If he weren’t Joe McGinniss, he might be a kind of archetype of an American writer. He’s taken on big and diverse subjects, invented genres, engaged in mighty literary controversies, and for 30 years produced more or less best-selling books. But he is Joe McGinniss, and for various reasons – a guilelessness and certainly an extraordinarily poor sense of his profession’s politics among them – he has tended to walk into literary disasters. The journalistic Establishment together with Kennedy partisans heaped a mountain of bad press on him (“mauled and devoured and eviscerated” him, he says) for his book on Teddy Kennedy (McGinniss imputed thoughts to Kennedy); Janet Malcolm – the black widow of journalism – made him the primary illustration of what is undoubtedly the most hyperbolic sentence (indeed what is the most-talked-about sentence) ever to appear in The New Yorker (“Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible.”) And now, with the publication of his ninth book, his American publisher has abandoned him, his English publisher has snubbed him, his Italian publisher has dumped him, two agents have parted ways with him, and he’s set to go on trial in Italy for something called “criminal defamation.”
E-mails from him started arriving early in the summer. Now, I am a veteran of the scorched-earth language and general performance art of the flame (as receiver and initiator), but his e-mails made a big impression. For one thing, there was an added authenticity to his rage because he did not really know how to use e-mail – there was the visible cc: list (he had copied his friends, publishing acquaintances, and Don Imus), the odd formatting, and the interminable length. And then there was the subject of the ever-increasing thread: an author confronting his publisher. There was a blood feud here.
Throughout the summer, not only did more e-mails come – the crazy-man rage extended to publishers in other countries – but prior e-mails were forwarded from other writing friends who had just received them forwarded from still other friends.
It was over the top. It was, vividly, a picture of a writer disintegrating. It was bad. And yet compelling. It didn’t take much to see this as something more than just one writer self-destructing, indeed to see it as another indication of the career of writing itself going up in flames.
It’s a journalistic truism that when you want to learn what’s really going on, you look for the least-stable person – the crazy lady – who will tell you things that others, for reasons of decorum and self-interest, hold back. McGinniss is the crazy lady.
For 30 years, McGinniss has made his living writing books. Not doing anything except writing books – not teaching, not working for a newspaper or magazine, not writing screenplays – has always been a rarefied place in American letters. But you could get there. It was possible to be a journeyman writer, a true independent, not hitched to politics, subject matter, genre, or form, writing about what interested you and what caught your imagination. Such careers – Mailer-, Vidal-, Talese-, Halberstam-like careers – were made not only of big books but of books between big books, of digressions, of piffles, of collections (almost nobody, save John Updike, can publish collections these days). The understanding was that along with the marketplace for books by celebrities, by statesmen, scholars, ideologues, and self-healers, there was a market for books by writers – writer writers.
McGinniss, who had, at 26, changed the way politics is covered with his book The Selling of the President and then gone on to create three classics of true-crime journalism, decided in 1996 that he didn’t want to write a book about O. J. Simpson for which he had been paid $1 million (McGinniss sat through every day of the Simpson trial). He wanted to write about soccer – his midlife passion. Sometimes, in a writer’s life, it is hard to tell the difference between writerly passion and bad career management – sometimes they are one and the same thing.
His agent, the big-money Mort Janklow, believed this to be strictly bad management (McGinniss had to return the $1 million he’d been paid for O.J.) and refused to represent the soccer book, passing it off to a junior agent in his office and dumping the book altogether shortly after it was completed.
Still, on the basis of an eight-page proposal, the publisher, Little, Brown, paid McGinniss $250,000. The proposal described a book about a soccer team in a small town in Italy defying all odds and achieving championship status, something like Pawtucket heading to the World Series. McGinniss proposed to spend a season with the team.
This was, from the start, an unlikely bet. For one thing, McGinniss didn’t speak Italian. For another, among the many things Americans are not interested in are anything to do with a foreign country and professional soccer. Still, as any publisher will tell you, it is all in the telling. Americans may not be interested in the particulars of Italy (quick: Name the prime minister. How ‘bout an Italian writer?), but we are, apparently, interested in the romance of Italy – hence, the surprise success of Francis Mayes’s books about owning a house in Tuscany. And while Americans are surely not interested in soccer, they are reliably interested in come-from-behind stories of all kinds.
A classic of subject-defying storytelling is a book called The Secret of Santa Vittoria – one of the best-sellers of the sixties, about a small town in Italy during World War II. The book was a favorite of McGinniss’s, and he invoked it in his proposal (book proposals must always invoke successful like-minded books). By coincidence, the head of Little, Brown is Sarah Crichton, whose father, Robert, wrote The Secret of Santa Vittoria. On such serendipity or sentiment are book deals done. (While this was initially to McGinniss’s advantage, he would come later to see it as a liability: “While your father was an author, and a fine one, you are a businesswoman, a very different breed,” he wrote her.)
