Measures of Success: What Publishing Your Book Really Means

by Duncan Murrell

The Literary Life

Posted 1.1.04

January/February 2004

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Consider the writer, sitting alone and creating a book that mediates between herself and the larger world. When she finishes her work, she possesses only an insensate pile of pulpwood and ink that doesn't naturally call attention to itself, not like a bright canvas on a wall, or a dancer leaping across a stage, or the sounds of a guitar floating note by note through the doors of a club. Still, that lump of paper needs to attract attention, it needs its readers, it needs to make its point. Yes, yes, art for art's sake, but the art of writing, like all other arts, involves its eventual consumption. Yet the written thing is not itself a spectacle to attract those who would consume it. It doesn't announce itself. It cannot announce itself without help.

It is upon that slippery rock that we have built a maddening business called publishing, a business of drummers and barkers and exhibitionists. What would we do without them?

Without them we'd have less to complain about, that's certain. We'd have no need of André Schiffrin's The Business of Books, or Jason Epstein's Book Business, or any one of a hundred different indictments of the commercialization of American publishing that have come down to us since the middle of the last century. There would be no commercialization. There would be no Peter Olson, Bertelsmann's man in New York City, who strides through booksellers' conventions like a viceroy, lops off the heads of offending editors, and demands his 12 percent tribute. There would be no more complaints about the Olsons of the world, no more gauzy invocations of the way it used to be, no more hand-wringing. We could all write our books unencumbered by the barbarians tending the gates; we could make our art and afterward stare at our finished manuscripts with great satisfaction. We could stare and stare and stare forever!

Ridiculous. Let's acknowledge that the drummers and barkers and exhibitionists and Olsons are necessary, even if they're not like us. Let's also acknowledge that the Schiffrins and the Epsteins of our world have only described a small part of American publishing, that the recurring story of publishing's commercialization is a story of limited utility to the writer, and that the whole mess is only important if you've already accepted someone else's definition of what it means to be a successful writer. The fulminating and wailing about the state of the publishing industry has given rise to the notion, ever growing, that there are no more good editors or publishers, and that's just not the case. Such outrage has bred a cynicism that I've seen taken to extremes by writers who, succumbing to their suspicions about publishing, give up on writing entirely. "What's the point?" they say.

Why do you care what happens at Random House or Simon & Schuster? What does it matter? That sounds coy, of course. There are plenty of reasons why a writer would care. The big five publishers (Random House, Penguin, Simon & Schuster, Time Warner, HarperCollins) comprise most of the oldest names in American publishing. Among the many thousands of books they publish every year, you can find the works of our finest writers. These companies are very picky about what they publish, at least when it comes to publishing books that aren't obvious best-sellers, and so having their imprimatur on the spine of your book is a relatively rare honor. Being published by one of those houses confers a certain prestige, or at least a ratification of your identity as a writer, an identity you probably question in your dark moments. Being published by one of the big five publishers confers more prestige, certainly, than being published by your uncle with the old linotype out in the barn. This prestige has currency among other writers and it also has a little currency in the wider world; you know that when you meet someone at a cocktail party and tell them that your book is being published by one of the big five, they'll recognize the name and have the vague sense they should be impressed. The big five also have a lot of money.

This is the way we think. We are a status-oriented people living in a country fast transforming itself into an omni-entertainment state, in which brand identity sometimes seems our last, best hope for stability. We may say we wouldn't mind being published by Steerforth Press or Akashic Books, but secretly we crave a few moments of fame under the auspices of Rupert Murdoch. It's not a dirty thing to admit; it's just a fact.

But if the point of all this is to take your manuscript, composed alone in your room for an audience of strangers, and to find those strangers who would appreciate it, does it really matter who does the finding? Is there really any difference between Graywolf's selling 5,000 copies of your book and Random House's selling 5,000 copies? You might say, "Random House would never sell so few copies of a book!" But you'd be wrong. Here's the real difference: Graywolf would be more likely to judge that a success, while Random House might be more likely to judge it a failure—or, if not exactly a failure, certainly not anything that would cause the company to get excited about publishing your second novel. At Graywolf, a 5,000-copy sale might be cause for celebration, a good start for a new author on its list. Which experience would you prefer?

“We may say we wouldn't mind being published by Steerforth Press or Akashic Books, but secretly we crave a few moments of fame under the auspices of Rupert Murdoch. It's not a dirty thing to admit; it's just a fact.”

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