Thursday, January 08, 2009

Adam Bellow -- publisher, editor, author [part three]

Adam Bellow of the New Pamphleteer and HarperCollins:

Note: This is the second part of my interview with Bellow. An abridged version of it appeared at The Brooklyn Rail.

Note 2: This part of my interview with Bellow took place in the summer of 2007. Given that the interview includes a discussion of the 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah, but took place long before the current war in Gaza, it should be read in that context.

CBT: Id like to talk to you now about particular pamphlets that youve published. But first, if you dont mind, would you please re-cap and tell us why pamphlets? Why this format?

AB: For me, the idea goes back to the late 90s, when I observed the beginnings of a contraction in the publishing industry that affected what are called mid-list books. That is to say, all the big companies yielding to the pressures of the market -- particularly the mass distribution model via Barnes and Noble all began to prune back from their lists books they thought would not sell more than 10,000 copies. And this had an effect on what I do as a non-fiction editor specializing in books about politics and ideas. I found that I had less freedom to experiment and be playful and creative in my publishing choices. I had to lend my efforts more and more to brand-name authors with a track-record who the publisher felt we could turn into best sellers. And I thought this was an unhealthy development in the intellectual life of the country.

Particularly in a period when, as we then were and still are, ideological certainties were clearly breaking down in the aftermath of the Cold War, and now, even more, with the advent of the war on terror, were in a period of ideological flux. As we can see from American politics, many people, traditional Democrats, have moved right (or did, at least initially, after 9/11). And its not clear where were going to be after the next election. I think the most significant thing is the growth of a sector of voters who identify themselves as Independent. And it is this group of people Im most interested in publishing by and for.

CBT: In terms of your list, Id like to start with The Plucky Smart Kid with the Fatal Disease: A Life with Cystic Fibrosis by Dean Barnett. How did you come into contact with Mr. Barnett. Is Dean Barnett a blogger himself?

AB: Yes, Dean is a blogger who blogs on the website maintained by radio talk show host Hugh Hewitt. Hugh is a friend and someone who was very helpful to me in publishing one of my most successful pamphlets a dictionary of military jargon called Embrace the Suck: A Guide to Milspeak. Hugh had us on his show which is one of the most effective ways to promote pamphlet sales -- to promote that. And when we finished he said, Oh, you must speak to my colleague Dean Barnett who has cystic fibrosis.

Dean writes mostly about politics, but when he writes about his own life and his experience of having this dreadful disease, the traffic on the site spikes. Hugh had often read aloud on the radio Deans pieces about having cystic fibrosis. So there was a feeling this was something he could address, and so we worked with Dean not only to repackage his blog posts but tell his life story in about 6 or 7,000 words.

And it came out as really a lovely piece of writing, which is the main thing we try to maintain above all: a standard of intellectual and literary quality, and also to give an impression of variety and diversity, if not eclecticism.

CBT: Another pamphlet that impressed me was Raising Wild Boys into Men: A Dads Survival Guide by Tony Woodlief. It is about a much less poignant much more commonplace predicament than Dean Barnetts. But its a difficult one: raising kids. Now, his concern is how we can raise boys to be boys on the one hand, and responsible adults on the other, without falling into the pitfalls of a certain form of political correctness that wants to smother aggressiveness in boys.

Id like to ask two questions about this. The first is, again, how did you come in contact with Mr. Woodlief? And second, have you thought of publishing a follow-up title about raising girls a sort of Raising Wild Girls into Women? But lets just start with the question of how you came across Mr. Woodliefs work.

AB: I was on a panel of the BEA in June, to talk about alternative publishing models, in front of a room full of literary agents. I was on a panel with a bunch of other publishers who do regular books, and so finally the question was asked of me, Why should we pay any attention to you? You know, Im not paying advances, and I sell small quantities of pamphlets online for four dollars a piece. From an agents point of view, theres not much to be gained from doing any business with me. And I said, Thats fine, I actually dont want to deal with agents. I have nothing to gain from dealing with you, either [laughs]. But what I can tell you is Im doing work thats important to you in the long run, because Im finding writers in the blogosphere and the people Im choosing to publish are people you should want to sign.

