Sunday, June 17, 2012

Why I am reading "Ulysses" Instead of "Fahrenheit 451" and other thoughts on the publishing industry. (Sundays with the Classics)

About six months ago, I began staying increasingly late at work.  I used to leave at 5:00 most days, but I began to leave at 6:00 and then even 7 or 8 o'clock at night.

The reason I was staying so late was the flood of new clients coming in -- an onslaught of mostly-foreclosure related clients who were all but knocking down the doors of our firm trying to hire me to represent them.  I simply couldn't fit them all in during the day and so I began seeing clients at 5 p.m. and 6 p.m. and one at 8:00 p.m. and one I saw on a Saturday morning at 9:00 a.m.

Those people were desperate for help, and I'm one of the few lawyers in our state who really knows what to do and has a good track record in foreclosure work, so I really wanted to help them.  But I won't pretend it wasn't good for us, too:  Based on the new work the last few months have brought in, I have hired another litigator and a couple of clerks to work for me -- which means I've created three jobs this year.

I was thinking about that this week when I had this exchange:


That might be kind of hard to see.  It's an exchange of tweets with a literary agent who turned up in my timeline, retweeted by someone else, announcing she was telling people not to query her for two weeks.

So I asked her Why? and added whether she wasn't afraid of missing a bestseller, and she responded by saying "If you were in my shoes you'd understand," which is a cop-out answer ("You can't possibly know what it's like to be a literary agent," is what it means) and that lots of agents miss lots of best-sellers.

That agent, as it turns out, is one that is a friend of a friend and I had in the past queried her with a book back when I was still trying to get other people to publish my work -- back when I was more interested in getting one particular kind of reader (in publishing) than readersShe had been nice to me, and made some suggestions on editing the book, and I'd done that off and on for the past few years.

(That agent also, I will note, passed on the After, saying that she thought it sounded more like a farce than it should have.)

So anyway, this agent, Kate McKean, then emailed me separately.  She didn't opt to make that email public, so I won't, but I will say that she took offense to my questions to her, finding them too aggressive.

(I responded that I hadn't meant them that way, and I hoped she had a nice summer, and that she got all the best sellers on her desk.)

But Kate McKean, and publishing, kind of show one thing I think is wrong with publishers and literary agents and the publishing (as opposed to reading) world, which is:  why would you tell people not to hire you?

That's what I asked her and that's what I'm still wondering.  I didn't want potential clients to not hire me, not just because I really do want to help people, but also because that's how I make my money.

So why, I wonder, would any writer go to any agent or publisher who actively tries to keep them from coming in the door?  If I were an agent, or a publisher, I would want millions of queries a day, and millions of books to read.  I would be so worried that one day I wouldn't be needed, or that someday the next Twilight or The Firm would end up on the next guy's desk that I would never stop soliciting queries, and, if I got too busy to read them all, I'd hire someone to read them with me.

But publishing -- and I don't mean to turn Sundays with the Classics into a repeated diatribe on publishing and writing, as I'm generally opposed to blogging about those things -- publishing is so intent on closing that door, on limiting the amount of books that get made and the number of people that get published -- that it (Big Publishing) tries to keep people from hiring it to do stuff.

The stuff it exists to do.

This has been going on a long time: remember, Dickens as a professional writer was looked down on: writing was the province of the aristocrat, back then, not a way to earn a living.  And nowadays, writers and publishers still want to keep the bar high and the door closed, because that keeps the money being spent going to them (they ignore the fact that the more people read, the more they read, and that a dollar spent on a book tends to create three dollars spent on a book.)

I get why writers want to treat people that way: Most writers fear competition, from what I've been able to judge, and even as they pretend writing is an art they treat it like a business.  (John Grisham is among the many longtime adult artists who are putting out YA books, ostensibly because they like the connection they get with younger readers who are more actively engaged, but I suspect because YA is hot right now and as at least one would-be "artist" admitted in Entertainment Weekly this week, if you want to sell a lot of books, call your book a YA book.)

That's in part why I make an effort to take in any new clients I can, too: I don't advertise, but instead get all my work from other lawyers, lawyers who send their trusted clients to me.  The moment I turn one down, that lawyer will start sending their clients to someone else.  So I don't want my potential business going to someone else, and you'd think an agent, especially, would fear that.

But they don't have to, is the message I got: This agent, who had once been kind of interested in a book I wrote, felt that she could not only tell potential customers "Don't bother me this summer," but also could write me an email trying to insult me.

And why?

Because for the most part, potential readers and potential writers take it.  People let Big Publishing control the books they read and limit the books that get published because they figure that's the best way to do it.  You can read a zillion articles making light of ebooks and indie books, and efforts like Stephen King's to delegitimize indie/epublishing are part of that.

