Making Unnecessary Enemies

Editor's Note: This is David Corn's response to a piece Jennifer Nix wrote last week about progressive authors signing book contracts with corporate publishers.

You have a rather funny way of doing business.

That's the one-line email I sent to Jennifer Nix, editor-at-large of Chelsea Green Publishing, last week. And I never heard back from her.

What prompted my note to her was a piece she wrote for AlterNet that chided Michael Moore, Al Franken, Amy Goodman and me for having published our books with corporate publishers. The article, entitled "Sleeping with the Enemy," was billed as "the opening salvo at the company's soon-to-be-launched weblog." I was tempted to ignore her acting-out article. But it received some pickup on other sites. So allow me to reply.

Nix started her piece this way:

I've got an invitation for all progressive authors out there.

How about putting your money and ideas where your mouths are? Why not work with independent book publishers to share with the public your thoughts about progressive politics, social justice, sustainability and media reform ... instead of lining the pockets of the corporate publishers (and ultimately the five or ten rich white men who control nearly every media message we read and hear in the U.S. today).

Well, I have an invitation for Nix. How about approaching potential colleagues in a reasonable fashion – rather than attacking them – if you want to run a successful progressive-minded business?

She goes on:

I'd like to ask Amy Goodman why she published her last book, The Exception to the Rulers: Exposing Oily Politicians, War Profiteers, and the Media that Love Them, with Disney-owned Hyperion.

Michael Moore: What possessed you to make money for Rupert Murdoch by publishing your book, Stupid White Men, with ReganBooks/HarperCollins, and to then go to AOL/Time Warner's Warner Books with Dude! Where's My Country?, before jumping to a third corporate ship, Viacom's Simon & Schuster, to publish your latest offering, Will They Ever Trust Us Again?

David Corn: When you were underscoring the media's role in spreading W.'s deceptions, in The Lies of George W. Bush, why did you choose not only to go with a corporate-owned publisher, but with Crown – for years now, a member of the German-owned Bertelsmann AG conglomerate, which helped to spread anti-Semitic literature and Nazi propaganda in the years leading up to and during WWII?

Al Franken: When publishing Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right, why did you make money for Dutton, a cog in the wheel of British-owned media giant Pearson, rather than help to reform American media by making a commitment to and money for an independent American publisher? And, finally, I really hate to point out to populist Jim Hightower that he, too, made money for that same Brit media giant, by going with another of Pearson's holdings, Viking, when he published his latest book, Let's Stop Beating Around the Bush.

Come on, people. Is it all about the big advances? Hear this: a big advance does not a bestseller make. It should be about how many people buy your book.

Pardon the royalties out of me. But advances do matter – at least to me. Unlike Moore and Franken, I am not a millionaire. (I am assuming they are, and they better be, given the sales of their books and movies.) I have worked for 18 years (yikes!) at The Nation, making a salary well below my peers in mainstream journalism. (I have also written for AlterNet, which hardly pays Vanity Fair rates.) I have two small daughters. To complete The Lies of George W. Bush in nine months (while still working my day job), I had to take time away from my family. My hard-working wife picked up plenty of slack. The only way I could justify such a project was to guarantee it made economic sense for my family.

That meant being sure I would be well paid for these stress-inducing efforts. An advance against future royalties achieves that. If I had embarked on such a project with no advance – or a low advance – I would have been taking a rather large risk. I would have had to count upon the publisher to sell many books. And I would have had to assume (or hope) that no unforeseen events would derail my book. Let's say an anti-Bush book had been scheduled to come out on Sept. 18, 2001. It would have been subsumed. There would be no sales and, thus, no royalties for the author. If the author of that book had not received an advance, he or she would (in a financial sense) have wasted his or her time. By taking an advance, I and other authors pass the economic risk on to the corporate publisher. Would you work for a year – or years – on a project for little or no money, just hoping that when it is done the stars will line up right and you will be able to make money off the sales? For some people, that might be an appropriate course of action. Well-off authors (the few, the proud) could afford to do so. First-time authors, who are driven to be published, might have no other choice. But those of us in between have to consider other steps.

And while I am at it, let me confess that for years I drove a used Volkswagen. No doubt, Nix disapproves of purchasing vehicles made by a firm with historic links to the Nazi regime. (Now, I am happy to inform her, I ride about in a car from the pacific land of northern Europe.)

Nix claims that her firm knows how to turn a book into a bestseller, pointing to the success it had with George Lakoff's Don't Think of an Elephant!: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate, which did hit the best-sellers chart. At the time I started work on my book, Nix's house had no track record in turning a political book into a bestseller. And who knows if it can do so again? Suggesting that it's a breeze for an indy and lefty publisher to produce a bestseller, she cites MoveOn's 50 Ways to Love Your Country, which was published by Inner Ocean. I am not impressed by that example. That's no reflection upon MoveOn. I credit the group for being a success story of modern-day political organizing. But if an outfit with nearly 2 million highly committed members cannot produce a book, market it aggressively to its membership, and then land that book on the best-seller list, it is rather inept. (A book can hit the best-seller lists by selling several thousand copies a week.) By the way, when my book came out, I approached MoveOn and asked if it would send out an e-mail to its members notifying them of the existence of my book and other anti-Bush books. I was turned down. The explanation: that would be too commercial an act. Fair enough. But that concern did not stop MoveOn from later pushing ticket sales for Fahrenheit 9/11.

Nix is not so pure herself. She was a staff writer for Variety, which is owned by a gigantic, transnational corporation run by – can you believe this? – a host of white guys. (Was it wrong for her to cover the all-important showbiz world in order to enrich these fellows? Why was she not running a bilingual newsletter for immigrant farmworkers?) She also worked for NPR, a lovely outfit but one that accepts donations from rapacious corporations attempting to enhance their images in order to preserve their hold on the global economy.

Don't get me wrong. I would be delighted to work with an indy house if an appropriate deal could be arranged. And I wish my friends at AlterNet success with the book they are publishing with Nix. But the fact that Nix chose to whack me – without apparently knowing anything about my situation and my needs as an author – leads me to believe she lacks the business sense I would look for in a publisher, corporate or independent.
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