Sunday, August 3, 2014

What Happens Next

One of the things I rarely do on this blog is to talk about my work life. Really: no sense in depressing you people who drop by and read this any more than is absolutely necessary. And that's really only half a joke. As the years go by, fewer paid writing gigs are available as magazines disappear and the reading public, what there is of it, begins to feel entitled to high-quality writing for nothing, just like has happened with music.

This means that those of us who want to stay alive have to either find another way to make a living (and at my age that's hard) or else figure out how to make a living off of books. And never has that latter course been harder. The small quality publishers who kept what are called mid-list writers alive over the years have been gobbled up by media conglomerates beholden to bean-counters whose only interest is the bottom line -- again, something you'll find in the music business. Hell, I believe one major publishing group is owned by a company that also includes a bunch of record companies. Structurally, it's all the same: you put out product, market it to the potential audience via targeted advertising based on research, and with luck you make a profit. Producers of product that isn't immediately profitable are let go. There's no development of talent any more: it's not cost-efficient.

Over the past five years, I've been represented by a superb literary agent at a top New York agency. Of course, during that time we've both been trying to sell something so we can each pay our rents. I came to him with a good idea, an idea he thought was good, too, but he had a word of advice. "This isn't a big book, much as I like it. You have to lead with a big book for your first book, because if you don't, there won't be a second book." And, unfortunately, I had to agree he was right. So I came up with a big book idea, or at least what I thought was one, and spent a long time researching enough of it to be able to figure out what I knew, what I needed to find out, and where what I didn't know was located. I got brilliant cooperation: my subject had somehow fallen between the cracks, and at the moment I was meeting people and doing preliminary interviews, interest had just barely started to revive. One thing I was waiting for was the publication of a catalog of a large gallery exhibit that had ignited this revival of interest. But one by one, the publishers turned us down. I went looking for a new idea. While I was looking, the catalog was published and the New York Times reviewed it, saying it was good as far as it went, but would have been greatly improved by some context. Which, of course, was what my book was: the context.

Anyway, my ship was threatening to go down, and I grabbed the first available life-preserver: do a history of rock and roll, but do it in the way I did it on my shows on Fresh Air: not so much emphasizing the big stars -- how could I possibly compete with Mark Lewisohn's immense three-volume history of the Beatles or Peter Guralnick's magisterial biography of Elvis? -- but instead concentrating on the forces within the culture and the music business as much as the individuals, successful or not, that caused things to happen.

This guy's in it
That way, I can trace the emergence of an act while talking about the other acts that were around before the name everybody recognizes got famous. Everybody talks about Elvis, Scotty and Bill mixing hillbilly and blues elements and making those trailblazing records in 1954, but not so many people realize that their fellow Memphians, the Rock and Roll Trio, the Burnette Brothers and killer guitarist Paul Burlison, who were doing this same idea earlier than Elvis.

And, as with Memphis, it's important to recognize that scenes existed, and the ambiance they created gave birth to lots of ideas as people explored ways of making music. Long before NWA were conceived, South Central was a maelstrom of musical activity, much of which is well worth your attention even today.

So's she
The problem was, in order to lay this out, I wrote a book proposal that was very, very long. I don't know that this is the case, but I suspect most of the editors took a casual look, said "Ho hum, another rock history book," and passed. The idea that my radio stuff is on a program with 4.5 million listeners, and that my archive gets 20,000 hits each time I have a piece on the air didn't seem to resonate with anyone. Me, if I were in the publishing biz and was approached by a guy with numbers like that, I'd sign him even if the book didn't seem like much. After all, do you know how many books you have to sell to make the Times best-seller list? If you're used to record-biz numbers, you'll be amazed. A friend who's taught journalism told me that one of his mentors when he was coming up told him "The publishing business understands everything but readers." Ain't that the case, though?

Two editors got it. One I talked to and he was totally on board. He went to the suits in his company and they told him it was "too ambitious." (Now there's two words people rarely use when they're talking about me!) The second guy wanted me to write a book he had in mind, but that book seemed to be one that had already been written. Not only that, but it was first published in 1984 and is still in print. That alone is a miracle. And it was too bad: this guy had no suits to report to. He was the suit.  I don't follow the publishing industry, but if I did I'd have known that he's a legend, and that a major publisher had just given him his own imprint to do with as he wanted (well, within reason). But...not gonna happen.

