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Traditional Publishing: A Poor Exercise in Vanity


A few days ago, the HuffingtonPost published an article by Bernard Starr called "The New Vanity Publishing: Traditional Publishing." In it, he wrote:

I finally realized that Mike was representative of the new quest for vanity publishing. These writers are willing to forego the benefits of self-publishing for the unshakable belief in the "prestige" of signing on with a "real publisher."

Perhaps in some ways, Bernard Starr is right. Maybe some aspiring authors eschew self-publishing in favor of a more traditional publishing model out of a thirst for prestige. Heck, there were times during my own tenure as an uncontracted writer when I felt starved to be part of the elite club of published authors--the few, the chosen. As I sent out query letter after query letter (more than ninety, on three projects, all told), I wondered if traditional publishing was, in more ways than one, an exercise in vain.

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However, having finally made it to the other side of the querying process--having gained not only an agent, but one of those rare Big-6 book deals--I've come to realize how laughable the idea of pursuing traditional publication for ego truly is. Rather than feeling my ego bolstered by the process, I've found that there is always more to learn about the business and the art of writing books.

I once feared the specter of an editorial agent, fancying myself an expert in craft. After all, I thought, agents are primarily business people--what could an expert in sales and contracts tell me about my book that I couldn't see for myself? And yet from her first email to me, my agent displayed an intuitive and surprising understanding of the very heart of my book. For six months, we worked together, taking apart my manuscript and putting it back together again. There were times when I'd experience frustration--surfacing from my office after a particularly lengthy editorial phone call, throwing my hands in the air and telling my husband that we still weren't done editing.

"Well," he'd say, with a glimmer in his eye, "will these changes make the book better?"

At each time I'd sigh and admit that they would.

When we went on submission, I was sure that my book was as good as it could possibly be. We'd worked on it for so long, and I'd been so challenged--intellectually, creatively--by the process of editing with my agent. And yet many of those big New York editors were able to easily find problems in my book. As much as those rejections hurt, they were humbling, too. There was little for me to argue; their detailed, careful reading uncovered so much about my manuscript that I hadn't seen in the year that I'd been working on it.

Even after my book deal--after one of those editors decided to take a risk on my flawed, imperfect book--publishing continued to challenge me. My editor and I went through four rounds of edits. I'd call the process grueling, but it wasn't, not exactly. She, too, understood my vision in an intimate and precise way. Through letters and emails and phone calls, we teased out intricacies of characterization and theme, discussed arc and motivation, and pinned down lapses in worldbuilding that I had missed. A year before, I'd erroneously believed that editors just wanted to make books more commercial--and yet few of the changes I made were commercial concessions. Instead, my editor (and my agent before her) seemed truly concerned with making my book better--tighter, more seamless, and perfectly sound.

In this way, I've found the process to be an extremely humbling one. Rather than propping up my ego--assuring me that I'm one of very few gifted artists--traditional publishing has shown me that there are professionals out there who are smarter, more discerning, and way, way better readers than me. It was their insight and ability that has transformed my manuscript from a pile of raw, wild words into a book.

In discussions about publishing models, I find that editorial agents and editors often get a short shrift. That's not to denigrate self-publishing--each author must follow his or her own path. But I can't imagine walking mine without my agent and editor beside me, providing creative support at every step of the way. Rather than feeding my ego, traditional publishing has taught me that I have a long way to go, and a lot to learn about books. It's helped me see that writing is not always a solitary act. Instead, it can be a communal effort of love, all coalescing around the same goal--to write better books. I can't imagine anything more humbling than that.
Phoebe North

Phoebe writes stories about aliens for teenagers. She loves both Star Trek and Star Wars and doesn't believe you should ever have to choose. She is the author of Starglass and Starbreak, both from Simon and Schuster.

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22 comments:

  1. I read this article-- it was really interesting. Your write up here is excellent. It truly is a curious and exciting time to be a writer.

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  2. Printing those post.

    Calling something traditional is not the same as saying 'old' or 'vintage.' Traditional publishing, like all traditions, is a process which for beginners involves humility and for experts involves a world of respectable knowledge and capability.

    What struck me was your thought: "what could an expert in sales and contracts tell me about my book that I couldn't see for myself?" I think that's the foremost misconception, or at least the basis of misconceptions, against traditional publishing--- the idea that it is entirely economy-business based. We live in an economically oriented world, for the most part, and the cost efficiency and technological accessibility of self publishing, especially on Kindle or other electronic medias, lends to the idea that it is 'better.'

    Writing--- publishing, for all intents and purposes--- in its earliest form was as much for cementing contracts as it was for communication. It's easy to think, see? Business! Economics! Efficiency! Stories, on the other hand, are much older a phenomenon which eventually came to be written--- myths, religions, the lives of the famous--- were all written down, long before Kindle was available or Barnes & Noble had a single shelf.

    Publishing, traditionally, is about preserving. Preserving contracts, preserving stories, preserving literature and history and what have you. Preservation is something so intrinsically human, something so ancient and so relevant, something which constitutes tradition.

    There is, I think, some value to the tradition, and to the experts, the nostalgia, the work, and the constant question, Why am I doing this? Because we're human, and the words are worth it.

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    1. this post, not those.

      Publishing, can, of course, preserve our typos...

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  3. I absolutely love this post, Phoebe. Thanks for your fantastic insight into the traditional publishing process.

