Posts Tagged ‘literature’

Flaubert’s Kettle

June 24, 2013

“Human Speech is like a cracked kettle on which we tap crude rhythms for bears to dance to, while we long to make music that will melt the stars.” – Gustave Flauflaubertbert,  Madame Bovary

 

I see a lot of writing coming over the transom from people who seem smitten by metaphorical imagery. Unless you can write it like Flaubert, I recommend finding another way to depict whatever it is you are trying to describe. The metaphors and similes I see usually don’t work that well. When you start using these figures of speech, it’s easy to fall into cliché. (I advise writers to “avoid metaphorical imagery and clichés like the plague.”) Editors and agents tend to view this kind of writing as characteristic of the novice and a sign of the writer’s insecurity. Like you’re trying too hard. You don’t have to model yourself after Ernest Hemingway or Raymond Carver. But still… to paraphrase Freud, sometimes the best way to describe a green tree is to just call it a green tree.

Elmore Leonard’s Ten Rules For Writing

March 4, 2013

elmore 2As an agent, I get a lot of fiction submissions. Usually I can tell if I don’t like them by the end of the first page. Sometimes by the end of the first paragraph. I’m a little embarrassed to make this admission. Some people might think that my method makes me a literary philistine. And sure, there are lots of examples of masterpieces that I probably would mistakenly throw out because I was bored on page one or even page 10. Most of the great novels of the nineteenth century might not pass muster. As an example, just look at Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables. We all know the story, don’t we? Well, in the likely event that you loved the play or movie, as I did, you probably tried to read the book but gave up. The hero, Jean Valjean, doesn’t even show up until about page 50. And the stuff before his entrance is deadeningly, crushingly boring.

When I talk to inexperienced writers, I usually tell them to read Elmore Leonard’s 10 rules for writing. And if you don’t treat the rules inflexibly, they are all very sensible. We’ll let Victor Hugo get by with a few peccadilloes. Well, actually Les Mis has about 800 pages of peccadilloes. So here is Leonard’s list with my modest annotations:

1. Never Open a book with a weather report. We all remember the most celebrated bad first line in literature: “It was a dark and stormy night.” from Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s Paul Clifford. The novel was considered a masterpiece when written. Now it has become a subject of ridicule and condescension by high culture snoots. There isn’t anything wrong with writing about the weather if you are building a scene. But for me this kind of beginning smacks of the equivalent of novelistic throat clearing, a sign that the author lacks the self-confidence to jump into the story.

2. Avoid prologues. Screenwriters love prologues. But then screenplays are usually about 20% as long as even the shortest novel. Movies have to get backstory information out quickly and concisely, and the prologue is an obvious vehicle for this. But novels are different. Again, prologues were ok in the nineteenth century. Probably the most influential artist of that time was Richard Wagner. His masterpiece, The Ring of the Niebelung, runs for 4 nights and is over 14 hours long. The entire 2 1/2 hour first opera, Das Rheingold, is a classic prologue written entirely to bring out the backstory of the epic myth. Wagner gets to break the rules; but you, gentle writer, do not. Editors in New York are pretty demanding about how authors should handle backstory. They expect it to be dribbled out on a “need to know basis”. Editors condescendingly refer to backstory prologues as “info dumps”. Another sign of an inexperienced author.

3. Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue. Ok. This is a little extreme. I’m sure Elmore wouldn’t have a problem with “asked” or “thought”. But it’s probably a good idea to avoid most other tags. Plain vanilla tags like “said” are transparent to the reader and keep the reader’s attention on the dialogue and the story. More complex and descriptive tags like “he wondered” or “he mused” or “he regurgitated” [unless, of course, the subject is actually tossing his cookie] are distracting. An exercise in “telling” rather than “showing.”

4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said”…he admonished gravely. Same as rule #3 above. Adverbs tend to be clumsy and lazy. That said, I just finished rereading The Great Gatsby. Fitzgerald loved adverbs. And who am I to criticize Fitzgerald? So, like Wagner, we’ll give him a literary “get out of jail free” card.

5. Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose. YOU HEAR THAT RULE, BUB?! You try using those exclamation points with me, and you’re outta here!!!

6. Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose.” What Elmore is really saying here is that you should avoid clichés like the plague (ha, ha. joke). Another sign of lazy writing. And you might also take the advice of Strunk and White and not use “weak” adjectives like “nice”, “beautiful”, or even “weak”.

7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly. Dad gummit! I agree with Elmore on this. It’s another example of how good style should be invisible. A novel should draw the reader into a kind of trance-like state. When the style distracts the reader from the story, she falls out of the story. I see a lot of stuff by inexperienced writers who are smitten by the need to flaunt their style. Excessive alliteration and misplaced similes, for example. There are lots of examples of great writing where style trumps substance, but in general this is a good rule.

8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters. I’m not sure I would agree with this as a general rule. But what I think Elmore means is that characters are best described by their actions and their words in dialogue. Another admonition of “show, don’t tell.” But go ahead, you can break this rule if it works.

9. Don’t go into great detail describing places and things. I’d really like to make a snarky remark about Henry James right now, but I will forgo that temptation. As above, sometimes this rule is more honored in the breach than in the observance. Sure, if you are writing like Hemingway, Raymond Carver, or even Elmore Leonard, rule #9 is sound advice. But there is room for other styles in good writing. Certainly you should avoid unnecessary detail. Actually you should avoid unnecessary anything.

10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip. This rule speaks for itself –uh– Henry James? Are you listening?

Learning from Lee Child

August 13, 2012

A few weeks ago I was asked to do manuscript evaluations at the Book Passage Mystery Writers Conference. After reading the first 20 pages of a few of these, I started noticing that the writers were having a difficult time getting the story going. Sometimes the author  started out with a long description of the weather. Sometimes he began with  a prologue that delayed the beginning of the real story in order to  frontload some backstory information into the text.  Sometimes he just seemed to be in love with his own vocabulary.  I realized that by the time I was 20 pages into these submissions, I  didn’t know much about what these stories were really about.

