word craft


How Publishing Used to Feel

Among FriendsAmong Friends is “a his­to­ry of an indus­try trans­formed by con­sol­i­da­tion and shift­ing tastes.” Recent­ly pub­lished, since it costs two hun­dred dol­lars, I’m not like­ly to read this fas­ci­nat­ing his­to­ry of the recent pub­lish­ing industry. 

That said, I have been part of the indus­try since 1968, when my first book, Things That Some­times Hap­pen, was accept­ed for pub­li­ca­tion. Before actu­al pub­li­ca­tion, that book had four edi­tors because the edi­tors kept switch­ing their employ­ment from one pub­lish­er to anoth­er. That was pos­si­ble because there were so many edi­to­r­i­al jobs avail­able, and the indus­try was booming.

Things That Sometimes Happen

(In revised—and much bet­ter form—that book is still in print.) 

Fur­ther­more, TTSH was a pic­ture book but, before the work on the book was com­plet­ed, the illus­tra­tor float­ed into Mex­i­co for some kind of hal­lu­cino­genic expe­ri­ence. The art direc­tor (who­ev­er that was) fin­ished the art. 

Then by some kind of “mis­take” or so I was told, the book was soon pulled from publication. 

A dif­fer­ent time, indeed.

Such was my intro­duc­tion to the world of the pro­fes­sion­al writer. I have no desire to go back to that experience. 

Since then, over the years I had much bet­ter expe­ri­ences and devel­oped fond and close friend­ships (as well as good, last­ing books) with sev­er­al edi­tors such as Fabio Cohen, Dick Jack­son, and Elise Howard. I had pro­duc­tive rela­tion­ships (and many friend­ships) with­in pub­lish­ing hous­es, in par­tic­u­lar Pan­theon Books, Hype­r­i­on, Simon & Schus­ter, and HarperCollins.

I not only knew many of the peo­ple involved, from mar­ket­ing to copy­edit­ing folk, but these work­ing rela­tion­ships were also friend­ships. Among Friends is a good sum­ma­ry of how pub­lish­ing used to feel. 

Much of that has indeed changed. There are now only four major pub­lish­ers. The read­ing pub­lic has dimin­ished. Where­as book­stores were vital to the indus­try, Ama­zon is the prin­ci­pal source of book­selling. Mar­ket­ing has rad­i­cal­ly shift­ed to social media. The last book tour that had been orga­nized for me was can­celed because of COVID-19. The many school visits—where and when I inter­act­ed with my readers—have shift­ed to vir­tu­al vis­its, not so engag­ing for me. It was not only my read­ers I met, but teach­ers and librar­i­ans. I don’t just miss them, but all those peo­ple helped shape my work. Final­ly, the time it takes to pub­lish a book has length­ened, with the cre­ative inter­ac­tion between edi­tor and writer not as effer­ves­cent and fun. 

And yet, and yet…. 

My writ­ing of books goes on. The desire for qual­i­ty and the strug­gle for that qual­i­ty has not changed and some­times is achieved. I have pub­lished many books, and more (hope­ful­ly) will come. 

So, it’s not real­ly my right to com­plain. Instead, I must adjust to the changes. 

In Among Friends there is the sto­ry that John Le Carre, when­ev­er he got a good pub­lish­ing deal said, “Baby will eat tonight.” My kids feed them­selves, but I might just as well say to my wife, “Good news! The mort­gage will be paid tonight.” 

That part has not changed.

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