The Story Behind Penelope Trunk’s Last Book Deal

When I learned about Penelope Trunk’s bitter farewell to traditional publishing, there were several key aspects to her story that contradicted my own experience of the publishing industry, but one element seemed particularly suspect. Here’s how Trunk described her book deal:

“So I sold my book to a mainstream publisher and they sucked. I am going to go into extreme detail about how much they sucked, so I’m not going to tell you the name of the publisher because I got a lot of money from them. I’m just going to tell you that the mainstream publisher is huge, and if you have any respect left for print publishing, you respect this publisher.”

Trunk adds that she sold the book two years ago—and, if you’ll recall, the upshot of her story was that she found the marketing department at this publishing company so incompetent that they essentially cut her loose three months before the scheduled publication date rather than put up with any more of her criticism. Here’s what didn’t make sense to me about that: When you’re 90 days away from publication date, a competent trade publisher will have already been sending out advance reading copies to the media—particularly to monthly magazines with deadlines well in advance of the cover date. And Trunk’s track record as an author of books like Brazen Careerist(well, okay, as the author of Brazen Careerist) would certainly suggest that a smart publisher would be sending her new book out to both monthly and weekly business magazines, and Trunk’s “Internet famous” status would suggest that some of those magazines would be interested in her new book—interested enough that the news that it had been scrapped just months before it was supposed to come out would be, well, newsworthy.

But the first we were hearing of any of this was on Trunk’s blog.

My initial reaction was that it was simply not possible that a book deal for a well-known Internet expert with a major publisher could blow up like this and nobody would say anything about it for nearly two years. (Keep in mind, too, that if Trunk were as good as online promotion as she gives herself credit for being, at T-minus 90 days, she should have been promoting the heck out of an upcoming book whatever her publisher was doing wrong, so we could reasonably have expected attention to have been paid when the publication date came and went without any book showing up.) Coupled with some of the more outrageous details of her characterization of this publisher’s marketing department, it made me—along with more than a few other people—whether there had even been a book deal.

It turns out there was—but perhaps it’s not quite as prestigious as Trunk made it out to be.

First, I admit I was led astray by the whole “two years” detail, because the deal doesn’t seem to have gone south until late 2011. A friend with access to catalogs and such passed along a listing for Slave to Happiness: Why Having an Interesting Life Is the New American Dream, a 300-page hardcover book by Penelope Trunk that was scheduled to come out in hardcover in late February 2012… from Que Publishing. Now, Que is an imprint at the Pearson Technology Group, which is a division of Pearson Education, which is a part of Pearson—the company that also owns the Penguin Group. In that sense, you could call it a mainstream publisher. But it’s primarily a publisher of technology handbooks—stuff like Easy OS X Mountain Lion, 3rd Edition and Building PowerPoint Templates Step by Step with the Experts. Which makes it a bit of a stretch to say “if you have any respect left for print publishing, you respect this publisher.”

I’m not knocking Que—what I mean to say is, when we have the debate about whether “publishing” is “broken,” when we argue over whether “mainstream” publishers “get it,” and when we’re talking about the kind of essayistic non-fiction that Penelope Trunk previously sold to Warner Business and Crown Books (though the Crown deal fell through several years ago), we’re not talking about Que.

Of course, you could just chalk this up to a difference in interpretation. After all, Penelope Trunk had a book deal with a publishing company, and then she didn’t—that much is true. But if you find this aspect of Trunk’s story self-aggrandizing, it might make you think twice about some of the rest of her story…

(Ironically, one of the details that nearly everybody found laughable—her claim that she was informed that “more than 85% of books sales are online, mostly at Amazon”—makes a little more sense if we’re talking about a technical publisher like Que. I’m not saying it’s accurate, because I don’t know that, but it does seem slightly more plausible. If that’s true, though, her claim that she was told her publisher expected more than half of its sales from independent bookstores seems more bizarre, because that’s just not where we expect to find the Que customer. It’s all very strange.)

UPDATE: It turns out at least one magazine didn’t check with Trunk’s publisher before going to press: Linux Journal mentions Slave to Happiness in its February 2012 issue. Interestingly, they don’t actually review it so much as mention it exists; what praise they do include is from Que’s promotional copy.

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16 July 2012 | theory |