Sunday, March 30, 2008

Writers Beware: Do Not Pursue Publishing Careers

It's a natural, isn't it? You love books. You picked up a pencil at age six and have never put it down. You hate to admit it, because you purposely avoid reading any book with the Oprah seal on it, but you've dreamt about sitting down with Oprah and discussing your latest book. Your past loves are going to be SO upset they ever dumped you when they walk by their local Borders and see all those copies of your book on display in the window. The publishing industry is where you're headed for First Day Job as soon as you finish this Bachelor's/Masters in English, right? You'll have your foot in the door. You've read so many writers who started out in the publishing industry. Look where David Rakoff is now, and he was once a starving editorial assistant just like you're going to be.

I'm here to say to you: don't do it. Please, please don't do it. I spend quite a lot of time out here browsing through blogs written by all you oh-so-talented twenty-somethings, and I find myself thinking over and over again, "Oh, I hope he/she doesn't decide to go into publishing," because, chances are, if you go into publishing, I'll never get to read your book, and I want to read your book. You see, once you get a job in publishing, your life-long desire to want to publish a book of your own will plummet the way the stock market does whenever Republicans are in power too long. The publishing industry is a place meant really for editors, not for writers. And don't fool yourself into thinking, "Well, yes, she may be right when it comes to getting jobs at major trade publishers, but I'm not doing that. I'm just applying for this job at Tiny Little Publisher That Publishes Travel Guides or Midwest University Press, and this job certainly won't interfere with the novel I'm writing in the evenings and on weekends."

Once you've taken a job at Non-Trade Publisher, you'll find yourself sitting in meetings, listening to discussions about whether or not to publish a book and why, and it won't be long before you're thinking, "Man, if it's this bad here, imagine what it must be like at Major Trade Publisher." You will see books you wouldn't touch with a ten-foot-pole receive high praise in the review media and find yourself thinking, "Huh? We held our noses and stuck that piece of crap into production, because we were being hounded to make sure it made the fall list. Did the reviewer even do more than read the table of contents and the introduction?" You will read a gem of a proposal on restaurants in Australia and be the only one voting to publish it, because "we just have too many books about Australia on the list already." Besides, no one else thinks the author has enough clout, and "we need more big-name authors here." During the same meeting, someone will propose a book on hiking in Antarctica by Ms. Nobody, and everyone will be oooohing and ahhhhing, talking about how hiking in Antarctica is the next "hot thing," and "we can be the company that builds a name for Ms. Nobody."

You will also see great books on important topics turned into 16-page picture books, because the company does not want to pay the printing costs for a book that long. You will see the company's major authors wined and dined while slaves write their books for them. Meanwhile, you'll have to tell your "lessor" authors you're sorry but unless they can deliver triplicate manuscripts written in blood, the company won't sign a contract with them.

It's quite disheartening. I, too, once thought I wanted to be a published writer, but I no longer want to pursue that path. I've met very few colleagues in the world of publishing (at least on the editorial side of things) who did not at some point in their lives have dreams of becoming a writer. However, I have only known one or two with published books (and none of those were fiction, despite the fact I know one of these editors writes novels), so I have a feeling I am not the only one whose desire to publish was ruined by working in the publishing industry. I still love to write, but these days, the only place I plan to publish is in the blogosphere, so that those who enjoy reading me can do so, whether a group of ten people sitting around a table thinks they'd want to or not. I'm waiting for blogging software to improve to the point that it will be easier to post serial fiction, and then I will start doing that (I'm hoping I will have some final drafts of things written by the time the software catches up).

However, I don't want everyone publishing the way I plan to publish. My writing needs an editor (editors cannot edit their own writing. It just doesn't work), and the best way to get one of those is to publish the old-fashioned way. Besides, I don't want books to die. I don't even want publishing companies to die (although I wish they'd become less greedy). That means we need lots and lots of writers who have not become jaded by an inside view of the publishing industry. So, I'm begging all of you writers, yet again, to choose a different career path. Consider library science (you still get to be surrounded by books and readers all day). Consider teaching. Consider being a ski instructor. Leave publishing up to the editors (believe it or not, there are people out there who were born to edit, not to write, and who are perfectly content doing just that). Just do two things for me please: keep writing, and never give up.