The issue – the gamble – was straightforward: Could McGinniss transcend his subject matter and turn it into a story with wide appeal?
“It is so original, so human … it is intoxicating,” Crichton wrote McGinniss shortly after he turned in the book. But that did not necessarily mean she was pleased with it.
The Miracle of Castel di Sangro is an eccentric book – an obsessive tale rather than a universal one. There’s too much Italy, too much soccer. What’s more, McGinniss’s story of a haimish soccer team became uncomfortably dark as well – corruption, kickbacks, thrown games, Mafia – adding layers of ambiguity and legal issues to the book.
McGinniss, sensing a loss of enthusiasm in the months before his publication (this is almost a business term in the book industry: “There’s a lot of enthusiasm for the book” means it isn’t dead yet; “There’s not a lot of enthusiasm for the book” means it is on its way to the pulper), tries to fight back.
It is perhaps unfair to accuse publishing houses of being solely bottom-line-focused, because people who work in publishing houses actually know frighteningly little about business. And yet, through the course of the conglomeration, mediafication, and superstoreization of the book business, a psychological shift has occurred that has made the book business at least recognizable to a venture capitalist. That is, a book company sees itself as principally making bets rather than marketing products. Some pay off – Frances Mayes’s Tuscany books, for instance – at such a rate that the return on investment is great enough to amortize a considerable number of losses. The focus is on the random winners. Likewise, it is a perfectly understandable human and institutional response to minimize or deny the existence of a failed or not-so-successful bet – i.e., to cut your losses. Accordingly, if your book starts to be a nonsuccess, there is no mechanism for trying to make it a success (or more of a success than a failure).
The trade-off for finding yourself on the wrong side of the gamble is that you have probably been paid quite well for your flop. And while your flop will certainly not increase your chances of a future big-money advance, complaining (after all, you got the money) won’t, either.
By the time the book is published in May, McGinniss has lost it. Through the e-mails he sends his publisher (and copies the world), and the e-mails he sends his friends recounting his travails, it’s easy to see what’s going on – although McGinniss doesn’t see it. He believes his book is failing because of his publisher’s incompetence (and indeed what author has not thought this: publicity arranged by 22-year-olds, covers designed by freelancers paid a few hundred dollars, marketing people with no training in marketing, etc.).
But really it is just a conflict of business models. McGinniss, like any author, has but one product, on which basis he rises or falls. A publisher has many, and only a few need to really sell – only a few can really sell (shelf space is a Darwinian world). As in most businesses, in the book business, the overwhelming inclination (not to mention profitable strategy) is to sell what it is easiest to sell. “Perhaps the standard, traditional, cookie-cutter publicity operation, no matter how much everyone cared and how hard everyone worked, was less than this book required,” offers McGinniss in his e-mail. “Duh,” someone was probably saying (or at least thinking) at Little, Brown, “and that’s why we’re not doing it.”
And so McGinniss became a crazy man. He blamed the book jacket, the libel lawyers, the publicity efforts, his editor’s moral character. In England, he blames the course of English history (“Three times I wrote you asking what was going wrong, and whether you did not think my doing personal publicity – as had been scheduled and was only canceled due to blunders at your end – might stop the hemorrhage. Three times, you simply chose not to answer. And when finally you did, you wrote only that any decisions ‘will have to wait until tomorrow.’ Oh, my goodness. Wasn’t this how you lost the Empire?”). In Italy, where the book’s villain has him tied up in frightening if dubious (and confusing) legal proceedings, and where his publisher (Garzanti) has now dropped the book because of the legal specters, he is crying nothing short of fascism.
McGinniss believes, sentimentally, that publishers publish books and writers write books. In fact, that latter job has largely been taken over by celebrities, politicians, businessmen (often subsidizing their own books), genre specialists, and anyone who can supply free promotion. That’s who writers compete with. A writer has to take his shot like everyone else, and like everyone else face sudden death.
Oddly, in the new bottom-line, hit-or-miss, succeed-or-fail world, nobody talks about numbers. No one discusses the mechanics of selling books and making money – that is, sales goals, order projections, break-even points, promotional budgets – at least not with writers. If it were Jell-O, or software, they’d certainly tell you how many orders were shipped. But with books, if you ask about the numbers, a mask of concern descends over your publisher’s face. To ask is to be troublesome. It is as though you would willfully destroy some carefully constructed artifice.
But this is cracking fast.
If writers have to be entrepreneurs, let’s get on with it. Joe McGinniss is already in the advanced e-mail marketing class.