A Berryful of Berry

I’m quite proud that everyone I’ve published at Lantern Books is still talking to me (when they haven’t died, that is), isn’t badmouthing the company (at least, not so I know—thank you, authors, for your discretion!), and receives royalties and/or statements twice a year as contractually promised. Our company has always provided health insurance to our employees and severance pay for those we’ve had to let go, and created an office environment and work space (decent hours, natural light, plants) that fosters the soul rather than sucks it dry.

I reflect on this following receipt of a letter that the late Rynn Berry—author of Famous Vegetarians and Their Favorite Recipes, among other classic works—sent to Panjandrum Books on May 27, 1992. I came into possession of this magnificent epistle through Mark Mathew Braunstein, author of Radical Vegetarianism, who was (like Rynn) an author at Panjandrum, before (like Rynn) branching out on his own, until he arrived (unlike Rynn) at Lantern. Mark, a man of sharp wit himself, thought I might appreciate Rynn’s verbal pyrotechnics—especially since I’d never received such a letter from Rynn, or Mark, or (thankfully) anyone in fifteen years of owning my own company. I only hope it stays that way.

The unfortunate publisher in question, Dennis Koran (surely a name that should have boded well for a person of the book) operated out of North Hollywood, admittedly an unpromising venue for a world of words. Clearly, Dennis was unhappy with Rynn’s previous correspondence, as our hero makes clear in his opening salvo.

My attorney . . . has forwarded your letter dated April 10, 1992. I think it says a good deal about the low esteem in which you hold your authors—the one or two who still remain under contract with Panjandrum—that I have never received more than a few hastily scrawled notes from you in the ten years that I have been a Panjandrum author; whereas, you freely delivered yourself of a three-page, closely worded diatribe denouncing me to my attorney.

Beyond that, the whole tone of the letter is condescending and evinces a thinly concealed contempt for me; what’s more, most of it is blatantly untrue.

Now that, my friends, is how to begin a letter! Stephen King is on record as despising the adverb. And yet, where would Rynn’s prose—reaching a high pitch of dudgeon faster than an Ariel Atom gets to 60 m.p.h.—be without the precision of “hastily”, “freely”, “closely,” “thinly”? I love the parenthetical backhanded insult in the first paragraph, which serves deliciously to emphasize Rynn’s beleagueredness at the same time as it highlights Koran’s failure to build his company. And “evinces” emerges from the lips with a contemptuous vehemence that is almost onomatopoeic. But Rynn is merely warming to his theme:

Before I begin answering your charges point-by-point, I should like to ask you why you composed your letter on Panjandrum stationery that still bears the address of the offices from which you were evicted for non-payment of rent in 1987? Don’t you think it’s about time that you invested in some new stationery? It presents a very negative appearance—especially as you have used a magic marker to cross out the old address with an ugly black streak on each of the three pages. It is symptomatic of the slipshod manner in which you run your publishing business that your stationery looks so unsightly (as well as being five years out-of-date!). No wonder you are having trouble finding distributors for your books!!

One of the joys of rhetoric is what we might call inversion, diversion, and subversion. The diversion here is Rynn’s immediately going “meta”—critiquing the stationery of all things—and then using it to slip from beneath the cloak of apparent concern the verbal dagger that is Panjandrum’s eviction for non-payment of rent, before rubbing salt in the wound by reinforcing Panjandrum’s incompetence as a company set up to communicate.  And so it goes on:

In your opening paragraph, you point out that you are the publisher of another vegetarian book whose author does not concern himself with the publication, distribution and promotion of his book so much as I do. I happen to be a good friend of the author to whom you are referring—Mark Braunstein; so I know the true story “from the inside”, as it were. . . . Mark has regaled me with countless horror stories about his experiences with you. For instance, to test the efficiency of your fulfillment operation, he has had friends on numerous occasions order books (his book) directly from you; his friends waited and waited and waited; their orders languished in your office; their cheques were never cashed, their orders doubtless lying in slush piles of unopened letters and parcels on your office floor. On one of his visits to California, Mark peered into your offices just prior to your being evicted, and saw cartons of his books gathering dust on your floor, while orders for them were going unfulfilled. [. . . .]

Mark, who sent me the letter, has indicated that Rynn was hyperbolic and inaccurate here, but that scarcely matters. What is far more important is that the reader is presented with an image of Dickensian fustiness: a Bleak House of Publishing. That house is built, at least partially, on the finely balanced mortises and tenons of semi-colons that balance each story of invective piled on invective. He continues:

In your next paragraph, you fault me for taking an excessive interest in the publication, promotion, and distribution of my book. Any sane publisher would be tickled pink to have an author take such a personal interest in these matters; it can only redound to the publisher’s credit, to say nothing of his bank balance—to have an author beating the drum for him. Fact is, I have arranged 99 per cent of all the book reviews of FV myself. Furthermore, on my own initiative, I have called the store managers of more than 50 key bookstores throughout the country, and persuaded them to stock the book. What thanks have I received from you?

