Category Archives: american

Publishing lunch in New York

Kay Norris, one of the main characters in Ira Levin’s Sliver, is an editor at Diadem, and she epitomises the supposed glamour of New York trade publishing in the 1980s. She lunches in the Grill Room of the Four Seasons and at Perigord East. When the book was written it must have seemed like it would never end, but it did.

The Four Seasons at 99 East 52nd Street closed in July 2016 and the famous interior fittings were sold at auction. The Perigord, just down the street at 405, closed its doors in March 2017.

New York publishing and the publishing lunch are not what they used to be.

Ira Levin, Sliver, 1991

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Getting published may be easier for some

Some novels clearly state that they are about publishing, and Jonathan Galassi’s Muse is one of them. At one point it covers the evaluation process for new manuscripts untaken by the hero, Paul Dukach, in his first job.

“Manuscripts from literary agents would show up in neat gray or powder-blue boxes on his pockmarked old school desk, or in battered manila envelopes if they were coming from writers without representation, and he’d read through them with the requisite show-me detachment. In 90 percent of the case, you could tell within a page or two whether the writer could write. Ninety percent of the time, box or no box, he or she could not.”

You have to wonder if Muse, written by the longtime president and publisher of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, went through the same critical process. Certainly the paperback edition contains glowing reviews from all parts of the New York publishing scene, something that isn’t much echoed in the reader reviews available on the internet. When it comes to choosing which books to publish, the platform and influence of the author may be more important than the young Paul Dukach thinks.

Jonathan Galas, Muse, 2015

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This book that left the format of the book itself behind

In Tom McCarthy’s Satin Island, the Company is working on the Koob-Sassen Project, and the narrator is hired to write the “Great Report…The first and last word on our age”: an exciting prospect.

“When Peyman, with his visionary vagueness, handed me my epic, my epochal, commission, this Great Report, the sense that anything might end up forming part of this made everything I came across, every event I lived through, glow and buzz with potential even more.”

The author soon discovers that any project that is too open-ended will founder.  Although the commission is not from a publisher but from the mysterious Company, there’s a need for direction and editorial guidance, as anyone might realise, including Peyman.

“I pictured Peyman back, once more, with all his moguls, mover-shakers and connectors, laughing at me, laughing at the thought that I could have believed, even for a moment, he was serious…Even when I reasoned these last, deranged notions back out to the fringes of my mind, I was still left with the immovable fact of the thing’s unwritability.  This filled me with anger, and a feeling of stupidity, and sadness, too – grief not for the actual loss but, worse, for a potential or imaginary one: this beautiful, magnificent Report; this book, the Book, the fucking Book, that was to name our era, sum it up;this book that left the format of the book itself behind, this book-beyond-the-book; and beyond even this, the tantalising and elusive possibility of transubstantiated now-ness, live-ness it was to inaugurate – the possibility, thetis, of Present-Tense Anthropology ™. All that was gone. Which, in turn, raised the question: What was I still there for?”

In an age of grand ambitions for publishing – with their vortices of digital accumulation, voracious remixes and mash-ups – the author’s role remains to pick and choose between the possibilities, muster the serendipity of choices, and go, as the narrator does at the end of this fascinating novel, “back into the city”.

Tom McCarthy, Satin Island, 2015

 

 

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Truth is stranger than fiction, and vice versa

As in several novels from the past decade, books play an important role in Adam Langer’s The Thieves of Manhattan. In this 2010 view of writing and publishing in New York, some books are fiction and some are non-fiction, but all of them are stories, and they are mostly agented by Geoff Olden and published by Merrill Books. Ian Minot’s adventures – straddling genre, deceptions, deals and the theft of a copy of The Tale of Genji that eventually gets sold at auction for $8.13 million – are mostly stage-managed by a disgruntled author-cum-editor called Jed Roth who is fixated on the death of publishing.

I asked Roth if he’d ever work in publishing again.  No, he said, that business was dying. Books would never disappear entirely, there would always be places to buy them, libraries where you could read them. But for him, they had lost their romance.

His solution is a novel one.

He said he might start some business in Europe, maybe in London, or perhaps in some other foreign country whose language he didn’t speak, one where it would take him a lifetime to understand what old traditions were passing, so he wouldn’t regret their disappearance.

There is a lot of code and personal argot in this fast-moving narrative, and many shifts between what’s fact and what’s fiction, and why the distinction might matter to publishers and readers. What is clear in the end is that truth isn’t really what’s important, just whether the writer has a good story that the publisher can put a good spin on.

