November 23, 2016
Anatomy of a crash, episode deux
by Dennis Johnson
This is a follow-up to an earlier post about the beginning of the What We Do Now project …
Call it what you will — crashing a book, “dropping in” a book, making an “instant” book — is pretty pure publishing, of a sort that’s hard to do in the world of modern publishing. In a modern marketplace, dominated by giants — giant publishers AND giant retailers — it’s all about bestsellers, and the system concocted to support that needs about twelve to eighteen months to gestate. Go outside that schedule and all hell breaks loose.
That’s because bookstore buyers nowadays plan their orders (and budget accoringly) that far out, so sales reps have to provide them with information about upcoming books then. Which means publishers have to provide information to the sales reps even further out than that. Often enough, at that point, the book is only a pleasant idea. It’s not actually written yet or anything. Yet publishers have to say pretty definitively what they’re offering — down to providing page counts. Prices, production expenses, all kinds of time allotments, have to be made based on a thing that in all likelihood doesn’t exist yet. Not a good system under which to make art, nor for nonfiction writers to respond to developing reality.
Which is what you’re trying to do when you crash a book — discuss reality relatively close to the news cycle — but which is also the thing the system is completely unprepared to deal with. Buyers at the bookstores have already spent their budget for that season long before, and allotted their display space. Sales reps have already sold in that season to those buyers and it’s a major pain in the ass for them to go back and try to convince buyers to add a book they don’t now have the budget for.
And publishers are working out of budget, too — they’re adding a book to a season already fully budgeted and scheduled. Publicity teams, marketing, editorial — their schedule’s already packed. Now you’re adding another book to their work load.
In short, it’s really stressful and the odds are against it working. So why do it?
Well, because sometimes you have to. I don’t like the way the marketplace is driven by factors — you know, capitalism — that aren’t necessarily what books are about. It seems to me that, historically, books have always had a much more vibrant place in the discussion of current events — think Tom Paine. Hell, think Martin Luther. That is a big part of what made them so revolutionary.
Now, given the catastrophic dearth of in-depth discussion of current events in modern media, books appearing closer to news cycles is in some ways more revolutionary than ever. They can do things no other form of media can. Except now the familiar major publishers are not really set up to do that.
Which may be why, when you crash a book with obvious currency, everyone in the business recognizes something ancient and electric, and gets excited. They want it to work. They get charged about what they do, about how books can make a difference. It’s energizing. Also, you know, in this instance, everybody wants to fight Trump but can’t figure out how. How cool to think they could do it by, you know, doing what they do — making and selling books.
Which is what happened when I let our giant distributor (Penguin Random House) know yesterday that we were crashing a book called What We Do Now. The response was, basically, “Lock and load. Let’s go.”
Let me tell you, when PRH decides to get behind a book, it’s a beautiful thing to behold. It’s all hands on deck: They’ll alert the sales reps, call accounts, generate big orders, instruct the warehouse to move this baby, and get it out into stores in a big way.
And so we’re off, officially. And it was a good day even beyond that. Some very significant additions were made to our list of contributors: Anthony Romero, head of the American Civil Liberties Union, agreed to participate, as did Cornell William Brooks, head of the NAACP, and Alicia Garva, founder of Black Lives Matter. So did Trevor Timm, co-founder of the Freedom of the Press Foundation, and Linda Sarsour, executive director of the Arab American Association.
This leaves only two major organizations we haven’t gotten commitments from that we’re still haranguing: the Anti-Defamation League, which has taken our calls and is considering, bless them; and Planned Parenthood, which Valerie and I have been calling and emailing for weeks, as well as pestering lots of connections to contact on our behalf … all to no avail. Neither their New York nor Washington press offices seem to have anyone answering the phones — it was voice mail after voice mail. This one is important to us (which is why we’re long time donors to the PPA) so we won’t quit. Likewise the ADL.
Then there’s the one person we can’t reach: Michael Moore. He posted a great, morning-after-the-election to-do list on Facebook that, on a standing agreement, he let just about every lefty website reprint. I’d love to include it in our book but I figure a book publisher needs more specific permission than that. But God knows how to reach him — my pestering of various connections resulted in three different email addresses, none of which drew a response.Nor did tweeting at him, nor trying to reach him through Facebook. We can’t track down his production office. The owner of the agency that represents his books (William Morris) just held a meeting with President-Elect Trump, so I don’t think they’ll be sympathetic. Given how many different publications ran the piece, I have a feeling he wouldn’t care, but it’s starting to look like we’ll be unable to confirm that — i.e., we won’t be able to use it …
Fingers crossed on all of the above, but alas, at this point we’re beyond deadline on finalizing contributors. Today, the day before Thanksgiving, we need to finalize the cover — on which I want all the contributors’ names to be listed …
See how hair-raising this can get?
Dennis Johnson is the founder of MobyLives, and the co-founder and co-publisher of Melville House. Follow him at @mobylives