Except it did. Unknown to me, a friend in Oakland who had a book deal had that deal with this guy. And they'd talked a lot. The guy's daughter was going to school in Oakland, the publisher went out to visit her and hung out with his author, the author mentioned that it was too bad he wasn't going to do my book and the publisher agreed. "Why don't you split the book in half," my friend suggested, "and let the first part build the audience for the second part?" "Oh, man," the guy said, "why didn't I think of that?" E-mails flew between Austin and Oakland and New York, a phone call hashed out the details, the agent and the publisher traded facts and figures and...last Tuesday we all reached a deal.

And these guys will damn sure be in it!
It's a real good deal, the money will be enough to pay the rent during the year I have to write this first volume (the second volume is another thing entirely, and we're not even talking about it yet), but not enough that my lifestyle will change noticeably to anyone who isn't my landlord, who will be very gratified to get a check on the first of the month. I'm hardly going to get extravagant, but I am going to celebrate when the check clears the bank by buying a ticket to New York, spending a day hitting the museums, and then getting on a train for Montreal, where I'll spend a few days before heading back. I don't like to use the word "deserve," but I do need a break from Austin.

* * *
There's even a weird postscript to this. About a year ago, the guy who owns the rights to a book I did in 1983 called Michael Bloomfield: the Rise and Fall of an American Guitar Hero got in touch because he wanted to do it as an e-book. Since my relationship with him has always been a bit touchy (the book was in print for three weeks, and ever since I found out it was out of print and going for ridiculous amounts on the rare book market I'd been asking him to reprint it, and he'd refused), I insisted my agent be involved in any dealings. He reluctantly agreed, and we signed an agreement splitting everything 50/50. And there it sat. 

He gets his own book.


After the rock and roll book looked dead, my agent sent the Bloomfield book around -- I'd revised the text, although it needs a bit more work -- and, to everyone's surprise, got a bite. The day after we'd made our deal for the rock and roll book, he was offered a concrete deal for the Bloomfield book! That was last Wednesday. "What are we going to do tomorrow?" he asked me. The movie! The movie! (Although too bad Philip Seymour Hoffman's not around to play me...)

So it'll be a notch above broke not poor around here, but I'll still be the same old me, and you can count on the blog continuing, especially once I get some needed repairs done on the car and can drive around central Texas and over to Louisiana to visit my favorite smokehouses for some sausage and tasso. Stick around: this should get interesting. 


18 comments:

  1. Very happy all this came together. More good blog content for us to read!

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  2. Great stuff, Ed. Just great news.
    Hudson

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  3. This is wonderful news! Yay, Ed!!!

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  4. Is there a "Like" button I can click? Mazel tov.

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  5. So, there will be a Central Avenue book, right?

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  6. Great news, Ed. You deserve it !

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  7. As they say in France - well parts of France - Boom! Clack! Voila!

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  8. That would be a specific micro-slice of the Dordogne, n'est-ce pas?

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  9. Persistence rewarded - excellent!

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  10. Can't wait to read the book.

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  11. Can't wait to read the book,.

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  12. Any book that has The 5 Royales in it will be worth reading!

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  13. I actually like your what's-going-on-with-me posts best of all, whether things are going well for you or not. Given the life you've lived, it always involves some amount of culture comparison, commentary on changes to once-familiar places, etc, and that's always enlightening. Glad to hear things are going better for you right now, but the despondent posts are welcome, too, to my eyes, anyway. Makes me feel not so alone.

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  14. Glad to hear things are looking up. It was a bit concerning when it seemed that moving away from France didn't improve your fortunes. But now you have validation that you made the right choice. Its T minus 23 days for my move to Montpellier. Not starting out on a good note....the french consulate short changed me on the lenght of my long stay visa (what part of 'long' do you not understand people!).... ah well, c'est la France. Good luck with the writing. And you should really think about changing the name of this blog....just saying...

    veronica

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