Fifty Shades of O

The entertainment business is kind of crazy.  You might have already gotten that impression, what with the La La Land fiasco at the Oscars last Sunday and the ability of the Kardashians to prosper in television work.  But make no mistake:  that special kind of boogaloo applies in spades to the book publishing world, where editors are hired and fired on seeming whims and everybody is looking for the Next Big Thing.  It’s how sparkly vampires and BDSM fanfic end up on the best seller lists, and ungodly sums of money get thrown at projects that never see the light of day.  The truth is, like in Hollywood, nobody really knows what’s going to work–and in a fickle market, where traditional publishers are struggling to find their way, any tentpole book can be a huge gamble that can quickly turn into a disaster.  Just ask Simon & Schuster after they published Hillary Clinton’s last tome.

That’s why I nearly shot coffee through my nose when I heard that Penguin Random House is shelling out north of $60 million to Barack and Michelle Obama for a combined two-book deal:

“We are absolutely thrilled to continue our publishing partnership with President and Mrs. Obama,” Penguin CEO Markus Dohle said in a statement, according to The Associated Press.


“With their words and their leadership, they changed the world, and every day, with the books we publish at Penguin Random House, we strive to do the same.”

Okay, I get it–the Obamas are superstars, particularly amongst the New York glitterati, and I’m quite certain that they’ll sell truckloads of books to their adoring fans.  But $60 million bucks worth?  That requires a pretty heavy suspension of disbelief, and here’s why.

For those not familiar with how a publishing contract works, it goes something like this:  A publisher wants to buy your book, so they offer you what’s called an advance against royalties.  Basically, the publisher thinks it can sell enough copies of your book so that eventually your share of the cover price of each book sold will equal or exceed that advance.  This is important, because the author gets to keep that advance whether or not the publisher sells enough books to cover it.  That’s why big advances are harder and harder to come by these days, especially for newer authors.

Royalties are calculated as a percentage of the cover price of the book.  Using the Obama example, let’s just assume that they have a hell of an agent and they negotiated a 15% royalty for each copy sold.  Let’s also assume that each book sells for around $20 per hardcover copy.  That means Obamas will take home $3 for every book they sell.  Divide that $3 into $60 million, and they’ll need to sell 20 million books just to earn their advance.

But it’s the Obamas, you say.  Surely they’ll be able to manage that, right?  Well, it turns out that Barack Obama already has a publishing history with his books Dreams From My Father and The Audacity of Hope (whether or not he actually wrote them–but that’s another story).  Both of those books sold a combined 4.650,000 copies–far short of our 20,000,000 figure.  So what on earth makes Penguin Random House think they’ll ever be able to make that money back?

Oh, sure–there’s book club sales, e-book sales, foreign sales, what have you.  But those only reduce the price per copy of each book, and with Amazon and the other deep-discounters selling the book way below $20 per copy we used as an example above, that’s only going to make it even harder to earn back that $60 million.  In short, the likelihood of the publisher making a profit on this deal is extremely small.

So why do it?  Maybe the people running the show think the prestige of having the Obamas in their stable of authors will help with the sales of their other books.  Maybe they just want to write off the loss.  Who knows?  But it’s probably going to make it a lot harder for lesser-known authors to make money off their work with all of the cash for acquisitions going to the former president and first lady.  That’s the price of doing business with celebrities, I guess.

The thing is, I firmly believe that the Obamas already know this.  You know how?  Because if they really thought they could sell that many books, they’d bypass a traditional publisher entirely and just distribute the books themselves.  Think about it:  they could cut the price in half to $10 per copy, and if they sold 20,000,000 copies they could still pocket $200 million!  But they know there’s no way that’s ever going to happen.  That’s why they’re going to take the $60 million and run.

On the bright side, we can only imagine how much this is annoying the Clintons.

Disclosure:  Penguin Random House is the publisher of my books Hammerjack and Prodigal.

Opus Trek

Back when I was a kid, I begged my mom to buy me what I thought of as the Holy Grail of Star Trek reference books, The Star Trek Compendium by Allan Asherman. Of course, it didn’t help that I told her that the name of the book was The Star Trek Emporium–but eventually, trusty mom figured it out and it picked the book up just in time for my birthday. Unwrapping that puppy, I couldn’t wait to jump in and read about all the behind-the-scenes goodness that I hadn’t already picked up from David Gerrold’s The World of Star Trek and the journals of the James Doohan fan club (yes, I was a proud member). Asherman’s opus didn’t disappoint. He detailed every episode of the original series in order, topping them off with Star Trek: The Motion Picture, which was, at the time of publication, the only movie produced. I don’t know how many times I pored over that book in my youth, obsessively looking up some obscure Trek factoid–which probably explains why I never lost a Star Trek trivia contest, at least until Next Generation came along.

Well, it only took around 30 years–but now Ed Gross and Mark Altman have done Asherman one better with the publication of their epic two-volume documentary extravaganza, The Fifty Year Mission: The Complete, Uncensored, Unauthorized Oral History of Star Trek. It’s Star Trek as told by the people who literally lived it–the actors, designers, producers, studio execs, and especially writers. Using interview snippets cobbled together from original interviews and hundreds of other sources collected from far and wide, Gross and Altman have indeed compiled the most exhaustive, top-to-bottom reference I’ve ever read on any pop culture subject–over 1,000 pages worth between the two books.

