Tuesday, April 05, 2011

Scenes We'd Like to See #7: At the Publishing House

It’s the big Tuesday afternoon acquisitions meeting, and the whole editorial department, editors and junior editors, have gathered around the big conference table to try and convince the Sales and Publicity department to buy Turns in the Wauwinet Road, a new novel by Desmond Harris, whose last novel Panacea failed to live up to the promise of his smash debut, the 2004 Bascomb Prize-winning The Virgins of West Fourth Street.

Turns has a number of strikes against it, from the point of view of the sales mandarins: it’s long, almost twice as long as the accepted length -- 200,000 words, or around 550 pages, even with wide margins and small print. Paper is expensive and this is the age of the 140 character tweet: no one wants to read a long book any more. Any exception the editorial staff wheels out – A Suitable Boy, Lonesone Dove, Infinite Jest, A Man in Full will be contemptuously dismantled as the one that proves the rule. Besides – Harris is no Vikram Seth, no Larry McMurtry , no David Foster Wallace … and especially no Tom Wolfe. His last book flopped! It didn’t even earn out its advance! It’s been a long time since Virgins, which only took off after the movie version, anyway. No one made a movie out of Panacea (Cancer victims touring the third world looking for folk remedies and witch doctors? Please.) No one is going to make this sappy romance into a movie, either. One of the editors, the new guy, Paul Antonowsky, jokes, “Right -- it’s Bridges of Madison County meets To The Lighthouse.” But the bean-counters have never heard of Virginia Woolf’s masterpiece and think the editor is talking about some travel book. It’s not worth trying to explain, especially since Seth Glazer (the irritable new editor in chief) is glaring at him: a stare cold enough to frost a magnum of champagne, which he doesn’t have and isn’t likely to need any time in the near future. But Antonowsky has already kicked over another rock and there are more sales-related problems squirming around under there.

Doug Cranepool, the Head of Distribution and Sales, sums it up:The book is fancy. It’s confusing. It’s full of flashbacks and flash forwards and a flashbacks inside flashforwards – or something. The sales team can’t figure it out. They can’t sell it. The woman is a chain-jerking bitch, the hero is a spineless wimp. “No one’s gonna wanta spend three weeks reading about this geek who spends twenty years chasing some one- night stand he should have dumped the morning after he met her.”

Then Carol Toscana starts talking. She loves the book. It made her laugh and cry – sometimes in the same sentence. “That’s what I’m saying.” Cranepool pounces. “It’s confusing. Make me laugh. Or make me cry, You do both at once I don’t know what the fuck is happening. Pardon my French.”

“I had no idea you spoke French,” Carol says.

Seth Glazer gives her the stare.

She tries another tack: “It’s a book club book. It’s an Oprah book.”

“There aren’t any Oprah books anymore. That train left the station a year ago.”

“Okay, okay, but I mean – it’s a book women will love and talk about and give to their friends.”

“But we want people to buy it, not share it around. This little doorstop is gonna have to sell fifty thousand copies just to break even. And that aint happening.”

This all feels very familiar. Every editor at the table has had a favorite project shot down by this same crass calculus; and some of them have seen the rejected novels and memoirs go on to be huge successes for rival publishers. But that doesn’t seem to diminish the power of these squinting, passionless little pessimists, who everyone suspects never actually read at all.

Still, something is different today and that something is Seth Glazer, a recent hire from some little University Press, an author of a book on writing called “Hear Yourself Think” and before that a beloved and embattled Professor of English literature at Brandeis. No one is quite sure how he got the job, but he’s managed to scare everyone in the editorial department and all the editors are hoping he’ll do the same for Sales. They’ve been waiting for a month, but he’s been in Europe, at the Frankfurt Book Fair among other places. This is first acquisitions meeting.

And the wait is over.

“That’s enough,” he says. “I think we’ve gotten off on the wrong track. We’re all a little confused about our jobs. So I’m going to clear that up for you. The people on this side of the table are the editorial department of this venerable publishing house. They read through the hundreds of agent submissions we get every year and choose a few titles they think are worthy to be published. To do this they exert the full force of minds shaped by decades of word besotted reading, and top flight liberal arts educations, their critical acumen sharpened by the composition of critical theses and Doctoral dissertations on books like To the Lighthouse, which, I should like to make clear at this juncture, is not a picture book guide to Coastal Cape Cod. In short: they pick the books. Your job, gentlemen is to sell the books they pick. You are salesmen. You are neither professors nor critics. You job is not to analyze or interpret. Your job is to move merchandise. This is not an MFA workshop. It’s a business. When you tell me ‘I can’t sell that book’ you are saying that you expect to fail. Well, I expect you to succeed. The paper in front of you details our spring list, including Turns in the Wauwinet Road -- all 200,000 confusing pages of it. Your mission is simple: go out and sell these titles to bookstores. If you can do that, you will be good salesman, and I’ll make sure you get handsome bonuses at the end of the year. If you can’t do that, you will prove to me that you are in fact BAD SALESMEN and you will be fired. That is all. Go out and do your jobs. And never ever again pretend for one moment that you can do mine.”

The sales staff, dazed and humbled, shuffle out of the room. The editors break into spontaneous applause. Maybe they’ll have some use for that magnum of champagne after all.

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