Measures of Success: What Publishing Your Book Really Means

Duncan Murrell

I dont mean to say that being published by one of the big five publishers is an endeavor doomed to fail. Sometimes the experience vastly exceeds an author's expectations, and when that happens it's a wonderful thing to watch—the publicity and marketing machine gets cranked up in support of your book, the morning news shows scramble to get you into their greenrooms, the publisher orders staggeringly large printings and instructs sales reps to push your book, you see your face on the cover of magazines, and you make enough money to support your family and continue writing. What could be better than that?

Publishing your book will not change your life, and it’s not a good idea to hand over so much of yourself to a publishing house, each and every one of which is a menagerie of the insecure, the grandiose, the brilliant, and the dull.

This is not the outcome you can expect, though, and therefore it can’t (or shouldn’t) be the standard by which you judge yourself a success or a failure. What should that standard be? Is it André Schiffrin’s standard or Jason Epstein’s? No, in each case. The books that snipe at the business of publishing (that bloated, massive, slow-moving target) claim to have the best interests of our literature in mind, but they’re still books about publishing, love letters to dearly departed publishers; they’re only indirectly about literature, about writing. The bill of particulars they post against the industry is about business principles—principles that are not relevant to your task as a writer. Let Schiffrin and Epstein fight that fight. Your expectations as a writer are not necessarily congruent with theirs as publishers.

I want to argue for lowered expectations. This is not the American way, and it would be a more awkward proposal if not for the fact that I’ve been close to too many writers undone by the gulf between what they expected would happen once they finally were published, and what did happen. I’m not talking about the little disappointments: The book tour wasn’t extensive enough, they didn’t push hard enough to get it on Terry Gross's show, they didn’t buy full-page ads in the New Yorker, the L.A. Times reviewer could not possibly have read the book, no one nominated the book for the National Book Award, and so on. I’m talking about the big, soul-shattering disappointment that comes from expecting that being published will change life radically. I’m talking about the hopes for a free life, for a life that will be remembered even after death; about pouring into the leaky vessel of a publishing contract dreams of transcendence and happiness. Those are the dreams that are dashed with alarming regularity. One of the horrors of being a book editor is witnessing this, and having to become inured to it in order to do the job properly. Publishing your book will not change your life, and it's not a good idea to hand over so much of yourself to a publishing house, each and every one of which is a menagerie of the insecure, the grandiose, the brilliant, and the dull.

A few years ago, British novelist and essayist Julian Barnes was asked during an interview with Robert Birnbaum about the novelist Stephen Dixon, author of Frog and Interstate, revered books among a small cadre of readers but mainly missed by the rest of the world. This is what he said:

I think there are similar cases in all literary cultures. On the whole, in the novel, it’s a sort of slow curve. In poetry there are only three places on the podium in Britain and those three poets make a living. All the others are just scrabbling around. In the theater, the curve goes up very sharply, because you make vast amounts of money if you have anything running for a few months anywhere. But, if you are on the fringe, you don’t make anything. But the curve in the novel, on the whole, goes up more slowly. On the whole you make a bit more as you go on, and on the whole the gradations of fame are not so violent. There are always cases of honorable writers who have to do another job to make a living. That’s always been the norm. I think we’re slightly spoiled. And I think American writers [on the whole] are the most spoiled of all. The difference between an American writer and a British writer—I can’t remember who said this—is that when an American writer publishes a novel and wins a prize or something like that, has a success, he or she buys a Volvo—an English writer buys a typewriter.

When Carol Shields died this past summer, a number of radio programs and magazines reran interviews they’d conducted with her after The Stone Diaries won the Pulitzer Prize. I revisited those interviews and thought that she seemed wise in every sense of that word.

She often told the story of looking up the other authors who had won the Pulitzer Prize over the years and noticing that she didn’t recognize the names of half of them, and how this helped her to understand how unlikely it was that she would be remembered for her books after her death. It was a humbling realization, she said. (I can think of only one more humbling thing, and that is the fact that most of us won’t be recognized for our work while we’re still alive.)