What To Do When the Mainstream Yawns (and Spends): Pt 2

Often when talking to Seth Harwood (see last column) I’ve been struck (again) by the fact that American writers are forced to adjust to a publishing industry that has removed authors from the top of the hierarchy and told them to be grateful to be stuck at the bottom.

I’m not talking about the small number of blockbuster authors who pay all the bills.

In fact, the few stars who remain on top seem to encourage publishing excesses like the shamefully overdone Random House book launch for Dan Brown in New York a while ago.

Dan Brown Party

At that party, waiters bedecked in George Washington wigs served lobster BLTs and other expensive noshes to a few hundred guests while “theatrical lighting [was] rigged up under the massive ovoid dome of the former bank that now houses Gotham Hall,” observed New York magazine (see photo at right).

Surrounding this “most lavish publishing cocktail party in a long time” were signs about saving money, such as this wordy mouthful (quoted by the New York Observer): “There is no gain so sure as that which results from economizing what you have.” (I see. Waiter, could I have another scallop?)

And this one: “Having little, you cannot risk loss; having much, you should the more carefully protect it.”

Protect it? Heavens, you could increase a thousand Random House advances by cutting out the gazpacho shooters alone.

Back to Seth Harwood

No, I’m talking about the talented unknowns and hardworking mid-range authors who need to be nurtured and given time to find their audience but are still getting low advances and dismissive treatment.

(One has to ask, what are publishers thinking? It’s not healthy for the book industry when a writer who lucks out like Dan Brown is “the only guy who’s in the running,” as the Los Angeles Times observed. “The movie industry couldn’t survive on Meryl Streep alone; the publishing industry might benefit from nurturing more of its own demi-stars to fill out the program.”)

So I thought there was hope when I first heard about up-and-coming authors like Seth Harwood, a writer with so many rejection slips from the New York mainstream that he built an audience from zero readers to about 80,000 by podcasting his unpublished book, “Jack Wakes Up,” with his own equipment in a closet at home — and giving it away free on iTunes.

When the tiny (now defunct) Breakneck Books picked up the rights for a limited run, Seth conspired with his fans to buy the book from Amazon at the same time on the same day so it would rocket up Amazon’s rankings. This drew the attention of a New York agent who sold the rights to an editor at Three Rivers, an imprint of Random House.

When the Author Pays a PriceSeth Harwood, at the mic

Of course, Seth had to spend a good chunk of his advance to buy the rights back from Breakneck so RH could publish it, but he didn’t care: It was worth the money to get the book into Random House’s massive distribution system. Then he went on the road himself to visit mystery bookstores and other independents around the country, shore up media interviews and widen his already loyal following. Too bad that Random House couldn’t afford that kind of publicity (waiter, another Bellini, please), but Seth was undaunted. He spent another chunk of his now-disappearing advance to finance the eight-city tour.

A person could write a whole column about Seth’s love for independent booksellers, their ability to launch unknown authors and their gift for hand-selling the right book to the right customer at the right time.

He may be part of the new breed of whiz-kid authors who can race around online and exploit the Internet in every new way. But he is also a reader and, as we will see next time, a serious author: His respect for literary discovery equal to his savvy for electronic marketing.

That ability to exist in two worlds could teach a great deal to the sluggish book industry, and yet publishers in dire need of new income streams seem to be stuck. It’s not just their usual inertia, the lousy economy or flat sales; it’s not even the quarterly deadlines demanding short-term profits, the recent price wars and that awful king-of-the-hill mentality among the chains, Amazon, Costco and Walmart.

Rather what’s holding publishers back is an increasing fatalism about all of it. Sales will never bounce back; we can’t fight the Internet; book review sections have deserted us and wah wah wah. There is the increasing dismissal of independents because it simply takes too much work to sell so few books in so short a time. And, having caved into Amazon years ago, book publishers are now so timid about pricing eBooks fairly and exploring iPhone apps that you’d think they’ve forgotten the reader entirely.

I’m not saying up-and-coming authors like Seth are the answer — in fact, as we’ll see, the new breed may become a victim of all this — but I do know that unless publishers pick up on new authors’ enthusiasm, expertise and love of both Internet and bookselling, the future of publishing will end up in somebody else’s hands.

More soon.