The Show Must Go On

As we’ve frequently discussed here, and as has almost become something akin to conventional wisdom, creative endeavors nowadays really can’t expect any degree of support from anywhere. Partly this is due to the economic and social climate, but partly too to the simple fact of over-saturation: millions more people are now expressing themselves – or seeking to express themselves – artistically than has ever been the case in our collective history. That in itself is laudatory, and a real turning point in our evolution. It is also, however, terribly unmotivating to think, to know, that all of your effort will garner nary a glance from the world outside your immediate circles. And often even those within your immediate circles won’t care. It’s a cold planet.

Such for fiction, and maybe par for the course all things considered. Here though is something else I’ve discovered about the more purely professional side of things: it’s similarly closed but for entirely different reasons. And this I’ve found from what you’d expect to be its softest spot – textbooks. Having gone through the long slog of creating, proofing, editing, formatting, and beta-testing an academic writing textbook a co-author and I decided to shop it around a little. Cue the standard hours and hours spent on submission package preparations and the “not taking on new projects” and “not interested” flurry of brief mails in response. Well, one must keep at it. We’ve all heard the stories of “just one more” that landed a contract and bestseller listing. Sure; dreams, hope.

Then a very kind editor based in Singapore responded with something totally unexpected: a real explanation. He told me that textbook publishers now typically hire multiple authors to do separate bit parts, join with an outfit to provide extra media (videos, websites, etc.), and then package the whole thing together. People don’t really “write” textbooks anymore, it seems. The whole thing has gone corporate. That was very enlightening.

I then remembered a friend who left teaching after many years of (very admirable from my point of view) labor in the junior high school trenches and who currently works for a major publisher in their customer service department. I asked him if what I heard is the case at his employer too. He told me that what he’s found, and that what his wife has realized through her own attempts at getting her written works out, is that publishers – nonfiction, fiction, whatever – only show interest after all of the work has been done for them. I’d heard this but wasn’t aware of the extent to which it applies, nor how deeply it runs at all levels. Authors today must either pay a small press or self-pub and “get on the speaking circuit” (as he put it), giving lecture tours, touting, marketing, generating buzz, and oh by the way I’ve got some copies available on the back table. After thousands and thousands of books have been sold suddenly a publisher might become interested.

You can no doubt see where I’m going with this. We’re writers, not salespeople, and very few of us, I would imagine, have the time or even access to something like a book tour. At least, beyond in the local sense. Yet this is the game that must be played. How to respond? There are many options to choose from, and each will naturally be highly dependent on circumstances, but no less on personal attitudes. If one can make peace with doing the thing for the thing itself then in my view that’s probably the best bet, at least as far as mental health goes. That’s a hard road for many though, and a painful one, a diminishing one, a coming-to-terms one. Dreams, hope: they haunt, they are specters. “Success” can after all be found in multiple modes, layers, nuances, but if it’s the traditional sense of the word that you’re after then it appears you’d better invest in a good travel bag.


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