Marias, Etc

There’s been a bunch of comments on yesterday’s Marias thread, so just to clear things up—

This is going to be news to some people, but the only way a press like New Directions can survive to publish books that they lose money on every year is by having one the the most enviable backlists in all of publishing that (thank God) for the most part can’t be stolen out from under them.

To be sure, a writer has every right to maximize his/her earnings as he/she sees fit—and no, I’m not calling Penguin evil, or even wrong for pursuing their business interests. But there’s something seriously wrong when a press with a bank account so large that New Directions has no hope of ever outbidding can just come in and grab a property that they took a real risk on and spent over a decade building up. In what other industry is it acceptable to steal a property that another company made popular? From a strictly economic perspective this is screwy . . . where’s the monetary incentive for presses like ND to find authors like Marias if this is the inevitable result of their hard work?

More importantly, how are presses like ND to survive if they can’t hold on to a backlist that they spent all their resources building up? Not to mention, Marias’ earning potential is in direct proportion of how big a name he has in English. He’s currently in some 50 languages worldwide, and you can bet that the lion’s share of those came on after he got noticed in English (and many are translations from the English versions of his books).

And yes, this is standard industry practice. This is one of the reasons that mid-level presses have such a hard time surviving.

And again, ND is losing Marias. The deal wasn’t just UK.

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“In what other industry is it acceptable to steal a property that another company made popular?”


Understood! But it’s true, in what other industry is this acceptable, or common practice? Every single industry out there. Larger companies buy out smaller companies, buy up their patents, their rights. Small companies are often the ones to make things happen, and larger companies with greater capital take over from them when they’re struggling to keep up. It’s everywhere. That doesn’t make it fair, and it doesn’t make this news any less sad, but it is, I’m sure, how every business works. Marias is a successful writer for English readers thanks largely to ND. But if he’s become bigger than what ND can afford, it has to move on to a house that can afford to keep putting out his new work. Looking at it naively, I guess we can say, “At least this ensures his books will still be in print, and we’ll continue to enjoy his writing!” Still, I completely agree that it is indeed sad news for New Directions.

Robert: That’s just the point—other companies get bought out, i.e. they are paid for their intellectual property. Here the benefits are not accruing to New Directions.

And, no, it is absolutely not the case that Marias is too big for ND. Norton handles ND’s distribution, and they have plenty of capacity to fulfill orders for as many of Marias books as will ever sell.

And lastly, no, this doesn’t ensure that Mairas will stay in print. ND has shown far more willingness to maintain authors in print than a major commercial press like Penguin.

P.T.–Yes, and that’s why people hate the Yankees.

> That’s just the point—other companies get bought out, i.e. they are paid for their intellectual property.
> Here the benefits are not accruing to New Directions.

Good point!

> And, no, it is absolutely not the case that Marias is too big for ND.

But he’s now too big in terms of the money changing hands, which was my point.

> And lastly, no, this doesn’t ensure that Mairas will stay in print.

Of course not. But if ND’s contract was up and they couldn’t afford to renew, then they wouldn’t have stayed in print in any case. Of course, I realize that they probably couldn’t afford to renew because suddenly they’re up against a publisher able to pay a much higher price for those titles, but here again, that’s the name of the game. Those contracts were up for purchase, and they go to the highest bidder. The writer, his publisher, and agent all benefit from the deal, but not so much for ND, who made it all happen. It does seem unfair, but it is inevitable fact of business. And just to be clear, I’m not disagreeing with you at all on this – I think it’s sad news – but it does make sense, and while it may seem unfair – it certainly feels unfair – I know that from a business perspective, it’s also entirely fair, inasmuch as that word carries meaning in the business world.

Interesting debate!

One thing I’m a little confused about: does Penguin get the backlist of all his books or just any new properties?

Neil: That’s exactly the thing–they’re getting the backlist that New Directions discovered, nurtured, even the very words they edited with Margaret Jull Costa.

Depending on the contract, anyone can bid on new properties, but it’ll probably be Penguin from here on out. They just paid $250,000 for the English rights to Marias’ new novel.


Yes, yes it is. It’s also why American soccer is bothersome and why some Japanese baseball fans are annoyed with the whole American baseball system.

Anyway, I’m dead broke, but I’m going to buy some of his stuff from ND while there’s still the chance. Besides supporting a company I love, I’ve a suspicion the Penguin covers will be terrible.

Oh wow. Yeah, I’ll try to buy all the New Directions now, in that case.

A few thoughts:

1. Penguin doesn’t owe ND anything. An author’s contract came up and they bid for him and won. Aren’t we usually lamenting that large publishers like Penguin don’t publish enough great fiction?

2. Yes, we all want the band with the hit to stay with the indie label that fostered them and not jump to the major. If you think that this is wrong, Penguin isn’t who you should fault, but Marias. He had a choice. I’m not saying he SHOULD be faulted (I don’t think that), but that he is the one with the relationship with ND, not Penguin.

3. Maybe he has babies to feed or is dissatisfied with some aspect of ND. Maybe he is a dick and wants more money no matter the cost. In the end, it doesn’t matter to me. If it enables him to continue writing the fiction that he writes, the way he wants to write fiction, it will make me happy.

4. Would I have liked him to say at ND? Yes. I love ND and I love Marias, but I think being mad at Penguin is misplaced.

As David alluded to just prior, the book business certainly isn’t the only in which a small house can take a chance and cultivate, only to have the author no longer dance with the one who brung him. The music business is (or was) filled with many examples of the exact same situation. It doesn’t make the Marias situation any less lousy, but it certainly happens all the time.


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