Youmans (pronounced like 'yeoman' with an 's' added)
is the best-kept secret among contemporary American writers.
--John Wilson, editor, Books and Culture

Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Publishers at the Palace

Today I started out with a fool's errand: I drove my youngest child to an orthodontist's appointment in Herkimer. Wrong blinking date! Afterward I did the line edits on "The Girl in the Fabrilon." And I received an acceptance for "The Fire Girl." I'm having a good week for acceptances. After my three children go to bed, I'll work on my talks for the Let's Read! conference.

Another thing I did today was to read blogs by Dan Green and Scott Esposito. Both were on that perennial topic, what's wrong with publishing--leading to a vision of New York publishers crumbling onto the pavement while self-published zebras of all stripes run amuck. I can probably fret about publishers and publishing with the most stalwart complainers, and I have intimate knowledge of the usual disasters: editor departing at just the wrong moment; editor giving publisher the bird and grabbing rolodex; publisher obsessed with the antics of the lead book author; publisher waiting so long to print that I withdraw a book; lack of marketing; great reviews without any increase in marketing, etc. I've even had the misfortune of a slightly delayed book coming out right after 9-11. So I'm an expert at black thoughts regarding the fate of my books. With six books behind me, I've published with three houses: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, a New York publisher now owned by Holtzbrinck (4 books, 2 from the adult division and 2 young adult/crossover books from the children's division); David R. Godine, Publisher (1 book); and Louisiana State University Press (1 book/poetry). That's one large house owned by a multi-national corporation, one smaller house, and one university press.

Let me figure out what has mattered to me about a link with what Dan calls "mainstream publishing." In the simplest terms, what have I gained?

1. I possess the exquisite one-of-a-kind Queen Elaine: that is, the instantly recognizable copy editing of a paragon. I could tell within a page when FSG substituted somebody else. I cherish the exactitude of her nitpicky work.

2. I have been lucky enough to have editors with expertise and taste. Yes, I am satisfied with how my books have been and are edited. I find the comments I get from editors to be interesting and always worth considering; I find the burnishing that happens during copy editing to be satisfying and worthwhile. I've learned something from editors since the days when I--an innocent poet who had perpetrated some fiction and knew nothing of the ways of publishing--sent a novella and some stories to Mr. David R. Godine in a brown paper envelope. Sadi Ransom, Elisabeth Dyssegaard, Robbie Mayes: yes, definitely satisfied.

3. It's a wonderful thing when a person of taste recognizes one's work immediately. Here's one example. Catherwood arrived in New York offices on a Monday; two days later it and I had a home. When an editor sees and understands with such celerity, it's encouraging in a way that isn't soon forgotten. When one is wandering the sands of obscurity, one stumbles on an oasis of welcome...

4. While I can't say that I've been coddled by a house, I can say that a writer benefits from an ongoing link to an editor. Unfortunately, most links end with breakage these days. Editors move on. But where I have had continuity, I feel that I've gained something: that the editor sees the arc of my work and is thoughtful about strengths.

5. Once upon a time I taught, even got tenure in my fifth year. That year I also quit, because I didn't feel that the profession was good for or conducive to my writing. Yours, perhaps. Not mine. If I had no connection with publishers, I would be even more cut off--I live in the absolute boonsticks of the world, and I regard my connection with publishers as a supportive one. Do I wish it more so? Of course.

6. The sorts of publishers who have published my books are not the ones throwing "chaff" to the winds. I feel, in fact, a little protected from that landscape by my publishers.

7. My books have stayed in print. The only one that has not is Catherwood, oddly enough, as the book was paddling along and doing fine when it abruptly capsized. It was a Literary Guild alternate, sold a movie option, sold French, German, and Spanish rights, etc. But the book went into paperback in the old Bard imprint, newly revived. When HarperCollins purchased William Morrow/Avon, they spat out a lot of lines, including Bard. All the others are still in print. Not bad.

8. The physical books are sturdy, well made, often beautiful.

9. I don't have to warehouse them or mail them here and yon, etc.

10. And then there are elements like the lovely jacket image--a Steve Cieslawski oil painting--that hangs over my writing table, and all the generous, encouraging people I've met through my books.

