company will be called the “Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company,” with Tony Lucki serving as Chairman and CEO. The collective workforce is currently scattered across offices in Boston, San Diego, and New York. It’s unknown how the integration will be effected or whether this will entail pink slips before the New Year. But Lucki promises that the new conglomerate will “be particularly robust in the first 90 days.” Which presumably means that those who currently hold onto their jobs are safe through February, assuming that their services prove “robust” through the winter.

A Candid View of the Publishing Industry

I had intended to link to this earlier, but for anyone wanting an inside glimpse of the publishing industry, the Virginia Quarterly Review has put up a podcast and a transcript of four publishing heads discussing the state of the industry. Among some of the more interesting highlights:

  • Grove/Atlantic head Morgan Entrekin doesn’t believe that literary fiction is under siege and believe that now is the best time for literary fiction in his thirty-year career.
  • FSG president Jonathan Galassi believes that the success of The Emperor’s Children was the exception to the literary fiction rule, saying that it’s “harder and harder to get people to care about something new, to get things to turn over.”
  • This probably ties into Levi’s ongoing discussion about hardcovers vs. paperbacks, but Entrekin relaunched the Black Cat imprint as a paperback original imprint, because he found that the Black Cat hardcovers were getting a 70-80% return rate.
  • HarperCollins president Jonathan Burnham noted that in positioning books for newspaper coverage, it helped to have “just a story behind the creation of the book.” (Knopf president Sonny Mehta agreed, citing Irène Némirovsky as an example.)
  • There seems to be a consensus that a book landing on the National Book Award shortlist has little effect on sales.
  • Entrekin and Mehta both admit that fifty percent of their business is in the backlist.
  • Galassi believes that writers shouldn’t write for the market. “They should try to develop confidence with their voice and then find professionals to help them with the other, but if you try and sort of play the market, I think you’re putting the cart before the horse, myself.”
  • An audience member brought up Soft Skull’s book bundles, causing Burnham to remark that Knopf or Harper couldn’t effect something like this. So perhaps there are certain advantages in being a small press with a personality and focus.

Stephen Dixon’s Version of Musical Chairs

Failbetter: “I didn’t merge the last two novels of the I. trio into one. The trio became a duo when McSweeney’s rejected the second voume of the work, then called 2. They rejected it, they said, because they were cutting back on their fiction. So I removed 2 from the trio, rewrote it in its entirety (something I’ve been doing a lot with my work the last few years), gave the I. character a name, and submitted the work, as Old Friends, to Melville House, which took it in a couple of weeks. Then McSweeney’s wrote, saying they were starting a new fiction series and they’d like to see 2. I said 2 was now Old Friends and unavailable, would you like to see 3, which was now End of I. and also entirely rewritten from first page to last? They did and they took it.” (via Moorish Girl)

Millenia Black: Racism at NAL Signet?

Millenia Black writes that the publisher of her second book, The Great Betrayal, is demanding that she change her characters from Caucasian to African-American before they publish the book. The publisher isn’t named, but according to my sources, it’s New American Library Trade Books. We only have Black’s word to go on. But if this is true, then this is abominable on several levels.

Since nobody thought to look into this, I called NAL Signet to see if I could hear its side of the story or what it had to say in response to Black’s charges.

I got in touch with the NAL publicity department first and was then led to another publicist, who suggested I contact the main switchboard. I then got in touch with a woman who worked in “editorial,” but who did not identify herself. I asked her if she could tell me who the editor for The Great Betrayal was because I was trying to verify some information about the title. When she did not, I then told her about Black’s story. She immediately replied, “I don’t know anything. It’s not my book.” Before I can say anything in response, she transferred me to publicity.

I then spoke with a publicist named Lisa, one of the two I had spoken with before. She didn’t have any information on who was handling the book. I then told her what the charges were and, in an effort to get somewhere, I said, “Well, if you’re publicity, then you’re going to have to offer some kind of official response to this. Because I’m sure you’re going to have many people calling you about this.” Lisa told me that she had asked around and said that Black’s allegations were “not true” took down my name and number and wouldn’t reveal the editor’s name to me. But the editor, a woman, would be calling me back.

If I don’t hear back from NAL tomorrow, I will call again. And I’ll call the next day. And the day after that. And I will continue to call until I get an answer from NAL on this. If anyone has any leads or if there’s anyone inside NAL who would like to respond anonymously about this, then you can email me at ed AT and I will treat your emails with the strictest confidentiality.

