Wednesday, March 18, 2009

What's Wrong with Publishing

sully So last Sunday morning as I was drinking my coffee and scanning the book review section of the Chronicle, I stumbled across this little nugget:

Chesley Sullenberger of Danville, the US Airways pilot who safely landed his jet in the Hudson River in January, has signed a $3.2 million deal with William Morrow for two books, reports thedailybeast.com. The first will be a memoir; the second a book of poetry.

I nearly spit out my coffee.

Now, don't get me wrong. I have as much respect and admiration for Captain "Sully" Sullenberger as everyone else. Safely landing a plane on the Hudson and sparing all lives? Amazing. If possible, I'd like to have him at the helm of every future flight I take.

But a 3.2 million dollar book deal?

I don't fly planes, and have no aspirations to learn how to when I retire. I think Sully has probably led a fascinating life, perhaps even one worth reading about. But let's have a show of hands: do any of you think that William Morrow is going to be able to recoup this advance, especially considering the attention span of the average American?

Maybe. We do love heroes, and there's a chance that if this book gets cranked out quickly and makes it to market by Christmas (which I'm guessing is their target release date), people will still consider springing for the $25 purchase price. But will enough do so to earn back that advance? Or will there be another hero on our radar by then whose story is equally compelling? (And I'm just going to throw this out there: unless there's a whole bestselling sub-genre of airline poetry that I'm unaware of, I'm guessing they were planning on throwing 3.2 million at him for the memoir, and he asked for the poetry book as an add-on. I'm just saying.)

As the midlist slowly shrinks and more and more authors are being offered advances that amount to less than minimum wage for their efforts, discovering that the octuplets mom, or Joe the Plumber, just signed a seven-figure book deal is octupletsincredibly disheartening. I'm not saying that these people can't write- who knows, maybe Nadya Suleman is the next Zadie Smith. But the implication is that anyone can write a book, that it requires less effort than other fields of expertise. When I meet a physicist at a cocktail party and they invariably announce that they're planning on becoming a writer as soon as they retire, I smile and nod encouragingly, when what I actually want to say is that when I retire, I'll be working on cold fusion. Of course many authors have a second job to support their writing career (hell, with what we get paid, we have to). And when I was a personal trainer, I drew plenty of raised eyebrows at the pronouncement that I was working on a novel. But then, no one ever offered to throw a huge advance at me in a crass attempt to cash in on my fifteen minutes of fame.

So when the publishing industry bemoans the fact that no one is buying books anymore, and that they need to lay off staff and cut expenses to keep themselves afloat, I'm increasingly unsympathetic. Perhaps they should take a long, hard look in the mirror and ask themselves if it's really worth spending the bulk of their energy and finances chasing the public's tail. Maybe it's time they got back to supporting good books by people who have devoted their lives to the craft of writing them.

Now you'll have to excuse me, I'm off to find something that will draw me praise or scorn in the public arena, hopefully enough to raise my profile. While I'm gone, take a stab at an airline poetry haiku. Here's mine:

Stuck in the middle seat

No food, no water, on the tarmac

Oh my God someone farted.

20 comments:

  1. Hi Michelle, I recall my last conversation with you about how to get famous. I'm waiting until I have my 2nd novel finished before even trying to get published and follow in the footsteps of Scott Sigler (who is a terrible writer) who managed to get a NYT Times best seller purely from Internet savvy. Yeah, any 7 minute star can get a great contract and big check while really great writers remain poor trying to get their names out there (not to discount Chesley Sullenberger in any way, but he's a pilot not a writer and I will not buy his book).

    These days you can be a genius writer and nobody cares. You can get caught masturbating on a park bench, write a book about it and go down in history. My horror fiction novel is so morbidly offensive, I hope to make Oprah and Julia Roberts puke and sue me, because they are both minor characters and I don't care.

    Honestly, a writer would do better to achieve attention from something other than writing to garner a crowd. It's true, any publicity is good publicity and to be a polarizing figure makes you even stronger.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Michelle, I am so with you on this one. All the guy did was DO HIS JOB. How many people do what they're supposed to do day in and day out? They don't get multi-million dollar book deals. If he would have been able to restart the engines and gone his merry way instead of ditching in the Hudson, we never would have heard about it.

    ReplyDelete
  3. William Morrow could be wanting to make a statement to their competition. Who knows. But $3.2M could go a long way to buying thrillers and mysteries that in the long term would make them more money than this project.

    ReplyDelete
  4. I too said, What the hell? when I read Sully was getting millions for a book deal.

