I interpret these as supportive and encouraging questions—from people who have been cheering me on through the gestation of this book. But these questions also relate to the self-study of the publishing world that has consumed the “gap year” I just began, an industry and a process that surprises me regularly in its opacity and complexity.
It’s as if I spent years learning to make cheese, and now that I’ve almost decided on my formula, I must learn about an entire industry that produces, packages, markets, and delivers my beloved cheese to consumers. And by “learn” I mean ask others who’ve done it before, scour the internet for sources, for people who can help me navigate this process. Because the process is not clear and not taught to writers.
The barrier of entry for hopeful writers requires knowledge, personal connections, time, and money. It appears, most unfortunately, that entry can also be afforded to some demographics over others, simply because publishing professionals are commonly white females. I doubt any two writers’ paths toward this knowledge are the same.
Most of us are outsiders looking in on the publishing industry. Perhaps you’re a reader, maybe you fancy yourself a potential writer, or you love a good bookstore for its free wifi and coffee shop vibes. I dare say, for most of us, the process of getting a book published appears simultaneously straightforward and mysterious. Ba da bing ba da boom...somehow.
These questions about my own book remind me of one of my own questions I still regret asking at the start of my MFAW. “What happens to our theses when we finish? Do they get published?” I was 30 years-old. I thought the fruit of my grad school labor went straight into the book machine after graduation. Over time I think I managed to gain back a little respect from that advisor, but on that same day I commenced my education of the publishing industry, mainly in relation to the writer’s experience.
Because, I soon learned, the sole objective of writing is not to be published.
There were many moments while at Goddard when the relationship between writing and publishing was identified to me, made distinct from each other. “Writing and publishing are separate things,” my first advisor mentioned casually in a keynote speech. That simple sentence was epiphanic to me. I scribbled it down on my notepad and reviewed it often to the same effect.
Many of my classmates had already submitted to journals and magazines and contests, all while completing our required work and sometimes holding full-time jobs unrelated to their writing lives. It was an outlet they pursued in overtime hours, often with little external or material compensation for days of hard work but a byline. Goddard College brought literary agents and publishing representatives to residency, to let us peek behind the curtain and glimpse how that publishing world worked. And they always made it sound like a foreign country with its own system of government and unique language you’re expected to learn on your own before you go. The manuscript, a hard-earned passport. The proposal, a complicated visa.
I could go on. I love a good analogy.
I would sit in those lectures and wonder: Does everyone else know there are five main publishing houses in America? Was I supposed to as an MFAW candidate? Is everyone else clear on the options of 1.) literary agents → editors → publishing houses or 2.) self-representation → editors → publishing houses or 3.) skipping the refinement process by professionals to self-publish at your own expense? How are we supposed to learn in advance of trial and error that book proposals are what they are, that they require chapter breakdowns and beta reader feedback and genre/demographic specification and competitive title analyses?
I continue to wonder today… How did people ever get books published before the internet? Am I such a millenial for asking that question?