Ah, the rhetorical question! The zeugma lurking within the verb “redound”!

You claim that you are well-versed in the methods of book promotion and distribution; this makes it all the more inexcusable that you have been so derelict in distributing, promoting, and marketing my book.

Rynn then goes on to detail a lament common to all authors and that remains all-too-true (perhaps even truer) today: how little his publisher does to support the book. Rynn catalogues how much outreach he himself is forced to make to bookstores, asking distributors to stock his books (in the days when you could actually get through to an actual person, and more than a handful of distributors existed because there were more than a handful of bookstores to shelve their products), and being told that his publisher has made no effort to resupply either. Rynn then switches back to the publisher himself, offering more rhetorical subversion:

On more than one occasion you have confessed to me that you were given to suffering periods of catatonic depression that left you paralyzed, unable to open an envelope, or rise from your chair and cross the room. Orders for books, and other urgent correspondence, pile up on your desk while you fritter away your time chasing the blues. Dennis, I [am] truly compassionate [for] your condition, and I firmly believe that you should seek help; but don’t you think it’s a little unfair to subject your authors to your psychological vicissitudes?

By the way, you allege that I have vilified you to other Panjandrum authors, former and current. On the contrary, I have called a number of your former authors (nearly all Panjandrum authors are “former Panjandrum authors”) because I was concerned that perhaps I was being singled out for mistreatment. Was anyone else going through same hellish ordeal that I was? Sure enough, every single Panjandrum author that I talked to denounced you with a stream of invective without my having to say a word against you. Lionel Rolfe [author of Last Train North], who authored two books for Panjandrum, called you so many unprintable names that I dare not repeat them for fear of sounding excessively vituperative.

Rynn returns to the failures of the publisher to pay his printers’ bills or remunerate his typesetter. The publisher, we read, even lets the book “languish” for two years mid-typeset. Rynn finally reaches the climax of his rhetorical tour-de-force:

Did you then take the typeset page proofs to the printer to be printed and bound? No! Not a bit of it! You had to be wheedled and cajoled and finally sued before you would bestir yourself to find a printer. Legal papers were served on you in October of 1989, and a lawsuit was commenced in Santa Monica Court. In early January of 1990, when a judgment was about to be entered against you, you shook off your lethargy and called Russell Clampitt, and begged to be given one more chance. (“I’m committed to the publication of this book! I’ve invested $16,000 and seven years of my life to it!”)

I should have known better! For now, as a result of your shoddy business practices, my book is no longer available in the premiere [sic] market for books in the United States—the bookstores of New York City.

Unfortunately, like British comedian Tony Hancock with Lady Don’t Fall Backwards, I am left without the last page of Rynn’s opus. Nonetheless, we have enough evidence to deduce that Rynn was as baffled by his publisher’s unwillingness to make back his investment ($16,000!) as many authors are.

So, why don’t we put more of an effort into marketing and promotion, when we’ve spent so much on an advance, and the editorial, design, and printing? The simple truth is that Panjandrum, like virtually every publisher then and most now, had a model that is  technically known as Throw Everything Against the Wall and See What Sticks method of publishing. We publishers really have no idea what will sell, and so we produce as much as possible and then, if a title begins to move, throw money at it to turn it from a good seller into a bestseller and then into a megaseller. The remaining books may take off, or they may not. But it’s rarely got anything to do with money. It’s basically luck, word of mouth, the author’s willingness to promote him- or herself, and some kind of zeitgeist kismet that makes a title a success. Honestly, most publicity and promotion is a waste of dough.

These days, risks can be shared, non-bookstore outlets have proliferated, and publishing is now a much less arcane business than in Panjandrum’s day (although our industry still has its fair share of characters and shady dealers). Rynn’s letter is, in some ways, an echo of the good-old-bad-old days, and both he and it are missed. What I also miss, however, is that nobody writes this way anymore: typed out on paper and delivered by snail-mail; rhetoric burnished like a sword glinting in the sun; grievance and gratuitous insult masked by the velvet tone of wounded pride, faux solicitousness, and a disingenuous astonishment. No letters please.

Posted in Publishing | Tagged , , , , , ,

The Rights and Wrongs of Translation

Authors contact us at Lantern Books frequently because a devotee in another country has either offered to translate their book or has already done so and is looking for a publisher. What should we do? the authors ask. Consider this post our response to that question—and if it should happen to you.

