The Viking Saga

In the late summer of 1995, just after I moved to Seattle, I received an e-mail from Viking-Penguin. A somewhat resourceful marketing/advertising person had read Factsheet 5, where the first issue of Jazz Flavored Coffee had been reviewed by Seth Friedman:

#1, Spring 1995. This premier issue is primarily devoted to Charles Bukowski and includes a bibliography and some tribute poems. We also get a drinking game that’s played while watching the X-Files that seems like an expanded version of Hi Bob. Selective trades. Price: $1. Subs: $3 for 3 issues. (20 pages/xerox/digest/DTPed/RSF)

What follows is the e-mail exchange that occurred between a minion of Viking-Penguin and the head of this vast zine empire known as Jazz Flavored Coffee. The actual name of the marketing assistant has been changed.


Date: Thu, 24 Aug 1995 10:47:37 -0400
To: godot
Subject: Media Kit

Dear Cal,
We at Viking Penguin are interested in advertising in your amazing ‘zine. We got the info on you from Factsheet5. Please send us a copy of Jazz Flavored Coffee along with an ad rate sheet ASAP to:

Marketeer
Viking Penguin
375 Hudson St.
New York, NY 10014-3657

Our ability to advertise with you may depend on how quickly you can get this info to us as we are facing a deadline. Fed ex if you can. Thanks, and we look forward to hearing from you. (212)555-5555


To: Marketeer
From: godot
Subject: Re: Media Kit

Thank you for your interest in Jazz Flavored Coffee. Before discussing the specifics of advertising in my zine, I would like to address a few points in reference to your message:

We at Viking Penguin are interested in advertising in your amazing ‘zine.

Since you do not have a copy of my zine (as evidenced by your request for one) and since the review that Seth gave in F5 is very non-descript, how do you know my zine is “amazing?”

We got the info on you from Factsheet5. Please send us a copy of Jazz Flavored Coffee along with an ad rate sheet ASAP….

First of all, I do not give away copies of the zine; each copy of the first issue cost approximately 85 cents to make and another 55 cents to mail, making the total worth to me $1.40. And since I sell them for only $1, I automatically lose money. Add into that fact the free issues to contributors & the trades I engage in, you get a terribly un-lucrative business. But I am an aesthetic idealist.

Secondly, even if I did give away free copies, it would be to other zine editors, publishers or distributors. As I recall, Viking-Penguin does not publish zines. And I am sure that you probably have a large enough budget to part with one dollar in order to get a copy of my “amazing ‘zine.”

Third, I find it unlikely and difficult to believe that Viking-Penguin would actually purchase space in a zine. You place ads in Publisher’s Weekly, NY Times Review of Books, NY Review of Books, Atlantic Monthly and Playboy; why would you want to advertise in a zine with small circulation? Certainly not to increase your sales or audience; both of these are substantial for you. However, since your marketing people may be trying to “diversify your market,” I can see that you would reach out through Factsheet 5 for a few places to direct your material.

Finally, Viking-Penguin has vast holdings in the publishing industry, something that many zine editors (and other members of the “alternative press”) feel is a possible threat to the diversity of American literature. I’m not sure about your company’s record regarding non-mainstream literature — it may be a stellar one indeed. But I am sure that leveraged buy-outs and shutting down small, unprofitable imprints are not the way to insure a rich literary heritage. James Joyce, as you will recall, could not get Ulysses published by a large company and went to a small press instead. The works of Henry Miller, William S. Burroughs, Jack Kerouac, Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot and many more have similarly been rejected by large publishing houses. Many of these authors have even been rejected by Viking-Penguin! How about that?

I praise you in your effort to contact the zine world and hope to hear more from you. I would be more than happy to accept advertising from your company, provided it meets my standards of content and quality. Feel free to contact me further on this issue.

Also, please know that I will judge the seriousness of your interest by your follow-up of this issue.

Thank you,
Cal


From: Marketeer@penguin.com
Date: Fri, 25 Aug 1995 09:32:15 -0400
To: godot
Subject: Re: Media Kit -Reply

Excuuuse me! I’m so sorry for calling your ‘zine “amazing.” I can assure you it was not an attempt to lie or to condescend, but mainly to give a boost of support. It was very favorably described in Factsheet5, and having worked on a ‘zine before, I know that support is always welcome (or was to me.)

In terms of the issue of the $1 fee, I can talk to [my boss] about that when she returns on Monday. Are you aware that if we advertise in Jazz Flavored Coffee, we will probably take out a full page ad? Most publications consider sending potential advertisers media kits an investment.

