July - December 2001


December 17/01: Sticker Shock

Publishers are coming under fire for high book prices. In a recent New York Times story ("Buyers reading cover price, and opting not to read the rest"), Leonard Riggio, chairman of Barnes & Noble, is quoted urging publishers to reconsider prices that have, in some instances, become "abominations." Some retailers agree, suggesting that it would make more sense for publishers to lower prices and sell more books.

Of course, the news isn't all doom and gloom. Word has it that book sales have begun to rebound after a post-September 11 fall off, and that this holiday season might still be a success. And yet, as anyone who spends a lot of time in bookstores already knows, there is something to the notion of "sticker shock." Aside from mass market genre fiction and the piles on remainder tables it is now almost impossible to find any books under $10 in Canadian bookstores.

The real question is why books are getting to be so expensive. As the Times story points out, prices to consumers have increased markedly despite the fact that the cost of actually producing books - paying for the printing and binding - has "declined significantly." 

Some, especially in Canada, complain about the high number of returns, since publishers have to pay for unsold copies. The biggest culprit, however, is marketing.

This covers a lot of ground. First, there has been the decision to switch to the "trade paperback" format. But while these large formats usually cost three times as much as mass market pocketbooks, they are only slightly more expensive to produce. Obviously there must be something else going on.

Discounting? As the president of publishing at Simon & Schuster puts it, publishers have come to rely on the deep discounting of the major retailers as a marketing tool. As a result, publishers jack up prices in the expectation of big discounts being offered by the chains.

Then there is the expense of maintaining the marketing bureaucracy within the industry. As I have said on another occasion, somebody has to pay for all the suits that make up the corporate publishing world. According to the Times, the profit margins in publishing are among the lowest in the media industry mainly because of the cost of advances and promotion.

And what of these advances? I've been trying to understand the business rationale behind them for a while (see here for my attempt to go to the source), but still haven't been able to figure them out. The advances given to "big-name authors" are justified, I think, as a way of paying for a name. Stephen King and Jack Welch are going to sell a certain number of books on the strength of their name alone, so it makes sense to offer them a decent chunk of money up front.

But what about the big advances given to unknown authors? These constitute a huge (and totally unnecessary) expense that has to be passed on to the book buyer. What's the story? 

The spending of such large amounts of money is, in itself, the story. The size of the advance is simply a means of getting attention. The pre-publication hype that attends upon a big signing demands that a book receive attention from major media sources. Even when the reviewers know they are being played, there is nothing they can do about it.

I can see at least two results that this has had. In the first place there is a kind of mad inflation built into such a system. In order to keep attracting attention, each new signing has to be bigger than the last. This is the same sort of thing that has already happened with literary awards. In order to have any visibility in such a crowded field, new literary awards have to keep raising the bar. The purpose of literary awards is to provide publicity for the winners, but this publicity has become increasingly expensive. There isn't a chance that a new Canadian poetry prize would get mentioned even in a local newspaper with a prize of less than $5,000; but when the foundation of the $45,000 Griffin Prize was announced it was covered in the Arts sections of all of the national newspapers.

The second bad result is backlash. The fact is, no new author can possibly live up to the hype that gets lavished on the fortunate few. Even in the responses of conscientious reviewers the books seem to shrink when measured up against their appalling pre-histories. 

More than just bad business, this escalation is in bad taste. 


December 12/01: The Lessons of Impermanence

The September 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon have had an impact on the publishing industry.

The effect of the bombings was immediate. Older titles on Osama bin Laden, Islamic fundamentalism, bio-terrorism, the World Trade Center and even the prophecies of Nostradamus became overnight bestsellers. At the same time, the "instant book" business went into overdrive, the first out of the gate apparently taking only 19 days to publish.

But the fallout from September 11 could break as well as make a book's fortunes. Current affairs had an effect not only on what books were successful, but on what books weren't.

Two books on the 2000 presidential election that came out at the time of the bombings virtually disappeared. "There's only one subject in the national conversation right now," Jeffrey Toobin, author of Too Close to Call remarked, "and it ain't about chads. That's the reality and there's nothing I can do about it." Nor were these the only casualties. Donald L. Miller found his re-telling of The Story of World War II sucked into a "black hole of publicity." One network executive who had planned to have Miller and fellow Second World War historian Joe Persico on a talk show to discuss their books told them "Our audience wants to hear one thing. They want to hear about this war." 

