Posts Tagged ‘Publishing’

The Amazon Paradox

Wednesday, December 18th, 2013

oasis-tales-conjuror

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser December 2013)

“Surrealism to me is reality.” John Lennon

My books are for sale on Amazon. New and used. So are my music CDs. My books and music are downloadable from Amazon, and that includes audio books of my work narrated by yours truly. Do I feel like a rat and an enemy of local bookstores and local music stores? No, because with the exception of a few extremely local bookstores where I am personally known to the proprietors, my books are not available in any local bookstores in America or even in the few remaining chain bookstores, and that is also true of my music. This is also true for the vast majority of writers and musicians (those who produce books and albums) in this country. Without Amazon and a few other online sites, most writers and musicians would have nowhere, practically speaking, to sell their work.

Ironically, local independent bookstores with their extremely limited shelf space carry almost entirely mainstream corporate product (i.e. imitative junk) because that is what most people buy. Amazon, on the other hand, has unlimited shelf space and carries everybody’s books and music, including works by the most esoteric poets and writers and musicians in the world, works no one else will carry. Amazon has also been a fantastic boon to used booksellers, many of whom were going out of business before Amazon provided a way for those used bookstores to reach millions of people who otherwise would never have known about them.

Before the advent of Amazon, many well-meaning people believed that shopping at chain bookstores would bring about the demise of local bookstores. However, my first five novels were only (albeit briefly) available in chain bookstores and not in local independent bookstores because the chains had shelf space for less known and less mainstream books and the independent stores only carried what the New York Times said was worth buying. If you don’t know it already, the New York Times only reviews and touts books published by their major advertisers, the giant corporate publishers, which are wholly owned subsidiaries of huge multinational corporations. Local bookstores thirty years ago, and local bookstores today, carry books, with very few exceptions, that get reviewed in mainstream newspapers and magazines owned by huge corporations who also happen to publish nearly all the books that get reviewed and advertised in America.

You see the problem. We are told to support our local bookstores in their selling of corporate product because…why? Doing so pays the salaries of a few local bookstore clerks? If local independent bookstores primarily sold books published by independent publishers, that would be a different matter, but if they did that they would immediately go out of business because most people, including hip savvy happening people, only buy books and music they’ve heard about through the corporate media, which includes National Public Radio and The New Yorker, and don’t kid yourself that NPR and The New Yorker aren’t corporate bullhorns.

What if, just for the sake of discussion, Amazon did exactly what it does, except Amazon employees were treated humanely, paid handsomely, given fabulous benefits and fat pensions, and worked in environmentally marvelous solar electric facilities sending forth goods in recycled biodegradable organic packaging material transported by environmentally fabulous systems of purveyance? Would it then no longer be a sin to shop at Amazon? Less of a sin? Is it how Amazon does what it does or what Amazon does that makes them so awful-seeming?

To sum up a prevalent notion of reality shared by way too many people who should know better: if you can’t get a gigantic corporation to publish your books and spend tons of money getting those books reviewed and advertised and distributed to local indie bookstores, you should just stop writing. And stop recording music, too. Just make a living some other way. Don’t even try to be an artist unless you can be immensely successful and have articles written about you in The New Yorker. To do otherwise is unfair to small businesses. Got it?

Am I a pimp for Amazon? Nay. I buy almost nothing from them. I walk everywhere and drive very little. My carbon footprint is a few toe indentations compared to the average American. Still, I struggle with the paradox of knowing that my books, the ones recently published and the ones long out-of-print, have lives (in the sense of being available to people) almost entirely because of Amazon. Nor were my books readily available before Amazon. Prior to the advent of Amazon, if someone asked where they could get a copy of one of my books, I would say, “Well, if you have a stupendous and well-endowed library system or access to the greatest used bookstores on earth, you might find a few of them.” Now all my books are readily available from independent used booksellers availing themselves of Amazon’s organizational system to sell their goods. Is this a bad thing? I don’t think so. Could it be better? Of course. By the way, I don’t make a cent from the sales of used copies of my books and I make almost nothing from the sales of my new books, but I’m still happy that people have easy access to my work.

