The Rubicon

I made an exciting decision today, but before we talk about that let’s talk about the book publishing biz. Everybody else already is.

The theme in several recent articles about the outlook for book publishing is innovation. Harper Collins wants to recalibrate author advances, making the book market leaner and meaner for authors, but with a potentially greater upside. Robert Miller’s new company will refuse to play along with the punishing “returns” policy currently in place between book publishers and major chains. Miller’s company is also committed to publishing books in a variety of simultaneous formats, which is certainly a good move (though I wish Miller had mentioned simultaneous trade paperback along with simultaneous audio and e-book formats, since readers would welcome this most of all). Small issues aside, though, both of these attempts at “shaking the tree” sound exciting, though they will have to be carefully managed to succeed.

The Persona Non Data blog, usually so insightful, really blows it with their analysis of proposals for change in book publishing:

“Disallowing returns and not paying advances is not going to produce a successful publishing program but producing content readers will buy will eliminate a need for returns and advances. So the solution is simple: Publish what buyers will pay for and read, and this is where Bob Miller (and all others) have their challenge.”

Right, and could somebody please tell the Mets starting lineup to start hitting .600? Simple, really.

Here’s what Persona Non Data misses: the literary books that the major and indie houses are putting out these days are already very good. There is absolutely no shortage of worthwhile talent in today’s lit scene. But the publishing industry is locked into antique traditions (twelve months between hardcover and paperback? are you kidding me?) that regularly ignore the wishes of customers and push potential readers away. These traditions keep the financial pipelines trickling (as the machines grind debut novelists to bloody bits with their robotic teeth), but this takes place at the expense of creativity or customer demand.

Any entrepreneurial publisher willing to risk failure by trying something new deserves our support. Go Miller, go HarperCollins! Hell, anything is worth a try.

* * * * *

And now my exciting news. Eleven years after the relatively dismal publication of my first blockbuster, and (man, oh man) nineteen years after my first historic attempt to be a famous novelist … my friends, I am jumping back in, and this time I’m going to do it right.

I’ve made a decision today that my next major life project is going to be a non-fiction book, and I am now beginning the process of finalizing my proposal (which I’ve been cooking up for the last three months) with the firm intent to see this new project through to its ultimate end, wherever that may be.

A whole lot can go wrong here, I know. I’ve already been through a lot in the publishing field, but when I look back at my earlier stabs at working with agents and major publishers, I see that I was in some ways too immature, too idealistic, and too caught up in my private notions of what a writing career should be. I’ve matured a lot (I hope), and I think the 2008 version of me is finally ready to get the job of writing a successful book done.

So, here goes nothing. I am making a commitment to myself: I will give this project everything I’ve got, and if it all ends up in spectacular failure it will not be because I didn’t try as hard as I could. I have crossed the Rubicon. Whether or not I will conquer on these banks is now in the hands of fate.

One reason I had trouble deciding to write a non-fiction book is that I have an over-abundance of killer ideas — four, to be exact. Each idea is wildly different from the other three, and I am equally eager to write all four of these books. I even have code names for them: there is the “P” idea, the “I” idea, the “M’ idea and the “Q” idea. After much difficult deliberation, I decided to go with the “M” idea, because this is the one I know I will enjoy writing the most. I can’t tell you what the idea is yet, because I’m working on “‘the pitch”. But anyway, what the hell, wish me luck.

And, finally, if you’re in New York City please come by the Bowery Poetry Club next Thursday, April 17 at 6:30 for a poetry happy hour hosted by George Wallace. I’ll be reading and playing bongo drums, and other featured poets include Tao Lin, Zachary German, Clarissa Beyah Taylor, Joy Leftow and Larissa Shmailo.

21 Responses

  1. I am certain it will be
    I am certain it will be excellent.

    & I am certainly curious about these ideas.

    No doubt profound!

  2. Good luck with your book,
    Good luck with your book, Levi. There is not enough to be said about writing about something that you want to write about – that is fun. I am currently doing some not so fun writing, and I need to kick myself in the ass each time to get started. But when the writing is fun, when it flows – well, there is no better feeling.

  3. Good luck. Sounds like you’re
    Good luck. Sounds like you’re already on the right track — if there’s a better affliction to suffer from than an “over-abundance of killer ideas,” I certainly haven’t heard of it.

  4. It’s interesting that these
    It’s interesting that these two ideas are being bandied about as new and potentially destructive. Akashic’s business model is in fact a profit sharing model if I understood Johnny Temple correctly at an AWP panel. They give a very very modest advance (if any) and then don’t do royalties – they split any profits 50/50 with the author. Thing is, if your book doesn’t make a profit, you still walk away with that small advance, and as an author, you’re not any worse off than you would have been (assuming that even with any other formula you weren’t going to get a larger advance). If you’re say, Joe Meno, and your book goes into 10 printings and sells in five digits? I’m thinking he did pretty damn well for himself – probably much better than he would have with a standard royalty contract.