The title we are interested in advertising is Voodoo Child the story of Jimi Hendrix. If you think that Viking or Jimi aren’t cool enough for your ‘zine, then we will simply find other ones to advertise in. OK? You can also note that Penguin and Viking have kept great literature alive and remarkably cheap with their classics series that include all the writers you named in your letter, as well as contemporary greats like William T. Vollman, T. C. Boyle, Gabrielle Garcia Marquez etc.

You might try not being so hostile, dear Cal. We’re all just people on the other end of this e-mail machine, not some looming, giant corporation scheming to co-opt your movement. Most publishing companies teeter on the edge of bankruptcy all the time, particularly when competing with other forms of modern media. We aren’t Blockbuster Video.

If you are interested in being advertised in, then send us a copy of Jazz Flavored Coffee, your ad rates and some kind of tentative publishing schedule. We’re looking to place an ad around mid-December.

Thanks.
Marketeer


To: Marketeer@penguin.com
From: godot
Subject: Re: Media Kit -Reply

Dear Marketeer;
Your reply welcomed me in my e-mail box this morning and I greeted it with a smile. I was tempted to turn on my speech-synthesizer and have the machine read the mail, but I wasn’t sure what kind of voice would be appropriate. At any rate, I am pleased to see that you replied and in fact are serious about advertising in my zine. You made several relevant points, which I will now address:

Excuuuse me! I’m so sorry for calling your ‘zine “amazing.” I can assure you it was not an attempt to lie or to condescend, but mainly to give a boost of support. It was very favorably described in Factsheet5, and having worked on a ‘zine before, I know that support is always welcome (or was to me.)

You are correct that support is always welcome in the zine trade. Perhaps the support you speak of (often referred to as moral support) is more important than financial support. But as far as the decription in F5 being favorable, unless you mean that the review is favorable in that it had nothing *bad* to say, I have to disagree. Seth’s review is at best cursory and non-committal; there are no adjectives of praise used. But perhaps you have read beneath the print because, in fact, Seth told me that he did enjoy the zine. Several people have said so, in fact. So I appreciate your praise and faith in my work.

In terms of the issue of the $1 fee, I can talk to Tracey about that when she returns on Monday. Are you aware that if we advertise in Jazz Flavored Coffee, we will probably take out a full page ad? Most publications consider sending potential advertisers media kits an investment.

Let’s not quibble over a mere dollar or two. If you really want a copy, then I’ll send you one. Gratis. The only problem is that I am currently out of stock on #1 (a second edition will be printed soon) and have not yet printed #2. The second issue is a music issue, which had an article about a Grateful Dead show in Las Vegas. Just as we were going to press we learned that Jerry Garcia had died, so I contacted my music correspondent and asked him to write a eulogy for me. So issue #2 will be out soon, if you’d like a copy of that. (I would recommend such; it will have a better layout & is a little meatier, both of which will be good things to show your boss.) The next issue (#3) is due out in October. As a former zine publisher (and minion of Viking, who were to be the publishers of the mythical “Finn’s Hotel” by James Joyce, as I recall), you understand how deadlines can be fluid and nerve-wracking. Please let me know whether you’d like a copy of #1 or #2 — or even both, for that matter. No charge, natch.

The title we are interested in advertising is Voodoo Child the story of Jimi Hendrix. If you think that Viking or Jimi aren’t cool enough for your ‘zine, then we will simply find other ones to advertise in. OK? You can also note that Penguin and Viking have kept great literature alive and remarkably cheap with their classics series that include all the writers you named in your letter, as well as contemporary greats like William T. Vollman, T. C. Boyle, Gabrielle Garcia Marquez etc.

You might try not being so hostile, dear Cal. We’re all just people on the other end of this e-mail machine, not some looming, giant corporation scheming to co-opt your movement. Most publishing companies teeter on the edge of bankruptcy all the time, particularly when competing with other forms of modern media. We aren’t Blockbuster Video.

I think Jimi was pretty cool; I also think Viking is pretty cool, as far as big publishers go. Viking published a great set of Joyce books years ago (I have the complete set in hardcover) and of course did the classic edition of Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow. But the industry itself has many problems, not the least of which is a great weakness in nurturing new and innovative talent. The names you mention are indeed good writers, but in relation to the few good writers you mention how much absolute crap does Viking publish? How many new novelists per year does Viking publish *and* vigorously promote?

