Books Magazine


By T.v. Locicero

Last time…

I wrote about my books Murder in the Synagogue and Squelched: The Suppression of Murder in the Synagogue and ended by asking what, if anything, their fate 40 years ago might add to the conversation we’re having about the Great Shift in publishing these days. You can catch up with that post here.

One of the things people say after reading Squelched is that so many of the details are reminders of things past. For example, the size of the advance Prentice-Hall gave me for writing Murder: $8500 back in 1966 when Puzo got five grand for what turned out to be one of the best-selling novels of all time.

Today the numbers seem almost quaint…

The same for the hard-cover price of Murder, jumped by Prentice-Hall from the more or less typical $6.95, to what seemed like a much-inflated $9.95 as part of what I later learned was the publisher’s effort to stifle the book’s appeal and sales.

Lately I’ve wondered what those figures would feel like if translated to the value of today’s dollar. $8500 in 1966? Today that would be something over $60,000. Not bad for an untried young writer in the current market (unless she were a Kardashian).

And $9.95 in 1970 for a hard-cover non-fiction book? In 2012 that would be about $58. Today, of course, you might expect to pay between 27 and 32 bucks for such a book, but then we’re in the midst of the digital revolution. One wonders what a typical hard-cover price might be today if eReaders and eBooks had never happened.

Really, both sets of numbers point up a not-uncommon problem with such comparisons. In today’s rapidly changing book-publishing world, many a successful mid-list author with a few good-sellers under his belt might be happy with a 5-figure advance.

So with change and disruption shaking the industry…

Does my story of suppression in the publishing business back in 1970 seem only more ancient and irrelevant? Can this story tell us anything useful about book publishing or an author’s experience today? And why publish it now through my own company?

Because I can.

To set the record straight.

Maybe to prove those old saws about truth?

From Shakespeare’s the Merchant of Venice: “…in the end truth will out.”

And from the New Testament, John, 8:32: “And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” By the way, these words from Jesus are inscribed on a main lobby wall at that bastion of lies, cover-ups and covert ops, CIA headquarters, Langley, Virginia.

And after striking out with a hoard of agents and publishers…

I finally decided that no traditional publisher would seriously consider touching either of my non-fiction books. And since it’s important to me to finally make the story told in Squelched available to the public (after 40 years!), I figured I have neither the time nor the inclination to wait around to see if I might be mistaken about all this.

At the same time, I felt that once I went public with the suppression story, my novels, The Obsession and The Disappearance, would probably have little or no chance as well in the legacy world.

Is Squelched a defining story of legacy publishing?

Well, no. But, yes, in a larger sense books have always been subject to the whims of the companies that publish them. Of course publishers have always made decisions that in large measure determine whether a book, no matter its intrinsic worth, will find its audience. That’s one of the things they do: they make choices about how a book will be presented to the public. Decisions about cover and text design, pricing, promotion, print run, marketing and advertising, whether to push hard for reviews in the places that matter or for certain kinds of in-store display.

They say it’s all about professional judgment.

But often it may be just a gut feeling that the time is right for this story, character, theme or set of ideas. Or that its time has passed. Or that its apparent timeliness was only illusory in the first place. The publisher may decide that, while the author performed competently, the book somehow lacks that spark or special glow that can help it catch fire with a sufficient corps of readers.

And having once committed to a book and its author, a publisher may withdraw its support. That can happen for many different reasons. For example, the editor, whose enthusiastic backing for a book promised it a chance, moves on to a new job at another house. After that, forget it. The book has lost its champion.

There have always been a multitude of ways a book might not succeed, might not reach or connect with its audience. But whether it’s bad luck, bad karma, bad timing or, as in the case of Murder in the Synagogue, bad acting that included collusion with an influential third party opposed to the book’s interests, there is almost always one common factor.

The author is in the dark…

He or she may have picked up hints, from an editor who was unusually candid or just let something slip, or from the tell-tale pattern of screw-ups, failures and neglect. But the bottom line is the author doesn’t really know for sure what the hell happened to his book, whether it was some lame failure of his own—an inability to be brilliant, perceptive, insightful or eloquent enough. Or whether it was lousy luck. Or whether someone just didn’t like him or his baby enough.

Next time I’ll ask how often the kind of collusion I describe in Squelched might be happening to unsuspecting authors. As always, I’m looking forward to your comments.

Back to Featured Articles on Logo Paperblog