Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Meditating on Thomas Beller's Meditations on J.D. Salinger, and the Fact That the Book was Published by Amazon.

So yesterday I rounded up some new releases and one of them was Joanna Rakoff's My Salinger Year. I hoped to read it, along with Thomas Beller's bio in collected essays, much like the Boston Globe did, but oops, ran out of time, plus now I feel like I'd just be copying Priscilla Gilman.

J.D. Salinger: The Escape Artist, is part of the Icons series from James Atlas, who has packaged similar series for Penguin, W.W. Norton, and Yale. In 36 chapters, Thomas Beller tells Salinger's story as almost a series of sketches. Each piece focuses on one aspect of his life--a mentor, a family member, a school experience, a relationship with an editor, a family member, the Joyce Maynard affair. Beller toured the apartment building on Park Avenue where Salinger grew up, continuing to live with his family into adulthood. He read the archival work at Princeton. He was lent an advance copy of Ian Hamilton's J.D. Salinger: A Writing Life, whose publication was barred by courts.

I wound up enjoying Beller’s biography in essays. Another writer recently mentioned at a talk that there was a time when short story writers (and since his published story output far outweighs his novel production, I see Salinger as a short story writer) could make a good living on selling their work to magazines, and Salinger certainly took advantage of this. It's interesting to note that the uncollected earlier stories were rejected in book form, and it was only after that that Salinger decided to keep them unpublished. One Salinger obsessive I worked with actually went to the library and read several of them on microfilm. Microfilm!

Beller also gives enough background into Salinger's life as to why he moved to New Hampshire and rejected the phonies. Or not. We know that he cut off his daughter Margaret when she published her memoir, but why did he become estranged from his sister Doris, who was likely the model for both Phoebe and Esmé? But then again, he cut himself from many of his friends and mentors, like Elizabeth Murray (she sold his letters) and Whit Burnett (a publishing argument).

You might scoff at his attitude, but just think about how you, likely an everyday schmo like me, drifts away from folks over the course of your life. But when you're someone like Salinger, there is no drifting. Everyone wants to stay connected to you, so you have to cut them off. How's that for empathy?

I think it's hard nowadays to imagine just how much spotlight shown on Salinger. And maybe his solution was the best way to avoid a stint in rehab later. He's still an enigma to me.

I had found J.D. Salinger: The Escape Artist while browsing the advanced reading copies in our break room. Based on the color scheme of the advance reading copy's spine, I had just assumed it was a Houghton Mifflin Harcourt title, but when I looked a little closer, I realized it was from New Harvest, the Amazon imprint that is marketed by HMH.

This always a little confusing, as there are at least three ways to get Amazon-published books. In addition to the New Harvest/HMH titles, the genre books, like Thomas and Mercer and 47North, are distributed by Brilliance, the audio book publisher that Amazon owns. If you want something published on Amazon's CreateSpace contract-publishing platform, you are directed on our Ingram database to a post office box in California. While the New Harvest and Brilliance titles come at trade terms, we must buy CreateSpace nonreturnable (and at a textbook discount from our distributor), so we wind up having to take them on consignment from our local authors. Yes, they are print on demand, but other POD operations, even some contract publishers, sometimes have a returnable option. To my knowledge, CreateSpace does not; it’s how they keep their costs low.

So my first thought was why did Thomas Beller take a contract with Amazon? I know that authors run the gamut of emotions regarding the online department store slash streaming service slash data warehouse slash web platform slash drone aficionado. We’re used to authors talking up indies, both at the bookstore and in conferences, but needless to say, most authors champion our online competitor too in other settings, and not just a few of them list the A word first when you're to "click here to purchase." Some, in fact, leave independent bookstores out altogether as a purchasing option, even with our convenient Indie Bound app.

My second thought was, would Amazon play the buy button and stock issue games with Houghton Mifflin Harcourt that they’ve done with Macmillan and Hachette? Would authors who were hurt by this dust up be more or less likely to sign with Amazon as a publisher? I can see reasons for both.

My third thought was, why does Amazon want to be in the traditional publishing business? I thought they were trying to break that model, not simply appropriate it. But the word on the show was that they are known for trying to woo authors away. One publicist told me that their authors are warned not to attend an Amazon function without a publicist in tow.

My last thought that rings through my head is something that A. David Schwartz used to say to me. “The book will out.” What you meant is that the book itself is more important than the publishing politics behind the book. It was often in the context of what to do when bad people wrote great books. We also talked about this when Barnes and Noble bought Sterling, but it was obviously an issue long before that, when Doubleday’s Literary Guild, along with Book of the Month Club (which itself was corporately connected to Little, Brown for a number of years) did not just compete with bookstores, but devalued our inventory in a way similar to Amazon today.

This idea is obviously something that means nothing to Amazon, but for me, it has resonance. And if that means I’m going to carry a book published by Amazon, so be it.


Unknown said...

Daniel, more proof of your bookselling integrity.

Deborah Reed said...

Dear David,

Thank you so much for this post. I too, am an author published with Amazon Publishing under several of their imprints. My most recent novel, Things We Set On Fire, was published last December through AP's Lake Union imprint, the literary and general fiction imprint out of the Seattle office. It garnered a very rare blurb from Tim O' Brien, as well as Antonia Nelson, and other highly respected authors, and it already has nearly 900 reviews on Amazon, the average 5 stars, and has sold over 100,000 copies (ebook and paperback combined). And yet, I cannot help but wonder how many more copies would be sold if booksellers such as yourself would choose our books based on their merit and not on who published them. The boycotting of my work has been part of a calculated effort by booksellers to keep readers from ever knowing about my novels, which, as you know, take many years to write. It's heartbreaking, not least of all because for decades I have supported, and continue to support booksellers and other authors whose work is found in brick and mortar stores. I could go on, but really I just wanted to thank you for your outspoken efforts of offering good books to readers without the politics.
Deborah Reed
PS. Nothing would make me happier than to see you consider my work for your store. My previous novel, Carry Yourself Back To Me, is published by HMH's Mariner imprint and was also published to wide acclaim.

Deborah Reed said...

Sorry, Daniel. I addressed you as David. My apologies.

Bob said...

Even before Amazon Publishing, I was shunned by many indies because I wrote 'genre' fiction and that was beneath their notice. I did notice that many of those indies are no longer in business. When I made an effort to walk into a bookstore and talk to the owner and get turned away, year after year, one begins to care less and less.

The overall boycott of Amazon titles by indies is another short-sighted business approach based on emotion rather than reality. It's certainly their choice to do that-- but don't cry and call foul play when others make similar choices.

Much of the angst in publishing is focused on Amazon when it really needs to be focused on the archaic business model of the Big 5. Their business has changed little since 1994 when Amazon didn't exist. They had plenty of warning when music hit digital and ignored it.

Now they subsist on profits reaped from eBooks while keeping author royalties down.

That won't last either.

Karen McQuestion said...

Hi Daniel,

I enjoy your blog and wanted to address your question as to why Thomas Beller would sign a contract with Amazon publishing

My take on it? It may be that Mr. Beller found their terms advantageous. As one of their authors, I’ve enjoyed:

•Getting paid monthly (versus twice a year)

•Being able to see my sales daily, updated in real time

•Having input into everything concerning my book(s), including pricing, marketing, title, and cover

•Working with a team who responds to my emails promptly, answering my questions and addressing my concerns

All of these things give authors a sense of control and a feeling of being valued, which is no small thing. I’m frankly puzzled this isn’t the norm in publishing, because it seems like a common sense approach.

Daniel Goldin said...

You folks who publish on CreateSpace should probably read this.