At Jackson Hole Writer’s Conference, July 3rd, 1997
This is the sixth time I have delivered the welcoming address at the Jackson Hole Writer’s conference. It is always a pleasure to welcome you to our lovely valley and to offer, with great sincerity, my hope that your participation will be invigorating, stimulating and creatively profitable.
I’ve spent the best part of my life writing, thinking about writing and publishing, and, lately, more and more about the dramatic, revolutionary, changes that are taking place in the way we communicate with each other and how it impacts on our future as writers.
One of the cornerstones of our conference, the dream of it’s founders of which I am proud to be one, was not only to help aspiring writers like yourselves discover your true voice and hone your skills, but to assist you in finding an audience and providing you with the know-how to better market your work.
The fact is that all those who aspire to write, also aspire to be read. Writing, after all, is a communications system. Mastering one’s craft is only one half of the equation. The other half is finding one’s way to an audience, meaning being published.
Even in the six years that we have been holding this conference, I have seen such profound changes in the marketplace that I am tempted to observe that my observations about publishing and the marketing of our wares will be obsolete the very moment I have offered them.
This is not to say that there have been changes in the basics of writing skills. Imaginative writers, practitioners of fiction and story telling, must still be concerned with character, plot, structure, imagery, style and narrative drive. Non-fiction writers and journalists must, of course, be concerned with structure, presentation, logic, interpretation and many of the same working tools in the suitcase of the imaginative writer.
You are very fortunate in that our staff and faculty are dedicated to help you achieve the maximum facility for the craft of writing. They cannot teach you inspiration or insight although they might give you some tips on how to get in touch with the wellsprings of your creativity. And, of course, the inter-action between all of us, everyone at our conference, is sure to stimulate ideas for present and future projects.
Let us then make all the optimistic assumptions. Hopefully, with our help, you learn to master your craft. You tell your wonderful stories, create fine characters, describe the world in which you cast them, learn the secrets of narrative drive, plotting, imagery, creating suspense and master the mechanics of structure and clarity of presentation. You find your voice as a writer. What you write is meaningful, wise, exciting, compelling. You’re primed for fame and fortune. You’ve found your courage and are ready to take the high dive into the rivers of commerce, cast your tasty bread into the swift current of competition.
Twenty or thirty years ago I might have actually been tremendously helpful in explaining the exigencies of the publishing world, perhaps even help you get published. There were many publishers with different viewpoints and tastes back then. It was extremely tough of course, but there was a certain stability to the game plan. The course was plotted and the hurdles were carefully marked.
In the world of fiction, there were various clearly defined book categories, mysteries, science fiction, westerns. The occult classification was small and had not expanded into what is now referred to as new age. Romance fiction had not yet been declared a category. The women-in-jeopardy niche had not yet been developed as a separate classification. In fact, the female gender category had not yet coalesced. The lawyer as hero niche was hardly a gleam in the publisher’s eye.
Tabloid books, lurid exposes had barely been invented. There were books by and about celebrities to be sure, but who were the celebrated? Ernest Hemingway, Albert Schweitzer, George C. Marshall, Madame Curie among others, a far cry from books written by or about such stellar personalities of substance such as Jay Leno, Johnnie Cochran, Marcia Clark, Howard Stern and the ultimate hero of publishing hype O.J. Simpson around whom an industry was born that actually kept many publishers afloat for the past couple of years.
There were bookstores then where the clerks actually knew their stock. There were some chain stores, but not many. When I was a student at New York University, Barnes and Noble had one store in Manhattan where we bought our textbooks.
The internet was still a tool for the Pentagon. The movie conglomerates had not yet discovered publishing.
I could go on forever discussing the differences between then and now. But to what purpose? Those days are gone forever. It can also be argued that writer’s in those bygone days made a lot less money and the explosion in the book trade has opened up a bigger tent and attracted more people to reading and buying books. That’s a debate for another time.
Here is the present reality. The publishing game, like the movie game, is now a deadly contest between fewer and fewer players, all of the major ones owned by entertainment conglomerates and permeated by the same short-sighted corporate mentality. Book chain stores, like movie theaters, are proliferating like rabbits on fertility drugs.
There are now 13,000 super book stores in this country with more to come and probably some hundred thousand bookstore employees who, I know I’m probably being unfair, have zero knowledge of the books going through their checkout counters. Publishers now pay for preferred space in these stores, just like food manufacturers pay for preferred space in the supermarkets.
In today’s book marketplace if a book, like a movie, isn’t an immediate best-selling hit, it is quickly dispatched to book limbo, meaning back to the publisher for recycling and destruction. Last year 35% of all adult hardcovers met this fate. Unfortunately there is no after-market for book videos and television re-runs for the book trade.
And yet, in the midst of this revolution, there are even more ominous signs, strange goings-on, which make any predictable outcomes impossible.
In New York City, for example, the epi-center of the American literary scene, Fifth Avenue, the premiere showcase of Publisher’s row, once graced with stores like Doubleday, Scribners, Brentano, B. Dalton, and even Barnes and Noble have, if you will allow the pun, literally been wiped out. Gone with the Wind’s of change. The Disney store, the Warner’s store, selling their mindless little promotions are now the gateway to American culture.
On the heels of that somber news comes yet another blow, the announcement, covered as a matter of significance on the front page of the New York Times only a week ago that Harper Collins, one of America’s premiere publishers, owned by Rupert Murdoch, another paragon of world culture, having lost seven million dollars in the first quarter of this year has cut it’s list by one hundred books, many of them already announced in it’s catalogue or in manuscript.
Similar announcements will soon come from other publishers. In fact, most major publishers are cutting their lists. They are looking only for promotable books, they tell us. That means, of course, celebrity names, franchise faces that can attract the producers of talk shows and newspaper interviewers.
