Sunday, January 15, 2012

Guest Lecture: Neil Baldwin

AND YET THE BOOKS: One Author’s Uncertain Trajectory Through the Craft and the Business by Neil Baldwin
The foreground “through-line” for this lecture/essay is drawn by the six major nonfiction books I have written and published, signposts along the road of my life as a writer during the past quarter-century – topped off by my new novel, The 25th Protocol, an ebook.
The irrepressible background is known intellectually as the culture industry (a more recent term, cf. the works of Theodor Adorno and Pierre Bourdieu) a layer of the Zeitgeist within which resides the publishing industry (note, above all else, the term industry) which I did not strictly “enter” as a legitimate inhabitant and practitioner until the spring of 1989 when, after five years as director of the annual fund in The New York Public Library, I was hired by a consortium of publishing executives to become  the founding executive director of the National Book Foundation, sponsor of the National Book Awards.
However, I am getting ahead of myself.

TO ALL GENTLENESS: WILLIAM CARLOS WILLIAMS, THE DOCTOR-POET  -  my first work of nonfiction, was begun in 1982 and published in 1984, growing out of my doctoral dissertation, a descriptive catalog of Williams’s archive of manuscripts and letters in the Poetry Collection at the Lockwood Memorial Library of the State University of New York at Buffalo.  The book was sold to Atheneum Publishers at a long-ago time when that venerable imprint was part of Scribner’s, and was housed above the eponymous book store on Fifth Avenue that is now a Benetton shop. Scribner’s  was bought by Simon & Schuster, now a subsidiary of the Viacom Corporation, at which point Scribner’s became branded as Scribner and Atheneum  was subsumed into a children’s book imprint.

When I began work on this book my wife and I had a one year old girl and a three year old boy at home so I had to become a writer in residence at my brother in law’s apartment on the upper east side of Manhattan and went over there for daylong stretches while he was at work on Wall Street. I typed the whole thing out using carbon paper for a duplicate and white-out for mistakes .  For To All Gentleness I received a $3,000 advance.  It was published in a first printing of 1,000 copies and reviewed in the Sunday New York Times Book Review by Susan Stamberg of National Public Radio. William Carlos Williams’ son, Dr. William Eric Williams, wrote the Preface to my biography of the great American modernist.  The Williams family told me that of the many published in the 1970s and 80s, mine was the best biography of their patriarch.

 MAN RAY – AMERICAN ARTIST – was conceived in 1984 and published in the fall of 1988. I had the ambitious vision to broaden my purview beyond an exemplary figure in one art form, literature -- albeit the most influential American poet of the twentieth century -- and find a figure who encompassed all of modernism in the arts.  I learned by fortunate accident that my choice of subject, the exotic, multidisciplined Man Ray, was born in Philadelphia as Emmanuel Radnitsky  and grew up as a Jewish Brooklynite, the son of a tailor.  Shopping the proposal around, I had lunch with a renowned  Random House editor who chastened me that Man Ray “was something of a charlatan.” Undaunted, researching for the book,  I travelled to Paris often, and interviewed Man Ray’s widow, Juliet;  as well as Malcolm Cowley, Kenneth Burke, Virgil Thomson, Marcel Jean, Pierre Matisse, Dorothea Tanning,  Andre Kertesz, Berenice Abbott,  and Ned Rorem, among many others, then followed Man Ray’s trail in Hollywood and London. The book was a technological hybrid, the first half composed on an Olivetti  typewriter and the second half on a Kaypro computer with four-inch floppy discs.  Once a month for breakfast I would meet with my editor at Clarkson Potter, the charming and erudite Nancy Novogrod, formerly of The New Yorker, in a chic, quiet Madison Avenue restaurant, and together we went over the manuscript line by line.
I left The New York Public Library the summer after Man Ray came out, and was recruited to run the nascent National Book Foundation, which, at the time, had no office, no staff, and, much to my chagrin, no money.  But the chairman of the board cheered me on -- “You’re a fundraiser, go out there and raise your salary!”
EDISON – INVENTING THE CENTURY  -  was begun in 1991 and published in 1995. The Walt Disney Company, getting into the publishing business along with other media conglomerates in the new spirit of corporate synergy, founded a new imprint.  When I first met the young publisher, Bob Miller, it was so early in the process he didn’t even know yet what his company was going to be named.  My editor began to call me every week, determined to find a new biography subject for me. What about Thomas Edison? she said one day. I scoffed.  Why would anyone want yet another saga of the Wizard of Menlo Park when there were at least two hundred Edison books out there already?  I changed my mind once I pierced the pasteboard superhero mask and found the human figure concealed within thousands of laboratory notebooks in the Edison archives and vintage red brick “invention factory” in West Orange, New Jersey, down the road from my home.  I convinced the executor of the Edison estate to literally break open a safe deposit box that had not been breached since 1947 and lend me a microfilm reel of thousands of letters from Edison’s second wife never before seen publicly. “Your book is about Mr. Edison,” the attorney mumbled grudgingly, “why on earth would you want to see her letters?”   With my editor at Hyperion, I placed each and every Edison family photograph into the book narrative in the exact spot I wanted it.  “This is the standard biography. It will be a mainstay, a classic, one of our eternal backlist titles,” he assured me on publication day.  The hardcover went out of print and I sold the paperback rights to the University of Chicago Press.

