While I lived in Japan for a year after graduating from college, I did something that offended my distant relatives. I can’t remember exactly what it was, but I recall lying on my futon in an adjoining tatami room and hearing my grandmother explain my behavior to the relatives. "She’s gaijin," she was telling them in Japanese. "She really doesn’t know."
Well, for those who missed the "Shogun" miniseries, being called a gaijin is not a good thing. It literally means "outside person" or foreigner. Basically some fool who doesn’t know better. But to plead my case, I have to tell you that the "rules" in Japan are unspoken. They are definitely there, but no one really articulates them, so you have to step in a minefield to discover what’s really going on and perhaps lose an arm and leg in the process.
I often see parallels between the American publishing world and the Japanese world, both relationship-driven universes. There are certain rules and truths that outsiders don’t know. And yes, as writers, we think that we are insiders because we look the part, our names are part of the system, we can speak the language, we even act like we know. But oftentimes we don’t.
We author bloggers try to posit ourselves as experts, presenting our loyal readers with anecdotal evidence about the "truths" of publishing. But most of us don’t know. Publishing is a more complicated animal, an amoeba that takes different shapes and forms, constantly changing and yet utterly constant at the same time.
I recall reading that Laura Lippman once stated that she was concerned about publishing advice being spread by the web. Not wanting to rely on my faulty memory, I e-mailed her recently and she elaborated in her reply: "My primary worry is that so much info on the Internet is packaged as ‘the’ way, as opposed to one way. There is no single way."
"Good people get dropped," she went on to say. "It would be foolish to pretend otherwise. Good books don’t get the attention they deserve. But there are no simple solutions to these problems and I worry that certain approaches achieve Holy Grail status."
Basically, she expressed, those working at mainstream publishing houses do know a lot more than we authors give them credit for. I think there’s something to Laura’s words of wisdom. Yes, our own personal experience may seem like "the truth," but it’s not the whole truth. It might be an aberration, in fact.
If you want more of a big-picture reality of the publishing industry, I would point you to down under, specifically the Australian Publishers Association, who sponsors a fellowship program for writers and publishers from Australia to spend time in U.S. publishing houses and literary agencies.
I think it was Sarah Weinman’s website that turned me on to these reports a while back and I found them illuminating. I recently returned to see that a 2003-2004 report had been added, filed by Rowena Lennox. They are long, more than 70 pages, and more geared towards Australian and personal interests. They are also dated; one report is from 1999 and the second, 2001.
You’ll find superfluous information here about apartment-hunting in Manhattan and AOL hookups (yes, they are dated), but they are also fascinating.
The beauty of these reports are that they are filed by gaijin, new to this country and the New York business scene. Nothing is taken for granted in these reports–the configuration of American chain bookstores, the unique nature of New York publishing houses, the personalities of New York newspapers.
There’s detailed descriptions about the various departments in publishing houses, covers, Internet publicity, and bookstores, along with some corresponding numbers.
Again, with the time lag, there are changes, I’m sure. For instance, the situation of the mass-market book seems different in 2006 than two years earlier. Costco and other big-box stores play a larger role than ever before. Yet the general rigmarole involved in buying and producing a book has most likely stayed constant. What is also apparent is the dedication of editors and other publishing professionals in producing the best book possible.
As I scan these reports, it occurs to me that we writers don’t really have to understand all the details of the industry. We authors really see only a small slice of the larger pie and perhaps we need to do more of what we do best–write. Of course, we still have to have an eye on self-promotion because while the publishers have hundreds of books to shepherd, we just have ours. I just hope that Murderati readers realize what we are offering here on this blog is merely suggestive, not prescriptive.
The irony of it all is that sometimes it does take a gaijin to explain the system.
HOT SUMMER READ: Christine Bell of Mystery and Imagination Bookshop turned me on to Richard K. Morgan’s ALTERED CARBON and it’s been my beach reading for the past couple of days. Morgan’s debut features Takeshi Kovacs, an Envoy from Harlan’s World, a Japanese-East European planet–what would have happened if my ancestors and Harley Jane Kozak’s got together. Most of this futuristic noirish novel takes place in Bay City, formerly San Francisco. It’s got gore, sex, and violence and it’s also incredibly inventive and well-written. A definite page-turner. Brett Battles, I would definitely recommend this for you.
WEDNESDAY’S WORD: hakujin (SNAKESKIN SHAMISEN, page 1)
White person. Literally. Haku is one way to read the character shiro, the more popular way to say "white." "Jin" is another way to read the character hito, the more popular way to say "person."