October 24, 2013

No gods, no masters, no bad boy publishers


Yes, her book has value, no, recognizing that doesn’t make you a ‘New King’ of anything.

“Publishing has always depended on having smart people willing to do its down-market work; what’s changed is how those people go about it.”

This is the crux of Noreen Malone’s recent—excellent—profile of Jeremie Ruby-Strauss in The New Republic. She’s right, even if her chosen example embodies neither of these statements.

Ruby-Strauss is the editor of, among other books, Tucker Max‘s wildly successful bro-nifesto I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell. He is one of a handful of editors—some of them sharing his same imprint—looking to acquire self-consciously boorish or harsh, dumb material.

I’m not insulting the man’s work with this characterization. From Malone: “‘It’s offensive, it’s gross, it’s mean, it’s scatological,’ Ruby-Strauss said of that book, not unproudly.”

Max’s and other books acquired by Ruby-Strauss—Snooki is one of his authors as well—not only set a low bar for the printed word, but in many cases legitimate and encourage terrible behavior. His books are not always innocently dumb. People could argue with some success that they are both a symptom and a cause of ill in the world. While he might dispute that last claim, even Ruby-Strauss is clear that his books have little in the way of traditional merit: what matters is the bottom line.

And the thing is, that’s fine. It’s barely remarkable. These are not the type of books I read, or the type I’d like to publish. But neither are they they end of the world.

They are, and I find this interesting to think about, bad but blameless. They’re books that would have existed if their authors hadn’t written them and if Ruby-Strauss hadn’t been around to publish them. He makes this point himself, saying “I go around life looking for tribes, groups of people who like something, whatever it may be, and then I try to figure out if a book product could make sense for that group.” In this model, the market quite literally creates the book rather than a book finding a market.

These likely won’t be good books, but they are almost never uninteresting. Often they are so steeped in a particular idiom as to make them pretty amazing in their way. What’s more, they are for someone, someone will enjoy them, and that’s not nothing. In this way we can say that Snooki’s book was bad, but never that it lacks value.

Malone gets this, writing, “Today, the public has already indicated what interests it, via the Internet, and the editor just has to be savvy enough and shameless enough to give the rabble what it wants.” Her thoughts about the difference between big budget ‘we paid a lot for this so it must be worth selling’ publishing of the 90’s and now, when the pre-order reigns, are correct, if more so at a house like Simon & Schuster than among indies.

But where the piece is best is in Malone’s willingness to give Ruby-Strauss the space to try to build his own myth. And in his attempts we see how very unexceptional he is. (The title given to the profile runs, unfortunately, counter to the spirit of this, internalizing his hype and crowning the man a “King of Trash Publishing.”)

Ruby-Strauss is not wrong in these quotes—he mentions that if you can sell a book to the one-book-a-year readers, they’ll talk about it often—but neither is he exceptional. He would have us see him as both an innovator and a sort of greed-is-good publican, as if people have not been willing to commission dreck for a specific market for as long as publishing has been a business. It’s as if pulps never existed. Or take Ruby-Strauss mocking his earlier self for admiring Camus or his pride in his use of graphs to show that a book has a market. This poor guy is trying so hard to be the big dumb fish in the little pond of publishing, but man, listen, right or wrong everyone uses graphs, everyone laughs at Camus. Not everyone has published a Mötley Crüe book, granted, but anyone would. [Ed. note: The Dirt is one of the 5 greatest books ever written.]

This might be the real lesson of the profile. Not that Ruby-Strauss is in any way new, but that our cultural estimation of literature remains such that guys like him are still trying to make a name for themselves as radicals by turning away from it. This is what Ruby-Strauss confirms for me with each quote: not that he is a rebel for valuing gross bestsellers, but that we—including Ruby-Strauss—believe so strongly in literature that maligning it is a handy taboo for children in nice suits who want to be bad.


Dustin Kurtz is former marketing manager of Melville House.