These examples may tell us something about the dismissal of history from the public consciousness. One would have thought that books about the American political scene, or stories of the American experience in a previous war might have had some relevance to current affairs. But this was not the way they were perceived. Instead, the prophecies of Nostradamus seemed more relevant than the lessons of World War II.

Fiction has also suffered in comparison to the here and now. Publicists complain that new novels haven't received anywhere near the same amount of media attention as they did before September 11. They are also experiencing a faster turnover. "Hardcover fiction is having the shelf-life of mass market paperbacks, which normally move in and out of display racks like monthly magazines," says the executive editor of Publishers Weekly.

A shortened shelf life, a forgotten past. Such are the other lessons of impermanence.


November 30/01: Book Banning, Corporate Style

According to a report in the Globe and Mail, Heather Reisman has ordered all copies of Mein Kampf pulled from the shelves of Chapters and Indigo bookstores and deleted from the company's online ordering service.

Initial reaction to the announcement has been mixed. While the book's value as a historical document has been affirmed, its ban has been applauded by the Canadian Jewish Congress. The president of the CJC says that Ms. Reisman's decision has nothing to do with censorship or free speech (since we can still get the book out of the library), but is rather "the act of a responsible bookseller who's exercising her right and freedom to sell any book that she desires."

I beg to differ. This is an issue of censorship, and to claim otherwise is totally disingenuous. Corporations, especially when they command the kind of market share enjoyed by Chapters/Indigo, can be just as effective in this regard as the state. That this power is being exercised by an individual only makes it more offensive. (Ms. Reisman states "We consider it hate literature. . . . It's a corporate decision. It's what we stand for. It's our point of view." Surely this is the royal "we." Even Indigo's spokesperson is later quoted in the same Globe and Mail story pointing out that Mein Kampf is "not technically and legally hate literature.")

Mein Kampf is a lousy book, but one of immense historical importance. Even the Indigo/Chapters Web-page (which still has it indexed) refers to it as a "necessary document" (though obviously not necessary enough). In order to review books such as Kershaw's Hitler: Nemesis and Rosenbaum's Explaining Hitler, I found it necessary to read it as background. Where it came in most use, however, was in dealing with Ron Hansen's novel Hitler's Niece. In my review I criticized Hansen for lifting passage of Hitler's writing and introducing it as dialogue. If I hadn't read Mein Kampf, how would I have known what he was doing? Are we better off having Hitler quoted to us second-hand, without our even being aware of it?

Then there is the question of precedent. As Franz Donker, owner of the Book City chain, puts it, "She might as well not carry the Koran now, if you believe we're in a holy war, if you want to carry that kind of logic on." Or what about the Communist Manifesto? Or what about . . . other works by Hitler himself? The last time I checked it was still possible to buy Hitler's Table Talk from Chapters and Indigo. Over 700 pages of informal conversation from the man himself, as transcribed by his most faithful toady, Martin Bormann. Is there anything hateful in that?

One can see where this is taking us. Is Canada's largest book retailer banning hate literature, or simply literature that Heather Reisman hates? (And by the way, has this "responsible bookseller" even read Mein Kampf for herself?) Forget about the effect the big box stores are having on the Canadian publishing industry. This is the real horror of media monopoly.


November 16/01: Our Hick Literature

A report in the New York Times has "scholars of contemporary Canadian literature" heaving sighs in the wake of Richard B. Wright's "slow moving, low-key" novel Clara Callan winning both the Giller Prize and the Governor General's Literary Award for fiction. Wright's double victory, it is felt, will only reinforce a view of Canadian literature as confined to "provincial, even small-town themes." In fact, all of "this year's cream of Canadian fiction" can be described as provincial, only wandering abroad briefly "for extra interest - a gloss of cosmopolitanism on otherwise very Canadian milieus and characters."

