Thursday, July 19, 2007

Harry Problems

Open letter to Sara Nelson on her July 9 Column: Hallowed Harry:

I am torn about your column this week, not the least becuase I just received my July 9th issue yesterday and haven't received my July 16th issue yet. Either you guys are sending out my issue late or my postman is reading up on the publishing news. Maybe he's a writer too.

Who would have thought that the publication of a Harry Potter book could have a down side? I guess I knew that Rowling's success would start to rankle people eventually. So how am I torn? I both agree and disagree with your insightful column.

I agree that there are writer's who are being published this summer and who are looking to gain media time who will probably be pissed off at the Potter blitz and their inability to access the marketplace. I agree that there are beach reads and sensitive first novels that will be pushed aside by the juggernaut of Harry. But couldn't these same books also benefit from the additional number of readers searching for books this summer who might, by chance, see their book and buy it too? Might their face-out on aisle four get more foot traffic at Barnes & Noble and subsequently more impulse purchases? Won't their home-page listing at get more visibility simply because more people will actually see their book on their way to finding Harry? More hits equals higher visibility. Better line-of-sight and higher visibility have got to count for something.

Your statement that retailers, big and small, have made the dubious choice to discount Harry and subsequently that the price slashing will hurt their profit margin I'm sure is spot on correct. This is what kills the small retailers more than anything, but I understand they have to compete or lose customers. How else do you compete with Amazon, Costco, Target and Wallmart and all the other booksellers who will be selling Harry at such low prices you would have to be crazy to go to Books of Wonder (like I will) to pick up your copy. I guess you can't ask consumers to buy at higher priced outlets just because of store loyalty... can you?

Here's what I know. I'll buy and read Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, most likely on the subway on my way to work with a dozen other straphanger adults of all ages. And my bet is that for a number of those readers Harry has been a gateway book to the land of reading - which means more sales for more books in the long run, books that will not be discounted but sold at full profit margin. So in my book, there are good problems and there are bad problems. Harry problems are the good ones.

Saturday, June 02, 2007

Pride of Show PW 6/4/07

Ms. Nelson,
I haven't received my first issue yet - but I just found the electronic version of PW so I decided to start our correspondance a few issues early. Note: I'm not sure why the magazine is available electronically for free - but I'm pleased. Unless of course I didn't need to buy a subscription, in which case I'm down $165. But that's a story for another entry. On to my response to your Pride of Show.

I need to get this on the table first. I've never been to BEA - not because I haven't dreamed of it or desired to attend - more because I haven't sold a book yet. But hear me, authors such as myself read about BEA and Frankfort and salivate at the possibilities.

So, with that in mind my first comment has to be about the venue - not the Javitts Center, but the Brooklyn Marriott. My day job is in public health and I was at a conference there two years ago so I know some of it's ins and outs. It's a nice choice, easily accessible from Manhattan, and classy in a downtown Brooklyn kind of way. Also, any attempt at getting out of Manhattan and into the "outter borroughs" has to be applauded. And, yes, in the interest of full disclosure, I will admit that I live in Queens.

What I find fascinating in your column is the line, "... who were celebrating: the idea that despite all the downturns, and the store closings, and the fact that there are now fewer than one-third the number of independent stores there were a decade ago, bookselling is still a viable and enviable profession for some." What follows is a display of contrasting statements and reflections on speaches that were bittersweet and fortunate and, for me, disturbing in their attempts to, as Monty Python's Life of Brian cast would say, "always look on the bright side of life."

The number of independent book stores have been reduced to one-third what they were ten years ago. I've watched bookstores go out of business in Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Queens, like the smaller stores that did not have a niche all to themselves. Or the niche stores who couldn't compete with price-points. But one-third? In the mean time Books-a-Million, Barnes and Noble, and Borders are up 2.4% in sales in the first quarter of 2007. I'm always torn between jumping up and down for joy for any increase in the sales of books, and despair because it's the big three that have the increases. And what does it mean for US booksellers - their future - when so many unfortunate salesmen/women are no longer working in independents because their stores are no longer open for business? I wish I could say that the big three are producing the best booksellers in their stores, developing them to a new degree of excellence but my experience doesn't play that out. When I want to find out about a children's book I go to Books of Wonder in NYC, because nobody knows children's books like the staff there does. If I want sci-fi, fantasy, or a graphic novel I go to Forbidden Planet. Hey, I've worked at Walden Books during Christmas time. I know what it's like.