LEGENDS OF THE PLUMED SERPENT: BIOGRAPHY OF A MEXICAN GOD was “hatched” in my imagination in 1988 but not published until a long decade later.  I began this seemingly-anomalous enterprise before Edison, the result of an unsatisfying visit with my wife, Roberta, to the Maya ruins of Uxmal, deep in the Yucatan, where I discovered to my despair that no intelligent guidebook in English existed there or at any other  archaeological zone in Mexico. This realization grew into an excavation of the primary mythic archetype of a culture I knew little about but wanted to take on…why? “because it was there.”  I ceased my bottomless research after three years, deciding it was  presumptuous of me, and reverted to the mode I knew better, conventional biography.  When the work on  Edison was drawing to a close, I felt ready to resume the obscure trail of Quetzalcoatl again, taught myself Spanish, and spent a decade of trips to Mexico on weekends, holidays, and vacations while continuing to grow the National Book Foundation into a full-fledged cultural institution.   My new agent pitched the idea for “the Mexico book” to yet another upstart publisher, Public Affairs. The editor in chief, Peter Osnos,  agreed to take on The Plumed Serpent so long as I  signed up to write another book, on Henry Ford, which he found far more interesting.  I had already begun to hire outside publicists to help promote my books, and now I reached yet another landmark in assisting the changing industry – Plumed Serpent was the first book where I took over typesetting responsibilities, submitting the manuscript electronically, composed directly from my keystrokes.

HENRY FORD AND THE JEWS: THE MASS PRODUCTION OF HATE –  arrived as the germ of an idea during the composition of the Edison biography and was completed two days after a terrible day:  September 13, 2001. Coterminously, however, the authorial plot had thickened when I took a four-month sabbatical from the National Book Foundation in January 2000, to drive across the country with my son and set him up in L.A. so he could follow his dream as an aspiring actor…waiter…personal trainer. [That is another instructive story for another time.]  Once on the west coast, I proceeded north at Microsoft’s request -- thanks to their paying me an absurd amount of money -- to  their corporate headquarters in Seattle where, after signing a voluminous non-disclosure agreement,  I spent a week consulting on the e-book prototype. I was lectured by Microsoft engineers that the days of print were numbered and I should “get with the program” because, in their Darwinian world view, digitization was destined to end the traditional type-driven Gutenbergian way of doing things and vanquish the book publishing method forever.   I got so brainwashed that at one point I even considered their tantalizing offer to relocate to Seattle and take over leadership of the “eBook Awards Foundation.”
To rewind this convoluted postmodern fantasy:  When  Edison came out -- in the “franchise” mentality and the beginning of “branding” as a viable concept for authors -- Hyperion had asked me to segue into another biography, this one of Edison’s good friend and financial supporter, Henry Ford.  I duly wrote a proposal for a Ford biography, then summarily withdrew it, because in the course of researching the Edison book I had come upon Ford’s disturbing pathology of rabid anti-Semitism.  I wanted to pursue that theme, and branch out into the biography of a character defect, instead of an A through Z narrative of one person’s life from beginning to end.  Publishing executives to whom the Henry Ford and the Jews book proposal was submitted called me at my home (in a transgressive end run around my agent) to challenge me incredulously as to why on earth I would want to “delve into the gloomy underside of America” thereby placing my “previously unsullied reputation into question.”  The Ford book hit the stores and  I embarked upon a ten-day lightning-fast AM/drive-time radio tour, during which the Scripture was read to me by many disgruntled callers. That trip taught me a lot about “the other America.”  Thanks to a timely disclaimer by the Ford Motor Company on the front page of the Detroit News to the effect that, “Mr. Ford was a human being who made some mistakes and he has apologized for those mistakes;  Mr. Baldwin’s book adds nothing new” – my new book became a best-seller in Detroit and went on to sell more than any of my others to date.  With Henry Ford and the Jews, a further boundary was crossed in my relationship to the publishing industry:  sales and marketing vp’s now sat at the conference table during heretofore sacred editorial meetings, and began to become the tail that wagged the dog.

