The Business Rusch: Believe In Yourself
Kristine Kathryn Rusch
On Tuesday, October 25, 2011, National Public Radio ran a piece titled, “My Accidental Masterpiece: The Phantom Tollbooth,” by Norton Juster. My sister gave me The Phantom Tollbooth when I was a kid. The book is still on my bookshelf, not in the best of condition, with my name badly scrawled on the flyleaf.
I loved the book, and still remember unwrapping it on Christmas morning. (I used to go around and shake packages, like any kid, and then, if the package was a book, I’d set it toward the back of the pile, because I knew books were best.) When I read The Phantom Tollbooth and fell in love with it, I had no idea that it was the subject of some controversy.
Juster mentions the controversy with vivid language and with anger at the special insanity that comes from the Folks Who Know Best.
“Not everyone in the publishing world of the 1960s embraced The Phantom Tollbooth,” Juster writes. “Many said it was not a children’s book, the vocabulary was much too difficult, and the ideas were beyond kids. To top it off, they claimed fantasy was bad for children because it distorts them.
“The prevailing wisdom of the time was that learning should be more accessible and less discouraging. The aim was that no child would ever have to confront anything that he or she didn’t already know.”
The NPR piece is thirteen paragraphs long, and would take about a minute to read out loud (my former radio work tells me). The piece celebrates the fiftieth anniversary of a book that has become a classic.
Juster uses two of those paragraphs to remember the negative reception the book received, and another to refute that reception directly.
He writes, “But my feeling is that there is no such thing as a difficult word. There are only words you don’t know yet—the kind of liberating words that Milo [the book’s main character] encounters on his adventure.”
In that paragraph, you can hear both the bafflement at the critiques the book initially received and the determination that made Juster keep the book exactly the way he wanted it to be. Juster believed in his own vision—still believes in that vision—and he didn’t compromise it.
The fact that the book became a classic must be icing on that proverbial cake for him.
He probably considered it a miracle that the book got published at all.
The publishing world of the late 1950s and early 1960s was different than the one we find ourselves in today. It was less corporate. Editors had more power. There were more traditional publishing houses who competed with each other But that didn’t make things any easier for writers.
In fact, things were much tougher for writers then than they are in 2011. In the 1950s, if all the publishing doors closed on a project, then that project was effectively dead. Of course, back then you had hundreds of doors to try before you declared that book dead.
The world of children’s literature was particularly tough at the time because of these strange prejudices that filled the field, prejudices that had existed since children’s literature became its own branch of publishing in the 1920s. The baby boom provided opportunity: so many children wanted books that the field was growing, and new voices got heard.
Theodor Geisel, whom you all know as Doctor Seuss, stunned the publishing world by writing an original and somewhat controversial book for a strict formula book line. He had the task of writing a children’s book, using only 225 approved words. None should be above two syllables.
He ended up using most of the approved words, threw in a few of his own, and added just one word of three syllables. Even though the finished book was less than 2,000 words long, it took him eight months to finish it because he found it so hard to write with such stringent limitations.
He turned in The Cat In The Hat to his editors at Houghton Mifflin and Random House (who worked on the project jointly for contractual reasons), and then had to suffer through some ridiculous criticism. The book, you see, promoted terrible behavior. That amoral cat taught the children how to act badly while their parents were away.
I have no idea how many fights Geisel had to conduct to keep his book as he wanted it, but I do know that the arguments about the “lessons” that The Cat in The Hat teaches continues to this day. I heard them resurrected when The Cat in The Hat movie came out a few years ago.
Once again, The Guardians of Quality and Those Who Know Better deemed The Cat in The Hat a book (and movie) that might unduly harm children. Only now, fifty-plus years after the book’s initial publication, The Cat in The Hat is such a beloved classic that those of us who read the book as children and have read the book to children laugh at such silly criticism.
Another writer toiling in the children’s literature departments of publishing houses in the 1950s was the science fiction author Robert A. Heinlein. Heinlein, who is now considered one of the giants of the science fiction field, wrote what were then called juveniles (but which would now be called Middle Grade) novels with an eye toward Christmas publication. He published twelve juveniles between 1947 and 1958, books that revolutionized not just the juvenile market, but the science fiction field. Every major sf writer and editor between the ages of forty and sixty working today read the juveniles, and cites their influence (either positive or negative).
At a Wiscon science fiction convention many years ago, I was the Editor Guest of Honor when Lois McMaster Bujold was the Writer Guest of Honor. Lois spent one evening in the con suite (a gathering place for convention goers) reading aloud from the books that Scribner’s had published before the company hired Heinlein to write the books. The previous books were sad and pretentious and (quite frankly) dull, but filled with things that a child “already knew” even though the books were (supposedly) about families going into space. These books made the TV show Lost In Space, which aired nearly two decades later, seem like great innovative intellectual fodder.