    As to selling on a no return policy. There are publishers who do this now – Press 53 does, or at least did when they first began. They do face some issues by doing this – there are some stores that won’t do business with publishers that don’t take returns. The stores that do business with publishers that don’t take returns ask for a larger discount on the books they do buy. I would also guess that they’re ordering fewer but don’t know that for sure.

    All that said, huge wishes of wellness for your writing effort, Levi. I’m sure it’s going to be excellent.

  5. Imagine if all large
    Imagine if all large publishers, in a gigantic, fanciful coup, decided en masse that their books would be nonreturnable. Like CDs in a music store. Like almost everything in a department store. I would imagine that bookstores would finally realize that they’d have to kiss their gravy train goodbye and start buying books a little more carefully.

    I was going to wish you luck on your book project, but I hate relying on luck, even though it comes in mighty handy for artists. So instead: I know the following phrase doesn’t fit really well in the context of literature, but break a leg!

  6. Someone said m is a good
    Someone said m is a good letter. m is the 13th letter, good luck or as they say in Chinese, going she far sigh. Good luck and get rich.

    Someone mentioned the Mets. I read a good book a number of years ago with Mets in the title along with Summer, of and the.

    I know a book about Mealyworms is sure to be a hit.

  7. Well thanks for the
    Well thanks for the back-handed compliment (I think). Really, the gist of my post was that the prevailing focus on fixing returns and advances was completely misguided. Firstly it is hard to image that one publisher (yes, even Harpercollins) could have a material impact here. Secondly (and here we are in violent agreement) there are already any number of publishers that have ‘alternative’ approaches to publishing that address both the ‘advances’ and ‘returns’ issues. In the comments Mr Wickett mentions Akashic (who publish some great and innovative stuff) and I mentioned Public Affairs and SourceBooks as examples. So, while I appreciate your drawing attention to my comments I think you misconstrued my point. And by the way, I also signed off ‘simple really’ indicating that the real task at hand for Bob Miller and Harpercollins is to produce content readers want to read – why else are trade returns over 20% and advances unearned? There are also many industry issues that defy logic as you note regarding hard/paper release schedules. Many such items are noted in other posts on my blog and we could go on for hours…

  8. Good Luck !! I wish you the
    Good Luck !! I wish you the best in life as well as in your writing. I know you’ll do it this time. I’ve been trying to get a little more serious with my writing too. I’m reading a book called ‘The Writer’s Book of Days’,I’m not exactly keeping up with the writing but I’m getting some good tips along the way.

    I went back and read some of that Prufrock back page and was reading a post I didn’t realize was my own until the end of it. LOL. So I guess it was like Eliot said when he opened his trunk of philosophy papers many years later, I can no longer pretend to know what this means.

  9. Levi, are P, I, M, and Q the
    Levi, are P, I, M, and Q the first letters of each subject? I need to clear that up before I commence to badgering you with guesses.

  10. Maupassant?

    Mix-A-Lot, Sir?
    Malfeasance in office?
    My Mother the Car starring Jerry Van Dyke?

  11. Yes, Bill, these letters
    Yes, Bill, these letters represent the subjects of their corresponding books. “Metafiction” is a nice guess, but I don’t think you or anyone will actually manage to guess the actual subject. Feel free to try though!

  12. Brooklyn: How about
    Brooklyn: How about “Metrosexuals in the Metropolis?” Other thoughts: “Manzarek meets Madison Ave.”, “Modalities of Monsters on TV”,or “The Next Moon Landing”& moreover, what about “Montana Sojourns” or “Moving to Upstate New York for Fun and Profit”. Oh, don’t forget “Madison Avenue Midnight Tokers”. Keep on the good foot. May your book plans suprisingly succeed and become the next best seller. Are these book titles guesses anywhere close or too wild to contemplate?

  13. In fact, Steve, one “M” word
    In fact, Steve, one “M” word above is tangentially close to my subject matter, though it isn’t the “M” word itself …

  14. Brooklyn: One more title
    Brooklyn: One more title guess: How about “The Metaphysical Metropolitans”… a book on the philosophy and poetry of astral projectionists.
    Or is that too esoteric? Argh!

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Litkicks will turn 30 years old in the summer of 2024! We can’t believe it ourselves. We don’t run as many blog posts about books and writers as we used to, but founder Marc Eliot Stein aka Levi Asher is busy running two podcasts. Please check out our latest work!