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Why Won’t a Publishing Book Work?

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stack-of-books-resizedRecently, the New York Observer wondered if there is any glamour left in publishing. The article generated a healthy amount of discussion amongst the book blogs and I didn’t initially think I had anything else to offer on the subject.

But some of the ideas expressed in this article have really been festering away for me as the days passed. So I’m wading in, admittedly a bit late.

The article begins with, “ICM agent Binky Urban does not believe it would be possible to write much of a novel about modern book publishing.” The superagent is quoted as saying, “It’s such an internal, sort of cerebral job. ‘And then I edited …’? I don’t quite get how that would work, to tell the truth.”

Urban is a publishing legend and I like many of her clients’ work. But that notion that a job can make a book (or any artwork) interesting or dull is the exact same thinking that causes our television channels to be glutted with cops, doctors, and lawyers. Does anyone on this planet really need to see another primetime drama about a tough cop with a rebellious attitude or a sexy lawyer on the prowl? I just counted 23 crime shows appearing from 8pm-11pm on CBS, NBC, ABC, and Fox. If anyone in Hollywood has a great show about system testers or insurance agents, sign me up. I’ll watch it fanatically. Just don’t give me another fucking show with people holding badges, I beg you.

Same way with books. I hate the thought that an industry or job title can be so quickly dismissed as dull. Another industry insider is quoted in the piece as saying, “Our lives are small, hard and short.” That statement was intended to support this notion that publishing employees are unworthy of literary attention. However, I think that quote indicates the exact opposite. “Our lives are small, hard and short.” Sounds like characters in a Steinbeck novel or a Larry Brown short story. Great stuff for the basis of literature.

Other folks quoted in the article disagree and argue that publishing provides a great backdrop for a book and that maybe the right author just hasn’t come along yet. Part of the problem is that so many aspiring authors churn out awful stories about writers. Admittedly, I’ve committed this particular creative writing class sin myself. However, just because a good one hasn’t yet been published doesn’t mean it won’t work. So I’m siding with those people who think it’s just a matter of time, but back to the naysayers for a moment.

There’s also a sense in the article that editors don’t think anyone outside the publishing business would be interested in a book about the biz. They feel there’s not a big enough audience of non-book people. I’ve pitched books on the publishing world before and agents and editors responded that the ideas were good, but too small, too much of a niche, too magazine-y. It’s entirely possibly my pitches weren’t good enough and those explanations were just to reject me politely. But one question remains:

How big of an audience do you need?

A few years ago, I gathered data on the world of aspiring authors for a piece I was writing. Keep in mind that these statistics are a few years old, but I would wager the numbers have only increased in the interim. Or, at least they had increased before our nation’s recent economic difficulties might have weeded out some upstarts.

–The Association of Writers and Writing Programs detailed more than 350 writing programs in the United States.
–Nationally, there are hundreds of writing conferences. A website listed literary and writing events in the South alone. 38 events were scheduled for the first six months of 2005 and the average registration cost was $285.
–A spokesperson for the Gotham Writers Workshop reported they had upwards of 6,000 students per year. Based on information from the website, the average cost of their classes was $283.
Writer’s Digest had a circulation of 150,000 and Poets & Writers Magazine had a circulation of 70,000.
–There were more than 300 literary journals in this country and none of them are read in a dentist’s waiting room so it’s safe to assume that these journals were kept in print with circulations comprised almost exclusively of other aspiring authors, professors, and industry types.

Once again, remember that those figures are almost four years old. A check of Amazon today reveals 668 titles in the fiction writing reference category. 1,982 titles come up under the newspapers & magazines category. Look at how frequently major, mainstream outlets like the New York Times feature stories on the publishing industry, even if those pieces do nothing but declare it dead.

Shit, the very fact that you’re reading this blog means you’re interested in publishing and writing.

So I ask you once again, how big a fucking audience does there have to be to support a publishing book? I know the old cliche that sometimes it seems like there are more people writing books than reading books. I get that.

And granted, the pool of aspiring authors and publishing insiders doesn’t equal a cultural phenomenon like, say Hannah Montana or American Idol. So maybe you don’t invest a $6 million advance and gear up a print run of 700,000 copies. But you’re telling me that all those folks buying writing magazines, and writing-related reference books, and paying for conferences, and getting MFAs, and reading articles about publishing lunches, and posting on messsageboards like Absolute Write, and paying for subscriptions to Publishers Marketplace, and paying for contest entry fees, and keeping agents and editors burdened under a mountain of submissions couldn’t support a book with a respectable and reasonable print run and advance?

Ultimately, I’m just not sure the reading public is so apathetic to the idea of a publishing-related book. I wonder if it’s not publishers and agents themselves who don’t want to deal with it.