(The lead on this story came from Lee Goldberg.)

[UPDATE: I have also sent emails to Claire Zion, editorial director of NAL Signet, and Tina Brown with some questions. I will keep readers apprised of any information I uncover.]

[UPDATE 2: An anonymous tipster suggests that Millenia Black plans to file a lawsuit for damages. But the story is suspect, because this tipster reports that Black has retained an attorney named Susan Clark, who is not even listed in the New York State Attorney Directory. So I remain dubious.]

[UPDATE 3: Last month, The Palm Beach Post reported that Millenia Black cancelled an appearance at Pyramid Books in Boynton Beach because the bookstore asked if she was black. I plan to call the bookstore to hear its take on this. The question is this: is Black making up charges to gain notoriety or is there truth to her statements? Or is the truth somewhere in between?]

[5/31/06 UPDATE: I spoke with Millenia Black this morning and I have several calls into many parties pertaining to this matter. There is a forthcoming podcast in the works devoted exclusively to this issue, but here’s what I can tell you now:

The Great Betrayal, the novel in question, is being released by NAL Trade on December 5, 2006. The novel will feature the characters as Caucasian, rather than the suggested change to African-American.

Black claims that recent legal maneuvers spawned the book’s release as is. She told me that, outside of the change in race, she had no problems with any of the editor’s changes. (I also finally got through to the editor today and hope to hear her side of the story.)

The Great Betrayal was accepted in outline form with the characters as white. Black then wrote the novel based on this outline. It was just after Black had finished the manuscript when the character race change was requested by her editor.

Communications on this matter between Black and the editor came through her agent. The editor broached the race change question with the agent; the agent then relayed this to Black. Black said no and there began an email volley between Black and the editor. Curiously, the matter was never taken up by phone directly between Black and the editor.

There is a lot more I’m following up on here and I will present the results as they come in.]

Players and Quitters

Levi Asher reports on yesterday’s book publishing panel with Sarah Weinman and Akashic‘s Johnny Temple: “Next up was a young woman with a forlorn Fiona Apple look who said she’d once written a novel that had sold 5000 copies. But she’d lost her footing in the publishing world and was now completely lost, unpublished and angry. She played the pathos card, almost starting to cry, and like the previous questioner did not seem satisfied with the realistic responses her question received. Sarah Weinman counseled her to not give up hope, but the woman replied that this answer was ‘just bullshit’, at which point Sarah began to visibly sneer and both publishers on stage began to draw big imaginary ‘X’ marks over the poor woman’s head (‘X’ being the code for ‘Do Not Publish This Writer Under Any Circumstances’).”

The Least Influential People in Publishing

3 AM Magazine has asked its readers to come up with the 50 least influential people in publishing. I have taken the liberty of nominating myself. If I don’t make the top ten, there’s going to be hell to pay! You hear that, Mr. Gallix? These are the wild thrashings of a litblogger who has NO INFLUENCE WHATSOEVER on the publishing industry! I cannot stop them from publishing Dan Brown or John Grisham. I cannot stop them from giving ridiculous advances to Alan Greenspan. I cannot stop them from throwing money to idiots like the Nanny Diaries authors or Paris Hilton or Nicole Ritchie. I have NO INFLUENCE WHATSOEVER over the publishing industry’s strange behavior and altogether irrational decisions!

In other words: Number one with a bullet, Gallix!

Gray Lady Turns Yellow?

I’m not sure if I buy the logic in this New York Times article about paperback originals:

Ms. von Mehren, the publisher, said that following the article in the Book Review, Mr. Mitchell’s novel sold “10 to 20 times better than he ever had here. It really reignited his career.” Next month, Random House will publish Mr. Mitchell’s next novel, “Black Swan Green.” In hardcover.

Au contraire, Ms. von Mehren. A quick look at certain dates will deflate this mistaken hypothesis. A moment, if you will, as we dig up the history:

August 29, 2004: Tom Bissell, a perfectly fine critic, reviews Cloud Atlas for the NYTBR.

August 17, 2004: Random House releases paperback original of Cloud Atlas to bookstores.

Now I’m no marketing expert. But it seems to me that 12 days is enough time for the most feverish literary folks to read Cloud Atlas in whole and then tell their friends and loved ones, “Holy shit! You have to check out this David Mitchell guy. This is the best damn literary fiction I’ve read in years,” which then inspires these folks to do the same.

