Yesterday at Thanksgiving dinner, my oldest daughter dropped a not-totally-unexpected bomb on us: She has decided to not complete her Ph.D., and to seek a job in the "real world" instead.
"I can't believe how nasty it is, Dad," she said to me later. "All those people competing for fewer and fewer jobs. The program dishes out a lot of torture, and to make it through, you have to submit to the torture and beg for more. And then when you finally get a job, it gets even worse." (She was referring here to the demands of a faculty position at a university.)
Honestly, I wasn't the least upset by her choice, as my academic friends have had it quite rough in recent years, and of course I want to see my children on a path of happiness rather than misery. But what does all of this have to do with publishing, you ask?
Well, it occurred to me that my daughter's "torture" metaphor applies not only to academic careers, but to a lot of other careers as well. Look at what actors and actresses have to go through to get their big break--years of being told they don't have the "right look," they're too old, they're too fat, they need their teeth fixed, etc.
And doctors--well, Lord knows the American system has decided that any young person who wants to be a doctor must suffer through years of torture to prove him/herself worthy. The stories of 120-hour-a-week schedules during residencies are well documented, despite all the other stories of exhausted residents giving people the wrong medication and making mistakes because they're so sleep deprived.
Now, as for getting your novel published, I realize that the system is (most likely inadvertently) designed to torture. First, the poor novelist has to find the time to write the damn thing. Then, the agent quest begins; and a very unfair process it is, what with so many saying they won't take simultaneous submissions. Now, how does that benefit the would-be novelist, who's expected to wait 3-4 months for a rejection (because the odds are insanely strong that s/he WILL be rejected), only to then have to submit to another agent and play another waiting game? Many novelists ignore agents' injunction against simultaneous submissions, and who can blame them?
Then, if the person is lucky enough to get an agent, the torture continues, as rewrites are required. Some think that landing an agent is a guarantee of publication - it isn't. Some agents send out to a good number of editors, some send to only one or two, and many's the writer who complains that the agent has done little or nothing. Meanwhile, at the publisher, an editor who wants to take a chance on a book gets nixed by the editorial board - and after that, the manuscript is as good as dead.
But for a select few, a contract is offered and things seem wonderful for a while. You see page proof, cover design, publicity copy and start to feel like a writer. But then the torture continues, because having a book published is not the same thing as people wanting to buy and read your book. It's out there - so are 499,9999 other books in any publication year. You're continually having to stump your book, wondering why it, of the half million books out there this year, isn't rising to the top. You do a book signing at the local bookstore and sell six copies instead of the 600 you planned to.
Meanwhile, you remember that "returns clause" in your contract, which you conveniently put out of your head. Then you get your royalty statement, and it all comes pouring back: 20,000 copies sold, 12,000 returned, with more returns likely in your next royalty period. Soon thereafter you see your lovely $24.95 hardback remaindered for $5 in the local supermarket's bargain bin, or at Edward R. Hamilton.
Which leads me back to the Torture Principle. Perhaps the methods of torture that are used to prevent people from going into certain fields - academics, medicine, book publishing - are helpful at the end of the day. They weed out the weak, because the reality of "succeeding" in that chosen discipline brings with a different type of torture. Academics have the never-ending demands for research and grant proposals; doctors have to deal with a horrific system of paperwork and malpractice insurance, all while dealing with patients who live to complain. And, I can imagine that the idea of being responsible for someone's life or death is more than a little stressful.
With writers, maybe the long run-up to publication is a way of getting would-be novelists used to the many indignities of finally being published: being ignored by friends and family (see last week's post); watching as foolish, ignorant, or mentally ill people publish scathing reviews on Amazon; going to a book signing where no one has any interest in your book; watching the returns mount and the arrival of your book on remainder tables; fearing that you will not get a contract for your next book, or that your publisher will drop you for lack of sales.
But being a writer of fiction isn't easy - just as being a doctor or academic isn't. Precious few people can make a living at it, which is why we see so many older (retired) people doing it, or people with spouses who earn a good living and can support the partner who wants to write. Maybe the pre-publishing torture is all about finding the strongest - the people who want to be published so badly that we (publishers and agents) assume that, if they can make it through the process, they're tough enough to go out there and aggressively promote their work.
For my part, I realize that I am part of the torture - that every rejection letter I write makes me no better than an established doctor who says, "Well, I had to work 120 hours a week when I was a resident, so why shouldn't THESE kids do the same?" Then again, as Nietzsche suggested, perhaps that which does not kill us makes us stronger.