The Rise and Fall (and Coming Renaissance?) of Peter S. Beagle: An Analysis

 

We'll start with stipulating that big corporate publishers aren't staffed exclusively with stupid people. That being the case, certain questions beg to be asked. If Peter S. Beagle is such a valuable property, why aren't major American publishers jumping at the chance to put out his books? Why have his titles since The Last Unicorn sold comparatively poorly, despite strong reviews and ardent fans? What was different about The Last Unicorn that made it such a success? And what has to happen in order to finally get Peter up there on the bestseller list where so many of us feel he belongs?

The answer to the first question is that the presumptions in a model automatically limit the accuracy of that model's predictions. Misunderstand a situation and you can miss the opportunity in it.

The answer to the second question is twofold:

The answer to the third question can be shorthanded as the Jim Beauchamp factor.

As for question number four, we'll come back to that at the end. Right now we need to get clear on the relevant backstory.

 

Peter S. Beagle's Book Career [The Cliff Notes Version]

The year is 1960. Viking puts out Peter's first book, A Fine And Private Place. This novel is hailed as the advent of an astonishing new literary talent — not a genre talent, but a mainstream author, one who blows people away because he writes with the kind of creativity and skill and insight most authors never come near, let alone unknown 19 year-olds from the Bronx.

Delighted, Viking jumps on the reaction and pushes Peter as the Next Big Thing.

His second book doesn't come out for five years. This one isn't a novel. It's nonfiction. Marketed under the rather lengthy title I See By My Outfit: Cross-Country by Scooter, an Adventure, it too is hailed as an instant American classic, this time in the fields of personal memoir and travel writing. Reviewers talk about Peter as some strange original cross between Kerouac, Twain, and Marx (Groucho, not Karl). And it is still amazing to folks that someone so very young (24!) writes so powerfully.

But this new book isn't a novel. And the only thing it has in common with A Fine And Private Place is a byline and brilliant prose.

Three years go by. Peter's third book finally lands. This one is a novel. But it's a weird novel, equal parts fairy tale and pastiche of fairy tales, full of anachronisms and abrupt left turns: The Last Unicorn. Reviewers don't know what to think. Who is this Beagle guy anyway, and what is he trying to pull? Why the fantasy stuff? Isn't that for kids, not serious authors? Why is the story so self-referential and context-aware? Geeze, here we are at book three and we might as well be talking about a trio of authors, not one man...and if the writing is still brilliant, so what? Now he's 27. Lots of good writers are 27.

(My favorite of all the mixed-to-negative reviews for The Last Unicorn is the one by the major newspaper guy who hated A Fine And Private Place when it came out in 1961. Now, in 1968, he writes "Mr. Beagle's latest will never be treasured and remembered the way his brilliant debut always will be.")

Viking stops cheerleading for Peter. In fact, they pretty much write him off, opting to dump the paperback rights to A Fine And Private Place and The Last Unicorn to Ballantine Books for half a song. In 1969 Ballantine issues mass market editions of both titles, together, as part of something new called the "Adult Fantasy" series. Although the two books are packaged nicely enough, promotion is minimal to nonexistent and aimed squarely at science fiction and fantasy readers, back then a marginalized niche audience.

Under normal circumstances this would doom both books to obscurity.

At this point something important happens. Ballantine's west coast sales rep, Jim Beauchamp, falls madly in love with The Last Unicorn. He tirelessly pounds the pavement and works the phone, pushing, pushing, pushing. He's a monster with a mission: spread the word! Bit by bit, single-handedly, he creates a California sales boomlet and over the next year it spreads out to the rest of the country. By late 1970 The Last Unicorn is finally being called an "instant modern classic," just like A Fine and Private Place and I See By My Outfit were on their release, and mass market paperback sales are strong.

Peter's name is golden again. For a little while.

Problem: He now proceeds to piss away any chance of traction by focusing mainly on screenplays (most of them adaptations that never get produced) and low-paying, low-visibility, no-distribution nonfiction projects (most of them collaborative art books or biography). In short order Peter is all but invisible again.