But more importantly, there is the history, which indicates (in about five minutes of Googling):

Early 2004: Some guy named Edward Champion manages to get his hands on the UK hardcover and says “David Mitchell” in nearly every sentence he writes and speaks. Others soon follow.

August 17, 2004: Village Voice reviews book.

August 22, 2004: David Mitchell interviewed by Washington Post, as well as Cloud Atlas reviewed. He is also reviewed by St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

August 27, 2004: Cloud Atlas anounced as part of Booker longlist for 2005. Cloud Atlas is reviewed by Boston Phoenix.

October 2004: David Mitchell appears in many U.S. bookstores. He is interviewed by a guy who doesn’t know what he’s doing.

October 10, 2004: Cloud Atlas reviewed by San Francisco Chronicle.

In other words, not only did Cloud Atlas get a hell of a lot of publicity from multiple outlets, but there were many reviews other than the NYTBR reviewing it. I also think Random House was smart in getting Mitchell into the States in October to revive interest in it — in the event that some folks hadn’t heard of it already or the attention had flagged.

So for the Times to take exclusive credit (as much as I’ve mentioned Mitchell over the years, I certainly wouldn’t) for Cloud Atlas‘ success is not only laughable in the extreme, but highly irresponsible. Could it be that this is an in-house effort on the part of the Times to prop up their decaying Sunday literary offering? What can we expect next from the Gray Lady? A Sam Tanenhaus centerfold in next week’s New York Times Magazine? Propaganda isn’t working for the Bush Administration and it certainly won’t work for the NYTBR.

Ana Marie Cox: Unprofitable?

Total Advance Paid Out to Ana Marie Cox: $275,000
Total Number of Books Sold (thanks to Ron Hogan’s Bookscan detective work): 3,800
Price of Hardcover Edition of Dog Days: $23.95
Number of Copies of Dog Days That Need to Be Sold to Equal Ana Marie Cox’s Advance: 11,458

Now I’m hardly a financial genius and I couldn’t even guess as to the production and promotion costs associated with Dog Days. But even considering Cox’s upcoming appearances on the West Coast, if 3,800 copies is the number that comes after all that Gray Lady coverage, I’m guessing that either (a) there isn’t really much of a market for cutesy political novels or (b) bloggers aren’t nearly as salable as they think they are. Let’s consider the actual gross that goes straight to the publisher. Clearly with a sizable advance, Riverhead was hoping that this book would sell big. Somewhere in the area of 30,000 copies, I’m guessing.

So either Kate Lee[1] Gary Morris’s persuasive abilities are bar none or the waft of a shaggy dog travels fast.

[1] Thanks, Sarah!

Clowing Around with Slim Returns

As the Literary Saloon points out, Salman Rushdie’s Shalimar the Clown has sold only 26,000 copies, despite a massive publicity blitz. M.A.O. suggests that this is because nobody is really interested in reading Rushdie.

But I think the answer is simpler. Who, outside of hard-core literary geeks, can really remember a title like Shalimar the Clown? And are clowns really all that sexy? Perhaps in small doses, such as between acts at a circus. But not throughout the duration of an entire novel. (Which is not, incidentally, how Shalimar is structured, but we’re talking about impressions here!)

If I were Rushdie’s publisher, I would have urged Rushdie to come up with a title that didn’t involve clowns at all or that included words with no more than two syllables. Midnight’s Children? Sure. The Satanic Verses? Absolutely. Rolls off the tip of the tongue and cements itself into your head. But Shalimar the Clown? Not really a lot of enigma there. You may as well call the book Joe the Barber.

Besides, name a book or a film with the words “the clown” in it that has actually sold well. Not even a Robin Williams cameo in 1992 could save Shakes the Clown from losing dinero.

The moral of the story: If you want to make money, don’t include the words “the clown” in your title.

[UPDATE: OGIC notes that the Times may have the figure wrong and that the actual number is closer to 80,000. If this is indeed the case, then this is a serious journalistic mistake that deserves more than a mere “correction,” particularly since the article went out of its way to suggest that Rushdie sales fell dramatically short of publisher expectations, imputing that fiction sales were in a slump. (An image of the specific paragraph, if the Gray Lady corrects it, can be found here. Perhaps someone with a Bookscan account can contribute Shalimar‘s true sales here.]

Never Write Blog Posts

Not the public variety. The ones where you utter foolish statements ragging on people close to you and broadcast it to the public at large. The best reason not to do this is because you will always come across as an assclown.

