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Can’t get your masterpiece published? Blame Tony Blair

March 5, 2010

John Edgar Wideman: One of our greatest novelists, driven to self-publishing by Tony Blair.

Or Karl Rove. Or Sarah Palin. Or Laura Bush. Or Hillary Clinton. Or Ted Kennedy. Or Bill Clinton. Why? Because political memoirists get such massive advances, publishers have no money left over for your book.

Blair, for example, received an advance estimated somewhere between $7.5  and  $10 million for his political memoir, The Journey, due out in September, according to USA Today. Clinton, Bush, Palin, Kennedy all received similar sums.

And such ludicrously outsized payouts are among the factors forcing John Edgar Wideman, among America’s most distinguished living fiction writers, into self-publishing his new collection of short stories, reports Publishers Weekly. Titled Briefs, Stories for the Palm of the Mind, the book will be available only Lulu.com, a print-on-demand service beginning March 14.

Wideman, a National Book Award finalist and two-time PEN/Faulkner winner, cited changes in publishing and a desire to retain more control over his work for his decision to leave long-time publisher Houghton Mifflin. But he also named “the blockbuster syndrome” — the industry’s push to find bestselling titles at all costs.

The focus on blockbusters “has gotten out of hand. Unless you become a blockbuster, your book disappears quickly,” Wideman says. “It becomes not only publish or perish, but sell or perish.”

Thing is, while a book like Blair’s Journey, or Sarah Palin’s Going Rogue or Ted Kennedy’s True Compass sell hundreds of thousands of copies and linger on the bestseller lists for weeks, that doesn’t mean they bring much profit to the publishers.

I don’t know how many copies of a book have to move to earn back, say, the $8 mil Kennedy or Clinton or Laura Bush received, But I expect it’s a virtual impossibility for such a book to edge into the black. If someone out there can explain publishing economics, please, have at it.

And $8 million for what?  A political memoir is mainly a celebrity autobiography. So we’ll get to hear Tony Blair’s apologia for clinging to George Bush’s pants leg and taking his country into a stupid and ruinous war? Or Karl Rove, owning up to some mistakes, reports The New York Times, but mainly defending the Bush presidency for “impressive, durable and significant” acheivements?

Uh, yeah, Karl, the wrecked economy looks like it’s going to endure for a good long time, and, boy, is that impressive and significant. And get a load out of the title Rove chose for his book: Courage and Consequences: My Life as a Conservative in the Fight. Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-HA!

Good one, Turd Blossom (that’s George Bush’s nickname for his old pal and top advisor). But let me ask: What kind of courage did you use when you launched a smear campaign against John McCain in the 2000 Republican primary race in South Carolina?

You remember, Karl, launching a whisper campaign that McCain’s adopted Bangladeshi daughter was in reality his own illegitimate black child? In case you’ve forgotten, here’s an account by Richard H. Davis, McCain’s campaign manager, from the Boston Globe.

What? You didn’t have anything to do with that? Right. Of course not.

It’s easy to see that my politics skew hard to the left. But when it comes to political memoirs, I’m bipartisan. I can’t understand why anyone would want to read a fat, overblown, self-exculpatory press release from some “public servant.” I didn’t read Sarah Palin, true, but I didn’t read Ted Kennedy, either.

Can someone please explain the appeal of these books?

24 Comments leave one →
  1. Tommy permalink
    March 5, 2010 2:27 pm

    Don’t forget Alan Greenspan (8 million and that was 4 years ago). Or President Obama (1.9 million) or does he get a pass because his advance was relatively minute.

    How can you put Kennedy alongside Palin? I’m not talking political differences here, more who has/had a more interesting life.

    The amount of money spent by publishers is disgusting, I agree. It’s not like Kennedy needed 8 additional millions. I’d like to think the Kennedy estate is using the money philanthropically, Like President Obama did with a portion of his advance.

    The logic behind the appeal to read these books and that the market bears them eludes me though, Chauncey.

    Maybe, and this is just a theory, it’s like a crime scene investigation. The readers think they will get some answers, sniff out some clues to either make them love the author more or boost their dislike.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      March 5, 2010 3:02 pm

      Like I said, book-length press releases. The odds of one of these things having any merit, either literary or informational, is negligible. And they’re soaking up all this money that could be spent on, you know, real books. When it comes to these political memoirs, I’m not seeing much difference between Palin and Kennedy. I’ll give Obama a pass, for two reasons. One, he can really write. Two, he was not yet all that famous when he wrote the first one.

      I expect Tony Blair’s book will be well-written, too. He did all the writing himself. Anyone who ever saw him mixing up during Question Time, when he would descend into the pit in Parliament and go toe to toe with any legislator who wanted have a swipe at him, knows he’s a formidable intellect. Which makes his sins greater than Bush’s. Blair surely knew better.

  2. Tommy permalink
    March 5, 2010 3:34 pm

    Yes, President Obama (like all politicians) does have a firm grasp on fiction writing.

    Yes, Blair’s crimes are compounded by his intelligence. He felt pressured and made some horrible decisions.

