Books Magazine

We’re Not in Manhattan Any More

By T.v. Locicero

(Note: For convenience sake, this entry combines and retools material from this blog’s first 3 posts.)

That things have changed is a pretty common observation from those interested in books and publishing these days, but my story about the Great Transformation might shed a different kind of light.

I started working on my first ebook in 1970. Yes, people still lived in caves back then, and ereaders were only a gleam in the eye of some techie savant. But for me it was supposed to be a big year, with the publication of Murder in the Synagogue, my true crime account of the killing of Rabbi Morris Adler in a suburban Detroit temple on Lincoln’s birthday, 1966. They called it an assassination, not all that uncommon in those turbulent years.

Murder explored the behavior and psyche of a brilliant 23-year-old graduate student—Phi Beta Kappa at the University of Michigan, a Woodrow Wilson Fellow bound for the Divinity School at the University of Chicago—an idealistic intellectual seeker who accused his audience of 700 congregants of being hypocrites and materialists and then turned a gun on the rabbi and himself.

Among many things, it was a window on those riotous 1960s, and one of the hot literary topics back then was the rise of the “non-fiction novel.” According to my agent, Prentice-Hall, my publisher, saw the book as a kind of Jewish In Cold Blood. So in the same year that Mario Puzo got $5000 for what became The Godfather, my advance was $8500.

Published, Murder drew good reviews in often odd, out-of-the-way places like Pomona, CA, and Allentown, PA, and praise from psychiatric experts, religious figures and academics to whom I sent copies. But the eastern literary establishment acted as if it had never heard of the book, and sales were slow.

Then from Detroit’s Jewish community, a remarkable young woman came forward to tell me that Murder had been undermined by a wealthy and powerful man she had grown up calling “uncle.” She had heard this influential presidential adviser and top Republican fund-raiser—a fellow named Max Fisher—tell a group of friends that he had “squelched” my book. I checked her story and eventually learned that Prentice-Hall had indeed bowed to pressure from Fisher and suppressed my book. They printed 4000 copies from standing type, which was then pied, or dismantled—the method used for a “limited edition”—and sabotaged its marketing and distribution.

So like any foolishly high-minded young writer. I brought my accusations to Prentice-Hall, got weasel-like responses, then demanded (and secured) the rights to my book. After which I wrote another book, about what had happened to Murder.

To me, of course, it was a compelling story of corporate deceit and criminality, but facing a sure-fire, deep-pockets lawsuit from Fisher, a guy who hung out with the likes of Henry Ford II and Richard Nixon, not one of the agents and publishers I approached would even look at my new book.

My once-budding literary career soon withered. And in order to move on, I gave away my last manuscript copy of that useless expose and then embarked on a busy life as a TV producer/writer/director. Over the ensuing years, my output included more than 50 long-form documentaries, 75 shorter features, 30 live event programs and 600 editorials. Occasionally I still do that kind of work, but I never stopped writing.

And then the world changed. Digital disruption hit the publishing business, and it may no longer matter what an agent or a publisher will look at. For 30 years I had lost the manuscript of my book about what was done to Murder, but when it came back to me, I brought it up to date and am now offering it as Squelched: The Suppression of Murder in the Synagogue. Also for sale are an e-book version of Murder and 1200 copies of the original hard-cover edition that I’ve kept in a basement all these years.

So why bother with Squelched? The book was written more than 40 years ago about the publishing problems of another book written a few years earlier. What could such a story have to tell us about the disruption, confusion and uncertainty in the business today?

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 seem like if translated to the value of today’s dollar. $8500 in 1966? That would be something over $60,000 today. 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 30 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 her/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 that old New Testament line from John, 8:32: “And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” By the way, those words from Jesus are inscribed on a main lobby wall at that bastion of lies, cover-ups and covert ops, CIA headquarters, Langley, Virginia.

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. I also 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, 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, for many different reasons, withdraw its support. For one, 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.

