Sunday, April 21, 2013

Giving it Away II


I hope at least one of my recent offerings has left you somewhat bent out of shape.  Flexibility is important for those on the straight and narrow.

Evidence of the extent to which practitioners of any of the arts now find themselves on their own continues to compile.  A page-1 piece in the April 17 New York Times points up how widespread self-publishing is becoming among even celebrity authors.  David Mamet expects to put out his next fiction himself, since "as traditional publishers have cut back on marketing, this route allows well-known figures like Mr. Mamet to look after their own publicity."

I doubt that this is a breakthrough Mr. Mamet sought. For the mid-list -- i.e. "serious" -- writer, the sort of support most publishers currently offer, combined with startling contracts that effectively confiscate many or most established subsidiary rights, has thrown the writing community back a couple of hundred years.  Thoreau and Whitman put out their own masterpieces. Perhaps we are returning to our roots.

Prospects continue to deteriorate.  Many years ago, when our children were young, I took them back to my boyhood neighborhood in Minneapolis to show them the Minnehaha Falls.  It had been a spring and summer of drought; the Minnehaha creek that fed the waterfall had pretty much dried up.  Below the Falls were small, shallow pools in which whatever carp and bluegills had survived were fanning back and forth, listlessly.  Youngsters from the neighborhood, mostly black youngsters from the nearby tenements and a handful of Chippewas, had waded in among the sluggish surviving fish and were stabbing them with glee and flipping them onto the mud of the banks with sharp sticks.  This was a scenario Longfellow missed.

Publishing has devolved into pretty much the same scene.  The banks of American Letters are strewn with what was once the talent of several generations.  Terms -- take it or leave it -- that until recently would have been regarded in the industry as as beneath contempt are thrown out there without apology.  Horrible work-for-hire contracts that leave any writer who hopes to eat regularly sure to go hungry before he grinds out the manuscript he had just taken on. Novels from which the film rights, and the foreign rights, and even the right to introduce the same characters in a subsequent book are scarfed up by the publisher.  Marketing -- publicity budgets, and often enough well-connected publicists themselves -- represent costs the publisher has largely sloughed off, leaving contact with the media to unpaid interns. Advances are token, if they are offered at all.  Any hope of future royalties are eaten alive by legalistic gobbledegook.

Agents, desperate for fifteen percent of something, appear to have gone along.  A few years ago, when a non-fiction book of mine turned out to do some business, two film producers turned up and tried to option the screen rights.  One spelled it out:  three thousand dollars for five years, serious money if and when a studio came forward and committed to the picture.  The producer had nothing more than several cut-rate biker movies to his credit, and my book dealt with politics at the presidential level.  I had thoughts of writing a screen play myself.  The option offer was minimal, but my agent felt this could work out, so I told him to go ahead and put the deal together.

The producer got back:  He had been thinking, and the best he could do was a fifteen-hundred-dollar offer to pick up the option.  I said no.  If this was the way the producer intended to do business, how could we depend on anything he passed along to us if there ever really was a sale?

My agent was upset.  He cut me loose.  The way he sized things up, fifteen percent of something, however token, was better than nothing, and I was acting like a sorehead..  My feeling was, why give something inherently valuable away?  Furthermore, the holder of the option was likely to resell it at a profit, and who could tell what scavenger was next in line?

So people in our trade are selling one another out all up and down the feeding chain.  It may be that the internet, so costly to so many of us, will become our salvation.

Interesting times, at least for the survivors.

More next time around,

Burton Hersh 


No comments:

Post a Comment

Comments here