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

When people meet me and learn that I wrote Sideways they're shocked to find out I'm not a multimillionaire. Not even close, I inform them. In fact I'm a bona fide member of the 99%. The 99% of authors who were royally screwed over by the traditional publishing world, in my case (a) St. Martin's Press, and then (b), Alfred A. Knopf. Screwed over by ignorance, near-sightedness, and, in the latter case, mistreatment of an established author that bordered on fraud and contractual misconduct.

Sideways the novel was finally released in June of 2004, after the Alexander Payne film was shot, but before it was theatrically released. There was already a buzz about the film in focus screenings. Expectations ran high. I wasn't happy, as I wrote in my previous blog, with St. Martin's ugly cover, their cheap trade paperback edition that looked like it was printed on paper that had been recycled more than once. But I was elated there was a book. Finally. After all these inglorious years, something to celebrate. Well, hold on.

From the very beginning I realized that St. Martin's Press had no real PR or, God forbid, PR campaign. There was a young girl in the office who would field offers and send them on to me. Two were book signings in San Francisco. I planned a trip and went. The first signing was at a huge park covered with tents. Hundreds of authors sat on hemorrhoid-producing foldup chairs with stacks of their books. San Francisco, renowned for being a literary community of some repute, didn't exactly produce the crowds they were hoping for. I signed one book. The other authors around me fared no better. That afternoon I held a reading at Book Passage in the lovely Ferry Building. I had four friends show. I think I read for seven people total.

I was caught up in the excitement of the imminent release of the film and didn't really pay much attention to the fact that St. Martin's was dumping this book on the marketplace in an initial printing of 5,000, despite the fact that there was an Alexander Payne film being released in a matter of months. My agent Dan Strone at Trident Media also was flummoxed, though he was used to the parsimoniousness of traditional publishers. Sometime in August he saw a press screening of Sideways. A buttoned-up guy who doesn't get too excited, Dan called me and effused about what a terrific movie this was, something truly special. He tried to get my senior editor, Elizabeth Beier, into a screening, in order to light a fire under her to galvanize a bigger PR push from St. Martin's, but she was too busy and couldn't be bothered. Dan was audibly frustrated over the phone. Finally, in exasperation, he went over her head to the president of St. Martin's and dragged him and either a buyer for one of the national book distributors or someone from Barnes & Noble into another one of the press screenings. They seemed impressed enough that their little $5,000 purchase of my novel maybe had a little more cachet than they originally thought and that there was money to be squeezed out of it and decided to come out with a movie tie-in edition. Still, no money for a PR push.

I had no PR representative. Everyone involved in the film, including the winemakers whose wines were featured in the film, all immediately sensed the potential of monetizing this imminent success and hired pubic relations firms. St. Martin's did nothing, continued to hide its head in the sand. I had no monetary incentive to spend out of pocket for PR because I was only receiving a $0.70 royalty per book. As far as St. Martin's was concerned, the book would sell if the film was a hit, it would easily earn back its advance and maybe make a little on top of that. They clearly had no intention of capitalizing on what would turn out to be a tsunamic success.

It gets worse. Sideways closed the New York Film Festival. It was an SRO crowd at the Alice Tully Hall - some 2,000 in attendance! An absolutely electrifying screening, the kind that would bring tears to any novelist's eyes. Several days later it was released in four theaters in New York and Los Angeles. The reviews were ecstatic, unbelievable. Every morning was like Christmas to this novelist. In the end, Sideways garnered a stratospheric 94 score on (a far superior measure of the critics' response than that silly Rotten Tomatoes Web site). In fact, whenever I'm depressed - and it's often - I go to Metacritic and look at all the 100-scored reviews. And there are many!

As the film started to garner more and more ecstatic reviews, began to win and be nominated for awards, St. Martin's did absolutely nothing to promote the book. After much arm-twisting from my agent, it did come out with the movie tie-in edition - a much more palatable cover, taken from the now iconic film poster, than the ugly one St. Martin's "graphic artist" had designed -and it did start to find its way into the brick and mortar bookstores, but it had nothing to do with St. Martin's. Their in-house PR person would e-mail me periodically about radio call-in interviews with small radio program shows, but she was mostly just a taxi dispatcher fielding calls and offers; i.e., she was initiating nothin. Meanwhile, the film was building huge momentum leading to the Oscars, sweeping the New York Film Critics Circle awards, the L.A. Film Critics Awards, Broadcast Film Critics, Indie Spirits, et alii. It was a heady time. But St. Martin's head remained stubbornly buried in the sand, oblivious, apparently, of what they had.

Sideways was, and continues to be, a huge phenomenon in the wine world. The Santa Ynez Valley, where the film was set, experienced an inundation of tourists that has not abated to this day. The global wine world experienced a skyrocketing spike in sales. For the first time in 25 years, a Gallup poll showed that wine, not beer, had become the number one alcoholic beverage of choice. The survey attributed this almost entirely to the success of Sideways. Off my author's discount I was selling two books a day at Sanford Winery's tasting room, one of the locations in the film. There are over 1,000 tasting rooms on the Pacific Coast alone. One PR person woman I did interview -- who was aghast at St. Martin's treatment of the book in the face of this incredible success -- said the book should have been stacked in every one of those tasting rooms. Indeed. If only I had wanted to give her $15,000 to make that happen. My pleas to St. Martin's fell on deaf - and stunningly ignorant - ears. I did attend some events that came my way. At the Santa Barbara Vintner's Festival I was mobbed by 300 people clutching their copies, waiting to be signed. My hand went numb. We ran out of books. You would think most publishers, apprised of this, as St. Martin's was, would spring into action, earmark $100,000 for a major PR campaign and go to town. They did nothing. They left millions on the table by all professional PR peoples' estimations.

When all was said and done, after Sideways captured the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay in 2005 and I was graciously thanked by both co-adapters, Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor, in front of millions of TV viewers, I made less than $100K on the book, including foreign sales.

In my next blog: coming off the heat of Sideways, I make the worst decision of my entire career and decide to go down the romantic path of literary fiction and sign a deal for a book with the supposed crème-de-la-crème of the publishing world: Alfred A. Knopf. After a decade of suffering and deprivation, I thought I had finally arrived. Imagine working and practicing and rehearsing for years and years just for the chance to finally get to play Carnegie Hall. Then, ten minutes into your performance it suddenly turns into a scene from Carrie and a malefic persecutor, high in the rafters, upends a bucket of blood and animal entrails onto you. And imagine looking up into the rafters and seeing that that person is the senior editor at Knopf who bought your book. Instead of a secure future as a novelist, after the huge success of Sideways, thus would begin five years of a living hell with Alfred A. Knopf and that senior editor who bought my book, Jordan Pavlin.