When music went digital and became more freely available than ever, Big Music responded in two ways: trying to stop people from spreading music, and trying to make it easier to buy the music you wanted for a price that was reasonable.

You know which one won that battle: Napster might have disappeared (I was never a big supporter of free music) but the record companies had to drastically change the way they do business, a move that most figure began in 2002 with "360 deals," which tapped into revenue streams traditionally held by the artists.  That, in turn, made it possible for such "non-traditional" but semi-popular types of music, such as jam bands, to begin getting major label support.

Movie studios have been fighting a losing battle for years against the increasing digitization and easy spread of movies; while it's still relatively difficult to get a movie into the theaters, the advent of Youtube and Hulu and Netflix means that filmmakers, comedians, and actors can bypass the big studios and then opt-in to the majors when they feel like it.  I still haven't watched The Foot-Fist Way, but I've seen Danny McBride in major studio films, and that type of thing is far more common now than when Kevin Smith did it with Clerks.

Publishers haven't yet grasped that traditional publishing, as stupid as it is, is also dying.  There won't be paper books in 10 years: I feel confident in saying that.  Or at least, no more so than there are vinyl albums or CDs now.  The first e-book reader was launched in 1998, and cost $500.  Today, I was given by my kids for Father's Day a Kindle Fire, which not only reads e-books but works more or less like a laptop computer I can hold in my hand.  It cost $199.

Judging by Kindle prices over the past few years, that Kindle Fire will be costing about $75 in two years, and for $80 a year I can borrow from Amazon's library of books, so for less than a quarter a day I can have access to any book in the world any time I want it.

How can book books compete with that?

They can't.

Publishers, though, especially hate Amazon and generally hate e-readers, because publishers are tied to their traditional model of stacks of books in Barnes & Noble with buybacks and signings and lots and lots of jobs in publicity and editing and preplanning and catalog sales, and most people fear change in their employment, and that's why publishers haven't been exactly rushing to embrace the e-reader market (and don't tell me they are, because I haven't gotten to point two of the problem yet.)

And a big problem with Big Publishing is that the digital age makes it easy for anyone to become a big deal.  A guy on Reddit got a movie deal by posting to a comment thread.  The Shack became a bestseller when three guys got together to make a publishing company to publish the book.

Then let's look at 50 Shades Of Grey, because that leads into point two.  Point two is, generally, What happens when authors leave publishing, because right now that isn't happening and Big Publishing is trying hard not to let that happen, but it's going to happen.

Lots of authors already dump books online: Stephen King, the ersatz champion (to some) of epublishing, chose to epublish only those books he didn't think worthy of publishing "for realz".  That's not great for reading: an author who admits a book is crap but indie publishes it just to milk readers is bad for reading the way rock stars who dump crummy B-sides and John Lennon answering-machine recordings on us for money ought to be shunned.

What Big Publishing is worried about is that it will not exist, period if authors ultimately realize that there's no reason they should limit their incomes by sharing it with Big Publishing or limit their sales by keeping prices artificially high by sharing their profits with Big Publishing.  The first time John Grisham or J.K. Rowling decides "Screw Random House" and does it on her own, there's going to be a watershed moment in publishing, and that'll happen about when book books die for good.

But for now, Big Publishing is jealously guarding the doors and inviting a select few into the henhouse, like what they did with E.L. James and her Fifty Shades Of Grey -- now published by Random House.

Ask yourself:  Why is this published by Random House?

And why is it $9.99?

50 Shades, remember, has appeared twice online before, once as a fanfic and once as a free read on the author's website.  Then it was picked up by an online-only small publisher and split into three books and available only as an ebook or print-on-demand.

After all three books were fully published and the book had become a hit through word-of-mouth and bored reporters who suddenly realized they could read erotica as part of their job, only after that did Vintage Books, a division of Random House, pick the book up and redistribute it.

So now you can buy 50 Shades online at Amazon for $9.99, a price "set by the publisher."

Tell me: What did Random House have to do to justify taking its cut?  Why is that book $9.99?  If Amazon follows the same rules for big publishers that it does for me, Random House gets either 70% or 35% of those sales: $3.50 to $7 of each ebook goes to Random House and/or the author.

But Random House had no costs in this book.  They didn't edit it, print it, ship it, publicize it: They just jumped the train after it had already arrived and took a cut, and kept that book $9.99.

I don't know why James signed with Random House -- I suspect it was the desire to legitimize herself, become a big player in writing and be seen as more than a fanfic erotica writer, and for that legitimacy, bestowed by Big Publishing and coveted by (it seems) every writer except me, she gave Random House a bunch of money.

In other words: James paid Random House to let her sell her book.

Big Publishing is the new vanity press.

Now that anyone can publish a book, it's become the mark of high society to have a "real" publisher for your book, and Big Publishing is catering to that.  They're the Sneetches With Stars Upon Thars, and James couldn't wait to hop into Sylvester McMonkey McBean's Star-On Machine.

