What's in a Name
The following is the text of a keynote speech I gave last weekend at the Surrey International Writer's Conference. Many thanks to the organizers, the board, and the volunteers for hosting me and giving me the opportunity to speak to the attendees that morning. Special thanks to my friend, Kathy Chung, for inviting me and for doing all the hard work to make a great experience for all the writers there that weekend.
A few years back I started a newsletter. I wanted to talk about my experiences in the publishing industry – to do what I’m doing right here, with you all now. I wanted to share what it’s like, emotionally, to sit on my side of the table, and to try to shine a light on some of the business’s more confusing corners. To get to explain things at lengths that go beyond a tweet.
I promise this isn’t just going to be an ad for my newsletter.
Anyhow, I decided to call it Publishing is Hard. I’d like to say coming up with a title took me a long time, that I thought about it carefully, ruminated on its implications, weighed other options. But the truth is, I just typed it in on a whim. I thought it was funny and I thought it was true.
I think I cursed myself. I don’t regret the choice, I still think it’s funny and I still think it’s true. But, now the phrase haunts me. Follows me everywhere I go. “Publishing is hard.” I find myself saying it all the time. I return to the phrase over and over whenever I try to talk about the business. I started three different drafts of this talk before I finally threw up my hands and was like I gotta tackle this head on.
Because this business IS hard. It’s so hard. At every stage, at every level, in every role. In my professional life I’ve gotten to see careers of dozens and dozens of writers as an agent, as an editor, and as a friend. And let me tell you, no one has it easy. Debuts, NYT Bestsellers, assistants, editors, yes, even us agents.
Folks who look like they’re living on easy street from the outside, I promise are stressed out and trying to figure out how to make it work. Same as you. Now, it may be easier for some of them than it is for some of you. That’s how privilege works. It’s always hard, it’s just less hard for some. But the lived experience is still about facing down the many complexities and challenges of trying to sell books.
Because publishing is where art meets capitalism. We are in the business of trying to figure out how to take art, to take your words, your stories, and translate that into revenue. To make your story fit into an industrialized, corporate system that needs books to be marketable, to be packageable, to be shippable.
I sometimes describe this business as taking the unique beautiful flower you lovingly crafted and figuring out how to put it in a box so we can ship it around the world. I mean this literally.
The longer I’m in this business, the more I think the biggest piece of the puzzle no one talks about is that we’re in the business of manufacturing and distribution as much as we are in the business of culture and art. We print books, heavy physical things, and we ship them to thousands of stores around the world. We coordinate with dozens of distributors, with retailers, and printers. A surprising percentage of the staff of Big 5 publishers work in warehouses and distribution centers far from New York City.
The past two years we’ve seen disruptions to this side of the business — from paper shortages, to a big boat that got stuck in a canal, to the global collapse of supply chains. The impact this has had on the industry is impossible to calculate, but I haven’t had a single project that hasn’t been touched by this in some way.
Publishing is often, maybe even mostly, a physical goods business. I once had to spend three weeks figuring out how many copies of a book we could fit on a shipping pallet to justify the weird trim size I wanted to do. For the record, it worked. It was a good idea. Yay me.
The fact that we’re in a physical goods business matters because bookstores matter. For traditional publishing at least, the bookstore remains the keystone of all of our success. We live and die by what copies we can get into brick and mortar stores. Into the places where we know for sure that people go to because they want to buy books. That’s what works. Books on shelves and tables in stores. That’s the beating heart of the business.
It’s hard to remember this when you’re working in the rarified realms of story, of language and imagery and thematic resonance. But publishing is a business. It’s made of corporations who are under constant, unrelenting pressure to make money. For their parent companies. For their owners. For their investors.
The same logic that drives the value of GE’s stock drives the value of Viacom, of Lagardere, of Bertelsmann. These are the parent companies of some of the big 5 publishers. They aren't interested in the art of the thing, they are interested in the profits of the thing.
That said while the corporation may be indifferent, your publishing team cares deeply about your work. Your editor, your agent, your publicist — all the people who touch your book on its way to readers's hands. They do this because they love doing it. Lord knows it’s not for the pay. They care about your book, your story.
They just also are embedded in a system, in a world driven by capital.
And that’s my job, to straddle this line. That’s where I live. At this intersection. Where art meets capital. I work with the artist on the one hand and wrangle the corporation with the other. I coach writers on how to navigate having a career. I translate corporate legalese into a strategy, into a plan we can build on.
And I do this to try and make space for the art. To make sure the writer gets paid so they can keep doing the thing they love. To try and get this story in front of as many people as possible. Because that’s what matters to me. I believe if we tell better stories we can make a better world. So I made a home here, I built a life here at this intersection.
And it’s hard. Especially these last few years. It’s been hard to write, to publish, to launch books. The world changed. Barnes and Noble has new management and that comes with new challenges. Printers ran out of paper. Publishers ran out of printers. Editors burned out. Booksellers went out of business. Twitter became a toxic mess and that was before the billionaire decided he wanted it. And then didn’t want it. And then lost a game of hot potato and has to buy it again.
