‘Readers of the world unite’

“This is not a protest,” said Dale Peck to a shivering group of people who had gathered, furtively, outside the six-storey Barnes & Noble bookstore on Union Square in New York a few months ago. “This is not a demonstration,” he continued, dissembling in a manner that might dissuade a passing cop from inquiring whether the event had a permit. “This is a reading of Mischief + Mayhem’s debut title, The Autobiography of Jenny X by Lisa Dierbeck. It’s a book Joseph O’Neill praised as ‘fast, funny, and twisted’ and The New York Observer, in a rave review, called ‘beguiling’. It’s also,” he said, gesturing at the store behind him, “a book that you won’t find on the other side of those windows. Not because Barnes & Noble refuses to stock it, but because we didn’t want it there.”

Nor, Peck continued, did Mischief + Mayhem want it on Amazon, the online behemoth whose retail policies he described as “even more draconian and anti-art than Barnes & Noble’s”. Economies of scale mean that both “make money by selling the greatest number of copies of the fewest number of titles”. Their marketing strategies, their elaborately curated display policies, their “readers also bought” algorithms – that suggest you might become fatally uninformed if you bought Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom without also buying Stieg Larsson’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo – were killing literary publishing.

It’s time, said Peck, for a new kind of publishing. “Readers of the world unite,” he proclaimed, his greatcoat billowing open to reveal a red silk tie over a red T-shirt. “You have nothing to lose but the chains.”

Dierbeck read, briefly, from her book and then the crowd trundled off to Peck’s East Village walk-up for wine and pizza.

Mischief + Mayhem is a writers’ collective, so far composed of five writers but with aspirations to embrace up to 30. Its goal is to publish six books a year and sell directly to the consumer through their publisher, OR books, by way of print on demand or through selected independent bookstores. In addition to Dierbeck and Peck, who has written 10 novels and is still infamous for the literary eviscerations he penned a decade ago as a critic for The New Republic (“Rick Moody is the worst writer of his generation,” began one review), the collective includes the novelist Joshua Furst (The Sabotage Café), writer DW Gibson (M + M will publish his debut novel An All-American Field Guide to the Outside World), and Choire Sicha, who has just completed a non-fiction account of, as he puts it, “poor people” in love in New York during the recession.

Some of these writers, it must be said, have perfectly good relationships with top publishers that they don’t plan on giving up. Furst is published by Knopf, Sicha, a former editor at the Gawker website, will be published by HarperCollins, and Peck, who has had relationships with several top publishers, drew gasps from the literary establishment three years ago when he and co-writer Tim Kring (creator of the television show Heroes) received a $3m dollar advance for a mass market alternative history trilogy, The Gate of Orpheus – can Chandler Forrestal, unwillingly drugged by the CIA into a state of heightened perception, save JFK from a nefarious plot?

Peck, 43, who grew up in Long Island and Kansas, and who has been praised as a “fiercely gifted modernist” by The New York Times, doesn’t dispute the benefits of relationships with marquee publishing houses. “Even as we attack the publishing system,” he says, “we have to acknowledge there are plenty of well-meaning people in the system. So it’s not that – we’re going to work the Nazi metaphor now – everyone working at the concentration camp is guilty.”

The point, he says, is that there are fewer opportunities for novelists to write serious novels and for them to receive anything but a paltry advance. “The whole point of writing literature was that in exchange for not getting paid a lot of money, you could say whatever you wanted; now, you don’t get a lot of money and you don’t get to say what you want. All of which segues to why writing is f***ed.”

Peck’s argument is that editing has been corrupted by the new commercial mandates of publishing – or, at least, is more prone to a precautionary principle that dictates that if there are any reasons why a reader might not like something in a book, say an unsympathetic character, then there is a case for demanding the author get rid of the unsympathetic character.

