No, Not Anyone Can Write a Good Book
Working in the publishing industry can let you think you know all there is to know about publishing a book, until you set out to write one.
I went into book publishing for the same reason I suspect most people are drawn to the field: I loved books and dreamed of one day writing my own. I started as an editorial intern and transitioned to publicity in academic publishing, small independent presses, and finally the big leagues: the Random House Publishing Group.
By day I’d stuff galleys (or advance copies of a book, in industry-speak) into envelopes, craft press releases, and leave prattling messages while trying to hide the tremble in my voice to newspaper editors who deliberately screened calls from book publicists like me. By night I’d scribble pages toward a novel turned memoir turned essay collection and back to a novel again—a racket that went on for five years before I finally quit publishing to pursue my MFA (and had to scrap that nebulous manuscript and start afresh).
It’s not uncommon to see industry professionals making the leap from publishing to published. Toni Morrison famously edited Random House authors before becoming one herself. Morrison is joined at the Knopf imprint of Random House by forthcoming debut novelist of The Muse and current Farrar, Straus, and Giroux Publisher Jonathan Galassi. Galassi was previously an editor at the little Random imprint, which published former Viking Associate Editor and The Kiss author Kathryn Harrison. Harrison overlapped with both Daniel Menaker, previously Executive Editor-in-Chief of Random House, fiction editor of The New Yorker, and author of most recently My Mistake; and publicist Jynne Martin, now poet and Associate Publisher of Riverhead. Riverhead is the imprint that published essayist (and forthcoming FSG novelist of The Clasp) Sloane Crosley. Crosley once publicized Morrison’s Vintage paperback reissues, which brings this game of literary Kevin Bacon round full circle, and then some.
For me, working in publishing—much like writing a novel—was a job with highs and lows but not much in between. There was the rush of my first major media hit: a feature for an author in the Style section of the Washington Post. My first New York Times bestseller. There was that one time in the Colbert Report green room when Stephen Colbert himself said hi—out of character—and shook my hand.
I’ve been humiliated by a famous agent whose spouse had a thin crowd at a book event. Stranded on the side of Fifth Avenue after The New York Is Book Country Festival with a collapsible bookshelf, boxes of unsold books, a handtruck, and the weekend key to our crosstown office. There was the one (now defunct) house I worked at that simply published too many books for the small staff we had—it felt like cheaply paid authors were thrown at the market like fistfuls of spaghetti, in the hopes that one would stick.
And there were mixed experiences, like the time I landed a hard-earned national morning TV booking for a first-time author…only for him to send a stand-in for the interview. While he and his friends laughed over their prank, I had to face our legal department, the producer, and the network. (A big regret in my publishing career is that I took my boss’ advice and remained calm, instead of punching that author in the face.)
My fellow new to publishing colleagues and I would frequent two-for-one happy hours, which were all our meager salaries (offset, I suppose, by galleys galore and canapés at the occasional after-party) allowed. We’d grouse about our authors—like the one mentioned above—just as we’d talk passionately about the very ones who got us into this business in the first place. We were all in this good fight together.
Forty-year publishing veteran Galassi (to whom the other Jonathan, Franzen, co-dedicated Freedom) also notes this camaraderie in the industry. “There’s a sense of solidarity in the work that remains the same today, though the business has changed enormously in all sorts of ways. But it’s still absolutely Us Against the World.”
But the same impetus that led me to publishing was the reason that I decided to leave. In an interview on The Days of Yore, Harrison says, “When you work in publishing, you can spend an endless amount of time working. You take work home. After I had been doing it for about six months, my husband said, ‘This is really stupid. You spend all your time working on other people’s writing, but you’re not getting any done yourself. I want you to change that.’”
Her words, or rather her husband’s, echo, in part, my own decision to quit. I told myself if I didn’t make a break now in my late twenties to follow my dream, I never would. I left the industry and my native New York behind in that pursuit. That was seven years ago.