Bigger problem: his next novel, The Folk of the Air, doesn't come out until 1986. An 18 year gap! And while the new book is fantasy, it isn't a playful/funny/sad/furious kaleidoscope of fairytale tropes and modern cultural references, like The Last Unicorn. Instead it is all about fantastic events taking place in a perfectly normal modern setting. Pure "magical realism," in fact — but rather than coming out of a major publisher, and being marketed to the same readers who adore internationally-famous magical realists like Marquez and Calvino and Borges, the book is released by a midlevel genre house and packaged to look like “Dungeons and Dragons meets the Hippies and Hells Angels.”

The readers who love it, love it big time. But genre reviewers are disappointed. "It's good," they say, "but it's no Last Unicorn." And mainstream reviewers basically never come anywhere near.

To recap: Three novels and one significant nonfiction book published over 27 years. In four radically different styles. And none of them — save for Jim Beauchamp's 1970 efforts on behalf of The Last Unicorn— promoted worth a damn. This is not the formula for an upward sales curve.

Things get worse. Seven years later comes novel number four: The Innkeeper's Song. It's another great book and yet another brand-new flavor, different from everything before...but it comes out from a virtually invisible subsidiary publishing imprint called Roc. This time even Peter's hardcore fans barely hear that he has a new book in circulation, even after it wins the 1994 Locus and Mythopoeic Awards, and gets nominated for the Word Fantasy Award..

1995 brings another detour. For money, Peter lends his name and two stories to an original anthology from Harper& Row, Peter S. Beagle's Immortal Unicorn. It's a superior collection in terms of literary quality, but doesn't sell well enough to earn back its advance.

In 1996 we get novel number five, Peter's first YA book: The Unicorn Sonata. Now Peter is with Turner Publishing, and they do get the word out — before release the book actually goes through two different printings, totaling around 6,000 copies. The film rights sell, too, purchased by Sheryl Leach, inventor of Barney the Dinosaur. Then roughly three weeks after the first copies ship, Ted Turner sells his company to Time-Warner . . . and as part of the corporate merger, the Turner Publishing subdivision is summarily shut down. Poof! Gone. Dead as your pick of doornails. Same for The Unicorn Sonata. Not only does it completely vanish from circulation, but bookstores all over America also return any yet-unsold copies to the Turner warehouse in Atlanta.

From there Peter's publishing career shifts mainly back to Roc, because Roc won't let go of the Beagle titles they control, and other publishers say they aren't interested in new Beagle books if they can't have his backlist, too. (The one exception to this corporate groupthink is Tachyon Publications, a small startup in San Francisco. Tachyon can't afford to pay him to do an entirely new book, so they buy rights to release a collection, instead: an unusual 40-year "overview" of Peter's fiction and nonfiction, which they release in trade paperback under the name The Rhinoceros Who Quoted Nietzsche and Other Odd Acquaintances.)

Roc opts to do virtually nothing by way of promotion for Peter's next three titles — the badly-named Giant Bones (a story collection linked to The Innkeeper's Song), a new YA novel called Tamsin, and a small, tragically haunting novelette in giftbook format called A Dance For Emilia. In point of fact, Roc treats all three books like pre-orphaned children, printing small quantities and promoting them only to the already-converted, thus avoiding hard work and the need to spend advertising money.

By 2001 Roc's lack of effort is so egregious that they aren't even trying to sell most of their Beagle titles. Internal communication is horrible. One example: a representative of the editorial staff contacts Peter to tell him that Tamsin has been declared out of print. Over the phone the staffer asks if Peter wants to buy up the remaining stock, and also where to send the rights reversion letter. It is only after Peter offers the book to a new publisher that Roc's representative calls back and says "Oops, two years ago we transferred ownership of Tamsin internally to Firebird [another imprint under the Penguin umbrella]. It's not really out of print after all. Sorry about that."

In a kind of final insult to heart and pocketbook, Roc thoroughly mismanages A Fine And Private Place and The Last Unicorn, Peter's two perennials. These are valuable treasures, but Roc is content to miss all opportunities and just fill backlist bookstore reorders as they come in. When Peter appears at a high-profile literary conference in Atlanta, Roc can't be bothered to ship any of Peter's books to be signed and sold, not even with Borders doing the asking. In 2004 the animated version of The Last Unicorn comes out on DVD for the first time in America, selling 310,000 copies, and the powers that be at Roc not only don't seize this promotional opportunity, they don't even know the animated film exists. Finally, when given the chance to publish Peter's novel-length Last Unicorn sequel — a sequel to a book they know has sold millions of copies around the world — they decline to even make an offer...though they do suggest that they might be willing to consider the manuscript after it is complete.

