On Becoming a Publishing Superstar...
An op-ed piece by Timothy Egan in today's New York Times complains bitterly about the fact that Joe the Plumber, that infamous nobody made famous by the McCain campaign, will release a book later this month. Also skyrocketing to fame with the same campaign, Sarah Palin apparently will be paid nearly 7 million if she can figure out how to capture her words for print.
The challenge for this particular commentator is a legitimate one:
Publishers: with all the grim news of layoffs and staff cuts at the venerable houses of American letters, can we set some ground rules for these hard times? Anyone who abuses the English language on such a regular basis should not be paid to put words in print.And I agree that "writers...work every day, in obscurity and close to poverty, trying to say one thing well and true. Day in, day out, they labor to find their voice, to learn their trade, to understand nuance and pace." However, I thoroughly disagree that "Writing is hard, even for the best wordsmiths." Perhaps he meant making a living at writing is hard, even for the best wordsmiths?
I agree with Egan that if the world were fair, authors' pay would be merit based. Writers who had paid their dues would receive bigger advances and royalties than those who happened to stumble into the spotlight by accident. Fortunately or unfortunately, we live in a culture where popular sells. The funny thing is, there's no accounting for taste...so uberdreck like a Sarah Palin autobiography will likely do well, but so did Barck Obama's first two books.
That being said, Egan also is not wrong that bumblers and wannabes shouldn't necessarily warrant seven-figure advances, and the publishing industry could exhibit a little more discernment before throwing down a contract in front of someone like JTP. But just like all other corporate monoliths, they have dollar signs in their eyes. The problem, I believe, is that Egan's also correct when he says "the last seconds on [JTP's] 15 minutes are slipping away."
But Egan's whiny, petulant, poor-me commentary really addresses only part of the problem. The fact is that readers (more correctly, purchasers) still determine how well a book does...and last I checked, although George Bush certainly decimated large swaths of the Constitution, the First Amendment still gives anyone the right to say (or write) pretty much anything they want to. Who cares if JTP writes a book? How many people are actually going to buy/read it? I'm guessing the sales will limited to a fixed few. Sarah Palin, on the other hand, will likely hire a very well-paid ghostwriter and turn out something readable enough...and the legions of fans who made her a superstar will toss down their hard-earned bucks for a chance to "get to know her better." That thought makes me ill...but not because she will make money with her book.
As an editor and marketer in the self-publishing end of the arena, I often tell my clients and students that the good news is that anyone can write a book. But the bad news also is that anyone can write a book. Not everything bad, even if it's hyper-promoted, catches on like wildfire. Think back just a few short months to Jerome Corsi's Obama Nation, the book from the man who funded the Swift Boat attacks that sank John Kerry's presidential bid. I (needlessly) worried for a few minutes that it would gain traction and actually harm Obama's campaign. Wasted energy, my worry...as well as Corsi's efforts with his malicious book full of half-truths and innuendo. Not everything that's hyped sells.
In my humble opinion, Tim Egan's time would be better spent figuring out how to supercharge his own marketing, so that his work, too, will create the kind of demand he seems to so envy in these nonwriters. It's never really the best product (and a book is a product) that sells, or the worst product that bombs. More often than not, the product with the best marketing strategy and campaign behind it is the one that does well.
There's lots of room and a big enough audience in the world for all of our writing, Tim. When you hold JTP's and Sarah Palin's success against them, you don't harm them but you do diminish your own energy for creating great work of your own.