Sara Nelson, a great supporter of writers and libraries, is the former Editor-in-Chief of Publishers Weekly, an industry guru and the author of So Many Books, So Little Time (Putnam, 2003)
Here’s a joke about Hollywood that – while kind of gross – I really love. A screenwriter returns to his home to find his wife slumped, bloody and beaten, on the front porch.
“Oh, honey,” he says, horrified. “What happened? Who did this to you?”
The woman can barely speak, but she tries to lift her head, and croak. “Your aaaagent,” she murmurs.
“What?” says the husband.
“Your aaaaagent.. . . your aaaagent. . .”
The man suddenly snaps to attention – and is thrilled: “My agent came to the house?” he says.
As I said, it’s a joke about Hollywood, but really, it could almost as easily be a joke about the publishing business. Everybody hates agents, the thinking goes: they’re distant, unapproachable, they don’t return phone calls, they don’t do what they promise, and they certainly don’t “come to the house.” And while we’re at it, everyone hates publishers, too — even those writers gifted or lucky enough (and most would-be authors think most published authors are usually more lucky than gifted) to get book contracts from venerable houses complain that their editors don’t edit, their publicists don’t publicize, and – most importantly – their books don’t sell very well. It’s gotta be the publishing business’s fault, right?
Right, maybe, sometimes and wrong, W-R-O-N-G wrong other times. And while it is true that the book business doesn’t do much to help itself with its “appearance of stupidity,” especially when it rushes out questionable books by questionable authors of questionable responsibility (That Holocaust memoir about the girl at the fence at Buchenwald, anyone?), that’s rarely the whole story. Here’s a great rarely admitted truth about the process of publishing a book: sometimes it’s the writer who doesn’t want editing. And sometimes, too, as the great editor Nan Talese once reminded me, sometimes the editor has done all s/he can do with a manuscript and his/her corporate overlords are demanding (usually for business purposes) that it be put on a list before it’s really ready. As for publicists and sales – well, surely some practitioners are better than others, but with the shrinking review market, and the very real (and not so forgivable) tendency of book people to be a bit slow in adapting to new (i.e. Internet) means of publicizing books. . .well, it’s a slippery slope. And don’t get me started on the problems in bookstores: there are a lot fewer of them lately, if you haven’t noticed, so it’s not a big surprise to me that it’s hard for most books to make their mark.
Does this mean writers should stop writing, publishers should stop publishing, publicists should stop publicizing? No, of course not. And those of us in the publishing world would do well to re-think how we do things, from the moment of acquisition on. But beyond that – and “that” is many, many things that can and will be discussed further in this and other spaces – we’re just going to have to live with this love/hate relationship. . .and keep addressing the real question that’s usually at the bottom of the public’s distrust. To wit: How come that guy John Grisham gets publishing when I can’t?