Among our tasks as publishers is to protect the copyright of our authors. That means no unauthorized reproduction or use of an author’s work without our permission or paying fees to us and the author—who after all put time, effort, and money into the book in the first place. That, of course, applies to translation. The best way to secure copyright protection is for one publisher to contract with another to translate, publish, and distribute the book in that country, and for that publisher to have exclusive rights to do those things. Without that surety, an author cannot guarantee that he or she will receive royalties, that the translation will be accurate, and that the book itself will be produced and distributed professionally.

So, if you’re an author, and a kindly Croatian claims kinship or a friendly Finn fans you on Facebook and wants your book to be available in their language, do the following:

  1. Thank your fan very much, and ask them to find a publisher in their country who’s willing to publish the book.
  2. Ask them to tell the publisher to contact your publisher.
  3. Indicate to the kindly Croatian or friendly Finn that the publisher may not choose them to be the translator.
  4. Discourage the devotee from photocopying their translation and disseminating it. That’s theft, and you’ve no idea of whether they’ve a minimum grasp of your language.

Of course, the devotee may find it hard to find that publisher, which is why Lantern has its own rights manager trying to do it for the authors and us. But, as slow and frustrating as the process is, it offers some chance that one’s work won’t be pirated.

Posted in Publishing | Tagged ,

Show Me the Money!

Occasionally, a prospective author will ask us at Lantern whether we give advances. Our answer is “no.” Here’s why.

An advance is in effect an interest-free loan to an author. It’s meant to provide them with financial resources to enable them to finish the book (if they haven’t done so) or as some kind of “thank you, we believe in you” (if they have). The advance is a loan because the money that’s given is “against” royalties. In other words, if the publisher gives you a $5,000 advance, it means that you won’t get any money from your sales until you’ve sold $5,000 worth of books, on the money the publishers get from the stores and other places.

A very large percentage of books never earn out their advances, leaving publishers, quite literally, at a loss. Unfortunately, too many authors and agents think that the best possible outcome for their book is to get the largest advance possible—with actual sales of the book, apparently, being almost an afterthought. These days, those authors who do get the big advances—just like the singers who get major recording deals or filmmakers who get national distribution—are in the small minority. But they’re the standards against whom everybody measures their success.

The simple fact is, with no advance, if the book does well, then both publisher and author reap the benefits. If the book doesn’t do so well, then publishers are somewhat protected against the investment they make in producing the book in the first place. Of course, authors who wish to make more money can self-publish: taking on the risk of production for a much larger portion of the sales.

At Lantern, we’re proud to have been in this business for fifteen years and we’ve been able to pay royalties to all our authors in every one of those years. Some of our authors have by now collected over $20,000: not enough to earn a living perhaps, but certainly a very respectable “advance.” Long may it continue!

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Reasons to Write a Book #3: The Medium Demands It

I’ve already touched on the compulsion one has to write and third-party credibility as a reason to write a book. Another, perhaps subtler, reason I like to give for writing a book is that it demands certain disciplines and constraints that may not be present in other media, which in turn will shape your argument, style, tone, and delivery.

For instance, a book can take its time and afford to be expansive in a way that a poem or a short story cannot. Film can offer a great deal of information in a glance or a scene, but words can offer an expansive role for the imagination and a more detailed description of internal thought processes than the visual arts. A book requires—or should—more time, more thought, more rigor, and more commitment than shorter prose forms, and it lends itself to arguments, visions, and explorations that, in turn, require more thought, rigor, time, and commitment from the reader.

So, if the book is what the work demands and you demand from your reader, then a book is how your thoughts should bring themselves before the public. Whether they choose to read it, however, is a whole other story.

Posted in Writing

The Em-Dash, En-Dash, and Hyphen

Among my many faults as a writer, I tend to overuse the dash—the em-dash, that is. A colon would work just fine in beginning a list or creating a long enough pause to make the phrase or clause that follows resonant and conclusive. Parentheses (or brackets, to my UK readers) are perfectly adequate for signaling a subordinate clause. Dashes are very demonstrative orthographically, and in a cluster they can turn even the most elegant prose into Morse code. So, I’m working hard to keep my dashes to a minimum.

I’m also a sucker for compound adjectives, even more so than, say, the English poet Philip Larkin. All those adjectival clusters need their hyphens, except (so American English would have it) when one adjective is an adverb: for instance, “catastrophically decisive victory.” Whereas excessive use of dashes acts like a laxative on one’s prose, over-hyphenation has the opposite effect, leaving every sentence dense and clogged. Use only with care.

Last but not least: the en-dash. I have a fondness for these oft-forgotten prose stylists, perhaps because I’m an avid reader of The New York Review of Books and the editors at that esteemed journal seem particularly keen to fit at least one in each review essay. The en-dash has a set of specialized, but very useful skills, like the closer in baseball. These are:

1. When you have a compound adjective constructed out of a compound word. Thus “Civil War–era uniform” requires an en-dash, since “Civil War” is its own compound.