None of those elements address the way mid-list books are marketed, or the pressure for the writer to help market. They don't grapple with the way most books, good or bad, are dropped into a well. They don't deal with the fact that much of what is recommended in the way of marketing just doesn't work, or with how a writer must think "outside the box."

My young adult/crossover book, Ingledove, is being marketed by my publisher in the customary way, with more web contact than in the case of my prior books. What have I done to help my marketers? I spent a good deal of time developing a interactive information base with links to web sites and hot email addresses. I bugged my editor about helping me get a blurb from a notable writer. Thanks to him, it has a splendiferous blurb from Diana Wynne Jones. And I've spent a lot of time sending out recent poems, stories, and novellas, partly in order to publicize the book. Will it help? I'll have to wait and see. I have some events coming up, but not as many as for the last book; I'm not impressed with their effectiveness, unless they are special venues, like the Let's Read! conference I'm doing next, thanks to my marketer--it's an event with a 19-year history, a built-in audience of over 300 teachers, and great coordination by Frank Hodge, owner of Hodge-Podge books in Albany.

And now I'd better go work on those talks...

2 comments:

  1. Marly,

    Both you and Scott have focused specifically on the role of editing--that is, "editing" in the old-fashioned sense: copy editing.

    I'm not going to argue that there are no competent editors around in most publishing houses, but surely everyone will agree that the trend among editors is to do less and less real copy editing. Editors spend more and more time simply being business people.

    I don't see why good editors would disappear if self-publishing took over more of the book market. These editors would become free-lancers or might even work through the self-publishing companies. Authors could avail themselves of their services if they (the authors) felt it necessary. I finally don't think an argument to keep propping up the book business as it now exists because copy editing is needed is very convincing.

    Personally, I think editors are overrated. I feel perfectly capable of editing myself, for example, although probably an editor could make suggestions about making something I write more "commercial" that I wouldn't be considering. I'm not sure I want to consider it. Obviously you've had a different experience with some of the editors you work with, experience I have to respect.

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  2. Dan,

    Yes, I think you're right. I feel lucky to have spent my time with "old-fashioned" houses that stress quality, despite the fact that I have the usual mid-list treatment when it comes to marketing.

    On the copy-editing front, I think there are a decent number of us who turn in "clean copy." Elaine, mentioned above, once told me that it's "the ones who don't need it" who relish going through copy editing. But that's fine: if it brings the work a little closer to the burning dream in the mind, that's important.

    I'm not sure what happens to "the ones who need it." In a world without publishing houses, will they even know that they need it? Will they care? Some, yes. Many, no.

    The larger issue is not copy editing but whether one should participate in the marriage between editor and author. One thing we forget to mention is that editors, too, can have a high dedication and ideal--one that rubs up against the demands of the commercial. I would say that my current editor at FSG has a dream, one that he wishes to fulfill under the banner of a company dedicated to what's called "literary quality." Take away the refuge; will his bonds to "his" writers be the same? He has allied himself with a certain kind of dream--he is not moving randomly through the universe, working with any writer who hands him a few dollars, but he is standing in a long procession of editors who have had the same dream of finding and working with the best writers they can find. This tradition has a value to him and to his writers. When the tradition works, it builds the publishing house, and it makes the family to live inside.

    Is the editor-author relationship merely one of convenience and being sent on to copy editing? For me, no. My editor has a way of turning my book in the light and seeing it whole that I admire. I am always curious to hear what he has to say.

    Never has an editor suggested to me that I make something more "commercial." I have had an editor say that something is "not right" for the house... Clearly commercial decisions come into play in that case. I have also had an editor grieve over the inability to buy something. Those elements bolster your argument, I imagine.

    My ideal is not to throw away tradition but to transform it from within. That is, to transform the part that doesn't work for the mid-list writer! Whether that is possible, I don't know.

    I do, however, observe your views with interest.

    Regards,
    Marly

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Alas, I must once again remind large numbers of Chinese salesmen and other worldwide peddlers that if they fall into the Gulf of Spam, they will be eaten by roaming Balrogs. The rest of you, lovers of grace, poetry, and horses (nod to Yeats--you do not have to be fond of horses), feel free to leave fascinating missives and curious arguments.