12 November 2006

Someone Will Take This Man's Money

Folks who work in publishing know that book reviews are important, but book advertising is even more rare and therefore often more revealing about companies' priorities and plans. Today's New York Times Book Review included its pre-holiday roundup of top children's picture books for the year and a fine crop of ads. Among them:

  • Adam Gopnik's recent essay collection about raising kids in New York City--not a children's book, of course, but the ad placement's a great way to reach the adults reading these pages.
  • A two-page layout from HarperCollins--count the celebrity picture books! the movie tie-ins! the repackaging of successful titles. Yes, it's Christmas time in the city.
  • Candlewick congratulating M. T. Anderson on his National Book Award nomination while it awaits the revision for Part 2.
And then an unusual ad caught my eye: a quarter-page notice inviting editors and agents to HenrySparks.com, a website offering an unpublished fantasy manuscript for middle-grade boys. The author, Keith Lewis, seems to be a natural entrepreneur--former sports trainer and financial executive. And he seems to have jumped into the children's-book biz with the same gumption and willingness to invest up front.

Unfortunately, his synopsis--or maybe his manuscript--doesn't offer much plot to sell. As far as I can tell, ingenious eight-year-old Henry builds submarine with "slow," seventeen-year-old Homer. They meet an electric eel named Ernie, who proves telepathic and chummy. Then they all go back in time to encounter the most red-hot adventurers of recent years, pirates! But not to fear, there's also a pirate chaser with an allegorical name slightly more subtle than a John Bunyan character.

What drives Henry? What are his foibles? What challenges does he face? What defines Homer apart from his fondness for Henry? What motivates Ernie's friendliness? What conflict will grab readers' interest? Where are the moments of suspense? What do Henry's family, the space program, and fuel cells (which pop up in the synopsis's last paragraph) have to do with everything else? And what does it say about our society's class aspirations when "Plebian" is the name of a villain?

Lewis's ad invited serious inquiries only, so obviously it's not for me. But looking at how much money he's willing to invest already, between this website and the NYTBR ad, I suspect he'll get a lot of inquiries from people who are very serious about offering their services. Self-publishing services. Manuscript marketing services.

Nevertheless, just like publishers' ads, this ad might be revealing about the future. In the current slushy environment, we authors may no longer be able to let a manuscript speak for itself. We might have to be entrepreneurs while publishers act as venture capitalists with the money and manufacturing and marketing expertise. But we still have to have an excellent idea for our start-ups.

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