As an alternative to these small-town themes and "very Canadian" milieus, the Times endorses Dennis Bock's The Ash Garden as clearly the best Canadian novel of the year. In two paragraphs full of plugs for Bock's novel (not to mention both of the "related articles" links on the Times Web-site) we are told that The Ash Garden received "rave reviews everywhere" (except in Canada's largest daily newspaper, where it was frankly described as being dull), and that it was "a haunting meditation on the uses of memory and its power to both condemn and redeem." Best of all, however, is the fact (trumpeted by a columnist at the Ottawa Citizen) that "no maple leaves, Mounties, or other quintessential Canadian elements raise their heads" from its pages.

Thank god! Boy was I ever getting tired of reading Canadian novels about Mounties! They're so very Canadian.

But there's nothing provincial about Dennis Bock. He writes about Big Themes! Hiroshima! The Holocaust! How's that for bravely stepping out on a limb with the folks at the New York Times! You certainly can't accuse them of pandering to a generic view of what constitutes Important Literature!

Regionalism is dead. The notion that the particular may be made to stand for the universal in art is passť. William Carlos Williams's belief that "localism alone can lead to culture" doesn't apply in the age of the global village. Robert Frost's New Hampshire is now only a quaint slice of Americana. And what about that most hopeless of all provincials, William Faulkner, who set the majority of his novels in the "postage-stamp" county of Yoknapatawpha? Did he ever write a novel about Hiroshima? What were his Big Themes?

In the Canadian context it's clear that we have been duped. Stephen Leacock's Mariposa, Robertson Davies's Deptford, David Adams Richards's Miramichi, Alice Munro's small towns and Alistair MacLeod's Cape Breton: All of it provincial trash! Truly we are a nation of hicks. How will we ever clean this small-town mud off our shoes? Why, oh why can't we be as sophisticated as the people in New York and the faculty at the University of Toronto?

There is only one way to fix this sorry state of affairs and gain the acceptance of the editors of the New York Times. A modest proposal: From now on Canadian writers should stop writing about Canada. Why bother with a mere "gloss of cosmopolitanism" when what we want is the real thing? Let us follow Mr. Bock's lead, and write about subjects that, in his own words, we know nothing at all about. What we need to know we can find out by reading other books on the subject. The themes we deal with should all be very big, so they can duly impress a global media uninterested in local matters and remain free of the taint of having anything remotely to do with how we live our lives today. Since the particular can no longer be made to stand for the universal, we should just get rid of the particular altogether. Our fiction should henceforth be set in nameless, cosmopolitan free trade zones (or New York City). Characters should all be immediately recognizable as the kinds of people we are used to seeing on TV.

Come on Canada! Let's show the world!


November 11/01: Fame and Fiction

A poll of 1,000 people "of all ages" has found that Harry Potter is "the most famous character in English literature." The survey asked respondents to name the first fictional character that came into their heads. 22 per cent named J. K. Rowling's boy wizard.

Whose movie was released this weekend. In other words, the supposed poll was really only a marketing ploy. But even so, the results are not surprising. In a truly random sample we might expect half the people surveyed to be unable to think of any fictional characters at all (at least from a book). And few respondents, whatever their reading habits, can have escaped noticing the Potter phenomenon.

The rest of the list gives us some indication of how fictional characters achieve their fame. According to the New York Post, second place belongs to Sherlock Holmes, Oliver Twist, James Bond and Winnie the Pooh (all at a measly two per cent). Coming in at one per cent were Jane Eyre, Hercule Poirot, Bridget Jones, Captain Corelli and Miss Marple.

One can see from this that literary characters who have made the crossover to the big screen are obviously at an advantage. One can't imagine Bridget Jones, Captain Corelli, or even James Bond making the list any other way. The inclusion of Oliver Twist, who is a long way from being Dickens's most memorable character, can be attributed to the same forces at work.

It also helps to be a generic serial character. Here we notice the creations of Agatha Christie (Poirot and Marple), Sherlock Holmes, and James Bond. When we put media crossover and serial appearances together we have the character as franchise, which is Harry Potter in spades.

And there is something more. Celebrities are images, not characters. Fame doesn't easily attach to real people (or people we imagine as real). For the most part, these "most famous characters in English literature" are shallow creations, even cartoons. This is their strength as well as their weakness. It is both their charm and the reason we don't respect them in the morning.


October 25/01: Guess Who's Not Coming to Dinner?

Author Jonathan Franzen's appearance on the Oprah Winfrey show has been cancelled. 

