Welcome to the blog of the Consulting Editors Alliance. This is our forum for sharing views on the wonderful, bizarre, enormously frustrating and satisfying (depends on the day) world of book publishing and our roles in it as freelance editors, writing collaborators, and ghostwriters. Please join the conversation!

Sunday, December 26, 2010

A Libertine Christmas

Christmas is a good time to remember Jean Shepherd, the iconoclastic radio raconteur of the 1950s and 60s who is best remembered today as the author of the stories on which the holiday film A Christmas Story (1983) was based.  But he was also the driving force behind the most hilarious hoax in book publishing history, the "best-selling novel" I, Libertine.

Back in the mid-1950s, the Times best-seller list was based not only on actual book sales but also on reader requests for new and forthcoming books.  Shepherd always had an eye for the ridiculous, and one night on his radio program he not only talked about how odd and prone to manipulation this system was, but also suggested to his listeners that they do something about it.  He urged them to visit their local bookstore and ask for a copy of I, Libertine by the noted British author Frederick R. Ewing.  If the manager asks for a description of the book, Shepherd suggested, say it's a bawdy tale of life in eighteenth-century London.

Of course, neither the book nor the author really existed.  But Shepherd's prank, abetted by his thousands of loyal fans, caused an uproar.  Soon booksellers everywhere were contacting distributors and demanding deliveries of I, Libertine.  Publishers Weekly was flooded with inquiries about this hot new title.  Gossip columnist Earl Wilson boasted about having lunch with "Freddy Ewing" to celebrate the success of his novel.

Eventually the publisher Ian Ballantine, himself a colorful iconoclast, decided this situation was too good to pass up.  He took Shepherd and a mutual friend, science-fiction novelist Theodore Sturgeon, out to lunch and convinced them to actually write I, Libertine.  Sturgeon reportedly tried to finish it in a single marathon session but fell asleep on the Ballantines' couch, whereupon Betty Ballantine wrote the final chapter.  The book was published in 1956 with a suitable paperback cover by Kelly Freas, best known as one of the creators of Alfred E. Neuman for Mad magazine.

It has been too long since we had a really entertaining publishing hoax.  (Anyone remember Naked Came the Stranger?)  Where is Jean Shepherd now that we really need him?

Saturday, December 25, 2010

A Christmas Story

This has nothing to do with Christmas but I am writing it on Christmas Day so Merry Xmas to one and all.

For those of you who actually read your PW you must know that they have added a seperate section to cover self-publishing, seems to be the 'S' section. This week my client, Cathie Beck, and a few other authors who made the "leap" from self publishing to a conventional publisher are covered.

Ironically the cover of the magazine features Robert Kiyosaki's (RICH DAD, POOR DAD) latest book which is published by Plata, which has to be his own or a very limited imprint. The book is distributed through Perseus, a distributor available nation wide and used by many small publishing house.

What's the point? You are asking. The point is that PW, just like all the rest of the retro aspects of conventional publishing still believe that being published by a huge publisher who takes 85%of your royalties and does not promote your book should be the end of the rainbow for authors.

I protest. I will continue to protest until independently published products achieve statehood rather than being kept as territories.

Enjoy the eggnog if people still drink it. Up here in Woodstock one of the the volunteer fire men or women dressed as Santa came out of the sky on the village green at about 5:30 last night to throw candy. They do it every year. I live in Paradise.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

For Trollope, Writing Novels Was No Different Than Laying Bricks

Here's a favorite new website I've discovered--Daily Routines, a collection of descriptions of the daily work routines of well-known architects, artists, filmmakers, musicians and composers, philosophers, scientists and mathematicians, statesmen, and writers. I love this kind of shop talk and have often found it a source of useful little ideas and tricks that help me overcome writer's block and enhance my productivity.

Here's an awe-inspiring example involving the Victorian novelist Anthony Trollope:
Every day for years, Trollope reported in his “Autobiography,” he woke in darkness and wrote from 5:30 a.m. to 8:30 a.m., with his watch in front of him. He required of himself two hundred and fifty words every quarter of an hour. If he finished one novel before eight-thirty, he took out a fresh piece of paper and started the next. The writing session was followed, for a long stretch of time, by a day job with the postal service. Plus, he said, he always hunted at least twice a week. Under this regimen, he produced forty-nine novels in thirty-five years. Having prospered so well, he urged his method on all writers: “Let their work be to them as is his common work to the common laborer. No gigantic efforts will then be necessary. He need tie no wet towels round his brow, nor sit for thirty hours at his desk without moving,—as men have sat, or said that they have sat.”
Unlike Toni's cat, it doesn't sound as though Trollope set aside much time for stretching or napping.  What's that saying about different strokes--?

