Wednesday, March 21, 2007

"Get us the facts. Just make sure they're the ones we wanted."

An acquaintance of mine learned today that he has written too good a book. He thought I'd appreciate the particulars.

I have to be a bit cagey, so as to avoid identification—of him, his editor, or the book's subject matter. There's still a lot at stake. Let's just say that around 18 months ago, my acquaintance negotiated a deal to write a hard-hitting analysis of a very profitable American service industry. (Some of this may begin to sound familiar.) As he got deeper into his investigation, however, what he uncovered was so eye-opening, so compelling, and so flat-out disturbing that his first draft, which he turned in a month ago*, was no longer a hard-hitting analysis: It was a scathing, wholesale, top-to-bottom indictment. A carefully researched indictment at that, chock full of telling statistics, hushed-up anecdotes, and piquant quotes that my acquaintance managed to pry from some pretty heavy hitters. On the record.

His editor found this alarming. And I don't mean in the good, journalistic way.

"You leave no room for argument," said the editor, whose (parent) publishing company may be best known for its advice books. "It's one thing to write a critique. It's another thing to make the whole enterprise sound worthless and diseased at its core."

"The research wrote the story," my acquaintance replied unapologetically. "I found what I found. It's a much stronger book, isn't it?"

"Stronger, sure. Salable? That's the problem. Who's going to want to hear this?"

"Even if it's true?"

"Especially if it's true." The editor added that my acquaintance's manuscript, published in its current form, would create problems for the marketing people, who were not expecting to have to sell a book with such a strident, wholly negative message. "This isn't what we agreed to buy," said the editor. "This is a different book, with a different set of assumptions and conclusions." The editor pointed out, among other things, that the snappy working title and subtitle were no longer viable, because the originally assigned project was also supposed to have an upbeat, consumer-service element. Kind of like, "The problem with [subject area I can't reveal]...and how to make sure this doesn't happen to you!" Whereas this book, in essence, said to readers, "Don't even bother."

My acquaintance paused. "So you're saying—I want to be clear here—I'm supposed to temper what I believe to be the true facts, or the inferences that a reasonable person would draw from those facts, because it's 'too tough' as-is?"

"In a word, yes."

"But what good is an investigative book if the author has to end up fudging what his investigation revealed?"

"Let me ask you this: What good is a book if no one reads it?" The editor now paused for a beat. "Or if the publisher decides not to publish it to begin with. We do have that option, you know."

Before my acquaintance could even frame his reply, which, he assured me, would've included lots of words I vowed never to use in this blog, the editor tried to defuse the grenade he'd just tossed into the dialogue. "OK," he said, "let's not go off the deep end. I'm just saying, the people we expected to buy your book are too invested in [subject area I can't reveal] to take this to heart. Assuming they're still going to [be customers of that industry], which I think they are, what do they learn from your book that can help them? Nothing."

The discussion ended awkwardly, with both sides agreeing to "sleep on it" and compare notes in a few days, though my acquaintance very much got the sense that he was the one who was supposed to sleep on it, and then agree to some compromise.

My acquaintance is fairly sure that if push comes to shove, he could persuade another publisher, one with more of a rep for doing serious, muckraking books, to take over the project. I concur—and I think he'd get a heftier advance than he got the first time. That strikes me as irrelevant, for our purposes. The salient point is that the editor was probably correct: Once again here we have evidence that there are things Americans don't want to know, and therefore will not read or otherwise pay attention to, simply because they refuse to allow those things to be true. The reason they refuse to allow those things to be true is that those things contradict other things that they rely on, in one form or another, to get them through the day. So instead of dealing with reality, they'd rather be co-conspirators in a grand deception perpetrated on them.

And that, folks, should sound very familiar to you by now.

P.S. It's doubtful that I need to add this, but the same theory also explains why books that pander to those irrational needs—like The Secret?—become mega-best-sellers.

* As all authors know, it is a very bad omen, to begin with, when you turn in an assigned book manuscript and hear nothing from your editor for a month.


Anonymous said...

I have to ask you this, this is a real story, Steve? I don't know that much about publishing but it's hard to imagine this is how it works.

Steve Salerno said...

