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.

About martinrowe

I am the co-founder and publisher at Lantern Books, and the author, editor, and ghostwriter of several works of fiction and non-fiction. I live in Brooklyn, New York.
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