Twenty years ago, at the 1994 American Booksellers Association meeting in Los Angeles, in our 18th year as publishers, we planned to do something to attract attention to some newly published authors of ours—many of whom were pretty good musicians—and for our press. John Okas, a gifted tenor saxophone player who lived in the Hamptons and wrote Routes, Jean Warmbold, a native of the Bay area, who wrote her first Sarah Calloway mystery, June Mail and had an aptitude for drumming, Pete McCormack, a young Canadian and good guitar player who wrote Shelby, and Bruce Ducker, who wrote Marital Assets, hailed from Denver and was a gifted jazz piano player who played regular gigs (as well as being a lawyer and a pilot) collectively decided to form a group. Then there was myself, who lived in Sag Harbor, played the alto sax and often jammed with John, who had already cut a CD.We were going to challenge the Rock Bottom Remainders, a rock & roll band whose members consisted of best-selling authors. They started their group two years earlier and for the days of the convention, dressed up and played nightly outside the convention floor. They consisted at that time of Stephen King, Dave Barry, Amy Tang, and Barbara Kingsolver among other—aided and abetted by a couple of pros and, in later years other famous authors came in and out, including Scott Turow and Mitch Albom. They may have charged admission for some good cause (though on this point I’m only guessing, for I never watched them play). What I do know is that they were all wonderful writers and had a blast. They also had a sense of humor for on their own website they wrote this: A write-up in the Washington Post described it as “the most heavily promoted musical debut since the Monkees.” Hailed by critics as having “one of the world’s highest ratios of noise to talent,” the Remainders have no music videos, no record contract, no Grammy nominations—but do have over 159,000 hits on Google.”
On the other hand, none of us were famous—though all were talented writers. We felt we were a “people’s band,” set up on the convention floor near our stand, and played for the last hour of the Fair every day. We called ourselves No Expectations, and decided to play jazz standards. I doubt that anyone from the Rock Bottom Remainders came to hear us play either.
Day one, May 26, we had what was more rehearsal than performance, since everyone had been practicing by themselves for a week or two—except for John and me— in different parts of North America, and our timing wasn’t the best. And we were sorry to hear that there were complaints from other exhibitors. On day two, the music improved, and there were no complaints. By day three we were in a groove and received many compliments.
Did we wind up having a best-seller come out of it? Certainly not, but I’m sure we had as good a time playing together as did the Remainders.
Part IIThere’s a line between Expectations and No Expectations that’s quite tricky. To quote the Buddha, “Desires are the cause of all conflicts. When you want something and cannot get it you become frustrated. Learning to be free from desires is learning how to stay peaceful.” In my shortened version, “Desire causes pain, End desire and lose unhappiness.” Or even more specifically, let me change the equation slightly to read that “There’s a difference between Hopefulness and No Expectations,” for I think this makes for a better balance. Still, it’s not always been easy for me to .walk that tightrope.
In our first 17 years, turning out 12 books a year, we published some very good writers, among them Berry Fleming, Marco Vassi, Richard Lortz, Harry Bloom, Clifford Irving, Halldor Laxness, Sandra Scofield, Larry Duberstein, Randall Silvis, Howard Owen, and Charles O’Neil, to name just a few. One was a Nobel Prize nominee, another a Nobel Prize winner, a third a National Book Award finalist, and three writers had their novels turned into successful films. There were a host of other lesser awards for these and other writers. Yet none of their novels were best-sellers in the United States either.During the next two decades (1994-2014), bringing our output up to 16 books a year, we’ve had even more critical success, paralleling a significant output of literary thrillers written by the likes of Leonard Rosen, Chris Knopf, Domenic Stansberry, Jaden Terrell, Connie Dial, David Freed, Gwen Florio, J.J. Hensley, and a continuing output from Howard Owen. Over the last two years our thriller writers have been finalists or winners of every major mystery prize: two finalists for the Best First novel from the International Thriller Writers (Gwen Florio and J.J. Hensley), two finalists for the Shamus Award (Jaden Terrell and Gwen Florio), Chris Knopf, winner of the Nero Award, Howard Owen, winner of the Hammett Prize, an Edgar Award finalist in Len Rosen who also won the Macavity Award...with a lot of less well-known awards as well.
While no other publisher, on a book by book basis, has come anywhere near us prize-wise, and while we’ve been successful in selling lots of international rights, none of these book were best-sellers in the States either.
How does one account for this? The answer seems obvious to me. There is a marked imbalance between the five large international publishing cartels and a small independent press when it comes to print reviews in major metropolitan newspapers and in national magazines. In the past few years this absence of major coverage took me away from my tranquility and caused me to write critical blogs about all this—and some unfair blogs to boot, for we are not in a position to tell individual critics or newspapers what to review or not review. Since we get about 5,000 submissions a year we only want to choose books we love. When the big print media has such restrictive and vanishing review space, why do critics review so many books they dislike?
But again, this is a critic’s choice, not ours to make, and as long as “Desire” ran through my blood, frustration ruled, along with a barbed tongue.
By and large my approach for the last couple of years has been to publish books with “Enthusiasm,” coupled with “No Expectations.”
If you stay the course in this wonderful and absurd world-of-books it’s not hard to come to some important conclusions: one being that most artful fiction often sells the fewest copies. Another coping device is keeping a sense of humor and turning disappointment into a positive thing. The best example I can think of is this: that our first and last full review in the Culture Section of The New York Times (the daily and Saturday review section) occurred in 1980, when Anatole Broyard glowingly reviewed Richard Lortz’s The Valdepenas. That was 34 years ago, and when I talk about this now I refer to it as a record-setting performance with a certain perverse pride—akin to the Philadelphia 76ers basketball team losing 26 games in a row this past season, setting a National Basketball Association record.
Records do end, of course, and in the past year or so we’ve had some very satisfying interaction with some lovely critics at the Times. I won’t be unhappy when our losing streak runs out. But whenever it does, we will still have far surpassed that of the ‘76ers.