I decided that it might be useful to analyze the start of a crime novel by a really good writer. Here is the first 200 words of  The Killing Floor by Lee Child. Let’s read the complete text below and then go over it line by line and see exactly how much story Lee Child packs into these very few words.

I was arrested in Eno’s diner. At twelve o’clock. I was eating eggs and drinking coffee. A late breakfast, not lunch. I was wet and tired after a long walk in heavy rain. All the way from the highway to the edge of town.

The diner was small, but bright and clean. Brand-new, built to resemble a converted railroad car. Narrow, with a long lunch counter on one side and a kitchen bumped out back. Booths lining the opposite wall. A doorway where the center booth would be.

I was in a booth, at a window, reading somebody’s abandoned newspaper about the campaign for a President I didn’t vote for last time and wasn’t going to vote for this time. Outside, the rain had stopped but the glass was still pebbled with bright drops. I saw the police cruisers pull into the gravel lot. They were moving fast and crunched to a stop. Light bars flashing and popping. Red and blue light in the raindrops on my window. Doors burst open, policemen jumped out. Two from each car, weapons ready. Two revolvers, two shotguns. This was heavy stuff. One revolver and one shotgun ran to the back. One of each rushed the door.

Now let’s take it one line at a time.

I was arrested in Eno’s diner. At twelve o’clock. I was eating eggs and drinking coffee.

By the third word we know a very important piece of information,  that this is going to be a crime story.  The narrator and main character, Jack Reacher, is in a diner, not at his supper club.  This tells us that he is a guy who lacks pretension. He’s having eggs and coffee, not brioche and cappuccinos.

A late breakfast, not lunch. I was wet and tired after a long walk in heavy rain. All the way from the highway to the edge of town.

He sets the scene. It’s  daytime. It’s raining. Lee Child isn’t spending much time giving the weather report. Just what you need to know. And he gets a lot of other information in as well. The fact that he is walking in the rain instead of driving tells you more about Reacher, that he is modest, that his tastes are simple. He didn’t drive up in a Ferrari or a Buick. He walked.  And he’s walking from the highway to the edge of town. He’s coming into the town, not going to the diner from his home. He’s an outsider.

The diner was small, but bright and clean. Brand-new, built to resemble a converted railroad car. Narrow, with a long lunch counter on one side and a kitchen bumped out back. Booths lining the opposite wall. A doorway where the center booth would be.

Nice short description of the scene. Most people already know what a diner looks like. So he doesn’t need to embellish much.  He focuses on the big design. Bright and clean, resembles a railroad car, etc. Doesn’t bother to go into the details, what’s on the wall, color of the table tops.  The reader doesn’t need to know all these details, and Reacher, the narrator, wouldn’t be noticing them either. That isn’t what Reacher is all about.  The fact that it is a diner also  sends a kind of ineffable message. There’s a noir quality to the scene.

I was in a booth, at a window, reading somebody’s abandoned newspaper about the campaign for a President I didn’t vote for last time and wasn’t going to vote for this time

Tells us more about the kind of guy Reacher is. He’s  cynical and worldly wise. Not sentimental and not  an idealist, not an intellectual. Doesn’t suffer fools.  (He’s reading a discarded newspaper, not a copy of Hegel’s philosophy.) And notice how he uses short choppy sentences, sometimes just phrases. The words are simple.  You wouldn’t find Reacher in a Henry James novel.

Outside, the rain had stopped but the glass was still pebbled with bright drops. I saw the police cruisers pull into the gravel lot. They were moving fast and crunched to a stop. Light bars flashing and popping. Red and blue light in the raindrops on my window. Doors burst open, policemen jumped out. Two from each car, weapons ready. Two revolvers, two shotguns. This was heavy stuff. One revolver and one shotgun ran to the back. One of each rushed the door.

Now the action begins.  It starts right out of the gate. Lee Child’s delivers. We are about 150 words into the book. And the police cars pull up with lights flashing and popping. The cops burst in armed to the teeth. Covering all the doors.  We already know they want Reacher.

Hey —  let’s turn the page!

Eunuchs at an Orgy: Authors’ on Literary Critics

July 14, 2012

“Critics are like Eunuchs at an Orgy.” – origins unknown

 Writers don’t take kindly to criticism.  After all why should they be different from any of us?  For me there is something exquisite about reading author responses to reviews. The anger and the pettiness seem to inspire  masterful wit and style (at best) or  (even better) clownish buffoonery unworthy of  figures of  great cultural gravitas.

 For those who are connoisseurs of the literary contretemps, I recommend reading the letters in The New York Review of Books. You will uncover a universe of expressions that will serve you well in your own modest efforts at literary feuding.  Here are just a few treasures [along with my own deconstructions of their meaning]:

 

  •          “outrageously inaccurate”  [a hair splitting difference of opinion on a subject that no one else understands  or cares about]
  •           “rhetoric” [the writing style of the reviewer in question, usually as opposed to the reasoned arguments of the writer]
  •          “petrified academicism” [a favorite of mine, a characterization usually made by a petrified academic writer  about   a petrified academic reviewer]
  •          “crude” [the reviewer's method of analysis, as opposed to the "subtle dialectics" of the writer]
  •          “mendacity” [a pompous way of saying that the reviewer is a liar, but with the implication that the flaw is deeply imbedded in his character.]
  •         “clique” [friends of the reviewer who have publicly defended the review]
  •        “heartwarming to hear” [Sarcasm. Usually said when the writer takes out of context a short phrase by the reviewer to make the reviewer seem foolish]
  •          “the reviewer surely knows…” [said when the writer patronizingly points out a particularly egregious mistake of the reviewer indicating that the reviewer knows very little about what he is reviewing]
  •          “shocking” [a very common and overused  characterization about things rarely shocking,  that always calls to mind the Claude Raines character in Casablanca]
  •          “unholy alliance” [people who usually disagree about most things but are united in their revulsion of the author's writing]

 

I love this stuff!  Here are a few more of my favorites:

“I have your review in front of me and soon it will be behind me” – George Bernard Shaw

 Possibly the greatest put down ever of a reviewer (critical of Shaw’s play, no doubt). Magnificent double entendre. Unforgettable understatement.