Yes, this is a real story, Carl. If and when everything is resolved, I'll go back and give all the particulars, with my acquaintance's permission. Though this story is in some ways "classic," I could tell you many others that would sound just as outrageous to people who aren't in the industry and haven't adjusted to its oddities and abuses. Most laypeople would be astonished at the degree to which publishing as a whole (I'm talking magazines as well as books) is driven by imperatives that have nothing to do with the time-honored goals of journalism and/or the Search for Truth. And sadly, more and more, this even applies to what we consider "straight news" as well.

Anonymous said...

And this isn't you you're talking about, right?
-Carl again

Steve Salerno said...

Sigh. No Carl, it isn't me. If this had happened to me, I would say so. Lord knows I've gone public with just about every other annoyance/roadblock I've had to deal with since SHAM published.

RevRon's Rants said...

Sadly, Your friend's story is far from being an anomaly in the publishing industry. As a matter of fact, your friend's tale is actually a pretty benign example.

Many people still assume that publishers are, by nature, literary patrons, whose goal is to further the status of the literary craft. The truth is that a publisher's marketing and accounting departments have more say in whether a manuscript is published than does the editorial department.

In our work with authors, we find that the most common mistake a first-time (and sometimes even a seasoned) author makes is to submit a proposal or query to prospective publishers & agents that focuses upon the strength of the story they have to tell or the information they offer. What they eventually discover is that a successful book proposal focuses as much upon the marketability of the book (and the author) than upon the book's content. More attention is paid to data on similar books' sales numbers, target audience demographics, and the author's presentability than upon the value of the information in the book itself.

An attractive female telling a story that makes people feel good would sell better than a Nobel Prize winning author's formula for improving the quality of life in third-world countries. And if the Nobel laureate's query letter and proposal failed to indicate a near-guaranteed market, his (or her) manuscript would likely never make it past an assistant acquisition editor's desk.

Welcome to Literature, Inc. (or more accurately, lack of ink).

Steve Salerno said...

Very well (albeit tragically well) put, RevRon. And thanks for the back-up here. Carl was starting to make me feel a little bit paranoid.

Cosmic Connie said...

I second what Ron said. Despite my passion for the printed word, I've come to view the publishing industry with the same degree of cynicism that I view the New-Wage/self-help industry (which is no surprise, since they're all in bed together these days).

And Steve, you hit it on the head about the penchant for self-deception being a BIG reason for the stunning success of "The Secret." Just focus on the good stuff, and the bad stuff will go away! Isn't that pretty much the message of "The Secret?"

Even though your friend's story is not unique and doesn't surprise me, it still makes me angry -- angry enough to be rooting for him to find a publisher for his book. If nothing else, he could self-publish. He wouldn't get the terrific advance, but he'd get to keep all the profits, and I have no doubt the book would do very well.

The backlash is growing...

Steve Salerno said...

Yes, Connie, the backlash is growing. It's just that--and not to pile cynicism on top of cynicism!--I think the backlash is growing NOT so much because the media recognize The Secret as a canard (if that were the case, they would've been all over the book when Larry King did his first show on it, which they weren't), but more b/c the media delight in knocking the culture's white knights off their high horses; they love to go "out there" with a contrarian line on something/anything, regardless of the inherent merits, or lack of merits, of that something/anything. Thus, ironically, the media had to first conspire (actively or passively) to help make the book a best-seller, without their sniping interference, so that they'd have that much bigger a target to aim at today. Big Journalism does this all the time: Builds something up in order to knock it down. I guess some of this stands to reason, and is an organic outgrowth of the free market. After all, there's no sense in Charlie Gibson's training his sights on a book that's sold 11 copies (10 of them to the author's extended family). It's only when that book becomes Major News that the media become interested (indeed, suddenly obsessed, now, in The Secret's case). And I have to say I've been the beneficiary of this phenomenon, for the most part, to date. Most journalists have been friendly to me and my message--because Dr. Phil is still Goliath, and I'm just David. But you watch: If the day ever comes when some event catapults SHAM into an ultra-bright spotlight, the media would turn on me faster than a hungry alligator who feels a puppy snipping at its tail. You'd see all these reports, suddenly, about how "unfair" my book was, and how I was "taking away hope" from people who felt they had nowhere else to turn.

That's just how it works--life in the big city--I'm afraid.