11 comments:

Yogamum said...

What a fantastic post! It should be assigned reading for all about-to-graduate English majors!

litlove said...

This makes me think of an acquaintance of mine who is big in the university press. Once over lunch I tried to pin him down on what his company WOULD publish as he spent so much time telling me what they wouldn't. He eventually said, 'well, maybe the next big important book on someone like Sartre' and I said 'but you'd turn that down on the grounds that all the big important books on the big figures had already been written!' And he agreed. Gahhh!

I know just what you mean.

Dorothy W. said...

Well, I hope none of your readers decide to try teaching at the college level -- it's likely you won't find a job and grad school will also kill your desire (and maybe even your ability) to write. I think posts like this are very useful because a lot of people don't get to hear from insiders what their profession is like.

Make Tea Not War said...

I don't know that being a teacher is the ideal thing for an aspiring writer to be. Obviously some people manage it but I remember reading Sylvia Plath found teaching drained her of words so she had none left for poetry. I'd imagine being a librarian where you are using a different part of the brain in your day job might be ideal...

Emily Barton said...

YM, I sort of wish someone had given something similar to me to read when I was in college.

Litlove, oh yes, your acquaintance is right. That is EXACTLY how it works in the world of academic publishing. Oh, and then rival publisher decides to publish the next big important work on big figure about whom all big important works have already been written, it becomes a HUGE success, is made into an HBO television series, and then all the editors are hounded for months to hurry up and come out with next big important work on some other important figure before rival company steals yet another one.

Dorr, yes, I should have clarified that. Teaching at the college level is another job pretty-much-guaranteed to stifle enthusiasm to publish (made worse by the fact that, with "publish or perish," it's a built-in part of the day job).

Ms. Make Tea, right now, all my authors are teachers, but none of them is writing fiction or poetry. Now I'm, of course, going to have to ask them about Plath's feelings as it pertains to their own work. (Maybe that's why most of them tell me they have a very hard time getting anything written except during Christmas and summer breaks.)

Courtney said...

tell all of our readers to study biology, chemistry AND writing. They will be utterly employable.
But as for time to write on the side - there's never enough of that. Never! Great post though - because I still sometimes think I should have been an editor...

mandarine said...

This is a very sound piece of advice. If I can be of any help improving the online publishing tools so that I may read your serialized writing (or any other writing), I'd be glad to contribute.

Danny said...

Great post, Emily! I still hold secret fantasies of publishing my OWN book one day, but after twenty plus years in publishing (and sitting in those meetings you describe), I don't "need" it as much as I used to and I realize that the people making those decisions are just regular schmoes, not some Divine Validators.

Of course I realize I'm far from the twentysomething demographic you describe here. I love your attitude but I'm also a little disappointed because I'd buy any book you'd write in a heartbeat! On the other hand, I'm just as happy having immediate access to your online writing.

musingsfromthesofa said...

This is so sensible, Emily. There is nothing like working in publishing to reduce one's respect for the entire business.
Perhaps a nice job in a museum or something, instead?

Emily Barton said...

Court, you're right. Science writers can (pardon the pun) write their own tickets out there.

Mandarine, you know, I almost emailed you recently. What I'm looking for is a way to blog "backwards" so to speak, so that people can read my posts in order of when I wrote them, starting from the beginning like a book, rather than in order of most-recently-written. Is there a way to do that? (I'd be willing to use something other than Blogger if it didn't cost money and didn't require my having lots of programming knowledge/ability). Email me, please.

Danny, well, you know, if a book offer were to come my way, I wouldn't turn it down...

MFS, yes, museum work. Imagine all the people-watching one could do, thus collecting plenty of material for stories!

bloglily.com said...

What's funny is how many writers are employed in academia -- as teachers of writing, mostly. But I think a profession where you're around words and books is good -- like being a librarian or working in a bookstore -- as long as you don't have to be TOO close to the words and books.