As it was, agents and editors were very leery of the book, which is certainly quite different from Samurai. My UK editor HATED it. Lois Wallace, DeLillo's agent, told me I might want to publish under another name. Jonathan passed on it twice before changing his mind and making an offer in 2001; I wasn't really sure he got the book, so hired an agent who said she would introduce me to new editors -- and promptly made a beeline for the negotiating table. (Which did not suggest much confidence that it would find love elsewhere.) I finally closed a deal with Jonathan for two books in 2003: a poker book would be published first (he guaranteed collaboration with designer), LR second. The designer failed to materialize, I called off that half of the deal, Jonathan decided he did not want to publish LR after all. (The book was stranded with Miramax for years before the rights reverted.) Bill Clegg offered to represent me in 2009 and sent the book out; 17 editors rejected it as too controversial to publish.
Long story short, the consensus of the industry seemed to be that it was a very dodgy proposition. So it's a bit startling to have so many acute reviews and interviews, for the most part extremely enthusiastic; to have Rolling Stone select it as a Hot Book, and so on. And the only reason it got into print is that I happened to meet Jeffrey Yang of New Directions on a trip to New York last year, he said he'd like to see the book and loved it.
ND, admittedly, has a secret weapon - Tom Roberge is a publicist of genius - and everyone has been very energetic in getting people excited about the book. They don't normally publish new American fiction, so when they decided to make an exception I think people paid attention. And I've had enormous support from the blogosphere - there's a cameraderie among those of us who (ahem) fritter away our time on blogs, and an amazing number of people have been generous in making that freak of nature, a DeWitt interview, fit for public consumption. But it's still strange to have this kind of reception given the obstacles to publication.
In Moneyball, Michael Lewis talks about Billy Beane's use of statistical analysis (the sabermetrics pioneered by Bill Jamaes) to transform the performance of the Oakland A's. Beane realized that if players were correctly valued by the market he would always lose: the cash-strapped Oakland A's could never afford a team that could beat richer clubs. His only chance of winning lay in the possibility that certain qualities in a player were undervalued. He determined that a player's on-base percentage was an important, undervalued metric - in particular, that walks were not valued - and was in fact able to put together an extraordinarily successful team. In Blind Side, Lewis talks about the development of the passing game by Bill Walsh: Walsh was coaching the Bengals, a very weak team, realized he could make passes significantly more productive, using tightly choreographed receivers, short, highly accurate passes which got the ball behind the line of scrimmage, running after completion to achieve extra yardage. This ultimately led to an increase in value of the quarterback, hence re-evaluation of the left tackle (quarterback protection). Walsh identified, in other words, a systematic opportunity in football which had not been exploited, and used it to transform the 49ers; now all NFL teams use some version of Walsh's rhythmic passing game.
In each case, necessity was the mother of invention - but many other teams, after all, were subject to the same necessity. There were many other poor baseball clubs. There were many other weak football teams facing apparently unbeatable talent in the opposition. In each case an individual spotted a possible solution and was in a position to implement it.
Some publishers are very poor; all are worried about money. The big chains give a new book a tiny window of time before returning it; many independent bookstores have closed; Amazon imposes swingeing discounts; good reviews no longer guarantee sales for literary fiction; papers give less space to book reviews, or sometimes eliminate the review section altogether . . . one could go on and on.
So far we haven't seen a Billy Beane or Bill Walsh (Jonathan Karp's Twelve and Bob Miller's HarperStudio were not game changers.) But maybe there's a Bayesian lurking in the wings. Someone who sees that information is not being properly exploited to improve the odds. So, ideas.
