Currently viewing the tag: "Steinbeck"

John Steinbeck set out to do his “Travels With Charley” trip the right way — alone and like a serious journalist. But it quickly unraveled and he had to resort to fiction and fibs to tell his tale. A free excerpt from “Dogging Steinbeck,” an Amazon ebook that’s the antidote of truth to “Charley.”

A Good Trip Gone Bad

A stranger passing like a bullet through his own heartland, Steinbeck spent twice as much time relaxing on his 11-week journey than driving. He discovered no new facts or insights about the USA or its citizens, mainly because he did no real journalism and spent relatively little time with ordinary people. Yet he deserved a lot of credit just for taking the road trip.

Despite his shaky health and age, not to mention his princely lifestyle and celebrity social circle, he had the balls to roll up his sleeves and take on what was essentially a major journalism project. What other great American writer would have even considered traveling the rough way he did?

Initially, he fully intended to do his trip the right way and the only way it would work – solo and at the grassroots level. His ambitious plan – going alone, taking photos, writing dispatches to newspapers or magazines from the road, going to a different church every Sunday, spending quality time in the Jim Crow South – was basic, sound journalism and a perfect vehicle for his talents.

A nonfiction book based on his original plan wouldn’t have been as popular with readers or kept its romantic appeal for 50 years, but it would have made a better, more substantive book. It would have slowed him down, forced him to meet hundreds of other real people and given him a chance to discover more of the America he went searching for.

But Steinbeck’s great exploration never materialized. He never learned to use a camera, didn’t take notes or keep a journal and never wrote a word for publication during his 75 days away from New York. His grand plan was unraveled by the reality of his lifestyle, health and the punishment of the open road. He quickly got lonely and tired and no doubt bored.

Ironically, in one sense he may have been lucky he lost heart so early. The daily pressure and logistical nightmares of trying to do real journalism on the back roads of America in 1960 could have killed him. What’s more, in the Analog Age it was an unrealistic mission even for a man in good health to circumnavigate America alone. Transcontinental car travel was still an adventure, not the smooth ride it is today. As Steinbeck learned, just finding a public pay phone so he could call his wife every three days was a major accomplishment.

Before he left Maine he had already realized the obvious – the country was too damn big and diverse to pin down or sum up. No one person, not even a Steinbeck, could discover the real America in 11 weeks or 11 months. Anyway, as he wisely said, there was no single “real” America. As he knew and advised his readers, every traveler must take his own trip and find his own version of America.  Trouble was, his was largely a 50 mph blur interrupted by luxurious vacations with his wife. And when his journey ended, he had to sit down and make up a nonfiction book about a real country he never found, never really looked for and didn’t really like much.

In my never-ending quest to get a legacy publisher to publish “Dogging Steinbeck” so it can get into libraries and bookstores where it deserves to be, I left a phone message and sent a token pitch to the University of Nevada Press.

The folks there were nice and responded, which itself was a rare treat.

Here’s the response I got:

Thank you for telling us about your book Dogging Steinbeck.  I regret that we cannot take on this project because it has already been published and is available on Amazon.  I do agree that there will be new attention to Steinbeck this year, given the anniversary celebration of The Grapes of Wrath. You might find that the best use of your time is to try again to promote the book you have already released.

 

It was a typical response. And so, in response to their response, I wrote this gripe, which applies to every publishing company big and small in America:

It’s a pretty annoying and strange publishing system we non-famous, non-tenured authors are up against.

I couldn’t get a book advance from a major New York publisher in 2010 — despite my fine proposal — because I was not famous, because road books don’t sell and/or because no one cared about Steinbeck anymore (these were the top reasons I was 0-35, despite my readable, crazy style, according to my Madison Avenue agent).

I went ahead anyway, did my trip and wrote my book. On my own time, on my own dime.

I got lucky, I met many memorable Americans along the Steinbeck Highway, I made real literary news by exposing the deceptions of a major American writer. And I forced a major publisher, Penguin Group, to confess that, after 50 years of masquerading as a work of nonfiction, “Travels With Charley” was really a bunch of fiction and dishonest BS.

You’d think that in the declining world of publishing, all this would be worthy of a book. But after I took my road trip I still had no interest from legacy publishers.

I did everything right and got really lucky, thanks to the Steinbeck scholars who were asleep at their desks for half a century.

I wrote a road  book that tells, in an entertaining and authoritative way, how I made major literary news, how I changed the way “Travels With Charley” will be read forevermore, and how I — by my self-promoting self — got media attention and editorial-page praise from the New York Times, got praise and plugs from the world’s most celebrated travel writer (Paul Theroux), got on NPR and CBC radio in Canada, got written up in the pages of the Washington Post and, best of all, got an hour of airtime with Brian Lamb on CSPAN.

