Buying a book to spite the publisher?

I first heard about Mischa Berlinski's Fieldwork on a Glenn and Helen podcast in which they interviewed the author. Until today, I never bought the book, although the interview helped inspire a long post about Naga headhunters.

Distracted by other things in the past couple of months, I had all but forgotten about the Berlinski book until yesterday, when I stumbled quite accidentally upon Stephen King's review of the book in "Entertainment Weekly." Book reviews don't usually make me mad (especially when the reviewer loves the book as much as King loved this one). But it wasn't the review that made me mad, it was reading about how the publisher undermined the book -- especially the reasons: Here's King:

If this is such a good read, what's the bad news? That's easy. As of March 26, Fieldwork was No. 24,571 on the Amazon best-seller list, and not apt to go much higher. The reason why is illustrative of how the book biz became the invalid of the entertainment industry, and why fiction sales are down across the board (with the possible exception of chick lit). Critics, with their stubborn insistence that there's a difference between ''literature'' and ''popular fiction,'' are part of the problem, but the publishers themselves, who have bought into this elitist twaddle, are also to blame. Since we're talking Fieldwork, take Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Publishing houses have two faces. In the case of FSG, Jekyll belongs to the distinguished company that has published such award-winning novels as Gilead, The Great Fire, and The Corrections. Hyde is the side which seems to proclaim ''Don't read this, it's too smart for the likes of you.''

Reading that was enough to make me buy a book I had forgotten to buy.

Reading on made me want to write a post about it:

I picked Fieldwork up because I saw interesting words on the flap (fascination, taboo, sexual), but when I think about how close I came to passing it by, I just get mad. As it was, I grabbed it on impulse, thinking: I know you don't want me to buy you, you dull-looking thing, but I'm going to. Just to spite you.

Why, why, why would a company publish a book this good and then practically demand that people not read it? Why should this book go to waste? Is it because there are people in publishing who believe that readers who liked The Memory Keeper's Daughter are too dumb to enjoy a killer novel like Fieldwork? If so, shame on them for their elitism. Hey, guys, why not put the heroine on the jacket? Martiya in the jungle at night, or embracing her lover, or dancing with the native tribe of which she almost becomes a member? In other words, why not actually sell this baby a little?

It occurs to me that publishers may confuse ''selling'' with ''pimping.'' If so, here's a flash: They're not the same. Sell this one, and you make it possible for this guy to write the next one. You're doing him a mitzvah. And not just him. What about the ordinary reader? In case you forgot, guys, we are your friends, not unwashed, unlettered, germ-laden interlopers at the literary feast.

You don't want to do your job? Okay, I'll do it.

Under the drab title and the drab cover, there's a story that cooks like a mother. It's called Fieldwork.

So why would they give this excellent book such short shrift?

Because some strange literary elite wants to be in charge of what constitutes literature?


At the rate they're going, they'll do to writing what they've done to art.

So I bought the book not only to support the author, but out of spite for the publisher (to say nothing the intellectually bankrupt literary elites who seem to be influencing them).

Who knows? I might even get around to reading it.

posted by Eric on 05.06.07 at 11:07 AM


I'm still trying to understand why a publisher, who has a book that has sold out its original press run in months, refuses to a) reprint a new run or b) let the author buy back his/her rights if the publisher declines to do anything with them.

John   ·  May 6, 2007 12:53 PM

Over at Baen Books they have been conducting this interesting experiment for a number of years now: giving away free material to sell more books. More correctly, giving away the digital content of older titles to have more dead-tree media sales. And the years of data now demonstrate that this works.

Most books see an initial period of time of hot sales and then a trailing off as the sales decline and a very low level of sales thereafter. Free material spurs individuals on to *buy the book* so the plateau is much higher for follow-on sales. This is true of both established authors, like David Drake, and less well known ones, like John Dalmas. Put an old book's content out for *free* and sales will start to pick up. A single reprint cycle used to take a few years to run out the stock, while many of the books in the free library now go through *annual* print runs or even more frequent.

Authors have seen increased residual royalties from this effect.

That is the effect of people wanting to *own the book* not just *read the material*. Books still have many, many positives over the digital material, such as high resolution and not needing a power source, just enough reading light to read. No batteries to go out on you. Takes a bit of a battering and still has readable contents. Looks nice on a shelf next to *other books*. Cover art that is often very telling of what you will get or artwork in and of itself.

Right now that is the Baen domain, until others learn how to finally give up this idea that it is the *book* that sells the material: it is the material that sells the book.

ajacksonian   ·  May 8, 2007 1:13 PM

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