After early doubts, Ian very soon puts away any suggestion that writers and publishers are ‘betrayers of the public trust’ or otherwise ‘despicable’ – the gentleman publisher has transmogrified.

Now that I was one of them, and had dated another, I saw them as All-American rogues. Who hadn’t fudged their taxes, embellished a résumé, or invented a tale to impress a date?

Adam Langer, The Thieves of Manhattan, 2010

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The suppression of the book is a precipitation

In Jack London’s chilling 1907 dystopia, The Iron Heel, one of the first signs that things are turning for the worst come with the publication of Alice’s father’s book following his forced resignation from his university post. Economics and Education argues that “education was dominated by the capitalist class” and at first creates “a furore all over the world”; “newspapers showered him with praise and honour”. But it is not to last: “Then came the suppression of the book”.

“And then, abruptly, the newspapers and the critical magazines ceased saying anything about the book at all. Also, and with equal suddenness, the book disappeared from the market. Not a copy was obtainable from any bookseller. Father wrote to the publishers, and was informed that the plates had been accidentally injured.”

Eventually “a big socialist publishing house arranged with father to bring out the book. Father was jubilant, but Ernest [Alice’s future husband and leading socialist] was alarmed… ‘I tell you we are on the verge of the unknown’ he insisted… ‘The suppression of the book is a precipitation'”. There are signs that the book will be a great success in this new edition, but the press is soon attacked and burned by a mob.

What follows is a prolonged period of oppression and poverty, with extreme riches for some (Felice Van Verdighan’s lap-dog has its own maid) and grinding poverty for many, ending in the brutal suppression of the “Chicago Commune”.

The attack on the book was an early sign of the horrors to come.

Jack London, The Iron Heel, 1907

How much memory do you need?

Victor Hugo, in his 1831 Notre Dame de Paris, famously made a connection between architecture and the printing press: “Il existe à cette époque, pour la pensée écrite en pierre, un privilège tout-à-fait comparable à notre liberté actuelle de la presse. C’est la liberté de l’architecture”.

In Simon Critchley’s Memory Theatre an equivalent but opposite idea underlies the narrative. While this is a tale of discovered manuscripts themed around the houses of the zodiac and a maquette of the sixteenth-century Venetian memory theatre of Giulio Camillo, it covers a whole range of what Hari Kunzru has called “the technologies of remembering”. This is formed as a book, and the writing, reading and analysis of books makes up much of the text. Publishing also comes into play at times.

Like Hugo, Critchley’s narrator points to architecture: “In a cathedral, time became space, fixed in location, embodied in stone. It was a vast time capsule. Decline from Gutenberg onwards. Fuck the Reformation”.

But publishing itself now seems to be dying. When he first receives and explores the manuscripts of his old close friend and former philosophy teacher, Michel Haar, the narrator “instantly thought that many of these texts could have been published, if I could interest the increasingly flagging and beleaguered French and Anglophone academic presses”. The archive ends up unpublished but safe in a university library, and the narrator goes to UCLA to write his “book on how philosophers die”.

“It was funny, full of impressively wide reading, and utterly shallow. Prior to the financial collapse of 2008 and the withering of the publishing industry, I made decent money on book deals and rights sales.”

Michel predicts the writer’s future career and death, but it doesn’t work out as he expected. The memory theatre does not fulfil his “dream of the perfect death”, and after a breakdown of sorts he starts a new project to harness the power of the tides so that eventually “all the elements of world history would combine…and form an artificial but living organism.” He starts his quest by going to the local library.

It seems that while publishing may be moribund, ideas to collect all human knowledge and make something that “would be like a second fictional sun in the universe” are alive and well. There are people in California who have given a new life to the term architecture, and have already planned it all out, a gigantic digital edifice to rival even the most ambitious memory theatres of the past.

Simon Critchley, Memory Theatre, 2014

To the future (of the book)

10:04 says something about publishing in recent times (see The very edge of fiction), but it might also say something about changing attitudes to books.

One of the many threads in the book concerns Roberto, a boy whom the narrator takes to the Natural History Museum and encourages to write down stuff about dinosaurs. As a surprise for Roberto he has fifty copies of the resulting four-page book – entitled, in case we are in any doubt, To the Future – produced using a self-publishing website: “It did not feel like a vanity project, but like a real children’s book”.