Former Vintage and Columbia University Press editor Peter Dimock also describes the moment he vowed to go full-steam with his own writing—no matter how long it took. After a phone editing session with one of his authors, he suddenly felt “a surge of bitterness and resentment that came close to rage. I realized I was jealous because no one was doing for me what I was doing for him—and that was what I most wanted.”
Having worked in the business made me think I knew how the sausage factory was run, but in continuing with this oft-used publishing metaphor, I knew nothing about raising the pig from which the sausage was made. As difficult as it was to publish and promote books in a shrinking market, I soon learned it was that much harder to write one in the first place.
Signe Pike, author of the travel memoir Faery Tale and former assistant editor at Ballantine and editor at Plume, says that despite the many challenges they face, “editors have the easy job. I've always known that, but it wasn't until I sat down on deadline that I truly understood it. I thought I appreciated my authors, but I had unwittingly taken their talent for granted.”
Part of the difficulty with writing is that it’s an unruly, inefficient process. I’d create painstaking outlines, only to off-road the narrative. I wrote longhand in spiral notebooks—for every ten words I put down, I’d cut nine. Then I’d type up my work, print it out, and edit again by pen. I scribbled fake diary entries to get in the head of minor characters, only for those characters to be eliminated in the next draft. In a misguided moment (among the many), I took the passing advice of a writing instructor who found my protagonist “distant” and rewrote half a year’s work from the first-person voice to the third—only to return eventually to the first-person. It’s a process that generates a lot of waste. Years’ worth of work ended up on the cutting room floor.
Menaker, who averages about a book a decade (with the exception of the recent burst of two books in two years), describes the challenges of being both professional editor and author. “At first, working as an editor set up a kind of static—interference—in the would-be and then actually-is writing part of my brain. Others’ voices kept on shouting down my own. But after awhile, they quieted and became more ruly, and turned into contributors to and inspirations for my own writing ‘voice,’ such as and whatever it is.”
I found the writing life to be lonely; it requires large blocks of time and depletes your mental reserves. You no longer have the security—or prestige—of an office job, nor the benefits that come with a steady paycheck. For years I took odd jobs carved around those writing blocks with nothing to show for my glacial novel progress, while I watched my publishing colleagues rise through the ranks. I’ve even bagged the groceries of some of them, which I’ll admit is a bit of an awkward experience.
It’s rather surreal for me now to be on the reverse end of the process, as a published novelist. I have a deep appreciation for the efforts of my publicists at Pamela Dorman Books/Viking, but I also recognize the irony of becoming the annoying author who sends them ten emails a day. I remember when I was once in their place—fielding those pesky messages, venting over drinks with colleagues. I hope I’m nothing more than a cameo in those happy hour conversations.
Sloane Crosley shares her thoughts on also being a former publicist with a publicist. “I don’t think you need to be in my position or yours to guess how it might be strange. What would it be like if an A&R person put out a record? Would you want to be the publicist assigned to that album? It could be a great experience for everyone, it could be a living nightmare. As an author who knows better, you just try your best not to be the latter.”
At this point I’ve been out of publishing for longer than I was actually in it, but the unfair advantage that experience gave me is that I already know nothing comes easy in this industry: cracking into it in the first place (it took years of applying to secure my first unpaid internship), writing a book (see above), landing a book deal (despite connections in the industry or not), and promoting a book that doesn’t get “remaindered” (i.e. sent straight to the bargain bin). The barriers of entry at each step feel particularly punishing, as if deliberately designed to weed most out.
You learn to temper your expectations. You also savor the rare moments of triumph, no matter how small.
For most aspiring writers, the book deal is the be-all-end-all. But Dimock has a different take. After that watershed phone call with his author, he kept his vow, and a decade later he finally completed a draft of his first novel A Short Rhetoric for Leaving the Family. (Fourteen years after that, he published novel number two: George Anderson.) “I had done my part in coming as close as I could to expressing accurately what I most wanted to say, and now I was free of it. That was utter happiness.”