On Friday my literary agent called me. I was surprised to hear from him as it was a long weekend and neither of us were on a first name basis with each other. In fact, my agent hadn’t returned my voicemails and was quite surprised to find that I was indeed one of his clients. Nevertheless, we chatted a bit about how inept we both were at making turkey and the associative guilt we felt at being relegated to mashing potatoes. Even then I was writing a blog entry in my head: he was calling me to tell me that I should probably write a pretty darn nice novel if I ever expected to be published. Again I was lazy. Again I lacked time.

The reason he was calling me was to tell me that he was leaving the publishing business, as well as his wife. He also told me that he had unexpectedly contracted herpes simplex from a Bob’s Big Boy waitress and that I should probably not tell this to anyone. He said he hated to use the word ashamed but that’s what he was. I was stunned. I told him I understood and that I would keep all this confidential. He fucked too much and he wanted to leave his wife. He doesn’t know what he’ll do, but hopefully he’ll be able to find a regular sexual relationship at his STD support group.

I asked him if this was the reason he had forgotten that I was his client. He said, “No, Ed. You have a tendency to shoot your mouth off.”

“Well, at least I’m not Sandra Scoppettone,” I said. “And at least you’re not a real person but rather a figment of my imagination which I can use for a satirical post.”

“That’s true too, Ed. But like most fictional characters, I too have feelings.”

Anyway, I promised to send him a Purina fruitcake later in the year and wished him well. And we concluded our call.

But unlike most professionals, I couldn’t really function after all this, even after about twenty expensive hours of psychotherapy and enough antidepressants to knock a circusful of elephants on their asses. Who will be my new agent be, if I’m going to have one?

Not to insult anyone, but this agent is the last of a certain breed…he is, in fact, one of those rare Border Collies who is not only capable of reading, writing and speaking the English language, but setting me up with publishing houses without so much as stopping to fetch a newspaper. He mentioned the possibility of one agent and I asked how old the person was. Not only was this new agent human but he was twelve years old.

I know any agent I take on is going to be a little different, but twelve? This kid can’t even get into a PG-13 movie! And I can! I’m not saying an agent at this age has to be horrible! In fact, a pederast down the street recently knocked on my door to inform me that he lived in the neighborhood, per the requirements of Megan’s Law, and he assures me that twelve year olds are more adept in certain areas than older people. I’m not certain I believe him.

Still, if this twelve year old agent can get me the gigs, and I can put my innate agism aside, concentrating on his skills as a professional, well then maybe I just might get through this thing.

Pardon me while I buy my new agent an ice cream cone.

Surviving On Strange Fits

This Sunday’s New York Times features this Mary Gaitskill profile. So what is the life of a 52 year old woman writer who writes gritty and uncompromising literary fiction like? And what does being nominated for the National Book Award mean? Incredibly, a bit of a break in a career that has involved not being offered a cushy faculty position and living in a student dormitory to cut costs while teaching at Syracuse. (via SnarkSpot)

You’re a Slipping Bestselling Author, Dan Brown

All extroverts have suddenly become astonishingly antisocial. The sky has turned bright green. The ocean has turned hot pink. To get milk, you must squeeze it out of an iguana’s teat instead of a cow’s. Hot dogs and hot dog buns can be purchased in the exact same increment (both now come in sets of six)! Ants have decided that they were wrong about picnics and have proceeded to invade the banquets of the rich and snooty instead.

In a word, there’s been some small upset in the universe. Because The Da Vinci Code, that book which seemingly everyone has purchased, will NOT, repeat NOT be on the New York Times bestseller list this week.

Tears will be shed this weekend in the Dan Brown household. Fer shure.

Jack Bunyan’s Writing Advice, Part One

[EDITOR’S NOTE: Because we receive a good deal of email from readers asking us how to write, how to find an agent, etc., and because NaNoWriMo is in the early stages, we’ve enlisted Jack Bunyan, author of Anger and You: Getting in Touch With Your Inner Id and Letting the Inner Bastard Take Charge of Your Life, several dry pieces for technical manuals, and a good deal of publicity material for the Orange County Visitors Bureau, to offer some advice for aspiring writers.]

So you wanna write, eh, kid? Well, stand in line and be my bitch. And prepare to squeal like a pig, boy. Because I’m just getting started and I swing more than two ways.

