a helping hand

Chicago’s Mayor Dailey (the first one, not his son) was infamous for his bon mots. My favorite: “They have vilified me, they have crucified me; yes, they have even criticized me.” When asked about the fact that pretty much every relative of his was employed by the city, and if that wasn’t nepotism, he looked genuinely surprised and said (in paraphrase): if you can’t help your own kids, who can you help?

Nepotism is one of those things that puzzles me. I don’t know how to feel about it. I do know how I feel about people who get huge book deals on the basis than nothing more than a famous face or name (I’m looking at you, Suzanne Somers) or some horrific crimes (OJ). It stinks, but worrying about it is a waste of time. The famous get book deals easily, because their names and faces are well known and such a book (whether excellent or foul) will sell itself. Those who are attached to the famous can sometimes grab a ride on this train. Sisters of murder victims, friends of serial killers, assistants to actors, lesbian daughters of conservative vice presidents. Whether or not these books will sell is more of a gamble, and sometimes one that doesn’t pay out (as in the case of the book written by Cheney’s daughter).

Then there’s the more direct kind of nepotism: a person established in some field guides his or her child into that profession. And what is wrong with that? The daughter of a master carpenter will most likely have an easier time getting a union card when she wants to start her training; people who own small businesses often bring their kids into the shop or factory so they can learn what they need to know to take over some day. The children of actors have an easier time getting into the business — but whether or not they stay around has more to do with how well they perform.

The same is true of insanely successful writers. Ann Rice has a son who writes novels and has made a name for himself, though in a quieter way than his mother. And now Stephen King’s son has come out with his first novel. Joe Hill (as he calls himself) has written a horror novel called Heart-Shaped Box. I noticed it when I was in the bookstore today, because it was in a stand-alone display, and the blurbs were from really big names. That is unusual for a first novel, so I picked it up and read the flap and the back cover and the blurbs.

Something fishy going on, is what I thought. The author blurb says only that Joe Hill lives in New England, but … definitely something odd about this.

When I got home I started checking, and I wasn’t exactly surprised to find out that Joe Hill is Stephen King’s son — though that information is not to be found anywhere on Hill’s website.

So here’s the thing. You’re the son of the most popular and successful living author on the continent, and you want to write novels in the same genre. Your choices range from one extreme to the other: cash in on the connection, use your own name, allow the publisher to put a metallic sticker on the front cover proclaiming the new generation of King horror masters, use all the power of your connections to get whatever you can to place your novel in the public eye. Because marketing is pretty much everything, at least for a first novel.

Or you could go to the other extreme. Change your name. Don’t call yourself Joe King when looking for an agent, or when working with your agent to negotiate a book deal. Struggle along like most people, fighting for a decent marketing budget, trying to get the word out there.

I don’t know what I would do in this situation. I don’t know what I’d do if one day in the imaginary future I found myself consistently on the best seller lists and the Girlchild wrote a novel of her own. My urge — of course — would be to help. Introduce her to the right people, make sure she got an excellent agent (say, my agent, for example). Would she want that? Would it be a good idea? I have no answers. What I do know about the Joe Hill situation is this: he’s torn. He changed his name, but he used the connections he had to get a stupendous marketing deal, and high-flying blurbs. What other explanation is there for the kind of five star treatment he’s getting at Amazon, where they’ve buttonholed big name authors to do comparative reviews of a first novel?

I can understand that he would feel both ways about this: he wants to make it on his own, but trudging up a hundred flights of stairs when you’ve got a key to the express elevator, that must be a tough decision.

Joe Hill may have written an excellent novel. I hope he has. I’m going to read it, and I’ll let you know what I think. About the novel, not about the deal he got from his publisher. Because I just don’t know what to think about that.

Edited to add:

Just a little more about Joe Hill.

In a comment to yesterday’s post, Alison Kent provided a link to an interesting post by Jason at Man in Black. According to Jason, they really did manage to keep Hill’s connection to King a secret when they put the book up for auction. Jason seems to have solid footing for this claim, so good. Good for Hill. On the other hand:

Now here’s the Catch-22: Publishing the son of a famous bestselling novelist essentially assures that the book will get more publicity than 99.9% of debut novels. So a publisher would have to have some real brass cojones to simply ignore this incredible opportunity. Yet if all the coverage focuses on the father-son link and ignores the book–which, unfortunately, has happened in a few instances for Hill–you’ll get a ton of coverage and no sales. It seems Morrow has been trying to have their cake and eat it too, distancing Hill from King while “bashfully” conceding the relationship. Basically saying, “We don’t want the guy to be known only as Stephen King’s son, but come on, he is Stephen King’s son.”

