The Perils of Modern Publishing

Bachman, the Bookman

I work at a newspaper, and if you dislike the few items of junkmail that turn up each day in your mailbox, you should see the baskets of junkmail that we get at newspapers. There are announcements from banks, luring offers from syndication companies, free issues of socialist newletters, poetry, notices from credit card card companies prepared to honor various reporters with their very own American Express, and buckets of press releases crafted by the public relations industry to resemble news. After the news editor has combed out the few snippets of honest-to-goodness news from the pile, he hands it to us for our perusal.

Because I am attracted by the primary colors of some of the envelopes, I occasionally make use of this privilege. Recently, I lay my hands on the Harper-Collins Fall 1990 Catalogue of hard-cover books, and since I had nothing better to do (having nothing better to do is a distinguishing trait of journalists) I began to flip through it.

Now in the publishing trade, these catalogues have a special term, but I do not know it, as I do not work in the industry. I guess the catalogues have some colorful term such as "a screamer" or "a gripper." Somewhere, at a big publishing house where they know the lingo, I imagine a middle manager crying, "Jeezus, Larry, have you seen the spring gripper from Random House? They're going to roll us up, smoke us, and blow us out the chimney this year!"

Turning to the first advertised book, I notice, even before the name of the author or the title, one line: "$250,000 National Advertising Campaign." Now, I realize that, out there in the real world, this kind of money would not buy 30 seconds of commercial time on the Simpsons, but this is still an astronomical figure to me. It is more than most authors make in ten years.

I wonder how much the Globe Theater spent on town criers pushing Shakespeare, or how many cities were on Herodotus' Mediterranean tour? Even in the recent past, how much did book-stores pay for plastic Col. Sartorises to peddle Faulkner's The Unvanquished?

With their limited budgets, they certainly wouldn't have made The New York Times bestseller list. They probably wouldn't have even been reviewed. But Harper-Collins is going to make darn sure that doesn't happen to any of their authors.

Take this book on the first page, Spy Sinker by Len Deighton. Mr. Deighton, according to the promotional material in front of me, is the "master of suspense." Now I'm not sure who gives out titles like the "master of suspense." Maybe the same Congressional Subcommittee that proclaims "National Broccoli Day."

Part of the National Marketing Campaign funds will go to "Pre-publication Reading Copies with Full-Color Covers." I was pretty confused by this. First of all, how does a publishing house make a "pre-publication" copy? Doesn't the fact that copies have been made in some sense mean the book has been published? And why are they called "reading" copies? Does this mean that the copies themselves are literate, or that the copies are capable of being read? Assuming the latter, is the "reading" qualifier really necessary? What else are we pundits supposed to do with it? State in awe at the technological marvel of a "full-color cover"?

The title of the book bothers me a little bit, too. The book is the third in a trilogy, and Mr. Deighton had the foresight to title the first two Spy Hook and Spy Line, so the advertising copy for the final installment could promise that Len Deighton, "the master of suspense, grabs you Hook, Line and Sinker." I certainly admire Mr. Deighton's cleverness and perserverence, but I think these catchy titles are a bit self-defeating. If the books are sold as a package, I sure don't want to go out and plunk down my hard-earned $19.95 for the last in the series before I read the first two, because if I really like the last book it won't be much fun reading the first two when I know how the series ends, and that's not very good when you are reading the master of suspense.

Harper-Collins seems to have a lot of respect for Mr. Deighton because it has a whole section called "Raves for the Author." A quote from the Boston Globe says one of Mr. Deighton's thrillers "is one of those books that you hate to see end." But I don't like to read books that I hate to see end. I want to be satisfied, enlightened, educated, even inspired when I'm done with a book. I don't want to be full of hate. What does the Globe want, anyway? Books that go on forever? They should read Michener then--they'll never see it end unless they cheat and skip to the last page.

All in all, I was a little disheartened by the behavior of Mr. Deighton's promoters. And Mr. Deighton, for that matter. When I shell out cold cash for a bestseller, I don't want part my money to cover the costs of a "12-Copy Floor Display," (which sells for $239.40 if you are interested in getting one to liven up your living room.) I don't want to pay for posters, Netword Radio Advertising, and nine-city author tours either. I'd rather just hear about a book from a neighbor, or a friend, or my dad or a teacher. Until then I'll stick to Herodotus.