Private Eye’s almost unbearably brilliant Libor for Dummies business model for the future of book publishing

Cover of the autumn 2015 Bulletin of the American Authors Guild: ‘Should Writers Be Performers?’ -- Cover artist: Kevin Sanchez Walsh, kswradiographic@gmail.com

Cover of the autumn 2015 Bulletin of the American Authors Guild: ‘Should Writers Be Performers?’
— Cover artist: Kevin Sanchez Walsh, kswradiographic [at] gmail.com

For months — as much as a year, perhaps — we have seen no new ideas for economic structures for post-Gutenberg publishing, the turn-of-the-decade preoccupation of many an anxious scribe, and the topic that launched this blog. Then we read the dire news of a ‘business model’ that a well-known large publisher has begun to offer authors. Fittingly, this was in a masterpiece of sardonic rage in the Books and Bookmen column of a satirical magazine, Private Eye (No: 1412; 19, February 2016). We will spare our readers the chore of looking up the Latin derivations of ‘libor’ – from libare or ‘sacrifice,’ or liborius, ‘free’, according to the Wikipedia. (But do scroll down this blog entry** to note the most interesting overlap with one Latin word for book — not codex, of course.)

BOOKS and BOOKMEN

With the vast majority of published authors earning below the minimum wage, one major publisher has found a way to give them even less — and indeed land them with a five-figure bill, in a scheme that owes more to vanity publishing than to the normal commercial author/publisher relationship.

Publisher John Wiley, which issues the popular ‘… For Dummies’ series, is telling writers its ‘business model has changed over recent months’. Out goes the advance on royalties. In comes an author commitment, ‘at the outset’, to buy ‘a minimum quantity of approximately 1,500-2,000 copies over the course of a three-year period’. For 2,000 books, even with an author discount, this adds up to nearly £13,600.

And out goes the writer looking to the publisher to help promote the title. In comes ‘author commitment in terms of promotion of the book at speaking engagements and training events’. This means the writers selling their own books, or as Wiley puts it, ‘purchasing discounted copies for events/business use/training courses to make our products viable’. An author selling 2,000 copies would make £19,200 — less costs involved in the ‘events’.

No mention of the cost of researching and writing the book, or the fact that some authors aren’t physically able to be travelling sales reps. These requirements will mean that most authors can only afford to write if an employer sponsors them with time, event organisation and the cost of buying their own books.

Take the (imaginary) Libor for Dummies. It would be hard to find an independent author with the ability or money to follow Wiley’s new business model. But there are plenty of bankers who could write this title from their employer’s point of view, and promote it with the bank picking up all the tabs. Which would make the book financially viable — and simultaneously worthless.

At last someone with a powerful megaphone has spoken out about the absurdity of trying to turn all scribblers into salespeople, on social media or anywhere else. Roxana Robinson, the president of the Authors Guild in New York — and author of a sensitive and perceptive biography of the painter Georgia O’Keeffe, for which we were long ago proud to make room on our shelves — is pointing out what we did in an early entry in this blog, when practically no one was publicly challenging the near-universal conviction that writers have no alternative to morphing into performing fleas. It has been one of our most popular posts — without having any discernible effect, so far:

How would introverts like Beckett — and Wittgenstein, Kafka and P.G. Wodehouse — have survived social media?

This is part of what the Authors Guild leader said on virtually the identical subject a few months ago:

Promotion is the opposite of writing. It’s depleting. And this kind of ‘creative’ promotion, is an act of desperation.

You can’t be a writer while you are onstage, answering questions. The only place where you can be a writer is alone with your mind, answering the questions that come from yourself, the ones you can reconsider, shift and re-phrase, until you find yourself heading out alone into the ranges you want to explore. Most writers are not performance artists. When we’re in public, we’re not writing. When we’re writing, we’re not in public.

Moreover, if you’re not well-known, none of these strategies of self-promotion is useful. No one will pay money to see an unknown writer.

… It might be better if the publishing houses let writers do what they’re good at, which is writing, and if they did what they’re good at, which is editing and producing and promoting, the books they have bought, believe in and support.

That’s called division of labor, and in the world of economics, it’s quite highly thought of.

If only writers could go on strike …

** From a lively discussion on Reddit:

Liber with a short i (pronounced like: li – ber) means “a book” and declines liber, libri, libro, librum, libro. Liber with a long i (pronounced like: lee – ber) as a noun means “a free person; children of a family” and declines liber, liberi, libero, liberum, libero.

Milan says a tender goodbye to Umberto Eco in high style: let’s hope that someone put his confession about The Da Vinci Code into a eulogy

Umberto Eco funeral, Sforza Castle inner courtyard

Photographs of mourners at Castello Sforzesco (Sforza Castle): Comune di Milano, with thanks to our peerless detective MIL22

Photographs of mourners at Castello Sforzesco (Sforza Castle): our thanks to Comune di Milano and our peerless detective MIL22

[ an earlier post on the same subject: here ]

Have we ever seen a novelist or scholar given anything resembling a state funeral before? Probably not, and if Umberto Eco was a typical humbug-hating scribbler — as we suspect, not just from his work but the many descriptions of his large form shuffling along the corridors of his house in ancient slippers and baggy, comfortable clothes — we would expect him to have been vastly amused as well as touched by the sendoff he was given in Italy’s capital of book publishing. He would probably also agree with Flannery O’Connor’s belief that …

[The writer’s] concern with poverty is with a poverty fundamental to man. I believe that the basic experience of everyone is the experience of human limitation….[I]n the sight of the novelist we are all poor, and the actual poor only symbolize for him the state of all men.

Even though Dottore Eco died immensely rich, and even if he took a certain pride in that, no remorseless realist like him would disagree with O’Connor’s take on the philosophical core of all good writers — which rings deeply true.

On a lighter note, … we went looking for fresh experiences of what he offered us — which was a long-running ‘feast of intelligence and intellectual sparkle,’ far more so than technically perfect novels. And never mind if the quotation is a clip from the Libération review on the back cover of The Name of the Rose.

How did Eco explain the sales of Foucault’s Pendulum? Our last post admired Alexander Stille’s review of it in Harper’s, which contains this revelation:

One Italian magazine reported that only 20 percent of the people who bought the book have bothered to read it. Finding even that figure suspiciously high, the magazine quizzed people who claimed to have read the book and found that most could not recall key incidents in the novel.

Now, here are two delectable excerpts from a Paris Review interview with the author. The first seems a flawless encapsulation of the reasons why he was so successful. As for the second, what would-be reader of Foucault and the American blockbuster Eco was asked about — that we must admit we have not read but only listened to, in helpless convulsions, on a long car journey — could possibly disagree with him?

INTERVIEWER

In Foucault’s Pendulum you write, “The more elusive and ambiguous a symbol is, the more it gains significance and power.”

ECO

A secret is powerful when it is empty. People often mention the “Masonic secret.” What on earth is the Masonic secret? No one can tell. As long as it remains empty it can be filled up with every possible notion, and it has power.

INTERVIEWER

Have you read The Da Vinci Code?

ECO

Yes, I am guilty of that too.

INTERVIEWER

That novel seems like a bizarre little offshoot of Foucault’s Pendulum.

ECO

The author, Dan Brown, is a character from Foucault’s Pendulum! I invented him. He shares my characters’ fascinations—the world conspiracy of Rosicrucians, Masons, and Jesuits. The role of the Knights Templar. The hermetic secret. The principle that everything is connected. I suspect Dan Brown might not even exist.

Farewell, phenomenal Umberto Eco

Umberto Eco top of NYT home page (1)

[ late addition below ]

A yellowing copy of ‘The Novel as Status Symbol,’ a 1989 book review by Alexander Stille not available on the net, happened to be lying on this desk when the divine imp Umberto Eco died on Friday. For several weeks, we had smiled every time we came across it, hunting for other pieces of paper. It made finding him honoured with an obituary portrait at the top of the home page of The New York Times a sad pleasure: he deserved no less.

What Stille recounted of the great semiotician-novelist’s fiction writing philosophy was quite wicked enough a quarter-century ago, when marketing chieftains in publishing companies were well on their way to wresting supreme veto power from editor-tsars. In our new age of scribes, book-promoters and whole literary communities bowing low to likey/no-likey social media, it is not impossible to envisage someone like Eco being burned at the stake for heresy, some day.

Some extracts from the most enthralling sketch we have ever read of the author of The Name of the Rose and Foucault’s Pendulum:

Last June, Eco — a medieval scholar and a professor of semiotics at Italy’s University of Bologna — stood on the dais of the cavernous ballroom in the Washington Hilton before a crowd of more than a thousand American booksellers.

In open defiance of the usual laws of marketing, Eco told the booksellers, he had written his first novel for about a thousand readers and decided to write the second for five hundred. ‘With my first book I was criticized for putting in too many quotations in Latin, so I started my new book with a long quotation in Hebrew. That’s my challenge.’ But Eco is not a naïve professor who was catapulted to stardom by an unlikely turn of fate. As a professor of semiotics (the theory of signs), a former publishing executive, a journalist, and the author of some twenty books, Eco is an expert on mass media and the machinery of popular fiction. ‘The world of media is full of free gifts, wash-and-wear philosophy, and instant ecstasy,’ he explained to the booksellers. ‘Readers want a little more; they want to be discouraged in order to be respected.’

… Since its publication in Italy last fall Foucault’s Pendulum has provided several new twists to what has come to be known as the Eco phenomenon. The novel has sold more quickly than any book in Italian publishing history, while becoming the center of a fierce national controversy.

Rumors than Eco was working on the book were eagerly picked up by the Italian press as early as two years before the book appeared … Anticipation built up to such an extent that when the book finally appeared, 500,000 copies were sold before the first buyers had a chance to grapple with it and tell their friends what they thought.

But within several weeks the Eco phenomenon boomeranged. Readers who had bought the book for faddish reasons gave up when confronted with the labyrinthine complexities of a novel that explores the mysteries of the Jewish cabala, hermetic philosophy, and a thousand years of esoteric thought. Eco was accused of having shrewdly manipulated the press in a plot to push sales. ‘Eco is a genius of our culture,’ one critic wrote, ‘a genius of self-promotion.’ To his dismay, Eco has become a kind of literary Midas: everything he does makes news and sells copies. Even his decision not to appear on television was perceived as another clever maneuver to attract attention. But the attacks, predictably, only had the effect of selling more copies …

Harper’s, November 1989

But, as we discovered not long after we posted those Stille quotations, Eco hardly spared the editor-tsars. We had long wondered how any editor, no matter how skilled and revered, could have had any idea of how to edit his novels — known whether to add or substract as much as a comma — which could define idiosyncratic. What did Eco think of their role? On the site of The New York Review of Books, there was his concise answer to that question, in 1994: ‘Case for Textual Harrassment’. Skim-read it at your peril: after we stopped to re-read it with closer attention, we were shaking so excessively that we had to lie down for a minute-and-a-half. Unless you know Philip Larkin’s and T.S. Eliot’s most famous poems, you will not understand. (The ‘rites of vegetation,’ William Weaver’s translation of whatever Eco wrote in the Italian original, is a master-stroke. Oh, you poor lilacs …)

The miniature essay begins:

These days, especially in the United States, implacable copy editors demand of authors not only stylistic revisions but even changes in plot, new endings, whatever commercial necessity dictates. But … can we honestly say that they ordered things so differently in the past?

Take the usually overlooked fact that the first version of a well-known poem by Philip Larkin originally went: “They do you harm, your father and mother.” It was only the insistence of Larkin’s editor that inspired the now famous variant. And the first draft of Eliot’s Waste Land opened: “April is the cruelest month. And March isn’t all that great, either.” Weakened in its impact by this peevish insistence on climactic details, the earlier text denied April any implied link with the rites of vegetation. As everyone knows, Ariosto at first submitted to his publisher a very brief poem that went: “Of women and knights, arms, loves, courtly rituals, and bold ventures I have nothing to say.” And that was that. “How about developing it a bit?” the editor suggested. And Master Ludovico, who was having enough trouble as civil governor of a remote Tuscan province, said, “What’s the use? There are dozens of epics of chivalry already. Leave it. I want to urge poets to try new genres.” And the editor replied, “Yes, of course, I understand, and, personally, I agree with you. But why not try approaching the form from another angle? With irony, for instance. Anyway, we can’t sell a onepage book, particularly one with only two verses on the page. It looks like imitation Mallarmé. It would have to be a limited, numbered edition. So unless we can get Philip Morris to sponsor it, we’re screwed.” …