Thus, that sterling literary figure John Travolta, will have his name on a novel in the fall. John Travolta, who will be joining the ranks of those other great contemporary novelists such as Ivana Trump and Joan Collins .
I suppose it’s appropriate at this point to reveal that most books allegedly written by contemporary heroes from Colin Powell to Jerry Seinfeld to Tim Allen, to Ellen DeGeneris, Bill Cosby, Ted Koppel and on and on are really written by ghosts, other writers. Even dead authors have ghost writers, which somehow seems more appropriate. Take the case, one among many, of V.C. Andrews who died more than ten years ago but who manages to come out with original recently written best-sellers every year.
In a world polluted by data smog, with trillions of messages cluttering the atmosphere, the number one goal of any producer of product, and sadly, a book in the mind of the manufacturer is a product, a unit created to be sold at a profit, the trophy, ninety-nine percent of the time, goes to the product that gains the most attention in the shortest possible time.
This is a convoluted way of saying that, if a new book, however, wonderful, insightful, imaginative, and creative does not have the power to arrest your attention with the force of a two by four blow to the cranium, the chances of it’s getting a fair shot are almost nil and, therefore, the possibility of building a career as a self-supporting writer are severely impacted.
I am sure there are those who may wonder if such a message as this is appropriate to a group that comes to this conference with great expectations and dreams of honing their writing skills and gaining an audience for their work.
But I did say at the outset that we are in the midst of a revolution and my current assessment will be obsolete the moment I have voiced it. The fact is that I am beginning to glimpse, just glimpse, the pattern of an emerging future, one that is optimistic for writers, opening up new and as yet unknown opportunities for us to gain a greater and greater audience for our work. I could be wrong, but I am testing the waters myself.
For example, I have chosen to read this talk, which has not been my usual practice. My reason. I wanted to weigh my words carefully and submit to the discipline of my profession as a writer, for as I speak these words will be on my own internet website accessible to a potential world-wide audience undreamed of in earlier days. This does not mean that I will have found a way to tap into this vast audience, or even a miniscule part of it, but the very fact of potential access hints of possibilities yet unknown for a writer seeking a wider audience.
My test, my experiment, goes beyond simply setting up my website, which contains a compilation of my library of twenty-five published books and their various translations, with excerpts of soon to be published works and works in progress. On this website is my biography, my newsletter, a kind of potpourri of various pronouncements and ideas that I feel compelled to share with others. Admittedly it is an exercise in egoism, but what then compels a writer to write.
I am also experimenting in other ways. My new book of short stories has just been published by a local publisher here in Jackson. The book, which I believe contains stories of universal interest, is highly localized, specific to this valley as background, in this tiny part of Western Wyoming, population 12,000. It’s title is Jackson Hole, Uneasy Eden. It deals with the conflicts and problems affecting people in the contemporary west as symbolized in microcosm by our little town. One of the stories in this collection is printed in it’s entirety on my website.
My publisher here has, to say the least, a marginal distribution system. You will see the book in our local bookstore and in various independent bookstores around the country. But you will not see big piles of these books in Barnes and Noble, Borders or any of the other chain stores.
But…and this is the heart of my experiment. The books will be available through Amazon.com, a world-wide distribution system on the internet that has revolutionized the way books are distributed and, in my opinion, will eventually lead the way to ever brighter horizons for the aspiring writer.
As of this moment, this system is an embryo. It may fail completely. And while you may not be able to touch and feel the book itself, and might even be turned off or offended by what you might believe is too impersonal a process, you will get more information, more knowledge about the book and the author, more opinions and synopsis and ideas about these books, than you will ever get from an indifferent clerk in a Barnes and Noble or Borders checkout or from the actual book cover itself.
You simply order the book at a discount and it arrives by mail at your home in a day or two.
Indeed, it will also give libraries a greater opportunity to scan book offerings and make their choices based on more information than they are currently getting from their traditional sources.
The heart of this experiment is: Can a book, published by a small publisher with a limited distribution system of it’s own, written on a subject dealing with a miniscule corner of the world reach out to the great beyond of cyberspace and increase a writer’s audience?
I don’t expect miracles from this experiment. A form of promotion will still be required. We who use this system will have to invent our own two by four to gain attention. And, of course, the merits of the book will have to speak for itself. Others, far more visionary in their marketing skills are already using this fabulous new medium. They have led the way and have created their own audiences.
Think of the possibilities for yourselves. Technology becomes liberation. This is the future people, like it or not. Will it work for the writer who wishes to circumvent the usual traumas of the big time publishing scene? Indeed, is the big time publishing scene heading for oblivion? Is the mass market for books over? Will it diminish the power of the big time publishers and book chains? Will it provide an opportunity for self-publishing? Will it hasten the demise of the concept of best seller? Will niche publishing replace the major publishers? Will it give you the aspiring writer a real chance for exposure and audience? Maybe. Maybe not.
In the end, of course, the words, the writing, the images, the plot, the characters, the elegance and irony conveyed through the miracle of the writer’s art and craft, will determine the work’s success.
A writer’s calling is to tell one’s stories, convey one’s thoughts, move others through emotion or intellect, impart one’s alleged and self-centered wisdom, knowledge and intuition, and yes, entertain and delight….to reach out one on one and engage fellow human beings in a wonderful and quite mysterious dialogue.
It is a great and miraculous calling and it’s pursuit deserves all of one’s energy and imagination. I offer these thoughts not as a panacea for your great urge to share your writing with others, but as a tiny glimpse into what may be emerging in the pea soup fog of the future.
In any event, I welcome you again to our happy mountain valley. I hope you find your inspiration here. I do know this. There is something about this place that will enhance you. You will love our talented and dedicated faculty. You will make lasting friendships and I wish you all success.