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.
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.