 “What you said hurt me very much. I cried all the way to the bank.” – Liberace

 Another classic that has become a cliché. Probably more honest than Shaw about the mental state of  the aggrieved artist.

Liberace was pretty blunt. But leave it to the inimitable Ayelet Waldman to bring out the universal humanity in a writer’s outrage at an unfair review of Michael Chabon’s [Ayelet's husband] book:

 “To the fucking MORON Amazon reviewers giving Awesome Man 1 star [because] ‘It would be good for, like, a 2 year old’  — IT WAS WRITTEN FOR LITTLE KIDS”

 Getting back to The New York Review of Books, I find it puzzling why writers would ever respond to these reviews, given the fact that the NYR always gives the reviewer the final word. And the reviewer  almost always answers  with a tone of bored world-weary superiority at the overwrought, and implied, unbecoming comments of the writer.

 So I too  will give the reviewer the final word:

 “Your manuscript is both good and original, but the part that is good is not original, and the part that is original is not good. ” – Samuel Johnson

 

 

 

 

 

Writers on Writing – My Favorite Quotes

July 9, 2012

I’m going to share some of my favorite quotes about writing. I know  it’s a little presumptuous on my part. I’m not a writer, unless you count this blog as writing.  But as an agent, I find myself doing a lot of editing. Publishers don’t have time to imagine how to make an imperfect manuscript perfect. So part of my job is to make sure it’s  pretty perfect before  it lands on their desk. That means I have to edit. And in order to edit, I have to think about writing that’s  good and writing that’s bad.  Telling the difference is pretty easy. I can usually do that on the first page. But  understanding why good writing is good and bad writing is bad, I  think that could take a lifetime.

I have a philosophy about editing. I like to come to  a manuscript with a “beginner’s mind.”  That’s a concept in Zen Buddhism that means  one should approach a subject with no preconceptions, techniques, or methods. In his book: Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, Shuryu Suzuki describes it perfectly.  “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few.”  So when I start to edit a manuscript, I try to put myself in the role of  the simple reader who is, after all, the only person that really matters. Writers aren’t always in the best position to understand the reader. I’d like to believe that I can help them out.

Now on to my favorite quotes:

  • “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.”
  • “I don’t understand anything about the ballet; all I know is that during the intervals the ballerinas stink like horses.”
  •  “Be sure not to discuss your hero’s state of mind. Make it clear from his actions.”
  • “One should not put a loaded rifle onto the stage if no one is thinking of firing it.”

- above quotes by Anton Chekhov

“Show, don’t tell” has become a cliché.  But it is also fundamental. Not quite a law of nature. Great writers can break the rules. I think these wise words by Chekhov say it better than all the articles you read  on this subject in Writer’s Digest. Actually the quote about the ballet doesn’t really address this concept, but I liked it so much I decided to include it. And it’s only a little bit of a stretch to say that the stink of the ballerinas tells – no, excuse me – shows you a lot about their art.

  • ” The road to hell is paved with adverbs.” -Stephen King
  • “As to the adjective, when in doubt, strike it out.” -Mark Twain
  • “Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.”  – Elmore Leonard
  • “Never use an adverb to modify the verb ‘said’…he admonished gravely.” – Elmore Leonard
  • “Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.” –Elmore Leonard

When I was in New York last month for the book convention, I had dinner with Susan Sutliff Brown, freelance editor, Joyce scholar, and friend.  At some point in the evening, Susan stated pontifically that good writers of literary fiction don’t use adjectives and adverbs. I was astonished.  Of course, we all look down on  Tom Swifties, those ungainly adverbial tags used by the novice writer. (“Let’s get to the rocket ship, Tom said swiftly.”) But banishing adverbs and adjectives altogether? Unimaginable, even in an alternative  universe designed by Raymond Carver. Susan’s pronouncement ruined my reading for several weeks. Rather than getting lost in a good book, I poured over  texts counting modifiers.  But now I must admit that Susan was on the right track. Again, it’s all about “show, don’t tell.” Excessive use of adjectives and especially adverbs is a sign of lazy writing. Check it out yourself. (Now, I hope  this hasn’t ruined your experience of reading for the next few weeks.)

  • “Avoid prologues.” – Elmore Leonard

Editors believe  how you handle or mishandle “backstory” is a marker for your ability as a writer. Back in the 19th century when people had more time, you could get away with spending the first 50 pages, say, setting setting up the story. If you don’t believe me, check out Victor Hugo’s Les Miserable. Jean Valjean doesn’t even come on stage until page 55. You can’t do that today. Backstory needs to be insinuated into the narrative, obliquely,  as it unfolds. And it’s devilishly hard to do. Prologues are the lazy man’s way of getting all the crap out and onto the page, so that the you can proceed to roll out the plot without any messy explanatory back tracking. Book editors call this an “info dump”.

You see prologues a lot in movies. And it makes sense.  Screenplays are much more compressed than novels.  A typical screenplay has about 20,000 words. A very short novel will have 70,000. A movie doesn’t have time to allow a backstory to subtly unfold and bore an audience. But you can’t do  that in fiction. Well, that’s not entirely true.  Looking for graceless, awkward, lazy, and inelegant management of backstory? I recommend The DaVinci Code by Dan Brown.

But on the other hand –

  • “Learn from cinema. Be economic with descriptions. Sort out the telling detail from the lifeless one. Write dialogue that people would actually speak.” –  Rose Tremain
  •  “Pace is crucial. Fine writing isn’t enough. Writing students can be great at producing a single page of well-crafted prose; what they sometimes lack is the ability to take the reader on a journey, with all the changes of terrain, speed and mood that a long journey involves. Again, I find that looking at films can help. Most novels will want to move close, linger, move back, move on, in pretty cinematic ways.”

