The Writer’s Life is thrilled to welcome Jacqueline Cangro, editor, published author and creative writing teacher, who will be penning a series of guest posts about the craft and business of writing from the editor’s point of view. Welcome, Jackie!
Okay, that wasn’t a big revelation, but I’m always surprised by the number of people who seem to think publishers should issue books out of the goodness of their hearts. Usually it is the same people who are absolutely aghast at the price of a book, yet willingly plunk down the same amount of money or more to take their family to a movie. Why is that? Make no mistake, publishers, from indie presses to big six houses, are here to make money. If they didn’t, I would certainly be out of a job because I work for one of them.
With each new manuscript signed on, there is always the hope that it will win an award or become a bestseller or make Oprah’s book club selection, but sometimes a book just doesn’t take off in the marketplace and, much to everyone’s disappointment, it has to be sent to the big library in the sky. I have seen contracted books canceled just before going to press because the pre-sales numbers weren’t high enough to support the cost of printing. I have also seen some of my favorite titles put out of print because sales had slowed to a trickle.
When I’m at these meetings, I get a knot in the pit of my stomach because I am also an author. I imagine that other author, the one who will receive a phone call telling her that she will not be the next Joyce Carol Oates, has toiled away for years in a dingy coffee shop spending every spare moment perfecting each word while submitting page after page to her workshop group and pulling her hair out over the third and then fourth novel revision. I am just guessing, of course.
It’s true that the people working in publishing houses who are making these decisions are not typically authors themselves. They are number-crunching suits. That’s not a bad thing. Their eyes are focused on the overall health of the company so that it can continue its mission to find the next Joyce Carol Oates. Let’s face it, if I was in the director’s chair, I would never say no to any author. Clearly that’s not the smartest business model because, remember, publishers are here to turn a profit.
Maybe it seems cold-hearted to be so calculating. Books are not toothpaste. There is an emotional and cultural role that books play in our lives. They are one of the touchstones of our society. I’ve never had that kind of connection with toothpaste.
I believe the creative process should remain sacred. We writers follow our hearts and tell the truth through our characters. The old maxim, It’s not personal; it’s business, is only partly true. The art of storytelling is in fact personal. But the moment that manuscript leaves our hands it becomes business. That is true whether you send your book into the world via a traditional house, an indie press or self-publish.
With the publishing industry changing on an almost daily basis, it’s important for writers to be able to wear a creative hat and a business hat to make the most of every opportunity that comes our way.
Jacquelin Cangro’s first book, The Subway Chronicles: Scenes from Life in New York (Penguin/Plume), is a collection of essays about the New York City subway system. Her follow-up The Subway Chronicles: More Scenes from Life in New York is now available on Kindle. This fall she will be teaching online classes in creative writing and novel pitches at The Loft Literary Center.