Monday, January 26, 2009

It Is a Truth Universally Acknowledged That an Individual in Possession of a Word Processor Must Be in Want of a Book Deal (or, What Would Jane Do?)

Come on, who here doesn't love them some Jane Austen? I know you do, secretly, even if you claim you don't.

The thing about Jane is she wasn't a superhero. She was an author, just like so many authors among us, struggling to reconcile her art with a rather silly business model. Today, an inspirational post in honor of Jane, who went through all kinds of crap to see her books in print. The lesson I'd like to take from this? There's hope for us all.*

Jane's Rejections
Jane's family--her de facto crit group--loved her work, despite the fact that it was anything but commercial (all anyone wanted were Gothic/horror novels, of course) and despite the fact that perhaps her drafts needed some fine tuning before they were ready for publication.

The first novel she finished was First Impressions (which would later be retitled Pride & Prejudice, her most famous and beloved novel). Mr. Austen promptly and proudly sent it off to the prominent publisher Thomas Cadell in 1797. He didn't bother to write a diverting query letter, though, and didn't do much research on the marketplace or tailoring his pitch. (Of course no one who reads this blog would make a mistake like that!) First Impressions was sent back, unread, with the note "declined by return of post."

Luckily, Jane didn't let the rejection get to her. She kept writing.

Jane's Unfortunate Lack of Agent
Her first book sale was Northanger Abbey, although at the time is was called Susan. She sold it in 1803 for ten pounds to the publisher Benjamin Crosby & Co., who proceeded to never publish it.

Jane was frustrated and tried to retrieve the manuscript from them, but of course they demanded the advance money back. Jane, whose entire family lived on a budget of 60 pounds, of course had already spent her advance money and couldn't return it.

In 1816, only two years before her death, Jane was able to publish the book, finally, as Northanger Abbey. Jane felt the need to explain to her readers why the manuscript was 13 years outdated in "places, manners, books, and opinions," and so included a preface to explain her publication story. She wrote, "That any bookseller should think it worth while to purchase what he did not think it worth while to publish seems extraordinary."

Alas! Poor Jane. She was probably not the first and certainly not the last author to tumble into this sad scenario. Now, agents always negotiate a non-publication clause into the contract, so rights will automatically revert to the author if the publisher hasn't produced the book in a certain period of time.

Of course, as we all know these days, it's not the advance (unless you're a 7-figure Jerry Seinfeld type) but the production of a book that costs the publisher the most money. I do rather sympathize with the publisher here, who must have had some trouble "selling the book in" or the equivalent for the time. The publisher had gone as far as taking out ads for the book, and still chose not to publish it--there must have been very low perceived interest.

Jane's Need of Editing
Pride & Prejudice would become Jane's second published novel, after she had made a considerable splash with Sense & Sensibility. What made P&P acceptable now, in 1813, where it was so unacceptable in 1797?

Well, of course, Jane's new-found platform as the author of S&S made her much more interesting to publishers (sound familiar? The only thing you need to get yourself published is to already be published! Guess not much changes.). But there was also Jane's revisiting of the manuscript, which, she wrote to her sister, Cassandra, had been "lop't and crop't" and significantly revised and updated so that it takes place in 1811 or so, not a decade and a half earlier.

Apparently Jane's ability to self-edit and to revisit the themes that were so dear to her really paid off--P&P is the work we tend to know and love best.

It must be mentioned here that Jane was a stickler of a craftist. She planned every detail of plot and place meticulously in advance of starting the actual writing (yay for a fellow bullet-pointer! I bullet point everything... including blog posts. I'm in good company, it seems.). She was also utterly inflexible about accuracy in her stories, and stuck to themes and places she either knew inside and out or could safely imagine correctly. When her niece took up writing, Jane sent her a critique letter advising her to change the passage where the characters went to Ireland, since the niece had never been to Ireland herself. That would have been irresponsible representation.


Jane's Lack of Platform, and Credit Lost as Author

It was unacceptable for a well-mannered lady to publish, or be proud of her work--it would have reflected ever-so-poorly on Jane, and not only that, might have caused people to not buy her books, since revealing her identity during publication would have pointed to the author's bad taste. So Sense and Sensibility was published with the byline "By a Lady." Pride and Prejudice's was "By the Author of Sense and Sensibility." Jane's brother Henry couldn't stop bragging about her to his fancy friends, so some word of Jane's identity got around after awhile, but never during her lifetime was her name publicly associated with what have become some of the most immortal works in the English language.

Jane's Struggle with the Blurbing Process
All of Henry's blabbing caused word of Jane's identity to get to the Prince Regent, who was a huge fan of hers. The Prince kept copies of all her books at all his residences, and invited her to his Carlton House in London for a tour guided by his head librarian, a Mr. Clarke.

