Is It Time To Kill 'Jerry'?

In 2000, screenwriter John Blumenthal self-published his comic novel, What’s Wrong With Dorfman? after his manuscript had been rejected 75 times. (You know, I have to admire a writer who believes in their book that much. I’m not sure how anxious I would be to resubmit my book after 30, 40, or 50 rejections.)

In any event, people kept telling Blumenthal how much they loved the book, even though they were rejecting it for publication. So he decided to take matters into his own hands, set up a publishing company, and self-published his book.

 A Self-Publishing Success

Dorfman was selected by January magazine as one of the 50 best books of the year. Blumenthal went on to get other major reviews and eventually sold the book to St. Martin’s Press.

Blumenthal has also published with Simon & Schuster and Ballentine. He sold over 4,000 copies of his self-published What’s Wrong With Dorfman? by working relentlessly at promotion. But he realized his company, Farmer Street Press, would need someone to play the role of publisher. That’s how “Jerry” was born.

As he said in BooksnBytes.com,

There was no Jerry. Jerry was me. Every self-publisher should have a Jerry, although you can call him Bob or Moishe or Deepak, it’s up to you. Jerry was the front man. He put his name on press releases etc. I wanted people to think Farmer Street Press was a real company. Unfortunately, I had to fire Jerry because we just didn’t see eye to eye on a lot of things.

“Jerry” Has Plenty of Ancestors

Before so many people jumped into self-publishing, we tried mightily to disguise what we were doing. Somehow a publishing company run by John Smith (for example), publishing a book by John Smith, publicized by a PR person named John Smith does not, perhaps, convey the best message to those you are trying to sell to. Or at least that’s what we thought.

One of my publishing mentors, Felix Morrow, created the Mystic Arts Book Society, an early negative-option book club. He had to have a monthly magazine in which the editor picked the books for the month and wrote them up for the membership.

Felix realized that among the many new books he would be promoting through his book club, there would be some he couldn’t sell himself. Felix had a long history as a writer and publisher and some of the subjects Mystic Arts dealt in were considered to be “fringe” or “alternative” or “counterculture” at the time.

His solution: he created an editor for his book club, John Wilson, who was really Felix’s alter ego. As John Wilson he could find books for his members and had complete freedom to write the copy he needed for his monthly newsletter.

As Felix would say, when we talked about the possibility of duplicating his book club in the 1990s, “I needed John Wilson. He could say things that Felix Morrow could never say!”

Time to Kill Them Off?

We’ve entered a whole new world when it comes to self-publishing and independent publishing. Like musicians a few years ago, it’s now seen as useful, almost obligatory, for authors to have direct contact with their readers, and we are constantly being bombarded by advice to “build our author platform” and “dialogue with readers” to establish a “community of interest” around the books we write and publish.

In this new model, it’s authenticity that counts. We have authors blogging about their creative process, about their editorial progress, about how much money they are making from the sales of their books.

On Twitter we can follow our favorite authors and interact with them in ways we never could have imagined a few years ago.

With this wave of contact, communication and authenticity, do we really need the “Jerrys” and the “John Wilsons” of the past? Authors now establish publishing companies, hire editors, designers and book printers, and proudly declare themselves author/businesspeople in the marketplace.

It could be time to kill these guys off. What do you think? Do we still need to keep up the artifice, to pretend we are really a small publisher, not a guy in the dining room with a laptop? Would it matter any more? Leave me a comment and let me know what you think.

This is a cross-posting from Joel Friedlander’s The Book Designer site.

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