Greenwood Encyclopedia of African American Literature

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Publishing Is Strange

Today's desultory miscellany concerns publishing. Now that we have "the internets," anything can get published any time, if we take "published" to mean simply "made public." --Well, perhaps I should say anything but important information about what the federal government is up to. Much of that never seems to see the light of cyber-day.

At the same time, publishing in printed form is not that easy. It's a wonder anything gets published in that form. Writers chase agents who chase publishers who chase profits. Many want to write, many want to make a profit from publishing, but how many really want to read, when there are so many other things to do? (One lovely aspect of LibraryThing is that it is a cyber-place where die-hard readers hang out.) Publishing companies have become micro-units of immense corporations, so that which is published is an economic afterthought.

Around the turn of the century, I was working on a college textbook with two colleagues. In the course of about a year, as we wrote the textbook, the company that had given us the contract was purchased twice, and one consequence was that we kept getting different--and less experienced--editors. Somehow the book still got published. If I remember correctly, Rupert Murdoch bought the company that owned the college division, but allegedly he either wasn't interested in college publishing or didn't think it was profitable enough (even though it is profitable), so he sold the college "wing" to another corporation.

Agents seem more accessible now because of the internet, but in fact they may be less accessible to Joe and Jane Writer. It used to be relatively easy for writers at least to get an agent to consider a query and look at pages of a manuscript, but I think there are too many manuscripts, too few agents, and too few markets for most kinds of writing now. Romance novels, mystery novels, and a variety of nonfiction dominate the market; just look at the layout of Borders and Barnes and Noble, and you can see what the store thinks will sell. Literary fiction is getting squeezed out; poetry has all but disappeared, except for small magazines, small, independent publishers, and a few recycled greats like Shakespeare, Eliot, Frost, and Yeats. How many ordinary citizens know who won the most recent Pulitzer Prize in poetry?

Publishing in academia has always been a vexed subject. There is the "publish or perish" adage, but there are also lots of practices, conventions, and quirks beneath the surface of the adage. One must publish articles in "refereed" journals; one must publish books with certain kinds of publishers; it is still preferable in some fields for one to work alone and not collaborate on a book; it is preferable to write a book as opposed to editing one; it is preferable to publish with this university press but not that one; and so on.

Who actually reads academic writing? In theory, academics, but I do wonder how many people in a given field actually read article x in journal y, all the way through. I wonder how often the number doesn't break double digits.

Poets, bless our hearts, have long been accustomed to a rotten publishing market. We know that those who read and write poetry are part of an underground culture. We know we'll never make money and will, if you add up the postage, probably lose money. We know about Dickinson, who published one or two poems in her lifetime and was essentially wary of publishing. We know that almost all of Hopkins' work appeared posthumously and that Blake (among others) self-published. It is probably not too much of an exaggeration to say that poets write because, at some level, they must, and whether their work finds an audience is a separate matter. Fiction-writers and playwrights may be more focused on audiences, from the beginning of the process, than are poets--but I hesitate to generalize beyond poetry.

I'm shocked I've published so much. But then I remember that a curriculum vitae is a bit like a stalagmite. The publications accumulate slowly, steadily, drip, drip, and after a decade or two, the list of publications starts to look substantial. But then if you divide publications by years, the list doesn't look so impressive. Moreover, I'm a horizontal publisher, in the sense that I've always been interested in writing in many different genres, whereas some writers stick to one and only one genre: and more power to them (also in the sense that sometimes I write lying down, so if it's fiction, I lie lying down [wink]).

Probably some writers actually enjoy the process of, the business of, publishing, but it's astonishing how many famous, well published writers dread working with agents, editors, and publishers, and if you're not well published and famous, you'll have even less leverage and control, and so the process is more likely to be painful, one way or another. I treat the sending out of manuscripts, the querying of agents and publishers, and the working with editors as jobs, as duties. But that part of writing is, to exhume an old piece of slang, a drag. I think it may have bee Peter Vierek (but I'm not sure) who said, "I like writing; it's the paperwork I can't stand." Writers like to write, editors like to edit, publishers like to make money. The three are forced to work together; it's been that way since Gutenberg started this madness. But all three are from different worlds. Like most writers, I just like to write; the rest is a bit tedious, cumbersome, and even absurd. Nonetheless, to get readers, one does need to engage in publishing, and publishing is strange.
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