Elbow Patches

May 4th, 2011

Those who have never had a novel published probably think of publishing as an elbow-patch industry –a bookish environment populated by former pipe-smokers who wear leather patches on their tweed sleeves and have muted conversations in mid-Atlantic accents about first-person-versus-third and Don deLillo’s hat size and the potential renaissance of the pantoum.  Sort of like a library, but with money. Clean, soft money.

But publishing is a business, one that’s increasingly dominated by tin-hearted multinationals that take the view that art may be long but life is measured in quarterly financial projections.  Projections are more complicated in publishing than in the multinationals’ other holdings, since books aren’t cans of scouring powder (yet) and the fact that Writer A sold a gazillion copies in 2010 doesn’t mean that she won’t be the Queen of Returns in 2011.

The fundamental schism, in a nutshell, is that talent — for writing books, editing books, selecting which books to publish — can only be qualified, because it’s all about quality.  Quarterly financial projections can only be quantified, because they’re all about money.  It’s always been like this, but now it’s much, much more so.

When I was at HarperCollins, I effectively knelt at the feet of Rupert Murdoch, not that he was aware of my existence. Murdoch is many things, but no one has ever suggested that he went into business for philanthropic or cultural satisfaction.

The people I worked with at HarperCollins/William Morrow were wonderful, every single one of them, but they were all aware that they served at the pleasure of the spreadsheet and that their chairs had wheels primarily to make it easier to roll them into the street.  In the amount of time I was at Morrow, I went through three editors; and the paperback of QUEEN, which came out after I, um, left, was produced by a fourth.

So what’s my point?

While we were in New York for that award, Munyin and I paid a visit to Soho Press, which has graciously decided to give Poke a home.  And what a revelation.

When I talked to booksellers about where I should try to take the series, 100% of them said, “Soho.”  I’ve been aware of Soho for a long time because writers I know and like and admire (or don’t know and admire) have or had the Soho logo on their books: Cara Black, Leighton Gage, Martín Limon,  David Downing, Colin Cotterill, Qiu Xiaolong, James R. Benn, Stuart Neville, Adrian Hyland – terrific writers, all.

So the house had taste.  There was little fear that they’d publish Snooki.  They weren’t looking for books with potential to become theme park rides.  It didn’t seem like a place where the terms “vertical integration” or “synergy” would get a lot of use.  After all, they only do one thing: they publish books they like.

So Mun and I trudged down to a little film noir building at 14th and Broadway, and took the elevator (one of the unhaunted ones) up to the cluttered, resolutely unfussy, totally book-centered office of Soho.  Where I could live for the rest of my life.

People who have read my books are usually expecting something sleeker than a portly (which I currently am) senior citizen, but if the Soho crew were taken aback, they didn’t show it.  We met pretty much everybody but spent most of our time with the publisher, Bronwen Hruska, and my editor, Juliet Grames, who took us to the best lunch of the whole trip.  I loved all of them. Munyin loved all of them. We both loved all the books they gave us.  (Go out and buy ROCK PAPER TIGER by Lisa Brackmann.  If you don’t like it, I’ll refund your money.)

And it’s no wonder the level of the books is so high.  The people at Soho aren’t inhabiting a corner of someone else’s spread sheet. They’re in business for themselves.  They don’t have to worry about vertical integration with an animation house.  They love books and they publish the books they love.  And they’re really, really good at it.

I’m thrilled stupid to be with them.

16 Responses to “Elbow Patches”

  1. EverettK Says:

    Well, hopefully not “thrilled STUPID,” as after all, we DO have standards in our blogs and our books. Snooki might be thrilled stupid, but that wouldn’t stop the presses at the NYT. You on the other hand, well, we have our little expectations, you know.

    So be as thrilled as you like (I’m certainly thrilled FOR you), just don’t try playing stupid. We’ll kick your stupid ass out of here!

  2. Laren Bright Says:

    What?! You found a company of actual human beings in the publishing business?! I see you’ve taken to writing science fiction blogs.

    How cool. Live long & prosper with them They sound more than cool.

  3. Suzanna Says:

    I’m really happy that SOHO is your new publishing home. They sound terrific!

    Wondering, since the bean counters are not front and center at SOHO will that give you a greater sense of creative freedom? Will you try writing things that you wouldn’t have before?

  4. Debbi Says:

    Congrats, Tim! I’ve heard great things about Soho. If their focus wasn’t just on novels set outside the U.S., I’d even consider having them as a publisher myself.

    Yeah, really! 🙂

  5. Philip Coggan Says:

    “The pantoum is a form of poetry similar to a villanelle in that there are repeating lines throughout the poem.”

    Well I never.

    And nor, I suspect, did you, dear Timothy. But if you did, you have my enduring respect – you go where I do not care to follow.

    Soho, on the other hand, sounds wonderful. Almost enough make one urge one’s son or daughter to take up publishing as a career. Almost.

