Lord a Mercy! It’s a Big Responsibility to Be a New York Editor

Amazon bookmarks 3321163964_7f29a808ff_b

Editors and publishers can’t quite get their minds around the concept that Amazon serves customers, not publishing houses.  Publishers prefer dealing with rich Independent bookstore slavies, who truckle under to their ridiculous prices.

In a Jan. 8 article at Slate, Daniel Menaker, an author of very good fiction and memoirs and the former Editor-in-Chief at Random House, explains why he is not keen on Amazon. It is mostly about prices.  Naturally he was annoyed by Amazon’s feud with Hachette over e-book pricing.  (It was resolved in November.)

Menaker says publishers and editors have the education and experience to balance art and commerce.  He writes that “between 20 and 30 New York publishers and editors…are in fact the main curators of letters.”

And he thinks Jeff Bezos and some other entrepreneurs envy publishers and want a piece of that action.

 Well, they can’t have it. Like patrons of old and some of new, they can stand back and support it, sponsor it, admire it. They can give it parties at retreats in New Mexico. They can even sort of own it. But they can’t have it. Because they need to make a lot of money. And because they don’t have the background, wide experience, native zeal, eye for talent, editorial skill, intuition, and intermittent disregard for probable profit necessary to perform the role of literary concierge.

Lord a mercy!  It’s a Big Responsibility to be a New York Editor!  If the top 20 or 30 are part of the Ivy League cocktail crowd, aren’t they milling and  thronging with Bezos anyway, who graduated from Princeton?

Where do the writers come in?

Perhaps publishing was in better shape when Menaker was at Random House. There are some very bad books being published:  I can’t be bothered to finish, say, Michael Faber’s  mediocre novel, The Book of Strange New Things (whether the writer or editor botched it, I don’t know.). And, by the way, I keep finding Latin errors, even in A.S. Byatt’s masterpiece, The Children’s Book.

I do respect many modern writers: Jonathan Lethem, D. J. Taylor, Karen Joy Fowler, Jane Gardam, Tim Winton, Richard Flanagan, and Michelle Huneven, to name a few. But I have read brilliant writers who have published a few stories in literary magazines and then disappeared.  What happened?

Amazon sells new and used books to readers like me who do not have access to great bookstores or libraries.  I can obtain titles published  by Dalkey Archive, NYRB, Europa, and many of the less popular Penguin classics.  If you think I can get these at my local Barnes and  Noble, you are crazy.

The service at Amazon is superb.

Meanwhile, publishers have tantrums about Amazon.  They don’t like the selling of used “new” books, and they don’t like the low prices on e-books.    My personal opinion is:  why publish e-books at all? Why not throw out the e-readers and go back to the book?

Yes, that’s very prim of me, but that’s how I feel.

We used to hear that Borders and Barnes and Noble were about to seize control of the book industry:  everything from book covers to content.   Now it’s Amazon.

Please.  The end of civilization is more likely to be caused by climate change and fracking.


stock-photo-writing-notes-5822 writer with pencilI went to Iowa City to d0 research at the Women’s Archives at the University of Iowa Library.

You are not allowed to bring in your knapsack.  You are not allowed to write with a pen.  You are allowed to borrow a pencil.

Every visitor must fill out a form.   The questions are about identity and purpose.

Who am I?  I thought, amused, as I filled in my name and address.

In answer to the question about my reason for research, I eliminated the first several possibilities and checked the box,  “Other.”

A good reason, I think.

I was there to read Ain’t I a Woman?, a feminist newspaper published in Iowa City by a collective, 1970-74.

Where will my research go?

Perhaps I’ll write an essay.

Perhaps I’ll write an e-book.

I would self-publish an e-book rather than go through a mainstream publisher.

For one thing, I am doing this for fun.

I also have no contacts in publishing.  My few writer friends were dropped from publishers’ midlists long ago.

Old editors out, old writers out.  New editors in, new writers in.

I am due to self-publish an e-book next year, says my family.  Yup.  They scarcely care what it is about.  My parents’ generation self-published memoirs of small-town Iowa,  tedious books of genealogy (did we really have such splendid ancestors?), and cookbooks.

Now it’s time for our generation to take over.

Our experiences differed from those of our parents.  We taught Latin, traveled around the world, worked in retail, became computer techs, rode RAGBRAI, and worked in halfway houses. And is it my imagination, or do an unusual number of us work out of our homes?

Will I interview family for an e-book?

Will I write a memoir?

Will I write a novel?

I will not be writing a vampire novel.  Sorry, no werewolves, angels, centaurs, or mermaids either.

Of the otherworldly types listed above, I prefer mermaids.

