A Faithful Grope in the Dark

By

by Joshua Mohr

Lately people have been asking me why I decided to publish my novel, Some Things that Meant the World to Me, with a small press. Instinctively, my gut wants to lie, stammer some kind of self-justification: “Well, uh, I felt that a boutique house (note that I didn’t say “small press”) would give me more attention (i.e. answer my emails) and nurture the book in a way true to my artistic vision (i.e. not perform fellatio on the marketing department)

in a manner a larger house might not be willing to do (e.g. my book dies on the vine while they hype their latest cookbook or tell-all memoir by a fallen debutante who smoked crystal meth and wrecked her Bentley but lived to tell the tale…).”

When people ask me about my “decision,” I want to say something that makes me sound too enlightened to peddle my subversive and cerebral material to the fatcats who run the major publishing houses. But I’m not that enlightened person at all. I am the very guy who tried desperately to peddle his subversive (Really?) and cerebral (Didn’t you go to a state college?) material to the fatcats. They shunned me, not vice versa.

I finished my first novel and got a swanky agent in New York. She did her very best to sell the book (I have no idea if she did her very best, though I assume so), but the fatcats told her, “This book is too grim. It’s not viable in the market place.” They weren’t looking for cerebral and subversive—they were looking for the Next Bestselling Voice!, someone like Jonathan Safran Foer. (I’m sure he’s a nice guy.)

This is by no means a criticism of authors who have published with major houses. I’m not insinuating that they’ve sacrificed their integrity. Far from it—some of my favorite books have had the stamp of the fatcat. This is an indictment of the major publishing houses’ attempts to superimpose templates of success onto literary fiction, judging the marketability of next year’s titles on the successes and failures of last year’s.

As my novel made its way around Manhattan, more than one editor said she liked the book, but had to “pitch it to the marketing people.” These pitches never seemed to go my way. Eighteen houses shot the book down. The swanky Manhattan agent basically fired me: “Why don’t you write a second book and we’ll try again?” she said.

I was back in square one, except now square one had the stink of failure. And I had no idea what to do.

Good times (not good times)…

I got a new agent, and she sent the book to Two Dollar Radio, an independent publishing house that saw promise and merit in the story I was trying to tell. They are the subversive and cerebral ones, the brave souls who publish literary fiction and only literary fiction. There are no cookbooks or debutante tell-alls on their list. It’s literature for the love of language and story, rather than commercial viability.

My experience finding a publisher was horrible and gut-wrenching. (Whiskey helped.) It was also incredibly confusing because I didn’t know whose opinion to trust. I began referring to it as my “faithful grope in the dark.” I knew I needed a publisher. I knew an agent acted as a liaison between writer and publisher. What I didn’t know was what editors were looking for. Only later did it occur to me that maybe agents and editors are faithfully groping themselves.

I talked with an agent and an editor to hear whether my suspicion was right: Is the whole shebang run on hunches, “informed” inferences, projections based on ambiguous past experiences?Rumpus Books

“How do you know what will sell?” I asked one prominent agent.

“You find a book you believe in, make an educated guess, and hope for the best.”

I tried to sound calm, professional, but I think my voice cracked: “Hope for the best?”

“There are too many variables to predict with any kind of accuracy,” she said. “There are editors, acquisition boards, marketing and sales teams, the art department, then the buyers. And that isn’t even factoring in trends or positive reviews or competition. Anyone who thinks they have an answer is lying.”

I then spoke with a former editor at several major publishing houses and asked how she knew what would sell.

“It’s a crapshoot,” she said. Her tone wasn’t smug or ambivalent; the calm way she conveyed this sentiment made it feel honest.

Turns out, chance is a brutal part of the publishing trade. Good books sometimes vanish without a trace, and obvious, dumbed-down books with clever marketing tricks often become successful. It’s a savage reality of the business, one writers need to be aware of.

What I heard from these publishing insiders confirms my suspicion that writers and agents and editors are all faithfully groping in the dark. There’s no such thing as a template of success. It’s impossible. There are too many stodgy people in publishing who look to replicate past successes rather than find new and unexpected ones, to capitalize on trends rather than create them. There’s an almost singular reliance on authors who have already sold well, shoving their new work down consumers’ throats regardless of its quality. What’s left for first-time or mid-list writers with better books but no reputation?

Again, I asked the swanky agent and editor.

“There’s a diaspora of emerging writers to the smaller houses,” the agent said. “The money just isn’t there for unknowns in the current market. There are exceptions, of course. But overall…”

My ulcer tapped-dance as I phoned the editor.

She said independent houses might be better for first-time or mid-list authors, because in a smaller catalog their book will get more attention. Indie houses may have better guerilla marketing strategies for 21st century technologies. Maybe most importantly, the sales projections at smaller houses are more modest, and a book won’t be considered a failure if it sells 6,000 copies.

“Will this be good for literature?” the editor asked. “It’s too soon to tell.”

The Faithful Groper

Joshua Mohr - the Faithful Groper

Fair enough. It probably is too soon. But for me, this information is all I need to solidify a couple things, make a couple decisions. One, since they’ve corroborated that the publishing business is run on chance, I need only concern myself with one thing: the quality of my writing. That isn’t chance at all. I can’t control marketing trends or debutantes, but I can control the amount of energy I put into my revision process. I can take my time and make sure to write the best book I can.

Two, I’ve decided to publish my second novel, From a Fragile Galaxy, with Two Dollar Radio as well, next year. Assuming the “crapshoot” model is true, I see no reason to leave. I don’t want to be a free agent out to make as much money as I can, I want to publish my books somewhere that editors, not marketing people, make the decisions. 2DR has proven itself interested in my aesthetic. They’ve built me a website and booked a reading tour. They’re receptive to my ideas. They—not to sound sentimental—care. Books aren’t just commodities to them. Books are art.

At least I know that when my editors think a section of my writing needs tinkering, it isn’t because the marketers deem it “too grim.” I know that the problem is with me, the words I’ve chosen, the scenes I’ve constructed—and that’s a freedom every writer should enjoy, the freedom of knowing that their editor is more concerned with publishing the best possible novel than selling the most books. If you happen to sell a lot of books, that’s wonderful. We all want an audience. But for me the audience is only worth having if they’re reading the book I intended to write.

**

Joshua Mohr’s first novel, Some Things that Meant the World to Me, comes out next week.


The Blurb is the Rumpus Books blog. We offer commentary and opinions on the state of our writing culture, our literary community, and the writer’s life, written by authors, editors, writing teachers, and readers. If there’s a topic you’d like us to discuss, drop us an email at books@therumpus.net. More from this author →