– Rose Tremain

Don’t laugh when I say that learning how to write  is a lot like learning how to play golf. There is a very profitable  industry out there of golf tip books, magazines,  and videos by the super stars. Millions of words written on how to execute the perfect swing or how to make your drive fade. But mastering this information won’t make you Tiger Woods. Similarly with writing, the great novelists are a practical group, always willing to give and receive tips. Here’s some quotes I like:

  • “I try to leave out the parts that people skip.” – Elmore Leonard
  • “The wastebasket is a writer’s best friend.” – Isaac Bashevis Singer
  • “A synonym is a word you use when you can’t spell the other one.” –  Baltasar Gracián
  • “The best time for planning a book is while you’re doing the dishes.” – Agatha Christie
  • Try to be accurate about stuff. ” – Anne Enright

Ok. So the golf comparison is pretty sucky. And you might just perceive in these quotes a tone of  post-modern self-reflective irony that one would not likely hear at the British Open. But there is something about these sentiments that make me feel pretty good, like these writers are  experiencing the same struggles as we mortals. Compare this to:

  • “If you do not breathe through writing, if you do not cry out in writing, or sing in writing, then don’t write, because our culture has no use for it.” –  Anais Nin
  • “To withdraw myself from myself has ever been my sole, my entire, my sincere motive in scribbling at all.”  – Lord Byron
  • “I am a man, and alive…. For this reason I am a novelist. And being a novelist, I consider myself superior to the saint, the scientist, the philosopher, and the poet, who are all great masters of different bits of man alive, but never get the whole hog.” – D.H. Lawrence

No offense to the great Lord Byron and these other fine writers, but their characterizations of themselves as writers strike me as gaseous nonsense.

To be continued……

Publishing Literary Fiction (in Charts and Words)

June 18, 2011

I went to New York City a few weeks ago and spent 3 days talking to editors at Random House, Penguin, Simon and Schuster, and HarperCollins. I try to do this a couple of times every year to pitch upcoming projects and to get a better idea what editors are looking for. Since  I have been doing more work representing fiction, mostly literary and young adult,  I decided to speak to a number of literary fiction editors  and try to figure out the  elusive secret key to publishing the perfect literary novel. I am sad to report that this key continues to elude me.

The editors, with whom I spoke, all told me that they were looking for “fresh new voices.” This is commendable and reassuring, particularly for debut novelists. And I also believe that this is true. We often  scold commercial publishers for failing to take risks. Not to sound snarky though, sometimes I have difficulty distinguishing those fresh new voices from the stale old ones.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that trade publishing is the marriage of art and commerce. This is no less true of the decision to publish that most artistic of book genres, the literary novel. The acquisition decision is rarely based on simple aesthetics. In fact there is a vast amount good fiction writing out there, most of it heavily vetted and edited by agents before even reaching the desk of the literary editor. Good writing is a given. Publishers want something more.

Literary fiction editors are just like the rest of us. They get hooked on a novel in the first few pages, they fall in love with the story and the characters, they are seduced by the language, they stay up all night reading it, they laugh and cry,  and   decide they must publish  this book. But then the decision moves on to the acquisition meeting. Every week a group of editors meet with the publisher of the imprint, the marketing director, and the sales manager. Questions come up. Will the chains buy this book? Is the novel too much like one that flopped last year? Is the voice really fresh and new? Is the voice too fresh and too new? Is it too dark for the book group readers (That happened to one of mine). Is it too literary?

Too literary! Wait a minute. That’s what publishers are looking for, isn’t it? Well, yes and no. All of the literary editors told me that they want books with good writing, strong characters, original themes and compelling plots. How is this any different than a commercial novel? After all thrillers have to be well written too these days. 

So I took out a little piece of paper and started sketching a kind of literary-commercial continuum chart.  Most of the editors agreed that such a continuum exists and that the lines separating the genres are pretty fuzzy. They all agreed that the books they are looking for are not at the far end of the literary continuum. They are closer to the middle. Some editors and some imprints have sensibilities a tad to the left or a smidgeon to the right. 

So here is my chart. Study it, literary fiction writer, and you will get published.

Actually, that isn’t true. You probably won’t get published. Now those of you who lack courage and self confidence should not read on. The chances of getting a publishing contract are still pretty small, even for authors of talent and with fresh new voices.  I asked one of the editors to tell me how many manuscripts she considered in a year and from those how many ultimately got published. She looked at her log and said she had gone over about 250 manuscripts. Two were ultimately acquired and  put into print. This is a sobering statistic. And remember, all of her submissions were prescreened and heavily filtered by agents.

Here is the chart.

So I ask myself why am I spending so much time trying to make deals that seem to have less chance of happening than winning the lottery. I guess it is just that I love this stuff (and I got a pretty good feeling that my number is coming up soon).

 

Great Article on Blogging Tips For Writers

February 11, 2011

Blogging tips for writers. Check it out.

Cody’s As it Was in 1977

February 10, 2011

When I became the owner of Cody’s in 1977, it was primarily stocked paperbacks. Although the idea of a paperback bookstore was novel, paperbacks had been around for a long time, at least since the mid 19th century. The first strictly paperback  publisher was Pocket Books, founded in 1939. Its famous logo of  Gertrude the kangaroo is still on the spines of Pocket Book titles.  The company is now an imprint of Simon and Schuster.  The first title they published was Lost Horizons by James Hilton.

New paperback publishers started popping up in the 1940’s. Penguin Books, Bantam, New American Library,   and  Ballantine Books still live on today as imprints of larger houses. The  books they published were called “mass market” paperbacks. They were and continue to be rack sized books and were primarily sold outside of the traditional book channels. Mostly you found them in magazine outlets and drug stores. In the 1950s publishers started producing “trade paperback” books. These were of a larger format and were usually sold in the new paperback oriented bookstores like Cody’s and Keplers.

