Not long ago I found myself in conversation with a young friend who had expressed her desire to major in English in college, with the ultimate aim of becoming an editor and publisher. The recent upheavals in the publishing business are nothing new to writers, but this young friend of mine—let’s call her Emma—had not yet caught on, and I found myself in the somewhat unsettling position of giving out publishing advice. This was made somewhat easier because Emma professed no desire to write. Her motives were entirely editorial.
I told her something I learned early on, back when I first started getting paid for my magazine and newspaper stories: Writing is an art, and publishing is a business. Writers should have that statement tattooed on the inside of their eyelids, but I think it would also serve well as a publisher’s prime directive. Would-be publishers are likely attracted to the game because of a desire to work with writers to create wonderful books, and this is by no means laughable. Publishers need a passion for books just as much as writers. But the bottom line is that if the editor/publisher is not turning a profit on the books they produce, they’re going to be subbing for high school English classes before they know what hit them.
As I said, it’s no big secret that the old model of publishing has been in a slow process of implosion, a process lately speeded up by the advent of e-books. It seems that writers and publishers these days are left to sift through the debris and try to cobble together a workable business model. This has largely been taken as bad news by the world’s established writers, but as a new writer (a baby writer, as John Birmingham used to call himself) I have to say I’m quite happy to be starting out in the current state of flux. I’d much rather be where I am now than be a writer who was established in the old publishing system, only to have the rug jerked out from under me. This is at base the old notion that when you’re starting out at rock bottom, there’s nowhere to go but up.
I’ve recently found a publisher for my second novel. They’re a newly-formed, Alaska-based house, but their aspirations are large: To publish New York-quality literary fiction and non-fiction about Alaska. They’re experienced editors and book designers, and are aiming for the tourist market, with the plan of having their books on the shelf at gift shops around the state. Their long-range plan is to have nationwide distribution. At face value this might seem like the road to hackdom, but we’re entering an age when having one’s book on the shelf at Barnes & Noble is no longer necessarily the barometer of success for a writer. My publishers have found a good, workable business model, and truth be told, I’m stoked about it.
I confess I was a bit dubious about this new outfit—after all, this second novel was meant to be my ticket to the New York literary big-time. But that dream rings more and more hollow as the old model of publishing continues to crumble into the sea. Like many writers I know, I’ve had to adjust my expectations about my career. Is my objective to be the talk of the town among the New York literati? To be interviewed for The Paris Review and on NPR’s Fresh Air? Perhaps to be declared America’s Sexiest Writer by People magazine? Or is my objective to write quality books, get them into the hands of readers, and make a decent living from my pen? The intersection of art and business can be an unpleasant space to inhabit, but even the most high-minded writer of literary fiction needs to pay his or her phone bill. And aspiring editors like my friend Emma—as well as up-and-coming writers—should keep their eyes open for the new opportunities that will inevitably rise up from the ashes of Old Publishing.