For years I’ve watched how trade publishers (and now university and many small press publishers) have narrowed their interest to writers who have acquired audiences from some other walk of life. Politicians, TV celebrities, talk radio hosts (including shock jocks), comedians, big-time athletes, rock stars, and perpetrators or victims of widely-known scandals. A few generals who talked out of school, a doctor or two with a diet remedy, in short, anyone who has broken into headlines one time or another and managed to keep his or her name in the news long enough to be considered “famous.”
It’s not too surprising this would happen in what some now call the “post-industrial era,” where money is no longer made from manufacture but from media and services. Everything hangs from the news cycle; someone like James Frey understood perfectly what he needed to do to make himself famous (A Million Little Pieces) and get on the Oprah Winfrey Show, a venue guaranteed to sell hundreds of thousands of books to a captive audience. It was a fake, but then, so are many memoirs intending to grab the headlines -- and even if they’re debunked by smokinggun.com and other web muckrakers, the book is already out there, high up on Amazon’s sales ratings, plugged by talking heads, and reviewed enough times to solidify a reputation.
I remember my old friend James Hillman, the late Jungian therapist and writer) telling me that after writing over thirty books on “the soul,” he wasn’t a household name until he got on Oprah’s show. After a ten-minute interview, he could count on being a rich man in a few weeks. The poet Robert Bly also became a millionaire thanks to Iron Man and the men’s movement, which deasls in part with Vietnam vets on the skids. Bly had a fine reputation, but only as a serious poet, i.e., with an audience too small to interest the trades in Manhattan, which deal exclusively (it seems) with audience-packaged celebs. So Bly, who worked his wonders in thin books of poetry, was just small potatoes until he went big-time with a “movement” book, in other words, a headline grabber.
So what does this tell us about “literature” in America? Someone once observed that American publishing in its heyday of the ‘20s and ‘30s was a function of a small Jewish enclave of intellectuals following their Marxist instincts, keeping a weather eye out on what the gentile power structure was up to (who can blame them after Germany and French and English collusion before WWII?), and always looking for some kind of social truth with a bite to it. Once assimilation diluted Jewish influence in New York, and media conglomerates began buying into the book business as glam stocks, the game shifted its rules to buying celeb kiss-and-tell books, ghost-written sports autobiographies, news commentator books (O’Reilly, Chris Matthews et al), and turned back tsunamis of unwanted manuscripts by budding geniuses and pretty good yarn spinners. Slowly, the once fertile fields of the American literary landscape began to go fallow. The words that used to inform us, open up reality, make us think and want to work for reform (I’m thinking of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle on the meat-packing industry), dried up. We got the book-length equivalent of a Johnny Carson interview.
I’ve known many writers who sent off their thick envelopes to literary agents only to have them turned back after maybe an opening paragraph was read. One writer told me it was all in the synopsis, how it had to conform to a hidden formula as occult as some masonic handshake; another said it was in the cover letter, or the references, the endorsement from some well-respected obscure polymath languishing in a state university somewhere. Everyone had an idea why the manuscript didn’t work when the envelope came back in a week or two. There are scores of books on how to prepare such a manuscript for an agent’s two-minute attention span. What no one figured on was the one essential ingredient of a pre-packaged audience a publisher could pitch to.
Two points: I once wrote a memoir praised by an editor at Farrar Straus, god love him, who read it aloud to his junior editor. They were both sold on it; he took it to his national sales manager who said the death-dealing words, “I don’t know how to market it.” He meant, who to market it to. No known audience. The same thing happened with an editor at Louisiana State University Press, who asked my agent (I finally got one) what did I do? Code for, does he have any fame? She wrote back I was an English professor. No audience.
But you can also have the wrong audience, someone with a fine reputation as a writer who has published trade books that sold well (but no best seller) who happened to find himself (I withhold his name) considered something of a left-wing crank, a naysayer to the status quo of rigged politics and corporate-managed public policy. That meant having a small, most likely dwindling audience of liberal intellectuals who didn’t buy books but read them at the library or on Kindle. But it computed the same way as everything else in the trade book world: no audience we can pitch to. Hence, O’Reilly can put his name to all those “Killing” books no matter how poorly written or researched, and sell a million of them. The Clintons practically took all the oxygen out of New York with their massive advances for their own mildly interesting books, especially Hilary’s latest, Hard Choices, which bored even her most diligent followers. Audience, my friends.
England has a lot of publishers who don’t rely on fame and celebrity or notoriety as the only basis for taking a manuscript. France and Germany are even more accessible to young writers and established poets and fiction writers. Spain is also vigorous in publishing, as is Mexico. The publics of these great nations feast on the wide variety of imagination of their artists. But not here. You can’t move an inch without getting on TV first. The problem at the heart of our literary paralysis is that corporations don’t think Americans are smart enough to buy a book without knowing the writer in some other context first. Dumbing down culture is a hardened strategy in almost everything that goes on the market. When something smart happens, all the suit-and-tie set scratch their heads. Truth is, the public is very smart, and curious, and hungry to be informed. But no one seems to know that.
When you hear someone say in a darkened alley, “Show me your audience,” he’s a publisher. He wants to print your book.