By Carole DeSanti
Here we are at the beginning of 2014, having just experienced a tumultuous year in traditional book publishing. The old reliable ways are besieged by unremitting surges of change, amid a whirl of arguments about copyright; the dollar value of the written word; and in what form, under what terms, books should be created, curated, read, shared, rewarded. Some ask whether the book itself is on its way out.
Meanwhile, vast numbers of writers seem to have awakened from some kind of spellbound slumber and have begun using new technology to bypass the usual gatekeepers. Our DIY, craft-and-creativity-loving culture has become intoxicated with self-publishing (essentially, what used to be called vanity publishing, technologically enhanced). Discussion of it fizzes around the Internet, with new writers testifying about how they’ve been unshackled creatively and rewarded commercially. The defiant collecting of rejection letters from conventional editors and the long haul to publication and literary acclaim are made to sound like masochistic, unnecessary practices—or at best, nostalgia from the vinyl era. Conventional publishing’s offenses, never a secret, have been furiously catalogued. Less discussed is the fact that the access that self-publishing promises is harder to achieve, and rarer, than it sounds)
In general, experiments in publishing are necessary, and like all remedies—in this case, for a common malady with which we struggle as writers, i.e., the desire to be heard—they will work for some and not for others. But perhaps the most important caveat—and the publishing industry’s best defense—is the simplest and the hardest to bear: we writers are seldom, if ever, our own best readers. All the urgency of our need and all the self-promotion in the world cannot make it so.
Writing is a solitary act, but publishing is not. That peculiar, even mysterious, chemistry begins with attention freely given, and a reader’s true connection with the work. It’s what editors, literary agents, and publishing professionals in various roles live for, and it cannot be bought (as in hiring a freelance editor); coerced (as in compelling the support of friends, relations, or kickstarter); or wished into being (as in build-it-and-they-will-come fantasies of bestsellerdom). The great gift of publishing, as I’ve seen and experienced it, is that even for jaded, stressed-out, and occasionally cynical professionals, there is still nothing as exhilarating, as purely delightful, as being captivated by a new voice. This kind of listening is cultivated; it is a skill and instinct learned over a lifetime of professional reading. Further, the editor-writer relationship does not, actually, arise from other kinds of bonds—friend, spouse, colleague, or even teacher. The connection is a seed, a beginning, a basis for trust. Precious qualities are present on both sides: humility, on the part of the writer; generosity, on the part of the reader/editor. That relationship generates other partnerships, draws in a range of expertise and creative investment. And this is the real business of publishing.
Writers are not all knowing. They—we—are generally at our best when, after a period of self-rule (the writing process), we join others and move from a solitary mode to a collaborative one. After nearly thirty years in publishing, what I find matters most to me—and to the ultimate success of a project—is the quality of the dialogue that arises with this engagement. Contrary to popular belief, traditional publishing is not all about marketing heft, counting up unit sales, and appropriating a big chunk of writers’ hard-earned cash. It’s about partnership, problem solving, connection-building, and linking areas of expertise. It’s about sticking with it through hard conversations. The hardest part of being a professional reader is telling an author a truth that is hard to hear; the most dreadful part of being a writer is taking it in.
So why bother? Editors and publishing professionals are not all knowing, either. Communication falters. We misjudge. Solutions to creative and marketing problems can be elusive, even in the best of circumstances. Yet I believe that the heart of the matter is, through conversation and relationship, finding a way to move forward.
The publishing process helps a writer navigate the dynamics between self and world that arise when anything new is created and seeks its place. It can give both writer and publisher the courage to take risks and to move ahead despite reverses, challenges, and undesirable surprises. Ideally—and I know this is truly an ideal—conversations and relationships are the carrying vessels of writing and publishing, the basis for a lifetime of creative work that builds on itself and grows.
As writers, our struggles with ourselves are epic struggles. At times we would do anything to end them, and we clutch at the hope that what we’ve written is really OK, and success will be pretty much a matter of effective self-promotion. We will do just about anything rather than admit defeat. Pay any sum, spend any number of hours doing what is easier than to go back to the page and question everything, drill down to our work’s essential, flawed problematic-ness (which is our own essential, flawed problematic-ness).
Rather than dispensing with our creative partnerships because they are difficult, flawed, and in need of repair, I believe we need to reinvest in and revalue them. To acknowledge them as unique and precious resources, and to build stronger, livelier, more vibrant and far-reaching models. This is the work that has forged the connections between writers and readers that have been so durable over time, and our world has never needed those connections more than it does now. For writers, the difficulty often lies in inspiring ourselves to doing our best work. Sometimes, someone else must do the asking.