So how common is what Prentice-Hall did to Murder? As I recount in Squelched, soon after the publication of Murder, I heard directly from two prominent literary agents on the subject. The very successful Julian Bach gestured at his office window overlooking 48th Street and told me, “Look, this 20-square-block area of Manhattan is the publishing establishment in this country, and they’ve all had their experiences like this.”

And the famed Scott Meredith advised me that this kind of thing happened with enough regularity that no one of importance would even care if another instance were publicly revealed and documented.

And then there is my fellow victim of criminal shenanigans at Prentice-Hall. Gerard Colby is the author of another ill-fated book, entitled Du Pont: Behind the Nylon Curtain. Four years after it purposely “botched” Murder, Prentice-Hall did the same thing to the Du Pont book. That story was first told on January 21, 1975, in the New York Times.

It was told again more recently by the author Colby in “The Price of Liberty,” one of several essays about suppression in the media collected in a book called Into the Buzzsaw, issued by Prometheus Books. Colby’s research found that the occurrence of this kind of soft squashing was sufficiently common that insiders had a term for it: “privishing.”  Instead of “publishing.”

By the way, I’m often asked why Prentice-Hall did not simply shut down the project and not publish the book at all. My response: doing that would have risked my taking it to another publisher where Fisher might not have had as much leverage. Better a quiet, seemingly natural demise.

My own guess about the real frequency today of this industry practice? Perhaps not all that often. I mean, isn’t this the Age of the Expose, when the great game-changing web allows nothing to remain hidden for long? A time when even the most secretive of institutions, like the Pentagon and the Vatican, are subject to massive leaks?

But then again, how can we really know? How often will someone come forward as brave and morally driven as the young woman who told me about what she heard from Max Fisher? How rare is it that an editor and a corporate attorney will jeopardize their jobs and careers by going public with their inside knowledge, as happened with the Du Pont book? I don’t have answers.

Now, of course, I’m biased, but there are other reasons why you might want to take a look at these books from four decades ago.  For example, both can be read as coming-of-age stories, a rich, time-tested theme.

Murder is many things, including an account of something we remain afflicted with today, the use of terrible violence as perverse public statement. But Murder is also the haunting story of a gifted, high-minded, ambitious and privileged young man in a time of social upheaval and rapid change. It’s a carefully told tale that finally arrives at a tragic conclusion in which this young fellow not only forfeits his own life but takes with him a prominent, much-loved member of his community in an act of violent despair so shocking that it stains and changes many lives.

How about the uses of history? The 1960s remain an important and fascinating period in the American 20th century. And you know what they say about those who ignore history. Murder offers an extraordinary view of the ‘60s in part because Richard Wishnetsky, the young man at its center, was so hyper-conscious of himself as a child of his time, as emblematic of both the promise and the failure of American society. He purposely cast himself in that role in order, he thought, to teach that society it was headed for doom.

Squelched in its way is also a coming-of-age tale. In it a naïve young writer is blindsided when his book suffers a fate he has no idea was even possible. Then he gropes, blunders and finally learns a few things.

If some of the questions raised here resonate, you might give Squelched a try. It’s a meticulous account of a young writer’s sudden plunge into the wiles of publishing and his unexpected, at times unpleasant lessons in how the world works. Its epilogue explains how the original manuscript, the last copy of which I gave away back in the early ‘70s, finally came back to me after more than three decades. And it brings the story up to date by recounting the passing of Max Fisher in 2005 at the age of 96.

Along the way you may note that while the details are decades old, the lessons they contain about corporate manipulation and the power and influence of wealth and political connection remain deeply important in our world today.

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Rabbi Jack Riemer, known as “President Clinton’s rabbi” and one of the country’s most trusted reviewers of Jewish books, called Murder in the Synagogue “a fascinating double-portrait of the Rabbi and his killer that holds the reader spellbound from beginning to end.” About Squelched he has said, “It was so absorbing that I could do nothing else until I finished it.”

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