Lots of running around this warm and sunny Sunday. Worthy panels all over the place and, typically, at opposite ends of the campus, hence a fair bit of running around. First stop was The Next Big Thing Panel, ironically named in light of recent publishing developments. Noted briefly:
Josh Getlin moderator. Covers book publishing for the Los Angeles Times. Panelists include Stephen White, Charlie Winton (Avalon Publishing Group), Mus White and Johnny Temple (Akashic Books).
Moderator begins talking about publishing’s following of the Hollywood template of the quest for blockbusters, and immediately references recent literary scandals. These panelists, he suggests, reflect a more creative, independent look at how to make publishing choices.
Somewhat staggering was the inclusion of the Whites, who seem like nice enough folks but a cursory examination of the home page for their company Sunswept Press suggests an outfit that’s barely a notch above self-publishing. (Two of the three books noted are by the Whites.) They scarcely belong on a panel with the likes of Akashic and Avalon. Predictably, the highlights of this discussion were the comments from Temple and Winton, which I focus on here.
JT: Akashic publishes 24 books a year, mostly fiction, some political non-fiction. Started in 1997, no background in publishing prior, was a rock musician. Published first books on a whim and loved it. Exciting time to be a publisher. Thinks the gloom in publishing traces back to the gambling approach of corporate publishing, the knock one book out of the park approach. Akashic keeps overhead down so a book that sells a few thousand copies represents a success. Very few books sell more than several thousand copies, and so the blockbuster mentality makes failures of literature.
CW: Avalon Publishing Group has offices in NYC and SF. Seven imprints, publish a variety of books, novels, travel, biographies, works with the Nation. Amazon, B&N and Borders constitute 50% of the market. Lots of big corporations filling the field, have to be focused on having an upper end of your list, having a title that people are going to get excited about. Can’t spend multimillions on a book but will spend six figures on a project that will sell currently and for a long time. …
JT: Discusses taking on Marlon James’ novel, rejected by agents as too dark, too afraid to take it on. He saw it all on the page and ran with it, resulting in great NYT review, LAT Award finalist, example of the joy of publishing and what inspires him. Discusses a lunch with Ron Kovic and learned that Born on the Fourth of July had gone out of print. Kovic got the rights back and Akashic took it on and sold thousands and thousands of copies.
Afterwards, I made a brief detour to check out the Sports Writers Panel to hear Martin Dugard talk about his book Chasing Lance. (Laila’s verdict when I told her where I was headed: “Geek.”) And although it’s true that cycling books are a bit outside of my literary brief, I was curious to find out about Dugard’s experiences with the Tour, even as I found the book itself a bit wanting. (The book is strong on the technical aspects of the Tour and its cultural role in French life but my main criticism centers on Dugard’s efforts to create drama in what was essentially an utterly drama-less Tour. The attempts feel even more melodramatic when reading in hindsight and with an understanding of the 2005 Tour.) In my opinion, the great Tour de France book still awaits its definitive author. Nevertheless, this man was out there in France, following the event I’ve dreamed about, so I came to hear what he had to say. Notable excepts herewith:
MD: Some resistance to writing another Lance book from the publishers, so he worked it in with a pitch for another book his publisher wanted. Felt this was a book he really had to write, even as it seemed impossible to get Lance’s involvement given the demands on his time. … People liken his meeting Lance to meeting Christ … When they become a symbol of hope, as Lance has, they come under scrutiny that used to be reserved for Bono … It has to be tough for an up and coming athlete to aspire to being a hero these days because heroes have to be squeaky clean. But they’re just athletes. But I like Lance, though not always. He can be prickly. If you inflame him in an interview, you can swear he wants to tear your larynx out. I know his faults, I know his weaknesses. But I have never been as inspired as by watching Lance. Watching him bike up a mountain makes me want to be better. … On doping: I want to know, I’m curious. First thing writers ask him is “So what happened to Lance and Sheryl?” My standard answer is “He was a bigger star than her.” But there’s a lot of stuff around the Lance thing … I do and I don’t want to know about it … I know of instances, I know of stories but do I want to do some investigation of drug use? No. His career is over, the French are trying to railroad him. If something comes up later, maybe. You want to cover them as an athlete but you’re hesitant to reveal too much as a person. I put myself in their shoes. Would I want someone going through my trash? Printing rumors about me? (He’s asked where you draw the line, and whether doping is part of his public life.) There are scurrilous claims out there. When it comes to things like doping, we’re going to find out a lot of things in 10-15 years. And then we can pursue that story. Big press conference at second to last stage of the Tour, hundreds of journalist, packed into a room. After an hour conference, all the journalists took off their credential tags and asked him to sign them – even the French journalists. It’s easier to write about someone who’s no longer alive … writing about a guy like Lance, there’s this attendant baggage that makes it difficult. Title comes from the fact that there are 4000 journalists at the Tour every day, all of whom want one-on-one with Lance. Had been trying to get Lance one-on-one since July 1st. Lance called him on Sept. 23 as Dugard was driving down the 405. Dugard pulled over, got his notebook out and had the long-awaited conversation, which he found a great validation, even as he confesses that the need for validation troubled him. Lance paid him a backhanded compliment … he likes the book which is nice, and it will be in an Espy gift basket … but it still worries him that this makes him feel good.
Our final stop was a brief glimpse at the LA Lit panel, a glimpse made even briefer by my expiring laptop battery. The panel consisted of Janet Fitch (moderator), and Chris Abani, Steve Erickson, Michelle Huneven, and Jim Krusoe.
Jim Krusoe asks the question I’ve been asking – Do writers in Pennsylvania sit around in coffee shops talking about Pennsylvania literature?
CA: References things back to Hollywood’s dominance which can overshadow LA’s rich literary history.
SE: Metaphorically and geographically, LA is as far as we can go. We fret about how the world is going to end here but we’re very proprietary about that, too. Something about that conceit appeals to us, we’d find it galling to suggest the world might end somewhere else.
MH: Los Angeles used to be famous for chewing up the literary writer. But now there are a lot of literary writers in LA and it’s become just another place to write, even as we’re trying to say it is possible to write here in the sunshine amid the swimming pools.
JK: I asked it, I’m not supposed to answer it. And I actually thought this was a panel about California writing. Los Angeles and NY are the only two cities in the country that generate myth, the two larger than life cities. It’s interesting and intimidating as a writer.
JF: First time an overview of the LA art scene has been seen anywhere is on display in Paris, which she recently saw. Had never seen it as one large story. Does there seem to be more of an interested in the art of LA now?
CA: There are whole parts of Los Angeles that never get talked about. When I arrived here it became Lagos. Graceland would not have been written if I hadn’t been living in Los Angeles. Los Angeles is a complete city of invention, exists purely by the will of the people who live here. Discusses that although LA is multicultural, it’s also very segregated, but the segregation creates rough edges that make it interesting. It’s the only city where the natives are invisible. You come here and you make it your home.
SE: Born and raised here. Born in the Valley at a time when it bore a strong resemblance to the Valley that you see in Chinatown, all orchards. I can remember orchards and ranches. In the 60s between 62 and 67 there was this mega-lurch from a very rural valley and a bypassed suburbia and it moved into a mega suburbia. Which seemed completely normal to me at the time.
Which is precisely when my battery gave up the ghost. Will try to cobble up some additional recollections on the panel before the day ends.
My own big question for the organizers – where is your panel on book blogging? That’s the second year in a row the role of book blogs have been utterly ignored, whereas BEA began discussing blogs two full Expos ago. Hope that will be remedied by next year.