Before the mid-1970’s, booksellers couldn’t buy mass market books direct. They were forced to buy them from local magazine distributors with unfavorable trade terms and limited selection. A lot of these distributors were run by the mob, who kept both the bookseller and the publisher in a state of terror. Gradually publishers started showing some uncharacteristic backbone and began selling direct to booksellers. There were a number of reports of “representatives” from the magazine distributors, goons really, making personal visits to booksellers in order to discourage them from dealing directly with the publishers. But the booksellers (who were mostly small shopkeepers back then) showed their  characteristic courage and independence that continues to be their hallmark to this day. Fred Cody told the story of a visit from one of these representatives who threatened to break his knees.

Although the mass market publishers sold reprints of hardback bestsellers, they really excelled at genre fiction. That still is their long  suit today. Genre fiction is a publishing term of art for mysteries, science fiction, fantasy, westerns, thrillers and romance. A lot of the stuff was pretty cheesy. The covers in those days were wonderful —  full of babes in suggestive poses, their bodacious bodies pouring out of their skimpy clothes. Titles like Flesh Pots of Malibu. Some nice lesbian action too, mostly taking place in ladies’  prison blocks.

My favorite genre back in the 70s were the romances which we called “bodice rippers” referring to the formulaic schlock-o covers  of shirtless muscle men and swashbucklers ripping the bodices off  the swooning, usually excessively endowed, heroine. I remember every year at the booksellers convention, the romance publishers would hire big hunks, usually dressed up as pirates to promote the titles. There were also women at the booths who all looked like a cross between Scarlett O’Hara and Daisy Mae Yokum. The most popular and probably the most tasteless title in this genre was one called: Mandingo. It had a a larger than life slave with bulging muscles popping out of his tattered clothes along with the daughter of the slave master, ripped bodice and all, swooning at his feet. 

 In 1977 Cody’s was a large store for its time. It was about 8900 square feet. That’s not impressive compared to the giant superstores around the country now that are sometimes as large as 60,000 square feet. It always seemed a lot larger though. The Codys had built this structure themselves in 1963. The main room was 35 feet high with floor to ceiling windows giving it a cathedral-like feeling of space. It was filled up with funky homemade pine bookshelves sagging with spine out paperbacks. It was pretty impressive when you walked into the store. It looked like it had every book ever published.

  When I bought the store, there were only 17 employees. But that was an enormous change for me. I had previously only managed one or two people at any given time. The staff were paid $3.25 per hour. Pat Cody always said that the employees  had to settle for the psychic compensation of being surrounded by books. It was true that most of the employees were hired because they, too, had a passion for books. I was fortunate to have two managers who were experienced, competent and gifted booksellers. The general manager was Nick Setka. He was 27 years old then and did most of the buying for the store, which was perfect for his wonderful, intuitive understanding of books. Ed Manegold, then in his early 30’s, was the assistant manager. He was smart, committed,  and much more tough minded than either Nick or me.   Outside of finding the right book for a customer, buying was the only fun job in bookselling. So I tried to join in on that. Usually Nick and I would sit down together with the salesmen. Back then the sales reps were known with the rather quaint name of: “travelers.”  Nick is still in the book business. He is a manager at Book Passage in Marin County and works there with my wife, Leslie Berkler.

In 1977,  the store was organized and stocked in a way that reflected the passions of the owners, Pat and Fred.  The front table, the most prominent real estate in the store, was filled with self-published and small press  books. Fred believed in small presses with a passion. It was a kind of political position. He once made a public statement that he would stock one copy of any small press book that was offered to him.  That statement came back to haunt him, but it tells a lot about Fred’s passion as a bookseller.  I was less thrilled with the small presses. A lot of  those books seemed to be  solipsistic exercises. But still  times were different then and there really were some phenomenal small presses, many of which were located in the Bay  Area. Some of them still exist today. City Lights Books in San Francisco started its publishing arm in 1955. It most famously published Allen Ginsberg’s Howl  the following year. Over in Berkeley Phil Wood gave up his sales rep job at Penguin and decided to start publishing. His first book, Anybody’s Bike Book, inspired the name for his new publishing company, Ten Speed Press. The book went on to sell a million copies, and Ten Speed Press still exists today. In 2009  it was bought by Random House and continues to be an imprint there. Phil died in 2010 after a long bout with cancer. He was a legend and a reminder of a time when publishing was  a more personal endeavor  driven by people with a passion for books.  I admired Phil tremendously throughout his career and will miss him. I miss him a lot.

Here is a list of the bestselling titles of 1977, the year I bought Cody’s.

Fiction

1. The Silmarillion, J.R.R. Tolkien; Christopher Tolkien

2. The Thorn Birds, Colleen McCullough

3. Illusions: The Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah, Richard Bach

4. The Honourable Schoolboy, John Le Carré

5. Oliver’s Story, Erich Segal

6. Dreams Die First, Harold Robbins

7. Beggarman, Thief, Irwin Shaw

8. How To Save Your Own Life, Erica Jong

9. Delta of Venus: Erotica, Anaïs Nin

10. Daniel Martin, John Fowles

Non-fiction 

1. Roots, Alex Haley

2. Looking Out for #1, Robert Ringer

3. All Things Wise and Wonderful, James Herriot

4. Your Erroneous Zones, Dr. Wayne W. Dyer

5. The Book of Lists, David Wallechinsky, Irving Wallace, and Amy Wallace

6. The Possible Dream: A Candid Look at Amway, Charles Paul Conn

7. The Dragons of Eden: Speculations on the Evolution of Human Intelligence, Carl Sagan

8. The Second Ring of Power, Carlos Castaneda

9. The Grass ls Always Greener over the Septic Tank, Erma Bombeck

10. The Amityville Horror, Jay Anson

Not such a bad list of titles, all things considered. The really hot books at Cody’s were quite a bit different though. Yes, we sold bunches of Carlos Castaneda, Tolkien, and Alex Haley’s Roots. And even a few of the less memorable titles on the list like James Herriot, Erma Bombeck and The Thorn Birds

But Cody’s was really marching to the beat of a different drummer. We would sell hundreds, even thousands, of books like Of Grammatology by Jacques Derrida, The History of Sexuality by Michel Foucault,  Anti-Oedipus by Gilles Deleuze and Ecrits by Jacques Lacan.  (And almost anything else by French philosophers and considered “post modern”). These books were all written with such opaque jargon that they could only be understood, if at all, by those initiated into mysteries of the cult of deconstruction.   To the cognoscenti, these books were nothing less than a redefinition of philosophy and literary theory. For the rest of us, it seemed like fashionable nonsense.

