NYR iOS app Android app More

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors
John Joss

GET UPDATES FROM John Joss
 

Help Me Understand Why We Have So Many Misunderstandings About Book Writing

Posted: 01/04/12 11:27 AM ET

You remember books, surely? Those oblong things made of paper that contained words and, often, wisdom. Carry them anywhere, read them anywhere, no batteries needed, no need to turn them off on an airliner, ever. Handed down, they can be read by dozens, scores, hundreds more readers, at zero cost. They are 100% recyclable.

"If they asked me (I could write a book)" -- thanks, Richard Rogers and Lorenz Hart. Lovely words with important meaning. But writing books is not easy. It takes -- gasp, shudder -- thought. One captain of industry (a household name) once rejected a book proposal about his pioneering company with these words: "I don't need help with a book. I've written term papers." I wanted to explain the difference but he had no 'receive' mode, only 'transmit.' He didn't have the time to write it, either.

Many of my acquaintances want to write a book or, having written one, want to get it published, in an era of horrendous media upheaval and hard times in the traditional publishing arena. I ask them always to consider the facts of life in this age of bottom-line, 'pull' publishing in which publishers rarely support new authors, except via personal introduction by insiders. If you have a publishing ambition, consider these realities:

If you get a great, original idea for a book -- fiction or nonfiction;
And if you have the skill, energy and dedication to write it;
And if, preferably, you're a young, female MFA of 'desirable' ethnicity, and can
regurgitate childhood memories (often masquerading as 'fiction');
And if you manage to hit a cultural fad window successfully;
And if you know a friendly editor to straighten you out before submission;
And if you have the courage, skill and will to edit your own work meticulously;
And if you can find the right professional agent to represent your oeuvre;
And if that agent reads your work, likes it and agrees to represent you;
And if that agent knows a publisher's editor by first name who might like it because
it lies precisely in his or her area of interest or genre;
And if that editor likes it enough to put in on his or her work list;
And if it survives the competition vs. the house's other projects;
And if the book acquires production values and a publicity budget to promote the
work (i.e. publisher investment based on estimated potential revenues);
And if the critics, reviewing perhaps one in a hundred books, review and like it;
And if the media, handling few per hundred offerings, use the review;
And if the distribution system, selling >95% by volume and taking <5% by title of
books offered (mostly from 'name' writers), accepts and distributes the book;
And if enough word-of-mouth recommendation generates worthwhile sales
numbers and long-term attention for the work;
Then maybe, just maybe, you will have published a successful book.

Don't try to spend the money until the check clears. The odds of the above happening -- all must, serially, for success -- are one in hundreds of thousands and may take years or decades. Odds are higher that you'll be struck by lightning or win the lottery, or shrivel and die of old age. I've written 20 books, have been published in New York (Morrow, fiction; Ballantine, nonfiction) but I can't get my stuff read -- 500 agent queries in the last three years: 0 results. Welcome to the writing life.

Or am I perhaps suffering from delusions of adequacy? If you comment, please be kind.