Penelope Trunk’s Farewell to Publishing

Penelope Trunk

When Penelope Trunk decided to release her latest book, The New American Dream, through an independent, digital-only publishing company called Hyperink (“working directly with domain experts to publish beautiful, high-quality eBooks”), there was a lot of talk—but it wasn’t about the book or its contents. Instead, it was about a blog post Trunk wrote about her very bad breakup with Big Publishing, or rather with the big publisher that had originally given her an advance for this book. According to Trunk, it all fell apart when they started to talk about the marketing plans:

“Really, their call was just about giving me a list of what I was going to do to publicize the book. I asked them what they were going to do. They had no idea. Seriously. They did not have a written plan, or any list, and when I pushed one of the people on this first call to give me examples of what the publishers would do to promote my book, she said ‘newsgroups.’

“I assumed I was misunderstanding. I said, ‘You mean like newsgroups from the early 90s? Those newsgroups? USENET?'”

Conversations like this led Trunk to believe that she was better at online marketing than the people who were about to publish her book, and the presentation they put on to persuade her otherwise didn’t work. At some point during that meeting, she says, a “high-up guy” at the company told her, “If you don’t stop berating our publicity department we are not going to publish your book.” She called their bluff—and here I’m presuming that she had a really good contract with a clause stipulating that if she delivered a manuscript that they considered publishable, and then later decided not to publish, she could keep her advance. So she walked.

There’s been a lot of conversation around Trunk’s revelations. TechCrunch believes the blog post is “calls bullshit on traditional publishing,” while Digital Book World wonders who that publisher could have been, and I saw a lot of people discussing the plausibility of her version of events on Twitter. And, because the listing for The New American Dream in’s Kindle Store says it’s only 53 pages long, there’s some question as to how what she’s selling now compares to the book that was sold to the publishing house, because would they really have agreed to publish something that short?

There’s also debate about some of the conclusions Trunk reached when, after she split up with her Big Publisher, she started looking into her independent publishing options. Like the idea that “self-published books are the new business card,” which sends a shudder of revulsion through many people. Now, I can see where she’s coming from, in the sense that—especially for nonfiction writers, and especially especially for people who might self-identify as “experts” rather than “writers,” the people she says write books in order to get speaking gigs and consulting work—your ideas/stories are your business, the most direct possible representation of what you do, what you stand for, and so on. And since not everybody can get a “real” book deal, it can make sense to print up a batch of books (or ebooks, or pamphlets, or whatever you want to call them) that you can hand out (physically or digitally) to let people know where you’re coming from.

Of course, the trick there is to get the most professional-looking work you can get done, so that the book you’re handing out as a business card is completely indistinguishable from something put out by a “real” publishing company. That’s not that hard, if you’re willing to pay attention to the details. Are you? When Trunk writes that she loves her independent publishers because “they understood that the idea mattered way more to me than the proofreading,” it’s understandable that some skepticism might kick in as to the quality of the finished product.

Then there’s the notion that “the only reason to have a print book is to be in Barnes & Noble,” and even that is just for the ego boost of being able to walk into a bookstore and see (or show people) that you have a “real” book. This isn’t the first time Trunk’s ventured into this philosophical territory; in 2008, she wrote a blog post discouraging people from writing books, describing books as “an outdated way to gain authority,” which is why you’d be better off blogging. Then again, as she appears to have realized, it’s hard to monetize the content of your blog… unless you repurpose that content as a book.

Again, there’s something to what she’s saying here, especially for the type of nonfiction writers she seems to be placing herself among: If what you want to do is lob your ideas into the public arena and get people talking about them, and about you, it’s entirely possible to carve out a decent enough niche doing that through digital-only publishing, without going to print. If you’re less concerned about reaching everybody than about reaching “everybody that matters,” at least as far as your particular field is concerned, narrowcasting can lead to a comfortable level of success. (Of course, you’re not really reaching everybody that matters, but with any luck you’re not wasting quite as much time trying to sell to people who aren’t even interested in what you’re offering.)

But are things as stark as she makes them out to be? I’ve got my doubts. I suspect there’s still enough enthusiasm for the printed page in the republic of ideas, and enough people who haven’t yet embraced e-reading, that “real books” are more than just ego boosters for the people who write and publish them. I also believe, and this is based on my own experiences as a digital marketing director for a medium-sized publishing company, and my working relationships with marketing and publicity professionals at publishing companies of varying sizes, that very few if any people in this field are as clueless and ass-backwards about what they’re doing as Trunk makes her former publishers out to be. This is just one person’s anecdotal evidence versus another person’s anecdotal evidence, but nobody in the industry I dealt with in 2010 was as incompetent as she says her ex-publishers were.

Whatever level of competence her ex-publishers exhibited, though, the success of The New American Dream is now entirely on Trunk’s head. And it pretty much has to succeed—because after burning her bridges this spectacularly, in a way that all her ex-publisher’s peers can’t help but notice, she’s come about as close as she can to guaranteeing that she’ll never get offered another traditional book deal again… or at least until a new generation of acquiring editors comes along who don’t remember this story.

11 July 2012 | theory |