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  4. And that's why I'm still querying agents (although your "90 queries on 3 projects" elicited a "ha!")--because I'm looking for a partner. Sort of eHarmony for literary works.

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  5. Brilliant (and refreshingly uplifting) post, Phoebe. I'm even more excited about reading STARGLASS now! :)

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  6. I think this really needed to be said.

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  7. Great post, Phoebe. I am so looking forward to STARGLASS. I am still working on fiction that is good enough to send to an agent but my published nonfiction has always been made so much better because of the questions, sometimes very tough questions, from my outstanding editor. As a reader, I've found that sometimes books by established, bestselling writers suffer because there is a reluctance to challenge what an acknowledged good author has written.

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  8. Love this! It isn't vain at all to give your precious work up to others and have them tear it apart. The original rantings, to me, almost sound like someone who's bitter about not being selected for traditional publishing and is taking it out on people who actually succeeded where s/he failed.

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  9. Great post Phoebe. It's great that you have an agent and publisher who have helped you make our book better. I think we all have to realize that there is a lot of editing left even once you get an agent and publisher. But it's so helpful hopefully. I'll have to check out the article.

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  10. I sometimes think that the bashing of Big 6 and other 'traditional' publishers has a lot more to do with sour grapes than anything else. I've been published as an indie, and I now have an agent and hoping to land a publishing deal with a better, bigger publisher. And why? Not to be part of some upper echelon but to LEARN! I've learned so much from my indie editors already and I strive to learn more from the big wigs of publishing. While I see the pros of self-publishing, I don't want to just be published, I want to be a better writer and that will come from working with the best people in the industry.

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  11. AMEN. traditional publishing is filled with people who are passionate about getting quality books into people's hands. agents and editors live and breathe it the same way writers do. putting a book through that wringer of informed professionals who care deeply? it pushes me (hard) as a writer, as you said. great post!

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  12. Wow. I could have written this word for word (except I haven't received my Ed letter yet...kind of bracing myself). Excellent post.

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  13. Wow, this is almost word for word what I've been thinking! I've looked at self-publishing and read quite a few self-published books. All of them suffer from a lack of editing, even though they have really good stories at their core. I don't want to be like that. Whether I go trad pub or indie press, my criteria is there has to be an editing process. People who post with a limited amount of editing churn out an inferior product that's no fun to read. I've read it. And reviewed it. And been sad afterward.

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  14. I completely agree with you. There's just something special about having an agent and editor to help you through the publishing process. They can get film rights for you, help you market, and (of course) help you make sure your book is the absolute best it can be before it's in print. And they can become close friends. Self-publishing is just so very lonely, in my opinion.

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  15. I completely agree. My editor is my lifeline and she sees things that I don't. I can't imagine working without her.

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  16. I'm still amazed by how many hands and eyes go on a book before it hits the shelves. The average person has no idea of how much help the author receives in getting the novel in tip-top shape. I'm sure they think it popped out of her head in just that condition. Great post!

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  17. I think there's an argument to be made that anyone who attempts to publish (no matter what the mechanism) is engaged in an act of vanity. It's not like we're digging ditches or bagging groceries or working an industrial sewing machine or something. I doubt many people write "because I need a job."

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  18. Thank you so so so much for this post. I have been ADAMANT that I want to give traditional publishing a try before I got anywhere else and your post has only given me more hope for the benefits of doing that.

    This really hammered it in for me. Thanks so much. =)

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  19. Editing is certainly necessary and desirable. That acknowledged, why not simply hire an editor? That way, you get the editorial benefits you found from working with an agent and a publisher, while retaining creative control over both your work itself and the publication schedule, as well as boosting your royalties into a range where you're actually getting paid for your work, and not being tied into draconian contract terms?

    There's no law of nature that says your book can only be edited by a publisher, or that you have to sell yourself into serfdom to obtain this (admittedly valuable, even crucial) service.

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    1. Because I earn a living wage from advance money without having to sell a single copy, among other reasons.

      If it's serfdom, it's very well-paying serfdom, and it's made me feel happy and fulfilled (I assume those who choose self-publishing are themselves happy and fulfilled. That's great! But no need to denigrate the choices of others.)

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  20. I find it hilarious that people are now trying to belittle traditional publishing in order to bolster the implied legitimacy of self-publishing. You know what, if I get picked up by a traditional publisher, yes it will be a boost to my ego. It will make me feel better about my writing, more accomplished. I was CHOSEN. ANYONE can self-publish. To me that isn't the end game to my writing. I don't want to throw it in the pot with the rest of the stew and hope maybe someday someone will taste my different flavor and like it. Because let's face it, I'm not a publicist. I'm not a marketer. I can help, of course, but when the success of my book is put solely on my marketing shoulders I'd cave. No way. I want everything, good and bad, that comes with being traditionally published. Mainly I want to be chosen, to have my work validated by someone other than my close friends and family, to have a company believe in it so much that they're willing to build it up, help me and sell me. If that makes me egocentric I'm okay with it. THAT'S what I'm striving to be with my writing, not following a fade for the sake of following it because some guy said this other way is now shitty. Pass. I want the traditional way. It's not about money with me; it's about ARRIVING. I won't feel I've arrived with my writing if I do what millions of others have done and simply upload it to Amazon and hope for the best. I want the team that actually believes in my writing helping me sell it. I need that.

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Item Reviewed: Traditional Publishing: A Poor Exercise in Vanity Rating: 5 Reviewed By: Phoebe North