March 4, 2011
I had lunch, today, with a friend, who told me about a friend who’d written a memoir. This friend of a friend had showed his memoir to an agent, and the agent told him that though the writing was terrific, he couldn’t see his way clear to representing the book because he didn’t think there was a large enough market for the book.
Market. Shmarket. Agents and editors often act as if they can predict the future. And then a small book, with a small printing comes along and knocks readers’ socks off and the book becomes a mega hit. I’m thinking of the first volume of Harry Potter. It started small. It ended up, well, bigger than big.
And, to my mind, there’s nothing wrong with small. Some small publishers have managed to find a way to control their costs, keep their print runs small, go back to reprint if a book starts selling, and sell works that otherwise would go unpublished.
I was once buying a book at my local bookstore and I overheard a publisher’s salesman talking to the owner. He was showing the owner the catalog, telling the owner about the books, making suggestions. He came to one book, told the bookstore owner, “Don’t bother with that one; we’re not getting behind that one.” I was shocked. Here was a salesman advising a bookstore owner not to buy a book that a writer had written, that the publisher had bought and published! Imagine a salesman at, say, a Ford dealer saying “We’re not getting behind this model.” He or she would be fired. Immediately.
Publishing is a crazy business. Many publishers (not all, surely) are dysfunctional. Many act like dysfunctional families. Many treat writers poorly. Many excuse the mistakes they make in bringing books to readers by blaming their mistakes on writers. (I know of books that have been reviewed well before publication; I know of books that have not gotten second printings after the first printing sold out almost immediately; I know of books that have been handed on to editors after the editor who bought the book left and the second editor deliberately decided to “kill” the book because it competed with a book he himself had bought; I know of a book that was mistakenly shredded and never reprinted even though its author had received prizes.)
And there are publishers – editors at publishing houses – who are heroic. Editors who buck the tide. Editors who take chances on books. Editors who help writers do the best work they can. Editors who actually read the books they’re publishing. I’ve been lucky enough to have many of these. But from what I’ve heard, it’s harder for these heroic editors to survive.
The problem with the kinds of rejection letters that agents and editors ordinarily write is that in order to justify their judgment (which can be dead wrong), they make their letters sound as if they’re authoritative. And therein lies the challenge for the writer. Because writers often read rejection letters as if the author of the letter is stating fact even though the author of the letter is only stating opinion; then the writer loses heart; the writer decides to stop work, abandon the project. But in the words of a former esthetics professor of mine, “This is a good book” often boils down to “I like this.” That is, judgments about works are often worded as “truths” about the work rather than opinions about the work. When an editor predicts, for example, that a book like this won’t sell, what is that editor saying? That she can predict the future. Do you believe that she can? I don’t. What she really means is that on the basis of what she knows about the industry, she’s judging that not many copies of this book will sell. That’s a very different statement.
It’s a hard time for writers, yes, indeed it is. Publishers are selling fewer and fewer books. There are more and more writers chasing publishers. Fewer and fewer publishers are willing to take chances. A writer’s sales record is out there for everyone to see; a writer is “blamed” for her or his poor sales; but a publisher takes credit for publishing a book well if the book sells well.
Still, it’s a good time for writers too because of the development of self-publishing. Go the round with publishers; get rejected. That’s not the end of the story now. In this day and age, you can always self-publish. Even formerly well-published writers who’ve sold their work to big presses in the past are doing so.
John Edgar Wideman, that fantastic author of Brothers and Keepers, published his Briefs in 2010 with Lulu.com. When I heard the book reviewed on NPR, the commentator made a special point of saying that with the publishing industry looking for mega hits, it seemed to be making sense for writers of Wideman’s stature to turn to self-publishing for some of their projects. And let’s not forget that Virginia Woolf self-published every one of her books, from her third novel on, throughout her life. Why did she? She didn’t want anyone to control her work. Her books, then, turned out to be just as experimental as she chose. She didn’t have to deal with editors. And she reinvented the genre of fiction in each of her works. Can you just hear an editor telling her, “But Virginia, we’d really like something closer to Mrs Dalloway,” after she handed in, say, The Years.
And while I’m talking about Woolf, that sweetheart of backlists, it’s important to remember that several of Woolf’s titles only sold in the hundreds of copies, not even in the thousands. Her husband Leonard Woolf’s publishing philosophy was simple, and it paid off. Publish quality. Don’t worry about how many copies a book sells. Keep the writer in print until s/he establishes a readership, no matter how long it takes. Then the writer’s works are money in the bank for the press. That’s what he – the business manager of his and Virginia’s press – did for Virginia Woolf’s work. It paid off. Orlando, relatively late in Woolf’s career, became a bestseller. And when it did, all of her other works started to sell. Imagine Woolf’s fate as a writer now? She wouldn’t have been able to sell the next work she wrote after the one that only sold a few hundred copies. And what then? All those magnificent novels might never have been written.
But times have changed in the publishing world since then. There are perilous few visionaries like Leonard Woolf around.
I have before me a sheaf of rejection letters from books I’ve written. I’m paraphrasing what was said. But these are the kinds of letters that a writer gets. These are the kinds of letters that we read and file. And then we make a plan of how to move on.
“I can’t see us publishing this book. It’s not anything like what we publish.”
“The writer treats the subject differently from the way the subject has been treated before and so I can’t see how we can market this.”
“The writing is wonderful, but we can’t figure out how to publish this because the writer doesn’t have a visible platform.” (I’m not sure what that means.)
“It’s a hard market and I’m not sure we could find readers for this book.”
“It’s not a good fit for our list.”
“The book is about ordinary people leading quiet lives; we like books about extraordinary people overcoming great obstacles.”
One of my books received over fifty rejection letters before I placed it. So when I see writers “folding” after one rejection, I don’t get it. I don’t understand why a writer who’s worked hard on a book would give up after one rejection, after ten rejections, after forty, even fifty. And now, with self-publishing a possibility, there’s no reason to ever give up on a work. There’s no reason why anything we write that’s worthwhile can’t be published.