Inmates, Asylums, Etc.

Noreen Malone provides a fascinating look at Simon & Schuster’s Jeremie Ruby-Strauss, The King of Trash Publishing:

He was the very picture of civilized, a quality less abundant in the books he acquires. Ruby-Strauss had just come from the set of the “Today” show, where he’d shepherded three new authors, the young women behind the satirical website Betches Love This, through an appearance to promote their foray into publishing, Nice Is Just a Place in France. His editing portfolio also includes the literary efforts of the “Jersey Shore”‘s Snooki and a Real Housewife of Beverly Hills. The title that made his career was Tucker Max’s I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell.

“It’s offensive, it’s gross, it’s mean, it’s scatological,” Ruby-Strauss said of that book, not unproudly. We were eating lunch at the Upper West Side apartment of Max’s agent, Byrd Leavell. Leavell, a thirtysomething University of Virginia grad of Winklevossian coloring and proportions, also represents such Internet-to-book sensations as Cat Marnell (this generation’s culturally savvy blonde drug addict) and the creators of a somewhat self-explanatory website called Total Frat Move. “Tucker Max is offensive because he broke though,” Leavell said, spooning out an impressive homemade pasta primavera while his baby slept in the other room. “It’s like the Snooki haters, too,” said Ruby-Strauss. “I got my MFA from wherever …”

But it doesn’t stop there…

Ruby-Strauss and Leavell brought up a University of Maryland student infamous for a viral e-mail in which she informed her sorority sisters that she was inclined to—in New York Times-ese—enact a fourth-down kick on their most private regions. (It rhymes. Someday, or at least in Phyllis Schlafly’s worst nightmares, it will be a crossword clue.) Leavell was shopping the Maryland student’s novel, to be co-written by the women responsible for a site called White Girl Problems, which sounded like a formidable partnership. “It’s a shit-ton of fun,” said Leavell. “There’s a number of books that have pubbed that just say, you know, I had too many drinks, I banged him, I kicked him out of bed, and I went to work. Like, it’s out there, but I think there’s room for more.”

Huh. Not exactly what the Laura Millers of the world have in mind when they defend the role of publishing houses in filtering books for their readers. And indeed, not everyone at the publishing house wants to engage in the cognitive dissonance that allows you to a) view yourself as a Great Arbiter of Taste, and b) recognize that in the end, you’re just as ruled by the roar of the mob and the temptation of filthy lucre as anyone else.

The higher-minded members of the publishing business keep their distance from the precincts Ruby-Strauss trawls. The president of Simon and Schuster’s title imprint, Jonathan Karp,* maintains a studied ignorance of his colleague’s portfolio: “I haven’t read many of these books. It’s entirely possible I haven’t read any of them,” he says. Random House President Gina Centrello is supposed to have declared that, as long as she’s in charge, no imprint of hers will go near anything written by Max. “I don’t do those sorts of trendy Internet books,” said a vice president at another major publishing house. “We do writers, professional writers.”

Hmmm. Is this the Gatekeeper we so long for? Is this the bulwark against the rise of the Slushpile? What’s going on over there?

Publishing has always depended on having smart people willing to do its down-market work; what’s changed is how those people go about it. Historically, even editors of tasteless books still played a taste-making role, relying on their guts to decide what self-help manual or true-crime thriller would be a hit, not unlike the way their colleagues specializing in debut literary fiction placed their bets. Today, the public has already indicated what interests it, via the Internet, and the editor just has to be savvy enough and shameless enough to give the rabble what it wants.

Okay, so they’re better at identifying what the rabble wants.  They don’t decide – the Internet does. And then they… try to give the public more of it? And take a cut for doing so? What kind of gatekeeper is this? Where’s the filtering mechanism?

If what you have is trash, who needs a king?

And what if the rabble gives itself what it wants – both trash and high-quality books alike? What if the public isn’t dependent on what the publishers pick out of the trash and force upon them? 

“It shouldn’t be about the book but the money you can make from the book,” said Ruby-Strauss’s boss, Jennifer Bergstrom.

What does a vampire drink on a sunny day?

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