Reason #387 Why Publishing Is a Thankless, Frustrating Business
Last year we brought out Tirza by Arnon Grunberg, one of my favorite books of the past few years. (And a title that deserves to at least be shortlisted for this year’s BTBA . . .)
At the time I talked to Arnon about doing two of his other books—The Man without Illness and The Asylum Seekers—since we all love his work so much, and thought that Open Letter could serve as a home for some of these older books. He seemed thrilled about this.
We made an offer to his new representative, Oscar van Gelderen (who took over Arnon’s properties after Ira Silverberg went to run the Literature Department at the NEA, but is primarily a Dutch publisher), and after following up with him a half-dozen times—he held our offer for months upon months—we received the following reply this morning:
It took some time before we could respond to your offer, the reason being we are looking carefully at the publishing situation in each country wherein Arnon is published.
And although we have enjoyed working together with Open Letter on Tirza, we have decided not to accept your offers for Arnons books. Sales for Tirza have been quite poor, as far as we can judge (when do we receive royalty statements?), and visibility in the media has been limited. We love the Open Letter list, its quality, but we feel Arnon needs a publishing house with more sales power. We dont mean this in a disrespectful way, au contraire, we know how Open Letter operates and we can see the upsides of that strategy too, but we need more power and marketing force in order to get Arnon the breakthrough he deserves (in each and every country).
For the moment we have put things on hold in the USA and UK, we want to decide in a later stage whom we want collaborate with. Arnon is currently writing his novel about his mother, a book, we feel, with lots of sales potential. For us it would be thé Grunberg book to break open the market, get him out there, and find the readers he truly deserves.
In the meantime, please send us some more information regarding sales of Tirza, we are curious to know how it sold sofar.
All the best,
Oscar van Gelderen
Arnon Grunberg Agency
Yeah, it’s still pretty disrespectful, buddy.
The sales have been modest—over 2,000 copies, but still—which is one reason we’re moving to Consortium for sales distribution. We’ve been doing all sales representation ourselves (and with the help of the fantastic George Carroll out in the Pacific Northwest), and that’s much more complicated and difficult now than it was 10 years ago. Literary books—in translation, in a crowded marketplace—will probably always sell between 1,500 and 4,000 copies on average, but hopefully Consortium will push us toward the larger end of that spectrum.
Back to kvetching: Last April, Arnon sent me a translated version of an article he had written about Greece, in hopes that I would be able to find a magazine interested in publishing this. Under normal circumstances, this would be an agent’s job; my assumption was that Oscar doesn’t know that U.S. landscape as well as I do, and was looking for some help.
So, for no money or other considerations, I spent some time talking to various publications and eventually got Andrew Leland from The Believer interested and the piece appeared in the September 2013 issue of the magazine. You’re welcome, Oscar!
Putting aside my emotions for a second, let’s consider how wise a move this is on Oscar/Arnon’s part.
In case you’re not aware of Arnon’s publishing history in the U.S., in 1997, Farrar, Straus & Giroux brought out his debut novel, Blue Mondays. A few years later, 2001 to be exact, St. Martin’s brought out Silent Extras. Three years later, Other Press brought out two of Arnon’s books, Phantom Pain and The Story of My Baldness. Then, in 2008, Penguin brought out The Jewish Messiah. And finally, in 2013, Open Letter publishes Tirza.
For a lot of international authors, that’s a damn fine run. Over the course of 16 years, five different publishers brought out six of Arnon’s books. The part that might be troubling is the five different publishers. Conventional Wisdom states that if a publisher sells an acceptable number of copies of a particular author’s book, they like to go on with that author, build a backlist, etc. My guess—and maybe I’m wrong—is that FSG, Penguin, Other Press, didn’t get the attention and sales that they were looking for, which is why they only did 1-2 books then moved on.
From a typical agent’s perspective, this is not a good thing. Publishing people talk, partial sales information becomes accessible, and any new editor considering a new book from this author can look back on this pothole-filled publishing history, and . . . probably think long and hard about signing on the author’s new book.
So, in contrast to having a situation in which Arnon had a publisher willing to do 3+ of his novels—more than any other previous publisher—Arnon is now going out into the marketplace with a lot of baggage . . . I wish him luck. All I want is to be able to read more of his books—something that probably won’t be possible (Especailly for his backlist titles) for the foreseeable future.
Then again, there always is the self-publishing route . . .