Recommendations 6/13/2021: Some Things Don't Work Out

On once having a publishing imprint

This week’s Tribune column is on how I think Grove Atlantic giving Roxane Gay her own publishing imprint is a good idea and one other publishers should emulate.

I didn’t have space to tell the story of how I once had my own publishing imprint, so I’m going to do that here.

As I recall, TOW (The Original Warner) Books was not actually my idea, but was instead spawned by Jane Friedman who had been my editor at Writer’s Digest Books for a writing advice parody (Fondling Your Muse: Advice from a Published Author to the Writerly Aspirant: A Hands-On Guide to Writing Your Very Own New York Times Bestseller) I published in 2005. At the time, I was also editing McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, a cultishly popular humor website, of which Jane was a fan, and being an enterprising thinker, she asked what I thought of creatively overseeing an imprint under the F+W Publications (the corporate entity that included Writer’s Digest) banner.

It sounded like a great idea, so I dreamed up TOW Books, giving it a fake backstory of having origins with a grandfather who was a tow truck driver who self-published joke books that he would sell to people when he arrived to haul their cars. This was our logo/colophon.

My responsibility was to recruit writers and edit their books. Jane would handle everything at the publisher. I don’t think any of us figured it for a gazillion-dollar idea, but it seemed fun. The plan was that I would write the first book and then we’d release a few a year under the banner, trying to leverage the audience at the McSweeney’s website into sustainable sales.

Well…things were looking great for awhile. That first book, the one I wrote, was well into multiple printings on pre-orders alone. Encyclopedia Brown and the Mysterious Presidency of George W. Bush was drawn from a series of parodies I’d done at the Modern Humorist website using the childhood detective to lampoon our political culture. Unfortunately, a few weeks prior to the book’s release, the publisher of the original EB mysteries decided to challenge our right to publish, sending a letter threatening legal action if the book was released.

Now, this is all something of a legal grey area in terms of what is satire and what is parody and what is and is not allowed. I had a lawyer for a nonprofit law group that takes on First Amendment cases (not the ACLU) say that he thought it could be a Supreme Court test case, along the lines of the famous 2 Live Crew Pretty Woman case.

If I went forward, the organization would’ve considered taking on the case for free, but I alone would be liable for any damages if we lost. A decision would be literally years down the line, and even a positive outcome would do nothing for the fate of the book. So we all folded and the book was pulped.

It’s a shame, it was really funny, and had it sold like anticipated, the imprint might’ve launched with additional energy.

But we also had other good books in the queue, including Oh, The Humanity!: A Gentle Guide to Social Interaction for the Feeble Young Introvert by Jason Roeder:

…and Really, You’ve Done Enough: A Parents’ Guide to Stop Parenting Their Adult Child Who Still Needs Their Money by Sarah Walker.

The books were bound together in a super cool Advance Reader Copy and given out at Book Expo America by F+W, along with TOW Books shot glasses. For about 36 hours I felt like a big shot (pardon the pun).

I thought the books turned out great, but like most books, the sales were modest. Still we soldiered on, putting more titles into the world until a combination of internal issues at F+W, Jane Friedman leaving for greener pastures (she’s now a hugely in demand all-around books and publishing expert), and a global recession killed it. One of the few remaining artifacts of the imprint on the web is a desperate tongue-in-cheek plea by me begging people to sample the books for free in an effort to stoke word of mouth action.

While the imprint did not thrive, I’m awfully proud of my ability to identify talent. Sarah Walker is a successful television writer, including being credited with an episode of the final season of Silicon Valley.

Wendy Molyneux, who wrote the TOW Books title Everything is Wrong With You: The Modern Woman’s Guide to Finding Confidence Through Self-Loathing, (a book just a bit ahead of its time in terms of the sharpness of its takedowns) was a writer for many years on Bob’s Burgers and now (with her sister, Lizzie) oversees The Great North.

Chris Monks, author The Ultimate Game Guide to Your Life, which imagines your actual life through the lens of a video game guide with cheat codes and side missions, was my successor at McSweeney’s and took the site well beyond anything I accomplished at the helm. I may be biased, but The Ultimate Game Guide is a towering achievement. Much more than a simple humor book, it coalesces into a exploration of the metaphysics of life. I was actually moved to tears while editing it.