By this time Peter is basically sunk, as far as New York corporate publishing is concerned. He is also emotionally exhausted and deep in debt. He no longer has a literary agent. And his last stab at turning things around, a deal with Simon & Schuster for a new novel, winds up going nowhere when the book is rejected as "completely uncommercial" — not because it really is uncommercial, but because the editor in charge doesn't feel that Peter is being sufficiently deferential. (That worthy has since been bounced out of S&S and is now at a much smaller regional publishing house.)

Bottom line?

 

Things Peter Did Wrong (Oh My Yes)

Peter was not an innocent through this course of events. Indeed, he was actively complicit in the long slow fade of his career. For decades his approach to his own work was ludicrously naïve and completely unbusinesslike: he trusted bad or inadequate agents, signed horrible deals, generally avoided doing publicity or going to conventions, followed his muse from one wildly different project to another without any thought to how they added up, and didn't generate a steady output of fiction. (His total writing output since 1960 has actually been quite high, if you include his screenplay and nonfiction work. But prior to 2001 novels and stories kept getting shoved onto the back burner by whatever gig would bring an immediate check.)

A friend of Peter's once observed that the problem wasn't that Peter had no business sense. It was that he had a negative business sense: if you gave him two choices which in any way involved either money or his career, he was absolutely going to pick the one that was bad for him.

 

Finding The Key

The negative contributions of most of Peter's publishers are clearly delineated above. In their defense, it should be admitted that for much of the last 45 years fantasy has been a niche market, not a major one. In context of the times, it isn't surprising that Viking walked away from Peter in 1969.

But in the last decade, market reality has completely changed. Fantasy is now huge in publishing and film, and while that change took place the major publishers with ties to Peter — Roc and Simon & Schuster — completely missed the boat. (How publishing executives could see what was happening with the Harry Potter books and not try and sell either The Last Unicorn or Tamsin to that booming audience would make a fascinating MBA studio in corporate blindness.)

Even before this cultural shift, though, publishers like Viking and Ballantine blew the opportunity that was in front of them. They could have chosen to sell Peter to both genre and mainstream audiences, since both these groups were attracted to him when he started. Instead, executives and editors and marketing/sales people looked at the fantasy content in Peter's work and assumed that it would only interest niche groups. Having made that decision they treated his books in accordance with their preconceptions, and their sales prophecies became self-fulfilling.

It is wryly amusing to note that they wouldn't have done this to any foreign "literary" author who combined elements of the realistic and the fantastic — but since Peter was homegrown they could take him less seriously. And because he was polite to a fault, and deeply averse to any sort of personal conflict, he quietly accepted this treatment and did nothing to show them they were wrong.

Stephen King, Amy Tam, Dick Francis, Elmore Leonard — these and other bestselling authors became brand names by being reliable reads. They do what they do extremely well, they produce steadily, and while they may push the boundaries of reader expectation a bit from time to time, they usually don't push too much. This makes them easy to market and, after a while, ridiculously easy to sell. Indeed, you hardly have to do any marketing or selling at all. People are primed, lined up, waiting for their next taste of the commodity. Once they know it exists, they'll jump. (I bought my copy of King's Cell exactly ten seconds after seeing it in an airport rack. I'm sure I wasn't the only one.)

Peter's books are not obviously like this. On casual survey they appear to be completely different from one another, even the ones which are linked, like Giant Bones and The Innkeeper's Song. Books this varied can't be commoditized by category or style or subject matter, or by tone of voice or perspective, the way you can with a typical brand-name author.

For most marketing and sales folks that is exactly where the analysis stops. They decide that Peter S. Beagle's big success in the ‘60s and ‘70s was a fluke, and that similar sales numbers are no longer possible. To quote the executive at Penguin USA who turned down a chance to buy Peter's sequel to The Last Unicorn, "We think of Peter Beagle as someone who writes a brilliant book every couple of years, and it sells to the same 12-14,000 people that bought the last one."

