bellocqsadeleCarriSkoczekTwenty years ago I published my first book with a small press, and it won an award my hometown newspaper described as “the prestigious Flannery O’Connor Award.” My father still thinks that’s the award name, though he says The Prestigious Flannery O’Connell Award. All writers hope that getting their first book published will change their lives. It does, variably. I got a teaching job, also firsthand insight that hardly anyone reads a small press book with a good award except writers and aspiring writers—especially an aspiring writer enrolled in your class and perhaps his mother. One day a student a few years younger than me told me his mother had read my book. I braced myself. I was in one of my grim starter marriages, and my grim father-in-law had weighed in. He’d skimmed my book and grimaced. “Trying too hard to be naughty.” He compared me unfavorably to Shakespeare, whom he couldn’t have read closely.  “Why sex?”

There have been many crucial years in the forward lurch of humanity but today I’d like to tell you about one of the biggest: 1971. For those of you who might argue for a showier year with zeroes in it or repeating decimals let me remind you that in 1971 Led Zeppelin released “Stairway to Heaven.”


JE: Yeah, I plan on reading Freedom, and no, I probably won’t read Jodi Picoult‘s next book, but you know what? She’s totally right about the industry ghettoizing a lot of female fiction.

Exhibit A: Tatjana Soli’s The Lotus Eaters. JC, I think you specifically mentioned in your coverage how bad the cover was. Soli writes a gritty, dark, thought-provoking, badass Viet Nam novel that is “literary” by any standard, and St. Martin’s puts some hot chick in a red blouse at the beach on the cover. What the hell? The galley I received had the menacing silhouette of a helicopter on it—what was it the Vietnamese called those copters, whispering death? What happened to that plan? How did we go from whispering death to some MILF on the beach? Who’s the marketing stooge that convinced everybody this change was a good idea? The prevailing wisdom seems to be that women (80% of everybody’s readership) don’t like gritty, they don’t like dark, they can’t handle thought-provoking. Well, who the hell is buying Freedom, or The Thousand Autums of Jacob de Zoet, and why don’t they have covers that look like spa brochures?

Exhibit B: Maria Semple’s dark, hilarious, acerbic debut, This One is Mine. Is that a pink bon-bon on the cover? Really? Is that a fucking joke? I read that book twice–where did they get a pink bon-bon? Seriously, marketing people, what’s with the double standard? I know a TON of writers, and almost every female author I know has got a crappy cover design– either it’s wispy, or floral, or it looks like a tampax ad, or there’s a MILF in a red blouse on the beach. Really, how far have we come since the Bronte Sisters?

DH: Yeah, book marketing is primitive. They don’t know their audience and, guess what, they don’t WANT to know their audience. The big houses all want to appeal to the same crowd, the great unwashed masses, no matter what the book is, because that group is BIG. And they want that group to actually exist because that group is easy.

But people aren’t that simple. Novelists know that. Once you really pay attention to readers you realize that they break down into all sorts of diverse types. Indie bookstores already know this.

But I’m in a fighting mood so I have to fight even JE’s assertion that he’s a white guy. Out in the material world, that JR loves to depict in his fiction, yes, that’s true. But in the imaginative soul of the book reader, you can be anybody you want. And that’s one objective of reading: become who you aren’t.

But you have to have the skills to do that. You have to know something about how plots are paced and character presented. You have to own some of the skills of a writer, even as a general reader. The best way to learn to read is to learn to write.

When you work with book clubs, or blogs, you realize that you can encourage my favorite mythical animal, the “general reader” to leave their comfort zones and explore.

But for all my talk about telling JE to read like he’s not a white guy, or not even a guy, I have to admit that we are all in our personal orbits either as writers or readers. I won’t read Freedom. I know Franzen is a distinguished artist but I don’t feel inspired to read him. I would read him like it was my duty to literature and I can’t read like that. Another reason not to read a book? Because the writer is on the cover of Time magazine. Read what you like.

Some advice that I haven’t been asked to give to marketers: Treat the “general reader” like they are a special market. There is a whole field in marketing on selling to the affluent, on appealing to what that market is looking for.Well, the general reader is affluent too. But it’s their minds that are affluent, maybe not their pocketbooks. But that’s a more interesting kind of affluence.

