Charles Frazier has it made. When the author of award-winning debut Cold Mountain signed a book deal featuring an advance of more than $8 Million, he had presented only a one-page outline of his coming work, a page apparently so momentous that Paramount Pictures valued it at $3 Million for movie rights. No doubt the deal prompted many writers, both aspiring and established, to wonder why their words aren’t worth hundreds of thousands of dollars each—a question that may have more to do with the politics of publication than anything else.
Other writers have had to take more original steps toward securing literary fame and fortune. David Vise, author of FBI spy-biography The Bureau and the Mole was recently reported to have purchased 20,000 copies of his own book online, apparently with the design of re-selling them himself and improving his standing on bestseller lists. In response to the fickleness of the publication business, such a shenanigan approaches the realm of the reasonable. Though he returned all but about 3,000 copies (of which he apparently sold some, autographed, from his own website) and did not jump far on the bestseller list, the stunt has brought him what is probably much-welcomed attention and has made an interesting statement about the state of the writing business.
For those whose pages do not fetch $8 Million, the need to market aggressively seems clear. Writers must enlist friends to write snippets of advance praise for them (and in return, must describe others’ new works with glowing superlatives). The enterprising writer might tailor a new work to what seems to be on the literary plate of the American public by monitoring trends in bestseller lists (currently, murder mysteries involving British citizens seem to be hot items). Others have chosen to write for increasingly specific audiences (consider, for example, the riotously bizarre classic Dancing With Cats). Perhaps the future of publishing will involve trendy, specific new genres. Imagine creative new shelves in Barnes and Noble: fairy tales for young CEO’s, Christian harlequin romances, and therapy programs for Kierkegaard addicts.
While esoteric works have been written throughout history, this pervasive trend of increasing specialization seems to be a relatively recent phenomenon. In the Renaissance and beyond, many scholars wrote with the seemingly attainable goal of encompassing all of human knowledge in a volume or two, as in a 1578 work “concernyng the fourme, knowledge, and use of all thinges created.” Now that such a design seems laughable, writers must limit their work to topics quite narrow by comparison. Most modern scholars must limit their studies to a particular field, period, and not infrequently person; for academics, as for all writers, there is an ever-present necessity of producing something entirely different from what already exists.
A tall order, considering that it seems everyone wants to be a writer these days. For some time now, independent publishing has been an option for writers frustrated with the difficulty of the publishing business. However, the distinction between independent publisher and vanity press has become blurred. As the Internet continues to expand, websites like iuniverse.com and Xlibris.com, which promise to “create printed or digital books on demand, in any quantity, for any audience, rapidly and economically” (iuniverse.com) clearly have ample business. Though supporters legitimize such establishments by citing writers like William Blake, Ezra Pound, and Virginia Woolf as examples of those who profited from self-publication, the websites’ lists of titles do not bring Blake, Pound, or Woolf immediately to mind: among them are Anataalie’s Psychic Duels: Dazzling Trails of Malovel, Aaaiiieee!, and Dogs of Amsterdam (described as “a thought provoting novella on the parallels between the human world and the animal world.” I know my thought is provoted). Iuniverse proudly claims to have returned $1 million dollars in royalties; when divided among their thousands of clients, however, this is nothing approaching the realm of Charles Frazier.
The pending demise of Oprah’s book club is another interesting landmark for the business of books. Previously, authors who were chosen could expect their sales to increase by 600,000 to a million copies—hardly figures to scoff at. But Jonathan Franzen did just that when his book The Corrections was selected, scorning the attention given by a forum he did not fancy. While those with less purist attitudes for their books can no longer hope to have their covers adorned with the Oprah stamp, the Today show may now be an alternative: a new program, beginning in the summer, will feature a book by an undiscovered writer each month, to be selected by bestselling authors. Thus, while we will no longer have the option of filling our reading lists with Oprah’s favorite books, we will soon have the likes of Charles Frazier prescribing favorites to us (or more likely, prescribing the works of friends).
For those with modest literary fortune, the prospect of finding a happy medium in the world of publishing is evidently quite difficult. Options are limited: experimental new genres probably don’t have the kind of widespread public appeal that many writers seek, online publish-it-yourself programs and trendy television book clubs may not seem pure enough, and these days, writers cannot simply decide to make their way in the world by recording everything they know, Renaissance-encyclopedia-style. In light of such a quandary, perhaps the wise will begin to take David Vise’s cue and pursue creatively questionable marketing strategies. Perhaps if I ever have occasion to brave the publishing business, I will choose a compelling pen name to court the publishing companies. I think that “Charles Frazier” has a nice sound to it, and my suitemate, whose new pen name is “Barbara Kingsolver,” will happily hawk whatever I write.