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April 08, 2004

Book Publishing

Dear Friedrich --

When it comes to the views about books and book publishing that I've presented at the blog, I've gotten the impression that some visitors think I'm a bit ... well, eccentric. Morbidly defeatist and pessimistic. Sick and twisted, perhaps.

In my mind, of course, I've simply been having a good time telling people what I've observed. In fact, I'm one of the cheerier people you'll ever meet; I may even someday publish a book of my own. I just see no reason to fool myself about what the process is likely to entail.

Still, it's fun to find backup. (Don't girls call this "validation"?) I recently ran across a couple of items that visitors interested in writing and publishing may find interesting. Not so coincidentally, these two pieces confirm every damn thing I've ever written here about book publishing.

Ahem. Doubt a Blowhard at your peril.

  • Here's a piece by the distinguished journalist Anne Applebaum about the mutual hostility between high-cult people and pop-cult people. "Popular culture now hates high culture so much that it campaigns aggressively against it," she writes. "High culture now fears popular culture so much that it insulates itself deliberately from it. As for the rest of us -- we're inundated with the former, often alienated from the latter." (Link thanks to Terry Teachout, here.)

  • Here's a pseudonymously-written Salon piece about what it's like to try to make a go of it as a writer of midlist books. (You'll have to accept a Salon "day pass" to read the piece, but all that means is clicking through some ads.) Moral: why not shoot yourself now instead?

And a couple of bonus tracks:

  • Here's a super-amusing q&a that Craig McDonald did with the wonderful English mystery writer Peter Lovesey.

  • Here's a decently-done animated BBC history of books.

You now know virtually everything about book publishing that it took me 15 on-the-job years to figure out. Ain't the web great?



posted by Michael at April 8, 2004


I vote for sick and twisted. Of course, that has nothing to do with the topic of books and book publishing.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on April 8, 2004 5:43 PM

So why am I on the fourth rewrite of a short story? Holding onto a novel I wrote five years ago that needs work? But you have not burst my bubble. Fiction writers are pros at rewriting reality.

Posted by: susan on April 9, 2004 9:39 AM

Susan -- Congrats on the writing. Writing can be a great pleasure -- if that weren't so, I wouldn't be blogging, god knows.

The whole getting-your-book-published process, though, is often a terrible pain, and often in fact something worse. The people who weather the process best, it seems to me, tend to be egomaniacs, professionals (academics who need to publish for the sake of tenure, professionals who are realistic about the business), or the half-a-dozen lucky people god seems to have touched with grace.

But the usual writer trying to get the usual traditional-style book published, alas, often finds the process discouraging, even hellish. (I've known a couple of good writers who actually had crackups because of it.) Which is why I urge writers who are thinking about publishing either to A) be realistic and get ready for what's likely to come, or B) publish your work yourself, either on the web or via self-publishing. Or at least to think about these options. Too many (often good and sweet-natured) writers imagine "getting publishsed" to be like getting admitted to college or something. They imagine the people in publishing to be lovely, bright, eager to serve "literature." And finally having your writing be a book -- wow, that's like being on the bookshelf and having a shot at literary immortality! Unfortunately, that's not how publishing works these days. Even though many of people in the biz are bright, sweet, and love writing, "getting published" these days is a business relationship. Either the publishing people see a bottom-line reason to partner up with you on your project or they don't. And there really isn't much more to it than that. Which can be hard on a writer, who's often invested lots of time, hope and love in his/her project. Egos get hurt, feelings get bruised, people abandon the field entirely .... Happens all the time, alas.

Though, like I say, I might give it a whirl myself someday.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on April 9, 2004 11:46 AM

I know, I know. That's why some of my best metaphors will remain in cyberspace on my weblog. But this actually gives the same self-satisfaction in being read, being appreciated--more so, in that department because of the commenting factor that is personal and immediate. And even "hard copy" publishing doesn't pay well enough to do it for the money. But a book sitting on a library shelf, or even seen for a week at Borders, or B&N, that would be nice, wouldn't it?

Posted by: susan on April 9, 2004 1:02 PM


I just read, over at Salon, Jane Austin Doe's weepy account of her mauling at the hands of the publishing industry. What a riot! The lugubrious, valedictorian tone of the thing (e.g., "for reasons beyond mortal knowing...") The cliches: "trail of tears;" "adoring fans;" "my...heart sings; "my life...brimmed with hope."

Based on this writing sample Ms. Doe shouldn't blame an obtuse publishing industry or a phelgmatic reading public for consigning her the the hell of a day job. Time to revive an old cliche:

Tell it to the Marines, girl!

Everyone who loves writing should study the history of Spanish creative writers from about 1400 to 1650. The period produced "The Book of Good Love" by Archpriest Hita, "Lazarillo de Tormes" by Anonymous, "The Celestina" by Rojas, "Don Quijote" by Cervantes and "El Buscon" by Quevedo -- vibrant, intriguing books as fresh today as when they first came out. Their authors have this in common: they all spent time in jail and/or one step ahead of the law.

Tell it to the Marines, girl!.

The publishing industry (like the music industry and Hollywood) brings a product to market and nobody knows if the market wants the product. It's a weird business model. Is there some way of making the production of books more predictable (and thus more streamlined for authors)? Do we want the book industry to be as predictable as the soap industry?