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Everything I Know About Writing I Learned from My Cat

Perhaps you've had animals who've taught you lessons--about loyalty, love, and what's really important in life. So perhaps you can be persuaded that the title of this post, while admittedly exaggerated, is more than just whimsical.

As I write this, my dainty black cat Lucy is curled up in her fleece bed, head tucked under paw, snoring so loudly I can hear her from across the room. She has no idea how much writing advice she has given me. And of course, being a cat, doesn't care. But since we aren't cats and need to live to write another day, I thought I'd share some of Lucy's Lessons for Writers:

Be True to Your Nature: You are your own animal. Find that writing self. Don't try to be other animals. It never works. They won't thank you. And you'll feel crappy.

Staring Is Good: Observation (external, internal) is the foundation of all good writing.

Keep Your Business in the Box: Separate your writing time from your business-of-writing time. They don't mix. One is a marathon; the other a sprint. Some writers even hire people to sprint for them.

Get Up and Stretch. A Lot.: You'll breathe easier, think better, and in general be more tolerable company for all, including yourself. Corollary: While you're up, pet your cat. Repetitive motion is soothing.

Editing, Like Licking, Should Be Thorough, Though Not Obsessive: Just when you think you can't stand any more, do one more round, nose to tail (including under the hood). When you realize you're going over the same wet ground, stop.

Practice Active Napping: When you take time off, really take it off. Tuck your nose under your paw and lose yourself. Don't worry, the blank page (and maybe some ideas to fill it) will be there when you get back.

Although You Did Nothing Today, You're One Fine Specimen: Do you ever see cats express self-doubt? Wonder what they've done with their nine lives? Think they don't deserve treats? I thought not.

Happy writing.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

What Books Are You Giving This Year?

With holidays upon us, I was reminded that a literary agent friend once told me that every few years, he makes it a "books-only" Christmas. Even while writing this I feel the excitement of browsing a favorite bookstore (online or bricks-and-mortar--or even LinkedIn's program where people share what they're reading), trying to match a lusciously tempting book with the recipient most likely to relish it. What fun! For all the brouhaha over the fate of book publishing and of books themselves, I think there's still no argument that books in all their forms (physical, electronic, enhanced e-book, and audiobook) remain among the best values for the money spent. I'm perpetually late with my shopping, but the start I've made is, so far, books-only. If you're buying books as gifts this year, what are you choosing, and why?

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Outsourced to India?

Last night I had dinner with a friend who is the managing editor of a major New York publishing house. In the course of our discussion of all things publishing, she mentioned that her company is now having some of its books composed, that is "set into type" electronically, in India! This results, not surprisingly, in ludicrously small typesetting costs. Indians, as we know, make pennies on the dollar. Publishing seemed like the last industry that would be sending jobs overseas, yet it's happening. What's next? Editors working from call centers in Mumbai? The mind reels.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Don't Mess with Oprah

The current issue of The American Scholar carries a very good piece (“Unauthorized, But Not Untrue”) by Kitty Kelley that touches on her most recent biography, on Oprah Winfrey, and the power of her subject to block publicity for the book. Some of our leading intellectuals, Larry King and Barbara Walters among them, banned the author, and Charlie Rose somehow did not think a biography of, arguably, the most influential woman in the country was worth a sit-down. Given the immensity of the subject, the negative impact on book sales was huge.

Kelley addresses the curious criticism now routinely hurled at books like hers: that they are “unauthorized.” Frank Sinatra tried to stop her book about him by filing a goofy lawsuit that claimed that only he and he alone or someone that he authorized had the right to write his life story. Kelley says unauthorized now seems to mean something nefarious, as if the writer was being charged with “breaking and entering.” “Authorized” biographies can have value, but Kelley points out that they also frequently are sanitized and homogenized and cites valuable “unauthorized” books like Robert Caro’s on Robert Moses or Seymour Hersh’s on Kissinger as examples.

The piece is not simply a laundry list of complaints nor a rant; Kelley’s tone is fairly good-humored. She is a really good journalist, if not a literary biographer, diligent and comprehensive. I was at Simon & Schuster when her biography of Nancy Reagan was published and I remember that the legal vetting process was exhaustive. Nevertheless, once the book was published, Kelley was criticized and accused of fabrications, including that she had made up sources (sources, fearful of the subjects, sometimes lied afterward), but no lawsuits followed. The reach of the powerful did: Barbara Bush was so incensed—her husband did not come off well—that once she achieved the White House, she was able, apparently merely by striking fear, to have Kelley’s books on Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and Nancy Reagan removed, so far permanently, from a display on First Ladies at the Smithsonian.

Convincing the public that “unauthorized” when applied to a book is the same as illicit, even criminal, is a kind of propaganda. Readers can decide for themselves if the “private” part of the life of a presidential candidate should be off-limits even when, say, a false impression of family harmony is purposefully constructed to create an attractive image.

