For Carolyn Haines, opportunity knocked at a Mississippi cocktail party. Attending the 1982 social, an Ole Miss professor told the future mega-author, “Carolyn, you need an agent.” She replied, “What’s an agent?”
Today, from her Semmes home, office and farm, Haines is 8, 000 words short of book number 14 in the “Smarty Bones” mystery series. It’s a sweet gig if you can get it. Not everyone can.
The core of publishing is talent, perseverance and survival. You are born with the first, develop the second and, hopefully, become victorious in the third. The odds are not good. For every “To Kill a Mockingbird” there are a thousand “Don’t quit your day job” manuscripts.
Alabama — the state that is home to Atticus Finch and Forrest Gump — has more than its share of authors and a marketing world of book signings, publisher royalties and marketable words. Few outside the publishing business understand it. Fewer expected it to draw tourists.
“Literary publishing is a vibrant part of Alabama’s creative economy, ” says Jeanie Thompson, executive director of The Alabama Writers’ Forum, a partnership program of the Alabama State Council on the Arts. “While we have many high-profile industries, such as poultry in North Alabama and the automobile plants that now dot the state, we also have writers producing books and publishers investing in them as products to be marketed internationally.”
“Also, the creative economy dovetails with Alabama’s vibrant cultural tourism industry, ” Thompson says. “With a number of trails (birds, biking, music) in Alabama, I expect an Alabama Literary Trail to be the next one to gain popularity.”
For many, the words “writing” and “industry” sound like the makings of a mixed metaphor. Books are enjoyable, the thinking goes, so producing one must be, too. We envision an author, clad in tweed jacket with elbow patches, propped on the shore of a lazy river, contemplating life, waiting for the muse to strike. Those writers do exist, but Alabama’s working writers suspect they’re “hungry.”
“There are two types of authors, ” explains Haines. “There are those who feel it is magical. They wait for their muse to hit.” Haines and other successful authors are the other kind. “I write my way to the muse. If I’m deep in a book, I cannot stop writing for a day or two. The break will cause me to lose contact with the main context.”
Winston Groom has a similar approach. “This is not a hobby. It is my job, ” the author of “Forrest Gump” says. “I do business in the mornings, research and preparation, ” he notes. “Then I write for the rest of the day, every day.”
People who publish for a living can’t call in sick with writer’s block. Groom used to work for a major big city daily newspaper. “We ran five editions daily, ” he recalls. “The pressure and deadlines were huge. You did not call the editor while covering a triple ax murder and say, ‘Sorry, I don’t have anything. I’ve got writer’s block.’ You put it down on paper and fix it later.”
And then it’s off to market. “I’ve worked with my publisher long enough to have developed a good relationship, ” says Haines. “They know my work, my style and me.” During the writing process, team Haines will discuss and iron out any issues with characters or plot. It is a good relationship.
For a writer, turning the work he or she has created, nurtured and molded into the hands of a publisher can be a daunting experience, like releasing a child into the world and not knowing what he will look like when you see him again.
“From receiving the manuscript to hitting store shelves, typically, takes about a year to a year and a half, ” notes Suzanne La Rosa, co-founder and publisher of NewSouth Books in Montgomery. Writing is but the tip of the iceberg. “It’s a painstaking process, involving subject experts, editors and other staffing, ” La Rosa adds. “We’ve spent 100 hours just developing a book’s index.”
NewSouth and other publishers announce six months in advance when their products will be available. Bookstores take it from there. “My staff meets at least quarterly to discuss new releases and what is coming down the line, ” says Karin Wilson, owner of the Page & Palette bookstore in Fairhope. “I think independent bookstores have a better pulse on book sales than the giants do. We know our people and, in many cases, know the authors.”
Alabama readers enjoy a unique relationship with the state’s writers. They are not just authors, they’re family. “Any Winston Groom or Fannie Flagg books are guaranteed best sellers before the release, ” says Wilson. “Flagg has a book coming out in November, ‘The All Girl Filling Station’s Last Reunion.’ Judging by local interest, it won’t stay on the shelf.”
But most in the business caution about using the term “Alabama Writer.” Some do more than caution; they say “don’t do it.” Winston Groom is one. “I’m a writer, ” he says. “I’m not a Southern writer; I’m not an Alabama writer. I am a writer.”
Groom concedes that some people do have a morbid curiosity about the South, which may be quenched by reading the works of Southerners. But most successful writers, including those living in Alabama, must reach a broader audience. Harper Lee, for example, lives in Monroeville. Technically, she’s an Alabama writer, but her following stretches from Mobile to Madagascar.
“Every writer must sell his work somewhere, usually it’s around home, ” says Jake Reiss, owner of Birmingham’s Alabama Booksmith. “People have a fascination with Alabama who have never been here, just as people love Dickens’ work but have never seen London. But successful local authors have to have a good story first. Place is secondary.”
Haines adds, “There was a time when the South and Alabama had its own distinct identity, but, unfortunately, now the South is homogenized like everywhere else. I teach writing students who have no idea what’s in a barn. We are losing some of our rich Southern heritage and life experiences that once made excellent writing.”