The idea that people at BEA this year represented a can do, flag-waving, yankee doodle, spirit, in the face of this, just doesn't work for me. What I see and hear in your column is mourning for another era that has passed and a book business that is struggling for its future. As a writer who hopes to one day be struggling for face-outs in Borders, it's hard for me to get past this.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

The Plan

So here's the plan. Sara Nelson of PW writes the foreword to PW - her weekly column on what's new in the publishing industry - and at the end of the column she always asks, "Agree? Disagree? Tell us at" I wonder if she usually gets any response? I bet since they gave her the newer, kinder, gentler, more accessible (read - PR agent told her to change her look) picture in her column they got some response.

Well, Ms. Nelson, I will be responding. I'll be answering your columns each week - picking up your gauntlet and drawing my pen in response - as soon as my new PWs start rolling in, that is. I sent in the check two days ago. I know, I know. Having the first issue arrive this week would be a little too much to ask for. But hey, you never know. I will officially notify you about my blog as soon as I have my first issue in hand. Just as an aside - and for the record, I liked the older, arms crossed, business suit look you had during your first year at PW. It smacked of cigarette smoke, broken fingernails, and ink on the palms. Call me a romantic.

For all the rest of you out there, feel free to comment on my comments, dialogue on my dialogue. And if you want Sara Nelson's old picture back, let her know. Then perhaps I won't be the only one.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Who writes all those books?

Is it possible for Nora Roberts/JD Robb to have written over 150 books? Is that physically possible? The pulp writers of the thirties and fourties wrote several novels a year, sometimes a dozen to keep up with the monthly publishing schedule so I know it's possible. My father in-law asked me this question yesterday (we talk about publishing sometimes since I'm a writer and he loves to read) and I said, "Sure, it's possible."

He looked at me disbelievingly. "Nahhh," he said.

"It's possible," I repeated. "I know Lawrence Block writes a book in a month." (though truthfully I think he has the book in his mind and is plotting it out way before then, so his process may not be able to be restricted to that one month).

Vince shook his head again.

"I was at a writer's retreat with him and I saw the manuscript pages. He told me himself. He writes the whole thing in one month."

"Yeah but 150 books by this Roberts?"

I shrugged. "It's not what I'm capable of, but I know it's possible." We went on like this for a while and then moved on to other topics. But today, after a day out on the beach with my family I'm still thinking about it. So I checked her website to see what her pattern is. Here's the list:

1981 - 1 book published
1982 - 5 books published
1983 - 8 books published
1984 - 10 books published

... and so it goes until Montana Sky (G.P. Putnam’s Sons) in 1996 when she hits her 100th novel. She regularly published 8-12 books a year since then. As I said, this isn't my process - I wrote a novel in a year a ways back, but that was writing 20 minutes a day every morning before I went to work. I worked at Gay Men's Health Crisis that year doing AIDS work and was so stressed/exhausted by the time I finished work I couldn't write at night so that 20 minutes was all that I had to keep the writing pistons firing. That was a good pace for me then and still is now. I'm on my fourth year of working on my latest book. BEcoming a father five years ago is my excuse for being slow with this one. Slow but steady. That's my motto.

Do I believe Nora Roberts could write all those books at that pace, all by herself? I'd have to read one of her books to really have a valid opinion if I was going to say no. But my father-in-law says she's pretty good - especially her time travel series under the JD Robb moniker - even if he wonders whether she actually wrote them herself.

I'm probably better off talking about someone like James Patterson, whose book, The Jester I did read and enjoyed for it's storytelling but not for it's depth or stylistic nuance (there was little). But then he's only published some 40 books since 1976. He doesn't seem quite as prolific - even if these days he's a two to three book a year guy. Still, many of his newer books are co-authored with others. Did he co-author before and just never tell anyone about it? It doesn't really matter to me one way or the other. William Shatner on the other hand and the books he's written, well... don't get me started on him. I don't care if he is Captain Kirk.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Lapse or Relapse?

