Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Author Breaks All the Rules and Makes Millions. What Should We Conclude? Are Book Publishing Rules Outdated?

Arrgh!! James Frey has a new book out. This time it’s a novel. Seems like a good choice on his part after the scandal a couple of years ago when it turned out that much of what he recollected in his memoir, A Million Little Pieces, never really happened. Once his fabricated story was exposed and Oprah called him a liar to his face on her TV show, many of us thought he was finished. “Ha!” we said to ourselves with a certain amount of glee, “If an author breaks the rules, readers will dump him.”

But that’s not what happened. His partially-fictionalized memoir has sold nearly 4 million copies. After the scandal, Random House offered refunds to readers, but only about 1500 asked for one. The Anchor paperback edition is #780 on Amazon today.

He has a new publisher, HarperCollins for his novel, Bright Shiny Morning, (how's that for a symbolic starting-over title?) released yesterday. It’s a book that would embarrass most indie and self-publishers.

Entertainment Weekly calls it a “slack, self-indulgent mess,” that lacks a coherent story, and “never achieves narrative momentum.” They give it a D+ and criticize the publisher for lack of editing. The Los Angeles Times calls it “a literary train wreck without even the good grace to be entertaining,” and says the book gives a superficial, lifeless portrayal of Los Angeles.

The writing is characterized by run-on sentences with little regard for punctuation guidelines. Here’s a sample sentence:
“Instead of using his real name he started using the name of his site the more it was printed and repeated the more it was recognized the more people came the more people wrote about him the better stories he got.” 

Yet, Frey reportedly got a $1.5 million advance for this novel, which had an initial printing of 350,000. It’s #25 among books on Amazon today. He was the focus of a USA Today cover story yesterday, and appeared on the Today show.

So much for the importance of quality. If this were a self-published book, it would be held up as a horrific example of all that’s wrong with self-publishing. We independent and self-published authors are told and told that our books need to be as good as or better than traditionally-published books, that they must be well-written and carefully edited if they are to have any chance to compete in the marketplace.

Well I’m through listening to the old guard pontificate about the high standards of traditional publishers. I’m thinking I’d sell more books if rather than spending my time rewriting to improve my book, I instead engaged in some hugely scandalous, sleazy behavior that would get me noticed. Then I could ignore all the writing rules, write pap and get a big advance from a traditional publisher.


  1. Excellent.Traditional publishers wonder why they they're losing sales, why people aren't buying books, believing it's the subject matter so they chase the next big thing. It never occurs to them that people are tired of reading crap written for those with room temperature IQ.I'm finding the niche of YA to be just another dumping ground for authors who can't crack the adult market. I'm reading more books as they flood the YA section and over and over again I'm reminded of John Saul's books - formulaic and trite.You spend what could be years honing a novel with an original idea with tight writing, only to be ignored by the next "Davinci Code".Those editors don't have anymore standards than the "copy kids" working the desk at AH.Thank goodness I write for the love of the craft.

  2. Critics attack the poor writing and poor editing when what they are really thinking is, "Those authors didn't have to jump through the hoops the way I did, goddamn it. Burn the bastards!"I'm just as proud of my self-published first novel as I am of my second, which is traditionally published. I worked just as hard; my editors were just as tough and fighting for promotional space was just as frustrating. Although now, thanks to you Lynn, my numbers are about to go through the roof. Here on your blog, I will confess my dalliance with a famous female broadcast journalist and announce that, only when I broke up with her, did she seek comfort from a US Senator...

  3. Trust me, nothing would make me happier than being picked up by a traditional publisher, because at least the front end things could be handled by someone else - appearances, lodging, a stipend.That being said, I find it appalling that really great fiction gets looked over and ignored in favor the Pap of the Month. Sorry - all of our editors are tied up pouring over Paris' new book trying to make it sound like coherent English. Check back, say, never.Part of me really wants to believe that HC published this book as is as a poke in the eye for Frey.

  4. Wow, Lynn. Way to get animated.I think your story says a lot more about the readers than it does about the publishing industry. As they say, there's no accounting for people's taste (or lack thereof).Something strange is happening in this country. Being sloppy, stupid, and uncouth has become a fad. The popularity of the ridiculous reality shows currently on the air is one symptom. The success of, by your description, a virtually illiterate book is another. It is almost like people have given up on having standards, and to feel better about themselves, they celebrate those who contribute to the "dumbing down" of our society. It's all quite depressing, really.The books that my wife and I have self-published may not be literary works of art, but we did our best to create quality products that contribute positively to the markets they target.Now we are in the business of helping other non-fiction, self-publishing authors do the same thing. I wrote an article this week for our Publishize Newsletter called Write the Right Book. Our main business goal is to help self-publishing authors produce books that they can be proud of, that people want to read, and that they aren't ashamed to hand to their sister the English teacher. Perhaps that goal is misguided in today's market, but I'm sticking to it.Of course, James Frey would just thumb his nose at us and say "I just made 1.5 million dollars, so I must be doing something right," or perhaps "The people have spoken." Okay, well, consider the source.

  5. Richard Neal HuffmanMay 16, 2008 at 9:29 PM

    Frey’s book is only sold because of the hype produced by Oprah’s original endorsement. So much for vetting before endorsing!I too am a self published author, struggling to sell a few books.Unlike Frey’s piece of crap my book, Dreams in Blue: The Real Police, is true and can be verified.

  6. You've nailed it again, Lynn.Mainstream publishing--the whole gammit--agents, editors, booksellers, etc. go for the dollar and path of least resistance. As an Economist, I understand to some extent, but I think quality and not just celebrity--the easy out--can generate profits.Sadly, publishing has gone the way of most things--money first, quality/value last. Which is one reason this country is fast becoming a third world country.I suspect many of the old school will fall away in the next two years. Face it, books are discretionary in a recession and library's budgets will be cut with tax (real estate!) revenues. The shake-up of traditional agents, authors, and editors will be a positive for the industry. It will weed out the old school and make room for the new.

  7. Another great column, Lynn.The rules of the old guard are barked at us indie authors and publishers constantly, yet time and again I find mainstream books whose quality doesn't come near to these supposedly high 'standards'. Still, traditionalists will dismiss an indie book as an instantly recognizable, sub-par effort merely because it doesn't hew to industry standards for layout, fonts and other immaterial details---never mind how good or tightly-edited the content is, because they'll never go so far as to read it.In my how-to reference book on self-publishing, I tell it like it is: the only people who know or care what industry standards are with respect to layout and typesetting are people in the mainstream publishing industry. There are just a handful of acceptable fonts, for example, and they're nearly all holdovers from the old days of moveable typesetting machines. Any graphic artist can tell you that fonts are, in and of themselves, design elements that can enhance the content they convey. I say, so long as your text is easy to read, why not use Euphemia for your sci-fi epic? Why not go with Garamond for your romance? I myself use Tahoma all the time. And why not set your gutters wider than industry 'standard'? I think the industry standard for gutters is too narrow (probably to reduce page count and save money on material costs), because I've ruined many a thick paperback's binding when I had to forcibly flatten it so I could see the characters running right up to the gutter. I suppose a mainstream publishing insider would immediately diss and dismiss my books as 'vanity' dreck based on my font and layout choices alone, but who cares what publishing insiders think? My target audience is readers among the general public, and I've gotten very positive feedback from them about the superior readability of my books.It's at least a little maddening to read excerpts from Frey's book, and knowing his history, see him once again a publisher's darling, while we indies are out here slaving away, striving to exceed the quality of the mainstream, and still getting so much scorn. Oh well; you know what they say: you can always spot the pioneers, they're the ones with arrows in their backs.