    Same goes for Colin Powell (who’s advance was 6 million and in 1993 dollars no less).

    Having not read any of Wideman’s work, I will have to take your word on the greatness of his novels. He should be all right self-publishing.

    It may take Houghton Mifflin spending itself to death focusing on blockbusters to teach the publishing world a lesson. Shame that author’s like Widehead will suffer until then.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      March 5, 2010 3:46 pm

      I’m not sure Blair made horrible decisions due to pressure. I think it may still turn out he is simply E-ville. Colin Powell made awful decisions, I think, because of his military background — the good soldier overruled the good man. I’m not personally saying Wideman’s a great writer, I’m saying he’s much acclaimed, highly regarded. I’ve only read one collection of short stories, and that long ago. I found him unnecessarily difficult, ala Faulkner. But don’t go by me. If I read him today, I might like him quite well.

      • Tommy permalink
        March 5, 2010 4:02 pm

        I wish they had written a book. Maybe we could understand them better if they wrote a book.

        I was mislead by the caption to Wideman’s photo.

  3. Connie permalink
    March 5, 2010 7:19 pm

    Sorry. I can’t explain the appeal of such books. I can’t imagine taking the trouble to read what is, as you deftly point out, a celebrity biography. I guess I’d need to be a lot more interested in politics, for one thing, to settle down with the bios even of the people I voted for.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      March 5, 2010 11:11 pm

      Politicians aren’t exactly human beings, warped by the ambition it takes to get elected, and then again by the power and corrupting temptations. So all their memoirs are bound to be of a sameness.

  4. March 8, 2010 10:24 am

    This business is about making money. I would love to say these Large Publishing house wanted to get the best material , of the best quality, to promote great literature. Bull . It is about the money. Always was. It is really bad today because they are losing market share because they are running out of people to steal from. They also work very hard in controlling the channels of distribution. I have also found a ton of racism in the industry. that is the way it is. Some of the best works will never make it.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      March 8, 2010 11:32 am

      But tell me, exactly, what business is not about making money?

  5. Candice permalink
    March 8, 2010 10:48 am

    Unfortunately or not, people like to read about other people, especially those more famous than them. We’re all busybodies.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      March 8, 2010 11:33 am

      You have put your finger on a large part of the appeal, but I’m amazed that people rush to read this particular kind of book, the political memoir, since it is unlikely to be anything other than a carefully modulated piece of book-length PR. The odds of learning anything interesting or human are negligible.

      • Candice permalink
        March 8, 2010 2:10 pm

        So? People still like to read it.

  6. alexis permalink
    March 8, 2010 10:51 am

    So there is more then just the state of the economy, schools, environment and health care to blame on politicians?

  7. March 8, 2010 1:10 pm

    Every business number one goal is to make money. I am an agreement. I think there is a romantic thought though that they want the best written material out there. Money trumps that every time. It is our romance. We want to read the best. We believe they want the same. Just not true. The movie industry is the same. I think literature takes a hit. Some of the best will make it, but there is more here. You just move on and go around. This is why the major publishers are hurting. People are just moving on. Do it them selves or go on line ect. The old saying is Pigs get fat. Hogs get slaughtered. Lets just get romantic about politics. Is it true that Sarah Palin actually has a second book. What has happened since the first?

  8. Chauncey Mabe permalink*
    March 8, 2010 2:21 pm

    I guess my argument is that these big political bios, although they sell a lot of copies, don’t really make much — if any — profit, mainly because publishers pay too much form them in the first place.

  9. March 8, 2010 2:50 pm

    I agree, and I agree most are just trying to rewrite history and make themselves look good. I my self do not read them. It is a strange game out there for sure. It is supply and demand. One company pays because it feels the other will if they do not.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      March 9, 2010 2:05 pm

      I think you are on to something there, Mike. It’s like when George Steinbrenner traded for Jose Canseco a few years ago, and then made him ride the bench. Just because he didn’t want the Red Sox to get the guy.

  10. March 8, 2010 9:53 pm

    This is cynical but I think a lot of people don’t read at all so they buy these books because they’ve heard of the authors and the publishers make pyramids of them buying out space in the chain bookstores, so the buyers think they’re important and they’ll look good on their book shelves and impress people who come to their dinner parties. They also make good presents for made up consumer holidays like Father’s day.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      March 9, 2010 2:04 pm

      Deborah, you are absolutely right on all counts. Lots of bestsellers, of all kinds, are bought by people with no intention of reading them.

  11. May 5, 2010 12:11 pm

    Right on, Chauncey! You make an excellent point. It’s just another example of our turgid fascination with celebrity – which, as you state, these politico memoirs exemplify. And it’s just another symptom of the dumbing-down of our culture. Where literary culture, in particular, is concerned, I’ve always called it “the McDonaldization of literature and the publishing business”…where the quality of the writing (or the literary chops of the author) doesn’t matter, only the quantity of the sales. – Steve Winston

  12. September 13, 2011 2:41 pm

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  1. The Blockbuster Syndrome | UNM CJ268 Spring 2012

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