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February 06, 2007


Wow, that's bad news about the distributor. Can you see now why I'm not perhaps as gung-ho about publishing a book as I should be? I grew up with this stuff, listening to my mother's travails with commercial and university presses. Her best/worst break was to have a book accepted by her favorite publisher, Dodd Mead, only to see the publisher go bankrupt a few months later. Heartbreaking. And the whole thing with reviews, or lack thereof - deeply frustrating that the labor of years can go virtually ignored by all but a few thousand grateful readers.

I still think it's worth it, but it's very important to go into it with both eyes open and realistic expectations. I think I was fairly well prepared for all but the bankruptcy, but others were very optimistic - it's easy to get seduced by that. You have to do it because you want to, and because you believe in the worth of the book for whatever readership it gets.

Very introspective! The bit about the Episcopal priest was quite touching. I would one day get to read your book.

What an eye-opening and sweet post.

My father is 83; he and his friends -- perhaps his generation -- are so much more likely to pick up the phone like that.

First things first: that's a great photo! My god, you've got an eye Beth.

That's wretched news about the publisher; they seem like good folks. I'm sorry to hear it.

Somewhere, luckily, I lost my illusions about "making it" as a writer. Very luckily. I saw what the difference was between what I wanted to achieve in my writing, and what the market was interested in. No, it's not as simple as saying "write only to please yourself." After all, there's a tradition you as a writer respond to, there's a community of other writers (mostly long dead) that you have to earn your place in. You're in this conversation with Homer and Samuel Johnson and Beckett and Milosz. You're the little squirt who's been invited to the grown-ups' tables. All kinds of rules apply in terms of what works and what doesn't. It takes experience (and OK, here, I'm just guessing) to really know which rules to break. But you're at the table anyway. It's a privilege to be there.

The publication hoopla is just a whole other thing, out there in a strange world of its own. It has more in common with the making of sausages and with Walmart storerooms than with the writing. That's why they call it an industry. What it does is that it feeds into the writer's insecurities (after all, we write in order to be read, and the industry promises us readers). It tangles up the already tangled strands of fame-hunger and ego and expectation. It's hard to let go of the idea, drilled into us since the ambition first stirred within, that fame marches with good writing as the left boot marches with the right. When people describe someone as a "successful writer" they usually mean something having to do with money. It's nonsense. Success is when you hit the thing true, in such a way that those who get it get it, and those who don't don't. There's nothing wrong with money, but it's a different thing. Ditto with prizes. They're definitely ok if you win. But success is when, with all your senses alert, and your ego in check, you can see that what you've made has answered properly to what you were given. Anyone who's had glimpses of it knows what a wild and enlivening feeling that is. You find that that's the right hunger. Yes, I know I'm preaching to the choir here--heck, I'm preaching to the college of cardinals. :)

I'm currently writing a book--the one I've been serializing on my blog. It will probably find a form in paper and a place in bookshops someday--as is about to happen with my previous book--but if I should ever think that's the measure of the book's success, if I forget that the real prize is the silent interaction between my words and the private reader, well then I'll deserve all the samsara that the thing drags in with it. And, really, why go through all that, when there are rewards like the kind you had, Beth, when the priest called you and thanked you for your work? If that ever happened to me, I'd say: nunc dimittis.

"Success is when you hit the thing true, in such a way that those who get it get it, and those who don't don't."

Thank you so much for writing this. As much as I "know" it, I still need to be reminded. The end of your comment brought tears to my eyes.

But I won't go all mushy on you now! Just - thanks.

Beth, I can echo all of the above and my own experience in the publishing arena coincides too.In recent years, so-called market forces have made the publishing industry more or less indistinguishable from the Walmarts, the supermarketeering, and authors are just another product lined up on shelves along with shampoos and fizzy drinks and instant foods. It wasn't always like this. A highly respected literary agent who's been around a long time recently confided that she wants to blow her brains out when she sees what the bookstores are touting in their "three for two" sales pitches and what is happening in general in the publishing world. No wonder many authors decide to take the self-publishing route even if it means playing the David role to the Goliaths ruling the scene, and there are no classes in slingshot expertise. Still, when something happens like your phone call from the priest, and comments from people who "get it", who respond to the work you've done and take it to their hearts, and who are with you, conversing with you, then it all makes sense and it's worth sticking with it. Carrying on, planning the next book, writing it, and the one after that. I know you'll do this and the audience is there, waiting.

Then there's the brave new world of Print-on-Demand and digital publishing. Amazon uses it now but I forget to what extent. I think Cornell is leading in this area with some spiffy software. In theory, self-publishing is an easy option. Thge warehouse space is freed up for the digital print shop. (I attended a lecture on this topic last month but I don't remember much) here is a link to Penn State Press' Metalmark Books, a digital print-on-demand project - http://www.psupress.psu.edu/books/titles/0-271-02752-5.html

They are reprinting the works of a well known and long dead local (Pa.) folklorist, Henry Shoemaker.

I suggested your book for purchase last summer for this Big Ten research library but see no evidence of an order...will bring it up again.

