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Boston Globe: Five Laws of the Novelist

An article in this morning’s Boston Globe picks up rather nicely where we left off last week. On Thursday, Brittany expressed her frustration with the process of finding a publisher and I wrote a rather lengthy comment about publishing in general (which hopefully helps spur our writers to action, rather than prompts them jump out the window). In the Globe, Stephen Bergman wryly illuminates the publishing process in “Five Laws of the Novelist“:

Law Two: Editors Are Ephemeral and Don’t Edit. The editor of my first novel moved to another publishing house for my second. In the middle of my third, at another publishing house, she was fired, and my new editor, after sending me terrific edits, was fired the next day. The editor on my fourth novel, at still another publishing house, said, “I love this novel. I won’t change a word.’’ But when I got the manuscript back she had marked it up with so much red pencil that each page was pink. We struggled. I took few of her suggestions. In our final conversation she said, “You’ve ruined this book. It will get bad reviews,’’ and then she was fired. As one editor told me: “We no longer edit, we acquire and market.’’

Law Three: Publishers Don’t Publish. When my first novel was about to come out, I asked my publisher if it would sell. “No, your novel won’t sell.’’ This startled me. “It’s about medicine, and that’s good, and it’s funny and sexy, and that’s good.’’ Why won’t it sell? “Because it’s a good book. Good books don’t sell.’’ Bookstores can return any book for a full refund, a business model that spells doom for publishing. Only about 5 percent of books pay back their advance. Those hardcover remainders piled up in stores mean that the publishers overpaid, overprinted, and undersold.

Law Four: There Is No Humiliation Beneath Which a Writer Cannot Go. My second novel had come out in paperback, and my wife and I were on a hiking trip in New Hampshire. We stopped in a mom-and-pop store for lunch. There, in a spindle bookrack, were two copies of my novel. I immediately suspected my wife had placed them there, to make me feel good. Nope. I took both books off the rack and went up to the little old lady at the counter, and announced, “I wrote this book.’’

“Oh, you wrote that book?’’ she asked.

I averred yes. I asked if she would like me to sign the copies.

“Oh no, our folks would never buy a book that was writ in.’’

Another standard humiliation: At an author-signing in a bookstore, sitting at a desk near the window, facing a wall of Grishams, watching people hurrying past as if you are a child molester. Not fun, especially if your publisher has overlooked advertising the event.

Law Five: There Is Only One Reason To Write. During a post-second-novel depression, I spent six months, more or less, in the bathtub, trying to give up being a writer. Finally I realized that while I disliked publishing, I still loved writing. But if you want to respect what you write (rather than write for cash), you need a day job. Luckily, decades previously I faced a choice: between Vietnam or Harvard Med. I became a psychiatrist because I might learn about character and story, and could leave mornings free to write. Not as good a day job as my first, working the graveyard shift as a toll collector on the Rip Van Winkle Bridge – you can learn pretty much everything from what goes on at night in cars – but still.

Only write if you can’t not.

Read the full piece here. Then, get back to work!

4 Comments Post a comment
  1. oh good, and yes, i took your and his words as a chalennge to continue to write, because, well, i have to, not just to sell but to not blow my brains out – which is an extreme way to say that i can’t live without it.

    it’s not what i do – like being a mother, it’s what i am. which is why so many of us are torn so thoroughly between the two, don’t you think?

    July 20, 2009
  2. I, too, took Miranda’s words to heart. I am currently writing a guaranteed page turner, a book so coveted by my reader that it will be like “selling water to a fish”. It’s a picture book/memoir, coming out in hardcover at Christmas-time, called Sam’s Year of Trains, courtesy of mypublisher.com. 🙂

    July 20, 2009
  3. haha! that is definitely writing to a specific market!

    July 20, 2009
  4. I’m glad he put the last one in there; I was waiting for it.

    Off to write.

    July 20, 2009

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