Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Products, Units, and Books

One of the great, unknown terrors awaiting the author who strives for significant recognition is the horror not even Stephen King could recognize. Of course Stephen doesn't recognize it because, well, because it doesn't matter to him. Being Stephen King and wanting to bring people in close touch with fear in some form is his goal. Not only is he good at it, he has explained with his concept of scary things to include seemingly quotidian things that do not, on the surface, seem at all scary but which, on closer inspection, seethe with fright.

Which brings us right back to the beginning. And away from Stephen King.

The writer who achieves success in the commercial markets ceases to become a writer of books or stories and is assigned the nomenclature of producer or productivity source. His or her books are no longer books, they are units or product or units of product. How many units of hardcover product will it take to fill a shelf or display bin at Wal-Mart?

Not only does the author get screwed royalty-wise by having the royalty on copies sold to such mass-discounted sources, the author gets screwed by being told by the publisher that the publisher cannot afford to allow the author to write something outside the author's area of expertise. You want to write outside the area of your expertise, you'll have to assume a pseudonym. You'll have to take on another name, perhaps even a translation of your name if it means something such as lion's head in another language. You can still say on the cover that you are who you are, but this time you're writing as someone else, writing as though you were who you are. I was told that readers would not read Westerns by anyone with a name like mine and so I became Craig Barstow and Walter Feldspar to write Westerns as though I were more authentic because my name sounded more--er, Western. It is also possible that the same publisher who wasn't too happy with your last book will take your next book if you change your name because you were such a loser with the last book, but with a new name, you no longer have a track record that is in the tank.

It is sad to see the way publishing has become a business where individual titles are treated as a new product in an existing line instead of another book in a steady production of books, with the year-end figures predicated on all the books published. It is sad to see the writer asked what he or she has published instead of what are you working on, as though having published something is the only standard applied in making one a writer. Indeed, writers are sometimes asked how many times they have been on The New York Times Best-Seller list, as thought that makes them a writer. It may be a wild stretch but I don't think people are all that curious to now how many condoms per year a condom manufacturer manufactures; they may be interested to know how many condoms were used in a given year or, conversely, how many were not used and to what effect.

This is all quite academic, and somewhere in these grooves of academe is the meme that selling copies of a book makes a writer more insightful, original, and effective.

We begin by wanting to write stories that will change the world, then narrow our expectations to wanting to write stories that will effect people, then narrow our expectations to wanting to write stories that will move some people to some particular feeling, then narrow our expectations to the point where we want to write something that will please us for some brief span of time, say the length of time it takes the trapeze artist to miss the trapeze and fall to the net below.

The job is a difficult one to fulfill because as writers we are difficult to satisfy. We are constantly missing the handle and felling to the net below, It is the best job in the world. And yet we want to chuck it ll aside for the privilege of being nagged into writing a unit or a product for some MBA who is too busy to read.

Relatively few of the novels actually published sell more than five hundred or a thousand copies, a fact that does not make the writer any more or less of a writer
John Williams' remarkable novel about the academic life, Stoner, barely sold two thousand copies when originally printed, but now, in a new edition from a new publisher, Stoner is a minor classic


R.L. Bourges said...

I don't know if the wild stretch was an intentional pun or not, but it was a funny one.
And now, off to churn more words for the refuse bin.

Rittster said...

Hello Mr. Lowenkopf,
I’m doing some research to find out who wrote two novels for Kozy Books under the name Walter Feldspar during the 1960s. Did you write Squeeze Play and Loose Women under that name for that publisher?
Your response is appreciated.

B. Ritt