Dispatches | October 04, 2010

Last week, I finished reading Tom Grimes’s new memoir Mentor about his twenty-year friendship with writer Frank Conroy.  Beginning with Grimes living in Key West and meeting Conroy right before he applied to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, the student-teacher relationship becomes one of admiration and respect, and then love and friendship, as both men deal with the falling short of the tremendous expectations for their books (Season’s End for Grimes, Body & Soul for Conroy).  Along with his relationship with Conroy, the narrative focuses on the writing, sale, and publication of Season’s End, and how what appears to be a guaranteed success ends up slipping away from Grimes.

The part of Mentor that was most riveting to me was when Grimes and his agent Eric Ashworth, who worked in Candida Donadio’s agency (she represented Mario Puzo, Thomas Pynchon, and Robert Stone, and Joseph Heller’s, to name but a few), sold Season’s End.  Grimes and Ashworth accept an offer from Little, Brown: $42,000 for the North American rights.  This happened while Grimes was still in the Workshop.  Season’s End was reviewed in Publisher’s Weekly, admittedly a mixed review, and a feature was done on Grimes in People.  Meanwhile, on the west coast, Grimes’s play, Spec, was going to be the first planned play in the revival of the Hollywood Met Theatre.

Oh, almost forgot: Grimes’s first novel A Stone of The Heart was reviewed by the New York Times Book Review and named a Notable Book of the Year.

So, approximately one month after the release of Season’s End, it’s strange to read that Grimes believed that he was a “proven failure.” He writes:

A year after Season’s End’s publication, its paperback edition was nonexistent. Twenty-two hundred hardcover copies had sold.  Thirteen thousand were remaindered. And Little, Brown had recouped only forty-four hundred dollars of my forty-two thousand dollar advance.

Does anyone else find this amazing?  This wasn’t that long ago: 1992.  How, exactly, did this happen?  Grimes explains.  Keep in mind that he’s from New York, lived for years in Florida, and was based in Iowa City:

Little, Brown arranged a brief, odd book “tour.”  I would read in Dayton, Columbus, and Toledo, Ohio. Cedar Rapids, Iowa.  Iowa City, Iowa. And Madison, Wisconsin.  Also, the novel’s publication date coincided with major league baseball’s opening day, meaning it would be released with fifty other “baseball” books.  Little Brown’s marketing strategy seemed to involve keeping the book a secret in large cities, and confusing reviewers by having it arrive for reviews along with Timmy of the Little League.

Weird tour plan, isn’t it?  Here’s a big reason way: the editor that championed Grimes’s book, Pat Mulcahy, left Little, Brown shortly after Season’s End was acquired, leaving the book without a vocal supporter within the publishing, which can be a death knell for a writer.  But, along with all this, what really struck me, both with Grimes and Conroy a few years later, is how critical it was to get a glowing review from the New York Times.  The failure to get Season’s End review at all devastated Grimes, a fixation for both men that bordered on obsession.

Here’s the thing.  Reading all this, I kept thinking how quaint and old-fashioned all of this was.

Think of all things Grimes couldn’t do.  There was never any discussion in the book of hiring an independent publicist on commission.  Grimes didn’t do any other touring if Little, Brown wasn’t paying for it.  Grimes couldn’t use the Internet, still in its infancy, to generate buzz; this was even before AOL sent you discs to your that physical mailbox at the end of your driveway so you could dialup for $19.95 for a month.  He couldn’t engage his audience because he couldn’t find his audience.  Think about it: the hotshot rising star at the most prestigious writing program in the country, whose play attracted Ed Harris and Holly Hunter, whose first novel was a Notable Book of the Year, whose new book was on Little, Brown, could not find an audience.

That’s amazing.

I don’t know if the Internet could have saved Grimes’s novel (or that Grimes’s novel even needed to be “saved”).  After all, it’s not gone: you can find it on Amazon because, with online stores, books aren’t really out of print and unattainable anymore.  For all the hits publishing has taken the last two decades, for all the bad news that has been dumped atop the heads of editors and writers, let’s keep this in mind: some of these changes can be a tremendous benefit to us.  Living in today’s age, Grimes would have a great website, have a blog (and post to others), a Facebook page and a Twitter account, maybe Digg or ReddIt, too, along with, I dunno, a GoodReads account and Grimes could bang out a couple of podcasts with his Iowa buddies.  He’d have a pretty good email list, maybe even a physical mailing list, of people interested in his work.  Thanks to Google, he could find independent bookstores in any area of the country.  He could even make a book trailer.  This isn’t a good thing.  This is a great thing.

None of this completely replaces the fullcourt press from a major publishing house.  Nothing can or will, but unless you’re J.K. Rowling, those days are over.  The Hollywood hype machine has taken over publishing, and with all the books released each year, a number that increases exponentially, we get a gargantuan amount of noise about really mediocre—if not outright bad—books.  And distinguishing yourself as an author in all that noise is a big challenge.  As authors, though, we can do it.  If we can finish writing a good book (note: this is the most important thing), we absolutely can find an audience that wants to read our stories.

And the tools to do so our already literally right in front of you.

Michael Nye is the managing editor of The Missouri Review.