Wednesday, December 16, 2009

FORGOTTEN BOOKS: CROSS COUNTRY; THE BOOK BIZ

Herbert D. Kastle wrote a number of science fiction stories in magazines of the 1950s. That's where I first read him. Later in the 1960s he was writing those fat sexy bestseller-type novels that owed more to marketing and Harold Robbins than his presumed muse. Then in 1974 he wrote CROSS COUNTRY. Here's a quote from one of the reviews: "This novel seems to occupy the same dark and twisted territory as the works of Jim Thompson. Characters interact in a dance of barely suppressed psychopathological urges and desires that is as grotesquely fascinating as a multi-car pileup on the freeway. It may leave you feeling unclean afterwards, but chances are you will not forget it."

Damn straight. It really is a sewer of sex and terror and blood-soaked suspense. I read it in one long sitting. If it's trash, as some called it at the time, it is spellbinding trash.

IMDB sums up the story line succintly: "After a woman is found butchered in her New York apartment, suspicion falls on her estranged husband, an ad executive who has suddenly left town on a cross-country road trip. He takes along a beautiful girl he met in a bar and a drifter he picked up along the way. A cop sets out after the husband, but he's more interested in shaking him down than bringing him back."

Kastle masterfully controls his long nightmare journey and you buy into his paranoia. He shows you an American wasteland of truck stops, motels, convenience stores connected by interstate highway and darkness. By book's end everyone will betray everyone else. This is survival of the fittest enacted by a Yuppie businessman, sociopathic hippies and a crooked cop. The sheer nastiness of Kastle's existential vision make this book impossible to forget. Thirty-some years after I first read it I still think of it from time to time when hundreds of other novels have fled from memory.

It's a vision of hell that fascinates you as it troubles your conscience.

-------------------------------Book Biz: It gets worse

I owe Dave Zeltserman a thanks for steering me to a two-part Huffington Post piece William Petrocelli (Huff has started a publishing segment I keep forgetting to check). I'm not wise enough to agree or disagree with its major points but it is certainly an incisive look at the pitfalls publishing faces today. In Part Two Petrocelli offers some very interesting ideas for improving the lot of publishers--and writers.

This is on the day when it was announced that bestselling business writer will write a book directly for Amazon/Kindle, bypassing traditional publishers (though Covey says he wiil also continue to write for them). Now that a bestseller has opened that door, won't others follow?

William Petrocelli:
"There are many people inside the major publishing houses -- those, at least, who have survived the industry lay-offs of the last few years -- who may be wondering the same thing. The best-seller price war that is being waged by the mass merchandisers is the latest symptom of a problem that has been growing larger and larger. The major publishers are in a difficult position: they are service companies that function like manufacturing companies -- 20th century businesses in a 21st century economy. The control of the book business is gradually slipping out of their hands.

"Thirty years ago, publishers dominated the book business. Thousands of retailers carried their books, but even the biggest among them -- the regional chain stores and the department stores -- were not large enough to impose their will on the publishers. Publishers -- mostly family-owned businesses -- could do what it took to develop new authors and promote a full line of books.

"All of that has changed. Walmart, Target, Costco, and other mass merchandisers now control about 30% of the book market; Barnes & Noble and Borders have another 30%; Amazon.com claims another 15%. The publishers have long since lost the upper hand in dealing with this group. The mass merchandisers return books to publishers at a rate of 40% or more, and the rate of returns from the chains is often considerably higher. The demands of each of these players for sweet-heart price terms and additional promotional money are incessant..."

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/william-petrocelli/no-one-warned-the-dinosau_b_374796.html

Part Two

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/william-petrocelli/the-publishers-run-into-s_b_382972.html

8 comments:

Dave Zeltserman said...

Ed, I think you need to warn people who love books not to read Mr. Petrocelli's insightful articles anywhere near the vicinity of a gas stove or razor blades.

Now that the door has been opened by Convey and Kindle, what's the next deal we're going to see, Stephen King or Dean Koontz signing exclusive deals with Walmart? Very depressing to think that the publishers of the future may very well not be Random House, Knopf, Simon & Shuster, Little Brown, etc., but amazon/kindle, bn.com/nook, Walmart, Target, Costco, etc.

Peter L. Winkler said...