1. When a book is acquired for publication this is always a gamble. A few look like a sure thing (a new Dan Brown, J K Rowling . . .); most don't. What is certain is that, if a book does very well upon publication, a new book by the author within a year, at most two, would be highly desirable; having a finished book in hand, of course, gives the best chance of acting on this. Having two or more finished books in hand gives an even better chance: reviews or readers may have responded most strongly to a particular element in a book, one might like to follow up with the book in which this is most strongly represented. Which is to say that, once the offer of publication is made, all work in progress automatically has a higher potential value; the challenge is not simply to do whatever is necessary to improve the accepted MS and see it into print, but to do this while maximizing the author's time to "get men on base" (finish other books). The editor who takes five months to send editorial comments to a debut novelist, while the novice drinks heavily instead of writing; the copy-editor who makes gratuituous changes or even overrides the author's mark-up; the typesetter who take six weeks, the proofreader who takes two months -- these are all liabilities, slashing the publisher's chance to make best use of the book being published if it's successful. So a small, poor publisher could outbid a rich one, for instance, by offering a "time-rich" deal - one that guaranteed the author a clear 9 months, say, between signature and publication; a rich one that published many books could dramatically improve its results.
2. We might note the high cost to the industry of the culture of secrecy, such that it is virtually impossible for writers to get accurate information about editors. Why not digitize editorial and copy-editorial comments, make available behind a paywall -- the market for the information being, after all, not only the publishable but the much larger number of aspirant writers? On the one hand good fits between editors and writers would both more common and expedited (if a book has an audience, a delay of a decade before publication comes at an obvious cost). On the other hand, the inexhaustible slush pile would in effect bring income into the system, instead of being only a constant drain on resources. (We can get some sense of the market for this information - what people would rationally be willing to pay - from the immense cost to me, for instance, of a delay in 4 years of publication of my first book, delay of 11 years before the second.)
3. The cohort of MFA students (about 6000 graduates a year, I think) could be used to extend distribution. The old practice of having reps get books into drugstores and other non-book-selling outlets has dwindled; if every MFA student got one new account opened a year, for sale of books he or she admired, we would have much less of a monoculture.
4. Secondhand sales. Have venue where readers could make a donation to the author, if desired, upon making a secondhand sale or purchase; encouragement for such donations printed in book. If this became as culturally accepted as, say, tipping a waiter, it would not only (of course) improve authors' chance of making a living; would also give publishers a database of contactable readers. (In the case of my first book, I've made about as much from the generosity of readers as from royalties in the past two-three years; not as far-fetched as it may sound.)
5. [For literary fiction, at least] - Appropriate art market structure. Have an "opening" at the launch of a book, with drafts, notes, clippings, sketches for sale - the kind of thing that could appreciate in value of the author turns out to be the next Faulkner. (One might feel, for instance, that the early typescripts of DeLillo or Cormac McCarthy are missing in action.) The financial viability of a "literary" writer for agents, booksellers, etc., would clearly be very different if a MS could sell for $1 million auction five years from publication . . . It's now possible to bet that 10,000 or 100,000 or 1 million people will each give the publisher a cut of a few dollars off the sale of indistinguishable copies; it's not possible to be that 1 person will pay $10,000 or $100,000 or $1,000,000 for unique items - why restrict the range of speculation?
6. Suppose we step away from the industry for a moment and look at a model of self-publication that has no direct means of bringing in money but is extremely good at building an audience. If we look at the world of web comics, we find a particular pattern repeated many times over: the artist posts a few web comics, sends links to friends who pass these on to other friends, word gradually gets out. If the artist continues to post regularly, readers keep coming back and new ones make the discovery. So, for example, A Softer World and Dinosaur Comics were both launched the same week in 2004; ASW now gets slightly over, DC slightly under 100,000 hits a day. (More precise analytics available on Project Wonderful. [Through which, by the way, the punter can take out an ad on, as it might be, ASW for as little as $5 a day . . .]) Randall Munroe began posting sketches online in 2005; I believe XKCD gets about 1.6 million hits a day. Money is made by selling merchandise and/or advertising. Instead of the publishing model (author writes, army of intermediaries "clean up" the work for presentation to the public, big gaps between presentations of commodity to public, much of author's time spent negotiating the clean-up process or selling the artifact rather than writing), the artist presents work directly, regularly to the public, spends most of his/her time on the work. Hence scope for much more idiosyncratic work, much more variety among web comics than is seen among published books. We might ask whether the role of publisher does not come at a higher cost than previously understood; whether the model of curated, punctuated releases, dependent on virtually overnight success, is really the best way forward.