Roberto is not very impressed.

“Will we do another book?” He sounded as though he hoped we wouldn’t.

“You haven’t even looked at this one,” I said, trying to sound light, and not disappointed. “This is the product of all our hard work. We sweated over every sentence.”

“Because I want to make a movie next,” Roberto said.

The narrator tries to bring the boy round, suggesting that “maybe we can make a book trailer”, but there is no meeting of minds.

“The room had that particular quality of silence that obtains when many loud bodies have recently left.”

Is this the end of the book, and perhaps the end of publishing as we know it?

Ben Lerner, 10:04, 2014

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The very edge of fiction

Very near the end of Ben Lerner’s 10:04, the narrator tells us about a photograph of the Goldman Sachs building, the only one lit among the dark towers of the financial district. This is an image that he would use for the cover of his book: “not the one I was contracted to write about fraudulence, but the one I’ve written in its place for you, to you, on the very edge of fiction”.

The fictional book on fraudulence, based on a New Yorker article, has been sold for a significant six-figure sum even though the author’s previous novel “had only sold around ten thousand copies”. The agent explains that the “publishers pay for prestige”, which prompts questions in the narrator’s mind.

“Even if I wrote a book that didn’t sell, these presses wanted a potential darling of the critics or someone who might win prizes; it was symbolic capital that helped maintain the reputation of the house even if most of their money was being made by teen vampire sagas or one of the handful of mainstream “literary novelists” who actually sold a ton of books. This would have made sense to me in the eighties or nineties, when the novel was more or less still a viable commodity form, but why would publishers, all of whom seemed to be perpetually reorganizing, downsizing, scrambling to survive in the postcodex world, be willing to convert real capital into the merely symbolic?”

The agent has a ready answer to this.

“Keep in mind that your book proposal…” my agent said, and then paused thoughtfully, indicating that she was preparing to put something delicately, “your book proposal might generate more excitement among the houses than the book itself.”

10:14 is an intriguing novel about writing and the slitheriness of fictions, a great proposal that turned into a great book.

Ben Lerner, 10:04, 2014

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These books are not meant to be used

In Anne Tyler’s The Beginner’s Goodbye, Aaron’s family, colleagues and neighbours try to help him adjust to his new life after his wife is killed by a falling tree. At Woolcott Publishing, the family firm he runs with his sister Nandina, there may be help at hand, but Aaron doesn’t think so. “Those books are not meant to be used”, Aaron tells Peggy.“Well, not in any serious way. They’re more like…gestures. Things you give to other people.

He’s talking about The Beginner’s series, “something on the order of the Dummies books, but without the cheerleader tone of voice – more dignified.” This series provides half of the company’s revenue and the best-seller is The Beginner’s Colicky Baby. Charles, the marketing man, promotes the list energetically, packages them as themed boxed sets, and even proposes that a full set of all title could be promoted to parents to give children when they leave home: “Open the boxes and you’ll find instructions for every conceivable eventuality. Not just the Beginner’s setting-up-house titles or the Beginner’s raising-a-family titles but Beginner’s start-to-finish, cradle-to-grave living.”

The rest of the business is vanity publishing – mostly autobiographies (My Years with the City Council), war memoirs (My War) and travel memoirs like Contents May Have Shifted During Flight. The irrepressible Charles even proposes a vanity publishing innovation entitled My Wonderful Life, a great idea for Christmas.

See, this would be a gift for the old codger in the family. His children would contract with us to publish the guy’s memoirs – pay us up front for the printing, and receive this bound leather dummy with his name filled in. On Christmas morning they’d explain that all he has to do is write his recollections down inside it. After that it goes straight to press, easy-peasy.

So publishing the Woolcott way is either well-meaning but mostly useless self-help advice, or evidence that most lives are ultimately humdrum.  A rare success in the vanity press stable is Why I Have Decided to Go On Living, a book that eventually finds an echo in the way Aaron forms a new life with Peggy.

Could a publisher like Woolcott survive in the digital publishing environment?  Probably not.  The Internet, self-publishing and social media now provide every old codger with the possibility of “publishing” a memoir with little direct cost (unlike old-fashioned vanity publishing) and no likely possibility of financial return (just as with vanity presses).   And any search engine will answer your “life problem” queries with more than enough trite advice and superficial information to rival anything the Woolcott Beginner’s titles could offer.

Anne Tyler, The Beginner’s Goodbye, 2012

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