On Sandhills, a Novel, and the Bookbiz

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I
wrote a little novel about 10 years ago with the title, Lost
in the Texas Desert
. I finally published it last December.

My
wife Leah and I had moved in 1990 from Pennsylvania to her hometown,
Odessa, Texas, at my instigation, after I weighed northern winters
against southern summers and realized that the former were a lot
harder on the Aging Citizen than the latter, or so I felt then and
still feel.

Although
I must point out as an aside, it all depends on air-conditioning.
I like something that the well-known Texas writer, J. Frank Dobie,
said, commenting on an announcement back in the 1920s by Carrier
that it had something new called air-conditioning: "It'll ruin
Texas. The Yankees will be able to live here." As some old
stories used to say in closing, "And so it came to pass."

My
"little novel" (132 pages) is actually a sort of disguised
statement of where I found myself in 1995 – age 72 and in Texas – and
what my attitude toward things was then; not, I'd say, much different
than it is now.

I
discovered near Odessa a minor Texas State Park called the Monahans
Sandhills. The park seemed to me, as I visited it in the early 90s
and walked into the sandhills (as I no longer can do thanks to a
condition known as spinal stenosis), a quite wonderful phenomenon:
a vast expanse of sand formed by the wind into miles of what are
here called sandhills. I realized that these huge, rolling mounds
of sand were in many ways exactly like what we called sand dunes
on Cape Cod. I used to walk for hours over the dunes in Sandwich
when I lived on the Cape for some years in the 1950s.

So
here in the Texas desert, I was suddenly delightfully transported
back to my younger days on Cape Cod, a fine bit of nostalgia at
very little cost of travel. Looking back now I have wondered if
my novel, which is set in the Monahans Sandhills, does not express,
in the title I finally gave it, a kind of "cry for home"
of the banished exile. If so I was quite unaware of it at the time.
I had titled it at first "House in the Desert," and I
changed it only after I decided to leave the "house" out
of the plot, and also read somewhere that any book with Texas in
the title would pay for its printing costs with Texas sales alone.

Which
brings us to the book business, bookbiz for short. Wow. What an
extraordinary thing it has become in recent years. I still am no
expert on it, but I do know that it has lately tended toward the
elimination of independent bookstores and consolidation of book
sales in huge urban chains. There has also been the rise of the
astonishing online book sales services, of which the boa constrictor
is Amazon.com (I can't resist the
Amazon-forest image
.)

In
late 2004 I became a publisher in order to publish, first, a book
a friend had prepared for a client of his, and then my own novel.
I registered Arlington Publications, my Texas dba ("doing-business-as"
moniker), with Bowker, Inc., the publishers of Books in Print
and other important publishing reference works The fee for this
was modest, and I recouped it with the first book Arlington published.

As
most people reading this will know, the recent availability of Print
on Demand (POD) publishing has radically altered the book scene.
It used to be that if you could not interest a pukka-pukka big-time
publisher in doing your book in the conventional way, your only
resort was vanity publishing, either through one of the firms specializing
in that kind of thing or by simply engaging a bookmaker/printer
on your own. Either way, you could drop some extensive, at least
four-figure money, and end up with a garage full of books with – how
to put it gently? – only modest sales potential, after you had saturated
your relatives and friends.

The
chief feature of POD publishing is the short print run it makes
practical – anything from a single copy, to 25, to 100, and on up,
all at remarkably low total cost compared with the minimum print
run of thousands a regular publisher used to have to commit to if
he wanted a reasonable unit cost. POD is the reason why the total
of new titles published in the U.S. in the last few years has skyrocketed
from the old 50K or so titles-per-year average to – depending on
what source you cite – 150K to 200K or more per year.

Back
to my novel. This was a new thing for me. I had been a journalist
more than 40 years but pretty much kept to nonfiction, if you can
call reports on town meetings and school budgets nonfiction. For
the last 20 or so years I have been a freelancer and had a children's
publisher as a principal client. I wasn't hired to write for children
but to be a sort of publicist for the company; however, the atmosphere
rubbed off on me. When I started my novel it was to be for the older
sort of young people, called in the trade "young adults."

I
had discovered that a great many quite fine artists and writers
work in the children's field at least partly because they can sidestep
the virtually mandatory production of soft porn that adult fiction
now seems to involve. The children's field still considers soft
porn – any more or less explicit description of sex acts even when
embedded in "romance" – as a tad inappropriate, certainly
for the under-12 set and perhaps even for the under 16-year-olds.
Although sex-ed courses ("nonfiction") in the government
schools may well be already over that fence. One of the oddities
of the present scene is how little we adults, perhaps even parents
of school-age children, know about such curricula in our local schools.

I
have described my novel as an "amiable fantasy," meaning
there are not any real bad guys in it, and I have also said that,
in the early chapters, it is an adventure of kids for kids, in the
middle chapters a puzzle for the adults involved, and in the final
chapters a kind of meditation on metaphysics and levels of consciousness.
No doubt a somewhat indigestible mix, but at least it's not soft
porn. Although it may be that my mentions of Spanish (conquistador)
Christianity, and the ready Amerindian acceptance of it, may be
the near equivalent for some people.

LRC's
Mike (in Tokyo) Rogers, who has lately published a first book, Schizophrenic
in Japan
, has hit on the core fact of the bookbiz. Publishers
won't spend any money to promote anything except the few books on
their list they think will hit big. The lesser titles must sink
or swim on their own; that is, on their author's own efforts.

In
fact, here I am, publisher of my own book, and I am not spending
anything to promote it except for a little gas to go around to the
few remaining area bookstores to ask them to carry it. I
do have it listed now on Amazon
and
just the other day finally figured out how to get the cover illustration
onto the Amazon site.

I
now understand why books have to cost so much. If you spend much
more than 20% of the retail price of the book on all aspects of
editing and printing you won't be able to pay a distributor's discount
or that of a retailer such as Amazon (up to 55% of the retail price)
and have anything left. But how, in conscience, can one charge $15
for an itty-bitty paperback? Mine goes for $7.95 and that's bad
enough.

Friends
I had appealed to for critiques of my novella had not thought it
was competition for anything of Flaubert's. One bright young editor
and friend really scored me heavily for too much "tell"
and not enough "show." Those are currently very important
buzzwords in writebiz. But I like the thing as it is now. Another
friend had suggested cutting out the first 17 chapters as essentially
only "back-story" – details the writer needs to have worked
out but the reader doesn't need to know. I did that, and now, like
Mike Rogers in his defense of his own work, I am content to stand
by my book, willy-nilly.

Anyway,
for me, it's now on to the next project. I have a five-year plan
that calls for a book a year, and I am going to have to scurry to
get the next one out by the end of 2005.

June
13, 2005

Tom
White [send him mail]
writes from Odessa, Texas. He is the author of Bill
W., A Different Kind of Hero: The Story of Alcoholics Anonymous

(2003),
and the newly-published Lost
in the Texas Desert
.

Tom
White Archives

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