Which is great for Big Publishing, until the people with stars decide to hop off, as I said:  When the big authors start to forget about dumping books and instead just release their own stuff directly as Radiohead and Louis CK are doing, then what will Big Publishing do?

The other side of midnight, as it were, is the reason I'm not reading Fahrenheit 451 today.  I was going to buy the book, which I only fake-read in 10th grade, because Ray Bradbury died and Andrew Leon mentioned the book and I thought it would be a good classic to start on.

But when I went to get the ebook, it was $9.99.

$9.99 for a book that was written a half-century ago (on a typewriter Bradbury rented for ten cents an hour) and serialized in Playboy and which has been read in every high school, I bet, in the country.  A book that has no marketing costs associated with it whatsoever, and which long ago had paid back the publisher for its editing costs and distribution costs.  Fahrenheit 451 is paid for, is the point: and yet, the publisher is charging ten bucks for it.

The story behind that is compelling: Bradbury hated electronic books (for some reason) and didn't want his book to be available on e-readers.  But when his contract rights were expiring, his publisher bullied him into accepting e-publication anyway, and paid Bradbury "seven figures" for the rights to the book (plus rights to The Martian Chronicles and The Illustrated Man).

In other words, the only costs the publisher had was the money it paid Bradbury, somewhere between $1,000,000 and $9,999,999.  And because they did that, they've now got to sell the books for $9.99.

What, I wonder, would have happened if Bradbury had retained the rights to the books and died? His estate could have honored his wishes, never making them digital, or they could have hired an editor and put the books online themselves and kept the proceeds, without cutting Big Publishing in on the deal -- a deal that Big Publishing didn't deserve.

I think $9.99 is the most one should pay for a book, period, but I draw the line at simply donating my money to Big Publishing.  $9.99 for a book that has paid for itself over and over again for a half-century is $9.99 that I'm just giving to keep it so that agents can take the summer off and complain about how hard it is to have to read a bunch of books, and keep it so that copy editors can get the expensive horn-rimmed glasses to set on the table at the coffee shop in Tribeca.  A fair price for Fahrenheit would be about $5, and I'd have paid that, but I won't pay $10 for a book just to keep Big Publishing feeling good about itself.

So I got Ulysses, instead.  It was free, and it's been called one of the greatest books of all time.  I'm pretty sure that by getting a free book about a guy in Ireland I haven't done anything to make literary agents' jobs much more comprehensible -- I'm sure I still would never be able to understand how they work -- but I also am pretty sure that I haven't contributed to the lingering, lumbering dinosaur that is the publishing industry, sucking up your money and spitting out books that suck.  (Honestly: A John Grisham YA series?  Was there some kind of antidote for creativity given out the last few years?)

And so far -- 33 pages in-- I like it.  I'd always heard Ulysses was almost incomprehensible, but I find it enjoyable so far.  It's more poetic than I'd imagined; I find myself re-reading passages just for the lyrical quality of them, and while I'm occasionally lost in the use of Irish-isms, I'm muddling through.

(It helps that I'm reading it as an ebook.  I can stop and look stuff up whenever I need to.)

The book rolls along amiably, if a bit confusingly, as Stephen Dedalus wakes up and eats breakfast and goes off to teach school, all that happening in the first 33 pages, as he talks with his friend Buck, who had my favorite line of the day, when asked whether he remembers what he said when Stephen told him his mom (Stephen's mom) had died:

I can't remember anything. I remember only ideas and sensations. Why? What happened in the name of God?

I like that: I remember only ideas and sensations.  I feel like that's how my memory works, and it's a fitting place to end this post, which has only tangentially been about Ulysses, but, then, a lengthy discourse on minutiae before getting to the point seems an apt way to begin a series of posts on Joyce's work, if everything I've heard about it is true.




4 comments:

PT Dilloway, Superhero Author said...

I don't know how editors can reconcile when they reject all this supposed "crap" they get in their mailboxes but then go and publish Twilight fanfics or books by Snooki or Paris Hilton or Pam Anderson. That stuff might make money but it erodes all this credibility they like to flaunt. In the same vein is when they get duped by someone like James Frey or that other guy who plagiarized a bunch of his book and no one noticed it until it was just about to be printed.

So there's a lot wrong with the system, but still it's like the difference between playing golf at the local course or the fancy country club.

Andrew Leon said...

$9.99 is just wrong. Mostly because you can pick up the paperback for $5-6, and there -are- costs associated with that. An e-book should -never- cost more than the physical alternative, and a lot of e-books from the big publishers do cost more. It's just another of those things that makes me want to have nothing to do with big publishers.

I'll be looking forward to seeing what you think of Joyce. I haven't read Ulysses. I did read something by him, but I'm not remembering what, right now.

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