February to May - over fifteen months without an entry. Talk about a dry patch. Have I been writing at all during this crossing of the desert? Yes. Keep it simple. A revision of my novel, Remise, blog entries in Trainjotting under the moniker of Straphanger Joe, a children's book, and four poems. The novel was the hardest to finish, followed by the poems. Poems are hard - at lesat for me they are. And of course, one of the reasons for crossing the desert, a third agent has come and gone, before the ink was even dry on the contract. But that's a story that will have to wait before it's uncovered. That's called self preservation in the face of typical publishing wacky-ness.

But here's the really interesting part. I've gone seven months without Publishers Weekly. I went through withdrawal for a while - three days of headaches and dry mouth, a runny nose that lasted for a week, followed by craving for short book reviews that made my thumbs twitch wnenever I passed a bookstore.

Why did I quit reading PW? I went to yoga school. Don't laugh. Writer's do all kinds of things to earn money while they are dreaming of hitting it big. In my case yoga school helped me to cope while family members dealt with cancer. It also took my PW fund, and we all know the PW fund is by necessity, large. Funny thing, though - my subscription ran out in July and the weekly issues kept coming through the end of October. Every issue asked me to "come back to the fold" with slightly reduced prices each week. About a month ago I got another letter from them and the yearly price had been reduced to $170. I took it as a sign.

Not long after the arrival of the newest discount, I went to Disneyworld with my son and wife and I brought along the whole month of October with me (not the days, the four issues - stay with me). I hadn't read them. They'd been sitting on a pile of PWs next to my desk collecting dust. I read them quickly on the plane while clouds passed below us, and late at night with my aching feet elevated from walking all over the Magic Kingdom/Epcot/Animal Kingdom, while the giraffes and gazelles and bongos on the savanah outside the window of our balcony at the Animal Kingdom Lodge slept. I'd relapsed smoothly and efficiently. But was it a lapse or a full-blown relapse? I asked my wife on the plane ride home if I could spring for the subscription price one more once. She nodded with a smile. Sometimes you gotta get it out of your system before you can let it back in.

By the way, I'm teaching yoga now also, and making some money at it too - not a lot of course, that wouldn't fit my profile. But as every writer knows, it gives me plenty more things to write about. And the characters I've met in the world of yoga - spiritual ministers of the cosmic soul speak to me - are worthy of some attention. Just wait a minute while I write that last slogan down...

Thursday, February 02, 2006

PW: To Read or Not to Read

The subway door opens at my back and I barely notice the draft of air as people get on and off hurrying on their morning commute. I turn the page of my magazine.

"What are you reading?” a man asks from behind me. “Publisher’s Weekly?”

I turn without thinking. The subway door closes behind us and I move in a few feet as he enters. The man leans over me, taller by a few inches, stylishly dressed with wool overcoat and tie, loose at his neck. He’s an agent I know more as a fellow parent from my neighborhood, though I’ve sent work his way before – and been turned down.

“Hey, Ben,” I say as I fold the PW in half and offer my hand. He takes it.

The subway starts and we both readjust our footing.

“Why are you reading the children’s section?” he asks.

I look down at it as if to remind myself that I was, indeed, reading the children’s book reviews. “I read them to find books for Max.” Which is true because Max is three and a half and a big reader and trying to find a book that he’ll like is a treasure hunt.

Ben looks at me, puzzled for a moment, then with dawning realization, nods, “Sure, sure.” He has a two year old. Trying to make conversation I ask him about the Halloween Parade. He answers, scanning the car. The subway stops at 23rd street and we get off.

“I forget we both work in the same area,” I say as he goes up one staircase and I, after hesitating a second, purposely go up another. He nods and waves goodbye, taking big steps in big shoes that have been polished to a nice shine.

I remember the first time I met Ben, at a parents group in my neighborhood. While I was chasing after Max and he was drinking a beer, I mentioned to him that I read PW. About ten years ago at a Small Press workshop I attended in NYC a panel of agents had proclaimed to the audience the importance of writer’s reading PW and I’d been trying to use it to score points with prospective agents ever since. Ben didn’t seem impressed. I’ve talked about my knowledge of PW to other people in publishing before - slipped it into casual dinner conversation suavely. “Please pass the salt and have you read the article in PW about the latest list change at Penguin?” Maybe it’s my delivery. Maybe there’s a secret code or handshake that I need to learn and just haven’t stumbled across yet that only people really in the publishing business know.

