Monday, October 24, 2011

Reading and writing

It was way back in 1987 when my second "personal" book, Honey From Stone, was sold to the venerable publishing house of Dodd, Mead. (I don't count three earlier illustrated books of rather impersonal popular science.) I was thrilled. Dodd, Mead was one of the oldest, most respected publishers in the United States. I would join the illustrious ranks of authors such as Agatha Christie, Ross MacDonald, Anthony Trollope, Robert Service, Edward Abbey and Winston Churchill.

I was invited to New York by my acquiring editor, who met me in a windowless library at the company's offices. Jumbled shelves of books lined the walls. We set at what appeared to be an ancient oak table. I would not have been surprised to see editors in green eyeshades working with quill pens at high roll-top desks. I can't remember what we talked about, but I thought: Gee, this is what publishing is all about.

I could not have been more wrong.

Within a year of publishing Honey From Stone, Dodd-Mead was out of business, a victim of the mergers, take-overs, and asset-guttings that were wracking the publishing industry. Fortunately, Honey found a paperback refuge with Viking, and has managed to find friendly adoptive homes ever since, but it has been a fitful existence.

I eventually found another friendly publisher with Walker & Co., a small New York house that reassured me about what publishing might be -- a publisher who knew me by name, an editor who became a friend. Until, that is, Walker was acquired by a larger firm. My books did not find the same intimate support in the new corporate environment. I felt as bad for my friends at Walker as I did for myself.

Meanwhile, as publishing endured a period of corporate volatiility, along came Jeff Bezos and a revolution that would transform book publishing and selling. Today, Amazon is contracting directly with authors, cutting out traditional publishers altogether. Computer robots are "writing" books without the assistance of human authors, by compiling internet info in the public domain. Publish-on-demand and Amazon make it possible for anyone to publish a book, rendering even the vanity press redundant.

It's a new world out there, and mid-list authors such as myself are struggling to figure it out. This much is sure, there'll be no more heart-warming experiences like the one I had in the musty offices of Dodd, Mead.

What comes next? My son Dan is looking to explore the new technologies. You'll be seeing the first fruits of his efforts soon. Stay tuned.