2. Dates: “1820–1885″: The en-dash here serves to signify “to.” This is also the case with direction: “Topeka–Chicago railroad.”

3. Words that are compounded in contradictory ways, also showing direction or time: “north–south divide,” “East–West conflict.” As you can see, the noun here indicates that these items are conjoined only in their dissension. The “Sykes-Picot agreement” caused a lot of conflict, but Mr. Sykes and M. Picot were working as one, and therefore are joined with an ordinary hyphen.

Ironically, Wikipedia thinks that these two imperial gentlemen should be connected by an en-dash, which only leads one to the sad realization that if we cannot even have concord over the length of the dash, then what hope for peace in the Middle East? Of course, a reasonable case could be made that the entente cordiale disguises the fact that these were two distinct persons, and not somebody called Fred Sykes-Picot. As you can see, therefore, a little less dash is sometimes a good thing.

Posted in Editing, Writing | Tagged ,

Editorial Pet Peeves #2: Have You Finished Yet?

I receive a lot of manuscripts that the author tells me he or she’s finished with. This is usually a very loose translation of one or more of the following:

1. I’ve written around 75,000 words and that seems to be about a good length for a book, so I must be done, right?

2. I feel a whole lot better having gotten all that off my chest, and if I feel good the manuscript must be good, so I thought I’d send it to you.

3. I can’t be bothered to work on it anymore, and you’re meant to be a writer/editor. You’ll fix it for me, won’t you?

4. I really have no idea what I’m doing, but if you work with me over the next several months and agree to read every one of my fifteen drafts, I’m sure it’ll be a bestseller.

5. I know there’s a book in here somewhere. Can you help me find it?

Here are my responses:

1. No, you’re not done. The number of words is no proof of the coherence or persuasiveness of your argument, or how appropriately you’ve marshaled and presented your data, or the accuracy and cogency of your writing. I would prefer 37,500 well-honed words than double the number of loose ones.

2. What you’ve got there, my relieved friend, is the necessary first draft—the part of writing where you get everything out and down. Now you have to edit, edit, edit to make sure that all that emotion and catharsis doesn’t crowd out the reader. It’s good that you’ve got this far, but you’ve got plenty of work to do.

3. Well, tough luck. Writing is hard; it should be hard. If you pay me enough money I might do your work for you. But if you don’t want to work, then why should I? Roll up your sleeves and pull down the shades, your dark nights have only just begun.

4. Sorry. It doesn’t work like that. We editors can fix some problems, but we just don’t have the time, the energy, or (frankly) the inclination to help you to say something. Of course, as with response #3, if you pay us enough money, we might consider it. But, really: figure out what it is you want to say before wasting your and my time by just throwing words around like confetti!

5. No. You built the haystack; you find the needle.

If in doubt as to the readiness or suitability of your book for publication, edit it until you find nothing to change, give it to trusted third parties for their honest feedback, and make their changes. Then put the manuscript away in a draw for a month or two, pull it out and read it again, and then edit it until you find nothing to change. Then it’s probably ready for submission.

Posted in Editing, Writing | Tagged

Editorial Pet Peeves #1: The Double Space After the Period

One of the first acts I perform when I receive a manuscript electronically is to find-and-replace double spaces with single spaces. It takes only a few seconds and it removes all those unnecessary gaps between words that will only irritate me and make me lose focus on the actual manuscript as I read through it. The double space after the period is a holdover from the days of manual typewriters, when it was somehow deemed necessary to show people that the sentence had come to an end and a new one had begun, as if the round splodge after the last letter of one sentence and the big capital letter beginning the next sentence weren’t enough. I consider the double space a relic of a more unhurried, and perhaps less literate age, akin to the pre-eighteenth-century custom of placing at the bottom of the page the first word of the next page (known as the “catchword“—from which we get our modern-day idiom), so that bookbinders would keep the pages in the right order. The double space following a period is particularly unnecessary, since not only is the book likely to be edited, thus potentially changing sentence structure, but the whole book is going to be retypeset, thus rendering the manuscript’s original typesetting moot. Justification of the text so that no text is ragged right or left will also render your attempts to control space useless. Double spaces after periods aren’t the only quirks of manuscript layout that are wholly unnecessary: 1. Providing page numbers in your table of contents. All the pages will change anyway. Just put “00″ or “000″ if you want to indicate that the page number should be inserted. 2. Macro “anchors” that take you from the table of contents to a particular chapter. This is very annoying to the editor who reads a manuscript electronically and a complete waste of time if the manuscript is printed out to be perused. 3. Wild and crazy margins, exotic and/or unreadable fonts in a range of colors, ridiculous point sizes for the text, and anything else showy and superfluous. The point of your submission is to make your manuscript as undemonstrative as possible to guarantee that nothing—and I mean nothing—gets between you and the editor’s meeting with your first sentence.

Posted in Editing | Tagged , ,