Wednesday, April 27, 2005

A Baker’s Dozen: Mad Max Author Survey

“For me, it’s always been about the writing, and that’s what has saved me in the end.”—Patrick, novelist

In the very early days of BookAngst101, I asked writers to share with me their publication histories. 13 authors replied to my survey, giving frank and detailed accounts—not many happy tales here, I’m sorry to say—and then generously answered my follow-up questions. I’d like to thank Keith, Kitty, Lynn, Richard, Patrick, Allison, Rachel, Calvin, Elliot, Jesse, Mary,Willa and Carla* for being so trusting, and so forthcoming. (It’s especially valuable, I think, because your backgrounds represent a perfect cross-section of the business: writers of fiction and nonfiction, across the span of literary-to-commercial; adult books, childrens' and YA; published by major New York publishers, university presses and a variety of small regional presses....)

I’d intended to use your experiences as a database from which to sketch out a composite of the writing-and-publishing life. But as I sifted through the details I came to see that there weren’t a lot of larger lessons to be drawn that we didn’t mostly know already:

Editorial turnover breaks authors’ hearts and leaves them compromised in ways the consequences of which are sometimes never undone... Overwhelmed and/or inexperienced publicists—the closest thing to “marketing in action” that many authors ever come into contact with—rarely seem to be up to, or invested in, the task of promoting mid-list authors... On the other hand, be careful what you wish for: almost to a person, these authors came to the conclusion that the book tour, on virtually any scale, is not simply a waste of time & energy but, in fact, an exercise in public humiliation... To top things off, it appears there really is a special ring in hell for the nitwit radio and newspaper personnel who purport to be working the “book beat” yet fail to read the books (or sometimes even the press material) by the authors they’re interviewing.

These are all real and significant concerns, but I suspect they’re not much of a surprise to professionals on either side of the aisle. It’s taken me rather a long time to recognize that the larger value of your replies isn’t so much in the aggregate “data” they provide, but in the narrative particularities of your experiences, and in the way you expressed them.

Seven months, in fact. In retrospect I wish I’d crafted my “survey” so as to invite a more discursive approach: I asked for nugget-sized details and got them, but the form of my questions elicited replies that, in some cases, don’t translate well for a larger narrative. And so, while pieces of all 13 interviews have informed various aspects of this blog for months now, and excerpts from many will appear in a series of “survey recap posts” I'll run over the next couple of weeks, fewer than half of your replies have translated effectively into stand-alone entries. I apologize to those of you whose stories aren’t reflected here, or in much depth, despite your having taken the time and effort to give such full reports. But seven months is too long, already, to have held onto to these; and it seems it’s better to put out some of these narratives than to keep them all on ice because of my inability to frame the others in a fashion that does you justice.

Watch this space for more Author Survey posts in the near future.


P.S. Don't forget, folks--we're still accepting applications for the Rant Room. space is going fast, though, so get yours in soon!

*For the record: with the exception of self-proclaimed “Paperback Writer” Lynn Viehl (whose response to the survey was posted back in January), all the other writers are presented by alias, and in some cases with a detail or two changed, in order to safe-guard anonymity.


Lawrence said...

I've written three books with the same house, and I've always had the same approach: expect nothing from them and then you'll always be surprised.

TLG said...

So, so bitter :) But I DO appreciate the honesty, even if it's discouraging to me. But then again, if I were a Sim, my self-esteem levels would not only be in the 0% range, but I'd be a dead Sim from it.

It's a tough field, but that's been my experience in general with the arts (an entire lifetime ago, I was an actual professional thespian)... either you're at the top of the food chain, or you're poking your own eyeballs out with angst and anxiety.

It's a life-lesson that keeps getting beaten into my head... you'd better sure as hell love what you're doing, otherwise all the bumps in the road will make you batty.

Bob Liter said...

So much bitterness among autors about publishers.
Maybe I'm lucky. Or just stupid. I'm a retired journalist who had big ideas about being published and getting rich when I finished my first novel.
Now I'm working on my tenth and I pretend I don't give a damn if the print publishers want it or not. All of my novels have been published by an internet publisher. I have some readers. I'm not depending on the income to survive. So there, you big ass New York City dumbos.

Libertarian Girl said...


Respectfully, I've gotta ask: why must you refer so cruelly to this author (or the other "bitter" writers you cite) as "big-ass New York City dumbos"? First of all, many many authors have no connection to New York except for the fact that their publishers and/or agents reside here. Secondly, the pejorative reeks, methinks, of sour grapes. You say you "pretend" not to care about whether mainstream publishers want to publish you, which tells us that, had you your druthers, you'd prefer it if they DID want to publish you. Could it be that your response to "Keith" here has to do with your own resentment--as though he had some special advantage that you lack?

I can tell you, confidently, that Keith's sole advantage was--and is--the high quality of his writing. No big-shot literary-insider connections, no hotshot MFA program credentials. Just good writing. And it was this, alone--the quality of the writing--that precipitated Keith's initial good fortune.

Sorry, Bob: but it seems to me you're guilty of the same bitterness--toward writers who've perhaps been more fortunate than you--that you accuse your fellow writers of expressing toward their publishers. You have your own experience of how much disappointment comes with being a writer, yet instead of considering the commonality of your experiences, you use the opportunity for a little target practice at another's expense

One last point: Keith's purpose here wasn't solely to bitch about his publisher, but also to offer up his own experience as a cautionary tale. Going public with such heartbreak is neither an easy nor self-flattering thing to do. I applaud Keith for being so forthcoming; his hope was that there might be something here to inform others in such a way as to avoid, or anticipate, the potential for a similar outcome. This is mine, too--plus a wish that, with responses of a more empathic/sympathetic nature, a dialog of this sort might recreate for writers everywhere some sense of shared experience, a virtual/ spiritual community for those involved in an occupation whose solitary nature can often make it hard to keep one's morale up.

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A VOCATION OF UNHAPPINESS [Courtesy Georges Simenon (1903-1985)]

"Writing is considered a profession, and I don't think it is a profession. I think that everyone who does not need to be a writer, who thinks he can do something else, ought to do something else. Writing is not a profession but a vocation of unhappiness. I don't think an artist can ever be happy."

PRACTICAL MARKETING [Courtesy Zornhau, 2005]

"They should put the 1st couple of pages up in subway adverts. Having read them several times, you'd feel compelled to try the book - if it was any good."

PLATE OF SHRIMP [Courtesy Alex Cox’s REPO MAN, circa 1984]

"A lot of people don't realize what's really going on. They view life as a bunch of unconnected incidences and things. They don't realize that there's this like lattice of coincidence that lays on top of everything. I'll give you an example, show you what I mean. Suppose you're thinking about a plate of shrimp. Suddenly somebody will say like "plate" or "shrimp" or "plate of shrimp" out of the blue, no explanation. No point in looking for one either. It's all part of a cosmic unconsciousness."