Franzen's The Corrections had been selected as a pick for the television personality's popular book club. In what has become a ritual, the selected author typically joins Oprah and selected viewers for dinner and a discussion of their work. Because of comments made by Franzen concerning the placement of the "Oprah's Book Club" logo on the dustjacket of his book, this invitation has been withdrawn. 

First off, let me say that I quite agree with Franzen's objection to the Oprah label appearing on his book. If nothing else, these stickers ruin the cover art. (When I wanted to run a picture of the cover of Barbara Kingsolver's The Poisonwood Bible along with my review I had a devil of a time finding one without the big "O" stuck on it.) And yet in saying he did not want the "logo of corporate ownership" on his work the bestselling author protests too much. As his many critics have been quick to point out (most notably Dennis Johnson of MobyLives.com), his publisher's (read corporate owner's) logo already appears on the book. And any writer who receives a reported $1 million (US) in pre-publication deals is hardly in a position to complain about the evils of corporate media ownership anyway.

The more interesting part of this little dust-up, however, has to do with the way the story has been cast (in Franzen's language) as a clash between "arrogant Franzen and popular Winfrey." And for this, Franzen has no one to blame but himself.

After all, Franzen's image as the anti-Oprah is entirely of his own making. When, for example, he complains that the media used the occasion of his book tour to trick him into speaking about the "supposed divisions among American readers" he can hardly expect us to take him seriously. Such divisions, supposed or not, are subjects that he has discussed before. It is not surprising he was asked to comment on them while on tour. 

We should remember that Franzen first made a name for himself not through writing fiction (his first two novels disappeared without a trace), but through, in effect, buzzing his own work in an essay that appeared in Harper's magazine. (And let us take time to appreciate Sven Birkerts addressing Franzen in Esquire: "I think of you as a person who has built a life counter to the buzz, and in defiance of the buzz . . . " Some things truly defy parody.) There is nothing wrong with this kind of strategic maneuvering - the author writing advertisements for himself, playing John the Baptist to his own Christ - but it does make his claims to be inexperienced at the promotional game seem more than a little disingenuous. Whatever his abilities as a novelist, Franzen (who describes himself as a writer "solidly in the high-art literary tradition"), is also a player. And a very good player at that. This is what makes his duel with Oprah, no mean player herself (or stranger to self-promotion), so interesting.

May the best player win.


October 15/01: The Importance of Being Earnest

In a recent Toronto by-election, Liberal candidate Bob Hunter got into hot water for a book he wrote 13 years ago. In it, the narrator enjoys tourist sex with children in Thailand. 

Hunter, angry at being smeared as a pervert and pedophile, has described the book variously as fiction, parody, satire and fantasy. Confusion exists on this point because On the Sky (which is now out of print) was marketed as autobiography by publisher McClelland and Stewart, with a dustjacket proclaiming "It's All True!" Furthermore, as Robert Fulford points out in a recent column, when the book was first published it was widely received as an example of fast-and-loose "gonzo" journalism. The review in the Globe and Mail accepted it as true, and the University of Toronto library categorized it under Adventure rather than fiction.

Defenders of Hunter have made the obvious point that it is wrong to confuse an author's own beliefs and opinions with a point of view held by a character in a book. Novelist Barbara Gowdy sees the controversy as an attack on free speech, and has even demanded an apology from Hunter's critics "on behalf of all imaginative thinkers, let alone fiction writers." "You are not your characters," Gowdy says. "Any child can tell you A. A. Milne is not Winnie the Pooh."

The non-fiction novel and gonzo journalism have blurred the line between fact and fiction, and a controversy like this highlights the difficulty in keeping them apart. Part of this is the spirit of the age. In the twentieth century sincerity became an important criteria in judging literature. Critics like Oscar Wilde could complain about the decay of lying, but as a general rule audiences came to expect an author to write from experience and with a certain degree of earnestness. It was not enough to talk the talk; a great writer (a Hemingway, for example) was also expected to walk the walk. As a result, we find many critics and reviewers today with an almost obsessive interest in connecting the dots between an author's work and his or her biography (just think of the response to Salman Rushdie's Fury).