A key witness for Peck is Kaylie Jones, author of A Soldier’s Daughter Never Cries, (turned into a film in 1998 by Merchant Ivory), and the daughter of James Jones, author of From Here to Eternity. Jones, who is 50, and teaches at two graduate writing programmes in New York, saw the new editorial sensibility at work on two of her most promising writing students. The first, Barbara Taylor, wrote an account of a Pennsylvania coalmining family that began with a young girl burning to death on July 4 1912 after her friend’s sparkler set her dress alight. Based on a true story, the scene lasted 25 pages. The editorial response, says Jones, was “you can’t have this in your book, it’s too depressing”. Taylor’s book, she says, “was one of the best things I’ve ever read”. The same thing happened to another of her students, Matthew McGevna, whose novel ends with the killing of a child. The editorial reaction, says Jones, was, “Oh, please don’t tell me there’s a death of a kid in it. No one wants to read about a child dying.” Neither budding novelist caved; neither is yet published.

“The list of things you can’t do grows longer and longer,” adds Lisa Dierbeck. Her first novel, One Pill Makes You Smaller, was published in 2003 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux (FSG), and became a New York Times notable book (“bracing pessimism ... perversely liberating,” said the Times reviewer). But when it came to sending out her second novel, The Autobiography of Jenny X, she was told by several large presses that the only way it would be publishable would be to make significant changes. “I was told that having a character in jail was a problem,” she says. “Readers will not be able to identify with him. One editor even said he wasn’t handsome enough.”

Peck adds: “A lot of quality fiction isn’t being written. There are talented writers not writing the books that they ought to be. I’m not going to name names – I’m not going to accuse people of working in bad faith. But it’s my sense that there are talented writers out there who are more concerned with reputation and how that translates into sales than they are concerned with what they are actually putting on the page.”

M + M’s model, says Peck, “is Grove Press in the 1950s. It published incredible stuff that no one else would touch – Henry Miller, Genet, Lady Chatterley’s Lover – work that was too marginalised, unacceptable.”

It’s not hard to see where Peck’s épater la bourgeoisie comes from. “I was a nerd, I was a fag, I was poor, I was used to being hated – that didn’t bother me so much,” he says and admits to being naturally polarising. So is M + M a form of atonement for Peck’s having been, as the critic John Leonard once put it, the equivalent of a piano falling on a pedestrian author? Peck responds with an anecdote: a prominent editor had recently asked him to do a podcast, noting how much he was looking forward to “a good Dale Peck rant” to which he frantically responded: “No, no! It’s the new kinder gentler Dale Peck, we don’t rant any more!”

Of course, authors will always find it difficult to accept criticism of their work but that doesn’t necessarily mean covert commercial forces are at work. Mitzi Angel, a 36-year-old English editor who joined Farrar, Straus and Giroux in 2008, challenges the idea that publishing is ready to corrupt art for a quick buck. Yes, sales of some kinds of books have dropped over the past few years, she says, but “look at someone like Roberto Bolaño”, one of FSG’s recent triumphs: “He’s a dead author in translation; no one had ever heard of him; and yet he has sold around 70,000 in hardcover, 35,000 paperback boxed sets and 40,000 paperbacks so far.” Angel also successfully published the Man Booker Prize-longlisted Skippy Dies by Paul Murray, after it was rejected by every major publisher in the US. She says it is not necessarily the system that is at fault for such decisions but, rather, that the publishing process is inherently random. “So much depends on who sees what, when, and whether they like it,” she says.

John Thompson, 59, Cambridge professor of sociology, came to a fairly similar conclusion after conducting 280 interviews with publishers, booksellers and literary agents for his new study of Anglo-American publishing, Merchants of Culture: The Publishing Business in the Twenty-First Century (Polity). “I often came away from an interview feeling puzzled and at times completely bewildered by what I’d heard, simply because this is a very complex and bewildering business,” he says. He concludes, however, that economic forces have conspired against the kind of sales figures that have, historically, supported literary culture through what are known as midlist titles. “It is getting harder and harder for publishers to sell literary fiction, especially new fiction by writers who have not yet become recognisable names with established track records,” he says. “Whereas 10-20 years ago a large publisher in the US might ship out 10,000-15,000 copies of a new novel by an unknown writer and sell 6,000 to 10,000 net, now they’re more likely to ship 5,000-6,000 and sell perhaps 3,000-4,000. It’s the same in the UK, except the numbers are even lower.”

The consequence, says Thompson, is “the literary marketplace looks more and more like a winner-takes-more market, concentrating on a small number of titles that sell exceptionally well, indeed, better than ever, whereas the number of titles that sell in modest but acceptable quantities is declining.” He agrees that “this is not a particularly appealing vision for the future of literary culture.”

