Sideways Publishing Saga -- The St. Martin's Press Nightmare (Part II)

In my opening broadside, in an apparent clarion call of controversy, I announced that I would never write another novel again. My reason for this has nothing to do with an apostasy about my love of writing novels. I said this (a) because I fear deeply the rapid decline of deep immersive reading; and (b) because there's so much turmoil in the publishing industry right now as they contend with the annihilation of analog books, the tsunamic proliferation of self-imprints, and ... how they treat writers. One would think that when a film as popular as Sideways was released that St. Martin's Press (SMP) would go to town to promote it. One would also think that when an author finally had a success on the order of Sideways and signed a deal to write his second novel with the ostensible crème-de-la-crème of publishers, Alfred A. Knopf, he would be treated with respect. You would be dead wrong on both accounts. I have been treated shabbily as a writer in Hollywood, but that comes with the territory. However, when I started to write novels and had some success I really believed that the author, more akin to a playwright in the theater, would be treated with kid gloves. Try brass knuckles!

Quick recap of my last blog: Sideways had been bought by SMP for the rock bottom price of $5,000 in April of '03, two months before Sideways was greenlit by Fox Searchlight as a $15 million Alexander Payne film. Senior Editor Elizabeth Beier initially asked me to hire an outside line editor to do the dirty work. Dan Strone, my agent at Trident Media Group, inveigled her to do what this author generally assumed was her job in the first place.

Summer of '03 was a heady time as the production ramped up in the now iconic Santa Ynez Valley. By the fall, nearly 200 cast and crew had converged on the valley because, it felicitously dawned on me, I had written a little novel that nobody, but nobody, wanted. The smile on my face broadened as the beginning of principle photography neared. And on that day -- Sept. 29, 2003 -- it broke into a shit-eating grin. Not only are you paid out on your book-to-film contract, you know now, for better or worse, there's going to be a movie. Exultation could not dim the fact that Elizabeth at SMP was procrastinating to produce the line edit.

A line-edit, for the uninitiated -- of which I was one at the time -- is the editor's working over of your manuscript. It can be as light as syntactical and grammatical suggestions and corrections, or as profound as a Gordon Lish on a Raymond Carver (of which I could wax on about, but some other time). In my case, it took Ms. Beier seven months to get around to the line edit of Sideways, even knowing now that it was for certain a film. Seven months!! When it finally arrived in late November I was told that I had three weeks (!) to answer the line edit.

On first glance, Elizabeth's line-edit was a nightmare. With lead pencil she had worked over my prose and dialogue so arbitrarily, it looked like it had happened over a frenzied weekend to meet a deadline. Every page was so obliterated by her chicken scratch that when she said it was now my turn to take blue pencil to her lead pencil hieroglyphics and not type out a clean answer to her manic line-edit, I had a meltdown. I told her that the only way I could even begin to "answer" her "line-edit" was to put her marked-up version next to mine and just type the whole novel over. In three weeks!! She argued for the blue pencil version. I tried one sample page and everyone I showed it to couldn't make sense out of it. What're we, in the 18th Century here, I joked to her? She finally relented.

I went to work on the manuscript. I quickly realized that she not only had furiously, and clumsily, rewritten a lot of my prose, but about thirty pages in I also started to alarmingly realize that she was altering my very voice. When I came to one of my favorite scenes in the book -- and one of everybody's favorite scenes in the movie! -- she had it so marked up and so many lines of dialogue crossed out -- including the famous rant by Miles (Paul Giamatti) and the infamous "No fucking Merlot" line -- that I threw up my hands in despair and disgust. From that point on I ignored almost every single deletion of hers, ignored all her rewriting of my prose -- especially dialogue! -- and only made obvious syntactical and grammatical corrections. At some point I realized she couldn't have cared less, that there was no way she was going to turn into a fastidious philologist and compare texts to see what I had accepted and what I hadn't, so why employ her arbitrary and hastily thought-out suggestions? (Somewhere the ghost of Max Perkins is sick to his wraithlike stomach.)

I finished it in three weeks and sent it back to SMP. It went straight to the copy-editor (they fact-check and fix final grammatical). Meanwhile, a rush-job of the book cover was sent to me. I was so excited to see the cover of my first book until ... I saw it. Ghastly! Some "graphic artist," who ought to sue whatever university he went to for back tuition, had pulled a shot of a desert road off the Internet for the top 2/5's of the cover design, and some nondescript vineyard photo for the bottom 2/5's, with the middle being a white band with my name and the title. The design concept was okay, but the pictures were awful, completely foreign to the setting of the novel. With a high-end digital camera and professional photographer in tow, I raced up to the Santa Ynez Valley and shot so many beautiful, twisting winding roads and vineyards in glorious autumnal glory I thought they'd give me a bonus. Not only was that not forthcoming, but they totally ignored the gorgeous photos I sent them and went with the desert road (the Santa Ynez Valley is anything but a desert) and the nondescript vineyard. This is how little SMP cared about this book. How incredibly cheap they were.

The copy-edited version came. Glitches were noted in red and easy to fix, but at a very crucial moment in the book, the copy editor wrote in the margins: "NO!" Mr. copy-editor had taken it upon himself, at the penultimate moment of going to set-up, to exhort me to rewrite an entire scene, which would have meant, trust me, a complete rewrite of the novel from that point forward, which would have set in motion another line-edit, then another ... Are these people literally that insane? That close to white-smocked men armed with tranquilizer guns? My senior editor had gone on vacation and couldn't be reached -- thank God! -- so I ignored the snippy copy-editor's cavil and sent it back.

Next blog: Sideways is released to worldwide critical acclaim and international box office success. One would think, with good fortune now raining down on them, that SMP would go to town to promote the little novel that they clearly didn't care about, smelling a windfall. Instead, SMP does absolutely nothing, spends not a single dollar, to promote the book. Tens of thousands, perhaps millions, are left on the table because of their ostrich-like ignorance of the movie's phenomenon. Sideways the movie might as well have been the Immaculate Conception as far as movie-goers were concerned. More than a decade of my life was literally being thrown under the bus of anonymity because SMP refused to publicize the fact that there was a novelist behind the soon-to-be multiple Oscar-nominated film. So, you want to be an author?