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?


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Unfortunately this disconnection of marketing people is not limited to the industry of publishing and the field of western writing. In many industries the power is shifting from the dreamers to the bean counters. The marketing people are just following the edicts of their corporate heads, which are driven by their bean counters, which are followed by the stock holders, who are driven by greed. The disconnection is ultimately fueled by people who have no stake in the products other than money.

The creative people are eventually beaten down. They compromise their vision. They loose the ability to express their unique view. Their dream becomes weak and dies.

Your own industry is witness to this. A convention of the people who hold the dream of the old west was held in a casino. The cold modern corporate architecture was the place chosen to rekindle the dream of the old west. Several musicians put on a show for the convention. As they stiffly sat watching the few left who could express their creativity, my thoughts drifted to what an old barn dance must have been like.

It’s up to the creative people to keep the dream alive. You are the dream keepers. As the next generation comes they will forget. The dream will be lost like Indian head pennies and buffalo nickels.

Big corporations with anonymous stakeholders far away are the dream killers. The dream is alive in the local people. The small communities - reach out to them. Today more than any other time it is possible to network with them without the middlemen.

Here is one community found at random on the net;

Here are links to many more keepers of the dream of the old west;

It can be done. Witness the renewal of the dream of ballroom dance with the TV show “Dancing with the Stars”, or the revival of the archetypal dream of Beauty and the Beast with the remake of King Kong.

What would happen if writers of the old west banded together and hired someone to market their self published books to people who are sick and tired of the same old trash from the corporate book sellers. What would happen if they hired talented artists from their local college to do the covers? What would happen if they packaged it with a CD of western music or poetry?

I know the creative people just want to create. So have everyone pitch in and hire someone part time or full time for a market test. Start small to see what happens.

I believe most peoples ebooks or self published books fail do to lack of marketing.

Here are the four P’s (Price, Place, Promotion, Product);

Maybe money could be raised using this service;

It is possible for creative people to reconnect to their power, the local communities who long to dream with them.

Here are a few resources;

Print on Demand (POD) - This looks good.

Piers Anthony - Internet Publishing Guide
(alot to sift through but some good info)

epublishing blog

Self Publishing


Print on Demand Company BookSurge Publishing - Aquired
by Amazon (prices look high)

How can I get my poetry book published?

books for a buck (an interesting idea)
(Consider that A 6% royalty for a $7 paperback
translates to 42 cents per novel sold. An 50% royalty
for a $1 e-book translates to 50 cents.)


8:00 PM  
Blogger James said...

I wrote fairly recently in my own blog:

Publishing has always been a business, but now it's big business. Big businesses demand big profits, and so there's little reason to pursue avenues that don't promise huge returns. I'm reminded of when Hasbro bought Wizards of the Coast: there was serious question as to whether Dungeons & Dragons would remain in print, given that Hasbro considers a game that sells no more than 100,000 units a year a poor mover.

Richard Wheeler correctly pointed out that many publishing houses dropped Westerns not because they failed to generate profit, but because they failed to generate enough profit. This is the same reason that the midlist is being squeezed out of the marketplace. Say it together: big business demands big profits. The genre will never get the best marketing, the best editors or the best treatment on store shelves until it can generate big bucks. Unfortunately, without those things, it never will. Welcome to the Heller-esque conundrum that is the contemporary book biz.

Annie is right when he/she says that major publishing houses are no longer the route to follow for the regeneration, or even the continuation, of the literary American Western. Westerns have become a boutique genre, and therefore must be rebuilt from a foundation that recognizes that.

As it stands right now, there's a lot of mourning going on, but not much (or any) thought being put into what comes next. Even the WWA has failed to come to terms with the fundamental shift in where the western stands on the literary landscape.

Are westerns ailing? Yes. Have they been ailing for more than thirty years? Yes. Is this the end? Only if we decide that it is.

6:21 PM  
Blogger Cait London said...

Great post, Jory. I really enjoyed writing western romance, researching elements on site. While I am from the upper West, near Canada and the Nez Perce reservation, the sage and the sand and the rattlesnakes, I tried to be authentic. It was really awful to read material that was not well researched, but given a publisher's high priority, i.e. the Oregon Trail. The lore of the Northwest (I am not a SW writer) is great, but try to sell them to a publisher :)

Brokeback just may open a few doors tho, in contemporary westerns. While visiting in the Northwest, I was struck by how many of the phrases came out of the historical west, esp. the small home style rodeo guys, or the farmers/ranchers.

So I think the readership is there,waiting. Interesting.

5:58 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Passion sells

I have lost my urge to read due to the restrictions placed on writers. It is very difficult to channel passion away from the core story and divert it to stay within the restrictions of the "sales force" as you put it. When passion dies, creativity suffers and ultimately the ability to write captivating, edge of your seat, can't put it down books withers away.
AsI share your passion for the Ozarks, I am very interested to read your stories about this wonderful and mysterious region of the world. But knowing that in order to get the publisher to take it to print you had to make numerous concessions... well let's just say the interest died quickly!
How about creating an Adobe Acrobat eBook of the REAL story... with no holds barred, no "sales force" do's and don'ts! I tell you now that I will pay for that eBook without blinking an eye!
So lets have the Ozarks as you really want to tell it. And the westerns!
Bring it on...

2:31 AM  

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