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Publishing Troubles

June 23, 2015 — 7 Comments

chaucerDespite C.S. Lewis’ vast experience as an author, even he was abused by publishers to the point where he could simply echo Chaucer in saying, “Flee from the Press!”

Print on demand technology has delivered a stout, but not debilitating, blow to traditional publishers. They still possess a significant amount of influence.

And—like all power—that which is wielded by publishers can be used for either good or evil.

We can thank many different publishers for making the works of Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien and their fellow Inklings available to us. We would be wrong, however, to assume these relationships were without their stresses.

John H. McCallum was an American editor with whom Lewis worked. McCallum worked at Harcourt, Brace & World.

A piece of correspondence from 1960 reveals how complex the publishing world remained even to a veteran such as Lewis.

McCallum had sought permission to publish Lewis’ latest work, and the Cambridge professor had sought to accommodate that request. Unfortunately, he had negotiated a contract that restricted him from doing so. He begins his letter of explanation with an apology for having taken so long to respond.

Dear Mac

‘Why the heck can’t C.S.L. have the civility to answer a letter?’ I don’t blame you, but it wasn’t exactly my fault. Like a fool, I dealt direct with C.U.P. [Cambridge University Press] for Studies in Words instead of working through [his regular literary agent] Curtis Brown: chiefly because I regarded this book as too academic to be of any serious commercial value.

And like a double fool I’ve let them take it up so that I’m not free to arrange for an American edn. with anyone else.

The delay in answering you is due to the fact that I’ve been all this time trying to get out of them whether this is exactly what my contract with them means. It is. But of all the impenetrable block heads! Their answer—the correspondence was long and infuriating—dealt with every question under the sun except the one I had asked (besides being unintelligible and contradictory).

I am sorry about all this. How well Chaucer advised us ‘Flee fro the Presse’!

Yours Lewis, C.S.

Dealing with publishers today remains challenging. They are, in a sense, gatekeepers. One of their roles is to prevent undeserving works from seeing print. Unfortunately, because literary tastes are utterly subjective, they bar many worthwhile manuscripts as well.

For that reason, we can be thankful that digital publishing allows quality works that would formerly have been overlooked to find their audience. The price of that boon, however, is that we must sometimes wade through major quantities of dregs to savor fine writing.

The majority of writers, given the opportunity, would prefer to be published by traditional publishing houses. There is no way around the fact that this adds a degree of status to most books. A recent poll supports this notion. It found among those published traditionally, “32% of respondents said the prestige of having a deal with a traditional publisher was important to them, while a further 54% said it was one of the appealing aspects of a traditional publishing deal.”

If we should ever seek “publication” for our own work, it is good to remember that the publishing business could puzzle even as gifted a writer as C.S. Lewis. If the author of so many impressive books could be mystified by it, it’s no wonder it seems labyrinthine to the likes of us.

Perhaps Chaucer’s advice, offered more than 500 years ago, really does ring just as true today.

autographThe advent of the internet instigated some confusion about what it means to “be published.” That accolade is, of course, the dream of most women and men who write.

To be published—historically speaking—has meant that your words have been:

  1. Deemed worthy of being placed in print (at least, by one editor’s subjective determination).
  2.  Made available in some number of copies to millions, thousands, hundreds, scores, or perhaps dozens of eager readers.

Writing “online” was initially dismissed by the publishing industry (and many writers themselves). “It’s not the same,” they would say. Of course not. Yet they accomplish the same purpose, making writers’ heartfelt messages available for others. And, in short time we have witnessed a publishing revolution in which many of the most vibrant and thought-provoking “periodicals” are primarily (or exclusively) online entities.

So, it is quite appropriate to consider oneself published, I believe, if our work has been included in an online publication.

The arrival of print-on-demand technology (and ebooks) magnified the confusion. Now, it costs very little to become your very own Publishing House, and anyone with a few dollars can see their word in literal print. This has had two major consequences.

  1. Freed from the arbitrary whim of editorial bottlenecks, first-class literary works have been published. Works that formerly would have been returned to their creators with form letters expressing the editors’ regret that they cannot find a place in their exclusive booklist for them.
  2. Material that should would have greatly benefited from thorough editing and rewrites now look for all intents, just like real books that merit reading. Works the afore-insulted editors would formerly have protected the world from.

So, it is quite appropriate to consider oneself published, I believe, even when we have self-published our work—assuming, of course, that our book falls into the first category described above.

And today we have blog boom. Millions of posts and columns. Some creative sprouts withered before they had a chance to bloom. But many exquisite writers sowed rich gardens of wisdom and fancy that continue to be pruned and expanded.

All writers hope to become published. And most would like to one day see their words appreciated by as large an audience as possible. When we have an article or book we’ve written accepted by a recognized periodical or publisher, we experience the joy of anticipation. As we look forward to receiving a copy of the final product, our eagerness is tempered by a bit of anxiety. I mean, anything could happen, right? The publication could even go out of business—and that’s actually happened to me.

C.S. Lewis shared this same sort of expectation as his work neared the presses. And, being C.S. Lewis, he was able to reflect on his own thoughts in a brilliant manner. In 1918, as his first book, a collection of poetry, was being published, he wrote his close friend, Arthur Greeves:

So at last dreams come to pass and I have sat in the sanctum of a publisher discussing my own book (Notice the hideous vulgarity of success already growing in me). Yet—though it is very pleasant—you will understand me when I say that it has not the utter romance which the promise of it had a year ago. Once a dream has become a fact I suppose it loses something. This isn’t affectation: we long & long for a thing and when it comes it turns out to be just a pleasant incident, very much like others.

Like Lewis, most of us find the accomplishment of publishing our work “very pleasant.” Still, it’s seldom if ever the mountaintop experience it flirts at being. Literary Sirens sing “once you are published all your dreams will be realized . . . all who meet you will bow in respect at your wondrous achievement.”

Reality is different. Becoming a “published writer” is something about which we can justifiably be proud. But it doesn’t make us better than anyone else. After all, is not a mechanic who can make an engine purr just as talented as a wordsmith who composes music out of prose?