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Tuesday, May 4, 2010

The Publishing Life, Hollywood-Style

For last weekend's Netflix movie, Mary-Jo and I decided to watch The Proposal with Sandra Bullock. As soon as I realized it was set in the book publishing industry, I began to cringe inside.

Sure enough, the movie features all the usual bizarre Hollywood fantasies about what book publishing is like, including glamorous editors in designer outfits who spend their days swapping witticisms in posh, spacious offices decorated with modern art and expansive views of the New York skyline (and without a manuscript in sight). Bullock plays an arrogant, high-powered executive, one of whose subordinates--a mere editor--proudly shows off the antique desk he has just bought for his office, evidently on the company budget. (Which publishing houses have such overstuffed budgets that no one notices a mere $75,000 being channeled to an auction at Sotheby's?)

But the capper--and a Hollywood fantasy about publishing I'd never seen before--involves the big publicity coup that the intrepid Bullock arranges: In the face of enormous resistance, she convinces one of the novelists her firm publishes to consent to an interview on Oprah.

Read that sentence again. Yes, according to the makers of The Proposal, Oprah is desperately eager to interview novelists on her show; the hard part is for publishers to talk their authors into appearing.

I suppose there's a lesson for me here--not to take too seriously Hollywood's depictions of the lives of cops, spies, cowboys, U.S. Marines, and Mafia dons. They're probably just as realistic.


  1. Ho ho, I shall have to get that movie out and enjoy the blunders. Your piece reminds me of an interview I once read with Kate Bush, who was asked to pose in front of a picture of a volcano to publicise Wuthering Heights. She quipped: 'Obviously they're not familiar with the Yorkshire moors.'

  2. Karl, I actually worked with an author who stopped appearing on big time TV talk shows as soon as she got famous. So it isn't science fiction. I am much more concerned about the designer clothes and antique desk. No one involved in the designing of that movie has ever been inside a publishing house. Publishing people are the worst dressed people in the world. Who has ever seen a fabulous office in any of the big houses? The fact is there isn't enough money being made for those accoutrements. And yet people still keep working their hearts out. That's the magic. And right now it is what is so sad about what's happening to "big" publishing. The magic is leaving.

  3. Sandi, you're right, of course--there are a few authors who refuse to do publicity, including famous recluses like J.D. Salinger and Thomas Pynchon. But for every one of those there are thousands of authors who would kill to be on Oprah.

    Another pet peeve of mine (which didn't come up in connection with The Proposal) is that, in movies and TV shows, book manuscripts carried around by editors always seem to be around 100 pages long. This is about one fifth the length of the average real manuscript. I never understood this until I realized that movie scripts are around about that length. Evidently the people who work on props for movies and TV assume that book manuscripts are the same size as movie scripts. Many editing jobs would be a lot faster if they were!