Is your book out?
Is my book out? Duh? It came out three months ago! I've been giving talks about it to small groups across the nation -- from Boston to New Orleans, New York to Kansas. Washington, D.C. Talking and signing.
Haven't heard of it.
Of course not! There haven't been any reviews. Not one! Well, one in the Wall Street Journal.
No print reviews. In three months.
At times, yes! Hard not to be, after four years' work, and a lifetime learning to be a good biographer. It's arguably the most radical, revisionist book about the 32nd president in the past half century -- a president who's going to be the subject of a major PBS series this fall, by Ken Burns. But no print reviews, save in the WSJ. In three months since it came out, and multiple signings and appearances.
You bet. I mean: what's going' on, man?
I ask my publisher.
"Decline of print media," she says. Even compared with five years ago. Gone off a cliff. For serious stuff.
History, or biography of historical figures, rather than movie icons or celebs? Forget it! We don't even teach those subjects any more. [In fact we never did teach biography, and never will -- and now it's too late to start.] Students won't read them. More than twenty pages? Go home!
"Nobody wants to learn any more. After all, all you need -- at school, college, or later -- is access to a smartphone and Wikipedia.
"Serious books? Sorry: not newsworthy.
And serious books -- books attempting to offer a radical new account of an event, a movement, a historical person: boring!"
"Has to be about food, or something happening today -- something a young journalist can get his or her head around and stir the national pot: legalizing marijuana or postmenopausal exercise or stay-at-home daddery. Anything, but please: no history, or serious lives! We don't do that anymore. Not in print reviews."
So what's a poor author to do? I ask - other than go home?
In my case, I belong to a group of aspiring and practicing biographers in Boston. We meet once a month, for a coupla hours. It's become my lifeline -- forgive the pun.
No, don't get me wrong. We're not a group of plaintives, let alone plaintiffs. We don't commiserate with each other on the paucity of print reviewing in our great country. Even getting an agent, then a publisher, is hard enough.
No, we talk: each one of us limited to a few minutes. About our current biographical project: reminding the others what it is, where we're at in the research and writing process. And each time I go home, afterwards, feeling elevated. In mood, and in pride. There's over fifty of us in our group now, and our chosen subjects range from a Boston merchant in the 17th century to a current rock star; from the woman who wrote "America the Beautiful" to a French maquis leader betrayed from within; from a forgotten 19th century novelist to a pioneer college educator in the Midwest, crushed because she was a woman. A lost poet. A doctor who liberated Bergen Belsen...
I come away comforted there are so many of us, working on lives that are unknown, little known, better known, some even famous -- but all of us sharing a common purpose, a common experience. Digging. Reading. Thinking. Interviewing. Recording. Transcribing. Drafting. Redrafting. Telling. All of us in that same boat -- a bit wacky in the amount of time, energy, investment we put into our individual reconstructions of an individual's life, but for whatever reason: committed.
We want to do it, we have to do it. It means something to us -- and even if its eventual audience will only number in the dozens or low hundreds, this journey each of us is making to produce a book is important to us! It challenges our understanding, our ability to research, our skill in composing an eventual account: the story of an actual life. Making that journey, for us, is like -- I don't know, like crossing the Sahara on a camel, or swimming from Cuba to the U.S. We wanna do it, and in the support we give each other in those two hours, each month, we feel we're among the only people on earth, probably, who have any idea what it's like, what are its demands, how exhausting yet spiritually rewarding it is for us...
Fact is: We're just not going to get any, these days, even when -- and if -- we get our books published. No journalists, no editors interested. Not in historical lives.
Gotta be cruel to be kind. If it's not about some current theme, some fad du jour, preferably controversial -- forget it!
But hey -- shouldn't I say something nice here about Jeff Bezos?
Yes, inventor of Amazon.
You mean the bully, beating up on Hachette, and Hachette's poor authors?
Why be nice to him?
Because, mon vieux, he's done something we should all be grateful for.
What, for chrissake? Reduce prices, to the level where he's put thousands of real bookstores out of business -- the very stores that used to put our books in their windows and on tables, so people could see what's new, and buy them?
Yes. He's the Walmarter of our age. Avant tout, le bon marché.
"Price, before all else."
So what's "nice" about that?
What's nice, Dude, is this. We who toil in the fields of history and historical biography are not going to make much, if any, money from our books -- whether Jeff sells them, or your neighborhood bookstore, should it still exist, no thanks to him. We've sweated and torn out our hair trying to reconstruct our chosen lives, to fashion them like literary sculptures, at once monumental and yet human. We've applied all of our intelligence, our empathy, our critical faculties, our compassion -- and we think, in our delusion, that it's still 1960, and our work is going to get noticed. Well, it's not going to happen! Newsprint is dead, in that respect. What they call culture sections or review pages are peons to current fashions. Ephemeral. Entertainment. Whereas what Jeff Bezos does is actually a life-saver to the serious historical biographer.
Yes. He not only puts every new book on his website, he invites reviews. Reviews of serious books, from real readers. People who've asked him for pre-publication galleys of a new book, or have actually bought it -- from him, yes, but from other stores, too. Serious readers, reading a serious book, who then take the trouble to write a review on his site. People who review your book -- for good and ill!
And that's good?
It's a pearl without price! It means someone is listening, reading -- responding! Responding to what, as a biographer, I've tried to say, and how I said it. Not just some-one, but many! Dozens! Look: in three whole months, I've had just one print review in a newspaper -- otherwise complete and utter silence in print media, as if I was on another planet, and could receive no signals from Mother Earth.
And on Amazon?
God! Fifty! Fifty individuals, fifty reviews! Fifty different people! People who have actually read the book! Fifty different people willing to record their thoughts on what my book meant to them!
What if they didn't like it?
Some didn't, Dude! That's the miracle of Amazon! It's like Internet dating. In the early days you could get slimed as an author on Amazon by someone bearing a grudge, or jealous, or whatever. And because there were so few reviews posted, this stank. Ditto the opposite: friends or family who posted ridiculously effusive and positive comments, with a perfect rating for the work -- you know, like election results in Egypt.
Now they verify you were interested enough to ask for a pre-publication galley, or better still, that you're actually a purchaser! And if you've shelled out real money and bought the book, you're probably going to tell it as you see it. Some'll hate it, or be disappointed, yes, but others will respond positively. Point out errors. Say what they find valuable. And gradually, over several months, all those reviews, as the numbers increase, will be the equivalent of what used to happen fifty years ago, when newspapers across the country actually printed book reviews of serious historical works! Not necessarily as well-written today, but more heartfelt: the truthful response of real people, who have actually been interested enough to want to read your book about a real, historical life.
And that's a pearl?
It is! Doesn't necessarily sell a single extra copy. But it allows readers to share their real thoughts about your work, online, as if in a book club. And for the author those precious reviews are all he or she is gonna get, these days -- compared with fifty years ago. Be grateful!
Not Bezos the Bully, then, but bully for Bezos?
Nigel Hamilton is a naturalized American and the author of The Mantle of Command: FDR at War, 1941-1942, which was published on May 13, 2014. He is currently working on the sequel, Commander in Chief: FDR at War, 1943-1945. He lives in New Orleans and in Boston, where he is senior fellow in the John W. McCormack Graduate School, University of Massachusetts. For information concerning the Boston Biographers Group, email Elizabeth Harris: firstname.lastname@example.org.