Wednesday, December 10, 2008

No Clue

How do I keep missing Wednesday? The sad thing is that Wed is also garbage day for me, so there are worse implications than missing my DWT blog day -- well smellier implications, anyway.

The NYT opinion piece, "Typing Without a Clue", by Timothy Egan has generated a lot of discussion on writers' loops and forums this week.

I've been reading these discussions with interest, but have stayed out of them. Partly because I was trying to decide how I really felt about it, and partly because I'm finally learning to keep my mouth shut occasionally. But clearly I haven't really learned, since I've decided to blog about it here.

First, I loved, loved, loved Timothy Egan's rant. But that's what it was. A rant.

Mr. Egan's ire was directed at publishers giving huge advances to the likes of "Joe the Plumber", especially at a time when publishing houses are cutting back on acquisitions and/or advances to actual writers.

I feel Mr. Egan's pain. (And that of the many writers who've agreed with his piece.) But celebrity book deals have never really bothered me. To me, they don't have anything to do with what I'm doing, so why should I care? Yes, they are produced and distributed by the same companies as I'm targeting with my work, but they are such a different product I don't see what they have to do with what I do.

The line blurs when celebrities write fiction... but even then, those celebrities have something I simply can't offer a publisher -- fame and a ready-made audience. So I can't really blame a publisher for choosing a celebrity's book over mine, even if I think my book is better. (And I'm someone who got rejections citing a celebrity's wife's book with a similar premise to mine... One that's now a TV series... I could be bitter about that. But I'm not. It's just a bummer. Bad luck/timing on my part. And I'd have needed a crystal ball to know that this woman was writing her book at the same time I was.)

I also don't buy the argument that the money the publishers are throwing at these deals is necessarily eating into the available pot of money they have to offer fiction (or non-celebrity non-fiction) writers.

I don't buy this for a couple of reasons. First, publishing houses are businesses and aren't run by stupid people. Their motive is to make money, not ensure as many struggling writers as possible get published.

Any time they pay a big advance, or throw a lot of marketing dollars behind a book, they're taking a risk, making a bet that enough consumers will buy the book to more than cover the money they've laid down. Would I love them to make a big bet on me? You betcha. But clearly someone thought that the chance that they'd make money on a Joe the Plumber book was worth the risk of tossing a big advance at the guy. Yes, I find it a little hard to believe many people will buy such a book. But since I'm not a top decision maker at a publisher, it wasn't my call, and clearly someone else thinks this book has potential as a money maker.

The second reason I don't buy into (or like) the argument that the publishers should be holding back on celebrity contracts and allocating advances and marketing dollars to "worthy" books and "real writers"... is that I think it's a slippery slope from that kind of argument to saying that publishers shouldn't be paying advances or giving contracts to writers of genre or commercial fiction, but should be saving their money only for the "serious literature."

To that point, here's what Mr. Egan said:

"For the others — you friends of celebrities penning cookbooks, you train wrecks just out of rehab, you politicians with an agent but no talent — stop soaking up precious advance money.

"I know: publishers say they print garbage so that real literature, which seldom makes any money, can find its way into print. True, to a point. But some of them print garbage so they can buy more garbage."
My issue is: who gets to define what's garbage? I have a sneaking feeling Mr. Egan would include romance and chick lit and thrillers and sci fi (etc.) in his garbage pail, too...

Yes, it's like a slap in the face to hear that someone, who will undoubtedly require a ghost writer and is unlikely to have anything meaningful to say in any case, has received a multi-million dollar publishing contract, while so many of us are toiling away, working really hard to learn and perfect our craft, but I think griping about it is like complaining that apples are more popular than oranges. It just so happens that the same company produces both apples and oranges. And it's for the people running these companies to decide whether their resources are better spent promoting apples or oranges this year. (Even if it's clear to many of us that the apples are rotten.)


Jude Annesley said...

As you know, I think all three of you are intelligent and articulate commentators on writing and publishing, but I wanted particularly to say "brava" to Maureen on this blog. It's nice to see such a sensible reaction to a volatile topic.

Egan’s rant, while very entertaining (I do love the New York Times) totally missed the point that Maureen was there to catch: that mass market publishers are not interested in guiding public taste, they are only interested in responding to it. Frankly, as someone who reads and is trying to write in one of the world’s most disrespected genres – romance – I can only be happy that publishers are paying attention to their customers rather than trying to jam someone’s highfalutin’ (and perhaps slightly bitter) notion of Lit-ra-choor down our throats. Thanks Maureen!

Libby said...

Excellent post, Maureen. Very well-reasoned. I see your point on the celebs-writing-fiction, too.

But what I really enjoyed was your insightful remark about how you suspect Egan might dump romance, chick lit and the like into the garbage pail. I think that's probably true, given the rest of his rant.

Maureen McGowan said...

Thanks Jude and Libby.

I guess if I was a better self-editor on these things, I might have honed in on the "who decides what's garbage" point sooner. LOL.

I think it is the crux of what bugged me about his piece (as much as I laughed out loud reading it.)

Kwana said...

Hey Maureen! Very good and well written post. You've given me a lot to think about. I love that You betcha. It didn't fly by me.

I still feel strongly about Mr. Egan's opinion and especially JTP's book but I can totally see your point too. So much to think about.

I agree with you, I wonder where he would stand on romance and chick lit. I'd be surprised if that opinion were favorable.

Thanks so much for this.

Molly O'Keefe said...

zThere are so many things to be mad about in publishing. SO MANY. And that the public actually wants Joe The Plumbers book and will be getting it momentarily can get you angry a million different ways.

But man - did that guy ever capitalize on his ten seconds of fame....

great post -- you are smart.

Lauren Baratz-Logsted said...

Great post, Maureen.

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