    They do sound good though. Be happy.

    (Down below, Captcha is trying to say “Citizens Reareg”. I wonder what it means? Reminds me of the time I took a wrong turn while trying to find the residence of the British High Commissioner in New Delhi. I went to the back gate by mistake. Big Sikh guard in a Clan Mac turban held up his hand and said, “Very sorry sir but it is not permissible to enter the High Commissioner’s backside.”)

  6. EverettK Says:

    Phil said:
    “Very sorry sir but it is not permissible to enter the High Commissioner’s backside.”

    Having just had my annual physical this morning, along with the requisite prostate examination, this quote brought both a smile and a wince to my face at the same time…

  7. Lil Gluckstern Says:

    And we are so-o-o-o happy they took you on! It is nice to be treated as what you are-a gifted, very funny, self-deprecating (well, maybe not always) man who writes terrific stories. Now I have to go look up “villanelle.” You have such clever back bloggers. 😉 and I read a lot of SOHO press authors.

  8. Tom Logan Says:

    Tim, glad you’re back.

  9. Stephen Cohn Says:

    Sounds like heaven. Congratulations, Tim!!

  10. Howard Marder Says:

    Because your judgement and opinion are not to be trifled with, I’ve pre-ordered the paperback version of ROCK PAPER TIGER. At first I was going to get the Kindle version but two things were of interest.

    The first was that the paperback will be $2.55 less than the Kindle version. This is something that is totally puzzling.

    How can a printed book cost less than an electronic version? What weird laws of economics are involved here?

    You convinced me that I must have a Kindle, and I agreed wholeheartedly and made the purchase. But, as I sit on the subway or bus and read on my Kindle, it occurs to me that the people around me have no idea of what it is that I’m reading.

    With a book there is cover art for all and sundry to view. The book has a cover which can attract and lead to conversation. God forbid that I am reading one of your books on my Kindle and there is no one to discuss it with who might have read it or who is interested in the title or typeface.

    So I’m going to keep on reading books even though I’ve run out of room for them. I’m also going to be reading books on my Kindle because it is convenient and allows me to zip right through without worrying about what I’m going to use for a bookmark.

    I want people to stop me and say, “how can you read books about prostitution in Bangkok?”. What a great opening line to make a new enemy or friend.

    The bottom line might be that Kindles are for anti-social people and books are for social folks. And, at a time when we are all told that being involved in “social media” is the way to bring us to the next great phase of our society, perhaps we need to go back to the old fashioned way of reading.

    Maybe we should read books on our Kindles as well as buying copies for our bookshelves. I really don’t know the answer. From an economic point of view I’m sure that your new publisher would like to see readers buy two copies (or three — don’t forget hardcovers).

    Somehow I don’t think that is the case with SOHO. Based on all of the terrific writers they publish, I’m a big fan of their imprint. It is a good thing that you are with them. But you already know that and have expressed why so succinctly.

  11. Juliet Says:

    Huhn. File this post under #likeverymuch.


  12. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Hi, Gang!!!

    I’m amazed you’re still putting up with me given how long it’s taking me these days to respond to your notes. I’m FINALLY making progress in THE GROWING YOUNGER MAN and also writing two short stories, one a Junior Bender cutie (I hope) and the other for an anthology I can’t tell you about yet — but it’s pretty remarkable. (The anthology, not my story.)

    And I’m playing lawyer, actually writing very complicated contracts for the short-story anthology. This is draining in the same way that a four-hour drive in bumper-to-bumper traffic in an ugly town is. It’s not difficult; it’s just unpleasant.

    Okay — Everett, I’ll concede that in my lifetime search for a fresh phrase, I might have misfired with “thrilled stupid.” Maybe “moderately stunned” would be more accurate. Whichever it is, I was somewhat nonplussed and remain so.

    Laren, thanks for the “Star Trek” touch. Can you also do that thing where you make a V between the ring finger and the middle finger? If you can, would you send us a picture?

    Zanna, I’ve pretty much always written what I wanted to write — and HarperCollins was the company that allowed me to trash the thriller structure for QUEEN. But working with Soho has had the effect of making me go up on tiptoe a little higher – to the point, in fact, where I was deeply apprehensive about getting back into writing THE GROWING YOUNGER MAN because I wasn’t sure it was good enough for them. I’m probably going to blog about that pretty soon, maybe even today, if I’ve got any steam left after I do my 2000 words.

    Debbi, they’d be great for you — but doing the way you’re doing in e-format, I don’t actually know why you’d want a traditional publisher. Unless you want to do a Hocking and grab a bunch of money and then spend months explaining to your readers why your e-books are suddenly going to cost $12.99.

    Although God knows there’s something magical about that physical book, all fresh and new-smelling, and then later, all beat up and (yes, Gary) dog-eared. And when I write direct to e-book I miss the interaction with a good editor and my astonishing copy editor. I’m really looking forward to that.

