Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Old review in a new bottle

Nothing cheers up an aging author like a sudden spotlight on one of his old, out-of-print, almost forgotten books.

Yesterday Eric Smith, a habitue of this blog and the director of the Ontonagon Township Library way up in Steve Martinez Country -- that's Upper Michigan to you outlanders -- picked up the March 15 issue of Kirkus Reviews. On its cover he spotted a lovely notice of my 1997 book Flight of the Gin Fizz, the story of my learning to fly and retracing the transcontinental route of a celebrated early birdman.

The critic Gregory McNamee seems to be writing a regular feature, "Lost in the Stacks," reviving old books he once reviewed and liked. Back in '97 he reviewed the book for Tucson Weekly, and he has dusted it off and updated it a bit for Kirkus.

Kirkus Reviews is not the kind of publication you find in supermarket magazine racks. It has a small circulation aimed at the general book trade -- librarians, publishers, literary and film agents, film and TV producers, booksellers and literary journalists like me. It publishes short reviews of new books two to three months in advance of their official appearances in the stores. Like its brethren, Publishers Weekly and Booklist, it's influential in the trade and often a good review suggests how a book will be received by the press and public.

Not in the case of Gin Fizz, however. That book was ill-starred. It had the bad luck to be published at HarperCollins just as Rupert Murdoch put at its head a bottom-line-oriented publisher who ordered scores of modest but significant book projects killed (mine was about to appear, hence was spared the ax) and the company's focus aimed at popular best sellers instead. Many editors left HarperCollins in protest, including mine -- a talented fellow who had shepherded my two previous books into print.

Gin Fizz was, in the term of the trade, orphaned. With the departure of my editor no one was left to champion it in sales meetings, to push for promotion and advertising dollars. HarperCollins just shoved the book out the door and forgot all about it.

Though Gin Fizz won a few reviews, most of them favorable, sales were dismal and the book was quickly remaindered and went out of print.

It happens to lots of authors. I just went on and became a mystery novelist.

But Gin Fizz is still the favorite of my nonfiction books. Researching it -- learning to fly and buying a little two-seater airplane and flying it from New York Harbor to California -- was a great hairy-chested adventure for a balding middle-aged writer. More than any other book I've done, it gave new dimension to my life.

I don't expect the latter-day Kirkus notice to stir much in the way of industry interest. The book already had its chance twelve years ago.

Still, it's nice to know Gin Fizz hasn't been completely forgotten.

Thanks, McNamee. Thanks, Eric.


  1. Gin Fizz is another of your books I want to read and add to my collection.

  2. When I worked in publishing, nothing drove me up the wall than reviews of books that were out of print. Bookstores would call and want the book and readers would get angry that a book that just got a great review was no longer around. No one understood how expensive short print runs were.

    The other fact was that if the book, advanced reading copy or galley had been reviewed at the proper time, the book might still be in print.

  3. Rayjay, can you cite an instance? Title? Author? Year it happened?

    I think you exaggerate that problem.

  4. Hey, I read that book and enjoyed it very much! I think I discovered Gin Fizz before I found Kisor the mystery author.

    Isn't self-publishing the solution to your author's dilemma? Once it's out of print, abandoned by HarperCollins (which just abandoned Collins, I read somewhere) do the rights revert to you? All you need is a computer file and voila! Ve haff a book! (I was always terrible with accents.)

  5. Self-publishing isn't such a great solution, unless it's ego and not the need for lucre that drives the author.

    The original publisher retains rights for all time until they are surrendered -- the usual clause in a contract. One can get the rights back but it often takes an agent to negotiate the giveback.

    HarperCollins owns the electronic rights, too, and it's unlikely to give them up in case there is some kind of e-payday down the pike.


  6. I was in sales, so I guess I would hear from frustrated booksellers on titles. Some that come to mind are:
    Richard Martin Stern books. Reviews came in after the books were OP.
    Thomas Noguchi, Coroner. Reviews after the book was OP
    Susanna Stacey, Late Lady, reviewed when OP.
    Robert Weinberg, Black Lodge reviews after the book went OP.
    The L. L. Enger baseball mysteries, Reviewed in Sports magazine after they were OP.
    Susan Minot, Monkeys, Now back in print.
    Mary Brown, Unlikely Ones. A great review in LA after the book was OP.

    John Dunning Booked To Die. Back in print.

    Even Lavyrle Spencer’s early romance novels (Back in print) published by Richard Gallen got excellent reviews and were OP.

  7. I guess you're right, Rayjay. I used to hear stories of sales people being pissed when a favorable review appeared months after pub date, but when books were still available, though perhaps in the warehouse.

    On the other hand, Gin Fizz was published back in 1997, and the reviewer said as much. Why should this particular notice irk you so? It was only for the book trade, after all.