What matters most in all this is the power of unhappy subjects to control, by intimidation, the publicity, and thereby the discourse. It gets worse when the press self-censors. I know of one editor who thought the Kelley-Winfrey story a good one but laughed off the possibility of running a piece about it: it seems there are reporters who write books or may one day write books and who might like to get some really great exposure on a certain daytime program…

Friday, December 3, 2010

And the Award for Most Dramatic Publishing Event Goes To...

OK, I admit it. I've fallen behind on my publishing industry reading. So although I, like most publishing folk, had a ringside seat at the showdown between the "Big Six" publishers and Amazon over e-book pricing (including the high drama of Amazon's removal of the buy buttons for Macmillan books), I missed the memo that went around explaining, in uber-simple terms, how it all played out in the end, what the "agency model" means as regards book pricing, and why that is such a BIG DEAL for authors, publishers, and retailers.

In case, you, too, missed the memo, here are two excellent posts from longtime publishing pro and observer on the digital publishing scene Mike Shatzkin. One posits the Big Six/Amazon showdown as "the most dramatic publishing event of 2010." There you'll find an explanation of the agency model compared to the wholesale model of pricing, why it matters, and the challenges it has presented (and likely will present). The other (which you can link to from that post or from here) gives you the royalty math comparing print, wholesale, and agency models.

I'm sure I won't be able to debate this over lattes anytime soon, but I found these to be excellent summations. I'm hoping they'll ground me for future showdowns--of which I'm sure there will be quite a few.

Copyright (c) 2010 by Toni Sciarra Poynter

Books Versus Soup

Here's a link to “Books After Amazon,” an article by Onnesha Roychouduri about the economic and cultural impact of the growing power of Jeff Bezos, online selling, and the Kindle.  It's an interesting article about which I may have more to say when I get time, but for the moment let me just quote the words that are used throughout the article as a kind of indignant, wounded refrain: "You can’t sell a book the same way you sell a can of soup."

Of course, we've seen this metaphor many times before, but I must say it rubs me the wrong way.  What exactly is so demeaning about selling a book like a can of soup?  Soup is food.  It nourishes people, sustains life, and when well-made it provides significant physical and esthetic enjoyment.  Producing and selling soup provides an important and valuable service to humankind.

Maybe we in the book business like to imagine that our work is far more noble, exalted, and high-minded than selling soup.  If so, we should get over ourselves.  (And maybe we would sell more books if we spent as much time and energy thinking about the needs and wants of readers as soup companies spend thinking about the nutritional requirements and flavor preferences of their customers.)

Wednesday, December 1, 2010


So many books, articles, and screeds have been written about the perils of MFA creative writing programs that, any day now, someone is going to pen an attack piece called “The Decline of the Anti-MFA Jeremiad.” Chad Harbach’s article in N+1 magazine, excerpted in Slate, starts by discussing Mark McGurl’s new book The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing and then changes the terms of the standard indictment of the MFA mentality--the academic-based system of literary professionalization that critics claim has marginalized and enervated contemporary literary fiction. He gives the back of his hand to just about all kinds of writers out there, whether MFAer’s or not—except his heroes Jonathan Franzen and David Foster Wallace. But the essence of his article is his distinction between fiction from what I'll call MFA World and fiction from Literary Commerce World (i.e., the realm of New York publishers).

I’d argue with much in Harbach’s premise, but I do confess that in my own editing and teaching I’ve seen a difference between writers with an MFA mindset and those more fiercely ambitious for mainstream Manhattan publication. Writers from MFA World, whether they are teaching in it or have graduated from it, tend to focus on short stories because that is what can easily be taught and published in literary magazines; Harbach makes much of this. I find that when they venture into novel-writing, their fiction can be diffuse, admirably subtle yet underpowered. They are writing for a default audience of other writers. As a result, their fiction can be hermetic, derivative, domestic, polite. Novelists aiming for the Literary Commerce World see their audience as readers, not writers. While this is admirable of them, it also means that they can pander to those readers (and to their publishers) with easy effects. Too early in the writing process, they can envision their novels via the 10-word tagline by which all books are pitched today and end up with predictable fiction. (As Frost said, no surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.) They gain readers at the risk of resonance, of art.

Whether you’re a flyover-country MFAer or a Manhattan boldfaced name—or neither--somewhere in here is happy balance between writerliness and readability, texture and suspense, craft and commerce.

Chad Harbach himself may have found that happy balance. An unpaid editor at N+1, he had been laid off from his job as a copy editor when his agent sold his novel to David Foster Wallace’s editor Michael Pietsch at Little Brown for $650,000. No word on whether he has an MFA.