    But to think any of these celeb-du-jours are actually doing any writing themselves is a tad naive.

    And it's not only talented writers who are under-paid, but look at all the jobs that could have been saved, the layoffs that could have been avoided if they hadn't pissed all that dough away on a celebrity memoir no one will read.

    ReplyDelete
  5. I'm sure they know what they are doing, his poetry could change the world. H may be the next Wordsworth.
    or it might really suck.

    Too bad he ha no personality and a signing tour would be utterly wasted.

    ReplyDelete
  6. David J. MontgomeryMarch 19, 2009 at 9:49 AM

    Deals like this are nearly always for less than the announced price. Numbers about how much people make (especially for books/movies/etc.) are always inflated.

    I think there's a lot of interest in this guy. If they rush it out, they'll probably make some decent money on it. (It also brings publicity to the company just by virtue of publishing it.)

    I don't think this is as bad a deal as you suspect.

    But who the hell knows... All publishing is a gamble.

    ReplyDelete
  7. I had a threesome with Sarah Palin and Michelle Obama. Britney shot the video. Where's my jergillion dollar book deal.

    ReplyDelete
  8. Bill, I'm disappointed in you. Britney was the best you could get to shoot the video?

    ReplyDelete
  9. I ain't dissing the Sully Man. But here's one for Joe the Plumber:

    Tool in hand
    Belt across hip
    Plumber's crack revealed.

    ReplyDelete
  10. For the record, the publishing contract Joe the Plumber has is with a small publishing house in Texas whose only other title was written by the writer who co-wrote Joe's book. I doubt if there were $millions$ in the advance. I seriously doubt if there was any advance at all.

    Wonder how many books he's sold.

    ReplyDelete
  11. Bobby said, "You can get caught masturbating on a park bench, write a book about it and go down in history."

    That's not true. Not that I know from personal experience, or anything. Just saying.

    ReplyDelete
  12. Well I nearly spat my tea out too - with the haiku that is:) Nothing else suprises me anymore with the publishing industry - I'm just cynical and fed up by now - as everyone has noted talent as a writer seems to be the last criteria the industry is looking for...sigh...

    ReplyDelete
  13. Kathryn...I ... uh...wuh...sheesh...

    Need to rinse my brain with listerine now....bad images stuck in cerebral somewhere...maybe I can scrape it off with a knitting needle.

    ReplyDelete
  14. Hey. If I self-lobotomize and then replace my skull with with a glass goldfish bowl and write the story, with illustrations, do you think I could get a big dollar deal?

    I actually thought about being the nations most notorious public streaker, but then I looked at myself naked in a mirror and realized that when the doctor shaved me in prep for an appendectomy he only shaved half of my abdomen. The bastard...now I look like a gorilla on the left side and Michael Phelps on the right.

    ...'cept more like a kinda sveltie Michael Phelps....or fat...depending on your perspective...

    hey maybe I can get a book deal on that.

    Poetry of a fat half hairy naked dude and his fight with the corrupt medical shaving system as he streaked on an airplane.

    ReplyDelete
  15. ...and then wrote a poem about it ;)

    ReplyDelete
  16. Naked
    I frolicked through the aisles
    Free and unhindered
    Unslung
    Freely hung
    They laughed
    Half gorilla hairy beast
    Furry feast
    Half Bhudda's belly
    Smooth and shiny
    I turn and run
    They mock my hiney

    now send me a million bucks or I'll come streak at your office

    ReplyDelete
  17. Basil, you're my hero. I'm going to have my agent pitch a book of airline poetry that we all contribute to...

    ReplyDelete
  18. Sal, that's a relief about Joe. And David, I'm always curious- how does that work, in terms of the number inflation? What are they including/exluding to make the deal sound bigger than it is?

    ReplyDelete
  19. Okay, I'll be your Huckleberry.

    It isn't a zero sum game this book publishing biz. Meaning, just 'cause ol' Sully got a nice book deal doesn't mean you can't. Granted, the pool is limited but the theoretical assumption is that these books pay for themselves in some way. It may not be in actual sales but by some other convoluted accounting scheme, but publishers aren't in the business of investing millions in books that are destined to lose millions.

    Anyway, this one doesn't bother me so much. Now if they gave him millions to write a thriller, I'd be on the posse. My graciousness only extends so far....

    Oh, and Bill, post that video on YouTube please.

    ReplyDelete
  20. I'd five million times rather Sully get it than Bush get it. But Bush did. Twice that.

    This is why people want so desperately to believe in heaven and hell. Because LIFE ISN'T FAIR.

    ReplyDelete