I'm just back from the Book Biz: The Insiders panel, where our laptop began bluescreening itself to death. I've figured it out - hardware problem - but I'm going off handwritten notes and general impressions of this panel, which included Agent Betsy Amster, Publicist Kim Dower, the legendary Larry Kirshbaum and the crowd pleaser Steve Wasserman (we mean that sincerely - he elicited round after round of applause - including ours - pillorying, variously, Oprah, Bush and the evils of publishing in general). The panel was moderated by PW editor Bridget Kinsella.
Among some of the sound bites:
LK discusses the book business' lamentable (my adjective) imitation of Hollywood in the search for The Big Book. He points out that in his day, Michener was the world's best selling author with 125,000 copies of Hawaii. He also discusses the other end of the spectrum, the indies and the struggling authors.
As he speaks, it occurs to me that there does seem to be a parallel hear between the explosion of the gap between the richest and the poorest Americans, and the gap between the blockbuster books and the the rest of the pack ...
BK and KD agree that writing is no longer enough - one must have a "platform" (that is, a source of interest in the writer beyond the work itself).
SW discusses the challenge of cutting through the noise of our culture to get authors heard. In his opening statement, he references Melville, Kafka, Koestler and van Gogh, anointing them "the worthy dead"
KD infuriates me with her nitwit assertion that we need to look at books as products or entertainment, and she focuses on the selling of the author. Let me be clear on this - she is the enemy. She embodies everything that's wrong with the book world today. It might be one thing if she observed this phenomenon and lamented it as an unfortunate development but perhaps necessary evil. But she wholeheartedly and passionately embraces the commodification of the book and of the author, and she makes me fearful for the future. At one point, she observes that "marketing is looked down upon," and well, if she's the typical spokesperson, it isn't hard to see why. There's not even a passing concession the artistic component of the work. Sad.
LK observes that in spite of all this, quality books do sell. He thinks it's a fallacy that a work of real literary merit won't break out. He goes on that publishing is a business of ideas, excitement, passion. He thinks the product angle isn't entirely accurate and he's clearly offering a corrective.
SW shares a fascinating anecdote about his days at Times Books when, in a meeting with his editor, he was advised he could no longer acquire the 10,000 copy books but had to, instead, look for the 40-50,000 copy title. He pointed out that this required casting about for the "sure thing" and would have resulted in Random House's passing on two gold mine titles - Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil and Primary Colors. From there he leaps to Oprah where he castigates her for her shameful bullying of Frey, and wished that Nan Talese would have had the gumption to point the finger back at Oprah, naming her complicit in the creation of this confessional/recovery culture and reaping her own fruit.
As one might imagine, the Frey comment sparks a fact checking debate, which segues into a plagiarism discussion. Since LK was present at the acquisition of Opal Mehta, he shared some impressions ... "I was present at the acquisition ... People there loved the book ... she came in with her parents ... I felt like a principal ... We thought the book was a very engaging story ... spoke to something all parents go through these days ... getting children into the right schools ... Some people in their infinite wisdom thought the advance made sense ... There was a movie deal, a large printing, the book appeared headed for success ... she was a telegenic author."
LK went on to try to take some of the edge off the case. "She made a terrible mistake ... the pressure got to her ... We tend to go for vengeance, jealousy ... schadenfreude at those who are successful ... seems to me this has been so overblown ... She tried to apologize on TV and Katie Couric was rough on her." (TEV Note - Sounds like she's learning the lessons of Oprah Righteousness. If only, as Wasserman pointed out, our television figures exposed our political figures to the same sort of bludgeoning we hand out to our writers.)
Contrary to today's LAT article, LK does not think this case typifies all that is wrong with publishing. And he asks "Where is the empathy? Where is the forgiveness?" SW advises her to seek it from Oprah.
The session ends with SW quoting Wilde - "Never let the facts get in the way of a good story."
More dispatches to follow, and don't forget this evening's Vermin on the Mount reading at 7 p.m.