Petrocelli's take on returns is very ahistorical. He acts like returns are a new problem. Back in the '70s, Bill Jovanovich of HBJ informed booksellers that HBJ titles would be non-returnable. The booksellers retaliated by threatening to reduce orders and Jovanovich relented.

I think Bennet Cerf or Alfred Knopf once quipped, "Gone today, here tomorrow."

Clark Kent said...

Well, Ed's sure as hell a lot wiser and more experienced in the field than I am or probably ever will be, but, because I think publishing history has proven that getting a decent book to market is often virtually as existential an experience as writing the damned thing - no matter how the biz is run or who tosses the dice - those of us who write are gonna write. If our writing is worth reading, we'll find our readers one way or another. If it isn't, at least our fingers will stay in shape.

I was a "Bob Cratchit" writer during my three decades working for newspapers, without the ego strength, energy or charm to ascend the hills in that milieu to the extent that I could say whatever I wanted to and still get paid for it. Perhaps I'm thoroughly deluded now in my retirement, but Algore's Internet has enabled my Walter Mitty to strut forth and speak to the world in his own various voices, allowing himself to develop those voices without striving-for-mediocrity editors smacking him down merely for exercise or to relieve their boredom.

The possibility that someone - anyone - out in the void can access and might relate positively to what I write these days is hugely energizing, and I can't help but think that this new medium can, and may already be revolutionizing publishing for the benefit of writer and reader and, may the muses forgive me, even the entrepreneurs.

As for the behemoths that choose to reduce their corporate risks by shunning the unknown and the unproven, screw 'em. They've been doing it throughout history and will continue to do so if only because every story needs a villain.

Merry Christmas, and may God bless us, every one!

Deb said...

Also I heard a story on NPR this morning about one of the big publishing houses (Random House?) claiming that its contracts give them the reprint rights to all media forms, not just print. In other words, they're going back and claiming retroactively the electronic rights to all of their books.

Kenneth Mark Hoover said...

The standard publishing world is in flux. This is a direct result of them not paying attention to new technology and changing societal mores, including new uses of that technology and how to market it successfully.

Once it all shakes out writers will find themselves in a better place, imo, houses like Harlequin jumping on the self-publishing bandwagon notwithstanding.

But right now the Greed Grab is going on with a lot of publishing houses and writers are being punked even harder than they usually are. Best advice is to just hunker down and weather it out if we can.

And, more importantly, keep writing.

Matt said...

Didn't we learn from music?

If people switch to the Kindle or another e-book format, we all lose. Both economically and artistically.

Plus no longer do we get to own kick-ass signed first editions.

We get to own a copy of an electric file. One that has no resale value. A file that can be censured or deleted by Amazon *at any time.*

And by buying the e-file, we destroy all the jobs that were once part of the economic chain that brought us books: paper producers, book binders, truck drivers, retailers, etc...

Most of those vanished jobs? They were in our local community. Now instead of being a town with nothing but a Wal-Mart and a Borders, we just have Wal-Mart.

Who, in addition to choosing our clothes and food, is now selecting what we'll read?

No thanks. Don't bend over and give in.

Anonymous said...

I don't write as much as I should, but I do read and now that I own a Kindle I have read more books in the last year than I have in the previous 15. I just can't pass up the convenience, the ease of the reading experience and that fact that I no longer have to use reading glasses. Matt, I think you make a point about the economic costs, because some logistics are no longer necessary. However, information and ideas will be even more accessible to anyone and everyone.

Matt said...

With all due respect, I read more than ever buying books from my local bookstore. I get rad signed first editions along with new, used, and out of print.

*And* I have the ability to sell back used books.

Unlike the Kindle, my books have intrinsic resale value.

Unlike your O's and 1's...

I hear you about "convenience." Yep. It's physically easier to buy a book from your computer.

However, will you be one of the people who have to look yourself in the mirror and say, "It's terrible that I helped destroy my local economy, but I just had to have that 'convenience...'"

One last note. This business model? The *exact same* as iPods and local music stores and bands.

So let's put aside the local businesses you're killing for just a moment. Just look at the future of illegally trading books the same way folks trade music.

Smaller authors will never make a living once that happens. The only ones making money will be a few consolidated corporations like Amazon, Wal-Mart, Stephen King, etc.

But it's not too late. It's still your choice. You have the power.

I hope you have the strength to use it.