THE AMERICAN REVELATION: TEN IDEALS THAT SHAPED OUR COUNTRY FROM THE PURITANS TO THE COLD WAR –  appeared to me in a dream in the summer of 2002 and was published three years later.  After 9/11 and the demonic  tinge of Henry Ford and the Jews,  I desperately wanted to escape and write a redemptive book about America.  By now I was no longer categorized as a biographer (categorization is important in the book business because it determines where your book is shelved in the store -- and if it is a superstore, that can determine whether shoppers can even find it).  I had morphed into an “historian,” or, as the trade journal Publishers Weekly labelled me, a “pop historian.”  My wife and I were driving down to the beach one summer weekend and I told her about the odd vision I had had the night before – three words hovering in the air in front of my face, THE…AMERICAN…REVELATION… were all I had to go on. We started making a list in the car of what I thought  were  quintessentially American values:  the first phrase that popped into my mind  was “the city on a hill” because in a recent issue of The Economist the British editors had ascribed the invention of this phrase to President Reagan, whereas it was from the Puritan Great Migration leader John Winthrop (1630) by way of the Sermon on the Mount. That led me to write more stories of  exemplary individuals who had placed deeply-held ideals into our culture – and how these ideals managed to “stick,” become altered, abandoned or forsaken.  This book proposal was auctioned in high-stakes fashion by my new agent, Robert Gottlieb, who had defected from William Morris to form his own company, and wanted to show the business at large that I was “up and running.” Robert and his colleague, John Silbersack, succeeded to such an extent that I was able to emancipate myself from the National Book Foundation after fifteen years at the helm and go for the brass ring -- my long-cherished ideal, just to be a writer and nothing else.  I took two years to write the book, for which I got more money up front than ever before in my life.  Despite another publicity tour and superlative reviews, THE AMERICAN REVELATION did not sell well, after which I fell into a depressive funk, convinced at my lowest ebb that if I died in my study under the eaves nobody would even know. 
My agents gently told me that the “disappointment” of The American Revelation might result in my being “penalized” by “the industry,” therefore making it more difficult to sell my subsequent book  ideas,  even though, they added hurriedly, it wasn’t really “my fault” that the book “didn’t perform.”   Then I read The Long Tail  and found out that 95% of the 150,000 titles published in America sell less than 5,000 copies. This made me feel better. 
Anyway, to conquer my post book-tour anomie  and the self-styled feeling that I was “a loser,” my wife made me stick a copy of the book into a jiffy bag and mail it to the president of Montclair State University near our home, just to see what would happen.  Now I am a Professor there, teaching The American Revelation  to freshmen and autographing it on the last day of class so my students can sell it on eBay.  (Was it F. Scott Fitzgerald who said there are no second acts in American life?)