We may be losing the industry too, to that bane of print — eBooks.
To Winston Groom, “eBook” is one letter more than a four-letter word. “The state of publishing is terrible, ” he says. “And it’s because of electronics. We don’t know how to handle it yet. I know I don’t.” The Eastern Shore author explains, “Anybody can write and publish to the Internet and call it a book.” And people are falling for it.
“The public wants something it can download off of Amazon for 99 cents, ” Groom says. “At least with a printed, published work that’s gone through a publishing house you know it has been vetted, facts checked, with errors corrected. But with eBooks, that’s not always the case. It baffles me. I’m glad to be near the end of my career and not the beginning.”
La Rosa agrees, “We are in a state of flux. Today, e-readers are the only growth area in publishing. But the publishing business has been flat for several years, due to reading habits.” Alabama is no exception. “People want information fast, from the Internet, for little or no money, ” she says. “Time spent reading ink-printed words has diminished. Our challenge is to find a way to bring these people back.”
From byline to bygone, Alabama’s writing community faces the same challenges, rewards and deadlines of most other industries. Time will tell how our local authors and book businesses embrace a future of electronic, paperless printing, varying reader interest and an unpredictable public. It’s a real page-turner.
MONEY IN THE ARTS
More than 71, 000 Alabamians make their living in the arts, according to 2007 figures from the U.S. Census Bureau.
“Film and media” is the largest sector, employing some 26, 230, followed by “literary and publishing, ” with 19, 760. Design sectors employed 9, 354; visual arts and crafts, 8, 460, and performing arts 6, 321.
According to the Alabama State Council on the Arts, the total annual revenue for the creative industries in Alabama is $8.7 billion. Literary and publishing tops the revenue list, bringing in more than $4 billion, or 46 percent of the total creative industries for the state. Second is film and media revenue, at $2.9 billion, comprising a third of the total creative industries revenue for Alabama.
A WORD ABOUT ALABAMA AUTHORS
“Who knows how many millions of copies ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ has sold, ” says Jake Reiss, owner of Birmingham’s Alabama Booksmith. Perhaps the most famous Alabama writer, Lee’s iconic story of race relations in the South has been translated into almost every language in the world. She seldom grants interviews and lives in Monroeville.
Born in Birmingham, Flagg is a New York Times best-selling author of “Daisy Fay and the Miracle Man, ” “Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café” and “Welcome to the World, Baby Girl!” Her next book, “The All Girls Filling Station’s Last Reunion” is set for a November, 2013 release. “It is a guaranteed sell out, ” says Page & Palette owner Karin Wilson.
In 1996, Bragg won a Pulitzer Prize for human-interest stories published in the New York Times. His books include “All Over But the Shoutin’, ” “Somebody Told Me, ” “Avi’s Man.” “I’m a Soldier, Too, ” “The Jessica Lynch Story, ” and “The Prince of Frogtown.” Not bad for the man raised in Possum Trot.
William E. Butterworth IV definitely qualifies as a prolific writer. “Griffin probably published more books than most other writers on your list combined, ” says Jake Reiss, of Alabama Booksmith. Griffin lives in Fairhope and Argentina. He never grants interviews, but, with 45 novels making the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and Publishers Weekly’s bestseller list, maybe he doesn’t have time. His latest book is “Empire and Honor.”
“He is one writer whose work is guaranteed to fly off the shelf, ” says Karin Wilson, owner of Fairhope’s Page & Palette about the man who made Forrest Gump a household name. “To me, writing is an art and a craft but it is not a hobby, ” says Groom. “This is my living that I enjoy but work at all day, usually seven days a week.”
With his latest work, “A Salty Piece of Land, ” Jimmy Buffett has more than 10 book credits on topics ranging from a guitar instructional guide to novels. The musician and writer was raised in Mobile and Fairhope.
“As a child, I discovered I could tell stories that would scare the snot out of other kids, ” Haines laughs. Today the Semmes resident scares, humors and delights readers of her Sarah Booth Delaney mystery series and shows a deliciously sinister approach in “The Darkling.” Haines also writes romances and literary fiction.
Born in Hattiesburg, Miss. and now living in Grand Bay and Mobile, Haynes’ signature work is her novel “Mother of Pearl, ” written in 1997. In 1999, her book was chosen as Oprah Winfrey’s Book Club Choice of the Month. She has followed with the novels “Chalktown” and “Willem’s Field.”
“Kid you’re good, ” Joan Rivers complimented a young comic, Andy Andrews, decades ago. He was her opening act at a University of Alabama comedy show. And then he got better. Andrews has written more than 20 books, including his well known, “The Traveler’s Gift.” He lives in Orange Beach.
Living in Argo and in Nova Scotia, Gaines has 23 books to his credit, including three co-written with Arnold Schwarzenegger. “My favorite part of writing is the research, ” Gaines says. “I’ve seen some amazing places researching story ideas.” Gaines also invented the battle strategy game Paintball, upon which his book “Stay Hungry” is based.
Emmett Burnett is a freelance writer for Business Alabama. He lives in Satsuma.
Text by Emmett Burnett