In my own informal survey two agents (both of whom actually represented me) and at least a dozen other publishing professionals haven’t seemed to care whether I read PW or not. I never see anybody reading PW on the subway, except me. This would not be strange in any other town, but this is New York and New York is publishing. I have friends who say they read it but I never see stacks of them in their apartments, and there should be stacks because it is a weekly and that’s fifty-two issues a year. On the other hand I throw them out after I read them so that may not mean anything. As a matter of fact, now that I think about it, I’ve never seen anybody read it at all. Yet it’s the weekly of the book publishing business and everybody in publishing should be reading it, right?

According to Wikipedia On-line Encyclopedia, the circulation of PW was reported to be approximately 25,000, including 6000 publishers; 5500 public libraries and public library systems; 3800 booksellers; 1600 authors and writers; 1500 college and university libraries; 950 print, film and broad media; and 750 literary and rights agents, among others. Whether people read it or not, somebody’s buying it.

So let’s say, just for argument’s sake, that you, a writer trying to keep up with the publishing world, are in fact not just buying, but reading PW and not any of the other pre-publication review magazines like Kirkus Reviews (circulation about 4,000 but most of them are librarians), Booklist (a magazine of the American Library Association with circulation of over 24,000 ... librarians) or the Library Journal (circulation of about 20,000, you guessed it, librarians), instead. No, you go with the tried and true PW that’s been around since 1872 and has only in the last year, under the tutelage of new Editor-in-Chief Sara Nelson, undergone a huge color transformation and format face-lift.

First, you should know it’s an incredibly expensive magazine. Amazon sells a year subscription for $199 and it’s the cheapest I’ve found. This makes me angry, though, because I re-subscribed last spring for $225, the discounted-for-existing-subscribers price. I cringe every year as I write the check to renew. But I’ve been subscribing for over eight years to the damned thing and I’m hooked on it – not all of it – but enough of it. It’s a love/hate relationship for sure. So, where is the love at – e.g. what part of it should you read?

I could tell you that I regularly study the industry news in the front of the magazine, look at the trends in the market and try to figure out the next hot topic by reading each special section, then develop a book project aimed at it ... but that would be lying – okay, okay, I did it once, but only once. I saw a trend towards sports books a number of years ago and just happened to be writing a Rugby novel at the time and thought I could be the next Malamud and my Local Anesthetic would be the next The Natural. In my fantasy world (every writer has one – the one in which he gets a call for a $100,000 book deal and gets asked to speak at the Maui Writer’s Digest Writers Conference), the sport was ready to take off here in the States. Obviously I was wrong.

I will say that for the first two years I read it cover to cover. I thought if I read the parts on the industry that I didn’t understand I could pound the knowledge into my head.

By the third year I was speed-reading these sections and others that I just didn’t care about like the regional and religion updates, who got fired and hired (it’s hard to care, even as gossip, when I don’t actually know any of them – though I do keep an eye out for agents that have broken off from an agency to start out on their own – they could be looking for new clients), the newest inventory system, or a posting on the Tasini case in the Litigation Section.

By the fourth year I got real and started reading only what truly interested me and went from a two-plus hour marathon read to a 40 minute sprint – perfect for finishing an issue on my subway ride in to work.

Let’s start with what I’ve cut out and work our way to what I’ve left in. Here, in no particular order are the cuts:

1. Articles – on new first authors. They run them a number of times each year. There’s nothing worse for a writer than to read about other writer’s success – especially on first novels. It’s so hard not to shout, “It should have been me! I could have been a contender!” It kills the ego so I no longer read them.

2. Barnes and Noble and Borders News (otherwise known as the first article in the Foreward) – Sometimes it’s titled the “Chain Store Report” but who are we kidding? I know they’re important but do I really need to know how much their sales are up or down and that the CEO of Borders Greg Josefowicz earned one million dollars in salary and bonus in 2004? And are Barnes and Noble and Borders the only booksellers in the business? Okay, let me rephrase that. Are they the only ones who count? Let me rephrase that. Do you know who I need to talk to, slip fifty bucks to, sleep with, to get an end-cap?

