What to do until the publishing Messiah comes…

Ironically, a couple of days after I wrote that last blog on “How to Write a Novel,” I received a disturbing email from Publisher’s Weekly. The notice stated that the venerable Houghton Mifflin Harcourt has temporarily stopped acquiring manuscripts. This, understandably, has sent authors and agents into something of a flap. This is the house that publishes Philip Roth, Kaye Gibbons, Brian Morton, Joyce Carol Oates, A.S. Byatt, Jonathan Safran Foer, Gunter Grass and J.R.R. Tolkien, after all. Some pretty big literary names.

Who will be next? Is this the first death from the plague we’re always hearing about, which will one day kill literature?

Readers/publishers/book buyers turn away from starving writers

Possibly. It may very well be one of the end signs. Certainly the industry has been ill for some time and for several years now many wonderful writers I know have been wandering around with their manuscripts in outstretched hands, begging people to read them, without success. We’ve all been walloped. Yes, me too. (Although I just published a collection of short stories with a literary press in Canada, my NYC agent has been unable to sell my last novel.)

In an article today in the New York Times that talks about the Houghton Mifflin acquisition freeze, they also say, At the other end of the spectrum was Hachette Book Group, whose Little, Brown and Grand Central Publishing units together represent some of the biggest commercial authors, including David Baldacci, Nelson DeMille and James Patterson, not to mention the category-killing vampire queen, Stephenie Meyer.” Hachette, it seems, is giving out bonuses to their employees (and I hope to their authors, although I doubt it) this year.

The message seems clear — as a writer you might be all right if you pen commercial books, but publishers are increasingly reticent to risk their resources on literary or emerging writers. Houghton Mifflin said the decision is about “doing things smarter.” Translate this to “more commercially.” Dan Brown yes. Mark Helprin? Perhaps not.

The NYT article quotes Esther Newberg, a literary agent who represents blockbuster authors like the thriller writers Patricia Cornwell and Linda Fairstein, as well as Thomas L. Friedman, a columnist for The Times, as saying,“It is seriously going to be a time for known commodities. I would hate to be starting out in the business.”

Of course, there will always be exceptions. St. Martin’s will publish a first novel by my friend Dexter Palmer in the fall of 2009 — The Dream of Perpetual Motion, set amidst a steampunk metropolis and the rise of the mechanical future, it is the tale of a decades-long love affair thwarted by an evil genius obsessed with inventing the perpetual motion machine. Yea, Dexter, you keep hope alive.

Steampunk computer

Which brings me, as most rambling does, around to my point. We mustn’t give up hope. We must learn, and practice, new ways of sustaining ourselves, artistically as well as physically and emotionally, until either a new literary paradigm presents itself, or the present ship rights itself.

Many years ago, a friend gave me a copy of a book called, “What to do until the Messiah comes.” I regret to say I don’t know what happened to that book, and I do wish I had a copy now. Since I recall it as a charming book, full of witty illustrations and down-to-earth advice, having nothing at all to do with the sort of eschatological nonsense spouted in books like the “Left Behind” drivel. It was an oversized paperback, the size of a school notebook, with thick creamy paper and it was a short of hippy handbook on how to survive on the land. I remember it told you, among other things, how to cremate the dead and contained the helpful advice: “You may wish to add sage, or other incense to the cremation pile. Burning bodies don’t smell so good.” Sage advice indeed. (Snort, sorry.)

But what I loved about this book was that it wasn’t, as I recall, an artsy-fartsy navel-gazing work. It was about the practical. How to build a dwelling. How to grow vegetables. How to shear a sheep. How to dig a latrine. How to build a loom.

I wonder, now, what the equivalent may be for us writers, who are living in an increasingly difficult time, when the words “market share” have replaced “literary merit?” I think we must accept the fact that publishing is no longer the gentleman’s and gentlelady’s calling it once was, full of people devoted to literature, to furthering the public discourse of ideas, and who actually liked writers and sought to nurture their careers along, book by book, until they found a readership, and some
times even if they didn’t. Publishing is now, largely, a business of bean-counters. Not that there’s anything wrong with the counters of beans — the world needs such people, and perhaps more talented ones, since those running the financial end of things seem to have done a pretty crappy job lately.