If I were a god (and, believe me, I’m as close as a human comes to a deity; you haven’t known fear until you’ve ordered me sparkling water in a bar; so, listen carefully, son), I’d turn over all the buildings for all the liberal arts programs and find thousands of people just like you who have these pressing life stories to tell.

You think you have tomorrow’s best seller? Cry me a fucking river! Sure, you lost both parents to a flesh-eating virus within days and you lived to tell the tale. Sure, you woke up in a rehab clinic and you don’t know how you got there. Do you think I care? Do you think America cares? Most importantly, do you think the publishing industry cares?

The way it works is this: you scribble your intimate thoughts away and the publishing industry hands you a pittance. No chocolate mint left on the pillow, compadre. You’re much better whoring yourself out on the Sunset Strip than thinking you can make it as a freelancer, much less a writer who turns out one book a year. Unless you’re a trust fund kid and you have all the free time in the world and you don’t have to worry about starvation in the immediate future, I would advise any aspiring writers to give up immediately.

Still with me? Good. I knew I could count on you. That’s what this is all about: separating the wheat from the chaff. Let me buy you wheaties a few pints of microbrewed wheat bear. Of course, this doesn’t mean that I won’t ask you to squeal like a pig.

If you think you have what it takes, then you better be prepared. Because chances are nobody cares what you have to say.

So who’s left? Well, you are, bitch. And you’re there to convince your agent and your publisher that you have an audience that will buy your books.

If that means staging elaborate readings or appearing at every bookstore that will allow you to read, if that means spreading the word through emails and operating off of a persistence that will not abate, even after your spouse and your dog have left you and you’re lying in a ditch wondering how you got there, then that’s damn well what it takes.

And if that means spending years writing the worst dreck possible to keep a roof over your heads and become one of the many unreported failures, well then at least you’ll meet your maker as a professional.

Now excuse me while I toss down my iced tea and call this number for an out call, so’s I can calm my nerves.

Outrageous Fortunes

First Warren Buffett, now Terry McAuliffe. Sweet Jeebus. What provokes these nutball seven-figure advances? Sure, Buffett and McAulife have both proved quite adept in the cash-raising department. But why do publishers think that these money skillz somehow translate into a book that will move copies just as well? Unless, of course, Buffett and McAuliffe know something about book proposals that we don’t.

Is the AAP’s Google Lawsuit Truly Reflective of Its Members?

Richard Nash has returned from Frankfurt and he’s now blogging up a storm. Perhaps his most interesting entry is this exchange between Nash and the Association of American Publishers over the Google Library Project lawsuit. (Background reading on the subject can be found here.) What’s particularly interesting is that the AAP’s litigious ardor stems from its representative government. Further, other AAP members (say, smaller presses) don’t seem to factor into the Board’s decision. The unnamed representative at the AAP writes:

As you know, AAP has a Board of Directors that is elected by our members and empowered by AAP’s bylaws to make decisions and take actions on behalf of the entire AAP membership. Quite often, issues that eventually come before the Board for decisions and actions are initially explored and considered by one or more of AAP’s committees and divisions. AAP staff routinely work to facilitate participation in these committees and divisions by all interested members, and members are always encouraged to contact AAP staff to make known their interests, concerns and views on relevant matters.

I tried hunting around the AAP site to see if I could locate a copy of these bylaws. Given that the publishing industry is a mighty and multifarious zoo populated by animals of different stripes, I figured (perhaps naively) that any large organization might have some exigencies for allowing minority opinions (such as Nash’s) to be voiced and considered, if not outright memorialized before the Board. Alas, no such luck.

However, I did locate this list of the Board of Directors. And I’m not certain if the Board’s current makeup genuinely reflects the industry as a whole. Sure, we have the big behemoths (with Houghton Mifflin as chair, Random House as vice chair) well represented. But aside from a few midsize educational publishers, why isn’t a single member of the board a small or midsize fiction publisher? Surely, any board hoping to represent the entire publishing industry would fill at least one slot along these lines. Then again, “small publisher” probably means something fundamentally different to me than it does to Pat Schroeder.

Further, the AAP’s lawsuit seems to work against their stated agenda. Among the AAP’s goals: “To expand the market for American books and other published books in all media” (emphasis mine) and “To aid AAP member publishers in exploring the challenges and opportunities of the emerging technologies.”

So we’re left with the AAP’s letter to Nash, which is, as Nash notes, “civil” but ultimately a bit dismissive towards anyone who disagrees with the unquestionable wisdom of the mighty Board (“We would certainly welcome the opportunity to answer any questions you may have regarding the basis for AAP’s actions, and perhaps to even persuade you to reconsider your disagreement with those actions.”).