3. Any Special Section reports except for Comics, Graphic Novels, SciFi, or Mystery. They’re long and make me sleepy – not good if you’re standing on the subway.

4. Bestsellers – I skim the listings only, though it’s hard to pass up seeing where the DaVinci Code is at each week, even after all this time.

5. Cover Story – I’m not going to lie to you – it’s rare I read it. The stories are way too long and the topics don’t usually make my mouth water. January 30th’s Travel’s Long Odyssey, for example would only work for me if I was a travel writer, or Eugene Fodor.

6. Anything on the Frankfurt Book Fair – because I can’t go yet and get too envious of those who can.

Now here’s what I focus on:

1. The Book Reviews – no, I don’t understand why one book that gets a terrific review does not get a star and another that gets a mediocre review gets a star. What I can tell you about the process of reviewing at PW is from two colleagues who have written reviews for them. First they only got paid $45 for each review and were given a quick turn-around time leaving little actual time to read the entire book. Forty-five dollars doesn’t seem like a good, incentive-driven, hourly wage, even if you’re a speed-reader, though it is a reason to get placed on the children’s picture books reviewers list. Because of the quantity of reviews they churn out each week they must use a lot of reviewers, which brings up all kinds of quality control issues – I would think especially in the non-fiction area where background expertise could be crucial to a fair and qualified review. I do have fun searching through the back covers of books that were reviewed in PW when I’m at a bookstore searching for a blurb from their review. Sometimes even the bad reviews can find a line to pull out as a plug. But for now, while I await my first book sale, I breeze through the reviews, looking for key opening phrases like: inert second novel, muddled read, a few wedges missing, dense but lucid and accessible story lines, looking for books that either I’d like to read or that someone in my family might like to. They are all prepublication reviews so you get to know about books that are coming out one to two months before they hit the stores. Great if you love to read but deadly for the wallet. Fiction takes up the most of my time and I’m a genre freak so I peruse the Comics, SF, and Mystery sections too. Then I go through the non-fiction reviews looking for new books that might be helpful to my research (the books are new - the information fresh) for the book that I’m working on.

2. Sara Nelson Column – by the Editor-in-Chief is usually amusing and topical. And she’s THE Sara Nelson – the woman hired to turn the publication around (turn it around from what, I ask?). Personally, I think she’s done it (the turning it around part). Nice new format, jazzy colors, easier on the eyes, more stylish – still mostly the same old articles, but damn, it looks good. To be honest, though, it’s the picture of her with her arms folded across her chest that does it for me. It’s the cliché these days (everyone on TV is required by TV-land contract law to have a picture of themselves – and their ensemble if it is an ensemble show – with their arms folded across their chest and staring into the fourth wall: at us) but it reminds me of the TV show, West Wing – maybe because she looks like she should be on the show, smart and fast talking and high-powered – so her column should be smart too – or so goes my thinking.

3. The Hot Deals/News/Hollywood Reader – are keys to my future so I read them. I’m always on the lookout for new agent and editor names – you never know when your agent is going to call you and say, “I’m sorry I’m not going to be an agent anymore – I’m going to open a gourmet food store and cable cooking show, instead.” Got to keep up on the changing ouja board somehow. And the section is short – always an important factor. And here’s a trick. If you scan the section for names of agents or editors you know you can save yourself the trouble of reading about the newest writer who got a $100,000 advance or a two-book deal. You can train yourself to do this. I know because I have.

4. Author Profile/Interviews – usually are on my list but sometimes I lose patience for the ego on display. I especially hate the, “I just sent it out to this publisher I knew and it got picked up – I didn’t have to do anything,” story.

5. Articles – on bookselling and author tours. I find the information on author tours engrossing and very real because I figure I’ll learn from the mistakes of those who’ve come before me. As for the bookseller reports I think it’s good to get inside the heads of booksellers since they’ll someday be hand-selling my book. It’s also good practice at positive thinking. “They will be hand-selling my book. They will ... “

6. The Soapbox – at the end. It’s funny and topical and always has a nice illustration accompanying the essay. I love it. Besides, by the time you’ve finished the magazine and you haven’t slit your wrists, you need a good laugh.