TO ALL GENTLENESS redux  -  In the fall of 2008, the publishing wheel came full circle, with the 125th anniversary of William Carlos Williams’s birth, and my desire to return this memorable title into print after long hiatus. Timing is everything. You can’t just publish a book, Susan Magrino, my very first publicist once told me, you need to publish an event. For this historic commemorative moment, I approached my old friend, Paul Coates in Baltimore, founder of Black Classic Press.  Mine is the first book by a white author to be published by Paul’s subsidiary, Inprint Editions, in the 30 year history of his venerable company. 

… oh yes…lest I forget! THE TWENTY-FIFTH PROTOCOL is a genre-breaking thriller I began crafting in the fall of 2006 and finished three years later. I sent it to my agent and he began the sad process of “making the rounds” of more than two dozen NYC publishers – actually that is just about all of the NYC publishers. One by one, they weighed in with rejections which, when you looked beneath the surface, really were attributable to my audacity at changing gnres. They all knew me as a nonfiction author and now I was writing fiction!? Not to mention genre fiction of all things. I went back to the drawing boards and in the the new year of 2009 I planned to gather a group of like-minded authors and form a collective to publish our own fiction exclusively on the Web. The hypertext arena beckoned.
That brainstorm lasted about a year, during which time I realized that what I really and truly wanted was to just publish my own book on my own terms directly into the e-book market that Microsoft had warned me about all those years ago and which was now a growing threat to “real” books.

So that is precisely what I did, uploading my meticulously-edited manuscript onto Amazon, and here it is!
There we have it: these six nonfiction signposts -- plus one fiction work in cyberspace!  --  along the road of my writing life.  There were many other books I could chose not to cite here, i.e., volumes of my poetry, translations, textbooks, readers’ guides and three anthologies of National Book Award authors, including most recently a book published by Ingram’s Lightning Press, National Book Award Classics: Essays Celebrating Our Literary Heritage.
It has always been my nature, more often nowadays as I have re-entered the wonderful and transformative world of the classroom, to conclude by raising questions rather than spoon-feeding answers.  In that spirit, let me conclude this chain of books and events with an attempt to articulate the predominant impasse that sits in my mind as someone who has been a writer – an author -- for a very, very long time. And in optimistic actuarial moments I figure I have at least a quarter-century of literary activity still ahead of me.
Since I started publishing my work, there can be no doubt that technology has transformed and accelerated the way books are produced – authors as “content-providers” -- and brought to market.  This is the manifestation of a tenaciously-held business model.  Walk into any Barnes & Noble (since there are no more Borders left) or click on and you will instantly see what I mean.  At the same time, technology has given rise to audiovisual distractions so that while more and more books are being published,  fewer people seem to be reading them. The seventeen- and eighteen-year-olds I talk to every day at Montclair State University are very candid about the fact that they “do not like to read.”
 When pressed, they refine that statement to say that it pertains to “reading books;”  anything online is fine with them. And the latest news from the book publishers is that they are responding and adapting by tying their product into video games -- cross-marketing media  -- with the philosophy that any reading, even with a reduced attention span, is better than none at all.  I am not a Luddite.  I am not going to go off on a narrative tangent with this sign of where we could be heading, a metaphor for the larger cultural moment we inhabit, transcending over- production and under-consumption.
That larger cultural moment, still undefined, is determined by the current millennials, my students, and there are millions more on the way for the next half-dozen years, the first generation to be born into the internet era. They have no previous frame of reference;  therefore, we must never chastise them for their feelings about our comforting, familiar artifacts.  Rather, let’s slowly read to them the wise, consoling, enduring words of Czeslaw Milosz, and the final lines of his lyric, And Yet the Books:
I imagine the earth when I am no more:
Nothing happens, no loss, it’s still a strange pageant,
Women’s dresses, dewy lilacs, a song in the valley.
Yet the books will be there on the shelves, well born,
Derived from people, but also from radiance, heights.

The books referenced in this guest-lecture may all be purchased on line through my Web site,


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  2. We may not be digital natives, but I think we emigrated at just the right time, Neil. My journey has taken me through Wang word processing in 1980 to dictating to the first PCs and then to the world we live in now, including a hasty introduction to being a blogger this morning. Wang. Who thought that was a good name for a company?

