News of my death has been greatly exaggerated (and captured, fed, and hyper-linked). I'm talking here about the new author in the era of new media, but too, about literary agents, editors, publishers, readers, librarians -- People of the Book. Every day the headlines trumpet our demise. Every day another shovel of dirt hits the crowns of our caskets, and so on. I'm here to say, don't believe it.
New authors are being published every day. If anything, this era of new media is producing new readers, electronic readers, while at the same time radicalizing the reticent of the paper page (think Patty Hearst becoming Patty Hearst with a gun, in a bank). New York publishers are still reading proposals, working with agents, offering modest advances, and editing books. I know because it's happening to me. New York publishers are still inviting young authors into town from the provinces (if not young authors, new authors, and if not the provinces, California) to lunch at Balthazar and the Oyster Bar. They still even pick up the bill! What they still do is a lot. What they don't do anymore, though, is a lot, too.
As I work to finish my first book, a literary biography of Nathanael West for O/R Books in New York, these truths have become self-evident. Though I've written for a long time, this is my first book with "real" publisher. My publisher is "real" in most ways, but not in all. By the time this "post" "appears," O/R Books may finally have an actual, physical address. O/R Books may have added one or two full-time employees to their posse of freelancers and part-timers: a virtual staff of book artists and website designers, film-makers, marketing mavens, and so on. That said, no such thing was needed for O/R to post its first bestseller: an insightful (or insulting, depending on your point of view) collection of work on Sarah Palin's political virtues, titled "Going Rouge." O/R Books, founded by John Oakes and Colin Robinson, seems to me to be continuously reorganizing itself in the same way teenagers put together a rave in an abandon hotel on a Saturday night -- invisibly, by handheld device, across a magical matrix known as the Internet.
Immensely grateful as I am at the prospect of being published (and I have many people to thank, including O/R and a tireless agent in Elizabeth Evans), I've continued to puzzle over this new business model I find myself involved in. The publisher's pitch goes something like this: we do not sell our books in bookstores, or through online retailers like Amazon.com; we do not offer discounts or take returns; and finally, we sell only on the web directly to readers. Hmmm.
What I know for sure is this: I am writing a biography of Nathanael West in the same way anyone has ever written a biography of a writer. I am sitting in libraries and digging through archives. I am reading private papers, gathering photographs and permissions, reading and rereading published texts. I'm listening to taped interviews of some of America's greatest writers remembering my subject, people like S.J. Perelman, Dorothy Parker, and Dalton Trumbo; it's a delight of which all People of the Book can relate. And when I finish my book, I've been promised by my publisher that it will be well-edited and well-designed and well-marketed to readers. That all sounds good to me.
Later this winter, you'll be able download my biography to an e-reader, or computer, or handheld device of your choice. If you thought my Patty Hearst joke was funny, you will order a hardcover and read it in your lap. And if you aren't yet 20 years old, you do all of this simultaneously while sitting, bored, at Starbucks. What you won't be able to do is buy my book in a bookstore, or at Amazon.com, or anywhere else except at www.orbooks.com.
But here is the best news of all: I've been promised by O/R Books that I'll star in my own book trailer, a short "Citizen Kane" about the life and art of Nathanael West as I've written it. Whether my People of the Book will embrace me in my black turtleneck, I don't know. I do hope they will, at least, Facebook my YouTube.