In other words, the sense I’m getting here is that, if you happen to be an AAP member and you have a different spin on an issue that the representative board is considering, not only are your thoughts disregarded when the Board decides upon a course of action that has a tremendous effect on the whole (and, in this case, the lasting power of backlist titles), but the Board doesn’t offer a viable alternative that might help the member explore the “opportunities of the emerging technologies.”

So I have to ask: Is the AAP really there for its Google Library-friendly members? Or does this lawsuit exist to appease the big boys rather than considering this issue holistically?

When You’re a Press Release, You’re a Press Release All the Way

Mediabistro Still in Operation
October 22, 2005

Mediabistro, now in the practice of issuing press releases any time the earth rotates, is still in business mere days after Elizabeth Spiers’ departure. No feelings have been hurt. No drinks have been thrown in anyone’s face. Mediabistro and Spiers are not, repeat NOT, at war. “I’m very happy that mediabistro is still in operation,” said Spiers. “I took the liberty of sending Laurel a few extra feather boas, just to staunch the flow. You know, no hard feelings.”

“We plan to issue more press releases reporting on mediabistro’s existence,” said 23 year-old Willia Milqueton, an unpaid intern regularly putting in sixty hours a week. “We want to out-Denton the competition. Regular updates about nothing is what keeps us in the magazines. Everyone likes a cat fight.” Mediabistro Associate Editor Aileen Gallagher is scheduled to be the next person locked in Jessica Coen’s crosshairs. Gallagher is now viewing Parallax View-style training films of Coen to ensure unnecessary enmity, more contumacious blog posts, and more silly press releases.

Well, If the Memoir Market Has to Be Saturated, This is the Way to Do It

Vanity Fair: “And I believe I have discovered the contours of a new genre of nonfiction, one that has yet to receive its cultural due and perhaps never will: the tawdry porn-star memoir. As pornography’s popularity has mainstreamed out of its once mole-like existence, the porn-star memoir has graduated from cheap paperbacks released by no-name publishers to Judith Regan high-profile schlocktaculars. A genre that should be investigated with an open mind and with a dispenser of anti-bacterial wipes handy, the porn-star memoir packs the center-stage, spotlit “I” of the confessional memoir, the celebrity memoir, and the recovery memoir into one overnight kit. Each tell-all reflects the personality or absence thereof of the porn star who buckled down to bare the hidden recesses of their “inner me” to a tape recorder. ” (via Porn Happy)

Mass-Market Paperbacks and Auctorial Legacies

Today’s New York Times reports on the emerging trend of mass market paperbacks being published in larger type. Much of this has been effected to placate the declining eyesight of baby boomers. The new mass market books, being larger in size, have also seen their prices go up a few bucks to $9.99. Discount retailers (read: Wal-Mart) have, of course, complained. Additionally, the Times article reports that some have complained about how unwieldy the larger size books are.

But the Times fails to consider the larger issue here: With this new larger-print format, will we begin seeing books over a certain length denied this sizable consumer base? If the high watermark was once set at 300 pages, will this be reduced to 200 or so because of prohibitive costs? In other words, does this close the door on ambitious novelists finding an audience through airport bookracks?

Granted, mass market paperbacks aren’t really a sanctuary for literary titles. But they can be an effective format for allowing a midlist author to become more of a household name. (Regrettably, it is usually the likes of John Grisham and James Patterson that succeed along these lines.)

Or is this perhaps a disingenuous way to squeeze out the mass-market paperback and turn the trade paperback into the paperback format of choice? After all with only about a $5 difference between the mass-market paperback and the trade paperback, the reader voracious for an author’s latest is more likely to pony up the dough early if the print remains comparable and the trade paperback’s size is more managable than the mass-market paperback.

If that’s the case, then I’d like to see publishers be honest about the situation. Like most readers, I often like to put a book in a coat pocket, particularly if it’s the only item in my possession. Unfortunately, with some trade paperbacks, this is damn near impossible and results in the book’s ends being curved so the book will fit into the pocket, resulting in a battered and dog-earred copy that quickly falls apart. That’s probably the basic idea. But if these paperbacks are doomed to fall apart, with the original trade paperback concept becoming more accepted, I’m wondering if this dwindling durability will restrict such authors as Sam Lipsyte and David Mitchell from having their work endure for tomorrow’s literary scholars.