During the course of the tour, Mr. Clarke suggested that Jane dedicate her next book to the Prince Regent. Poor Jane was in an awfully awkward position there. She was, after all, the author of books about proper behavior and good taste, and the Prince was mostly well known for his profligate and debauched lifestyle.

But this was a tricky choice to make, and as all published authors know, we are frequently forced to question our own moral indexes for the sake of publicity. Emma, which was about to hit presses, is the lucky bearer of this dedication. Jane sent a pre-pub copy--that's right! They had ARCs back then!--to the Prince, and this copy is still in the Windsor Castle library.

Jane's Irresponsible Habit

Books were expensive at the turn of the 19th century. Emma sold for a guinea cover price--that would have been equivalent to Mr. Austen's weekly wage (had he still been alive).

That's why 19th century novels came in multiple volumes. If a book were bound in three or five or seven pieces, multiple members of the family could read it at the same time. You start a week ahead of me and then read part II while I'm working on part I, etc. Clever.

[I can't help but dig this one in a little farther--you all already know I think books should have higher prices and lower print runs. Then maybe more people would visit and contribute to libraries, create reader circles, and cherish their used books! But I digress.]

*All the information in this post was stolen directly from a rather splendid little volume by Deirdre Le Faye--Jane Austen: The World of Her Novels.

32 comments:

JES said...

This is great. (Although I'm torn between depression that things have changed so much, and that they've changed so little.)

Kristan said...

WOW thanks for sharing! I had NO idea...

Briane P said...

Excellent summation and background.

I must have missed the earlier post and will go look for it now on the "higher prices, lower print runs." I'll be back.

Briane P said...

Okay, I'm back, and I do remember reading it but I didn't give it much thought then.

I don't think "higher prices, lower print runs" is a model to follow. Making books harder to purchase will lead book lovers to purchase less -- and will discourage the casual book reader, while not necessarily leading them to the library. Book lovers may go to the library, only to find that the books they want are not available because the library ordered fewer copies because the books are higher priced.

I can't see a way that higher prices for fewer books leads to greater profits for publishers. I know I'm not in the industry, but higher prices/lower production seems to be a model that works mostly for luxury goods -- diamonds, yachts, and, most recently, oil. But as we saw with oil, even with necessities (or goods that seem necessary) higher prices cause behavioral changes and societal shifts - -shifts away from the higher priced item and to a lower priced item.

Books a luxury only the wealthy book lover can afford? That'll never happen ever, right? Or it will, if books become like records were for audiophiles for a while there -- expensive toys that were enjoyed by only a select few, while the vast majority of people purchased lower-end cassettes.

I think the answer is to adopt one of the two models that IS working -- treat books more like movies, or treat books more like music.

If publishers treated books like movies, they would produce a couple of blockbusters per year and then a great number of smaller releases subsidized by the big franchises. They could then offer, like movie theaters get, a varying percentage of the profits to the booksellers. Theaters get relatively little of the ticket price when a new movie opens, but weeks after it opens, the theater is getting as much as 50% of the price -- so if you go see a movie on opening night, the theater makes almost nothing off the ticket. Go see it three weeks later, the theater might make as much as 50%. That encourages theaters to keep movies around (and also explains high concession stand prices.) Book publishers could easily do the same thing: Sell this blockbuster in January, we get 90%. Sell this blockbuster in April, YOU get 90%. Sell this small literary gem, you get 50%.

Also, let the booksellers determine the price. They already discount and do 2-for-1 deals. Why pre-print the price? If Barnes & Noble can sell a book for $29 instead of $19, why not let them do it?

Or the music model: discounts for NOT getting it in a store, which you've touched on, but the big publishers don't do this nearly enough, and ordering online needs to be faster. I can download a CD in ten minutes and save $5 doing that; I'll never buy another CD again.

But if a book is the same price online as in the store and I have to wait 3 days or 3 weeks to get it, why order it? If I order a book from GiantMegaloPublisher, they (presumably) don't have to pay Barnes & Noble any of that price, so shouldn't it be cheaper? And couldn't they factor in overnight delivery, at least on weekdays, or print-on-demand near me? How can USA Today put out the same newspaper all across the country, but publishers can't get me a book in less than 2 weeks, and I still pay the same price as if I drive to the bookstore, buy it there, and cut the publisher out of some of the profits?

Those two models, movies and music, have led to a resurgence of indie films and indie music. Meanwhile, when I go to the bookstore, all I get to see is "Tales of Beedle The Bard" stacked 20 deep, and I have to search around for Joe Hill's "20th Century Ghosts."