This is the wrong approach. Literature, as T. S. Eliot once remarked, involves the extinction of personality. Unfortunately, we live at a time when personality is just about all most authors have to sell. (For an earlier take on this phenomenon, see the essay "The Me-Authors.") The art of fiction is in a historical trough. Many of our most celebrated authors are now writing historical novels whose greatest claim to genius is their appearance of being "well researched." Whatever happened to making things up? Our bookstores are filled with memoirs that in many cases are probably no more truthful than Hunter's work (was On the Sky more or less fictional than, say, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius?). Even on television we see "reality" programming beating shows with scripts. The decay of lying has led to the death of the imagination, and creativity has been replaced by celebrity. Of course Hunter can't be blamed for the nonsense that appeared on his book's dustjacket, but the marketers undoubtedly asked themselves if anyone would be interested in his satire/parody/fantasy if it wasn't true.

Hunter, who ended up losing the by-election, seems to have failed to understand the importance of being earnest in a pair of professions - literature and politics - whose coin is deception. In the end, what is necessary to succeed in either field is not sincerity but the ability to create the illusion of sincerity. The worst thing that can happen is to get caught on the fence.


September 19/01: Nostradamus's Hour

In the wake of the terrorist attacks on the U.S., books by and about the sixteenth-century French philosopher Nostradamus have climbed the bestseller lists. 

While other books dealing with matters related to the bombings have also been selling well, the sudden rise in interest in Nostradamus is largely attributed to a hoax spread on the Internet claiming that he had predicted the events of September 11. But this is only part of the story. After all, books by such intellectuals as James Redfield (he of The Celestine Prophecy) and Deepak Chopra have also made regular appearances at the top of the bestseller lists, and this without the psychological shock of last week's bombing of the World Trade Center. 

As Raymond Firth suggests, the last century has seen a general shift from a relatively rational and scientific view of things to a non-rational and less scientific one. When attempting to make sense out of a non-rational event like the terrorist attack (the origin and purpose of which remain unclear), perhaps a classic work of what we would now call New Age philosophy is the best place to turn. Bookstores are also reporting that they are selling out of books on terrorism and Islam, but how can these help anyone understand the bombings? The experts on terrorism sound like medieval doctors writing treatises on the plague, while the teachings of the Koran have as much to do with the destruction of the World Trade Center as those of the Bible had to do with the Crusades.

The prophecies of Nostradamus were about as far removed from the spirit of the Enlightenment as the work of Redfield and Chopra is now. Is it any wonder he is again the man of the hour? Is he not our contemporary?


September 4/01: The Bulgari Connection

British author Faye Weldon has received an undisclosed sum for giving the Bulgari jewelry company a "prominent place" in her new novel, The Bulgari Connection. As reported in the New York Times, "the arrangement is considered to be a first for the book industry, traditionally one of the few corners of the media free of sponsors' pitches and plugs."

Publishing and marketing executives are in love with the deal. The chief executive of HarperCollins (the book's British publisher, and a personal favourite of mine - see immediately below) has declared the arrangement "fantastic," and said that it gives her "a lot of ideas." A marketing executive interviewed by the Times considers books to be "part of the next wave of product placement," allowing for the exploitation of the "more personal relationship" readers have with a book. Ms. Weldon's agent cannot see any difference at all whether his client is paid by a publisher or paid by an Italian jewelry firm. Looking to the future, he declares "the sky is the limit." Finally, Ms. Weldon herself, a former writer of ad-copy, has pronounced her effort "a good piece of advertising prose."

Given what I have said on numerous occasions about convergence in the entertainment-industrial complex, I should have seen this coming. While the idea may have crossed my mind, I probably didn't think marketing departments would consider it worth the bother. Of course it would be nice if there remained some "corner" of the media free of advertising (poetry, it used to be said, is writing that doesn't have one hand in your pocket); but why should writers, the lowest form of life on the media totem pole, be the ones stuck providing it?

