Has the recent consolidation of Random House taken its first victim?
Whoever wrote the four-page memo faxed anonymously to the offices of The Observer obviously thinks so. Titled ” The Unprofessionals Gets Unprofessional Publication at Random House,” the document chronicles the life (and, its author suggests, untimely death) of author Julie Hecht’s first novel, The Unprofessionals , which was published by little Random on Sept. 3. The gist of the unsigned treatise, which seems likely penned by Ms. Hecht herself or someone close to her:
Because the slim, dark comedy bounced from HarperCollins to Random House along with its editor, current Random House editor in chief Dan Menaker, it fell through the cracks in the marketing and sales departments. The memo suggests that Random House didn’t sell any copies to Barnes and Noble, the major book retailer.
“On approximately September 16th or 17th, the author’s husband goes to New York,” the memo reads. “[He] calls her to say the book is not in the biggest Barnes and Noble in New York, and the Barnes and Noble salesperson/manager has researched on the computer and informed him it is in no Barnes and Noble in New York, or anywhere across the country.”
To sell a book without Barnes and Noble is like trying to make bouillabaisse without fish: The retailer is a basic and noticeable ingredient. And it’s hard to believe that Random House “forgot” to approach the Barnes and Noble buyers. More likely, executives there screwed up in a more typical and prosaic way. Because the book was rushed over from HarperCollins, and because Ms. Hecht had been assured it would be published this fall (the same season it would have appeared had she stayed with HarperCollins), it had to be rushed into the catalog and out to the reps-not a recipe for the best possible marketing push. “We did present and sell the book to Barnes and Noble,” said Carol Schneider, vice president and executive director of publicity and public relations for Random House. And after the book received stellar reviews, “we went back a second time to ask them to order more, which they did.” The total now: 1,000, a little less than half the number bought by the other major chains.
Writers are never satisfied with the way their books are promoted and sold, and the business is full of woeful tales of books not arriving in time for in-store signings-or at all. Moreover, even some best-sellers find themselves on constant back-order. (See: David Lipsky’s Absolutely American [Houghton Mifflin], which was hard to find even as its author made the rounds of the major media-and eventually signed a TV development deal.) And Ms. Hecht, like most writers, surely hates the fact that even successful, well-reviewed, well-loved books often sell in the low thousands. But her case is particularly upsetting because of the history involved. A respected fiction writer whose ties to Dan Menaker date back to his New Yorker days, when he published several of her stories (he also published her two previous books, Do the Windows Open? and Was This Man a Genius? , about Andy Kaufman), Ms. Hecht chose to follow Mr. Menaker back to Random House and must have expected to be treated as a star writer, with her book given such marketing muscle as a table display at Barnes and Noble, which is arranged and paid for by a book’s publisher. And why wouldn’t she, after Publishers Weekly had this to say about The Unprofessionals : “Hecht has a loyal following, which will undoubtedly grow with the release of this novel.”
But the ugly reality of the business today-downsizing publishing conglomerate or no-is that you have to sell to be a star. And Ms. Hecht’s book, while brilliantly reviewed, isn’t “working” particularly well. Ingram, which is responsible for distributing about one-fourth to one-fifth of all trade books, records only a few hundred copies sold-which gives Barnes and Noble reason to question the value of stocking up. But then, the Hecht camp might rightly wonder if, without much early Barnes and Noble exposure, the novel ever had a chance in the first place.
Whether the impasse can be solved remains to be seen. One of the remedies under consideration is relaunching The Unprofessionals , with all the requisite sales and promotional fanfare. While nobody is talking-Ms. Hecht’s agent, David McCormick, declined to comment, Mr. Menaker is traveling in Europe and Ms. Hecht was unreachable at press time-discussions are still hot and heavy, according to a source close to them. Which may make The Unprofessionals one of the first books to be negotiated over after it was supposed to have landed in the stores.