McGuire on Media

People I like and respect can hold positions with which I disagree

Jon Talton is a a multi-talented journalist, author and Arizona development critic.

I first encountered Talton’s work when I moved to Phoenix in 2002. I thought he was the smartest columnist in the Valley. Yet, I was always surprised at the “love him or hate him” reaction I received when I publicly praised him.

Talton called it as he saw it on local growth and development, and that was not a popular thing to do, though time proved him largely correct. He now writes a business column for The Seattle Times, probably because of his outspokenness in Arizona!

A few years ago, at the urging of my wife Jean, I started  to read Talton’s novels and my respect grew exponentially. 

He writes a Phoenix-based series called the David Mapstone series, a Cincinnati-based series called The Cincinnati Casebooks series and he wrote Deadline Man. Deadline Man is a must read for newspaper junkies.  It’s an Armageddon-type thriller that is damned hard to put down.

I have read every book he has written, and I say without hesitation Talton can write. His books are incredibly entertaining and he draws wonderful characters.  To my untrained, journalistic eye, the line between Talton and the big name mystery-thriller authors is frighteningly thin. Big-time fame has eluded Talton, but I wonder for how long.

A few months ago, thanks to Twitter, @jontalton and I met at a Valley coffee shop. That’s where my respect for him skyrocketed.

Talton operates out of a wheelchair due to a debilitating illness and I had never realized it.  As someone who is quite noisy about my own physical infirmities, Talton’s stoicism surprised and impressed me. He was a fantastic conversationalist too. I now consider him a friend.

Mimi Johnson is also a friend of mine. I have known Mimi’s husband, Steve Buttry, for several years and I have encountered Mimi three or four times as she accompanied Steve. Mimi is lively, fun and pleasantly irreverent.

Twitter played a role in my relationship with Mimi too. @mimijohnson is a world champion tweeter.  She’s pithy, sarcastic and passionate.  My wife only follows a few people on Twitter and Mimi is one of them. A couple of mornings a week she will ask me with a knowing chuckle, “did you read Mimi today? She’s on a tear.”

When I first met Mimi she said she was a writer. I will admit I viewed her as a bit  of a dilettante because she couldn’t point to anything she had written.

A few months ago that changed with the debut of Gathering String, a book published by the self-publishing arm of Amazon. In my mind that made Mimi a real, live writer.

I found Gathering String a delightful read. It’s part political intrigue, part paean to an emerging journalism world and part mystery-thriller. It has a little whiff of romance novel to it and sometimes I feared melodrama was just around the corner. Yet, the book engaged me, intrigued me and rewarded me. It had enough surprises to keep me in the game.

Last week my friend Talton published a column he called The Stand.

And that’s where my two friends collide.

Talton challenged Amazon. He informed his readers he was going to boycott Amazon by boycotting a book store panel. He then called his fellow authors to arms against Amazon.

Talton is not engaging in this battle because of Amazon’s alleged predatory pricing.  He says he is unnerved because Amazon is not a very good corporate citizen in Seattle, but that’s not the reason for his ire.

I would have been comfortable with Talton’s raging battle on either of those grounds. However, I am decidedly uncomfortable with Talton’s stated reason for cancelling an appearance at a book signing because of Amazon. 

He cancelled because one of the people scheduled to be on the panel was published by Amazon’s self-publishing arm—the same self-publishing arm that published Mimi Johnson’s Gathering String.

Talton is candid when he describes his decision in the column. He writes

“On a purely selfish level, I labored in the vineyard for 20 years before I was first published, and published by a respected New York house. I didn’t have the Ivy League or Iowa Writers’ Workshop credentials, didn’t live in New York and go to the parties where one met the “right people.” I was just stubborn. I wanted it badly, to be a published author, and not from a vanity press no matter how tarted up and backed by big money.  In the years since my first book, I have worked hard to improve each book, for every time I had to win a legitimate publisher. I would be damned if I was going to share the table with a self-published writer. Harsh? Perhaps.”

I sure think it is harsh. And, I think it’s mistaken. To me, Talton is saying ‘I suffered and by God everybody else should too.”

I despise that position. I find that decrying the fact that people no longer have to wait for the “lucky break’ to get their words in print to be much like endorsing hazing. People who go through initiation into fraternities or sororities always seem intent on making sure the people who come after them suffer just as much as they did. I find that silly and dangerous.

The dynamic tools of our digital age have democratized every process known to man. I am damned happy publishing is one. These tools have given access to the “people living in the vineyard.”

I am incredibly happy Mimi Johnson got her words in print. It would have been shameful if her work got blocked by an overworked, arbitrary and capricious decision-maker in a publishing house. I am convinced the line between Johnson’s book and many “published” books is just as thin as the line between Talton and the big-name authors.

In “The Stand” Talton fears for the sustained life of small publishers like Scottsdale’s Poisoned Pen Press. I think Barbara Peters (Editor-in-Chief) of Poisoned Press is one of the coolest people in the Valley. I don’t want her house to die either.

But in the same way I oppose any unnatural effort to save newspapers, I oppose any unnatural effort to save publishers. I also find it short-sighted and negative to assume that opening access to book publishing to all authors will destroy publishers like Poisoned Press. 

I have faith in markets. Mimi Johnson tells me that she is facing a slow slog with her self-published effort. The market is obviously not completely comfortable with this news approach. It is will take time. Meanwhile established publishers, big and small, still have many opportunities to compete in this new redefined market. The market will speak.

If those publishers have difficulty competing it will be because  of Amazon’s potential predatory practices, not because it gave access to aspiring authors to take their best shot.

Hazing is never good and I am happy it’s no longer a part of publishing.

And despite our disagreement, I still think Jon Talton is a helluva talent