Control Tower

A Frank Chat with Sex at Dawn Coauthor Christopher Ryan

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What's it like these days to be the people who wrote the book on the science of nonmonogamy? The New York Times best seller Sex at Dawn was published four months ago, and since then, coauthors Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá have received a lot of attention for their book. It's not surprising—Ryan and Jethá have woven physiology, archaeology, primate biology, and anthropology into a controversial theory: Humans are not naturally inclined to be monogamous. People can choose to be in lifelong monogamous commitments, but long-term fidelity is difficult for Homo sapiens.

The notion that most folks in monogamous relationships feel attraction to other people, even if they don't act on it, doesn't seem like new, shocking information to me. But it's an idea that troubles some people, and when I sat down with Barcelona-based Ryan on his recent visit to Seattle, he told me how people's emotional response to the book is creating a subtle kind of censorship.

"It's been a real roller coaster," Ryan says. "The state of publishing now is so dysfunctional. There's been extreme enthusiasm from the readers, but our publisher still isn't pushing distribution of the book. I've been to six big bookstores here in the States and still haven't found our book in stock! It seems maybe someone at HarperCollins isn't into the idea of the book, or the buyers for the big chains aren't into it, so there's resistance somewhere between where the books get printed and the people who are trying to buy it. I think there may be some Christian-fundamentalist craziness somewhere along the line holding back widespread distribution. Most of our sales are through Amazon. This book tour I'm on—we're paying for this. Our publisher didn't support the idea. Eventually, after we arranged free national media support and booked events from Seattle to Manhattan, they agreed to throw in $500. So mainstream media is very enthusiastic, but our own publisher is pretty lackadaisical about it."

Is it possible that some of the book industry's internal ambivalence arose because Ryan and Jethá did something uncommon in books about the psychology of sex—they refused, even under pressure from editors, to give any how-to-save-your-marriage advice? Ryan agrees. "Cacilda and I very consciously decided we weren't going to write a prescriptive book. We're resistant to giving advice without knowing people. People and relationships are so complex—we don't have much patience for cookie-cutter, one-size-fits-all advice."

It's easy to tell Ryan has been living abroad for 20 years. I laughed and told him, "Oh, no, this is America. We don't do nuance and context here. Our sex, our politics—everything is black and white."

I asked Ryan about what their next book might be, and he said, "We're thinking about a survey book, a study of the way different people around the world integrate long-term emotional intimacy with erotic intimacy. At this point, I'm thinking self-publishing might make a lot of sense." recommended


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Man With Hat 1
Self publishing is the way to go for just about every form of art these days. There is little sense in paying the doorman when there's another door, albeit a smaller, and more difficult-to-squeeze-through door just a few feet away.

I'm really looking forward to reading this book as soon as the queue for holds at the library dies down. Seriously.
Posted by Man With Hat on November 4, 2010 at 6:04 PM · Report this
Authors of less controversial books have pretty much the same complaints. Gone are the days when most authors, especially new ones, can expect support from their publishers -- advertising, travel expenses, serious bookstore placement efforts, anything.

Christopher, I would keep on the publisher's case anyway in case something shakes loose. Especially when time comes for the paperback edition. Fer chrissake, this book made it onto the NY Times bestseller list (top 30) for a few weeks.

And when negotiating with the publisher about your second book, I'd demand better treatment in the contract if they want the book at all. Do you have an agent who knows the inside of this biz and can negotiate for you?

Alan M.
Polyamory in the News

Posted by alan7388 on November 5, 2010 at 11:15 AM · Report this
P.S.: Chris, you did know before you signed up with Harper Collins that it's owned by Rupert Murdoch, right?

Alan M.
Posted by alan7388 on November 5, 2010 at 11:20 AM · Report this
In Europe, big book chains stock the book.
Posted by quizz on November 5, 2010 at 2:16 PM · Report this
I work in the printing/publishing field and have to say that a lot of the printing of any book takes place in areas where the subject of any book is suspect. There are a lot less printers of books these days and they are very susceptible to current political/social perceptions/ideologies. Hundreds of jobs, much less millions of dollars are at stake.

My point is that there are MANY different factors that effect the outcome of any author. Including but not restricted to how or where the tome is published/printed.

Not to mention the corporate pukes. Just sayin.
Posted by OHARMA@ATT.NET on November 6, 2010 at 9:34 PM · Report this
Just to echo you. I'm an astronomer and one of the best resources I've found on astronomical data analysis is a self-published book! I can't cite it because its not got an ISBN number!
Posted by Lorne on November 8, 2010 at 12:54 PM · Report this
I have a book with Collins--they gave the first one in the series okay but non-wonderful support. After it sold very well, the second one is getting a lot more publicity love. I've been on both sides of the fence (as author and editor), and it's just really hard for a publisher to give all their books the love they deserve. Once one succeeds, suddenly you're on someone's radar.
Posted by AnathemaT on November 8, 2010 at 4:08 PM · Report this
The authors of "Sex at Dawn" actually went further than not offering "how to save your traditional marriage" advice; near the end, in the section, "Everybody Out of The Closet", they urge us to explore non-traditional relationships, including those usually called polyamorous. We Americans might pride ourselves on our mighty First Amendment, but we have a hard time practicing it. (Kind of like monogamy...) Thomas Paine's "The Age of Reason", which mocked organized religion with the full force of Paine's considerable wit, got him enormous amounts of hatred here, even though we supposedly have freedom of religion in our First Amendment as well. Radical and dangerous ideas will always receive bitter opposition, no matter what the stated vanities of the listeners have for their supposed open-mindedness.

Thanks to Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá for writing such a great, original book, and to L'Etranger for giving it even more favorable publicity.
Posted by tensor on November 9, 2010 at 7:53 PM · Report this
My first book was published the traditional way, and when I pointed out to the publisher that the producer of a documentary movie on the same topic offered joint marketing, my publisher said, "No, the book has to sell itself." I self-published my second book and I'm much happier with it. But be careful, you can lay out a lot of money to a book producer and get nothing in return.
Posted by Tomhat on November 11, 2010 at 3:41 PM · Report this
You isn't *always* a Puritan-led conspiracy.

I mean, maybe it is, but honestly, sex sells--the more titillating and controversial the viewpoint, the better! And rightly or wrongly, nonmonogamous relationships are still pretty tittilating to most Americans. So it could just be that the book isn't expected to be much of a success for other reasons. Just saying.
Posted by Mirror on November 11, 2010 at 8:08 PM · Report this

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