“There is only one way to defeat the enemy, and that is to write as well as one can. The best argument is an undeniably good book.” Saul Bellow

This just in. The National Library of Norway is planning to digitize all the books in Norwegian by the mid 2020’s (hundreds of thousands of books). This will mean that if your IP (Internet Protocol) address proves your computer is in Norway, you will be able to access all the Norwegian books ever published, even those still under copyright, for free. The article did not say how publishers and authors are to be compensated for their work under this plan, but Norway is wealthy and socialist, with a highly literate population, so I imagine Norwegian writers will not be dissuaded from continuing to write because of this mass digitization.

It has never been easy for artists to make livings from their art, and for millennia now in the so-called advanced societies virtually every artist we’ve ever heard of was beholden to some king or prince or wealthy merchant or powerful editor or rich person to subsidize the making and dissemination of those famous artists’ art. Is this a bad thing? Is selling books and music and artistic creations on Amazon (because there is nowhere else to sell such things) any worse than beseeching (or having sex with) a powerful duke or prince so the big idiot will commission a sonata so you can pay your rent and buy food? Is getting in bed with Amazon worse than playing footsy (or having sex) with a Medici or two so they’ll pay you to sculpt David out of marble and paint the Sistine Chapel? You tell me.

When I published my first novel in 1978, I was invited to join the Author’s Guild, an esteemed organization that claimed at that time to represent some seven thousand American authors published by major publishers. I joined because my literary agent said it was a good idea, but I eventually resigned because the Author’s Guild was forever asking members for money to help writers from other countries while doing nothing to help American writers, including and especially their own guild members. However, before I resigned, I took part in a survey with my seven thousand fellow members of the Author’s Guild, and the results were that less than one-quarter of one per cent of the seven thousand writers surveyed made even a minimalist living from their writing. Some vibrant culture we’ve got, huh?

“Take away the paradox from the thinker and you have a professor.” Soren Kierkegaard

I am now publishing books at Zo, Mendocino’s finest and only copy shop. This does not preclude future offers from daring, creative, prescient publishers who wish to publish my work, but from now on the first editions of my novels will be Zo Editions, unless Zo goes out of business before I cease to produce books. My first venture, the novella Oasis Tales of the Conjuror, launched in November, has now sold thirty-one copies, and as of copy #28 my design and manufacturing costs have been covered, which means the last three copies I sold (through my web site) have brought me massive profit, easily enough to take Marcia out for lunch at the Mendocino Café, if we share one of the less expensive entrées and two large glasses of water, hold the bubbles.

My publishing experiment proves (to me) there are three kinds of people. By far the largest number of the three kinds are those who react with contempt and pity and varying degrees of disgust when they hear of my comb-bound individually hand-numbered and signed publishing venture, the second largest number are those who smile and say “Neato!” when they hear of my new old way of bringing out my fiction, and the smallest number are those who don’t hesitate to say, “I’ll buy one,” and they do.

The sad and undeniable truth is that most people in our society do not consider writing fiction or composing music or drawing or painting or any kind of art making to be real work. Ours is essentially an anti-artist culture, which is why most people need those corporate stamps of approval before they will believe something has value. Talk about a paradox. The Amazon Paradox is an easy ten-piece jigsaw puzzle for small children compared to the paradox of why so many seemingly intelligent people still believe the corporate media communicates anything other than advertisements for the products of huge corporations, and only by accident and once in a blue moon allows something so subversive as original art to reach a large audience.

Prostitution

Thursday, October 14th, 2010

“Working in Hollywood does give one a certain expertise in the field of prostitution.” Jane Fonda

I have never heard of a workshop for writers that teaches the efficacious use of sex to make it big in theatre or publishing or the movie business, but any writer who has toiled in Hollywood or New York, or in the outposts of those Babylons, knows that sexual linkage to people in power is of paramount importance to success in The Biz; and anyone who denies this is either a phony or grossly naïve.

Grossly naïve describes moi when the sale of my first novel to the movies landed me in Hollywood circa 1980, though my naïveté was not so much intellectual as grounded in a fierce unwillingness to accept reality. That is, I knew a good deal about the sexual machinations of the theatre world, yet clung to a mythic notion that by creating highly desirable plays and books and screenplays I would be allowed to travel sexually unmolested into collaborations with creative people possessed of sufficient clout to get books published and movies made and plays produced.

