Blog of Pulitzer Prize Nominated Author, Jory Sherman. Get the latest information on his books, appearances and his candid reflections on writing.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

LIBRACIDE: KILLING OFF THE WESTERN

Marc Jaffe, the legendary editor who discovered Louis L'Amour, walked over to the table where I was sitting with my agent, Nat Sobel, and sat down. Marc had flown in from New York the night before to talk with Nat and me about the future of western publishing. Nat, unknown to me at the time, was intent on setting up a publishing company devoted exclusively to publishing Western fiction.

Nat was sounding us both out, I believe, to see if we could mesh on such a venture. Nat told me only that Marc had flown out just to see me. I thought he came out because he was nostalgic about Western Writers of America, since he had not attended a convention in many years.

"Jory," Marc said, after he sat down at our table, "I've been in the publishing business for 30 years and there's not a morning when I don't wake up and say to myself about your Rivers West series: 'I wish I'd thought of that.'"

We were in San Angelo for the annual Western Writers of America convention. The evening before, Nat had taken me, my wife Charlotte, Marc and Dale Walker, who was, at the time, editor of Texas Western Press at the University of Texas, El Paso, to a wonderful barbecue restaurant on the outskirts of the city. We spent the evening talking about a number of things, including Marc's adventures with Louis L'Amour during the early days of Louis' career.

L'Amour's stint at Bantam Books was guided by Stuart Applebaum, a wizard at promotion and publicity. Now, Louis was aging, and several publishers were looking around for a successor, hoping to duplicate L'Amour's success as a western writer.

Nat wanted to create a publishing company just for the Western novel, much the same way that he created Mysterious Press for Otto Penzler over at Ballantine. That was an $800,000 deal that Nat put together. Otto owned Mysterious Books, a bookstore, in New York. Nat wanted me to head up the company with Marc Jaffe. He wanted me to come to New York right away. At the time, I didn't know Marc was involved, or I might have accepted Nat's offer. He was very angry with me when I turned him down, but it wasn't until years later that I knew of Jaffe's involvement.

It was a missed opportunity, but I didn't want to leave Branson, Missouri and live in New York. Period.

Louis died, of course, and the scramble for someone to take his place was on. Over at Bantam, editor Greg Tobin had been grooming a young writer who lived in a small town near Knoxville, Tennessee, Cameron Judd, to step into L'Amour's shoes. Cameron wrote for two years before Bantam began releasing his novels, one every other month. The tactic failed. Nobody ever stepped into Louis L'Amour's shoes.

Meanwhile, Stuart Applebaum's brother, Irwyn, who had been Louis' editor at Bantam before he left to take over as President and Publisher at Pocket Books, returned to Bantam, after it was purchased by the German corporation, Bertlesmann, and took over as Publisher at Bantam, Doubleday, Dell. One of his tasks, dictated by Bertlesmann, was to phase out Bantam's Western publishing program.

In short succession, many writers fell under the knife, including Don Coldsmith, Elmer Kelton, Robert Conley, and others. Rivers West, Bantam's most successful historical series, which I created, fell to the same fate. Suddenly, it was all over. As creator of Rivers West, I hired the writers, which included Don Coldsmith, Richard S. Wheeler, Win Blevins, Fred Bean, Gary McCarthy, and Frank Roderus.

Over the years, the Western novel has suffered severe setbacks as other publishers followed Bantam's lead. During this time, Tom Doherty, founder of Tor Books, under Nat Sobel's urging, created a separate imprint from his Tor Books, and with my Grass Kingdom being the first under the new imprint, Forge, began to publish Frontier Fiction.

Forge is still the leader in Western publishing, and other publishers have begun to gradually fatten their Western lists. But, the movement is slow and the pay is low and slow, with a number of excellent writers feeling the pinch.

Pocket Books opened a Western publishing program and started writing contracts for some of us. It was a short-lived venture. I wrote two books on a 3-book contract, for a series I called THE OWLHOOT TRAIL. The first was published, the second delivered, and Pocket bought off the other two, closed down the program. Slammed the door shut.

It looked as if the publishing industry failed to create a writer-hero like Louis L'Amour, with his charisma and ability to reach the masses. In fact, they didn't really try. Greg Tobin left Bantam to head Book-of-the-Month Club, then retired to write novels at home. Gradually, the Western editors either left for other fields or plowed on without much support, financial or otherwise, and the western racks continued to shrink as bookstores moved the western section to the back of the store, where it was dark and little traffic came that way.

Now, I see some small signs of life, but the publishing industry continues its blind slaughter of the genre, a veritable libracide using the tactics of small print orders, no publicity, no nurturing of new writers and the gradual genocide of the older ones.

Some writers are dropping out, having seen the bold handwriting on the wall, and turning to the Mystery novel, the Christian, or other markets. The Western, which has made great strides as our exclusive American literature, is being ignored by the publishing industry, the distributors, wholesalers, book sellers, and the reading public.

It's not dead yet. It will probably never die, because of the power of its mythical backbone. We are the only country in the world which has the Old West, and we have the brave writers who continue to explore its oceanic depths, its big sky heights.

But, we're dying out, too, along with our books which are being killed off, one by one, by the insidious indifference of all concerned.

The real loser here, is, of course, the Reader, who never saw the blips on the radar and if they ever did, never cared. They missed a lot, and that's a crying shame.

We wrote the books, and they were good books. They were rivers of the West, and they flowed to an angry, churning sea, where they drowned, victims of libracide.

I mourn the loss.

Jory Sherman
Pittsburg, Texas

2 Comments:

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10:36 PM  
Blogger James said...

Very well-put, and thank you for doing so.

I wonder: have you taken a look at Richard Wheeler's lengthy examination of the death of the literary American Western? He plans to continue digging into the topic until early next year, and he's already made some provocative observations.

8:37 AM  

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