Tuesday, November 17, 2009

A View from the World of Book Publishing

In September, Daniel Menaker wrote an illuminating essay about trade publishing from the publisher's perspective. Menaker is the fiction editor of The New Yorker and was the former Executive Editor-in-Chief of Random House so he's got some power and experience on the subject. Go check it out.

Really. Go ahead.

I'll wait.



Fine, fine. I know it's a long piece. So here are some of the bits I found most interesting:

Most trade books do not succeed, financially....Many books that do show a profit show a profit so small that it only minimally darkens a company's red ink.

Not particularly sunny news for those of us hoping to land a book deal, is it? So what books are successful?

[M]ost of the really profitable books for most publishers still come from the mid-list -- "surprise" big hits with small or medium advances, such as that memoir by a self-described racial "mutt" of a junior senator from Chicago. Somehow, by luck or word of mouth, these books navigate around the rocks and reefs upon which most of their fleet -- even sturdy vessels -- founder.

Not so helpful either, is it? How does one become the author of a surprise hit? Menaker doesn't know. No one knows. Much of success is chance. There are too many books published (Menaker guesses 75 "half-decent" ones) per week, and not enough review space to accommodate them.

Okay, now I'm depressing myself. How about something on writers?

[T]his is a business fuelled largely by writers' need for attention, and no one wants to crush any writer's dreams before a book is even published. Especially since every now and then they actually come true....

Usually, writers, like anyone else who performs in public and desires wide recognition, no matter how successful they become, have an unslakeable thirst for attention and approval -- in my opinion (and, I'm embarrassed to say, in my own case) usually left over from some early-childhood deficit or perception of deficit in the attention-and-approval department. You will frequently find yourself serving as an emotional valet to the people you work with.

Great. He thinks we're all nuts and require great coddling. Hmmm. Probably a little true for some of us. Maybe even most of us. So maybe the buried advice here is to get thee into therapy and leave your baggage at the door when you land your book deal and leave your poor editor alone.
Despite their often intense neediness, writers are often fascinating and stimulating company.

Ahhh. Much better. We are stimulating company! And producing thought-provoking literature from us is what Menaker loves most, and wants the reading public to crave, even if he does think there are only "about a million very good -- engaged, smart, enthusiastic -- generalist readers in America."

I'd like to think that the Our Stories audience factors into that million, and that our passion for excellence in the written word will keep the publishing industry from crumbling.

But if not, I guess we'll have online literary magazines to write for and read.

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