The sale of my first novel to a major New York publisher and the subsequent sale of the movies rights to a Hollywood studio were accomplished without my having screwed or been screwed by anyone even remotely connected to those industries, and so at the age of twenty-eight, I felt confirmed in my belief that the quality of my writing could, indeed, trump the necessity of screwing or being screwed by people I had no interest in screwing or being screwed by.

In one fell swoop I was transported from a rat-infested garret in Seattle to a plush suite at the Beverly Hills Hotel, and into meetings and dinners and soirees with powerful agents and studio executives and well-known movie producers. And it was made clear to me again and again that unless I was willing to engage in drug-enhanced sex with these wonderful people and to rewrite my stories and screenplays to suit their moronic fancies, my chances of a successful Hollywood career were precisely nil.

And sure enough, a mere two years into my Hollywood adventure, the last agent to officially represent me declaimed, “Stick with novels, okay? You might hit again with a book, but you can forget about working in this town as a screenwriter.”

“Why?” I asked, knowing why.

“Because you won’t do as you’re told. And nobody wants to work with somebody who can’t get with the program. Kapish?”

I didn’t and don’t want to believe that sexual extortion and drugs and nepotism are the primary coins of the theatre and publishing and movie worlds. I wanted and want to believe that producers and directors and editors were and are starving for original, compelling, well-written screenplays and books and plays. But that belief presupposes producers and directors and editors are capable of discerning the excellence of a creation, which they (with painfully few exceptions) are not.

And therein lies the disastrous problem (disastrous if you like good movies and plays and books). For if the game is first about gaining and asserting power over others, and secondly about maintaining the status quo, and thirdly about making money, then we aren’t talking about collaborative creativity, we’re talking about prostitution.

“The music business is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs. There’s also a negative side…” Hunter S. Thompson

Long before my short-lived career as a writer in Hollywood, I had several strange and fascinating and ultimately depressing adventures in the music biz. Another of my mythic notions is that success with my music will resound to the benefit of my novels and plays and screenplays (or vice-versa) so that one day I will pen the story, the screenplay, and the soundtrack for a movie that will change cinema as we know it (in a good way) and usher in the long awaited renaissance. This particular fantasy becomes more and more of a stretch as middle age gives way to old age, but in my dreams, age holds little sway.

So. 1971. Los Angeles. I was twenty-two, the composer of a dozen heartfelt songs, and barely literate on the guitar, yet I miraculously wrangled a face-to-face meeting with a “for real” record producer at Columbia Records by innocently calling the studio and asking to speak to someone, anyone, interested in auditioning a hot new singer songwriter with a golden voice, i.e. moi. Talk about naïve. But by golly, after being transferred by the switchboard operator to a secretary to an assistant producer to a producer, I made my case to a bona fide record company executive and he invited me to come on down with the tape of three songs I had hastily recorded on my Aunt Dolly’s neighbor’s reel-to-reel tape recorder—Todd singing along to his funky guitar.

So I borrowed Aunt Dolly’s purple Impala and set out to make my fame and fortune. And as I was merging onto the Santa Monica Freeway, I couldn’t resist stopping for a breathtakingly beautiful young woman who was thumbing a ride. She had long brown hair and wore a crimson T-shirt tucked into blue jeans, and I was so blinded by her curvaceous loveliness that I did not perceive her very unbeautiful companion until the goddess was hopping in beside me, and her boyfriend, the quintessential scruffy dweeb, was commandeering the backseat.

I took a moment to assess their vibe, deduced they were harmless, and surrendered to the sarcastic fates as I eased back into traffic, unsuspecting of the Gordian (traffic) Knot awaiting us. Thus for the next two hours I found myself trapped in Aunt Dolly’s purple Impala with Tina and Hal, Tina a twenty-year old prostitute, Hal her unemployed beau. And for those two hours of inching toward Columbia Records, I interviewed Tina (for Hal would only grunt when spoken to) and she told me many spine-tingling tales of her life as a hard drinking pot smoking cocaine snorting hooker in an upscale spa for wealthy businessmen and show business executives.