Now you might ask why I say, “ ... haven’t slit your wrists ...” after stressing how important it is to read PW. Well, here’s the thing. It’s not easy to read. And I don’t mean from the it’s-boring-as-all-hell perspective because it’s an industry magazine. I mean because it takes a lot of emotional energy to read it. I usually save up three to six issues before I go on a week-long reading spree to catch up. As a weekly, the incoming issues can seem just like that, “Incoming!” and make you dive for your foxhole. Reading about other people’s success can be like stabbing yourself with a pitchfork over and over again. Finding out the memoir is dead and you’ve just finished your five hundred page, let-it-all-hang-out tell-all about growing up in Queens on Northern Boulevard near Car Wash row, can take you down a few pegs. You’ve got to save up your energy for this kind of thing. You’ve got to take care of yourself so that you can keep sending out your manuscripts and keep reading Jeff Herman’s Guide to Book Publishers Editors and Literary Agents in search of new people to send them to.

So where does this leave me? Well for one thing I’m glad my subscription isn’t up until the spring. I still have time to save my pennies before I have to write another check. Oh, yes, I’m not daunted at all – whether people are reading PW or not, whether I learn the secret handshake or the “open sesame” password to the hidden world of the literary elite or not (though it certainly would be a nice bonus). I’ll keep buying it because sooner or later it’ll pay off. You’ve got to know your business to be in your business. And this is a business I want to be in. This is a business I’ve spent countless hours, early morning and late at night working at, trying to get in-to. You’ve heard it said a million times, “Writer’s write.” Well, published writers also market, publicize, read, and keep up with the business of writing. Even Ben, surprised as he was to see me reading PW, knows that.

Now ... what’s that I hear about an online version and how much extra does it cost?

Monday, November 28, 2005

The Joy Luck Club

Sometimes you get rejected because the story is badly written. Sometimes it's because it's not a subject the editor likes. Sometimes it's because the editor had a fight with his partner right before he went to bed and saw your manuscript first thing in the morning. Sometimes it's because the editor used your manuscript as a coffee mat and had to throw it out after there was significant spillage. Sometimes it's because your story came in the same day John Updike's did and no matter how good it is, it will never beat out an even terrible story by Updike. Sometimes it's because you can't get your story past the Cerberus of literary magazines - a pale-skinned eighteen-year-old college intern with neither editorial nor life experience but a vicious grasp of the power of the red pen.

If you've been in the business of submitting your work for publication, then you've met your share of the above and probably more. Talent, never a bad thing to have, is not the be-all and end-all on the path to success. Luck has plenty to do with it. So does understanding how books are selected by editors. For me it has always been a mysterious process. Shouldn't the great writing always rise to the top? This might be true if there was no money involved, but alas, publishing is a business and has been a big business of national and multinational conglomerates since the 1970s. Some would say it has never been the same since. When Jason Epstein in 2001 wrote his treatise on the last fifty years of the book industry in Book Business: Publishing Past Present and Future he said there were five major players running the book business in the United States - five. And so it gets more complicated than that. There are other mitigating factors.

"Isn't the process of selecting what gets published and what doesn't get published wholly subjective and controlled by mostly white men and women?"

So asked an angry young writer, his glasses pushed up against the bridge of his nose -and it wasn't me - at a workshop I attended ten years ago. I was young but much more naive and not in need of glasses, though I was a little angry at my seven years of foiled attempts at infiltrating the publishing systems' defenses.

I sat next to the rabble-rouser at the Old Chatham Writer's Workshop in upstate New York. We were in a large living room at an old Quaker Meeting House with a worn wooden floor covered by an old rose-patterned carpet, two barely padded sofas, and both soft and hard-backed chairs arranged in a large gallery-like circle beneath a high ceiling with exposed beams.

The six editors, all Caucasian, an equal number of men and women - the women with black and tan straight hair, some cut short in the fashion of the time; the men in glasses - shifted in their cushioned chairs. A few looked down at the carpet and studied the tangled thorns and petals spread out beneath their feet. One man, whose thinning hair drooped over his eyes as he looked down, bit into the thick skin of his thumb. Surrounded by other writers and publishing professionals, I leaned forward to hear what they would say.