Unfortunately I do not have the time or energy to investigate the issue and give a wonderful objective report. But a few years ago I did happen to work in a large corporate bookstore and I can report that had I not already known where the “literature’ was, it would have been impossible to find among the bevy of Stephen Kings, Danielle Steeles and Rush Limbaughs that lined the walls and shelves. The situation in similar in most bookstores, where the big names get the most advertising bucks, the biggest contracts and thus the most attention. It is no secret that the vast majority of published work is garbage, just as the majority of film and television is garbage. So the fault, per se, lies not in the arms of Viking — one publisher should not be held accountable for the sins of the industry.

But what of Viking’s responsibility then? The old adage is that the “best-seller trash” (i.e. Howard Stern and such) pays for the possibility of writers like Kathy Acker and the poet Misha. (To put this analogy in a politcal spectrum, one might say that the Nazis were good for France because it created a healthy resistance movement.) I hope you join in me in thinking that this is a big, juicy and frightening rationalization.

Think of how revolutionary it would be if Viking decided to launch a major ad campaign for the works of James Joyce, Thomas Pynchon and Mark Leyner — names well-known to many readers — rather than the likes of Newt Gingrich, Colin Powell and Anne Rice, none of whom have anything new to say, none of whom offer an original spin on an old idea. How would this affect the American reading public? Perhaps seeing a full page ad promoting handsome new editions of these authors’ works would cause more people to discover great literature. In fact, that sounds like a great campaign: “Discover Great Literature.” As you no doubt know, the true meaning of discover is to find something that is already there; such a campaign could bring many great authors out of the depths of obscurity and teach an entire generation the appreciation of great literature.

Sadly, this will never happen. The proverbial “bottom line” is not good on such a project. There’s too little money to be made, Joyce is dead, Pynchon is a recluse and Leyner is just too damn weird to go on any TV show other than Tom Snyder. No upwardly-mobile marketing person would dare embark on such a quixotic episode. So we will go on seeing full page ads in the NY Times Review of Books promoting Limbaugh’s line of wares (all of which say the same thing: nothing) and huge advances going to the likes of Colin Powell (if he’s a hero, then I’m the messiah). Books by Newt Gingrich and Ross Perot will be seriously discussed in colleges while writers like Cormac McCarthy and Richard Powers toil in obscurity — or worse, their works come to be known as “artistic” and so are only read by graduate students and effete Bostonians.

The point of publishing is to make money. Not to improve literature or educate the reading public. As long as people buy books that are crap, publishers will go on producing more and more crap. The publishing industry does not give two hoots in a hurricane about “literature;” if we woke up tomorrow & James Joyce was no longer being taught in colleges and high schools, you can bet his books would go out of print so fast it would make you delirious.

As far as my hostility goes, I did not intend for my letter to come across as such. I’m not surprised if it did, however; I am a struggling young writer who has had it with publishers saying “Look! We publish cool stuff!” and then going right along with their series of romance novels and political thrillers. I’ve also had it with people who rationalize their own reading of such garbage by saying “Oh, I just read Stephen King to relax my brain.” (Since that’s why people use drugs, how come drugs aren’t legal?) So perhaps my hostility bleeds through a bit. But I have nothing against you; I don’t know whether you are a good or bad person. Probably good, since you took the time to respond to my letter and are interested in the zine milieu.

In closing, I would like to say that I would be happy to place an ad from your company in my zine. I would prefer, however, not to promote the Hendrix biography, as I’m sure it will be well promoted elsewhere and I do not perceive the world to be in need of yet another Hendrix book.

I would be very interested in another book, however. My friend Mark Amerika tells me that you are publishing a new “Avant-Pop” anthology in which many of the Black Ice Books authors appear. Since such an anthology will not likely be promoted via full-page ads in national publications, I would be very interested in promoting it in my zine. If this can be arranged, I would be more than happy to comp you an ad space. Please run this buy your boss when she returns on Monday; the idea of a free ad might get her marketing blood flowing.

Once more, thank you for your prompt reply. I look forward to further correspondence from you on this matter.

Regards,
Cal


Afterword: It is perhaps telling that I never heard from the marketeer again. Not even the offer of free advertising would get a response. Reaction in the zine community was mixed: some said I should have taken the money and run the ad; others praised my resistance to the Almighty Dollar (one cannot serve art and mammon, I suppose).

The second issue of my zine was delayed for quite a while as I coped with new jobs, new apartments and new ideas. It was finally published several months later than initially planned.

There were no ads for any books about Jimi Hendrix.