So Morrow bids on a first novel they like, they win the bidding, and then they find out that the author is Stephen King’s son. Something like buying a lovely antique writing desk at a fair price and then finding a dozen long letters from Jane Austen to her sister Cassandra in a secret compartment. Jackpot.

The thing to remember is that the auction is only the first part of the equation. After that, Hill’s agent went to work negotiating the fine points, and Hill’s connections played into that process. Obviously. Every year there are a couple of first novels that go for a lot at auction, and then get good marketing packages — but what’s going on for Heart-Shaped Box is way beyond even that standard. If they were really serious about playing down the connection, my advice (if anyone cared, or asked) would have been to cut back on the high profile blurbs. That’s where the connection to King jumps out and grabs you.

9 Replies to “a helping hand”

  1. That is really interesting. That’s the thing about pen names…for fame, for marketing, for privacy, because you’ve always wanted a new name? Could be anything, but Joe’s seems odd. It seems like he’s torn, the way you’ve presented the facts. Possibly a case of conscience at the bitter end made him change his name. But in the long run, won’t he want to have his real name on the books in the library shelves, in the distant future?

    We’ll learn the whole truth when the father-son duo publish a memoir of writing lives. Won’t we? What agent wouldn’t be all over that in a year or two.

  2. Dosen’t sound fair, but from what I’ve heard of the Kings, he’s bin surrounded by every aspect of the writers world his whole life, I gotta wonder if dues were paid as a result. I don’t imagine it was the easiest way to grow up. Pure speculation of course. To be sucsessful at anything you have ta be a bit of a opportunist. Who he is may get him a boost into the big leagues but he still has to prove he belongs there.
    Ann Rice also has a sister who writes, got her novel the Silver Wolf, oviously got it for the title and cover. I actaully kinda feel embarrassed for her cuz her sister’s blurb is on the back, though Marion Zimmer Bradley’s comment added some credibilty to it.
    Joe Hill..short, easy to remember, wonder if his middle name is Joel? rambled long nuff hehe

  3. I saw the NYT article/review about Hill–a rarity for debut authors who have no connections.

    As you point out, though, celebrity or connection to celebrity is newsworthy in itself, and we can’t entirely fault the media for giving people what people want to read. In this case, there’s built-in interest, and it appears to be merited by the work. I’ll be interested to hear what you think of the novel.

    What’s unfair is that other authors of equal skill are NOT getting the same attention Hill has, not from their publishers and not from the media.

    But of course “fair” has no part in this equation.

    The question about Hill is, now that he’s gotten this far, will the public take him the rest of the way?

  4. King’s son Owen is also a writer, with a book of short stories. He actually uses the name “Owen King,” and even cites his home on the flap as Bangor, Maine.

    It would be rough coming form a writing family. When both of your parents are writers, I think there would be a lot of pressure on you to do the same–maybe not even from those parents, but from everyone else who might be expecting great things.

    But you know, it doesn’t bother me that he is using his father’s connections to market his book. I’m jealous, sure, but he’s lucky he’s got someone to help him out. It’s a rough business to get into–I haven’t made it yet. But maybe someday.

    CAn’t wait to read “Joe Hill’s” book.

  5. I know what this reminds me of now, the Sheen brothers. Martin Sheen, sons Emilio Estevez and Charlie Sheen. And another son, a screenwriter or a producer is it? So I guess it’s fairly not unusual for a child to choose to go with or without the famous name. In this day and age of instant information, it’s highly unlikely anyone wouldn’t find out who you are, in the end. So just personal preference for pen names is all we speculators are left with.

  6. First of all, I read Hill’s book this weekend, and I loved it!

    Maybe Hill changed his name because he didn’t want to be Joe-King (get it? Jo-king, JOKING!) (That joke works much better in person. I thought of it myself this weekend.)

    Second of all, Joe Hill is also an award-winning writer in his own right. He has a short-story collection that was published in England, and it seems like he has been paying his dues.

    Hill also has a blog and lots of blog-friends, including Neil Gaiman – a connection that may or may not be due to King’s influence.

    Speaking of blog-friends, he was interviewed in John Scalzi’s By the Way Blog.

  7. Lanna Lee– I’m really glad to know that you liked the novel. I’m looking forward to it myself.

    I wish Joe Hill the best. It does look as if he’s worked hard to keep the connection as much out of the limelight as possible, and you’re absolutely right, short stories are hard to get into print and so he’s done a lot of work to get where he is.

    But the marketing campaign is way bigger and broader than you’d expect for a first novel — even one they have high expectations for — so I think my point still stands.

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