Posted by: Doug Anderson on April 9, 2004 1:22 PM

"Either the publishing people see a bottom-line reason to partner up with you on your project or they don't. And there really isn't much more to it than that. Which can be hard on a writer, who's often invested lots of time, hope and love in his/her project. Egos get hurt, feelings get bruised, people abandon the field entirely .... Happens all the time, alas.

Though, like I say, I might give it a whirl myself someday."

This reminds me of a Woody Allen joke: "Life is unending heartbreak and misery and pain...and it doesn't last anywhere near long enough!"

Posted by: annette on April 9, 2004 1:33 PM

Annette, that's right on (I love Woody Allen's work).

Doug, you're right as well. Life's tough, and it is not just in the publishing field. Acting of course comes to mind, but who goes into the field of science, let's say, without wanting to discover something but settling for a paycheck. Everyone (or almost) can write, good or bad, and thankfully with weblogs, we all can do so. It is human nature to want to be noticed, and having your name on a book cover is the ultimate for a writer. It is also a crowded field. You can't just be a great writer, you must be knock-em-dead phenomenal, have connections, work harder on getting published than you've ever worked on your manuscript, be willing to bend in half, and be standing on the X when Scottie beams you up.

So, write for yourself first. Enjoy it for what it brings you in production, not publication. If you need to take it further, do all the above, plus say a prayer and do a native heathen dance. Then, maybe...but most likely, maybe not.

Posted by: susan on April 9, 2004 3:37 PM

The sending away manuscripts and waiting to be rejected conversation is so depressing I think I'll take a pass.
But on the cheerier, or at least less angst filled topic of being misunderstood (happy guy everyone thinks is morose); my life long problem has been that at the moment I think I'm tabling a profound point out there for discussion....everyone thinks I'm making a joke. And to a certain extent I am. After all, it's only the funny that is truly serious. But by and large, the world doesn't get that. And doesn't want to get that. My personal cross to bear. Happy Easter!

Posted by: ricpic on April 9, 2004 3:52 PM

Well, like I say: I'm pretty cheery. I think the publishing thing is depressing only if you limit your vision to conventional-book-publishing. Self-publishing (whether on paper or on the web), on the other hand, has never been easier or more accessible. (I'm publishing myself with this blog, for instance, and am quite happy doing so.) And what the heck, why not try to get an agent and publish a professional book?

Doug -- That's great that they were all in jail. Good training for a writer! I wonder if the Iowa Writers Workshop knows about it. I'd even go a step further than you do where publishing's concerned. As a biz, one thing that's always characterized it (and that has driven bizpeople nuts) is that nearly every product is unique. How to run such a business sensibly? Well, now that book publishing has (8/10ths anyway) morphed into a branch of the conglomerate-media biz, there's a lot of effort going on to turn books into more product-like products. I just got back from a quick trip to the local Borders. Here are some of the books (randomly chosen) that leaped out at me:

Planning Your Garden
The Complete Home Decorator
Suzanne Sommers: The Sexy Years
Charlie Trotter Cooks at Home
Zagat Survey 2004
Atkins Essentials
Feng Shui for Dummies

These are all "product" books. Some of them have a brand (celeb, Atkins, "for Dummies"); some of them were worked out in committees by teams. None of them originated in some writer's head, alone in a garrett hoping for fame. Which isn't to say some of them aren't good books - maybe they are.

That's the direction publishing's moving in, and will only move further in. Forgive my pomposity here (15 years of following the biz soimetimes makes me pompous), but it's important for people interested in books and publishing to understand that the business is no longer what we grew up thinking of publishing as being. It's now a branch (and not a very big one) of the media biz, expected to return a decent amount of growth. Even the most visible fiction I glimpsed (Elizabeth Peters, Michael Connelly) on my Borders visit was series/genre stuff by names with bestseller potential. So: service books, brand-name books, celeb books, home-and-food-and-garden books, and fiction books that have a shot at being bestsellers -- that's a good part of what publishing's interested in making and selling these days.

Ricpic -- Funny story about the playwright Tennessee Williams. On opening night, the audience hated the serious play he'd written and was ridiculing it. An alamred stagehand came back to Tennessee and said, "Mr. Williams! They're laughing at it!" And Tennessee said, "Then it's a comedy!"

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on April 9, 2004 4:53 PM

Great Tennesee Williams quote.

Posted by: reader on April 10, 2004 1:27 AM

The peculiar thing about the publishing industry is that it seems to get only the MBAs with the least ability. For example, Thomas McCormack used to write a column (Cheerful Skeptic, I think) for Publisher's Weekly where he'd apply basic economic reasoning and show that many commonplace practices in publishing were nuts--e.g. allocating corporate overheads to the P&L statements of proposed book projects (an econ 101 error). The obsessive focus on blockbuster books is another example, since the big retailers derive a huge percentage of their profits (and much of their in-store traffic) from people's desire to buy books that not many other people are interested in. Who needs a B&N or Borders if all you care about are bestsellers? The power-law distribution of sales across titles suggests that the blockbusters (often discounted) are not where the bulk of the money is in publishing.

Posted by: steve on April 12, 2004 6:46 PM

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