"No," said a brave woman, black hair cut short, skin almost translucent. A patch of red colored her cheeks. "It's not about who is Black or white. It's about what is good literature and what is not. There is a standard, and it applies to all."

"But," the angry young writer continued passionately, flecks of spit landing on my arm, "what about the demographics of the book industry - who are the editors and agents? Who are the authors they are publishing? You are the arbiters of what people read and see as quality fiction. Isn't that true? Aren't you the true gatekeepers of what we consider art in fiction?"

"We can only work with what we are sent," said the man biting his thumb after spitting the extra skin out onto the carpet.

"But what about the manuscripts that aren't sent in the right format because the writer doesn't know what the right format is?"

"They can go to Barnes & Noble just like everybody else and do their homework. It's a business, and if you want to succeed in the business you have to follow the rules."

A number of heads nodded sagely at this old restating of the publishing canon.

"Still," the man continued, "we all can more or less agree to what is well-written so - "

Then an editor at a large publishing house - Publisher B - a black-haired and pot-bellied man, turned to face the thumb-biter, shaking his head, "I don't think we can."

"Of course we can, Jeremy. It's our job to know what good writing is."

There was quiet, nervous laughter.

Jeremy, the man from Publisher B, shifted in his chair for a moment as if unsure if he should push forward or retreat. Pushing his fingers back through his hair he made his decision. "Of course," he said. "You're right in one way - we're the arbiters of what's published and what's not. We say what's art and what's not because we choose what to publish. It's a huge responsibility and probably one of the reasons why we all love to do it."

I smiled, thinking, that took balls.

"It's who I think is good, and who you think is good," he said pointing at the translucent-skinned woman, "and there's no one standard on what is good literature and I'd say we rarely agree among ourselves which of the good pieces are the best pieces. And ... " he began, scanning each of his colleagues, "most of the editors I know are white, so it makes sense they'll be more open to writers that they, well, know. We have limited resources to buy with, so we're very selective and, well... subjective. I have two criteria for selecting a book. Do I love the work, and will it make any money? I wish I didn't have to think about the other but it's there whether I want it to be or not. It's got to do both, or I can't ask my company to buy it. It's just not like the old days when editors bought books because they believed in nurturing a promising writer hoping that some day they'd create their, our, great American novel.

And then sometimes we make mistakes. Do you remember a little book called How to make an American Quilt? I read it and passed on it. It just didn't do anything for me. What do I know about quilting? Besides, who would have thought a book about quilting would become a bestseller and then a hit movie? How did I know they'd put Winona Ryder in it? Even today if it came past my desk, I'd probably pass on it. I mean, you," he motioned to his colleagues, "tell me. You've all done it too, right?"

There was a murmur followed by a long silence.

In my peripheral vision I saw a woman walk in. Her hair was black and she wore glasses. She took a seat in the back to my right.

"And then," Jeremy plunged on, "there was Amy Tan's Joy Luck Club. I passed on that too. I didn't know how to sell it. Sure, I could tell it was well-written, but what did I know about the Asian experience and how to sell it to a mainstream audience? I can only do what I know how to do. We're all limited in that way."

The crowd turned to look past me - towards the woman who had just sat down.

"Oh, shit," Jeremy said.

I looked to my right also. The man next to me whispered, "That's Amy Tan."

I nodded.

"Hi, Amy," Jeremy waved. "I won't pass on another of your books if you send it to me now ... I promise! I've learned a bit since then."

I sent two manuscripts to Jeremy at Publisher B not long after that. We'd talked a few moments at one of the communal meals and I'd found out that he'd grown up in the same town I had. Why not send my manuscripts to him? I'm white and male. We shopped at the same sports shop for football equipment when we were kids. I had networked and we were connected. He didn't bite on either manuscript. Still, those words and his honesty about the business of publishing have stayed with me for ten years.

At the Frankfurt book fair this fall the Korean exhibition was highlighted with a football-sized hall. "The idea is to bring cultures together," the Buchmesse PR Director Holger Ehling stated in a recent Publisher's Weekly, "and of course to build the relationships that will connect publishers and marketplaces, preferably worldwide."

