Reviewing the Review: September 2 2007

Bravo to Jim Lewis for an enthusiastic and bracing New York Times Book Review front cover piece that begins like this:

Good morning and please listen to me: Denis Johnson is a true American artist, and “Tree of Smoke” is a tremendous book …

Since the New York Times’ daily book critic Michiko “The Ax” Kakutani gave Denis Johnson’s Tree of Smoke a rare rave just this past Friday, and since I recently began this book and found the opening scene featuring a jungle, a gun and a poor little monkey absolutely stunning, I’m guessing Tree of Smoke is on the world’s shortlist for Hot Book of Autumn 2007 and will probably end up winning the National Book Award for fiction and placing near the top of the Morning News Tournament of Books in 2008, among many other accolades.

This harrowing Vietnam War novel’s acclaim is assured, and it seems poised to capture America’s heart — except for one problem. With a stiff price tag of $27, the novel will barely penetrate the youth/collegiate and alternative markets where it could possibly break through to a wide audience. Once again, our publishing industry insists on a sales approach that ignores everything music publishers and movie studios know about creating buzz. Has Farrar, Straus and Giroux ever contemplated the fact the hottest new hiphop CD’s are routinely sold at steep discounts in their first weeks, so as to ensure that they hit the streets and get people talking? Or that movie studios have long ago abandoned the practice of opening new movies only in select theaters in big cities, opting instead for wide distribution and sensational opening weekends to generate massive word of mouth?

Ah, but Tree of Smoke could never be as popular as a hiphop CD or a hit movie, right? Bullshit. It can’t as long as Farrar, Straus and Giroux think $27 is the right price point for the book, though. Tough luck, eager readers of America. You’re not in the target market for this book. And I’m having trouble figuring out who is.

But I’m getting ahead of myself here. Let’s get back to the NYTBR.

I love Jim Lewis’s passionate review, and I also love Paul Sahre’s charcoal sketch of Denis Johnson looking like a visionary Ernest Borgnine on the cover. We’re off to a good start, and the final New York Times Book Review of the summer is a satisfying one, also featuring the surprising (to me, anyway) news that there was a 19th Century Portugese writer named Jose Maria Eca de Quieros who may be, in Alan Riding’s words, “Portugal’s Flaubert”. His The Maias has been newly translated by Margaret Jull Costa, and I’m certainly going to check out this book and see what all the fuss is about.

Kathryn Harrison weighs Chelsea Cain’s ultraviolent Heartsick against its apparent role model, Thomas Harris’s Silence of the Lambs, and Nancy Kline dismisses Doris Lessing’s latest experiment The Cleft as “not very interesting” despite the fact that it tells of a proto-human past in which parthenogenic women called “clefts” ruled the world, then lost their gender purity to a new life form known as “squirts” (and it was all downhill from there). This book sure sounds interesting, despite Kline’s verdict, and I’ll always give a new Doris Lessing experiment a look.

There are only a few missteps in this week’s publication. Liesl Schillinger completely confuses me in her article on Marina Lewycka’s Strawberry Fields; I read her review forwards and backwards and I still can’t figure out what this book is supposed to be. An endpaper in which Pagan Kennedy explores MySpace for literary content is an absolute groaner — a writer who was hip ten years ago telling us about a social networking site that was hip two years ago. Facebook is where writers are congregating now, folks.

3 Responses

  1. How much was Walden?I can’t
    How much was Walden?

    I can’t really comment on if $27 is a lot for a book. And there are always discounts of at least 20% available, so it’s really only ~22 dollars or less.

    Do you remember back in the 90’s when Kerouac’s letters came out? They were $35 dollars. In the same time since that release house prices have gone up five fold at least. This would mean that the Kerouac book would be $175 today. $27 may actually be less than inflation compared to 10, 20 30 years ago. I don’t know.

    How much, for example was a new fiction book in 1990, 1980, 1970 etc…How much was On the Road?

    How much was the original edition of Walden for someone who had wanted to buy it then?

    Then, what is the inflation equivalent price today?

    As far as paperbacks, they no longer exist any more except as high volume pulpy stuff. Every book now comes out as “trade paperback” — the larger size that used to be rare. So they are still, say, $15 dollars often.

    How much will the trade paperback release of this Smoke Tree Ranch book you’re talking about be?

    Next topic would be: are East Coast legacy publishers even relevant in any way?

  2. Thanks for feedback on
    Thanks for feedback on hardcover pricing, TKG. I see your points. Yes, the $27 price tag really does amount to $22 if you shop around, and books have always been expensive — I agree on both fronts.

    My real complaint is that, despite the trappings of “ads in the Book Review” and other token expenses, Farrar Straus and Giroux will probably be making no attempt — absolutely no attempt — at marketing “Tree of Smoke” to a breakout audience. I think this book would appeal to young people, because Johnson is a raw and visceral writer. As a Vietnam book, it would appeal to anybody interested in American foreign policy history (or in the legacy that led to Iraq). This book should be marketed to college students, high school students, political organizations. It’s a breakout book. But the fact that FSG chooses to publish it as a $27 hardcover proves that they’d rather collect their library sales, their book club sales and some modest bookstore sales and make a safe little profit after it gets nominated for the National Book Award.

    Marydell from worked up an estimate of the profit that Farrar Straus and Giroux probably made on Richard Powers’ “Echo Maker”. Her estimate is that they made $25,000 on the first print run of 20,000 copies, so perhaps they’ve made a $75,000 total profit so far. This book won the National Book Award, and nobody knows how to turn it into a blockbuster, because they need their safe upfront hardcover profit. So “Tree of Smoke” is now destined for the same dull fate as “Echo Maker”. This should be a breakout book.

  3. Tim has asked a question that
    Tim has asked a question that I hope to answer once the pricing symposium begins. I’ve done a little bit of research on new book prices–going back decades–and adjusted each for inflation.

    For example…

    Doomsday by Warwick Deeping
    Knopf, hardcover, 367 pages

    Price in 1927: $2.50
    Adjusted for 2007: $29.93

    But a modern reprint is available…

    Kessinger, paperback, 372 pages
    Price in 2007: $33.95

    The current paperback price might seem a bit high, but Kessinger specializes in reprints of rare books in very, very short print runs. It’s a specialty item that would otherwise be out of print, so the price is reasonable if it’s something a buyer simply has to have.

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