    So, Microsoft and the ebook. We tend to think of Steven Jobs when we think prescience, but Jobs was the one who was predicting the end of books, yet there is some research that says that people are reading more, not less. Harris polling was detecting a resurgence in reading in 2011 with one in six Americans now use e-reader with one in six likely to purchase in next six months. Retrieved from

    I have to ask, did you meet with Dick Brass, who in 1999, two years before you met with Microsoft, said that "We are embarking on a revolution that will change the world at least as much as Gutenberg did," and predicted that by 2018, 90% of all books sold would be e-books. Following that, in 2001, a New York Times article declared "forecasts of an e-book era were, it seems, premature," citing clumsy technology, high prices for the "ephemeral, purely digital editions … [have lead to] dismal sales." Microsoft's Dick Brass counters, "I always said it would be 8-10 years before electronic publishing began to equal paper, and I am willing to live and die by those predictions." And in 2012, I think he’s being proven right. Maybe a year late, but that’s arguable.

    Author Jeff Gomez says: “To expect future generations to be satisfied with printed books is like expecting the BlackBerry users of today to start communicating by writing letters, stuffing envelopes and licking stamps… it’s not about the page versus the screen in a technological grudge match. It’s about the screen doing a dozen things the page can’t do.” (Print is dead: Books in our digital age. New York: Macmillan. 2007, p.37).

    Your guest lecture covers the arc of a generation. Thank you. This was great. As for publishers, new research says that publishers are feeling pretty despondent these days about their role in publishing.

    “When asked about their own companies, the pessimism became more pronounced: Only 28% of publishing executives think their company will be better off because of the transition to digital, down from 51% a year ago.

    “People are generally optimistic still, but that optimism is waning,” said James L. McQuivey, Ph.D., Vice President and Principal Analyst at Forrester, who conducted the survey. “Publishers have started to do the hard work of making the digital transition and they’re finding that it is, indeed, hard work.”

  3. Neil, thank you for telling us about your experiences - it's quite fascinating to read about the changing publishing landscape through an author's eyes. How could any author have other than an "uncertain trajectory", given the last 25 years?

    As a sign of the times, Canada's largest bookstore, Chapters/Indigo, is apparently selling fewer books to make way for more "lifestyle" products: (Oh, just what the world needs more of: vanilla-scented candles.)

    Your comment about young university students not liking to read was interesting. As you point out, they do read - they just don't necessarily read books. I can see this being borne out to some degree in my household. My 17-year-old daughter is an old school bookworm, currently happily working her way through Murakami's latest novel (all thousand or so pages, in hardcover). My 14-year-old daughter is more likely to be found reading her way through thousands of web pages, courtesy of stumbleupon or facebook links. Is she less literate? Although she's a good student, and will likely go on to university, I wonder if she'll enjoy the academic reading required for most university programs, or if it will be something that she just has to get through.

    If there is a large scale cultural shift in the way younger people read, is there an onus on universities to adapt? Or should we expect students to adapt to the traditional (bookish) rigours of academic studies? How do we measure academic achievement, if the traditional markers of achievement (such being able to interpret sophisticated written material) are seen as outdated?

  4. Hi Neil, thanks for sharing your experiences.

    I'm glad that you've found a home for The Twenty-Fifth protocol in the online world. More and more it seems, especially among my aspiring writer friends Amazon seems to be the way to go.

    Like Komori, I’m intrigued that you find your 17 and 18-year-old students dislike reading. I TA a few low-level undergraduate public relations classes at my university, and find myself often faced in a similar situation. These students who profess to hate reading have no problem reading articles they find on their Facebook feeds or their favourite websites. Perhaps it’s due to their shorter length or the mixed media style of the articles, but they seem to be much more receptive to assigned online readings versus more traditional articles.

    Additionally, I seem to be seeing a fair number more e-readers and iPads around campus. It would appear the younger generation seems to be more open in throwing traditional books away for the e-counterparts. I myself, being a digital native, fall into that category. I find with my Kindle I’m more likely to purchase a book due to its immediate accessibility and lower price point. I wonder if you pondered this when you decided to put The Twenty-Fifth protocol. Did you think putting it on Amazon would allow you to reach a younger audience, or just more people in general?