    Hi, Philip — A few days ago I was introduced to a poet who’d just had a poem published in a prestigious magazine. I asked her what the form was and she said, offhandedly, “A pantoum,” and I nodded knowingly and promptly forgot all about it. And about six hours later, in the novel I was reading, there it was — that word again. So I looked it up, and now I give it to you. There aren’t a lot of e-pantoums yet, but it’s probably just a matter of time.

    “The High Commissioner’s Backside” is a title in search of a novel if I ever saw one.

    Hi, again, Everett, and glad you’ve survived the terrestrial version of an Alien Probe. I’d like a Freudian to explain to me how the words “alien probe” have become so lower-digestive- centric.

    Lil, a “villanelle” is a poem written by a female villain. Many of them begin with the line, “I curse the bed on which I lie” and go on to say generally unattractive things about the book’s male protagonist. Much feminist umbrage has been creatively spent in the composition of villanelles.

    Not really.

    No, really.


    But I do reserve a special loathing for the poetry written by characters in novels, which I think I’ve given to a character in some book or other.

    Tom and Stephen, thanks. I’m glad I’m back, too, and it feels very, very good indeed.

    Howard, that response should have been a blog itself. Hope you like the Brackmann book — I find it really inventive, very persuasive, extremely effective in juggling the worlds of China and Arghanistan, and propulsive in its pace. It;s disgustingly good for a first novel and she’s got a great future.

    Glad you got a Kindle, and I know exactly what you mean about people not being able to see the cover of your book, although this is a primarily New York complaint — those of us who live outside The Big Hepple don’t so often read on trains and subways and in densely populated parks. I’d love to hear your answer to the prostitution question, though. When we flew to NY, I had one of those moments — the person sitting ahead of me had heard me talking with Mun about the Edgar and he asked what the book was. I said I’d written a series set in Bangkok, and he said, “You mean Poke Rafferty? Oh, you’re Timothy Hallinan.”

    Another problem with the Kindle is that it deprives those of us who write of the very pleasant experience of getting onto a plane and seeing someone with his/her nose buried in one of our books.

    And although I love books immoderately — I have an actual shipping container full of them on some acreage in San Luis Obispo because books were chasing out of our house — in the end, I see both paper and pixels as delivery systems for text, just different ways of getting the same place, a writer’s imaginary world. And God knows it’s easier to travel with 200 books on a Kindle than it is with them jammed into a bunch of suitcases that cost more to check than your ticket did. I still buy paper books, but they’re mainly the ones I think I’ll want to keep for reference — nonfiction, mostly — or by writers I worship and who have staked out permanent footage on my shelves.

  13. Karma Lee Nash Says:

    You at SoHo. Thrilled. You know I’ve been having withdrawal for another Poke fix. And yeah, I’d the back of a cereal box if you write it. And then you give me the name of another book to go read. *love*

    So pleased you found a new home. Now, go write me some Poke.

  14. Suzanna Says:

    Tim, I share your loathing for character composed poetry, not because I don’t like poetry, but because to me having to read a poem in the middle of a novel is as welcome as having to sit through commercials on TV. Well, except our TV only plays movies we want to watch, but you get the idea.

    If Soho makes you stretch a little higher, and makes you feel maybe slightly off balance because of it (just a guess), than I say you’re on the right track creatively. Looking forward to hearing more about your GROWING YOUNGER MAN experience.

  15. Debbi Says:

    Debbi, they’d be great for you — but doing the way you’re doing in e-format, I don’t actually know why you’d want a traditional publisher.

    Yeah, me neither, actually. lol

    Unless you want to do a Hocking and grab a bunch of money and then spend months explaining to your readers why your e-books are suddenly going to cost $12.99.

    Hmm … I think someone has to make the offer first. And make it big.

    *crickets* *crickets* *crickets* *crickets* *crickets* *crickets*

    I don’t think it’s happening. 🙂

  16. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Karma Lee — Wow, thanks for being so nice — you helped me through a bad page or two. The next Poke is coming along, although it would be a lie to say it’s coming easily now that I’m in the Dread Middle, and it’ll come out in 2012, so I hope you can hold your breath that long.

    Hi, Zanna — Just hope that stretching doesn’t intimidate me more than I’m usually intimidated at this point in a book and for the 30,000 words or so that follow this point. You really would think I’d be immune to this by now, but it’s just as tough now as it was the first time.

    Debbi — if you want it, you’ll get it. There are lots of great things about bring traditionally published, and you’ll probably want to experience them at some point. And if you don’t — well I wish I were doing half as well with e-books as you are.

    If you read e-books, you could read CRASHED, the first of my Junior Bender books, on sale for the Kindle on Amazon. Only $2.99 and you get every single page.

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