Kevin Boyle’s Arc of Justice was flat-out my favorite non-fiction book on 2004. Boyle, a historian at Ohio State University, wrote a gripping account of racial tension in Detroit in the Jazz Age. It won the National Book Award in 2004. Publisher’s Lunch reports today that Boyle has just sold his next book, The Splendid Dead: The Saga of Sacco and Vanzetti in America. It’s an account of the pursuit and trial of the Italian anarchists who were charged with murder and robbery in the early 1920s, but who were really tried for their radical political convictions.
On an entirely different matter – and on an entirely different scale – Holly Peterson has sold her novel, The Manny, an account of a harried Park Avenue mother who hires a male nanny – for a reported $1 million. The sum doesn’t include foreign or film rights, which also sold. Peterson, an editor at Newsweek, is the daughter of financier Pete Peterson (and, full disclosure, the stepdaughter of my agent) so she travels in this rarified milieu.
I will probably read, and enjoy, both books. But once again I am struck by the vagaries of the publishing world. I know I risk sounding naïve, but Boyle’s book probably sold for 1/10 of Peterson’s book, if that, and will probably take 5 times as long to write. It will probably make a lasting contribution to our understanding of the conflict between the working and capitalist classes in early 20th century America, and be a good read as well.
On the other hand, Peterson’s novel will be fun, fluffy, shed a beam of light on the worlds that fascinate most of us – the rich of New York and the media elite – and will be quickly consumed by the reader and then left behind. It will probably sell hundreds of thousands of copies, and that’s why Dial paid so much money for it.
If I am any way typical, enjoying both serious nonfiction and lighthearted chick lit, I should rejoice in America’s ability to juggle both genres successfully. But these deals actually depress me. It’s a reminder of how this culture values entertainment above everything else. Yes, I know that sales of books like Peterson’s make sales of books like Boyle’s possible. Yes, I know there is room for both. But I am waiting for the day when a publisher pays $1 million to a historian.