The blogosphere is a pure literary democracy in the sense that stuff that is good, that has some quality, is going to attract readers. People emerge with a following, and they will be the voice of the future. And Tony Woodlief is one of these people. Hes a private individual: a guy who has an ordinary job, who happens to be a conservative Christian, and he and his wife are religious people who home-school their children. They have three little boys now four and Tony just writes about the day-to-day life in their household, which is very rich and emotionally and spiritually satisfying. He has a small following, very loyal. And he wrote to us, basically, and asked us if we were interested in publishing something by him. So he sent us a few ideas, and the one we liked the most was a straight-forward anecdotal account of what its like to be the father of three rambunctious little boys, all under ten, and trying to bring them into manhood.

And the theme was something thats in the air. Theres a current bestseller called The Dangerous Book for Boys that did so well they brought out a companion book for girls. And so there seems to be a kind of general reaction against the politically correct swing of the pendulum toward trying to make boys play nice, and give up their rambunctious and violent ways, and be more like girls. This is how it was for many years in our culture, and school system. Boys were discouraged from being loud and noisy. And now the pendulum has swung back the other way.

In the case of Tony Woodlief, we had someone we felt had real appeal, and his pamphlet has been one of our most successful publications.

CBT: Now that brings us to the next title, Embrace the Suck: a Pocket Guide to Milspeak by Colonel Austin Bay. If my memory serves correctly, in the introduction Col. Bay mentions that you approached him. Could you tell us about that?

AB: This is something that all editors do not just to read submissions from agents but to think up ideas on our own. Magazine editors do this, too. But as a magazine editor, you have the incentive of payment. We dont really have that, but we do have the ability to come up with ideas and pitch them to people. And this is something that we could try, mainly because pamphlet publishing is its own paradigm. Were not publishing little books or expanded magazine articles. Were publishing a pamphlet, which is a different sort of animal. So the question is, what is that animal?

And one genre that I was interested in is the little pocket dictionary. I mean, people love books of lists. For example, were going to be coming up with a compendium of pop culture quotes selected by men. You know, its a similar idea behind Embrace the Suck. I read a lot of blogs, and I came across a neologism called milspeak. And I thought, thats an interesting use of the word. Ive never heard that before. What is milspeak? What are some of the terms? And I contacted Col. Bay, who has a blog, teaches at UT Austin, has a syndicated column, does NPR radio commentary, and blogs about Iraq and military matters. I asked him if hed be interested in compiling this. And it happened quite quickly; Austin Bay, because of his connections in the military, was able to pull together several hundred military slang definitions very, very quickly, and so in a matter of weeks we had something ready to publish.

It had that kind of peculiar appeal, that whimsical charm that a pamphlet needs in order to succeed. Because the realities are that, unlike book publishing, you cant push a pamphlet. We arent going to ship 50,000 copies to Barnes and Noble. We dont have a marketing budget and publicity department. If a pamphlet is going to succeed, it has to have a sort of magnetic attraction. It has to pull rather than push. And so this pamphlet, Embrace the Suck, is our most successful title, because it exerted that kind of appeal. Weve sold around 5,000 copies of it, including a number of large-quantity bulk sales, which suggests that people are distributing it as gifts, and using it as subscription premiums, and so forth. So on the whole it was a very positive experience for us.

CBT: One of the reactions I had to it as a reader, especially as someone whos self-consciously against current U.S. policy in Iraq and to a certain extent in Afghanistan, was the degree to which the book lent itself to satire. When I read the acronyms, my instinctive reaction was to make up acronyms of my own.

As well, I remember during the first interview we had you talked about your desire, when you were at the Free Press and when you started the New Pamphleteer, to have the equivalent of pamphlet wars debates between authors. Since you do have a reputation as a neoconservative, I was wondering how open youd be to a blogger who came along and wanted to do what was in effect a satire of one of your first publications?

