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Secrets of the Book Trade : PUBLISHER'S LUNCH by Ernest Callenbach (Ten Speed Press: $11.95, cloth; $7.95, paper; 134 pp; 0-89815-287-9, paper; 0-89815-288-7, cloth

March 12, 1989|Terry Pristin | Pristin is a Times Staff Writer

What do writers talk about when they meet for lunch--or breakfast or dinner, for that matter? Proust? The quantum theory of mechanics?

As Ernest Callenbach knows first hand, most writers are endlessly preoccupied with their grievances against publishers. It takes too long for a book to get published, authors complain. In the meantime, the editor may migrate to another house, leaving the poor writer stranded.

If the book is not destined to be a blockbuster, writers say, the publicity department is likely to neglect it, thereby ensuring it will have at best a brief shelf life in the stores before being consigned to a warehouse. Ultimately, it could wind up in the shredder.

These and other sad-but-all-too-true experiences form the basis for "Publisher's Lunch," a souffle whipped up entirely out of dialogue--a kind of dialectic between author and publisher. Callenbach, while not at all unsympathetic to the writers' side of the argument, wants to get them to stop bellyaching long enough to see some of these issues from the publishers' point of view.

Callenbach, the author of "Ecotopia," a fantasy novel that has become something of a cult classic, is well situated to discourse on publishing from both sides of the table. To get "Ecotopia" launched, he published it himself, and he is an editor at University of California Press.

"Publisher's Lunch"--a series of lunches, actually--takes place in an unnamed American city that, judging from the menus Callenbach helpfully serves up with each chapter and his protagonists' interest in food, has got to be Berkeley. There, over risotto of quail and morels, Jim and Michelle have met to discuss the prospects for Jim's manuscript.

This is no ordinary business meeting. Jim, a professor of philosophy and literature, had an affair with Michelle a dozen years earlier while she was a student and he was married.

Now divorced, Jim has written a book about nomadic bands of retirees he ran across while on sabbatical. Seven New York publishers have already rejected the book.

Sharp-tongued yet seductive, Michelle is a rising star at a small but hip publishing house. She is unmarried and available. "Books are my children," she unconvincingly tells Jim.

Besides taking Jim's manuscript home to read, Michelle also takes it upon herself to reverse roles with him and reveal to him the "secrets" of the publishing trade, which is first and foremost a business--a fact "that's the hardest thing for authors to grasp."

These are not really secrets, just common sense. Like everyone else, publishers want to make money and are limited by budgets. The overwhelming majority of books --six out of seven titles, according to Michelle--do not bring in profits.

While an aggressive newspaper ad campaign might be ego-gratifying for authors, Michelle points out between forkfuls of Thai fish cakes, it would not be at all cost-effective for most books.

Bookstore owners are not just being arbitrary when they remove a book from the shelf after a scant six weeks, the teacher tells her pupil. A book has to sell about seven copies a year to pay for its own shelf space.

Referring to an earlier book of Jim's that had quickly vanished from the stores, Michelle says, "Do you think your book deserved charity or something?"

And lest Jim, in his ignorance, assume that publishers don't have their share of stories about obnoxious writers, she fires off this tirade: "Take the ones who sell the same book project to two publishers, the ones who never deliver their manuscripts, the ones who plagiarize, the ones who commit libel without warning anybody about it, the ones who can't write a civil letter, or turn up dead drunk for television shows, the ones whose delusions of grandeur make them intolerable to a publisher's whole staff."

No industry stooge, however, Michelle alerts Jim to the demands a savvy author can make and cautions him about such practices as "cross-collateralization," which allows publishers to apply the earnings of a new book against the unearned advance of a previous one.

Not a book for everyone's tastebuds, "Publisher's Lunch" may appeal to frustrated authors willing to put up with the tongue-in-cheek but silly plot line and the uninspired prose. This slim volume appears to have been tossed together over one of those lunches. Some references--such as one to the Buckley-Little catalogue of books that can be ordered directly from the author--are left unexplained.

Clearly, Callenbach doesn't expect most writers and editors to jump into bed together. But he hopes that with a soupcon of understanding and a dash of tolerance they will achieve the worthy goal of getting the book, not just published, but well-published, to the satisfaction of all concerned.

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