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Leonce Gaiter

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With Traditional Publishing Dies the Passive Writer-Victim

Posted: 07/08/11 01:44 PM ET

It had been a longtime dream; I had thought about it and wanted it since childhood. But then, with my dream in hand, my only response was a small nod and a sotto, "oh, alright." Akin to a tepid "how nice." My book was to be published by a well-regarded NY publishing house, and I couldn't even muster a facade of enthusiasm. I assumed I was numb; that it hadn't sunk in yet. So I went about my business and I waited for the thrill to fill me up.

It never did. The process had been long -- a cryptic agent who condescended to take my once-a-month call, a fake chuckle to hide her irritation as she complained about having to hold clients' hands. It was on one of my monthly calls that she told me that I had sold a book. I wonder if she would have bothered to mention it if I hadn't phoned. I guess I'll never know.

The production process was -- subliminal. I spoke with the book's ostensible editor for a grand total of about 5 minutes -- in my entire life. A proof showed up with a picture of a flirty, naked black woman on the cover -- when the only black female character died before the beginning of the book and she wasn't the flirty type. It was a nice cover, but it had little to do with the book beneath it.

The publicist sent the requisite press release to the usual suspects, who probably gave it the attention it deserved (they ignored it). Gamely, I stepped into the breach, purchasing some cheap online ads, hawking the book to reviewers, etc., all to middling success, but infinitely greater satisfaction than I got from any other stage of the process save the writing. Finally, I had some control, and I began to suspect that I was a sophomoric cliché of the passive writer-victim -- passively awaiting my agent's actions; passively awaiting publisher response; passively awaiting for someone to design my book, passively awaiting critical and commercial reaction. Yes, I began to suspect... but I was still to programmed and scared to do anything about it.

As the next novel hit editors' desks (from a new, and altogether more suitable agent) and I passively awaited reaction, my agent received notes like these:

"It's an impressively gripping story, and a fascinating story about a time and topic I knew little about."

"I can see what you mean about the strong pacing of Gaiter's narrative, and the novel's strong sense of place, which seems to stem from deep research into and thorough knowledge..."

"I thought this was a really well-written and fascinating story. I loved the historical details and enjoyed the book on a personal level."

Each of these statements preceded a "pass." One editor told my agent that "the market" was telling her that only frothy, "feel good" books have a chance at sales success today. This was an odd statement, considering that it presupposes that the publishing industry has a good idea of what "the market" wants. I quote author and business writer Michael Levin from Forbes Magazine:

...the books that publishers choose are almost entirely of zero interest to actual book-buyers. After 9/11, there were a ton of books about 9/11, which nobody bought. Same thing with the Iraq War, the rise of Obama, the economic meltdown... Or the books are rehashed business lessons, religious truths, sports clichés, motivational babble, exercise fads, weight loss techniques, or pandering to the political left or the right. Who wants these books? Almost no one.

Most of the major publishers today are owned by international conglomerates who, at some point, will awaken to the realization that English majors in their employ are spending millions of dollars on books that no one wants to read.

Levin further points out the antediluvian hilarity of the publishing "business model," in which "the publisher bears the entire risk of buying, editing, printing, and shipping copies of the book to bookstores all over the country on a 100% returnable basis. If your local Barnes & Noble doesn't sell a particular book, it goes right back to the publisher, at the publisher's shipping cost, for a full refund. Especially in the Internet era, you can't make money putting books on trucks and hoping someone buys them."

After my first book was released, I was scheduled for a radio appearance. The day prior, I was informed that Amazon was out of my book. Publicity can generate sales. It's bad form to generate publicity for a product, and then inform prospective buyers at a primary outlet that the product is unavailable. When I screamed loudly about this to my agent and editor, the editor said, and I quote, "If they want the book badly enough, they'll wait for it or find it." My jaw dropped. Apple Computer can afford to be that lazy and arrogant. James Patterson can. Leonce Gaiter and Carroll & Graf Publishers could not. This man was so clueless to business realities, he expected people to seek out or wait for a product about which they knew little or nothing from someone they had never heard of. To him, the reader had to do all the work. Our job was to look pretty while we sat back and waited for them to do it.

I read reports from one of the large book conferences in which a major editor insisted that the "intrinsic value" of a book justified their exorbitant price tags. ($12.99 for an ebook? Fuck you! Even Amazon wanted to sell them for $9.99.) Again, the ignorance is blinding. In a market economy, no product qua product has "intrinsic value." Suggesting that it does stinks of the arrogance of decay drenched in decadence. See also this shamefully smug op-ed.

With respect to my own work, I had to realize that some NY Editors are sufficiently egotistical to believe that they are so advanced in their educations and outlook that a book they find "fascinating" could not possibly engage a more general audience (unless it includes vampires or comes with pictures, of course). That, and the fact that their marketing sense and infrastructures are as outmoded and inefficient as the rest of their business, so they only have the ability to sell books that run the gamut from A to C to audiences that are equally diverse.

Finally, I had to accept both the death of my romantic vision of publishing and the gross facts of the corporate publishing reality. With my agent's help and blessing, I found the tools and mustered the will to do things differently.

Ingram, the major book distributor, owns Lightning Source, which gives authors access to distribution channels similar to those the publishing houses get, and at reasonable prices; your book can be available for print-on-demand from any bookstore, online or off. That takes care of the physical books. Ebooks, of course, are also within any author's grasp; between Smashwords and Amazon's Kindle Direct Publishing, you can pretty much cover the territory. This time, I chose my own physical book's format, dimensions, and I laid out the text within the appropriate template myself. A wonderful designer I know provided the marvelous cover art. The novel is mine, soup to nuts. I feel an ownership and pride that never even teased me with my traditionally published book. From an economic standpoint, if the book sells as well as my largely-ignored traditionally published novel, I will make three times the money from it. Carroll & Graf put a $24 price tag on my first book. Consumers will be able to buy this one for less than $10.

How can you not recommend this option to authors? With today's tools, the idea of waiting for approval from the minions of a multinational sounds as lazy and self-defeating as a band that won't burn CDs until they get a major label record deal. Just as musicians have to know their way around a sound board, writers need facility with the layout and design software used to create books, the ins and outs of formatting for ebooks; they need design sense enough to guarantee that their book looks good inside and out.

We used to wait passively for the pearly gates to open and then gratefully pass our manuscripts through to hallowed ground. In music and in books, those days are gone forever. And good riddance.