When I invited Robert B. Wyatt, formerly an editor at Avon, Dell, Ballantine, and St. Martin’s, to speak at a panel on traditional publishing versus self-publishing, I assumed he would advise the audience on the merits of working to get an agent and a publishing contract. Instead, he was eager to discuss the opportunities that modern technology gives authors to find new ways of publishing their work.
Wyatt is currently improvising formats for his own book, Adventures of a House and Its Books, a collection of tales about authors and characters inhabiting the 20,000-volume collection in his Woodstock home. The book’s initial offering will be a serialization through the Phoenicia Library, to be introduced through a launch event at the library at 4 p.m. Wednesday, March 4. Wyatt will present snippets of the work, aimed at entertaining both adults and children, along with his out-of-the-box vision of the new world of publishing technology for writers.
Here’s the catch. Until future editions of the book appear, possibly in online, audio, ebook, and print versions, the only way you can read Adventures will be while sitting at the Phoenicia Library, where a new chapter will appear twice a week. The text will be printed in large type on 8-1/2 x 11 pages, and back chapters will be available to read. Wyatt was inspired by the tradition of Charles Dickens, whose novels were serialized in monthly chapters that were published in London, attracting crowds to the New York piers for the arrival of each new issue.
I talked with Wyatt at his Woodstock house, surrounded by those thousands of books, mostly fiction, and guarded by Amanuensis A. Bear, an eight-foot-tall wood sculpture who stands on the front deck, dispensing opinionated advice to the author.
In an essay about your career, you describe your arrival in New York City from your hometown of Miami, Oklahoma, in 1962, saying you were driven by a “subtle combination of ignorance and curiosity.” How did you make the transition to New York?
In Oklahoma, I had read the Saturday Review and The New York Times, given to me by my piano teacher. I tore out ads I liked and put them up in my room, since I wanted to go into advertising — it was the time of Mad Men — or else publishing. My whole life was movies and reading. I had also been a weather reporter and obituary writer for the Tulsa Daily World while attending the University of Tulsa. I was dirt stupid when I arrived in New York.
Once there, you went from working at the Doubleday bookstore to four decades as an editor for top publishing houses. You edited early books from authors including Anita Diamant, Douglas Preston, Russell Banks, Marianne Wiggins, Reinaldo Arenas, Norma Fox Mazer, Katherine Neville. What has changed in the business that makes you see the big publishers as less useful for writers today?
The traditional publishers don’t really serve writers. They don’t have the distribution means they once had, and the review media has shrunk. Publishers used to set up author tours to bookstores, especially chains, but now we don’t have some of the big chains.
Yet the big publishers claim to be still making money.
Very few authors, except for established authors or celebrities, have a chance as a writer. Times are changing. Culture has changed. Books are disposable. There’s a bunch of bestsellers, people read them and then get rid of them. People aren’t building libraries. I’m amazed to go into the home of a publishing person to see how few books they have. Why be in a business where you don’t like what you make?
What about your own collection? Have you read most of your books?
Of course not, it’s a library. Does a librarian read every book in a library? You have a thought and you can go to a book, and you’ve got it right here. Take my current infatuation with the late 19th century. I may read a Frank Stockton novel, and that leads to another and another. That leads to Little Pilgrimages Among the Men Who Have Written Famous Books, which has short bios of writers of that period, and that leads to someone else. I also like thinking about the way books looked. You start looking through the library at the bindings, if you’re a real book person.
How did you come to write Adventures of a House and Its Books?
I’d written two books I’d published and two that have not been published. They were all about things I knew. Jam and the Box was about bookselling. A longish novel about movies set in Belize involves my interest in movies. I started thinking that books had always been stable. But with the Internet, mutability became possible. I would write a book that could be changed in all sorts of ways on the Internet.
What I know best is the house I live in. At first, the house was a character. It spoke, had opinions, was in conflict with the books, jealous of the books, but I didn’t think that worked very well, so I brought in what was coming out of the books, the authors and characters. An important rule was that the authors had to be physically dead, but they were alive all the time in the house, along with the characters they’d created. I liked the idea of Louisa May Alcott being here and being mystified by books with color pictures of authors on the cover. When Walt Whitman came to visit, he was surprised to see so many books about himself.
Can you talk more about the mutability available with the Internet?
There’s a chapter in which Hervey White comes out of my TV and sets up a party on the back deck with Woodstockers of the 1930s. I decided that episode was too parochial if I wanted to get people outside Woodstock to enjoy the story. So there’s a version where bears come out of the TV set, the bears from the painting on my shower curtain, “The Bear Dance” by William Holbrook Beard.
So on the Internet, you’d put in your zip code to help you select the Woodstock version or the general version?
I don’t know. I’ll be working out the details for the rest of my life. I think this is a fundamental change in book-making. We’ve always worked toward the perfect text. Then you put out a book and that’s it. But with new technology, your book will not be the same book five years from now. One of the problems with traditional publishers is they want a certain kind of book so they can market it, and they tailor it to that. But an author has their own way of working, and their creativity shouldn’t be inhibited. Publishers want the reader to know this is a reading experience just as good as one they had with Stephen King or John Grisham, not necessarily the unique voice of someone new.
Why did you choose the Phoenicia Library for your exclusive launch?
The symbol of the library is a bear reading in an Adirondack chair, and Amanuensis A. Bear is the symbol of my house. The library was destroyed by fire, and the builder who did the reconstruction, Wyatt Roberts, happens to be named for me. His father, Thom Roberts, built my house. And I like the idea of celebrating the reborn library with the birth of this book about a home library and its inhabitants.
Robert B. Wyatt will present readings from and stories about Adventures of a House and Its Books, a work of fiction, at the Phoenicia Library, 48 Main Street, Phoenicia, on Wednesday, March 4, at 4 p.m. All ages are invited.