It is almost 6 pm, and I am listening to Jay McInerney’s ‘Bright Lights, Big City’ on audiobook. The evenings are becoming lighter, and my life feels chaotic due to my upcoming house move. I have just ordered Tolstoy’s ‘War and Peace’ online, and I wonder if the book was published today, would it be the same story we know now. Today, publishing is far more cutthroat than in Tolstoy’s day. When you send your manuscript to a publisher, you give it to numerous strangers. Publishing a book has become quite a family affair in recent decades.
Your book will change hands. Editors, Researchers, Marketers, Book Cover Designers, and more will make their mark on your work at some point. Your book becomes public property before it reaches the wider world. If ‘War and Peace’ were published today, I am confident that more than half of it would be left on the cutting room floor. We are told to listen to these people portrayed as omniscient beings, which they aren’t. When I was seventeen, I got into a discussion with an indie press. I expressed my desire to self-publish, and they told me that I was making a big mistake. They claimed that all self-published authors are doomed to fail, and I should listen because they know more than I do. I knew what was right for me, and I had already learned quite a bit about the industry.
With my father in agreement, I ignored their warnings and went ahead. Self-publishing affords authors complete control of their work. You won’t have voices in your ears telling you that you should take out a few sentences because it somehow makes it better, nor do you have to wait two years to see the book published. There are so many benefits, but there are negatives due to the elitism of our industry. Self-published books don’t tend to find themselves on the shelves of bookstores. You must do your research before making this decision, but I can’t recommend it enough. Remember that you are your marketing team. It is solely down to you to get people to read your book.
Nowadays, people lead with the publishing house rather than the author when discussing books. Mentioning the writer comes second only to those who put your words into something tangible. Everyone needs to be credited for their work, but it feels like nobody cares about the author when it comes to publishing. It’s not about the apple; it’s about the eventual apple pie. In no other industry do so many people push you to let others fiddle with your work because they think they can make it better. While I do find it infuriating, I am also fascinated by it. The disregard for the author coincides with the slow death of individualism. Some people believe that there can be no such thing when we heavily rely on others, which I will admit is valid to an extent.
However, one person does the heavy lifting when it comes to creative output. What happens after is additional work, but it is in no way comparable to the gestation period. If you speak up about being uncomfortable with changes to your manuscript, you risk being labelled as ‘difficult to work with’. Or, you will be accused of having an ego when all you want is to ensure the book published is as you intended. The frontrunners of publishers talk to one another, and for your genuine concerns, you may be ostracised. It should make perfect sense to fight to retain your voice, but the industry sees it as odd.
An emotional connection to your writing is only ok if you accept that others know what is best for your story. No questions allowed. But, if you decline those changes, being emotionally attached to your work is terrible. This may seem exaggerated, but it is what I have witnessed in the many years I have spent at the forefront of this business. Personal integrity is something that every author needs. Without this, you are in danger of losing the vision you had for your book. Without authors, there wouldn’t be much for publishers to do. While I acknowledge the work that goes into publishing, I must press the importance of remembering who provides the material.
The ability to send my work out into the world is enriching and exciting, but I cannot help thinking about the publishing industry as a whole. Ernest Hemingway notoriously had problems with his British editor, Jonathan Cape, who had omitted a few expletives from his non-fiction work, ‘Death in the Afternoon’. Hemingway made no bones about letting him know in a scathing letter sent on 19th November 1932.
“You’ve bollixed up my book!”
I sympathise with Hemingway, for I know all too well how it feels to see your work massacred. Although, he was far braver than me in expressing what he thought to the culprit. For an author, everything is intentional, down to the last period. To be a writer is to be forever tied to the written word with an umbilical cord and no desire to pick up the scissors.