Even though these events weren’t all that long ago, I sometimes forget they even happened, which is probably a good thing, because dwelling on the lost opportunity would’ve probably crushed my drive to keep moving forward. It would’ve been more awesome to have a successful publishing imprint, but it was pretty cool to have a publishing imprint at all. As a writer, as judged by sales and money and attention, I’ve had far more failures than successes, and I would be lying if I said those things don’t hurt, but as I get older I’m more and more appreciative of being allowed to have had so many times up to bat.

Because the books weren’t great sellers, copies can be pretty scarce, but there always seems to be some used copies sloshing around in case anyone is curious. My hunch (and my hope) is that Roxane Gay Books is going to do much better than TOW Books ever did.



I am a lousy observer of the publishing scene, because I failed to note that this week brought the Pulitzer Prize announcements, including Louise Erdrich winning for fiction with The Night Watchman, Marcia Chatelain winning for history with Franchise: The Golden Arches in Black America, Les Payne and Tamara Payne winning for biography with The Dead Are Arising: The Life of Malcolm X, and Natalie Diaz winning for poetry with Postcolonial Love Poem.

Bethanne Patrick (@thebookmaven) tells us the 10 best books for summer beach reading.

If you’re looking for more on Roxane Gay Books, the woman herself discussed her motivation and hopes at her publication, The Audacity, and makes a call for submissions.

Read Laurie Colwin’s story “The Boyish Lover” at Electric Literature, introduced by Halimah Marcus.

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All links to books on these posts go to The Biblioracle Recommends bookshop at Affiliate income for purchases through the bookshop goes to Open Books in Chicago. The tally is unchanged week-to-week at $71.00 for the year, but I see some pending sales that will land in the coffers soon, so don’t despair!

As always, recommendations are open for business. Even more so than usual given that I had to put out a call on Twitter to have a sufficient supply for this week. Follow the instructions at the link below.

Want a recommendation? Click here!

1. I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter by Erika Sánchez
2. Class Act by Jerry Craft
3. The Whale: A Love Story by Mark Beauregard
4. The Library Book by Susan Orlean 
5. Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates 

Sarah B. - Woodland Hills, CA

I think there’s a good chance that Sarah has read this book, so if so, she should shoot me an email for a re-do, but if she hasn’t it’s a glaring absence, so I must mention it, H is for Hawk by Helen MacDonald.

1. Women Talking by Miriam Toews
2. The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yōko Ogawa
3. New Girl in Little Cove by Damhnait Monaghan 
4. Plunder by Menachem Kaiser
5. Whereabouts by Jhumpa Lahiri

Julie Z. - Modiin, Israel

A special request here because Julie Z. is one of the entries on our collaborative list of great short story collections. I’m going to take advantage of Julie Z.’s background and recommend a collection of stories that I hope will be new to her, Cities I’ve Never Lived In by Sara Majka.

1. Exile and the Kingdom by Albert Camus
2. Fluent Forever: How to Learn any Language Fast and Never Forget It by Gabriel Wyner
3. Memorial Drive by Natasha Trethewey
4. The Universal Christ: How a Forgotten Reality Can Change Everything We See, Hope For and Believe by Richard Rohr
5. Tiamat’s Wrath by James S.A. Corey

Lucia W. - Columbus, OH

I’m going with a classic here, Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry

1. You Are Your Best Thing Ed. by Tarana Burke & Brene Brown
2. 38 Great Academic Language Builders: Activities for Math, Science, Social Studies, Language Arts…and Just About Everything Else by John Seidlitz & Kathleen Kenfield
3. The Midnight Library by Matt Haig
4. The Checklist Manifesto by Atul Gawande
5. The Assistant Principal 50: Critical Questions for Meaningful Leadership & Professional Growth by Baruti K. Kafele 

Aisha A. - Houston, TX

We’ve got ourselves an educator here, so I’m recommending an education book that I hope any educator (and anyone concerned about education) will read. Beyond Measure: Rescuing an Overscheduled, Overtested, Underestimated Generation by Vicki Abeles.

Talent is insignificant. I know a lot of talented ruins. Beyond talent lie all the usual words: discipline, love, luck, but most of all, endurance. - James Baldwin

Thanks for reading,

JW (The Biblioracle)