Measures of Success: What Publishing Your Book Really Means

Duncan Murrell

Carol Shields may have been an exception, but it appears that she didn’t write with the idea that her books would somehow exempt her from the anonymity that is our birthright, yet she seemed to enjoy her writing life anyway. Her publishing success came late in life, and perhaps that’s why she seemed to have it all balanced.

Having it all balanced, though, doesn’t mean working without ambition, even ambition to publish. The completion of the art is in the publishing, with or without the Volvo.

If you write something that only you could write, and you write it well, I believe your work will be found. I came out of my experience in publishing believing in that even more than I believed in it when I began. I witnessed or experienced many of the awful, crass aspects of publishing, and yet I also remember those sweet moments when everything came together for someone deserving, one of those people who had worked for an unfathomable amount of time by themselves on a book they would not compromise, that they would rather have destroyed in the burn barrel than turn into a pack of marketable lies. They were those rare people who, somewhere along the way, found a reason to write that didn’t depend on the goodwill of editors and publishers and critics, who were not much stirred by rejection. Under those conditions—when a mind, an intelligence, a will, is let loose to do what it wants—the most impressive things emerge, fantastic creations of people dreaming worlds to sustain them in their isolation. It’s the originality, maybe even more than the craft, that makes those books stand out. Working on your craft is important, but working on your mind—teasing out that thing you have to say, which was previously unutterable—is even more important. Most people can’t do that when their minds are clouded by concerns about the publishing world, about the latest theories of the Bertelsmann/Viacom/NewsCorp apparatchiks, about the marketplace, about who their agent should be.

I no longer have any interest in the rise and fall of agents, nor in the migration of editors up and down Broadway. Both subjects bore me, although agents and editors themselves are often remarkably smart and interesting people, the kind of people you wish would smile more often, or take up a hobby, or move to the country for a while.

It’s marketing that really bores me, particularly the marketing of books, and especially talking about marketing books. Conversations about why books succeed or fail invariably stray to the ontological, and are as useful and concrete as debates about God’s creation of the termite and why he made it crave wood. If publishers knew why people bought certain books and not others, there would be no warehouses filled with millions of unsold books. In the publishing world, “marketing” is another name for “gambling.” “That horse looks fast and has a pretty name—let’s put our money on him!” Publishers are in the business of selling things that, by and large, people don't know that they want. People don't need your first novel like they need a new set of tires on their car, or a telephone that works. The book offers no certainty about who might buy it, and how many of those people are out there.

This does not stop publishers from trying to achieve a sort of certainty, so they look at books that have done well and they try to spot trends. They don’t look down their noses at a book that’s imitative of a best-seller already published—they embrace it, thinking they can make the sales history of the first book stand in for the (nonexistent) sales history of the second. This is why publishers inundated booksellers with disaster-at-sea narratives after The Perfect Storm came out, culminating in the rather distasteful circling of the vultures that attended the fatal ending of the 1998 Sydney-to-Hobart yacht race, the subject of at least three forgettable books and only one good one. Publishers are constantly going on about their latest book "in the tradition of" something else, "tradition" being a malleable word denoting anything that hasn’t been forgotten after a few months. Chasing trends is a loser’s game, as each subsequent book falls somewhere on the downside of a curve whose apex was marked by the appearance of the first book, which created the so-called market by being original and surprising and popular, and whose nadir is marked by books like the Sydney-to-Hobart accounts, after which the "market" is proclaimed saturated and dead. Rarely does anyone pause to wonder if that "market" ever really existed, if the original book was not sui generis, and if it belonged only to that larger group of books which are simply good.

I write this knowing that the publishing industry is full of people who love books, love reading, love writing. Many are writers in disguise, and are at their happiest when they’re among the kinds of strange, mysterious people they idolized as bookish children—the novelists, the poets, the essayists. Yes, they’re prone to chase trends and to throw a lot of money at obvious and unnecessary books, but that’s how they keep their jobs. Many of those same people, toiling away in one of a succession of windowless rooms, are dying to discover something great, the book that will save them, the book that will make them feel they’re doing something useful. This does not mean that, once they find that book, they’ll be able to make a success out of it. Often publishing such a book means pleading and crying with the money people, and later suffering the sarcastic comments about their precious little literary book while the balance sheets are waved in their faces. Nevertheless, it's worth it every once in a while.

I am buoyed by knowing that there are people throughout the industry looking for that one great book. They may be harassed for and bloodied by the effort, but they’re still there, hiding out in unexpected corners with their piles of manuscripts, just as they’ve always done. And anyway, when exactly was that golden age in which publishing the great books was easy and instantly profitable? I’m not aware of it. The good editors have always been harassed and bloodied.

If you put the writing first, and you have something new to say, your work will be found. I’ve seen it happen everywhere, at all levels of publishing. I believe this so completely that I gave up being an editor in order to write again. I am amused by the industry, and often I get ticked off when I see the kinds of books that are piled up at the front of bookstores, until I remember that those piles don’t mean anything of importance to me. I believe in the publishing industry still, enough to take my crack at it from the other side.

Getting published won’t change my life. Maybe I’ll publish a book, maybe I won’t. Maybe you’ll publish your book, and maybe you won’t. Let’s hope you do, and when you do, I’ll wager this: Somewhere between Little Rock and Newtonville you’ll get tired of your book tour, and eventually the money will run out, and after a few years you'll forget all the readings and all the interviews and all the reviews. But you will remember the day you finally figured out how to open that chapter you wrestled with for half a year, that time when the words just came, and you’ll remember what time it was and how high the sun was in the window and how the floor was cold on your bare feet. You'll one day realize that you miss writing that book, and that you'll never get to write it again.

Those will be your memories of writing and publishing your book, or at least the best ones.

Duncan Murrell was an editor at Algonquin Books for five years. He lives in North Carolina, where he works as a freelance editor and journalist.