Lorin Stein, the soigné 37-year-old editor of The Paris Review and a former editor at FSG, where he edited Jonathan Franzen and critic James Wood among other authors, believes the disappearing midlist “is a direct consequence of the disappearance of independent booksellers. When people are nostalgic for the midlist, what they miss is the way a publisher used to grow a writer,” he says. “If I were your publisher, you would start off selling me your first novel for not very much money, and I would help you grow your reputation through independent bookstores and through reviews. Now, the bookstores don’t exist, the reviews [for these books] don’t exist. And, as a writer, you have very sensibly agented up. So I and four publishers – all of us afraid of getting caught out and not having signed up the only book that will sell that season – may throw millions of dollars at you and probably the book doesn’t sell. Or we may ignore you entirely. Your book might well have been a midlist novel 30 years ago – you would have had a quieter debut but you would have had a better chance of fulfilling your publisher’s expectations and developing a loyal readership.”

Can projects such as Mischief + Mayhem break this death spiral? Colin Robinson, a former publisher at Verso, who co-runs OR books, M + M’s partner, believes so. “If you had to design a system, it would be hard to come up with something more stupid” than the current model of publishing, he says. He believes publishers need to become their own independent bookstores, virtual shops around the corner, where handselling can be reinvented through the web. (All OR titles are also available on Amazon for the Kindle, because no capital outlay is required, unlike for print editions.) Stein agrees that this is a logical path out of the current mixture of chaos and entropy: “It makes sense for book publishers to think about selling directly, it really does. Amazon does not have neatly convergent interests with the publishers of serious literature.”

So how has the vanguard party of publishing’s revolution fared in the months since that chilly call to arms in Union Square? “Pretty well, all things considered,” says Peck. “Jenny X continues to get good press and to sell, which is fantastic, since that’s our main enterprise.”

He has also been engaged in a “fun little spat” over a brutally critical review of the TV show Mad Men in The New York Review of Books, which made headlines in The New York Times because Peck wasn’t the one criticising the show. Mad Men, Peck wrote on the M + M website, is like “a scoop of mashed potatoes. But hey, even mashed potatoes can be delicious with the right gravy. Jon Hamm can spread himself all over my plate any time.” The kinder, gentler Peck, at least, has arrived.

From serious novels to fiction factories

Bestselling author James Frey has been no stranger to controversy since he passed off a partly fictional tale of drugs and alcohol abuse, A Million Little Pieces (2003), as a memoir.

In 2009, Frey, apparently working on the principle adopted by painters from Raphael to Andy Warhol that art is less about the kind of detail that an apprentice can fill in and more about the big picture, launched Full Fathom Five. The idea was to create a factory for young adult fiction powered by recent graduates from Masters in Fine Arts (MFA) programmes in writing.

Young readers had transformed wizards and vampires into publishing gold. Frey believed the next big thing would be aliens. The project led to last year’s I Am Number Four, the story of a 16-year-old alien, co-authored by Frey and Jobie Hughes, a graduate of Columbia’s writing programme, and published under the pseudonym Pittacus Lore. The film version from DreamWorks studios appeared this year, starring Alex Pettyfer.

Frey’s idea proved irresistible. Suzanne Mozes, another Columbia MFA student, wrote in New York Magazine: “We were desperate to be published any way we could. We were spending $45,000 on tuition, some of us without financial aid, and many taking out loans that were lining us up to graduate six figures in debt. A deal like the one Frey was offering could potentially pay off our loans and provide an income for the next decade.”

The actual contract was another matter: according to Mozes, who was invited to sign one, authors were paid $250 up front and given 30 to 40 per cent of all proceeds, minus expenses, but would not own the copyright. Veteran publishing attorney Conrad Rippy told Mozes that he had never seen anything like it: “It’s an agreement that says, ‘You’re going to write for me. I’m going to own it. I may or may not give you credit.’ ” Frey has defended the contracts, saying they were “designed to protect Full Fathom Five and our partners like DreamWorks.

“I know I’m the bad boy of American literature,” he said, “but that’s not what this is about. I’m doing this because I love books.”

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