John Sayles, Novelist, Seeks A Binding Contract

This article, by Josh Getlin, originally appeared on The Los Angeles Times on 5/26/09.

The writer-filmmaker is shopping a sprawling work of historical fiction, but no big publishers are buying. Such is the cautious state of publishing today.

Reporting from New York — For 40 minutes last month he held them spellbound, reading about America in 1898. John Sayles didn’t just give the crowd a taste of his new novel, "Some Time in the Sun" — he performed a comedy about tabloid newsboys in New York, playing 26 characters with thick, period accents.

"WAR!" Sayles boomed in the voice of a 13-year-old newsie thrilled ("Trilled!") that the Spanish-American War had boosted his daily street sales: "Remember the . . . Maine! Jeez, the way they played it out — Day 1, the ship blows up. Day 2, who blew the ship up? Day 3, we think we know. Day 4, we sent down our experts!"

When it was over, the audience at City University of New York’s Gotham Center gave Sayles an ovation. But then he was humbled by a question from a woman in the front row: When would the book be out?

"I’ve been done with it for six or seven months, and it’s out to five or six publishers," he said quietly. "But we haven’t had any bites yet."

John Sayles, Oscar-nominated creator of "Return of the Secaucus 7," "Lone Star," "Matewan" and other movies, is having trouble getting a book deal.

The situation is almost entirely traceable to the publishing industry’s economic woes, and it’s raising eyebrows, because Sayles was an accomplished fiction writer long before he made his first film. Weighing in at a whopping 1,000 typed pages, "Some Time in the Sun" is his first novel since 1990’s "Los Gusanos."

"This is really astonishing," says Ron Hogan, senior editor of, a website devoted to publishing news. "I mean, this is John Sayles! You’d think there would be some editor who’d be proud to say, ‘I brought the new John Sayles novel to this house.’ "

Anthony Arnove, Sayles’ literary agent, sent the novel out on a first round of submissions last fall, and recently sent it to another group of editors. His goal is to land a deal with a deep-pockets publisher who can promote the sprawling, epic tale about racism and the dawn of U.S. imperialism.

Sayles’ 1977 novel, "Union Dues," was nominated for the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award. "The Anarchists’ Convention," his comic short story about aging Jewish lefties, has become an American classic.

But that’s ancient history in the publishing world, where an industry-wide deep freeze is getting colder by the day. The kind of deal Sayles might have landed several years ago — when publishers might have taken on his new book for the prestige factor, or a sense that the economic gamble could be worth it — is more difficult now.

It’s a jittery moment for writers and publishers, as sales plunge (down 4.2% in the first quarter of 2009) and the big houses lay off swarms of veteran editors. As the economic collapse continues, a novel like "Some Time in the Sun" becomes an increasingly harder sell.

Read the rest of the article on The Los Angeles Times site, and this companion piece, Life’s Too Short For Thousand-Page Novels, on The Guardian UK Books Blog.