We laughed our way through that evening, and more than once, someone in the room expressed gratitude that Heinlein had been hired to replace that abysmal writer. At the time, I did not know that Heinlein parted from Scribner’s and the juveniles over a book.
Heinlein turned in his annual manuscript, after writing twelve of these books, and then got told that Scribner’s could not accept the new novel. I haven’t bothered to see if he was invited to write a new book or if his contract with Scribner’s was effectively canceled. Either way, the end result was the same. The famous line of Heinlein juveniles ended when Scribner’s bounced that novel.
The novel—Heinlein’s Hugo-award winning classic, Starship Troopers. The book remains controversial to this day. It was particularly out of step with children’s literature at the time: it was about young people going to war. The controversy remains: the 1997 movie of the same name caused a lot of debate—not because of its effect on children, but because of its message.
The science fiction field as we know it would not exist without Heinlein’s juveniles or Heinlein himself. Starship Troopers remains one of the classics in the field. Heinlein did not try to revise the book to editorial guidelines, nor did he dumb it down in order to sell it.
The Easy Reader aspect of the children’s book field would not be the same without The Cat in The Hat. It remains an enjoyable, if uneasy, book, designed for children to read on their own. Without The Cat in The Hat, we would have no Where The Wild Things Are, no modern children’s literature at all.
As I once (angrily) told an agent who refused to market an unusual book of mine, the books that make a difference aren’t the books that imitate other books. The books that make a difference, the books that have long-lasting impact, hell—the books that often hit the top of bestseller lists for the first time for their authors—aren’t clones of some other book. From Presumed Innocent to The Exorcist, Starship Troopers to The Cat in the Hat, the books that changed how we think about genre and literature and reading are originals—things we as readers have never encountered before.
The American publishing culture has lost sight of this truism if, indeed, it ever really knew it. It’s easier to sell a book that reminds you of another book. You can cross-compare. This is how the very idea of segregating bookstores into genre sections came about: Genre, however imperfect, became a way to define books without reading them.
It is no coincidence that the rise in genre marketing matched the rise in the quantity of books published. There came a point when no one could read every book published in a single year—a good thing, in my opinion.
Over the years, we have drilled down this notion of genre into something so fine that we have subgenres, and sub-subgenres, and breakout genres. (Thriller, for example, used to be a sub-genre of mystery. Now thriller is a breakout genre—meaning it broke out of its label—and has become a much bigger selling genre than mystery.) It is to the point that if you want to sell a novel into traditional publishing, you must not only know the genre the book belongs to, but its subgenre as well. In fact, in your pitch letter, you must tell the editor what other books your novel is similar to and if you are wrong, then that’s an easy rejection.
All of that is, in my opinion, the cost of working with a large publishing company. You the writer are making a deal with that company: you will provide a marketable novel in exchange for the distribution and marketing. You will invest your time (and therefore your dollars, since time is money) on creating a salable product and the publishing company will invest its resources into getting that book to market.
It can cost large publishers as much as $250,000 per title to get their books to market. That includes overhead, shipping, warehousing, production, editing services, advertising, the advance, and more. Inside that overhead is not just the rent for the office space, but the salaries of the editor, sales force, managing editor, and others who worked on that book. Those salaries are divided down into a formula that works out to some kind of hourly figure which then becomes a cost on the balance sheet for one novel.
Publishers reject books all the time that the sales force believes cannot earn back that $250,000 cost of production. That’s smart business: it makes no sense to take on 500-page rhymed ode to a snail that will sell to the author’s family (and snail lovers everywhere) when a 300-page fast moving thriller in the style of James Patterson will probably sell better.
The lesson to writers is pretty simple: If you write a 500-page rhymed ode to a snail, you should accept that no one in traditional publishing will be interested in your work.
However, you can self-publish the work now, and prove (me and) those folks in traditional publishing’s sales force wrong, by showing that there is indeed a large snail- and poetry-loving book buying population out there. We as writers have that option now.
Which brings me to my surprise after my latest post. For those of you who missed it, I got quite angry last week at some disrespectful treatment on the part of two editors. One editor’s treatment was probably simple thoughtlessness; the other editor’s treatment has led to an ongoing saga in my business life that I will discuss here later on, when and if the dust ever settles.
I wrote about how common the lack of respect happens to be for writers who work in traditional publishing. I received great e-mails, letters, and comments from a lot of you about my work in particular and about the treatment in general. Thank you for all the encouragement and support, although I must say that I was writing to vent, not to elicit compliments.