“Iowa City has always been a death trip for me,” a woman told me back in the ’70s.

Not for me.

No vampires.

The ’60s?  Great.  The ’70s?  A little rocky at the start, but mostly good after that.

I won’t actually be writing about Iowa City.

Or at least not much.

I haven’t lived there in years.  I no longer know anyone.

The town was flooded in 2008 and Hancher Auditorium and the Music Building are being rebuilt.  The Art Museum is (temporarily, I hope) housed in the Student Union.  I don’t know what has happened to the Art building.

My city is gone.

It may not be my town anymore, but, nonetheless, it is fascinating, and I have great affection for it.

Balzac, William Cooper, Howard Jacobson and the Rest of Us on Publishing

"Lost Illusions' illustration by Francis Mosley

“Lost Illusions’ illustration by Francis Mosley

Let’s allow the publishers their fatuous make-believe:  they never do read any books, otherwise they wouldn’t publish so many!”–Balzac’s Lost Illusions

Balzac, William Cooper, and Howard Jacobson have written satirically in their fiction about the publishing business.

Lucien, the up-and-coming hero of Balzac’s Lost Illusions, abandons his literary talent for the instant gratification of journalism:  publishers in nineteenth-century Paris pay newspaper editors for good reviews, and if they don’t pay up, the reviews are negative. This journalistic power seems normal to Lucien, who can grind out 30 articles in a day under pseudonyms to support his gambling habit and high-society incursions.

Joe Lunn, the novelist narrator of William Cooper’s charming 1983 novel, Scenes from Later Life, explains that the success of a book, and especially his new book, “was more likely than not decided long before it was actually published,” because advertising is as necessary as reviews and his publisher won’t advertise.

Zoo TimeGuy Ableman, the novelist narrator of Howard Jacobson’s boisterous publishing satire, Zoo Time, blames book groups, three-for-twos, and the internet for the death of reading.  His books aren’t available in bookstores, and he is arrested for shoplifting one of his own books from Oxfam.  His publisher commits suicide, depressed by the new dependence of success on “blags” and “twits.”

Over the centuries, thousands of writers have inveighed against the publishing industry.  Of the three I mention, Balzac’s accusations are the most outrageous, but the even-tempered Cooper is also cynical about the future of literature, and witty Jacobson blames the gullibility of readers as much as he blames publishers and editors for trying to market books to readers on the net.

We feel like insiders when we read novels about writers and publishers.  Aha!  So that’s how it is.

Edouard Monet Woman writingNewspapers are folding, publishers merge, e-books outsell books, writers have to tweet to sell books, and desperate literary writers invest in a “Freedom” app to keep them from surfing the internet when they should be writing.

Books are our most precious artifacts. Have they gotten worse? Perhaps yes, perhaps no.

I don’t have the faintest idea what goes on in New York and have no ax to grind, but I have struck out with a couple of new short story collections this spring, cannot imagine what my friend sees in the latest “literary masterpiece” by X, and think of permanently reverting to science fiction, a genre which “is what it is,” and which I say I like but read remarkably little of.

On the other hand, there are still Michael Chabon, Margaret Drabble, Hilary Mantel, A. M. Homes, Amitav Ghosh, and countless other great writers.  So, as Dorothy Parker put it, and this is out of context: “You might as well live.”

It is much easier in the Back of Beyond to understand the decline of journalism than to understand book publishing.  We are all witnesses to the death of the American newspaper.  And for a number of years I freelanced, so I was an insider-outsider.

It happened accidentally.

After attending a writers’ conference where the acclaimed teacher/writer forbade the use of adjectives, adverbs, participles, relative pronouns, flashbacks, and exposition in fiction, my short stories read like action-packed telegraph messages but my style was well-suited for journalism.

I began to write what I call “bubble-gum journalism.”

There was no pressure, because it was not immortal prose.

In the course of many pleasant years, I wrote charming articles about poetry slams, frozen custard, winter camping, bike messengers, birdwatching, bookstores, book-touring writers, gentrification, sculpture gardens, and farmers’ markets.

The editors were kind, if gloomy to a Dickensian degree.  Generally they were sensible, but you had to watch your back.   If they forgot to change the jokey title of your article on edgy fashions from “Courtesan Couture:  Lay Lamé Lay” to a more acceptable headline, you would find yourself apologizing to the hysterical mother of the 40-year-old woman who had worn the gold lamé tube top and hot pants to the Elton John concert.

With so many newspaper writers fired and early-retired, approximately four people now write the entire paper here.  It is said to be like the House of Borgia, without Borgias.

I love books, newspapers, and magazines and don’t think about them in terms of the publishing business.

But we will all regret it if the business kills the publications.

Let’s hope it won’t.