AND YET THE BOOKS: One Author’s Uncertain Trajectory Through the Craft and the Business by Neil Baldwin firstname.lastname@example.org
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 Amazon.com 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, www.neilbaldwinbooks.com.