Wednesday, February 15, 2012

One Man’s Bullshit Opinion: What it Was by George Pelecanos

I’ve been trying to review What it Was by George Pelecanos for the past couple of weeks. I’ll sit down with a notebook or in front of the computer, start writing, and typically at the three or four hundred word mark, I stop cold.

Is it because What it Was is a bad book and I want to avoid the whole mess of giving an author a bad review? (Writing bad reviews and whether to publish them or not is a whole other kettle of fish, and I don’t have the time or the energy to go into that.)

No, that’s not it at all.

In fact, What it Was is exactly the kind of novel most fans of  Pelecanos want to see him write more of. (Here’s another can of worms thing: I actual like Pelecanos’ “urban” novels such as the Way Home and the Turnaround way more than his traditional crime novels.) What it Was is pulp fiction, plain and simple.

It has a clearly defined bad guy, two clearly defined, albeit morally sketchy, good guys, and possess all of the hallmarks of a typical Derek Strange novel: Sex, drugs, violence, music, food and set in the 70’s.

But what stops me in my tracks is this: Price point.

As you all know, Reagan Arthur Books pre-sold What it Was as an e-book for 99 cents. It’s a hell of a deal and from its current Amazon ranking, it looks like it’s doing pretty well overall because of the price point. What Reagan Arthur Books  also did was offer What it Was as a $9.99 paperback and a $35 mamajamma collectors hardback, and they released all three versions simultaneously. There’s was no waiting around for paperback, there was no waiting for the novel to become an Amazon deal of the day.

Reagan Arthur Books priced the e-book accordingly and readers are responding to it.

I applaud  Reagan Arthur Books  for doing this and it also makes me wonder why the other big six publishers aren’t following suit? Why it is that e-books published by the big six are still being priced at the $9.99 plus range?

The answer is, of course, greed. (Okay, here’s another hot point that I’m not going to spend much time on. When I say greed, I’m not saying it with any negative connotations; publishing—whether you’re a two person small press or one which employees hundreds—is a business, it’s there to make money, blah, blah, blah. Yeah, we all get it)  

E-reader technology is still new, people are enthralled by the fact that they can instantly gain access to a book, so like any business would, the big six are taking advantage of the newness. But the major issue I can see the New York publishing houses running into when the e-book “bubble” bursts (i.e., e-book tech becomes de rigueur) is that they’ll price themselves out of the market, not that they’re not pricing themselves out already.

In my eyes,  Reagan Arthur Books  is laying the ground work for what publishing should be doing: Offering a quality product at an affordable price and for every type of reader. Don’t make people wait around for the preferred format to become available.

It’s a solid model and one I hope continues.

But here’s another idea: Why aren’t publishers doing this with their newer writers? Hell, why aren’t they developing talent through an e-book exclusive line? It used to be publishers took the time to develop new writers; to foster their talents and build them into a solid earners and stashing a solid back catalog (Pelecanos, along with Dennis Lehane, Michael Connelly, and Laura Lippman are all of a generation of crime writers whose careers were built of this type of model.) over the years.

This model has virtually disappeared.

Now it seems—at least to my na├»ve eyes—that a novelist has two books in which to prove their worth and develop an audience, and if they can’t do it with those two books, they’re done.

But with an original e-book line—not just one which reprints classic back catalogs—it seems to me that this would be a way for publishers to take young writers like Matthew Funk or Holly West or Eric Beetner and help them develop an audience through e-books with the overall hope of transitioning them to a print market.

It seems like a solid idea to me.

But what the fuck do I know? I’m just some shitheel who exists on the fringes of publishing and I don’t understand that doing this kind of thing with an unestablished author would be too costly, or that the novels being produced by this type line would be considered inferior.

I’ve heard both of these arguments time and again when I bring this idea up and all I have to say to both is:


And I’ll keep calling it bullshit until publisher comes along and shows me—and what I mean by “shows me” is actual financial reports and maybe a couple of dull ass PowerPoint presentations— that I’m just talking out my ass.

Anyway, to get back to What it Was, it’s awesome, you should read it and if you haven’t read Pelecanos before, maybe What it Was will turn you on to his other books enough that you’ll want to read more of his massive, and affordable, back catalog.


  1. Well said. Astute publishing observations; review interesting and to the point. Will add it to my reading list. Thanks. :) Cat

  2. It wasn't exactly a review, but I understand where it's coming from. Kudos to you Keith, takes balls to put things in question like this.

    1. I was editorializing more than anything else. But What it Was is diffidently worth adding to the to be read pile.