Friday, October 16, 2009

The mysteries of publishing

Here's another excerpt from a recent interview with journalist, author, critic, and Write Stuff 2010 presenter Bill Kent, conducted by conference chair Kathryn Craft.

Kathryn: Many aspiring authors believe that once they've got their foot in the door of the publishing industry that the rest of their career will take care of itself. But is this realistic? Can you comment on some common setbacks?

Bill: We all want just a few things to happen when our books are published: good reviews, strong sales and enough enthusiasm from our publisher to take us to the next book deal. But an inept review, slow sales, and a publisher whose promotion staff fails to read the books the company is printing that season are not career setbacks. These and other publishing pratfalls (such as not finding your book in a store on the publication date, or doing a group signing with a writer whose behavior turns off the book buyers) are certainly frustrating. They are emotionally wounding to those of us who love what we do and think of our books like children, and want others to love them as much as we do. And they can be devastating for those who expect publication to make qualitative changes in their lives--you know, the people who think, "I'll be a real writer when I have a best seller and my book is being made into a movie."

You don't need to be a published author to arrive at the truth about who you are and what really matters to you. The great thing about writing, and the practice of any other art, is that it shows you things about yourself that you wouldn't see any other way. Every poem, every article, every book you write teaches you something, regardless of how eager you might be to learn. This process, by which you deepen your understanding of yourself, your relationship with others, and your values, is part of the larger mystery of why it is you feel compelled to string words together. This mystery cannot be explained or lightly dismissed as a yearning for acceptance or need for money.

Publication may bring some readers to your work, but it has very little to with the qualitative experience a reader has when he or she discovers your work. As much as we would like our writing judged on its merits, a published book is bought and sold in a fashion that is alarmingly similar to canned peas on a supermarket shelf.

Instead of sharing a story about how frustrating publication can be, I'd rather tell you about a moment I had in a library, when I saw a person pick my book off the shelf and check it out. I didn't say or do anything to draw attention to myself as the book's author. Rather, I remembered how I felt, when I was younger, when I went into libraries and bookstores to find writing that really, really pleased me, by people I had never met, but wanted to become.

It was a moment when I reminded myself that some wishes really do come true.

K: If you could give one piece of advice to those who write and want to be published but don't have a clue about how to do so, would it be?

B: It would be to develop a strategy for not going crazy while dealing with agents, editors and publishers. You can find out how to get published: the procedures and formalities are in every "how to get published" book. What isn't mentioned is how easy it is to give up, or assume that you're worthless if [an agent] rejects your work. I've discovered relatively late in life that when I begin to worry about how the publishing industry might respond to my work, I suffer. I become so anxious about rejection and acceptance that the thing that makes writing happen, dies. Or, I start revising before I'm finished, and make so many changes that it takes even longer to finish the book.

What really matters is the act of writing. That is, finding a time (and place of free of distractions) to practice your art regularly. It's so easy to believe that a powerful agent, a perceptive editor, an expensive promotional campaign, a book selected by Oprah’s Book Club, or lucrative movie deal are the measures of success. They're not. Success for a writer is having the opportunity to write, because the act of writing changes everything, or, at least, has the potential to do so. Success for a professional writer is having the guts to stick with it and finishing what you start, even if you can't bear to put "The End" on the last page of the manuscript. The rest, as they say, is history, which, contrary to the cliché, isn't written by the winners, or the losers. History is written by the survivors who, even if they don't live out their natural lives, had the strength and determination to share them with us.

Next post: Bill talks about his passion for mysteries.
Days until Write Stuff 2010 registration opens: 92!

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