Which, by the way, is an excellent book and you should give him some love because he's writing short stories.

Kate Lord Brown said...

Fabulous post. The modesty of genius is something I bang on about a lot (Jane lived up the road from us, and wrote on a tiny little table in the hall). Heartening for those still 'living the dream' writing in garrets around the world ...

Stuart Neville said...

Wow, that's quite a tale of dedication. It takes a huge force of will to write a novel in the first place, but to stick by it for fifteen years is really something.

Charles Gramlich said...

I definitely feel like an interloper here. I've never read anything by Jane Austen

Jo said...

Nice to know she had to 'lop and crop' like the rest of us.

AC said...

This was fascinating--I didn't know a lot of her publication history. Good to know other struggling writers are in such esteemed company ;)

Crimogenic said...

Nice post. Just another remainder that most of us come from the same struggling boat.

Beth Partin said...

I never knew Northanger Abbey was her first sale. That is good to know. So Jane got 10 pounds for her first book? Sounds like she was a bit of a star...until they didn't publish her book.

Anita said...

I wonder if Jane felt successful as a writer before she died.

Pamala Knight said...

Thanks for that fabulous post, Moon Rat. I'm a big time Janeite, so no hiding in the shadows for me. I find solace in the story of her publishing journey--gives hope to those of us with much less talent than Miss Austen to know that she too, experience some of the same struggles.

BuffySquirrel said...

Cherish my used books? It's the cat that keeps knocking them on the floor, I swear! And P&P and Mansfield Park only fell apart because I read them so often....

*goes to hug books*

(I have been caught stroking books in Waterstones. Sad but true.)

Merry Monteleone said...

Thanks for this, Moonie,

I didn't know Jane's publishing story, though I do love her work.

Chris Eldin said...

This is utterly fascinating!!
I particularly love the idea of having a book bound in multiple sections. Seems environmentally friendly - though maybe not profit friendly.
:-)
Thanks for sharing!!!!

Chris Eldin said...

Okay, I just have to post this comment because the new word ver is: hyperat
I need to use that somehow..

Jane Smith said...

Damn. When I read the title to this post I thought you were referring to me.

Despite my huge disappointment in discovering that you were not, I love this post. I shall refer to it often, each time anyone tells me how publishing has changed/is changing/will change. It's a joy!

Alps said...

Thanks, this is not only interesting, but encouraging for those laboring in the overwhelming shadow of pop literature. (Hmmm... I wonder what our modern equivalent of "Gothic/horror novels" would be. Books involving vampires, maybe?) I love Northanger Abbey. It's hard to imagine it not being published for so long!

Lisa C. said...

I am a huge Austen fan, and I am grateful that she never gave up on her writing. I live for books that give me a tingle in my spine, like Pride and Prejudice, Emma, and Sense and Sensibility.

Even though there are so many the roadblocks preventing me from getting published, I press on because I wonder if I might deprive some future readers of their own spine tingles if I just give up. Besides, I try to write things that I like to read--at least I've made one reader happy!

Jane is a great role model. Thanks for the hopeful post!

Mary said...

Fascinating! And though it seems obvious, I wasn't aware of how expensive books used to be.

Dara said...

Most of this is stuff I knew already (being a ridiculous Austen geek :P) but I never tire of reading about it!

Rosemary said...

Estimable moonrat, have you read Claire Tomalin's astonishing biography of JA?

On the very last page,Tomalin sums up Austen's life with such a wise and loving eye that you can't help but weep.

Ello said...

I do adore Austen! And I absolutely adore these anecdotes. Will make post haste to purchase this book!!!

Barrie said...

Fascinating. Sad. Frustrating. I wonder what Jane say about the Kindle.

Lapillus said...

I never get tired of reading Jane Austen, or about her for that matter. Fabulous post!

Marilyn Brant said...

P&P is my favorite novel, and I've made no secret of that. (Today is the day it was published--1-28-1813 :). But it's not just the amazing fiction I admire, it's also the persistence and writing craft that went into her work, as you pointed out. Her writing story gave me a lot of hope during my years of struggling to get that first contract. I'm so glad you posted this and hope others will be similarly inspired...

Andromeda Romano-Lax said...

I loved this post. Thank you, Moonrat.

BuffySquirrel said...

What would Jane have said about the Kindle? Probably something about it being regrettable that she could not buy one!

MariaGeraci said...

Thanks for a fun read this morning:)

Elle said...

You are much more interesting than Wikipedia. Thank you for this!

Kathleen MacIver said...

I just found this post and LOVED it! Yeah for Pride & Prejudice and Persuasion! (How come more people don't love Persuasion?)