a life creative
Some Thoughts on the Publishing Obsession
By Jacqui Dent
I don’t know how, I don’t know why, but I am sure that The Beatles must have worked in a writers’ centre at some stage. I refer, of course, to their song “Paperback Writer”, which is so reminiscent of the calls I receive at work every day that some of these people may as well save their voice and play the song directly down the line.
Consider the following: the whiney tone, the fact that the author clearly has no idea who to address their query to, description of the most boring story in the universe followed by unfounded claims that the book will make a million overnight. And underneath all this you can hear that desperation, that interior monologue chanting, “Publish me! Publish me! Oh please, god, publish me!”
If it didn’t make you want to bludgeon yourself to death with the telephone receiver, you’d almost feel sorry for the guy.
A couple of months ago I interviewed author Charlotte Wood in front of an audience of about thirty aspiring writers. She told us about a similar event she had spoken at where the audience were invited to ask any pressing questions that they had as writers. A lady put up her hand and asked the following question: “What font size should I put my manuscript in when I send it to a publisher?”
To which Charlotte’s response was, “If that is the only question you have today then you will never be a successful writer.” And she was completely right. Let’s put aside for a moment the fact that the answer to this question can be found on Google in about 10 seconds (or through common sense in about 2 seconds), rendering her question not only wildly superficial but also stupendously lazy. Instead, let’s look at this obsession with getting published.
It’s an obsession that would make a woman waste her one chance to ask anything of a highly talented and experienced author. It’s an obsession that causes people every day to hand over thousands and thousands of dollars to vanity publishers, the literary world’s equivalent of fake diet pills: promising the world, taking all your money and leaving you with an extremely sour feeling in your stomach and ten copies of a book that cost you $500 a piece. (That last part is specific only to vanity publishers – as far as I know.) It’s an obsession that has caused me to have to start lying to people when they ask me what I do for a living, lest I find myself badgered for publishing advice from my physiotherapist, my taxi driver, my great aunt, her neighbour, her neighbour’s cousin and all the members of his weekly bridge club.
Even I – cynical as I have been over the past six paragraphs about publication-aspiring writers – secretly harbour that ambition myself. Not even that secretly. So when there is so much want, so much desperation out there over a goal which, let’s be honest, will only be achieved by a tiny fraction of those who seek it, you have to ask: why? Why do you want to be published?
And it’s a good question. For starters, unless your name is JK Rowling, you’re probably not going to make that much money out of it. The majority of published authors that I have met through my work don’t make enough money from their printed works to support themselves. They have to supplement their writing with teaching, speaking engagements and usually some sort of day job. And when you spend two painful years sweating over your masterwork and then earn the grand total of $7000 from it (a real figure one author gave to me), you have to hope that you weren’t in it for the money.
So you don’t want to get published for the cash, or if you do then perhaps you ought to reassess your grip on reality. So then, what? The fame? Okay yes, if you get published, you will get to do some fun things like press interviews, author talks, appearances at festivals and generally enjoy the feeling that people actually care what you have to say. But there isn’t really a huge amount of those opportunities for authors. Not compared with say, being a pop star or a famous actor. The public interest in literature is small, so if celebrity is your goal you’d get a lot more of it pursuing a career in music, movies, TV or, hell, probably even porn.
Once you rule out these two goals, the only conclusion that you can draw is that you want to be published because you want an audience. You want people to read your work. You want to share your thoughts and ideas with the like-minded. This might be an obvious conclusion but once you realise this, ‘getting published’ simply becomes a means to an end. And suddenly not the only means. David Wong published his book John Dies at the End as a web serial on the internet and accrued about 70 000 readers – because it’s freaking awesome. Another author I interviewed recently who complained about the lack of money to be made in publishing novels expressed an interest in simply publishing his next book for free online and generating the revenue from speaking appearances.
Of course, having said all this, I’d still really like to have my book published one day, and I don’t think that anyone should stop trying. But perhaps we all should put this idea of getting published into perspective. Focus on what’s really important – writing the best book you possibly can, keep challenging yourself to do better, go to writers’ talks and events because you love them, read everything you can get your hands on about writers and writing and the industry because you really are interested. And hopefully, in one form or another, you’ll get to share what you’ve written with other people who appreciate it, who will hopefully tell their friends. And who the hell cares what font size you wrote it in.
Jacqui Dent has spent the past two and a half years working at a state writers’ centre whilst writing her novel every night after work. You can read her published (oh yes) short fiction at http://www.jacquident.net. If you’re in Melbourne on Saturday 28 May, come to the Town Hall and see her chair the panel ‘Going Global: how do Aussie authors fare overseas?’ at the Emerging Writers’ Festival.