Tina had a honeyed voice, huge brown eyes, a fine sense of humor, and a particular sorrowful beauty I’m a hopeless sucker for. So, yes, I fell in lust with her and thought if we could somehow jettison her boyfriend, I might convince her to crash with me at Aunt Dolly’s until my first hit record provided us with sufficient funds to buy that farm in Mendocino. But after an hour stuck in that jam with her, I fell entirely out of love and thought I would play the field a while longer.

The story Tina told me that I remember most vividly after forty years is of the elderly movie producer who availed himself of Tina’s services every Monday, Wednesday, and Thursday.

“He likes me dressed up like a little girl, pig tails with big red ribbons, and he talks baby talk to me while he undresses. His suits must cost thousands of dollars, and he is so fussy about hanging them up just so. Then he sits naked on the edge of the bed with a stack of hundred-dollar bills beside him, and he begs me to take my clothes off.

“And I act like a stubborn little girl and shake my head and pout and say ‘No!’ until he crumples up a hundred-dollar bill and throws it at me. Then I pick up the bill, smooth it out, and start a pile of my own. Then I take off one piece of clothing and he begs me to take off more, but I won’t until he crumples up another bill and throws it at me. And if I play my part right, I can make three thousand dollars because he’s paying for each shoe, each sock, each ribbon in my hair, my belt, skirt, scarf, sweater, blouse, and I’m resisting the whole time, making him throw more and more bills as we get closer and closer to nothing left to take off.

“Then when I’m naked, he tells me to come over to him, but I won’t until he throws more bills. Finally I come close and let him catch me, and then he makes me lie over his knees and he smacks my bottom and tells me what a bad little girl I am. What a terrible girl I am.”

“And then?”

“That’s it. No sex for him. But he’s happy. He always leaves happy.”

(This article originally appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser October 2010)

Todd and his impressive stack of unpublished works await inquiries from producers and directors and publishers at underthetablebooks.com

The Death of Literature

Thursday, September 17th, 2009

It has come to my attention on several occasions of late that the history of the decline and fall of American literature to its current moribund state is as little known as Mendelssohn’s revised version of his Italian Symphony. Thus I feel it incumbent upon me to explain why the once great literary tradition of our collapsing democracy done collapsed.

In the beginning, circa 1800-1950, American publishing was a largely unprofitable endeavor and therefore the purview of wealthy men who made their profits elsewhere and plowed some of those profits into the cultural life of the country. Most of these fellows—Knopf, Doubleday, Scribner, etc.—held court in New York City, with Little and Brown making their stand in Boston. The literary arms of their publishing houses were staffed with bright, well-educated men and women intent on finding and supporting promising writers who might one day fulfill their promise on the larger literary stage. The unspoken rule that stood in every great publishing house until the 1960’s was that an author’s first two novels might not show a profit, but her third should pay for itself, and her fourth would begin to pay back the investment of the publisher. Books were kept in print for years in those days, which allowed time for new authors to gain an audience.

Thus the development of literary talent was a primary mission of these great publishers, and that mission inspired some of the most eccentric and original thinking people to give their lives in service to the art of editing, a highly advance skill requiring years of practice to attain. The greatness of American literature was inseparable from the greatness of her editors, which point cannot be overstated.

Because publishing did not show much if any profit, the publishing houses were of no interest to larger corporations looking for profitable entities to consume. This is another essential point, for it was only when publishing became profitable that the terrible decline in our literary culture began.

So how did publishing, so long a break-even endeavor at best, suddenly begin to turn a profit? The surprising answer is one of the most fascinating parts of the decline and fall, for it illustrates both the fabulous potential of socialism and the terrible shortcomings of capitalism.

The fighting of World War II required the government of the United States to draft millions and millions of men into military service, and when these men came home from the war, the nation felt a great obligation to them. Because the socialist ethos of the Roosevelt era was still largely in play, the GI Bill was passed, and this bill made it possible for millions of men and women to go to college absolutely free. These millions were people who, without this socialist program, would never have been able to attend college.

It is crucial to note that the private universities could only accommodate a small fraction of the former soldiers who wanted to take advantage of the government’s educational largesse, and a good argument can be made that our state and community college systems came into full being as a direct result of the GI Bill, which systems educated not only the former warriors but millions of other people who had previously been precluded from higher education for lack of sufficient money.