There are some very positive aspects to this way of publishing but whoever decides to go down this road needs to be prepared to take on a big workload that is going to encroach on their time, energy, mental and financial resources. Being one's own PR and salesperson, unless you happen to have thick skin and the requisite chutzpah, isn't fun. Taking "The God Interviews" round to a few bookshops lately one bookseller said dismissively "ANYONE can publish with POD, why should I take a book that hasn't passed the test of being accepted by a mainstream publisher?"

Thank you Natalie, thank you Sylph.

The answer to that bookseller is "if that's your attitude, then wait ten years and see what the book-selling industry looks like." Who would have predicted the plight that newspapers currently find themselves in? And what was the rationale earlier on? "No news that hasn't passed the test of being vetted by a major newspaper can be considered real news." In a few short years, blogs and online, alternative news websites are completely changing that perception. Distribution and sales of all kinds of published materials are going to change dramatically - they already have - and although we don't see yet quite how it's going to shake out, the upheaval is inevitable. The big-publishing industry is driven by money, not quality - which is not to say that there are wonderfully talented people and insightful editors who are still trying to make sure the cream rises to the top. But the consolidations have made it so that each book published has to recoup so much investment (and so much overhead expense) that publishers can't take risks with creativity or books that appeal to narrow markets. I feel incredibly fortunate that someone did believe in my book enough to back it, but I am also firmly committed to working toward strong alternatives, both in the realm of independent publishing, and web-based distribution of written work and images. When I get discouraged, I try to think of all the great work in decades past that never saw the light of day, because it was created before this technology! It's hard work, but as writers and artists we are actually living in an exciting time.

i surfed in here from Teju's blog. sorry about the distributer. The few years that I worked in publishing (a very small independent press in NY) disillusioned me. It is so political and so market driven. My favourite thing to do, as an editor, was to go through the "slush pile." Everyone thinks that was a bit sadistic, but that's really where I found some of the best stuff--not that we could accept very many of them since we had very narrow specifications. So, i spent a lot of my work time, on the sly, writing rejection letters with lots of individual feedback, rather than just slapping the form letter in their SASEs. I was very young and very idealistic. If I had stayed in the field, I probably would have soon given that up--it's not a very practical use of time. But, those moments of actual connection with a text and those times when I got to work with an author to shape their novels were my favourite parts of the job. Having to work with wretched material that the publisher accepted/commissioned because of the "market" were some of my least favourite. Life took me in another direction when I got a fellowship to go back to Nigeria for a few years and then I went into academia, but i do sometimes miss publishing. Despite it's nasty points, there's something wonderful about being part of the process of making a book.

Talatu-carmen, welcome and thanks so much for coming over from Teju's, where I've enjoyed and appreciated your thoughtful comments too. I wonder how many sensitive, idealistic people like yourself have been driven out of publishing by the economic dynamics of the business? It makes me grateful for the web where someone like me can edit work at qarrtsiluni, for example, or comment on a talented writer's work, and actually have a chance of being encouraging and helpful while the person also has a chance to have their work read and appreciated. And it works in reverse for me, too.

I will be silent on the state of publishing, and the persistent narrowing distribution channels. But my silence speaks volumes.... When I've led writing workshops, I prefer to talk about the process and the craft and all that good stuff. Participants are ever impatient to discuss publishing--a lot less fun for me because I don't want to deflate their hopes.

Instead of ranting, I'd rather encourage everyone to read Beth's book. As one who was directly involved in some of the events described, I was most impressed with the accuracy and the grace of her representation.

Margaret, thank you so much for your comment and for your very kind words about "Going to Heaven." I'm delighted to know about your blog too, which I'll bookmark, and filled with curiosity about how you were involved and what your feelings are about these events in Episcopalianism and Anglicanism, since clearly you spend a good deal of time in England, and writing about the U.K. and its traditions.

As for publishing - yes, your silence does speak volumes since you have been a published author many times over. I think it is so much more important to write than to be published, and try to encourage people to express themselves. I'm not discouraged about my own work, since it has definitely found an audience. What's happening to the industry is bad, though, and important for aspiring writers to understand if they have their hearts set on publication as a measure of success - which I don't necessarily feel it is.

Hi Beth, yes I'm sorry to hear about the complex picture of publishing and distribution now affecting your book. I'm glad to say that Amazon.co.uk have copies and I have ordered a few as I'm worried now about not getting it in the future! Panic buying! I'm very much looking forward to reading it and discussing it with friends. I do hope the book finds another course. I guess writers prepare themselves for the process of writing the book and negotiating with publishers but not for protracted and endless complications afterwards. It doesn't feel like a good use of energy at all. But it may be worth it in the end.

Hi! Thanks so much for the comment, and for ordering copies of my book...I'm trying my best to be philosophical about it and to look on the bright side. Sometimes that's easier than others, but by and large I'm happy I wrote it and that it's out there doing some good.

I can't tell you how happy I am to hear from you, and to hear that your blog has been spotted again - I just got that news today and haven't had a chance to look. I've missed you.

Thank you....

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Who was Cassandra?

  • In the Iliad, she is described as the loveliest of the daughters of Priam (King of Troy), and gifted with prophecy. The god Apollo loved her, but she spurned him. As a punishment, he decreed that no one would ever believe her. So when she told her fellow Trojans that the Greeks were hiding inside the wooden horse...well, you know what happened.