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

Friday, January 06, 2006


How long will publishers continue to wade in the red ink of their Western programs before they realize that's blood in the water? Their editors have become little more than production mechanics, holding to the straight and narrow path, never giving thought to the product nor to the consumer. It seems a simple enough formula. Publish books that sell to readers.

The equation the publishers seem to be using is this: fill the quota required by the wholesaler, cut the amount of advances, cut the losses and continue headlong through that sea of bloody ink. Blind to the treasures they either overlook or feed into the paper shredder.

There is nothing new about this brainless trend. Publishers seem to have long ago forgotten the old adage: "nothing ventured, nothing gained." Instead, they listen to the bean counters and the bored sales folk who know virtually nothing about the western novel, and even less about readers who might buy a western if someone on the staff actually tried to reach them with an intriguing sales pitch.

Some publishers do try, but it's not a concerted effort by all concerned. The writer is almost never consulted about covers, ideas, markets, sales approaches. One example in my portfolio is Walker & Co., who once published western novels in hardcover. They did not care about readers in mass market. They focused on libraries and sold exactly 777 western genre books, just enough to break even.

I wrote WINTER OF THE WOLF for Walker. The editor liked the book, bless her heart, and asked for a sequel. So, I wrote HORNE'S LAW. The dust jacket was a travesty. It had a man and a woman in modern dress, with the man carrying a metal tube on a wood stock that was supposed to be a rifle. The girl wore a T-shirt. The horse's bridle had no top strap, so wouldn't have stayed on with the first tug of the reins. It was a horrible cover that revolted nearly everyone connected to western publishing, writers, editors, other publishers.

In another case, I was writing a book about the Lakota, and the publisher used a stock painting for the mass market cover that depicted Apaches on the warpath.

I wish Howard Stern would have me on his new satellite program on Sirius radio, so that I could speak freely about these issues, use more colorful language than is probably permitted on the World Wide Web. Stern, at least, is intelligent, and would recognize stupidity when he saw it.

In many cases, the writer is not allowed to venture off the beaten path. The western continues with formulaic writing despite the brilliant short story by Annie Proulx, BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN. This is exquisite writing on a touchy, but believable subject, homosexuality. The movie probably will not lure readers to the western, and even if it did, the reader would not find anything resembling such controversial subject matter.

Editors are strapping us down with further restrictions these days. The latest edict? "No Indians." And, as well: "No military. No soldiers, No cavalry." What do they want? "Gunfights." They seem locked in a High Noon mentality. Gunfights were a rarity in the Old West, but, no matter. I ask where these restrictions come from and the answer is always, "the sales force." The sales force? These people are totally out of touch with readers. Indians and soldiers are relegated to minor, unimportant roles in the new politically correct, scrubbed down western novels populated only by hardcases in saloons and white hat guys blowing them to pulp with a Colt .44.

An editor recently bought a series proposal from me, but he warned me about using Indians and soldiers. Furthermore, he started talking about my main character in terms of a movie he once saw. Luckily, I had not seen the movie, but if writers are basing their characters on movies, a cry of alarm should go up all over the publishing industry. This would be like putting cardboard on top of cardboard to create a character. Yes, folks, it's that bad. And, it's getting worse.

When LONGARM debuted at Playboy Press, Louis L'Amour saw the sales figures and wanted to write adult westerns. His publisher, Bantam, would not hear of it. Louis saw a chance to venture beyond the formula western and put some meat on it. Then, JAKE LOGAN came along and profits rose still higher. I wrote the GUNN series for Zebra, because I saw that readers of adult westerns were drawn to traditional westerns. GUNN did very well, but the writing was not as raw as in the LONGARM and JAKE LOGAN books.

Western novels today, even the bold ones, the ones written with heart and feeling, are just objects put on an assembly line. The publishers print a small number of copies to fill their quota, the books go on the stands and die there. Royalties are a thing of the past. Advances are low. Readership is dropping off faster than feathers on a moulting bird.

There may be intelligent life out there. Those of us on the bottom rung of the publishing ladder are still looking for it.

Readers, are you listening?

Publishers, are you stone deaf?

Hello? Anybody there?

Listen to the vast silence. It's like being trapped in a deserted landscape painted by Max Ernst.

Disturbing, isn't it?