Not many people showed up, even with the free food and spirits that were handed out. In response, a U.S. publishing cynic is quoted by Editor-in-Chief Ms. Sara Nelson in her column in the same issue as saying, "We have a hard enough time getting our own books to readers. Books in translation are a very hard sell."

Ms. Nelson then states - commenting on cultural exchanges at the Frankfurt Book Fair - "But publishing, for all its admirable, high-end and altruistic qualities, is not about politically correct favors, it is - or should be - about publishing books that will sell. The smart publishers already know this ... "

Hey, I bought Yi Munyol's Out Twisted Hero, and enjoyed it! Sure it was only one hundred and twenty pages but it was hard-cover and I laid out $21.95 for it. It had a quote from Salman Rushdie on the back and it got a good pre-publication review in Publisher's Weekly. I'm part of the buying public, aren't I?

So where' s the tie-in? You spend three years of your life, working late at night at this second or third job of yours, ignoring your significant other ("You're having a love affair with that damned computer!"), sometimes your kids ("Daddy, can you play with me now?"), and sometimes performing substandardly at your paying job because you can't keep your eyes open unless you're using mega-doses of coffee - liquid toothpicks - to finish your novel and then it enters a fun-house version of Dante's Inferno.

"I love your work, Joe. I really do. This book is like a cross between Don Delillo's Endzone and The Natural - but I don't know how to sell it. I asked everyone at the agency and they said the same thing. So I'm going to have to say no."

Since big business took over thirty years ago it's gotten tougher out there. Everybody knows this, and yet a recent informal poll I took of writers I know who've been to writer's conferences all said editors and agents are still shying away from voicing this salability aspect when it comes to feedback and advice about their fiction. "Write a great book that you're passionate about and send it to me." That's all they say. There's nothing about, "And make sure it has a good angle with a top demographic, preferably a heavy female audience - otherwise I won't be able to figure out how to sell the damned thing."

Oh, there are still rules. We still hear them sung from the highest conference podium. "Keep your first novel short, under 300 pages. People don't like to read long works."

Yet look at the tomes authors are putting on agents and editors desks these days. They're breaking all the rules and still making it. A recent book by a first novelist weighed in at over 1,350 pages. And look at the wonderful use of footnotes - "Never use footnotes in fiction" - as a narrative device in Jonathan Strange (thank you for breaking that rule even if it almost drove me crazy reading the small print). How many of you out there who've read the book read the footnotes? How many threw it across the floor? Threw it twice? More than five times? But damn, the stories within the stories gave that book incredible texture and depth.

I can't even begin to talk about what is selling in non-fiction because that is an alternate universe ruled not just by the dollar but by the tabloid story of the moment and the insanity of the masses - who, as my High School history teacher always used to tell us, "The masses are asses." Why else would a book like Why do Men Have Nipples be a best seller or Trudeau's Natural Cures "They" Don't Want You To Know About?

And so the question of discrimination based on race or gender remains. Is it commerce or is it discrimination that causes editors to pass on books like The Joy Luck Club? Sure, someone bought it eventually and it is a publishing phenomenon now. But what about the thousands of other books like it that are not picked up and die a slow dust-collecting death in a writer's closet? Is it a factor of who the editors are, what they look like and who they know? Well, who else selects the books that go to those all-important acquisitions meetings and subsequent Barnes & Nobles pitch sessions? That editor at Publisher B was not just being ballsy he was telling it like it is. He understands white privilege and was, for one brilliant moment, willing to speak of it in the sanctuary of the white business world we call publishing. But why doesn't he, when he encounters a good book outside of his knowledge base, find someone who knows the target population to help him with the acquisition process?

Ms. Nelson did the same thing for all humanity in her Publisher's Weekly column - fair play to her. But, she was using commerce to explain the acquisition decision. If the acquisition decisions are discriminatory, isn't that a problem? Aren't we missing out on art because many times it never reaches the hands of the those with buying power? Perhaps the first thing that should be done is to stop talking about standards and quality, because although that's part of the picture it has long since become a sideshow - commerce has been a white king for thirty years whether folks want to talk about it or not. The fantasy of an objective literary selection process needs to be put to rest - so the new one, which is out there somewhere, working its way out of a slush closet - can some day replace it.