The publisher’s lobotomy

People who know me are familiar with my aversion to “hot air”, a term which I use to refer to anything that smells of hyperbole or lacks substance. My antennae are so sensitive to hot air, I was shocked to have been taken in by a steaming blast of it at the recent conference of the American Society of Journalists and Authors.

“A Case History of ‘The Lobotomist'” was the title of the session I attended. The session purported to tell me everything I needed to know in order to build an idea into a book, a book into sales, and sales into a career. Seated on a raised altar at the front of the room were, from left to right, the author of ‘The Lobotomist’, his literary agent, her dramatic rights agent (he is trying to sell documentary/dramatic rights on her behalf), and the book’s editor – what we Australians call a publisher – who bought and published the title. One more person scheduled to attend, the independent publicist the author hired to help push the book, could not make it to the session.

Many solid ideas were discussed during the course of the session, reinforcing the truth that authors must do the bulk of their publicity, networking and leveraging their contacts, and identifying markets for “special sales” (outside of book stores) that can lead to additional reviews and even speaking engagements. The large publishers these days are primarily about packaging and distribution, and getting that marketing and publicity “hit” in the first few weeks of publication much like film studios do with their releases.

So there I was, scribbling furiously in my notebook, taking off one hat (writer) and putting on another (agent) and another (consultant) as I listened. Then, right at the end, during the dreaded question time, my ears perked up at a passing comment in response to a question regarding sales. The author revealed that the the book, years after publication, still has not earned back its advance. Strange that none of the industry professionals let that poison pill slip past their tongues.

I felt sorry for the hard-working author. After all this effort, he is still screwed by the fact that he was paid too much for the book in the first place – decisions made by professionals who should have known better. Few publishers will want his next book, and whoever does want it won’t pay him much of an advance at all. As I walked away in disbelief, I couldn’t help but think – as I often do at moments like this – of a line from Macbeth to describe this session: “a tale … full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

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  1. This reminds me of a doco shown on ABC (ahem, that’s A for Australian, folks) sourced from the BBC, some years ago now. It promised to tell the story of an unemployed sub-nerd whose only chance of employment seemed to be in the business of suicide. But the young man turned his life around [da daaah] and he was now an “astonishingly successful” seminar host. I thought I’d investigate what fascinating subject it was that had brought him back from the brink. But his (sole) message was his story: of feeling suicidal and then dreaming up the plan of running seminars to tell how he’d decided to run seminars … about running seminars. It was a strange loop entirely devoid of content. A thoroughly Postmodern story?

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