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On Publishing Books

Speer Morgan, editor of The Missouri Review, writing at length about book publishers, editors, and the authors who depend on them, offers a chilling anecdote:

Recently I spoke with a novelist whom The Missouri Review first published some twenty years ago, early in his publishing life, and he was filling me in on some of the details of his recent career. His agent sent a completed novel manuscript to his publisher, and they told him that they could no longer afford to publish his kinds of books. He had a record of well-respected, highly reviewed mid-selling novels, but the publisher informed him that this record was unfortunately his curse, since anything bearing the novelist’s name would draw only moderate interest from stores. The new manuscript was rejected by the former publisher and ten others. In desperation, his agent decided to submit the manuscript under a pseudonym, and the first publisher to read it disencumbered of his real name accepted it.

Soon after this happened, the author got a call from Oprah, who had chosen one of his previous books for her book club. Suddenly, his former publisher was on the phone asking for more books by him, under his real name. Anything. Please. Just as long as it had his name on it.

While this story ended with a bittersweet victory, the effect of the whole experience has made the novelist even more doubtful than he already was about commercial publishing.

What’s chilling is not that Oprah has so much clout; it’s rather that publishers have so little interest in printing anything less than a blockbuster or short of a genre. I wonder why any would-be writer would believe herself able to buck the trend? As if getting published weren’t difficult enough, they must decide to write for genre’s sake for the sake of being published at all.

It seems to me that another side effect of the difficulties facing literary writers, not to mention their editors, is the fact they are increasingly cordoned into universities, which alone among our institutions have declared that supporting writers, whether through writing fellowships or teaching positions, is a valuable use of resources. Unfortunately, the more writers are ghettoized, the more we’ll get novels like this one, dramatizations of classrooms and the pursuit of degrees—a prospect that sounds to me, no matter how well written it might be, more tedious than inventive.



What’s the culprit? TV? Internet? An ever dumber populace?

Reminds me of my high school and college job as a bookseller at the B&N in Huntsville, AL – we had legions (literally) ask where the latest book written by Oprah was shelved. I played with these people as if they were pet mice (“well, let’s look up this title in our system…Winfrey, you said, is the author?”)

1: Morgan summarizes the problem, as I’ve seen a lot of people perceive it, pretty well: in a lot of ways, it’s publishers’ thinking of books the way movie studios think of the movies they put out. There’s little patience left among major publishers for cultivating a writer through the long process of learning how to write. Through that phase a lot of writers won’t sell well or will gain modest followings and, hence, modest losses or at best modest profits. Because of the modesty, publishers neglect their authors’ developments and they refuse to put money into advertising their authors’ works. Assuming marketing works, the lack of such yields a rude decline in writers’ prospects. Finally, publishers who are already cynical also cynically decide only genre books will sell—people who read genres, after all, are the only dedicated readers left, the reasoning goes.

2: Did you send them to the magazine section and say, “Look for the big picture of her on the cover”?

before you read galatae 2.2, which sounds interesting enough, i guess… but, since i’ve gotten into reading 16th-century arcana anything is interesting. read thinks

it’s a 2001 novel by the guy who made a career writing about academics and is about cognitive scientists… it’s a fun read.

the same thing happens in academic writing, really. that is, genre writing—if you take jargon and popular trends to be a sort of genre.

there a sort of absurdness in assuming that research be original, but then only publishing articles that reproduce a certain type of discourse.

btw, this isn’t the imbittered prof writing, at least not yet… it’s just the bored reader of other people’s prose.

Re: academic writers, that makes sense, and I’m sure publishers both fan fads and follow them when they see they may be worthwhile. But I think if I were an academic publisher I’d be worried about solvency, period, way before I’d be worried about about cultivating good academic writers, though that’s important enough. But the claim is that commercial pubs’ profits are built on cultivating writers. A good publisher can conceivably profit modestly by doing so, but too often they decide modest profits are useless.