On Sandhills, a Novel, and the Bookbiz

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

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