But even before then, publishing books has always felt a little bit like a lottery. The testimony around the potential PRH and S&S merger was illuminating to a lot of people. Maybe too much so as a lot of the discourse seemed to forget that everyone speaking at that trial was in it to make an argument, to convince the government of one thing or another. No one was lying or was wrong, exactly, but they were rarely presenting a full picture either.
Anyhow, someone said, I think it was Jonathan Karp, the head of S&S, or maybe it was Markus Dohle the head of PRH, basically that we have no idea how to make a book work. And, you know what? They’re right! Like I said, they weren’t lying. We don’t know. If we knew how to make every single book work, we’d be out here doing it day in and day out. Bestsellers all around.
But the reality is we don’t know. Sure, on average publishers are profitable. We know how to make books, plural, work. But we don’t know how to make a book work. How to make your book work.
Because the market is changeable and random. Things happen that are wildly out of our control. Sometimes as striking as a global pandemic. Sometimes as subtle as a vibe shift no one saw coming. Sometimes an editor has a mental breakdown and disappears for a few months. Sometimes an agent drops the ball because their personal life fell apart. (Couldn't be me.) Sometimes the writer misses an important deadline. Sometimes someone on social media decides to have a problem with you, specifically, today.
Here’s the reality. You don’t control your future. I can’t predict your future. Your publisher can’t make your future. The future is a distant country, an unknowable land. We travel forward from here to discover it. That's what time is. We step forward to find out if we fall down a crevasse or find firm footing. To find out if your launch day means charting on a list. Or if your mentions are as quiet as a grave. We don’t know, can’t know, until we get there.
Now, like I said, I was told to make this positive. Are we feeling positive yet? No? Well, here we go. We’re making the turn. I promise.
Because while I talk all the time about how this business is hard. How no one can predict the future. I think there’s a hope inherent in not knowing what comes next. There’s a joy, a liberation in accepting that all we have is what’s in front of us in this moment. Sure, tomorrow we may hit rocks, but today we’re writing books, we’re telling stories, we’re sending pitches, we’re working on covers. We’re doing the hard messy work of making a book a reality.
Sure, yesterday, there was a global disaster. Sure, yesterday the bookstores almost went out of business. Sure, yesterday a book flopped that should have been a bestseller.
But that was yesterday. The past is a story we tell ourselves. So we can tell the story that focuses on what didn’t work, or we can focus on the work there is to do now.
There’s a saying in economics that is a lifeline, to me, in these circumstances. It goes like this: “Past performance is no indicator of future success.” Did you have a bestseller last week? Sure, but now you have to write the next book. Will it be easier in some ways? Yeah, of course. But you still have to do the thing. You still have to tell the story that matters to people. You have to do the hard work of making meaningful art.
But the opposite is true too. Did your debut underperform? Does that hurt? Absolutely. Did your dream agent pass on the book you spent ten years on? That feels awful. I hope you don’t think I’m dismissing that when I talk about it in these terms. You should give yourself space to feel those things. To sit with those hits, to feel the weight of things not going how you expected.
Because when I say publishing is hard I mean it as an empathic act. I am making space for all of us to understand that the best intentions, the best work, the best team sometimes still means it all falls apart. I say it’s hard because it means that it’s not you that is broken. You didn’t fail. Your book isn’t bad. You didn’t give up.
You’re not broken. Capitalism is broken.
So, yeah, maybe things didn’t go your way… This time. Remember you don’t know what happens tomorrow. You don’t know what your next book will bring. The solution to every problem you face is always simply to write more. To keep putting words to page. To keep shouting your truths as loudly as you can muster.
I say publishing is hard because it is true and it is funny. We need to laugh at the absurdities of this business. Of the contortions that capitalism demands of us. To smile and make a TikTok or to read the same passage for the eighth time this week and pretend we still like saying these words. To laugh at the bleakness of a sales department asking for a different title for the fifth time in a month. Because despair gets us nowhere.
Despair is when we give in to inevitability. Despair is accepting that the past writes the future. Despair is thinking we know how this story ends.
Because we don’t actually know that. The future is an undiscovered dream. The past is a story we tell ourselves. And, listen, we’re storytellers. We don’t let the story dictate the world we live in. I think we make better worlds by telling better stories. So why are we choosing the story that we think we know the ending to?
Past performance is no indicator of future success.
No one gets to tell you you’re done writing. You’re done publishing. You can always write a new book. You can always try again. Bookshelves are full of writers who were told their careers were over. Who published book after book to little attention, to publisher negligence, to public indifference. But some of them persevered. Some of them kept going, even when I personally thought they were done. And now, I’m delighted to be proven wrong. To see those same names on bestseller lists and awards ballots year in and year out.
Not that those are the only measures of success. There are so many reasons to write. And I know many people who do incredible work for modest audiences, and little pay, who nonetheless derive joy and satisfaction from their work. Know what’s important to you. Know what your standards of success look like. And fight for that.
Because in the end, the only thing that truly matters are the words you put to the page, today. Right now. If you write for yourself first, the world can’t take that away from you. If you find joy in your work, then no matter how hard publishing is, how unfair it chooses to be, you still have more than you started out with.
So keep writing. Keep working. Keep telling stories. Just because it’s hard doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing.