Monday, December 18, 2006

Wet Monday

Rude Regan?

The Book Standard (and everybody else) reported on Friday that Judith Regan had been fired by HarperCollins. Regan, you will recall, was the publishing person most heavily involved in the O.J. book, and the one with the most to lose when it went wrong.

Galleycat adds the news that the last straw for HC was an 'offensive' phone call to a HC lawyer who was trying to sort out some difficulties with another book, one about Mickey Mantle (a baseball player, one gathers, of some note).

Well, there's gratitude for you. Here's a woman who has done so much to lift the profile of HC, and this is the thanks she gets. As for the offensive phone call story, I find that so out of character as to strain the credulity. Mind you, publishing lawyers would tax anybody's patience.

Galleycat summarises the speculation about what next for the magnificent Judith.

Here Kitty, Kitty

Another widely reported story is that Kitty Kelley has finally found a publisher who is prepared to publish her unauthorised biography of St Oprah of Tele.

Kitty Kelley is famous for producing such unauthorised bios, which are regarded as hatchet jobs, ripping apart the carefully crafted reputations of public figures, such as Frank Sinatra or the British Royal family, and leaving them in tatters. She's been sued, notably by Frank Sinatra, but never successfully.

There are two interesting aspects to the Kelley/Oprah story. The first is that most of the big US publishers were evidently very reluctant to publish the new book, several of them turning it down in no uncertain fashion.

Most publishers, apparently, did not want to be known as the firm which disillusioned vast numbers of American women about the heroine of the small silver screen. (The assumption being, of course, that Oprah will be left looking bad when Kitty has finished with her; which does not follow as night follows day, but that seems to be the assumption.)

In any event, Crown have now decided that the profit on the deal outweighs any opprobrium which might come their way.

But the really, really, really interesting thing about the Kitty/Oprah story is the one told by Publishers Lunch, which quotes 'multiple sources'. PL says that, at one point during the summer, when perhaps it looked as if no mainstream publisher would take the risk on this one, 'Kelley's reps were in discussions with iUniverse.'

Now if that doesn't give you a laugh, albeit a grim one, on this gloomy Monday morning, I can offer no better.

Of course it may be that PL's 'multiple sources' were having a little fun at Ms Kelley's expense. Nevertheless, if I were a mainstream, big-time publisher, and I read that PL report, I would quake in my boots. Here's why.

In 2003 I published a book called The Truth about Writing (which you can read free, as a PDF file). In that book I made reference to that great and perceptive work Book Business, by Jason Epstein, a man who combines decades of experience in traditional publishing with an unusual interest in modern technology and digital developments generally. Here's what I said:

Epstein points out that the large publishers and the major bookshop chains both depend heavily on selling the product of the brand-name authors. In fiction these are the John Grishams, the Danielle Steels, and the Tom Clancys.

However, as Epstein also points out, once a writer becomes a brand name, she no longer needs the big publisher at all! She could just as easily set up her own marketing and distribution system and go it alone. And probably make more money.

If the big-time writers are continuing to use the big publishers, and at the time of writing that is the case, then it can only be because such an arrangement suits their convenience; it is not because they are unaware of possible alternatives.

In other words, if Kitty Kelley has, in the end, done a deal with Crown, it is only because that is, for her, the most convenient way to arrange for the package of services that she needs, in order to put her book before the public. It is not because there isn't a viable alternative.

One day, and it won't be long now, a big brand-name person will not necessarily go to iUniverse, but she will simply set up her own company, buy in the help she needs on a freelance or one-off basis, and forget about HarperCollins and Random House.

Thus the thoughtful big-time publisher, whose pension depends up the huge profits from his brand-name authors, is currently more than a little worried. It may be that he will spend ten or twenty years building up a name, only to find that the ungrateful beast then ups and offs, precisely at the moment when the investment is about to pay off.

Arse and elbow syndrome

There was a bit of a fuss last week because the US Democrats' new intelligence chairman got a bit confused between the Sunnis and the Shias. Some nit-picking news commentators took the extraordinary view that such a highly placed man ought to know what he was talking about, which is an entirely new concept where politicians are concerned.

However, if there are any Americans who feel slightly embarrassed by the shortcomings of their leaders, I have some comforting news. I remember a highly placed member of the UK's MI6 who used to get confused between the East Indies and the West Indies. And I also remember a Cambridge historian who used to have trouble distinguishing between the Reformation and the Renaissance. (Both begin with Re, when all is said and done; and they were both an awfully long time ago.)

Unfortunately, my comfort is qualified. The UK examples quoted above are drawn from fictional sources. The historian appeared in Kingsley Amis's 1954 novel Lucky Jim, and the MI6 man was in Grahame Greene's Our Man in Havana (1958). In the film, the latter gentleman was played (rather well, of course) by Noel Coward.

Honorable mentions

Terry Pratchett is interviewed in the Sunday Times, and the two-part TV adaptation of his Hogfather novel began on Sky last night. Not bad, I thought. Caitlin Moran doesn't agree with me, but I thought Marc Warren had a pretty good stab at Mr Teatime.

Bryan Appleyard does a good interview job on Michael Crichton, and elicits the info that Harvard Eng. Lit. profs can't tell the difference between an undergraduate essay and George Orwell. I fail to be surprised. Meanwhile the Independent explains why it's not a good idea to criticise Crichton: you could end up in his next book, being accused of lacking something in the manhood department (link from

The Sunday Times lists bestsellers in the Guides and Manuals class, and we learn that Paul McKenna (PhD) has three in the top ten: Instant Confidence; I can Make You Thin; and Change Your Life in Seven Days. And they've sold in serious numbers: in the case of Instant Confidence, 169,495 in one week.

Yippee! I'm Time magazine's person of the year. But, er, so are about 50 million other people.

To no one's surprise, particularly if they've read Kembrew McLeod, Disney claims to own Santa Claus. But this is, of course, a filthy, wicked lie. Santa belongs to Coca Cola, as any fule kno.

Issue 4 of Ward 6 Review is out. It offers the 'finest poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction, regardless of form, style, school, or method. Quite simply, we will take the best work that crosses our desks. We intend to do everything within our power to turn Ward 6 Review into a premiere literary destination on the Internet.'

Jeffrey Harmon is part of a company which offers the opportunity to create a family memory book.

A UK star publisher tells how he picks winners. No dear, he doesn't do it with a pin. It just feels that way. (Link from

The Indie explains why writing a book isn't likely to pay the rent, and why you don't need to do it full-time anyway. (Link from

Galleycat reports that another smart fellow is giving his work away. My dears, all the best people are doing it.

Forbes magazine lists the top-earning authors; and they're not all novelists.


Anonymous said...

These publishers are lined up around the block, hoping for a chance just to wash Opraww's feet--they're not gonna be seen near ANY critic of Her Regalness, true or not.

Anonymous said...

Hi Michael,

Thanks for the mention of our memory book system, iMemoryBook. I hope that you enjoy it. We look forward to hearing any feedback you might have.

Jeffrey Harmon
Team iMemoryBook

Don said...

In the U.S., Kitty Kelley is one of those brands that I think most people will tend to associate with bios which are harsh and not necessarily accurate. Certainly, none of her bios has had much lasting impact on the public consciousness beyond the spare anecdote here and there (e.g., Nancy Reagan's heavy use of astrologers for advice). The Kitty Kelley bio of Oprah won't so much damage Oprah's image as annoy Oprah, which given the marketing power that she wields in the book world is something that publishers are understandably reluctant to do (I can think of no other single individual with the power to sell books that she holds).

As for Judith Regan, word is she's in talks to do something with one of the television networks (the article I read wasn't clear about whether this meant broadcast or cable). Presumably, however, not one of the NewsCorp-owned networks though. I keep meaning to check the directory when I'm in the lobby whether I work in the building that she moved her imprint to in Century City.

Anonymous said...

Santa Claus??? Oh now, let's leave the poor guy alone. He's been sold so many times it's ruining his image.

Jasper Milvain said...

Michael Crowley's got a response, if you're interested, with more of what Crichton actually said than the Independent may have thought safe to print.

As someone who's talked a bit about English libel law in the past, can you see any reason why Crowley couldn't take Crichton for tens of thousands of pounds and a pulping over here?

Anonymous said...

A big-name author going it alone? There's an interesting parallel with music here. The late great Frank Zappa got such a raw deal from Warners - who perhaps underestimated him as a dumb hippy - that he started publishing his own stuff & made MUCH more money. And was able to release better records, too. That was pre-internet... hell of a lot easier today.

MC said...

The curious thing about the lack of understanding of foreign matters by members of Congress was that it didn't get more coverage. I saw it on BBC news where it was the second lead story. The NBC news was on earlier but the matter was not even mentioned. The first lead item that evening on BBC was Kofi Annan's departing address at the Truman Library where he chastised the US for the obvious. To the best of my knowledge, this got no coverage on any network. (More on my blog).

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