JR: The argument JE presents is old news. The lowest common denominator is being marketed to, simple as that. What appeals to the masses? 5 million copies of Lost Symbol went on sale in one day, how do you get into the mainstream? You print 5 million, and you buy the market, like The Passage. Doesn’t matter if the book is good or not, it’s everywhere. Girls? AM Homes, Dana Spiotta, Deborah Willis, Zadie Smith, all enjoyed kick ass covers for their books, look at White TeethMusic for TorchingEat the Document, fuck, those are great covers, and great books, probably some of my favorite ever, (except I think On Beauty is a masterpiece, and it has a gilded flowered look on the cover, but that speaks to the underlying theme of the book). Emily St. John Mandel, both books were great, and had good, not great covers, but she’s at Unbridled, so…Atmospheric Disturbances has a great literary cover, and all of the books I’ve just mentioned, have sold well, in the crowd their meant to sell in, what Philip Roth calls “the literary 85k”, that’s who publishers market to when they sell a literary novel. The rest, the books that are supposed to be movers and shakers and get reviewed in People magazine, well, they’re going to get the Tampax look. Soft, and easy to slide between your legs while you sip that $9 latte.

I don’t give a flying fuck about the mainstream, it’s meaningless. Literary novels is where I sleep, and those books are essentially “mine”, and I own the bragging rights, because in general, they don’t get reviewed. The Imperfectionists and Mr. Peanut, they’re from two great writers, and had weird covers, but shit, Rachman’s book is about the death a newspaper, why wouldn’t it sell? Oh, right, I know it sold, like fucking hot cakes. No one knew about that book, I mean no one, before it went on sale. Franzen has written two great books in my estimation, the sister part in The Corrections is one of the finest pieces of fiction I’ve ever read. Period. Freedom is about people who suck. If you want to escape, read Jodi Piccoult, she trucks in the masses, she tells stories about sick kids and people with cancer, over coming odds greater than themselves. Rachman talked about the death of a historically vital venue for passing on information and the funny people who made it. Who can identify to that? I didn’t feel sorry for them. I felt like I was there with them in Rome, I don’t sign on to Jodi Piccoult’s books because I’m not looking to get on the fucking sympathy truck and watch someone prevail over the tough shit that life doles out. Boo fucking hoo…tissues are in aisle six, next to the diapers and tampons, just down the aisle from the dump of Jodi Piccoult’s latest mashed potato sandwich.

JC: JE, I was stuck on The Lotus Eaters for a couple weeks before I finally cracked it, and then only because I had said I would. I mean, the book arrives in the mail directly from Tatjana Soli, who is very nice and a brilliant writer, btw, and I think Christ what have I gotten myself into. Back when I was a buyer, if a rep had put that cover in front of me, I would have said things that would have made them blush. So uncreative – like a leftover cover from Polynesian Vacation – … and ultimately, such a betrayal of the book that it represents. I would have liked your galley Jonathan, because the book is a hell of a lot closer to Hemingway (note her WWFIL from this summer) and Tim O’Brien, than towhatever book cover they “modeled” to get this one. It’s a war novel, and a good one. I must have missed the beefcake on the cover of Matterhorn.

That’s the thing about covers. Cliches aside, everyone is affected by a good bookcover. I’ll wager everyone reading this could list at least a handful of books they purchased exclusively for the cover, not knowing a thing about it. I’ll bet even marketers do that! So why would you publish a book that you are supposedly proud of, that is a unique product, that you want to find its audience and give it a cover that already dots the shelves, or that doesn’t reflect that story’s unique proposition. If you think it’s just like a thousand other books out there already, then why bother? You can probably be as inspired designing and marketing cereal boxes or baked beans.

Women authors, a lot of them anyway, do get pigeonholed. The success of chick lit has ghettoized them into genre books. Pretty soon they’ll have their own section in the stores, like mysteries, sci fi, etc. The question is, do you want your books there or fiction? What if the books in chick lit sell better? Does that change the equation?

The thing is – it won’t break my heart if the NYT doesn’t review and front cover Franzen and Chabon’s every book – and I like those guys. I’m perfectly happy to have those books replaced by novels by women. There are lots of books worthy of marketing and publicity. I’d be pissed if they were replaced by Jodi Picoult.


Judith Gurewich: One always runs the risk of reverting to platitudes when one talks about one’s publishing vision, and why should I be any different? After all, I am a little greener than most in the business and therefore even more prone to superlatives than my seasoned colleagues. The old saying goes, “You are what you eat.” For publishers, it should be, “You are what you publish.” If so, I’d prefer to jump right into the kitchen and talk about the books. Since I love to cook as much as I love to edit, my authors often move into my house in Cambridge so I can feed them as we talk, fight, and work around the clock. Mind you, they love the food—it helps the editorial medicine go down—and they like the results: great publicity, beautiful covers, lavish ads in the New York Times and strong sales even while the depression rages on. The Glass Room by Simon Mawer is a case in point, with over 40,000 copies in the market place and more than 25,000 of those already avidly read.