 Radical politics was still a passion in those days and  was reflected in the books available in the store. Herbert Marcuse’s One Dimensional Man had inspired a generation of radical students since its publication   in 1964. Cody’s had two cases of books on “Marxism”. Aside from the collected works of the master and his major disciples, Lenin, Mao,  and Gramschi, we sold a lot of the contemporary Marxist thinkers. Perhaps the most popular of the new Marxists was Louis Althusser, another French scholar. He was considered a “structuralist” which I guess gave him a license to write the obligatory impenetrable prose. In 1980 he strangled his wife to death. But  this did not seem to have harmed his reputation as a brilliant intellectual.  His fans spent a lot of time spinning out strained arguments about why we should distinguish between the profundity of his ideas and the fact that in life he was a homicidal psychopath.  They should have just accepted it as an embarrassment and left it at that.

 Scholars and philosophers  like Jürgen Habermas, Hannah Arendt, Fernand Braudel, Claude Levi-Strauss, Jean Piaget, and Walter Benjamin sold well at Cody’s over the years. At one point, Cody’s was selling 10% of the national sales of Walter Benjamin’s classic work of literary criticism, Illuminations.

In contrast to the two cases of books on Marxism, the six cases on philosophy and the ten cases on criticism and literary theory, we only had one shelf of books on business, half of which was taken up by a single title, What Color is your Parachute?

The world changes and bookstores reflect those changes. As we moved into the 21st century, the business section had increased to about 20 cases including subsections on management, sales, real estate, and investing. Marxism became a kind of an intellectual footnote, of importance only to the history of ideas. Most of the titles in the Marxism section quietly went out of print or stopped selling. And we folded up the section and incorporated the few remaining titles into politics, history, and philosophy.

Cody’s maintained its reputation as a great venue for scholarly titles until the very end. One of the saddest moments in my career was in early 2006. Unlike most retailers who put excess inventory on sale, bookstores can return books that are no longer selling to publishers. We did this almost daily based on lists that were kicked out by the computer of titles with no sales for the previous nine months. I was pulling returns that day and noticed that on the returns  list was our last copy of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. I was stunned to think that I was taking the most important work of modern philosophy out of the store, but it hadn’t sold in over a year. I left it on the shelf anyway. But that was when  I realized that our time was up. Six months later we closed the Telegraph Avenue store.

How I Became a Bookseller

January 9, 2011

Me in Cotati circa 1975

I became a bookseller because I had a passion for books. This is not a particularly good reason to make a life career choice.   But  my decision (if one could call it that) to enter the book business was disorderly. The critical path was filled with loop-de-loops.   I’ve never told this story before, but it goes like this. In 1971 I was a graduate student at the University of Oregon in Eugene. I was on a Ph.D track studying German cultural and intellectual history.  Most of the people with whom I associated outside of the History Department were hippies or some variation thereof. I suppose I was too, although spending one’s waking hours reading Kant and Kierkegaard created some real cognitive dissonance in my countercultural consciousness and lifestyle. I cut a kind of ridiculous figure with my non-academic friends. But people were more tolerant back then.

 I was pretty focused  on  becoming a scholar and I was pretty good at it too.  I  had even  been admitted to Ph.D programs at some snooty universities.  I was writing a masters thesis on the social thought of Kierkegaard.  In my other life outside of the university, there was a lot of talk among my friends about freedom, spontaneity, communal living, feminism, the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi,  psychedelic drugs, astrology, free love, vegetarianism, gestalt therapy, natural childbirth and that sort of thing. Marxism was very popular too. But the Marxism being bandied about was what we  superior intellectuals in the  History Department would call “vulgar Marxism”, by which we meant people who actually wanted to change the world, not just pontificate about it. Among the vulgar Marxists, there was a lot of waving of Chairman Mao’s Little Red Bookand  some vicious disputes over matters that were of no consequence to anyone other than the vulgar Marxists.  Oh, yes. There was a war going on, and Kierkegaard didn’t have much to say about that. (One could argue that Kant did, if you could actually understand what he was talking about.)

   It  also rained a lot in Oregon. And there was a girl. There always is, isn’t there?  Things weren’t going too well with us, as is often the case.  One day she walked out on me and joined a free love commune called “Earth’s Rising Family.”  I kept going out there trying to get her back. The Communards were pretty nice people. They graciously put me up  in the teepee down the hill from the privy while they were up in the farmhouse having orgies (or so I imagined).  Kant and  Kierkegaard  didn’t have much say about that either.

 Somehow all this led me to the decision to leave academics and  start a bookstore.  As I said, I had a passion for books. I don’t remember much about what kind of thought  went into the decision.  Not very much at all, I believe. Maybe 5 minutes of thought. Maybe it happened in my sleep. Maybe it happened in the teepee.  It was  dumb luck, but it probably set me in the right direction for  the next 40 years and counting.

 At first I talked to the guy who owned the countercultural bookstore in Eugene. I had heard that he wanted to sell it.  If my mind doesn’t fail me, I believe it was called “Koobdooga Books.” It means “a good book” backwards.  He told me that he conceived of the name on an acid trip. I thought about buying it.  But I was tired of the rain and depressed about rushing back and forth to and from the teepee at Earth’s Rising Commune.  So I moved down to the San Francisco Bay Area.

 I found a  bookshop for sale in Cotati, a small college town in Sonoma County about 50 miles north of San Francisco. There was a lot of hippies there too, kind of like Eugene  but with more sunshine. It was a very modest store, Eeyore Books.   It was started by a couple of local women a few years before. The entire space was 600 square feet, about as big as my living room where I’m writing this. The store wasn’t worth much money, because it didn’t have many books and did even less business.  But I still managed to  drive  a very bad bargain. It is a flaw that I  fortunately overcame before becoming a literary agent.  I paid them $15,000. And  the store  was mine.

