Posts Tagged ‘best-selling authors’

The Literary Life

Monday, July 27th, 2015

In the 1950s and 1960s, I grew up in Westchester County, thirty minutes from New York City (think Don Draper in “Mad Men” for the  typical train commute), and I was the son of a book publisher 9k=living in the center of the literary world.  My dad would have frequent parties with other book publishers including Sol Stein, the founder of Stein and Day; Max Schuster of Simon and Shuster; Jovanovich of Harcourt Brace Jovanovich; Nat Wartels, the founder of Crown; luminaries such as Bennet Cerf of Random House; and many others whose names have receded into the mists of publishing history.  I remember the parties and the characters, they seemed larger than life and enjoyed every aspect of living with great emphasis on fine food and drink.  After all these years I forget many of their names, but their companies (such as Sterling) live on, now owned by larger corporations which have changed the publishing world and which, no doubt, in fifty years will in many cases have disappeared as well.

The literary life itself has changed.  As a society we do not cultivate great writing; we really don’t.  I am not sure if great writing is still possible.  And this is not because of technology, but in spite of it. More people are writing more books more easily than ever before. There are more writer’s groups,  more writing courses, more “How to be a Best Selling Author” seminars, and more access to getting books published than in any previous moment in history.  So the problem with the lack of great writing is actually neither access nor time to the tools and the profession. The problem, as far  as I can determine, is with the times in which we live.

There is much focus on commercial success and seeming relevance that it is rare for those who read to take the time to cultivate great writing.  Great writing takes time. Great writing takes  rewriting.  Great writing does not ensure commercial success.  The recent release of Harper Lee’s  “Go Set a Watchman” is a case study that proves why there is little if any great writing or great publishing at this moment in time. “To Kill a Mockingbird”  is a great book, it has withstood the test of time.  It will still be read fifty years from now, more than one hundred years after it was published. But I doubt that even five years from now “Go Set a Watchman” will be read. It is not great writing. It was not meant to be published; it required rewriting.  The rewriting is what created the timelessness of “To Kill a Mockingbird”.  The editor took time, months of back and forth with Harper Lee, hundreds of hours of thought and comment from both editor and author.  This could never happen today.  Both publisher and author can not  take the time to have a book percolate. There is too much financial gain or loss at stake.  And besides, is anyone other than a few literary critics or erudite publishing industry or academic specialists going to notice the flaws in books not truly gestated, not truly edited, but published for great financial benefit?

I write books myself and they are well written. One, “The Twelve”, has sold more than 500,000 copies. My authored books however are not great writing.  I was not motivated to write a great book. I hired an outside editor. I had a wonderful editor provided by the publisher. They did as good a job as the time and money allocated justified. Readers have enjoyed my books, and I receive wonderful compliments from them. For some my books have changed their lives for the better.  They are good books, just not great.  In the fullness of time my books are unlikely to survive.  Only truly great works of art survive.

I recommend that those of you interested in writing strive for greatness. It will not be easy, there will be distractions. You will have to find great editors and you will have to pay them.  You will have to allocate time. You will have to be unattached to the financial results.  You will have to cut back on your social media and dedicate all of your creative energy to the book itself and not the marketing. You will have difficulty finding a major publisher. But if you write a truly great book, your words may live forever.

Now, that would be a true literary life.

ACCIDENTAL BOOK PUBLISHER

Friday, January 10th, 2014

Many years ago when my literary agency, Waterside Productions Inc., was thriving as the epicenter for all books related tospinnaker_sailing_yachts the computer revolution, I was asked by my clients and  the publishers  to whom I was licensing  books from top-selling computer book  authors and experts why I had not created my own publishing company.  Although I  was generating millions of dollars in agency fees as a literary agent it seemed obvious that I could generate tens of millions of dollars of additional profits by becoming a book publisher and not just an agent. After all, we represented more than 25 percent of all the bestselling computer books over a period of close to ten years and many of the individual titles were selling millions of copies annually. Didn’t we realize how much money we were leaving on the table?

I did realize how much money I was leaving on the table, but I had learned about book publishing from my father who has started ARCO Publishing in 1936. ARCO was successful but never as large as it could have been. My father loved book publishing and especially making deals and finding new ways to market books. However, I saw firsthand the complications of having many employees, dealing with printers and warehouses, and having to accept returns from bookstores.  My father could have had a much bigger company but he turned down opportunities to purchase Kaplan when it was a small company and other companies that would have added revenue but reduced his ability to take time off from work and  focus on the casual atmosphere he had created, a lifestyle which included two hour lunches and the ability to leave the office in the middle of the day if he choose to go to a baseball game or other event.

Like him I have never put money as the only priority in running a business. I believe money was his primary priority, but acquiring it was not out of balance with other goals. In my case making money has always been an important priority but not my primary focus. My primary focus has been on working with people and ideas that excite me and allow me to express my own creativity. I found that being an agent rather than publisher allowed me greater diversity and fulfilled my desire to end each day without myriad details needing my attention on each book agented.  As a publisher you must constantly monitor the production and marketing of each book you publish. As agent it is really just about negotiating the right deal with the right publisher for each author with relatively little follow-up required once the deal is struck. Really an ideal scenario for someone with my desire and ability to balance fifty or more negotiations at one time but little capacity for or interest in the details of marketing each book once published.

But then along came the ebook revolution, and what is an agent to do? Except for our major proven authors, it is increasingly difficult to negotiate or even land book deals with the major New York houses. Everyone wants proven, low-risk publishing opportunities and no major publisher can afford the luxury of developing new authors. Authors whose books I could place easily five or ten years ago now are passed on by the major houses. Rather than force these authors self-publish I decided two years ago to create Waterfront Digital Press. My concept was to publish ebooks only and see which books created enough buzz  so that we might, at a future time, be able to approach large traditional publishers to take over both print and ebook publication.  We might not make much money with our ebooks, but we would allow authors to market themselves in a professional manner by introducing them to top PR and marketing services which they, rather than Waterside as publisher, would have to fund. In exchange, we would  pay out 70 percent or more of all ebook-generated  revenue to our authors. This is the reverse of a standard publishing agreement, but we felt we were really co-publishing with our authors and that they and not us were doing the heavy lifting. The other advantage with ebook publishing is that we would have no inventory and no returns. (more…)