But life has not always been so easy. A while back, I published an array of remarkable literary novels in translation, by the likes of Hanna KrallIcchokas MerasAlberto MoraviaErri De Luca, Peter StammGeorge Konrad, and many more. In my view, they all qualify as classics, for they each reveal not only the their authors’ talent but also the mentality, the culture, and the psychology of a different era, often the second part of the twentieth century. I only wish that then was now! We were small at the time, and did not have the incredible Random House sales force to push our books, thanks to whom we have acquired credibility among booksellers, as well as the friendship and support of many. I could easily spend my time touring the country and hanging out with what I have discovered is the secret intelligentsia of our country.

These booksellers did not need to read more than one page of the galley of The Wrong Blood by Manuel de Lope to realize that this Spanish novel, translated by the award-winning John Cullen, is the kind of literature that only comes by once in a blue moon. Written like a dream with resonances of Borges, Proust, and Baudelaire, and just enough dark wit to give it spice, The Wrong Blood shows us the Spanish Civil War as seen from the perspective of two women who share a secret that will give you the shivers. It isn’t far-fetched to say that I am always searching for a “classic” feel, even in the most contemporary and avant-garde literature I publish. It is no coincidence that Charles Elton, whose Mr. Toppit, a huge bestseller in England that really captures the pulse of our celebrity-obsessed era, read the early novels of Joan Didion and Philip Roth over and over again in order to shape his writing style and his story line. Learning to Lose by the celebrated Spanish author David Trueba also fits the bill, though it falls into the entirely different genre of “cool.” Here we find the joys and woes of soccer and young love under the sun of modern Madrid.

Occasionally I relax a little and publish stories that are simply terrific page-turners. Even with these, I look to go beyond superficial entertainments, because a good book, even when not a literary masterpiece, must affect your soul, and leave you with something you did not have before—whether knowledge, emotional charge, or some particular insights. This is the case with Mitchell Kaplan’s By Fire, By Water, a novel that effortlessly introduces us to the world of conversos during the Spanish inquisition, filled with intrigues, love affairs, and real history. Similarly, The Debba by Avner Mandelman is both my first foray into thriller-land and an insider’s look at the incredibly complex texture of Israeli society from 1947 to 1972. The reader leaves the book totally exhausted, having taken a roller coaster ride while acquiring a very different perspective on the Middle East conflict.

As far as non-fiction is concerned, I am proud to have published the much-lauded memoirHurry Down Sunshine by Michael Greenberg. It seems everyone has heard of this brilliant memoir but few connect it to Other Press. Hurry Down Sunshine was also my first international success, having been sold to eighteen countries and becoming a big best seller in Spain, Italy and Sweden.

This October, Montaigne comes to America in the form of an amazing biography by Sarah Bakewell called How to Live. It is my pride and joy of the season. I think you already know this because I saw the tweet on your blog.

My goal is to get Montaigne on the Colbert Report – it would do Steven and America a lot of good to finally learn “How To Live.” In a nutshell, Sarah’s wonderful book epitomizes what I want people to associate with my publishing house: it is at once immensely instructive, entertaining, intelligent, and beautifully written. And it puts you in a good mood!

—Judith Gurewich

Steve Almond’s latest book of non-fiction, Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life, is written for “Drooling Fanatics,” people, like Almond himself, whose fixations with music take on an almost religious fervor. Almond’s past works include story collections My Life in Heavy Metal and The Evil B.B. Chow, the novel Which Brings Me to You (with Julianna Baggott), and the non-fiction books Candyfreak and (Not That You Asked). He is also a TNB contributor, and his submissions have ranged from a self-interview to a criticism of fellow contributor Joe Daley’s “Five Bands I Should Like, but I Don’t. At All.” The latter ruffled some feathers at TNB, and Steve accepted my offer to talk about the dust-up, Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life, and the larger concerns of his work.

The perennial debate on the technological threat to the institution of the novel rages on flatmancrooked.com (and elsewhere)-see Shya Scanlon’s excellent Faster Times piece here, and Mike Shatzkin’s note on ebooks-but there’s not much on this on TNB, as far as I can see…

So, in the interests of stimulating debate, I include an email exchange between TNB contributors Kip Tobin, Megan Power, and myself which took place off the blog last month.