  5. Neil, thank you for the guest lecture. I am reading it this morning on my laptop at a Starbucks in St. Albert. Here is the question that you have sparked for me this morning, and it comes from your reference to a city set on a hill that cannot be hidden. And how that was missed by those who would have given President Reagan the credit. And that's this: what is reading, really?

    It seems to me that one can read simply read or hear the words and project a picture in the imagination of a city on a hill. But there is another kind of reading that is more imaginative, that flies here and there in the readers's mind, connecting, in this case, to, as you say, Matthew's Gospel and commentators on it, right down to Martin Luther King and, yes, Reagan. These connections strike me as being in a real sense quite close to the dream of hypertext, albeit without the word processor and the "links."

    Isn't real reading an immersion in this cultural past? Do video games and Facebook pages really count as reading?

  6. Thank you for sharing your experiences, Neil. You’ve revealed another aspect of the e-book debate to us.

    I was struck how much of your story was involved with marketing. The surprising sales of Henry Ford and the Jews, the backlash from switching to fiction and the concept of “branding” authors was intriguing. I was unaware how much marketing gets involved in content creation. Your story proved how difficult it is to predict what will be a best-seller!

    I consider myself a digital native and earlier this week I glanced at my spiral notebook and wished it had a search function. I posted this random thought on Facebook and six of my friends liked it. So I guess I’m not the only one.

    In response to your comment that many young people do not like to read, I wonder if they realize how much reading they actually do? On my way to work each morning in downtown Toronto, I see subway cars full of people reading free newspapers. Just about every street corner has someone handing out copies of Metro or 24 Hours. Both papers contain short articles, lots of pictures and more fluff than substance, but they are widely read. I have even seen people get frustrated when the newspaper shelf is empty! I have wondered if the availability of free newspapers helps new immigrants become familiar with the language, jargon and issues of the area.

    As for the debate about e-books, I received my first e-reader for Christmas, a full 25 days ago, and I’m already wishing that my textbooks were available electronically. Texts are heavy and require a highlighter, sticky tabs and a pen for notes. However, I choose to buy hard copies of books when I’m buying a gift - especially for my little niece. Opening a package feels better than opening a file.

    Neil, based on your experience, do you feel the same pleasure when an e-book is published as you did when a hard copy book is published? It'll be much harder for your students to get an autographed copy of your e-book!

    1. Hillary, I like your point about gifts needing to be packages rather than files. I still give books as gifts as well, for the same reason. I'm sure that the marketing departments of publishing houses give considerable thought to how "giftable" a book is. Perhaps we'll see the book market separate further into niches: lovely, tactile editions intended for gift giving in one niche, and no-frills e-books in another niche. I think I read somewhere that this is a trend in the larger marketplace as the middle class is eroded - we're losing the traditional middle ground, the department store, in favour of two extremes: the discount big box and the luxury boutique.

    2. Exactly! The concept of luxurious coffee table books or glossy magazines appeals to our sense of indulgence.

      Also, I've yet to see a mother reading to her children from an eReader. I'm sure it's bound to happen, but I haven't seen it yet.

  7. As ebooks gain momentum and fewer books are being printed, are we as a society changing how we read? Workshops and courses are advertised to work places that promise to teach companies how to write for the website. I’ve never taken one of these workshops, so cannot comment on the content but if writing for the website is different is online reading different? Neil, you mention that undergrad students “do not like to read”, books in particular, but still read online documents. I am assuming that these students are around 18 – 20 yrs of age, so are digital natives opposed to digital immigrants I remember reading that digital natives skim text (I have absolutely no references supporting this statement, just my foggy memory).

    If sales for ebooks surpasses sales for printed books it is a possibility that printed books will become obsolete, some day. If bookstores like Chapters / Indigo are decreasing the number of books they sell, will second-hand bookstores continue to exist? As someone who sits in front of a computer daily, creating, posting, writing and editing documents and websites I definitely prefer reading printed books. The idea of reading ebooks on a Kobo or Ipad seems exciting and sexy but reading a dogged eared fiction novel is delicious, comfortable and easier on the eyes (I have had really bad eye sight since the age of 2).

    I think there will always be books on people’s shelves, right beside the Ipad.