Thus tens of millions of people became educated, literate, and hungry for good books. The response of publishers, both established houses and a host of new houses, was to reprint thousands of classic novels and short stories and poems and plays and histories and other non-fiction works, but not as hardbacks, which would have been prohibitively expensive to produce and transport. Instead, the publishers gifted the world with a vast treasure trove of paperbacks that were cheap to print, easy to ship, took up much less space in bookstores, were wonderfully affordable, and…drum roll, please, were profitable for the publishers.

And because the paperback revolution made publishers profitable, this amazing literary renaissance (which more than a few historians credit with igniting the cultural revolution known as “the Sixties”) would be tragically short-lived. For once the publishers became profitable, they first became the prey of each other, then the prey of large American corporations, and finally the prey of enormous multinational corporations.

Now if there is one rule that supersedes all others in the corporate manifesto, it is that any item manufactured by the corporation must be immediately profitable or quickly discontinued. By the mid-1970’s, this rule was the supreme law in every American publishing house, and nevermore would a publisher support a promising writer for two or three books without showing a profit. When I published my first novel with Doubleday in 1978, every poetry department in every major publishing house in America had been closed. And had my first novel not (miraculously) shown a profit, I might never have published another novel.

By the early 1980’s the last of the “old school” of creative and dedicated editors, many of them middle-aged and older, had been replaced by legions of young women (21-27) who, to this day, are the “acquisition editors” for all the major houses, and who themselves last only a few years in their drudge jobs of buying books that fit the extremely limited parameters of acceptable corporate media. Books that are not essentially supportive of the status quo and instantly successful are promptly taken out of print, i.e. remaindered.

What’s more, the many literary agents who acted as field scouts for those bygone literature-loving editors were swiftly eclipsed by the variety of agent prevalent today, marketeers who know nothing of and care nothing for literature.

There are, of course, several parallel plots to this tragedy, among them the advent of chain bookstores, the demise of independent bookstores, the conquest of the population by television, the collapse of our educational system, and the advent of the personal computer and the Internet, all of which contributed mightily to the demise of literature.

Today, two inconceivably huge multinational corporations control all mainstream publishing in America. Don’t be fooled by the names Knopf, Doubleday, Little Brown, Random House, etc. on the books you see in the bookstore, if you still have a bookstore to go to. These in-name-only entities reside in the same propaganda arms of two massive and politically conservative corporations, which should clarify why you can’t find much good to read these days.

In the absence of the cultivation of writing talent, the books published by these monsters are, with only the rare accidental exception, uniformly awful. As a consequence, the once large audience for literary fiction is gone. The bestseller lists—which, by the way, no longer reflect sales but are merely marketing devices used to hoodwink consumers—are filled with pulp murder mysteries, food-based pseudo-novels, junky espionage thrillers, and the occasional offering from one of the few surviving authors developed by an interesting editor way back when.

Ironically, were these publishing entities with the names of former actual publishers set free to stand on their own, not one would be profitable because so few people today read new books. And who can blame them given what there is to choose from?

Sadly, two new generations have grown up since the onset of literary rigor mortis, and the vast majority of these younger people wouldn’t know a proper sentence or paragraph or a decent turn of phrase if it hit them between the eyes. They have been programmed since birth to be visualists, addicted to a constant flow of rapidly shifting imagery. They skim rather than read, if they look at words at all.

But what about Harry Potter, you say? About that franchise I will reserve my deeper sentiment for close friends and say only that children who read/watch Harry Potter do not, in general, become readers of other books unless the books are Harry Potter-like and marketed as such, with requisite marketing and media hype to support the Potterness of the latest fantasy word widget.

Lastly, I must comment on the bizarre phenomenon, born with the personal computer, of millions of people attempting to write novels and their memoirs without first learning to write a coherent story. If someone told you they were writing a symphony, though they had only just learned a few things about notes, and had yet to write a song, you would think them mad. Yet the comparison is approximate to writing a novel without first developing at least a crude mastery of the component parts.

But perhaps the abominable quality of the corporate guck masquerading as books today makes everyone think, “Hey, I can totally do that. Who couldn’t?”

(This article originally appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser in September 2009)