The problem lies in the old adage, "He who pays the fiddler, calls the tune." If novels are going to be commissioned by advertising agencies, we can expect product placement to be a strictly managed affair. According to the Times report, "the world of the novel differs from contemporary London mainly in that Bulgari appears to be the only jeweler in town." Well, we might say, realism and advertising have never gone hand-in-hand. But what if Bulgari, which had to approve the manuscript, didn't like the way their jewelry was associated with a certain character, or a description of one of their products or stores? Will sponsors have to hire their own editors? What kind of things will they be looking for? Heaven knows Don DeLillo manages to get a lot of product placement in his novels, but I don't expect to see him approached by advertising agencies anytime soon. (Anytime soon, that is. It's possible some marketing exec big on irony might decide a plug from DeLillo would be worth something. Nike even wanted Ralph Nader to be in one of their commercials, so anything could happen.)

What we can expect from this, I fear, is a new layer of bureaucracy getting tossed on top of the already bloated corporate culture of today's publishing industry. If this happens it should be enough to crush the life out of anything that remains of literature as an art. All we'll have left is the indecency of a corporate commercial press chasing after dollars wherever they can find them. With enough sponsors behind them, authors won't even have to worry about their vanishing audience.


August 24/01: An Open Letter to HarperCollins

Dear Sir or Madam,

In my duties as Internet book columnist and reporter on all things literary in Canada I have sometimes had occasion to remark on the practice of publishing houses paying large advances to new and unproven talent. In previous columns (see "Advancing Over a Cliff" and "Celebrity Signings" immediately below) I have asked why publishing houses pay such advances when simple economics would seem to suggest that the stuff isn't worth it. 

The recent news that Nancy Richler's second novel, entitled Your Mouth is Lovely, has sold for almost $500,000 in a three-publisher deal in which HarperCollins is reported to be the major buyer, provides a wonderful opportunity to clear up this mystery, both for myself and my legions of readers. If you would be so kind as to take the time to answer the following questions, I will be happy to post your responses to my Web-page. 

(1) A few years ago an unknown author sold a manuscript for a novel that wasn't even finished at the Frankfurt Book Fair for a reported $5 million. Just this past year Yale law professor Stephen Carter sold the rights to his first novel in a deal worth $4 million, despite the fact, reported in the New York Times, that "four publishers responded with bids before they had finished reading it." Closer to home, Knopf editor-at-large Gary Fisketjon is said to have been so smitten by Canadian author Dennis Bock's first novel that he offered a pre-emptive bid of $250,000 after only reading the first page.

According to the story in the Vancouver Sun, Ms. Richler's manuscript  was sold to HarperCollins USA "after being in the publisher's hands for only two days," while a Dutch publisher bought the rights "after seeing only three chapters."

Is this practice typical in the publishing industry? Does it count as due diligence? Did anybody at HarperCollins look at the manuscript, or did they only talk to Ms. Richler's agent? Do you think anyone at HarperCollins is likely to read Your Mouth is Lovely after it gets published?

(2) The novel is set in turn-of-the-century Russia, and follows a young Jewish woman sent into exile in Siberia for revolutionary activities. Ms. Richler's agent says that this "setting and time period has not often been captured by fiction writers." Why do you think that is? 

(3) The novel is set in turn-of-the-century Russia, and follows a young Jewish woman sent into exile in Siberia for revolutionary activities. Has the manuscript been sent to Oprah yet?

(4) While few people even in Canada will have heard of Ms. Richler, her first novel was shortlisted for the Arthur Ellis Award for best first crime novel. Were you impressed by this? Have you managed to sign any of the other writers shortlisted for this award? Have you managed to find any of the other writers shortlisted for this award? Were you more impressed by the fact that an excerpt from her present novel won third prize in Prairie Fiction's long short fiction contest? Were you aware of this contest? Did you get in touch with the winner? Do you read Prairie Fiction? Do you know who Arthur Ellis was?

(5) I have before me Ms. Richler's short story "Your Mouth is Lovely." In case you haven't had a chance to look at it yet, this is what it sounds like:

"The swamp was an unhealthy place - a wilderness where snakes lurked in black waters, vapours and mists befouled the air, and the earth opened itself like water to swallow the foot that dared to walk upon it."

This sounds suspiciously like the descriptive prose found in many of the popular Dungeons & Dragons adventure modules. You should be aware of any copyright issues.

(6) Elsewhere in the story the narrator describes such things as her fascination with eggs ("delicate and fragile they were, each one heavy with the secret of life"), her father's awkward gait ("his large hulk stooped over his tiny feet, he gave the appearance, more obviously than most, of one perpetually teetering on the edge of his own destiny"), and the origins of her hometown ("why our town existed, no one knew; how it had started, no one remembered").

