Shelved

HarperCollins (HC) President Anthea Disney's recent decision to cancel 106 books that had been signed by her publishing house sent the the literary community into a tailspin. "I have never witnessed a more cavalier disregard for the bond that exists between author and publisher. These people don't seem to care about books," an unnamed literary agent told The New York Times. In an interview with trade publication Publishers Weekly, Paul Aiken, executive director of the Authors Guild, lamented, "Careers and reputations are at stake. No writer wants to be out of print for a long time." My only reaction was relief. The publisher's decision means I'll receive 106 fewer books for review this fall. Being a book critic gives you a weird perspective on the publishing world. Although my newspaper reviews about 12 books a month, we receive more than 50 a week. We receive cookbooks and self-help books by the dozen, although we never review either. We sometimes receive four copies of the same book, each addressed to my newspaper's former books editors. When I call publicists and tell them to pare down their mailing lists, they're seldom interested in the update. And as I store the extra copies in the rejected-book pile, I think to myself, This is the reason writers don't earn any money. That publicist just gave away $80 worth of books. That cavalier attitude bothers me a lot more than HC's decision to whittle down its trade list. There are too many books out there, and the glut hurts everyone, from authors whose books don't get the attention they deserve, to publishing houses that take returns on one-third of their shipments to bookstores, to readers who pay insanely inflated prices for books to make up for all those failed blockbusters. The cancellation has many writers scared about the future of publishing, but I don't think their fear is completely justified. I would expect them to be ecstatic. HC spokesperson Ginger Kerwin points out that although 106 books were canceled, "We didn't cut our marketing budget." The hope, Kerwin says, is that the books the house does publish will get the marketing support they deserve. If that happens, it might benefit writers. One of the reasons we hear so little about books with smaller pressruns is the that publishers have already thrown so much money behind a celebrity author that they must spend ever more money to promote the book in the hopes of recouping the enormous advance. A first-time novelist receives so little money up-front that the publishing house isn't afraid of taking a loss. That's why so many good books go unnoticed and so many big, bad wastes of time become cautionary tales. The ungodly sums of money offered to big-name authors (Marcia Clark, Newt Gingrich, Dick Morris) are in themselves a form of publicity -- when the word gets out that so-and-so was paid $4 million for his or her story, the as-yet-unwritten book makes its way into Liz Smith's gossip column. But that mention isn't free publicity. We all pay, in the long run, for the absurd advances given to nonwriters for their tell-all tomes. We pay with our wallets and our weary cynicism. In an ideal world, HC's move would mean that first-time novelists get a real chance to make a literary splash, that a deserving nonfiction book gets the same promotional backing as a celebrity memoir. If this happens, authors can only profit. Just ask first-time novelist Josh Henkin, whose Swimming Across the Hudson was published in April. The Michigan-based writer financed and planned his own book tour this spring when he realized that his publisher, Putnam Books, wouldn't aggressively market Swimming. "I think I expected what any author would realistically expect. I expected them to send me on some sort of book tour and buy some ads somewhere," he says. He hoped the book's subject -- the relationship between two adopted Jewish brothers, one straight and one gay -- would make it appeal to particular niche markets, but he realized he would have to make the appeal on his own. Henkin isn't angry at his publisher -- I have a publicist at Putnam, and she's very good," he says -- but he is annoyed by the situation. The time he spent calling publications, contacting bookstores, and arranging signings is time he could have spent writing. His successful turn as a publicist means he should have no problem selling his next book, although he has had trouble finding the time to write it. Julie Williams, vice-president of marketing for Baltimore-based Bancroft Press, sees the HarperCollins move as a realistic and necessary response to the market: "There is a lot of schlock out there. Trying to hone down your list and weed out what isn't important is the best way to get a hold on your list." Considering the goings-on in the literary world, Williams sees her publishing house's small size as an asset rather than a limitation. "I think that publishers have been throwing money on titles and not being able to focus on each book. With two titles every season, we're able to give our titles everything we've got." Williams maintains that large publishing houses have begun to notice small presses and their hands-on, personal ways of promoting books: "A lot of [television and radio] producers are more interested in hearing from a publicist within a small press than hearing from a publicist who represents a lot of different publishers. A lot of the major publishers are waiting to see what titles from small presses succeed." Publishing fewer books would improve publishing houses' profit margins. Although book sales have dropped over the past couple of years, the number of titles published hasn't. According to a report released by the Book Industry Study Group, sales of hardcover and paperback adult trade books fell 5.3 percent from 1995 to 1996. Meanwhile, the Web magazine Salon estimates that nearly 50,000 titles will be published in the United States this year alone. What are all of those books? Sure, some are future bestsellers, and some are really good books that will change readers' lives. But an alarming percentage is schlock, hopeless dreck that won't sell and won't help anyone. The books that fell under HC's knife include a Jell-O cookbook and a coffee-table book about celebrities and their pets. I have to agree with The Wall Street Journal when it said of losing those books, "We suspect the culture will be able to withstand this blow."

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