I don’t think there’s much point screaming at the marketplace to go blow and crack their cheeks. Quite a futile waste, I suspect. The publishing world will not change simply because we yell at it. Times are, as I’m sure you’ve noticed, hard all over. People are having trouble buying bread, let alone books.

Lear rants and hollers at the forces of nature. Doesn’t seem to help.

I’ve seen too many people get rather crazy, wooing agents in countries far from where they live or want to be published, spending scads of money on seminars “guaranteeing” networking and marketing contacts for their new book (one even said they’ll show you how to get corporations to write you “six figure checks like they were play money.” Really? Really?), paying vast sums to self-publishing businesses that offer little in the way of quality editing or distribution or marketing… it goes on but it’s too depressing.

But the advice in that old book of mine seems somehow pertinent. What do we do until… Practically, what should we do if we really, truly, might not get published again.. or at least not for a while? Do we stop writing? Do we take up a more profitable art form, like, oh, say macrame? Well, that’s always an option. And in fact, if you can comfortably give up writing without making yourself psychotic, then perhaps you should. Writing’s not for everyone, even if there was a time (long gone) when being a writer seemed rather glamorous, at least from the outside. But if you must keep on writing, then do so. Every day, just like I said in the last post. And you might want to consider the possibility that although yes, you do want readers, it is not your end-game.

I am a member of a fellowship that talks a lot about the wisdom of letting go, of doing what one perceives to be the next right thing, and trusting the outcome to the Ineffable (okay, God, if you like). Writing these days might be more and more like that. And that might even be a good thing. Always an act of faith and spiritual practice, this might be a period of monastic-type training, preparing you for that moment when the publishing world shifts. By which I mean, without always chasing that dangling carrot, you might actually use the time to become a better, deeper, more honest writer, since you will be writing from your own truth, instead of what you so desperately hope will please a publisher/agent/book seller. Leave the outcome alone.

We might find new ways of keeping our creative fires lit — perhaps starting a reading and writing circle. Or a reading series — for example, I run such a series at Trinity Church in Princeton, where I’m the writer-in-residence, and I’d love to see emerging writers showcase their work here. We might start a story-telling group — where everyone has to tell, not read, a story. I’ve done this myself on a number of occasions and found it a great deal of fun and tremendously nourishing. We might choose to study, in this quiet period, some of those great works we’ve always said we’d get round to. Spencer’s THE FAIRY QUEEN, or The Icelandic Sagas, or Proust, or Homer. Believe me, such study will inform your work. If we are poets, we might try prose, or vice versa, or we might try our hand at a gardening column (as a friend of mine, a wonderful novelist, has decided to do with a gardening-for-hard-times piece)…

What ideas do you have? Care to share them?

Similarly, we must encourage our friends-and-relations to BUY books. People don’t very much anymore, you know. I can’t tell you how many books groups I’ve been to where they’ve taken one copy out of the library, and passed it around. This does not, oddly enough, convince your publisher you are worth publishing again. If you love books, they must be your priority. Skip the lipstick, buy that novel by the unknown writer. Skip the new blouse, or the new pair of shoes, and pick up a book. I guarantee you, books stay in fashion longer. And to encourage that person who says they don’t like to read? I suggest “An UnCommon Reader” by Alan Bennet, a slim jewel of a book, hilariously exploring how even the queen of England might be converted.

Finally, you might take this as an opportunity to go out into the world and look around, learning about your fellow man and the beautiful, messy, tragic, heart-breaking and hilarious wonder that is the human condition. Although I’m probably the only person who really needs to do this, I’m sure none of you are like me — you don’t spend most of your time sitting alone in front of a computer, do you?

As they say, an unexamined life isn’t worth living, but an unlived life isn’t worth examining, either.

So, I suspect we’re in for hard times, my writer friends, just like everybody else. But just like all hard times, they come, and they go, and they come and go again, forever and ever, amen. And, I suspect, like all things, the importance is not so much in what happens to you, or doesn’t, it’s in how you respond.

Love to hear your thoughts.

Copyright 2008 Lauren B. Davis For permissions: laurenbdavis.iCopyright.com

Leave a Comment