What I was wondering is this: Will Ms. Richler be working with an editor? How heavy is the secret of life? What does it mean to teeter on the edge of one's own destiny? Does anyone at HarperCollins know why New York exists? L.A.? Toronto?

(7) One commentator has already remarked that anyone engaged in the arts will be likely to feel envy over Ms. Richler's deal, while "other publishers will feel concerned." Does anyone at HarperCollins feel concerned? It has been reported that HarperCollins had to write off $270 million in unearned advances in the mid-1990s. Was anyone held accountable for that loss? At HarperCollins, are big advances to new authors simply considered "blowing other people's money"? Are the write-offs really "taken out of the hide of dozens of writers of serious books"?

Any assistance you can provide in answering these questions will be greatly appreciated. I look forward to hearing from you.

Your sincerely,

Alex Good


August 10/01: Celebrity Signings

Former U.S. President Bill Clinton has signed a book deal with Alfred A. Knopf reportedly worth $12 million. The advance is said to be the largest in publishing history.

And it may well be worth it. Like movie producers paying top dollar for A-list stars, publishers count on a celebrity name to generate the media attention necessary for a book to open. Whether it quickly finds itself relegated to the discount bins is another question. The real mystery is how unknown and even unpublished authors without any celebrity cachet manage to land six-figure book deals. Just last month the industry was full of buzz over the New Yorker's "Debut Fiction Issue." Apparently a number of the New Yorker's debs end up being offered some very lucrative book deals. This year, one Nell Freudenberger (an editorial assistant at the New Yorker), whose "Lucky Girl" was her first published story, was immediately signed by a major agent and turned down a deal for half a million dollars from one publisher on her way to selling the rights to her first collection of short stories for an only slightly less shocking $100,000. All of this despite the fact that last year's New Yorker lottery winner, David Schickler (reported to have signed a $500,000 two-book deal), fizzled badly with his first collection. 

It's hard to imagine anyone being surprised. One can take it as an iron law that large advances only go to those new writers agents are confident will be the last big thing. As a result, we now see six-figures deals regularly used to subsidize such instantly moribund literary fashions as chick-lit. More than celebrity advances, it is this kind of ludicrous and irresponsible corporate behaviour that spells the doom of publishing.

But I digress. In the case of the Clinton advance the convergence at work in the entertainment industry is clearly the name of the game. The issue is neatly expressed in the Christian Science Monitor: "some book-industry observers say publishing is simply trying to stay up with the rest of society. 'We [in America] pay such high amounts for the superstars, that an industry like publishing that has to play in that arena . . . suddenly has to ante up much more,' says Nora Rawlinson, editor of trade magazine Publishers Weekly."

The arena metaphor is entirely apt. The president of Knopf, Sonny Mehta, has said that Clinton's memoirs will not be "a book by a celebrity about celebrityhood" but rather the reflections of a prominent politician. This is transparent nonsense. (For one thing, Clinton was not a terribly important politician. Once we begin talking about his prominence we are just talking about political celebrity.) We are all in the same arena now, and when it comes to Q-value there is little distinction to be drawn between presidents, movie stars, or sports heroes. Nobody at Knopf is banking on any appreciable segment of the American public being interested in Clinton's thoughts on Israel.

As with most issues in the entertainment industry, the question of whether this is good or bad is less important than the question of whether it makes economic sense. While celebrity signings may appear justified in some cases, they also carry a lot of hidden costs. Of course, the books themselves just keep getting more and more expensive. In addition, more of a publisher's marketing budget has to be dedicated to promoting projects where there has already been a substantial capital investment, draining resources away from midlist authors. And while a bestseller can help carry low-profile, less profitable projects, the opposite can also happen. "If Knopf has to write off $2 or $3 million," one analyst comments, "that's going to be taken out of the hide of dozens of writers of serious books." And some publishers, I should add, have lost a lot more than $3 million on bad advances.