 I put in some new shelves, ordered up some books and opened for business a week later. It was 1972.  On my first day of business  I did $32 in sales. It was pretty discouraging. Later I learned that was the same amount of sales that  Cody’s had done on its  first day of business in 1956. The old Cody’s shop  on the north side of campus  was about  the same size too. 600 square feet.

 The second day I was open, I met my first publisher’s sales rep, Maggie Castanon of Random House. Until her retirement some 30 years later, she was always my favorite person in publishing. She was a great sales person, filled with a passion for books and totally without pretension. I always felt good when I was around her. After she retired, she even came to work for  Cody’s at our Fourth Street store.   For booksellers, Random House always held a special place in our hearts. It wasn’t the largest publisher back then. That was Doubleday. But Random House had the best titles for a bookstore such as ours. A visit by a Random House rep was an event to be anticipated. This special relationship between Random House and booksellers continues to this day. Doubleday is now an imprint of Random House. And Random House is the largest book publisher in the world.

 The second sales rep I met was Joyce Cole who sold books for Avon, a mass market publisher. I think she was Maggie’s best friend. Joyce was striking in appearance, sophisticated, and had a kind of  charisma that was difficult to define. I had a feeling that there was something interesting inside. But she seemed cool and aloof. I didn’t expect that we would ever be friends.  I was wrong about that.  Joyce and I  were married in 1986.

 A lot of people say that the quality of books has gone downhill in the last 30 years, that literary values have been  replaced by commercial values and that American reading  has been seduced by the dark forces of  a hegemonic mass media with a fetish for  celebrity. Actually most people in the book business don’t talk that way, except maybe me, and then only at pretentious  literary cocktail parties. Nowadays  when I argue the point (and I still do 40 years later),  I like to recite the great line from Yeats’ poem, “The Second Coming”: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are filled with passionate intensity.”  And most people agree. (Although there are some who are not familiar with that poem and have to slouch off toward Wikipedia to find  the  reference). 

 But looking back on the bestsellers of 1972, it would  be hard to characterize that year as a literary golden age.

 The ten fiction hardback best sellers were:

 

1. Jonathan Livingston Seagull, Richard Bach

2. August 1914, Alexander Solzhenitsyn

3. The Odessa File, Frederick Forsyth

4. The Day of the Jackal, Frederick Forsyth

5. The Word, Irving Wallace

6. The Winds of War, Herman Wouk

7. Captains and Kings, Taylor Caldwell

8. Two From Galilee, Marjorie Holmes

9. My Name is Asher Lev, Chaim Potok

10 Semi-Tough, Dan Jenkins

 

The non-fiction best sellers were:

 

1. The Living Bible, Kenneth Taylor

2. I’m O.K., You’re O.K., Thomas Harris

3. Open Marriage, Nena and George O’Neill

4. Harry S. Truman, Margaret Truman

5. Dr. Atkins’ Diet Revolution, Robert Atkins

6. Better Homes and Gardens Menu Cook Book

7. The Peter Prescription, Lawrence Peter

8. A World Beyond, Ruth Montgomery

9. Journey to Ixtlan, Carlos Castaneda

10. Better Homes and Gardens Low-Calerie Desserts

  Still, as I look at this list now, I’m struck by the fact that it isn’t all that bad, certainly a good balance of fine literary titles along with the usual commercial mediocrity. A number of these books I don’t remember selling at all. They probably did  much better in the chain stores. Yes, there were chains, even then.

 The other big venue for book sales was department stores. They all had book departments then. The department store  book buyers  were  towering figures in the book business with immense prestige and influence and were accordingly treated with deference and obsequiousness by the publishers.  Those department store book sections are all gone now, replaced with ladies’ accessories and cosmetics. I don’t think it was any great loss either. The department stores had very conventional taste in books that appealed primarily to rich old ladies. You’d walk into these departments and you knew that nobody there  really had a passion for books.

 Book publishing was different back  then too.   As I mentioned the world wasn’t really focused on bestsellers the way it is now. At least that was true outside of the big chains. My store still had its counterculture feel. We sold a lot of books, mostly paperbacks,  on humanistic psychology,  eastern mysticism and other things spiritual. Fritz Perls, Abraham Maslow, Alan Watts, The Urantia Book,  and Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism were some of my best sellers in the mid seventies at Eeyore’s. I made a lot of money on the I Ching (Princeton University Press edition). And, of course, all things having to do with  the ever mysterious, Carlos Castañeda.

  Fiction, too, was conditioned by countercultural enthusiasms: Tolkien’s  The Lord of the Rings, Childhood’s End by Arthur Clark, Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert Heinlein, Siddhartha and Demian  by Hermann Hesse, Jonathan Livingston Seagull. There was the usual stuff by self-styled “visionaries” like Future Shock by Alvin Toffler and The Greening of America by Charles Reich. These books have not stood the test of time.  There were some other books that, though dated, I still think of  with admiration. I wouldn’t mind rereading The Last Whole Earth Catalogue.

 But I couldn’t give up on my ponderous German philosophy.  We also sold the works of Karl Marx, One Dimensional Man by Herbert Marcuse, and anything by and about Friedrich Nietzsche. As you can tell from all these titles, things were different back then. People were interested in understanding life’s big questions. What is truth? How do we lead a just life? How do we make a better world? How to we find happiness and contentment.? I don’t believe we are asking these questions so much now, but maybe I am just blinded by nostalgia.

 Eeyore’s was a one person operation. We did grow over the years. By the time I left Cotati, I think it had become a two person operation. I had moved the store to another space. It was about four times as large as the original location. I’m still pretty proud of that store. I think it had a kind of perfection, just right for its time and place.