I initially picked up the first volume because I was most interested in the original series–and found out quickly that yes, this was indeed the uncensored version of Star Trek history that has mostly gotten lost in the legend. Egos abounded on the set (and not just William Shatner’s), with Gene Roddenberry–ostensibly trying to balance the creative direction of the show with network demands to dumb it down–managing to piss everybody off while pretty much chasing every piece of tail he could find. And while the stories still pay Roddenberry a high level of respect as an idea man, they make no bones that Gene L. Coon, whom Roddenberry brought in as a producer, was the man who probably contributed the most to pointing Star Trek in the direction that ultimately made it successful.

Volume two, which is the longer of the books, covers The Next Generation through the J.J. Abrams films–and I must confess, I actually ended up enjoying it even more than the first volume. Even though I gave up on TNG around the middle of the fifth season and never really watched Deep Space Nine, Voyager or Enterprise, the stories from the writers room made for some fascinating stuff. Did you know, for example, that Kate Mulgrew resented the hell out of Jeri Ryan when she came on board Voyager as the sexy Borg babe? Or that the writers on Deep Space Nine could pretty much do whatever they wanted because the studio largely ignored them? Or that TNG was notorious in Hollywood as a revolving door for writers? There’s some great inside baseball here.

Reading volume two also brought back a flood of memories for me, as it touched on my own experience pitching stories to TNG during the show’s fourth season. I remember going to the Hart Building on the Paramount lot, sitting in that writers room and peddling my wares to the likes of Ron Moore, Joe Menosky and the late Michael Piller (who in the book comes off pretty much as I remembered him, somewhat cold and distant). That was my first brush with writing professionally, and I’ll never forget the experience.

My only quibble with the books are some snarky political asides (it’s clear that the authors don’t think much of the Tea Party or Republicans, which may be why known conservative TNG actor Dwight Shultz is mysteriously missing from here), but those are few and far between and don’t detract from the stories too much. So if you’re a Trek fan–or even if you’re just interested in how the show biz sausages get made–this 50 year mission is definitely worth taking.

Overly Sensitive

A problem that happens when you give into political correctness is that it starts creeping into places that you wouldn’t expect.  That’s because the social justice warriors who do battle under its flag are nothing if they don’t have a target for their outrage–so if one isn’t readily apparent, they’ll go looking high and low until they find one.  Sometimes it’s a college professor telling students to chill out about Halloween costumes.  Other times, it’s a Nobel laureate who made a joke that some people didn’t particularly like.  And then there’s the occasional random nobody who makes an ill-advised tweet.  Point is, it doesn’t really matter, so long as a scalp is taken and a life is ruined.  That’s how social justice warriors make their bones.  It’s also how they exercise their power:  Nice [FILL IN THE BLANK] you got there, be a shame if something happened to it.

So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the iron boot is now stepping on the throat of the publishing world.  Publishers, who face serious challenges to their business model even without a rabid mob breathing down their necks, are taking the path of least resistance when it comes to #TheResistance and enlisting sensitivity professionals to make sure that their books aren’t, well, insensitive:

Before a book is published and released to the public, it’s passed through the hands (and eyes) of many people: an author’s friends and family, an agent and, of course, an editor.


These days, though, a book may get an additional check from an unusual source: a sensitivity reader, a person who, for a nominal fee, will scan the book for racist, sexist or otherwise offensive content. These readers give feedback based on self-ascribed areas of expertise such as “dealing with terminal illness,” “racial dynamics in Muslim communities within families” or “transgender issues.”

Just who are these sensitivity readers?  Don’t worry, there’s an app–er, a database–for that:

For authors looking for sensitivity readers beyond their fan base there is the Writing in the Margins database, a resource of about 125 readers created by Justina Ireland, author of the YA books “Vengeance Bound” and “Promise of Shadows.” Ireland started the directory last year after hearing other authors at a writing retreat discuss the difficulties in finding people of different backgrounds to read a manuscript and give feedback about such, well, sensitive matters.


One reader for hire in Ireland’s database is Dhonielle Clayton, a librarian and writer based in New York. Clayton reviews two manuscripts per month, going line by line to look at diction, dialogue and plot. Clayton says she analyzes the authenticity of the characters and scenes, then points writers to where they can do more research to improve their work.


Clayton…sees her role as a vital one. “Books for me are supposed to be vehicles for pleasure, they’re supposed to be escapist and fun,” she says. They’re not supposed to be a place where readers “encounter harmful versions” and stereotypes of people like them.

Call me cynical, but I find it hard to believe that anyone who picks through the lines of a book searching for “harmful versions” of people like her is looking to dive into a book seeking escape and fun.  She’s more like William Shatner picking through a script to make sure that Leonard Nimoy doesn’t get more lines of dialogue.

Believe me, the kind of person who would want the job of “sensitivity reader” is not the kind of person you want having quality control over your novel.  One of the joys of writing fiction is that the vision is uniquely yours–not something like in the movies, where everything gets slapped together after everybody has a say-so and the product has been screen tested to death.  Tossing in a third party who has no stake in the creative process of devising the story and characters is nothing more than writing by committee.  And as anybody who has seen Howard the Duck knows, nothing good ever comes of that.

There’s also something Stalinist about requiring a writer to submit to this kind scrutiny.  What if I think my sensitivity reader is full of it?  Am I free to discard the advice?  Or is my publisher going to cancel my contract if I don’t abide?  I’ve had a few disagreements with my editors in the course of getting my own books ready for publication, all of which I had for very good reasons.  I fought those changes because I believed strongly that I was right, and in the those cases my editors relented because I was the writer and I knew the material best.  But what happens if my publisher, afraid of being accused of insensitivity, refuses to budge?

It can only mean that fiction, rather than challenging readers–rather than shocking them, making them uncomfortable, making them question, making them think–will become more watered down, less controversial, and less interesting.  And who the hell wants that?

Except social justice warriors, that is.