Friday, July 13, 2007


(NOTE: Instead of trotting down the alleyway of quaint stories about inbred pups, THE DOG wobbles up to the bully pulpit. Be assured that generalizations are used so the writer can keep working in the business as long as the beast allows. The rule of not fouling your own nest applies here. Complaints are only acceptable when no names are named.)

O, let my land be a land where Liberty
Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,
But opportunity is real, and life is free,
Equality is in the air we breathe.
—Langston Hughes, “Let America Be America Again”

Writers across the country are not being heard, and the excuse offered is “platform.” This begs the question, is a writer supposed to be a marketing whiz or a writer? Publishers want writers to present a strong “platform” for any manuscript, fiction and nonfiction, if it is to be considered for any kind of real promotion. A writer’s platform can be a newspaper column; workshop and public speaking venues; television and radio shows or appearances; short stories in magazines as notable as The New Yorker, Esquire, Playboy, and Paris Review; or anything else with significant (even specialized) name recognition. Without a platform, editors file the proposal and synopsis in the garbage, and the agent is told not to bother them until writer smartens up.

Welcome to the faithless and perverse generation of publishers. Even with a parade of credits and marketing possibilities, publishers will ask for a buy-back clause in the contract. This means the writer promises to buy a certain number of the first printing, usually amounting to the production and printing costs of the entire run. The writer is expected to subsidize the publishing company to get their work into the bookstores, or quits and finds employment as a clerk at Blockbuster.

Face the out-of-tune music, scribblers. Publishing is a business, and six media conglomerates own the bigger companies. Beyond the big bestselling authors, the focus on "platform" gets louder. Executives with the big six take home larger annual salaries while staffs continue to shrink. First, they carved into the editorial departments. This was followed by consolidating the sales staff so independent bookstores never saw a rep again. Next on the list were the marketing, promotion, and publicity people. For most books the selling and promotion, beyond the cursory review mailing, is left to the writer. Without a guarantee that the writer will successfully flog the book, publishers won't give new work a fair hearing. An author with a platform means that the publisher can make money without doing any work. This seems unfair until you look inside a company and find that there is no one there to do the job anyway.

“The duty of a writer is to write,” said Gertrude Stein. No fooling. The writer sits at the keyboard and has to contend with a cascade of thoughts about grammar, story, conflict, and argument. There is also the scramble for the right word worth a thousand pictures. Writing is a 24-hours a day vocation. The writer needs to have ears open for bits of dialog, constantly hone descriptive skills, and look at the world he or she inhabits for inspiration. For a writer to be effective in marketing their work, they necessarily have to give up writing time, and this is self-defeating for the publisher and the writer. A good publisher wants writers to write and get better, not become just another huckster.

None of the above means writers should not be involved in the selling of a book. Heck, no, but publishers and writers have to find a realistic balance. Let editors be champions for new work and let publishers care enough to increase staff and insure the books they publish are properly supported. Cut the crap about platform and consider the readers who want to take home a solid book instead of a deal. Readers will follow.


("Honky Bling" copyright 2007 by David Choi. Courtesy of the photographer.)

The next reading/signing event for THE DOG is coming in August at Barnes & Noble in San Francisco. THE DOG has lapped at the hyperbolic fizz of “acclaimed” (see Learning Annex blurb from last year’s class in Los Angeles) and is now “award winning” (see big 2007 gold medal for writing/publishing from Independent Publishers above). Enjoy the B&N air-conditioned comfort after a day on Fisherman’s Wharf watching seagulls fight over crab salad sandwich remains. Here’s the skinny:

Sunday, August 19
4 to 5 PM
Barnes & Noble
2550 Taylor Street
San Francisco, CA 94133

NEXT: Snips and Nips


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