AB: I think thats a clever idea. I guess my response would be, I dont care what your politics are. What I care about is how good a writer are you, and is your theme or topic something for which theres a market? I need to feel I can sell at least 300 copies. Youd think that wouldnt be such a difficult target, but it turns out it can be. Unless people are charmed by what youve done, or you have an existing audience base, it can in fact be difficult to reach that target. So I dont think you can go wrong with each of the categories that we know are reliable in publishing: sex and humour. And since Im not publishing pornography, I have to fall back on comedy, humour and satire. And Im happy to do that. I certainly dont have any sectarian emphasis. Let me put it this way: if I had wanted to make this a right-wing pamphlet series, I easily could have done that.

CBT: Id like to turn finally to the trio of books that you published about the war in the summer of 2006 between Hezbollah and Israel. The three titles are: Hassan Nasrallah: In His Own Words. Writings and Speeches by the Head of Hezbollah edited by Stephen Schwartz, Blog Digest #1: The Hezbollah War, edited by Michael Totten, and Everything Could Explode at any Moment: Dispatches from the Lebanese-Israeli Front by Michael Totten.

The pamphlets cover a very broad range of points of view, in particular the collection of blog posts in Blog Digest #1. And on a personal level, I found myself responding to this pamphlet in particular in a very empathetic way. It was a roller-coaster to read, because one moves from one point of view to a diametrically opposed one, and often both points of view, despite being conflicting, are, on a visceral level, very convincing.

But it was partly because of that emotional quality of the collection of posts that I wondered if you had considered also producing a pamphlet that gave a historical background or political analysis of the war. As well, I was struck in Tottens pamphlet of his own posts that the war itself is skirted over. He has a lot of material about the days leading up to the war, and he has material about the end or the days very close to the end of it. But very little about the war itself. I suppose when putting the collection together, he felt the war was so fresh in everybodys mind, that there would be no need to pay much attention to it. But even though I followed events fairly closely while the war took place and even though it didnt occur so long ago, I found while reading this pamphlet I had to go to the Internet to remind myself of its particulars, and the timeline of events. Will you be publishing any more on this topic? Do you wish you had published more at the time?

AB: : I learned a valuable lesson there, which is dont try to publish the news. Part of the point here is because you raised a critical objection there are three items in this release. One is a set of writings by Hassan Nasrallah. We thought it would be interesting. Nobody knew who he was at the time. It looked like hed be the next leader of the world jihad. I thought it would be a public service to make some of his ideas accessible. And in fact, that material is fascinating. Hes a very intelligent guy. Hes crazy and dangerous, but hes not irrational, and he has a definite point of view. So I think its valuable to read that material.

The editor of the other two volumes is Michael Totten, a very popular and well-liked blogger. Hes one of the first people who decided to make a living off blogging. This was essentially from contributions from his readers. He went to live in Lebanon, and blog from Beirut, and write about whats going on there.

Michael Totten seemed to me to be a very interesting person, not just because hes a good writer but also because hes a citizen journalist who decided to go somewhere and write about something. Its a form of economic democracy: if people like his stuff, they pay him. And if they dont like it, of course they dont.

He did a collection of his articles. But then we also decided to have him edit a compendium of responses to the war by Israeli and Lebanese bloggers. And Im glad you read it. I agree with you, I think its very gripping material. What youre doing is youre alternating perspectives between Israeli and Lebanese bloggers. This is actually a very poignant document because as it happens, before the war broke out Lebanese and Israeli bloggers writing in English had begun to engage one another. And in a real sense, it was a dialogue. It was a real hope outside the normal chat for an interaction, and developing a relationship and friendship. And the war destroyed that, and it was a terrible tragedy.

In response to your comment that theres a need for historical background you know, thats true. And if we had the time and the space, it would have been nice to publish an introduction. But we had too much material as it is.

You know, this is not a textbook or hardcover book. Its a document a kind of literary and historical document. Its value is literary in the sense that you can read it in terms of people just crying out in the wilderness of the blogosphere. Theres a lot of poignancy in that. It also has historical value. This is the first time a war was debated online between the two sides while it was going on. And I just felt as a publisher that it had documentary value.

Bio: Adam Bellow is, with his partner David Bernstein, publisher of the New Pamphleteer. He is also an editor with many years experience at houses such as MacMillan, Simon and Schuster, Random House and HarperCollins. Finally, he is an author in his own right, and has written several articles as well as the book In Praise of Nepotism. He is working on a new book.

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