Friday night, on the Seventy-second Street crosstown bus, I had an epiphany. Or rather: after reading W.S. Merwin’s poem “The Blackboard” on the crosstown bus (on page 48 of the October 20, 2014 edition of the New Yorker), I came to my senses.
“The Blackboard” is an exquisite poem, which I’m surely not allowed to reproduce in full without permission. But I think the “fair use” doctrine will allow a few lines:
The question itself has not changed
but only the depths of memory
through which it rises and now in a late
dream of childhood my father is a blackboard…
For several weeks I’ve been preoccupied with publishing news stories about the enormous advances recently given to debut novels: Matthew Thomas’s We Are Not Ourselves (one million dollars, reputedly; Simon & Schuster), Stephanie Clifford’s Everybody Rise (a seven-figure amount; St. Martin’s Press), Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites (a million; Little, Brown), to name a few.
News about this phenomenon keeps cropping up in the publishing newsletters as well as in newspapers. Every time I see one of these reports I think, What’s going on here? How can these money-strapped publishers be sinking so much dough into completely unpredictable ventures? What’s happening to advances for mid-list novels that might be just as good (or bad) as this slew of newbies? Haven’t the Big Five publishers learned anything at all from past experience?
Past experience should show them that investing that much money in books that may or may not earn out their advances is risky in the extreme. But they don’t seem to learn anything from past experience—hope apparently springs eternal, for no good business reason.
The common wisdom is that the more a publishing house sinks into the advance, the more marketing support the book will get. But that doesn’t guarantee sales. Sometimes that strategy works, sometimes it doesn’t. And meanwhile, what happens to the rest of the books that house is publishing? None of it makes sense. I’ve been trying and trying to figure it out, and I’m not alone.
The Merwin poem has nothing, nothing, to do with the state of publishing. I did not have that Friday-night epiphany because the poem told me something about the madness of the publishers.
My Merwin-induced moment of clarity and insight was about a different kind of business entirely. It was about this: the job of serious writers is to write serious work, beautiful work, intelligent work, and to hell with the business of publishing. Not exactly news, I admit, but a jolt I needed badly.
There are plenty of reporters reporting on the state of publishing. No one needs me to do that, blog or no blog. I don’t need me to do that either. Granted, it’s fascinating, in a horrible sort of way, to follow the marketplace, but how can I possibly do that better than people who are full-time employees paid to know everything about the topic? I can’t, and I shouldn’t try. I shouldn’t think about it. Or worry about it. Or get preoccupied by it.
What they do is report; what I do is write.
The sheer quality and brilliance of Merwin’s poem—and frankly, it could have been another fine poet’s poem that did the trick—snapped me out of my silliness and slung me back to where I belong: at my desk, working on my novel, working on my short stories, working on the posts I love writing.
There’s nothing on this earth I can do to influence the publishing business, of course, and the only thing that happens when I—or you or other writers—get off track is that I do less good work and spend more idiot time in a place I don’t belong.
I have plenty of writer friends who are savvy about the marketplace and discuss it endlessly. They strategize, plan, decipher, figure, calculate—and that has its place. At the proper time. Right now I’m returning to center.
FYI / Independent Bookstores from Coast to Coast
Village Square Booksellers, Bellows Falls, VT
Reading Rock Books, Dickson, TN
Powell’s Books, Portland, OR