The arena is becoming an expensive place - a place where publishers may begin choosing fewer and fewer of these high profile projects. Of course there is a certain thrill in rolling the dice to try and come up with a blockbuster. But how many expensive flops are considered permissible in order to get one Harry Potter (that is, not just a successful book, but an entire franchise)? We are told that only one out of every ten movies put out by Hollywood today makes a profit. This may be acceptable to some of the egos involved, but is it any way to run a business?


July 11/01: So Bad It's Good?

Among the winners of the 20th annual Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest are two Canadians. Sera Kirk of Vancouver won the Grand Prize for the worst opening sentence for an imaginary novel. Nicolas Juzda of Toronto won in the Fantasy category.

The Bulwer-Lytton Awards, named after the Victorian novelist Edward George Earl Bulwer-Lytton (whose novel Paul Clifford begins with the line "It was a dark and stormy night") have become a media darling, often receiving more attention than serious literary awards. And yet the purpose of the contest remains a mystery to me.

For one thing, the writing itself is not bad. It is silly, which is something completely different. I suppose the main test of whether an opening sentence is bad or not is whether it makes you want to keep reading. After reading a really bad sentence you want to cry "Hold! Enough!" But all of the winners of this year's contest had me wishing there was more. 

According to one of the sponsors of the event, "You have thousands of people every year parodying language, so in a way you could say the contest contributes to the universal improvement of mankind." Apparently it does so by promoting "word play." In other words, the contest is really an award for parody writing, and not a parody award. A parody award, like Britain's Bad Sex Award (for the "most redundant or embarrassing description of the sexual act in modern novels") or the Puffies (hosted by this site), is one that pokes fun at genuinely bad writing, thus indirectly reaffirming the difficulty and value of the good stuff. These are the awards that you really don't want to win. 

The Bulwer-Lytton Award, however, seeks to honour the spirit of parody rather than satirize bad writing. The results are cute, I think we can all agree; but maybe too cute by half. Parody has recently come under fire from some (usually conservative) commentators. Along with irony (a more fluid term with which it is frequently and falsely equated) it is seen as an enemy of truth and idealism.

I have to admit this is a point of view I feel some sympathy toward. Only a few months ago I had occasion to complain that I was starting to get a little tired of parody (see here). Furthermore, it isn't at all clear to me what the prize-winners are meant to be parodies of. Sera Kirk's sentence has the heroine being bitten by a dog during the "running of the Pomeranians" in Liechtenstein. According to news sources this is supposed to be a parody of Hemingway's account of the running of the bulls in Pamplona, but for the life of me I can't see it. (In fact there already is an award for the best Hemingway parody. The International Imitation Hemingway Competition awards an annual prize for "one really good page of really bad Hemingway." But that's another story.)

Fun? You bet. I always get a kick out of the winners. But I still wonder what it is the contest is trying to achieve. All writing is word play, but parody is usually expected to have a purpose. It is essentially a form of criticism. Simply "parodying language" is an empty amusement.


July 5/01: To Tell the Truth

Bookscan, a subsidiary of the company that tracks the music industry's retail sales, is ready to go online with the book industry's first integrated sales-reporting system.

Publishers want the hard numbers, and will have to pay a hefty fee to get them, but there is also a lot of nervousness in BookWorld. As the New York Times reports, "book sales figures . . . have always been an extremely hard-to-determine, closely guarded secret. Which is exactly how some people in the book industry like it." Bookscan hopes to get rid of some of the mystery by going straight to the source. Already they claim to be able to record more than half of the book sales in the United States.

I must say it's about time. One wonders if we will be able to get the same service here. For years I have been puzzled by Canadian bestseller lists that persistently place the highly literary work of our countrymen and -women above the latest offerings from Stephen King and Danielle Steele. Any pride I might feel is usually outweighed by disgust at such a transparent fraud. 

The concern is that Bookscan, like its sister Soundscan in the music industry, will turn bestseller lists into mere catalogues of junk. The deliberate skewing that occurs in the compilation of the New York Times bestseller list (which has a bias toward independent book store sales) will be replaced by the horrible truth that self-help guides, celebrity bios, and pulp romance novels rule the hearts and minds of the vast majority of those people left who still read. Even if current bestseller lists are a rigged game, they are still defended as a way of promoting literary values.

But can such values only be promoted through ignorance and propaganda? This is conceding defeat before we even know the score.