Given the evidence that executive was looking at, and the way she was analyzing it, she was absolutely right.

But back in 1969 Jim Beauchamp saw what this executive and so may others have missed. Jim figured out what kind of authorial "commodity" Peter actually was, and that's what he sold, to brilliant effect.

No one has done it since.

This is now changing. There's a huge prize to be won from looking at Peter Beagle through Jim Beauchamp's eyes. Because Jim understood that Peter's saleable "hook" is simply this: the man is a genius of the human heart.

Both parts of that insight are important to keep in mind, because both are needed to properly frame the message.

If Peter is sold as a genius — and that can be done without alienating people, because his work is that good and he is that modest, sweet, and self-deprecating — then the diversity of Peter's books becomes a positive, not a negative. Nobody in their right mind expects (or wants) a genius to repeat himself. If a reader lays money down for genius, then same-old-same-old isn't going to cut it. That reader is going to want to be taken places they've never been before, and shown things they've never seen, by someone they know they can trust.

And since Peter is a genius of the heart, they are going to want to feel things they have never felt before: complex, multi-leveled things that enlighten as well as entertain.

Stephen King can scare the hell out of people. But Peter S. Beagle can scare people and make them laugh and make them cry (plus a few other things) simultaneously. He can break hearts and throw them wide open not just in the same book, or scene, but in a single sentence.

That's a reading experience people will pay to repeat — and which can reliably be offered with each new Beagle title, no matter how different they may look on the surface.

 

The Jim Beauchamp Factor Meets "Team Beagle"

Peter has always been more prolific than he appeared to be, just from the evidence of his published fiction. His filing cabinets are stuffed to bursting with articles, essays, screenplays, teleplays, movie treatments, opera librettos, and lots of unpublished material of various lengths. The large collection of unpublished stuff stems directly from Peter's complete lack of business drive. If something didn't sell to the first place it was submitted, then good odds it got tucked away in the files or a closet and completely forgotten about.

(Peter's children's story "Gordon, the Self-Made Cat" is a perfect example. The original version was written in 1967 as a pitch to an animation company looking for movie ideas. They passed and the story got filed. It wasn't until 2001 that the piece was noticed by a friend of Peter's during a household move. Now a re-written version is available as an Amazon Short and in The Line Between; Peter is expanding the story to roughly Stuart Little-length at the request of an interested publisher; and the concept is being offered around to several major studios for possible feature-length animation.)

The upside of Peter's long descent and exile, then, is that he has a ton of great material ready to share with the world.

. . . and a whole army of Jim Beauchamps on hand to start spreading the word. Call it "Team Beagle" (and yes, there will be t-shirts).

There's me, of course. As outlined elsewhere in this issue I've made it my personal cause to get Peter the credit, recognition, and sales that he deserves. But I'm not the only one on board now. There's Kim Flournoy, a fan of Peter's who created the first web page dedicated to him and is now his official webmaster at peterbeagle.com. There's David Roudebush, Jim Lively, and John Douglas, all working with me to push Peter's work through the Conlan Press imprint. There's Jacob Weisman and Jill Roberts at Tachyon Publications. There's Neil Gaiman and Lisa Snellings-Clark and others who have taken steps to help — including thousands of fans from all over the world who have signed up to get Peter's free email newsletter, The Raven (and the subset of those fans who have specifically agreed to back him with their letters and emails and public statements). There's Gordon Van Gelder and Ellen Datlow and Gardner Dozois and Sean Wallace, all of whom have purchased new stories by Peter for their magazines and anthologies, and encouraged him to write more. There's Sharyn November at Firebird Books, who just signed Peter up for a new short novel, and William Schafer of Subterranean Press, who is providing Peter with his first real step into the limited edition market. And there's a whole slew of other folks lining up to push Peter's new and old works across the board: in books and film and theater and, in fact, pretty much every creative medium imaginable.

And there's you, if you'd like. Welcome to the Peter S. Beagle renaissance. The next few years are going to be amazing.

[Connor Freff Cochran]

illustration from on-line catalog