Got a Book Idea? Good Luck with That!

Dec 1, 2012

At the end of the semester in our creative writing classes at my college, we talk about the publication process and encourage our students to try it. “Seek a wider audience!” we urge them. “Send your stuff out!” Some of us even make a ritual out of the sending, marching as a class to a campus mailbox, each student clutching a manila envelope with a hard-won final manuscript inside—an essay or short story or a few poems. As the mailbox jaw clunks shut, we applaud each other for hard work and courage. At least that’s what we used to do. These days most journals and magazines are going digital. It’s harder to make a satisfying ritual out of hitting “send” on the electronic submission site.

The world of magazines and literary journals is a weird enough fantasyland to navigate, but when it comes to telling students about the book business, I hardly know where to begin. Publishing is changing so rapidly, even industry insiders are struggling to understand what’s happening. People outside the business—including aspiring writers—tend to imagine that it’s all very romantic. You labor in obscurity for years, honing your craft, sending out manuscripts. If you work hard and wait patiently, one day you’ll get that lucky break, and some wise and keen-eyed editor will discover you. After that, your career is simple. You concentrate on butt-to-chair, holing up in your chilly garret and tapping away at your laptop, producing brilliant profundity at regular intervals—and your publisher takes care of everything else. Editing, production, marketing, distribution, collecting the profits: don’t worry, dear author, we professionals will take care of all that for you. You just go back to your writing.

Alas, that narrative may have been possible in yon yesteryear, but it’s rare if not laughable today. These days, the author is a “brand” with a “platform.” Experts like my friend Jana Riess warn aspiring authors that they need to develop their own audience before even bothering to approach a publisher or an agent. Don’t tell a prospective publisher, “I’m happy to do interviews,” says Jana, because that reveals your diva fantasies and your ignorance of market realities.

Jana’s just delivering the bracing truth here. These days, writing is the easy part. Rev up your marketing and public relations savvy, authors, because you’re going to need it: to research the market, write a book proposal, make your own media contacts, set your own speaking and traveling schedule (on your dime), purchase your own books and resell them at your speaking gigs, blog daily to connect with your audience, and maintain a public persona into perpetuity. At least, if you want your books to sell. It’s up to you.

If an author has to do all that, you might be wondering, why even bother with a publisher? Good question, and lots of people are asking it. Promotion tasks have been thrust upon authors at an increasing rate in the last decade or two as publishers flounder to stay afloat against the tsunami waves of the digital revolution. “Legacy publishers” have merged into a few behemoths, swallowing and digesting small houses (and each other) like great whites in a shrinking shark tank. Meanwhile, more authors are becoming DIY-ers. Why bother with the big gatekeeper publishers when you can act as your own general contractor, outsourcing every task—editing, production, even distribution—and delivering your book directly to readers by your own marketing elbow grease?

On the one hand, this is terrific. As agent and digital book developer Jason Ashlock optimistically asserts, “The author’s all that matters now—the author and the reader. Everybody in the middle is in a period of redefinition.” For an author who knows what he or she is doing, it’s easier than ever to get “content” to readers, to interact with readers, to produce books nimbly. You don’t need to wait to be discovered by the fickle gatekeepers. You can produce your work and try it out directly on the public.

On the other hand, especially for writers who don’t know exactly what they’re doing, there are landmines everywhere. The scam artists are on the prowl, offering to help authors with all those bothersome tasks beyond churning out a crappy first draft—everything for a fee. They prey on every author’s most tender weakness: vanity. “Getting published” and “seeing your work in print” is still an irresistible ego-thrill for would-be authors, and thus it is easily exploited. Check out this horrifying post by writer David Gaughran about Simon & Schuster’s recent deal with Author Solutions, a publishing “support” business that has apparently been busily ripping off writers for thousands of dollars a piece. Scroll down and read the comments if you are prepared to be rendered cynical about today’s publishing innovations.

Despite the ugly, I’m intrigued and energized by the possibilities of digital publishing. I can imagine splendid digital textbooks for literature classes, for example, with video clips of various Hamlets’ “to be or not to be” performances a click away from Shakespeare’s text and hyperlinked notes. I can imagine beautiful books of essays or poetry accompanied by art or photography—previously dismissed out of hand by a traditional publisher as too costly to print—delivered digitally and enjoyed on screen, no problem. And I wonder if e-publishing, e-readers, and print-on-demand might also be a great gift to academic and religious publishers. After all, academics and—help us—religious academics produce some esoteric stuff. I’m already amazed at the paperbacks that come across my desk. Somebody actually printed a couple thousand copies of Hark the Glad Sound: Lutheran Hymnody on the Great Plains, 1859-83 and sent it out for review?  (Not a real book, but it could be.) With e-books, we academics can burrow happily into our esoterica, make it available to fellow weirdos, and no publisher will have to pause at the thought of printing costs. Not that we academics ever worried much about trivial matters like costs and sales anyway.

I’m not too worried about losing books in all this upheaval. We’ll still have hardcovers and paperbacks. The codex is just too handy to go away, and people naturally find physical objects appealing. We may see more and different formats, though, and that’s a good thing. Long essays, novellas, multi-author poetry collections, cross-genre things, general-reader-oriented anthologies. These will all be more feasible with e-books and print-on-demand. Nor am I worried that we’ll run out of good writers. My current writing students remind me that every generation will produce a new batch of talent, whatever the grim realities of the industry.

Our most urgent need, now and in the future, is for what Jason Ashlock calls “curating.” With big houses pressured to produce safely profitable book-like products and, meanwhile, a self-publishing frenzy akin to the California Gold Rush—how the heck are ordinary readers supposed to find the good writers among all the posers? Exactly. And what about serious writers’ perennial need for a trusted and experienced editorial eye? Good editors used to develop talent into greatness; and editors, reviewers, bookstore owners, and librarians used to vet authors for us. Some still do, but the traditional gatekeeping, development, and assessment functions are very much up for grabs.

So individuals or entities who can establish themselves as reliable discerners of the Good—in fiction, poetry, in every genre and in academic work of all kinds—could potentially become powerful cultural players. What form will they take? I hope that the small publishing houses still surviving out there will consider this curating role their most solemn trust going forward. And I hope that other good discernment systems will arise. I wonder if I should be encouraging our undergraduate English majors to consider a career as Curator in the New Republic of Words?

I have published books on motherhood, Christian spirituality, and language in worship. I write regularly about all sorts of topics for The Twelve, and I teach literature and writing at Calvin College, where I have served on the faculty since 1996.

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