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Breeds Apart: The Writer’s Way, the Publisher

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After spending three years writing The Blessing Way, Albuquerque’s Tony Hillerman sent this novel to his agent in New York. The agent sent it back. Why? Because she wouldn’t dare risk her reputation by showing his manuscript to editors there. She knew they would be put off by Hillerman’s depiction of Navajo ways. “If you insist on rewriting this,” the author said she told him, “get rid of all that Indian stuff.” Instead, he got rid of her. Hillerman’s Navajo-based novels went on to become one of the most successful mystery series of all time.

Peer Fear

Why didn’t Hillerman’s agent recognize his book’s potential? Because she was a product of her social milieu. We all are. We’re all mindful of the attitudes of those whom we see regularly. Concern about our peers’ opinions and a fine appreciation of their tastes make it difficult to consider anything that might deviate from those tastes. When Tony Hillerman sent The Blessing Way, the notion of mingling Navajo spirituality with soft-boiled detective fiction seemed absurd to those toiling in the vineyards of publishing in New York. Hillerman might as well have asked his agent to join him for lunch at the Four Seasons restaurant wearing a lime-colored polyester pants suit.

Hillerman’s experience illustrates why so many writers feel as though they’re not exactly in with publishing’s in-crowd. If this sounds sophomoric, that’s no coincidence. Like teenagers everywhere, mainstream pub people are a tribal bunch, and on much the same terms. To make their world come into clearest focus, recall your adolescence: the crowds, cliques, rivalries, jealousies, intrigue, gossip, slang, buzzwords, fashions, fads, status-seeking, snubs, snobs, and who ate lunch where and with whom. That’s trade publishing, as practiced on a small island off the coast of New Jersey. “You’re wondering if the people at the cool table will snub you,” said one editor, of his regular lunches at a Manhattan restaurant favored by media types.

Writers feel snubbed quite often, especially those who live beyond the Hudson. Like Tony Hillerman, the enormously successful Utah self-publisher Richard Paul Evans hit a roadblock when trying to interest New York publishers in his work. After he had sold more than a quarter of a million copies of The Christmas Box, Evans had an article turned down by an editor at a major magazine in Manhattan. “You could not possibly have sold that many books,” the editor told him. “No one in New York has heard of you.” Once they confirmed his sales figures, and publishers began to clamor for rights to The Christmas Box, a book editor asked its author where exactly Utah was. “Between New York and L.A.,” Evans replied. “Well, if you see any other books out there,” said this editor, “let us know.”

This portrayal of the insular world of publishing obviously doesn’t fit the thousands of independent publishers west of the Hudson. (To be fair, it doesn’t fit all New York editors either, especially those who resist the temptation to base their decisions on what pleases a small circle of literary friends.) But–even though contrasts are sharp between publishing people in and outside of New York–they are sharper still between those who write books and those who publish them, no matter where.

Those I call pub people–the publishers, editors, agents, subsidiary rights directors, publicists, marketers, and sales reps who make up Manhattan’s publishing community–are a breed apart. Like any group of individuals intensely involved with each other over an extended period, they have become a neo-indigenous people. Those who publish books in New York have mores, folkways, legends, taboos, shamans, status display, belief systems, ceremonies, and customs. Their strange and wondrous rituals can be puzzling to outsiders:

Ceremonial bread-breaking takes place in various kinds of lunches: deal lunches with agents, political lunches with each other, stroke-the-author lunches in which hungry writers are encouraged to order without regard for the right-hand side of the menu. Then there’s the semiannual sales conference–publishing’s Carnaval–when pub people retire to exotic locales as a reward and escape and an opportunity to blow off steam in ways that might raise eyebrows back at the home office. During the conference itself they discuss which books they hope will have “legs,” which authors are “tourable,” and what books have “slipped,” as well as “blurbing,” “jacket conferencing,” and the “slush pile.”

Writers are seldom fluent in this type of pub-speak. Language barriers are one of many obstacles keeping the publishing tribe and the writing tribe apart. They’re like residents of Paris and Port au Prince who speak the same language but with such different dialects that they have frequent failures to communicate. The gulf dividing those who write books and those who publish them is not just a matter of idioms, however. Pub people have their ways. Writers do too.

Pajamas and Other Perks

 

Like many of my writer colleagues, I find a midafternoon nap indispensable if I’m to accomplish anything after lunch. Naps are a writer’s perk. I realize that they have a fishy odor among those with day jobs, so my kids have strict instructions to tell anyone who calls me while I’m asleep, “He can’t come to the phone right now.” When one of them slipped and told an editor I was napping, that editor later chided me for my indolence. “I don’t get to nap,” he said. True. But, as I reminded him, he did get photocopying privileges, a dental plan, and occasional tickets to Knicks games.

Such contrasts in context can make it hard for publishing people and writers to stay on the same page. Of necessity, publishers are focused on getting manuscripts in that can be published on the promised date. (As one editor told me–only semifacetiously–”If it’s done, it’s good.”) It is easy for them to see writers who have trouble keeping that commitment as unreliable, spoiled children. “Stop whining and get a real job,” suggested one agent. “The world does not owe you a living you can perform in your pajamas!”

That last one got into sensitive territory. Writers are touchy about their dress code, or lack of one. A few dress up to write, most dress down, some don’t dress at all. Does this make them less than grown up? They worry about such things. At the same time they revel in their sartorial freedom and contempt for convention. George Bernard Shaw said his main reason for taking up writing was that, “as the author is never seen by his clients, he need not dress respectably.”

We’re dealing with two very different ways of life here. Consider some contrasts:

Pub People vs. Writers

Up early / Up whenever

Nap seldom / Nap often

Dress up / Dress down (if at all)

Work well with others / Work best alone

Engage in office politics / No one to politic

Lunch a lot / Lunch a little

Work behind the scenes / Appear on stage

Are schedule-driven / Have a vague sense of time

Could get fired / Are already unemployed

Get paycheck and benefits / Have irregular income, no benefits

Can read a P&L sheet / What’s P&L?

Despite their differences, writers bring assets to the publishing table that go beyond publishable manuscripts. First and foremost, they tend to share the taste of their readers. Writers are more likely than agents and editors are to live among book buyers, see them at Starbuck’s, and discuss books with them in reading groups. They know what turns them on. This is true of writers who become publishers, too. It is one reason to be optimistic about the future of publishing. As more and more writers publish their own work, the gaps between the pub tribe and the writer tribe may narrow. All who publish books will benefit.

Ralph Keyes’s 12 books include The Courage to Write and The Writer’s Book of Hope, from which this essay is adapted. His book The Post-Truth Era will be published next year by St. Martin’s. He can be reached at Ralph@ralphkeyes.com.

 

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