If you want to read some more about my like in bookselling, check out these links:

How I Came to Own Cody’s Part 1

Cody’s as It Was in 1977

How the Computer Came to Cody’s

Bookselling in the 80s at Cody’s Part 1

Bookselling at Cody’s in the 80s Part 2

Remembering the Rushdie Affair Part 1

Remembering the Rushdie Affair Part 2

Fighting Against History Part 1

Fighting Against History Part 2

The End of Cody’s

 

E-book Economics 101

December 7, 2010

 The e-book is turning the  book business upside down. No one in publishing  seems to be talking about anything else. Manufacturing costs, retail prices, competition, author royalties, the future of the physical bookstore, the future of the novel, enhanced books, book reader technology, eye strain, how to read an e-book on the beach, are commercial publishers out-dated dinosaurs; these are but a few of the subjects that are generating the most agonizing soul searching in book publishing. Nobody knows how these things will ultimately sort themselves out. The changes are just coming too fast.

  In this post I am   going to analyze the economics of publishing and compare the cost of publishing a hardback book to that of the e-book. I’m an agent, so I have an ax to grind.  It looks like the bottom line is that book publishers stand to  make more money on e-books and authors will make less.  

 For this post, I am using information that I took from an article in The New York Times. Here is the link to the article.

First let’s look at the costs of publishing a traditional hardback. The numbers  in The New York Times article  were calculated for a  hardback with a $26 suggested  retail price. (Remember that booksellers can charge any price they want. And a lot of bestsellers are discounted to the book buyer.  Here is the breakdown.

Amount paid to publisher by bookseller: $13.00

Printing, warehousing, shipping: $  3.25

Author Royalty:  $   3.90

Design, editorial, typesetting:  $      .80

 Marketing:  $  1.00

 Profit before overhead:  $4.05

I am not entirely pleased by the robustness of this analysis. It neither accounts for all of the expenses nor all of the income associated with a particular book.  But it is a good indicator of the relative costs of publishing a title.

 What is an E-book?

 If you don’t know the answer to this question, what have you been doing for the last two years? And if you are reading this on a Kindle, skip to the next section.  E-books are like iTunes. And, in fact, the  iTune division of Apple will be managing  the Apple e-book store. New technology for the e-book changes almost daily. As of (let’s see now) yesterday I believe, you can even  download e-books onto your iPhones. The largest selling e-book reader is the Kindle. But the Apple iPad is moving up fast as of this writing. There is also the Sony Reader, the Nook, the Kobo reader and new brands popping every month.  Readers are beginning to get sold at the big box stores and should be a popular item this Christmas. It is estimated that by the end of the year, there will be over 10,000,000 readers sold.

 In 2009, e-books accounted for about 4% of unit trade book sales, but sales are increasing exponentially.  E-book sales  in 2010 are up over 150% from previous year’s sales. Unit sales of  cloth and paper books have been decreasing.  Amazon.com claims that they are now selling more Kindle Editions than traditional cloth titles. Most major publishers though are showing less dramatic e-book sales. But they are reporting that 10%  or more of  bestselling new titles are e-books.

 The advent of the iPad creates a suitable platform for visual books as well. People are already experimenting with books that incorporate multimedia integration. The first “enhanced” e-book was published last July.  Perhaps soon you will be able to buy a cookbook that includes film demonstrations by the author. Or book group editions with film clips of interviews with the author.

 The e-book is a perfect fit for our gadget-obsessed world.

 And what are the costs of publishing an e-book?

 Let’s go back to The New York Times article that we discussed above on the cost of publishing a book. There are some substantial savings to the publisher on e-books. No manufacturing costs, no warehousing costs, no shipping and receiving, no returns. Sweet!

 Like all other things e-book, the economic model has been changing protean-like, and no one in publishing can predict what it will look like in a month, let alone in a year. Let’s take a look at the $26.00 hardbound book from the example above. Currently publishers are giving book lovers a break and selling e-books for about half  the price of the hardback. Sometimes Amazon is selling these books even lower and at a loss in order to gain market share. About 90% of all e-books are currently being sold by Amazon. And Amazon is hoping to keep it that way, in spite of fierce competition from Apple.  Google recently w rolled out its e-book store and is selling in a variety of formats. (Amazon only sells Kindle editions that only can be read on the Kindle reader). Independent stores have linked up with Google and are selling e-books on their sites as well.   

 There are several different systems of selling e-books, but let’s keep it simple and look at the sales for books from most major publishers. So here are the costs and the profits:

 Price to the consumer:  $12.99

Cost paid to publisher by bookseller: $ 9.09

Author royalty:  $ 2.27

Digitization, typesetting, editing :  $   .50

Marketing:  $    .78

 Profit before overhead: $   5.54

 The first and most astonishing thing you will notice is the hit that author royalties have taken on the e-book economic model. Authors will receive a royalty of $3.90 on the hardback vs. $2.27 on an e-book.  (Actually that may not be the first thing you notice, but agents and authors are understandably  concerned about this. “Livid” might be a better characterization.) Note also that even with consumer prices being half of the list price of a traditional book, publishers stand to make considerably more money on each sale, because of negligible manufacturing and distribution costs.

A lot of people think that e-books don’t cost anything so they should have a price that reflects this.  Amazon seems to be promoting this idea for their   own reasons. But remember e-books still have costs for royalties, marketing, and editorial. There are a number of Internet gurus who think that “information wants to be free”. But most writers feel that their work is worth something and they should be paid for the ten years that they toiled on their novel, for instance.

 There are some other, as yet, unquantifiable factors that would tend to make e-books an even better deal for publishers. E-books will not generate costly returns of unsold books from the bookseller. They are sold to consumers non-returnable. You can’t even give it away to a friend. And you can’t sell it to used book stores. My gadget -obsessed brother, Ken Ross, (check out his company, Expertceo.com)   now only reads books on his Kindle. He claims that he buys many more books than before, because of the ease of purchase. If he gets bored with what he is reading, he just hits the button for a new book and moves on. That is what publishers are hoping for – more readers like Ken. And if Ken’s buying patterns are anything to go by, reports of the death of the  book  and of book publishing will have been greatly exaggerated.

 

 


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