Top Stories from the Business/Finance pages of the International Herald Tribune,
Wednesday, November 12, 1997

Author's Protest: U.S. Book Rights Go on Sale for $1

By Brad Spurgeon International Herald Tribune
PARIS - Norman Spinrad is offering U.S. rights to his next novel for an advance of $1. This might be passed off as a silly stunt by a frustrated writer, except that Mr. Spinrad is one of the world's premier science-fiction writers, part of the ''new wave'' of the late 1960s when he wrote ''Bug Jack Barron,'' a novel that anticipated the days when presidential elections would be decided entirely by television.

Mr. Spinrad has published more than 30 books, is translated throughout the world and is respected in France, where he has lived nearly a decade. While the Larousse Dictionary of Writers calls two novels he wrote in the early 1980s ''arguably his best science-fiction works,'' he thinks the $1 book is his best

''I hereby offer,'' he writes on his Internet home page at, ''to sell the American volume rights to my completed novel ''He Walked Among Us'' for an advance of $1 to the publisher who persuades me that they will publish it properly.''

The offer is his way of saying that the publishing industry, dominated as it is by conglomerates, is doing

bad business by putting the bottom-line value of books above their literary value. By offering the rights for $1, he says he is trying to show that the literary value should come first. He is also telling prospective publishers to use the money he might have been paid in advance to promote the book.

The book was written under contract to Bantam Books Inc., part of Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group Inc., where Mr. Spinrad has published since 1985. He received a $50,000 advance for it and another book for which he has written only an outline. After poor sales of his previous book, ''Pictures at 11,'' and after the outlined book was rejected, he fought for the rights to ''He Walked Among Us.'' He blamed poor promotion for the poor sales of ''Pictures at 11'' and said he did not want a recurrence of that failing.

As part of the deal to regain those rights, Mr. Spinrad was asked to repay his advance once he sold the book elsewhere.

Mr. Spinrad, 57, said the current publishing crisis was tied to the ''conglomeratization'' of the industry.

''You can't successfully market books like hamburgers,'' he said, ''because they're each individual items. It don't work! They downsize, they blame writers. When they've done everything and find that they're still losing money, they might suddenly realize that they're losing money because they're publishing crap.''

He started his Internet pitch as a serious attempt to sell his book rights. But he has received so many letters from writers in a similar position that he says he feels like a spokesman for downtrodden authors.

''People write me and ask me what I'm going to do about it,'' he said.

Mr. Spinrad, a past president of the Science Fiction Writers of America, also says publishers are trying to sell books through marketing tie-ins such as movies, television and CD-ROMs. He said these media were doing a better job of providing mindless entertainment than books do, so people were no longer buying the books.

He likens the crisis to the one encountered by painting when photography came along.

''Painting was there to mimic reality, to present it,'' he said. ''Photography did that better, so painting had to do the new things that photography couldn't. There are things that literature can do that movies and CD-ROMs can't, and it's fruitless to compete for the popular, simple entertainment that these other things do better.''

''He Walked Among Us'' is partly about these issues.

''It's about the interplay of the things of the spirit and the things of rationality,'' Mr. Spinrad said. ''You have to do a synthesis of these things. If you have the complete rationalist viewpoint, you have, for example, the crisis in the publishing industry. When the spirit goes out of something like that, the business doesn't work either. And ultimately if the business goes belly-up, then the writers stop writing, and the spirit goes out of it too.''

While Mr. Spinrad's previous books were published under Bantam's Spectra science-fiction imprint, ''Pictures at 11'' came out as a mainstream novel. It got excellent reviews and is under a film option, but Mr. Spinrad says its disappointing sales were due to a small print run and a lack of promotion.

Bad sales figures on even a single book these days can ruin careers, he said, when chain stores order based on sales statistics rather than book content. Some publishers now decide a book's print run according to these chain-store statistics.

''Publishing doesn't work on this scale, either on a marketing end or an acquisition end,'' he said. ''You need editorial judgment to buy the books. And you need people who know about the books and care about the books on a local bookstore level,'' he said, referring to independent bookstore owners.

He suggested selling the chain stores as franchises so that the owners could buy the books they wanted rather than using centralized computer statistics.

''This is the heart and soul of the country,'' he said. ''You can't have a country without literature.''

Bantam officials could not be reached for comment. Peter Mayer, the publisher who bought ''Bug Jack Barron'' for Avon in 1968, said he remembered Mr. Spinrad as being unhappy with his sales then, too.

''Mr. Spinrad, understandably as the good writer that he is, wants people to read his books,'' he said. ''But you can't make people do that.''

Mr. Mayer, who over the past 20 years rose to chairman of Penguin Books USA Inc. before deciding six months ago to run his family's small company, Overlook Press, said publishing was a complicated business in which it was easy to find villains, but that no one can predict what will sell. He agreed, however, that the giant companies were trying to produce books they way they do hamburgers.

''They have to show profits,'' he said. ''They are not the Salvation Army. But there are unknown writers who do become famous despite the world of conglomerates, and some of them are excellent writers.''

''Many years ago there was a book published called 'Jonathan Livingston Seagull,' which had a first printing of, I think, 3,000 copies,'' he said. ''If anybody were to say, 'Let's get rid of the mid-list books on our list,' that would have been one of the books killed. It went on to sell 2 million hardcovers in the year it was published and 9 million paperbacks the year afterwards.''

''Book buying in the publishing business is an art,'' Mr. Spinrad said, ''not a science. It was someone's hunch to buy that book.''

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