Essays on my latest book, The Blue Box, a family history centered around three women from three generations spanning the Civil War through the Jazz Age.
Things have always moved slowly in publishing and so I’m not surprised that it has been quite a while since I finished writing and editing and proofing my next book, The Blue Box: Three Lives in Letters, which Sarabande Books will published in August.
I haven’t been waiting with bated breath. In fact I’ve been very busy writing and researching my next book, the first biography of Doris Duke, with the working title, Doris Duke: The Invention of the New Woman, which Farrar, Straus and Giroux will publish some time after I turn in the final version in June 2015.
The long waits publishing entrails always make me wonder why writers sometimes refer to their new books as their children; surely no pregnancy lasts two years or more, and few professional writers wait to see their next book launched before laboring mightily to begin the next one. I’ve observed that after two years my reputation as a writer has been shelved, even though The Blue Box will be my thirteenth book. And this has nothing to do with eBooks (my books are now all published in paperback and electronic forms; hard covers are no more) but with the quick passing of all things human.
Yet the impact of eBooks combed with Amazon’s bullying of publishers is bad news for agents, editors, publishers, and of course writers, who very seldom make what might be called a living wage.
Now, with eBooks sold for less than half what the paper versions cost, the publisher take is also halved, as is the agent’s and the writer’s. What was for me about two or three thousand dollars a year in earned income will now be reduced to fifteen hundred, further limiting the scope of U.S. publishing to academic faculty with tenure (who seldom write fiction), proven best selling authors, and a handful of us who live by other means.
Inevitably, readers will suffer most of all.
They will also suffer from Amazon’s high-handed attempt to control publishers who have fought the obnoxious business practices of an octopus monopoly. The federal legislation that brought down monopolies in the early twentieth century seems for obscure reasons not to apply to Amazon’s domination of the market, which should be compared to the gobbling up of competition by the oil, steel and tobacco monopolies more than a hundred years ago.
Already, Amazon has “disciplined” two large, prestigious German publishers who displeased the octopus by refusing to list their books on Amazon and delaying shipments to book sellers. This will happen to U.S. publishers in the near future unless the Germans are able to mount a successful legal challenge.
Meanwhile, my The Blue Box: Three Lives in Letters moves smoothly toward publication, its excellent small press, Sarabande Books, too small to attract the octopus’ attention.
The bound galleys lie here on my desk, the book itself, with a few minor changes to the cover, which copies the top of the blue box in which all these letters were stored for decades at the top of my mother’s closet. The embossed title mimics the labels affixed to such boxes, with the title printed in my handwriting (a little more legible than my actual handwriting.)
Already, Sarabande has sent its first and most effective piece of advertising to book reviewers (the few who remain) and publishers. It is an adorable small replica of the book itself, scaled to fit in a pocket, with five black and white photographs inside, a few of the many that will appear in the book itself.
Here I find my father and my mother, as they appeared on graduating from college in 1928, my mother with her intense gaze, her smooth pretty face, and the dainty white collar she so often wore at this time, my father almost somber yet extraordinarily young looking in his dark suite jacket, white shirt and tie.
Behind these two portraits lies a group picture of my mother’s family, her older brother as a two year old, his mother—and hers—and their grandmother and great-grandmother, regally posed in their long lace trimmed dresses.
And finally, a photo of the house where they all lived from the Civil War until the death of the older generation on East Franklin Street in Richmond, Virginia. A group of women and children, in white, appears before the handsome façade of the three-story townhouse, their faces too small to make out, a generic southern family. Its individual members absorbed into the whole.
My book recreates the comfort and the restrictions of this absorption, which my mother was the first openly to challenge and ultimately to break out of for another version of genteel southern upper-class life, the life with its great privileges and its great restrictions that I escaped at seventeen.