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Below the Beltway / Entertainment

Publish and Perish: A Short Story With a Surprise Ending

WASHINGTON -- This is excerpted from a speech I recently gave at the Tucson Festival of Books.

Most people here are readers, not writers, so I thought Id share some dirty little secrets with you from inside the world of book publishing. When you see a book, you probably see a meticulously crafted product; we authors see a meticulously crafted fraud, beginning with the jacket copy, which is the material on the book jacket, lavishly complimentary about the author, and often written in the third person by the author himself. I, personally, wrote a line for the jacket of my new book in which I compared myself to O. Henry. I am not proud of this, but there it is.

From the standpoint of scrupulous honesty and intellectual rigor, though, jacket copy is the Talmud compared with blurbs. Blurbs are short bites of additional complimentary material written about the author by people more famous than the author. Thats how it works: People you never heard of get blurbed by me. I get blurbed by Dave Barry. Dave Barry gets blurbed by Stephen King. Stephen King gets blurbed by His Holiness the Pope.

Publishers love blurbs; its their system of influence peddling. The dirty little secret about blurbs is that they are often written by someone who not only isnt familiar with the writer, but sometimes hasnt even read the book. He is writing the blurb as a favor to his publisher.

Publisher: Will you write a blurb for Gene Weingartens new book?

Tom Clancy: I never heard of Gene Weingarten.

Publisher: Well, his jacket copy says he is the new O. Henry.

Tom Clancy: Im ethically uncomfortable blurbing a book I havent read by a writer I dont know.

Publisher: If you do this for me, Ill get you a blurb from J.K. Rowling.

Tom Clancy: Fine.

This system is like a house of cards, with less structural integrity. Many blurbs are written grudgingly. Subversion burbles just below the surface. I fully expect someday to read a blurb like, A very fine, perceptive book. It examines politics and blows the lid off it mightily, and realize that there is a secret message in every fifth word: Book blows mightily.

Perhaps the greatest revelation from the world of books, though, is the myth of royalties. Royalties are a theoretical construct, like the quark. No one has ever seen a quark, but based on conjecture and evidence, scientists assure us it is a likelihood. Same with royalties, which are theoretically based on an amount of money the writer gets for each book sold. This system theoretically kicks in once sales have paid back the writers advance. In practice this never happens because -- and I want to emphasize this -- books do not sell.

Until recently, authors didnt know just how grim the sales picture was, because the only sales information we got was from the publisher in the form of royalty statements, which are incomprehensible sheaves of figures -- some are in parentheses, some are underlined, some are underlined twice. Mercifully, we could never understand royalty statements. Not long ago, a friend of mine called excitedly to say that he just got his first royalty statement from his new book -- a fine book on an important subject of public policy -- and it looked as though he had already sold 40,000 copies. His agent then reviewed the same document and concluded actual sales had been closer to 603.

Tragically, many publishing firms have recently automated their sales-reporting system, and it is now possible for an author to see exactly how many books he has sold, and continues to sell, week to week. Thus it was that just yesterday I clicked into the Simon & Schuster special authors portal and was able to calculate, with mathematical precision, that if my 2004 book, Im With Stupid, continues to sell at its current rate, I will begin to make money on it sometime during the second week of June 2093.

By the way, O. Henry died penniless.

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Gene Weingarten's email address is weingarten(at)washpost.com.

Copyright 2012 Washington Post Writers Group



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