By Toni McGee Causey
One of the most frustrating things about teaching new writers the ins and outs of publishing is trying to communicate just how subjective the business is. Grasping just how subjective the business can be is perhaps one of the first real steps into grasping the business itself — moving from starry-eyed newcomer to experienced writer. Those steps? Can be torture. Because when you do finally grasp just how random and coincidental and subjective the business can be, you finally have to acknowledge that you cannot control it. You move from being the God of the world you created to the person subject to an enormous amount of whims and choices beyond your control. If you’re a control freak (and I think most writers are, to a degree, especially about their own work), it’s positively painful to realize that your control can’t extend much further than who you query or whose offer you accept, should an offer be proffered.
I was teaching a few weeks ago at one of the library events I do throughout the year, and it was a crash course on publishing. The event was very well attended and several of the attendees came chock full of questions (which is wonderful — the time flew). But we kept circling around to the notion that they might not have control over some of the things they thought they’d get to choose about their books. Like cover. (coughcoughinyourdreamscough) If you’re really lucky, the publisher/editor will ask for your input and/or feedback once they have some designs, and if you really loathed something, hopefully they’d take that into account and not inflict you with a terrible cover, but often, they have reasons that go far beyond what you saw for the book … reasons that have more to do with market research and what’s selling well and what just hit the bestseller lists and on and on — none of which may be right for your book, but that’s impossible to predict.
When I was discussing this with the group, talking about subjectivity in general, I tried to use the dress metaphor. (I lost the men almost immediately.) We were talking about why not every editor will love every book, even when a book might go on elsewhere, and become a bestseller. Today, however, I had the perfect example right in front of me.
I’m in New Orleans. CJ Lyons is down teaching and I scampered over today to hang out during her down time today. CJ knew that one of my goals today was to take the time to look around at some of the galleries here for art. I’ve been doing some remodeling in my house and I have almost no art up anymore. Some things I just outgrew, some things I’m simply tired of, and mostly, my tastes had grown and changed over the last few years, so that what I wanted now was different. We meandered in and out of several galleries, and I suddenly imagined what an editor feels like when they’re perusing stacks and stacks of manuscripts: overwhelmed with the choices.
There are so many great artists out there, so many of them right here on this one street (Royal) that I could spend hours and hours angsting over the choices to be had. I didn’t have hours and hours, and I had a budget in mind, should something happen to grab my attention. And when you have that many choices in front of you–so many of them great–you have to create your own criteria to help whittle down the choices so that you can actually buy something.
For example, I eliminated certain styles of art immediately. I appreciate looking at them, I appreciate what the artist is doing (or tying to do), and I can see the value in them, see the impressive skills … but the bottom line was, I didn’t want to live with it. I didn’t want to wake up day in and day out and see it. It wasn’t going to bring me joy on that level, and it wasn’t something that spoke to me or resonated with me in a way that gave me new pleasure, every time I looked at it. An editor (and an agent) goes through this–they know that whatever they sign, they are going to be seeing it for a long long time. Maybe not day in and day out, but they’re going to be reading and re-reading and thinking about it and talking about it and figuring out how to do more with it and market it and then get it as much promotion as humanly possible. If it doesn’t really speak to them? That a lot of time to spend on something that is just technically good. If you had the choice of spending a lot of time on something technically good vs. something that blew you away, which would you do? Assuming they cost roughly the same, or both could at least be purchased by you — you’d be crazy not to pick the latter.
Once I had automatically eliminated the obvious things that weren’t in my tastes/zone, I had to start whittling down the remaining choices. Many of them were beautiful works. Some were paintings, some were photographs. This is where budget and space contraints came into play. I could have spent more on something, if I’d found the exact right thing that grabbed my heart and held on and made me want to sit in front of it for hours, just mesmerized. I was willing to go there, for something like that. For the smaller things I was looking at, I loved what the photographer had done, (and it speaks to something I’m doing in my new work), so it resonated with me deeply and I knew that I would enjoy these smaller pieces. I saw a slightly bigger item at that same gallery which impressed me, but not enough for me to go so far over my comfort zone, budget wise. I bought the smaller pieces, and am not only happy with the purchases, I know I’m going to enjoy looking at them again and again.
A few shops later, I saw two pieces that I flat out loved. They were amazing works of art and I wanted them. Wanted. But there were two issues that prevented me from having an automatic “yes.” (1) I wasn’t sure if I had the right spot for them. You don’t buy something that large and that dynamic without knowing where you’d hang it, and I wasn’t sure if I even had the right place. (2) I wasn’t sure it was ultimately what I wanted. If I was going to blow my budget by that much, I had to feel like it was something I couldn’t live without. Something I’d feel bereft at losing. Something I’d lament not having, day after day.
An editor is faced with the same sort of issues. There are small projects she/he will love and/or enjoy and while they may not be masterpieces, they are something the agent/editor connects to and will not mind living with for a long while through the course of the book. But for an editor to spend a lot of money on a big project, they have to have two things going in: they have to absolutely love it in order to convince those with the actual money to part with said money and they have to believe, in the world of their business, that this gamble is going to pay off. In my art choices, I only have to gamble my daily satisfaction–I’m stuck with something that expensive, and if it turns out to be a bad choice, I don’t want to have to be reminded about it day after day. But imagine if you are not only reminded of it … imagine if your job hinged on its success. If you’ve got the passion for a project and tout it up the ladder and convince everyone to spend a lot of money (both on the project and on marketing) and then it doesn’t sell? Your career as an editor could be over or in serious jeopardy. So you’ve got to really really love the work to go that distance. Even for an established writer, with a built-in audience.
It’s a subjective world. We can’t control the business, and we can’t say “I’ll be happy when …” and then put things like “sell” or “sell X number of books” or “hit X list” at the end of that sentence, because those things are outside of our control. The only thing we can do is control the quality of the work. Do the very best we can do and put it out there, in as many ways as possible, to interest the one right buyer (gallery [art] or agent [books]) who can then get it to the right audience. We need to look at the work for satisfaction, not the career trajectory, because to do anything else is to court insanity. The day everything goes really well and we think we can take the credit for that? Is the day we’ve bought back into the delusion and no good can come of that.
So love the work. Enjoy the process and the people you meet along the way. Don’t worry about all of the other things beyond your control. Do the best you can do to educate yourself about the process, of course, and the best you can do to put your work into the rights hands, and then let go and move on to the next work. (Unless you’ve self-published, which brings with it a host of problems, because you have to do everything yourself.) If you want the NY publishing career, know that, at best, you will control only a little of it, and that is mostly what you put on the page.
The good news is, there are lots of people with lots of different tastes. With a little education and tenacity, you can get your work in front of many of those people and increase you chances for good luck.