I also got grief, not praise or thanks, from the Steinbeck scholars.

Then, after I self-publish my book and have some success, I hear from some small and medium publishers that they can’t publish my book because I did too good of a job promoting it and my “scoop.”

Then I hear from other publishers that it’s too late for them to publish my book in print (so it can get into its natural market of libraries and bookstores) because I already published it as an ebook on Amazon. (I’m sure you know I can take it off Amazon in 30 seconds.)

Then, when it turns out I was ahead of the curve on the 2014 Resurrection of John Steinbeck and my book is timely and topical, it still doesn’t matter.

What earthly difference does it make to librarians and independent bookstore owners, and their clientele, whether my book already exists as an ebook somewhere?

It doesn’t exist yet in print, in stores. How can a small publisher looking to sell 10,000 copies of a book with a long commercial tail that has already proved its value and credibility not want to take advantage of the work I’ve already done?

It has nothing to do with an advance or royalty terms. It’s just a “rule.” I bet if my book started selling 100 ebooks a day a publisher would break the rule — I know it’s happened with other books.

So far I’ve sold 1,000 copies without any help from a publisher or its marketing department.

I’ve heard a dozen newspaper book editors say they don’t review self-published books.

I’ve heard two dozen very short-sighted bookstore owners tell me they won’t carry my self-published book because they can’t return it.

Other, even more clueless, bookstore owners have told me I can’t even appear in their stores to talk about my book and sell POD copies of it because I was hooked up with the Devil — Amazon.

I know Amazon is the bad guy who’s mean to bookstores (most of whom are stuck in 1850 and can’t handle the competition).

So I guess it makes the soon-to-be-gone bookstore owners feel good to do unto nobody authors like me what Amazon does unto them. Can you understand why I might not shed a single tear when I hear a bookstore had died?

Thank God for Amazon.

I wouldn’t have a book without it. I would never have gotten emails of praise from Holland, where the book “Travels Without John in Search of America” by super-star Geert Mak is a best-seller, has been translated into several languages and is headed to America soon. (Mak retraced Steinbeck’s 1960 trip the same time I did in the fall of 2010 and he credits me and my dogged journalism a dozen times in his book — in Dutch.)

Amazon made it possible for me to get around the braindead publishing industry and get a book distributed around the world without costing me a quarter. Now Amazon is keeping me from getting a “real” publisher?

I’ve proven in the marketplace and in the conflicting worlds of journalism and academia that my book “Dogging Steinbeck” is a valuable piece of literary and travel journalism.

I caught Steinbeck and his publisher with their literary ethics down. I got praise from some of the smartest travel writers and journalists on the planet.

And all I get — still — from publishers is the same Catch 22s.

It’s no wonder the publishing industry is collapsing. It deserves to.

Ah, the great power of C-SPAN.

After my hour-long interview with Brian Lamb on his March 3 “Q&A” program, sales of “Dogging Steinbeck” surged nicely.

I’m not ready to retire yet.  But before my C-SPAN appearance, my ranking on Amazon’s various Journalism and Travel categories was never higher than No. 4 (which it hit briefly after a rave Weekly Standard review by Sean Macomber).

Brian Lamb and C-SPAN took me to these dizzy heights Monday morning. Staying up there will be tough without help from the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times and Charlie Rose, but being No. 1 in something for even just a little while is kind of fun.

Dogging Steinbeck, March 4, 2013

Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,672 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)
#1 in Books > Education & Reference > Writing, Research & Publishing Guides > Writing > Journalism & Nonfiction
#1 in Kindle Store > Kindle eBooks > Nonfiction > Reference > Writing, Research & Publishing Guides > Journalism
#3 in Kindle Store > Kindle eBooks > Nonfiction > Travel > Essays & Travelogues

The Weekly Standard, the smart and sassy 15-year-old conservative answer to the liberal New Republic, has produced the world’s first official book review of “Dogging Steinbeck.”

Bearing the very clever headline, “Chicanery Row,” entertainingly and sagely written by Shawn Macomber, it can be found here.

The first known plug for “DS” was by Reason mag’s Nick Gillespie, who kindly named it his favorite book of 2012 — and my ebook was only out for three weeks of the year.

My marketing and promotion director, Bill Steigerwald, has been bombarding the book people at the New York Times, L.A. Times, Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post with emails, trying to get their attention, if not a book review. It’s not easy. But maybe the Standard has lit the spark.

Meanwhile, in the Big Apple, the blog site GalleyCat, aka “The First Word on the Publishing Industry,” blurbed a “DS” blurb on Friday, finally succumbing to a barrage of promo pitches from me.

And look for Paul Theroux’s mention of me and “Dogging Steinbeck” in his New York Times travel piece on Sunday Jan. 13.

Self-publishing is hard work, but maybe I’m getting somewhere.