I also saw a lot of blog posts from other long-term professional writers linking to my post, and detailing similar experiences. One writer whom I admire greatly and who has been in the field longer than I have expressed surprise that I (with all of my multi-genre and publishing experience) was subjected to the same mistreatment that “the rest of us have suffered over the years.”
The comment made me sad and made me have a similar reaction to his with me. How did anyone manage to mistreat that particular writer given the awards, publishing experience, and high quality of his work? It’s an outrageous thing and something writers do not and should not ever have to put up with.
Mingled with my surprise at the sheer number of recognizable names who wrote me to tell me of similar experiences was the most common response from published and unpublished writers alike.
They seemed surprised that I stood up for myself.
And that shocks me deeply, given what I have just outlined above.
Did Norton Juster, Theodor Geisel, and Robert Heinlein become huge successes because they wrote great work? Or because they refused to back down when pushed?
I contend that it was both.
Too many writers revise continually in order to sell their books. Beginning writers revise a novel a dozen times because their writers workshop (which usually does not have a single publishing professional) has told them to. Mid-level writers revise to their agent’s suggestion because the agent believes the novel is “unsalable” as is—impossible to market because the novel is too different from anything else. Bestsellers listen to their publisher’s desire to have a book just like the last book, eventually making the bestseller’s work predictable and dull.
Most writers of all levels do not stand up for their work because they’re afraid they’ll never sell another word. They’re afraid to take a risk which—in my mind—begs the question: If you’re unwilling to take a risk, why become a writer in the first place?
Writing is all about risk. The first risk is comes in putting the first word on paper, in believing that you are good enough to attract readers. The second risk is working in the arts in America, which has always been a dicey proposition. The third risk is believing that your vision matters.
The moment you lose your integrity, you lose your vision. If you lose your vision, you lose what makes you unique as a writer.
Should you learn craft? Of course. You need to learn how to tell the best story possible. You need to learn the tools of storytelling. You should not focus on the words, but on the unique way that you see the world. Everything in your writing should be in service of the story you are trying to tell, be that story a thriller in the traditional of James Patterson or a 500-page rhymed ode to a snail.
You must constantly work to improve your craft. You must strive to get better, and never assume that you know everything there is to know about writing or storytelling. You must always write to the best of your ability.
When you are done telling your story, when it is the best it can be, that’s when you worry about marketing. You do not write to market. You write and then find a market that might publish your work. Should you market to a traditional publisher? Should you self-publish? Should you go with a small regional press?
Those questions have no easy answer. It doesn’t matter how many times you folks email me asking me to make the decision for you. I can’t. It’s a personal decision these days, a decision made possible by the ease with which writers can distribute their own work these days. You can self-publish, prove that there is a market, and traditional publishers will come calling. It will then become your choice as to whether or not you sign with them.
(I do suggest that you learn business, money management, and copyright before you make any decisions. Because choosing between traditional publishing and indie publishing is, at heart, a business decision.)
So, am I telling you to stand up for yourself because you now have the option of self publishing?
Hell, no. I would have told you this twenty years ago. In fact, I have always told writers this.
Note my examples above. They all took place around the time I was born. Robert A. Heinlein walked away from a lucrative career writing juveniles because he believed in Starship Troopers. Who knows how many rejections Norton Juster suffered? I do know that Theodor Geisel expected The Cat in The Hat to get rejected (and it nearly was), but that didn’t stop him from writing the book he wanted and subverting the formula the publishing company had given him.
What’s shocking, folks, is not that I stand up for myself. What’s shocking is that most of you didn’t even realize standing up for yourself was an option.
Write the best work you possibly can. Then believe in that work and in yourself. It’s your vision, not the publishing company’s or the agent’s or the sales force’s. Believe me, if the publishing company or the agent or the sales force could write a novel that sold millions of copies, they would. They don’t know how to do it. In fact, they know so little about it that they discourage the very thing that creates classics: Originality.
Originality is all that you have. As one of my college creative writing professors said on the first day of class, “There are seven plots. Shakespeare wrote them better than anyone. If that scares you, leave now.”
If you are unwilling to stand up for yourself, you are in the wrong profession. Believe in yourself. Because at various points in your writing career, the only person you will have on your side is you.
If Norton Juster hadn’t believed in himself, I would not have a battered and beloved copy of The Phantom Tollbooth on my shelf. If Robert A. Heinlein had not believed in himself, most of science fiction would not exist.
Could those men see the impact they would have on publishing? Of course not. They just knew they had a good book, and they believed in it—enough that they walked away when someone wanted to cut the heart out of the book itself.
Apparently many writers today are unwilling to make that choice.
And that’s a shame, because it’s so much easier to stand up for yourself now. We have so many options.
If you only open your eyes and look.
“The Business Rusch: Believe in Yourself” copyright 2011 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.