Your Soul Work Alive:
A Meditation on Writing & Publishing in the New Millennium
by D. Patrick Miller
I had not realized
just how heavy my writing was until I found myself lifting 430
pounds of it into the back of a Toyota wagon last summer, when
I intercepted the shipment of my first novel. Review copies were
already behind the three-months advance schedule required for independent
publishers to get their one-in-a-million shot at a write-up in
one of the country's major review media. If I had not called my
printer to inquire why the lesser portion of my weighty prose had
not arrived on schedule over 800 pounds of it already having
arrived at my national distributor's warehouse then the
books might have languished in the shipper's slush pile indefinitely.
By hounding the shipping company until they connected me with a
local dispatcher, I made sure that the books I had written, designed,
typeset, and written publicity for did not languish a moment longer
in a holding pattern.
launch of my first full-length fiction was not at all like I imagined
it back in my early twenties, when I first dreamed of making a
career as a full-time author. Back then I thought that it would
take a lot of struggle to create and finish a readable novel why,
it might not even happen before I was twenty-five! but once
that was done I would easily find a nice major publisher who would
take care of the nasty business end of getting my work out to millions
of readers. Whatever the logistics and commercial challenges were,
that nice major publisher would take care of them, send me fat
royalty checks and encourage me to keep working on those second,
third, and fourth novels that would gradually add luster and depth
to my distinguished career as a Real Writer.
In the ensuing
twenty-odd years I have suffered two profound shocks to my youthful
dream of Getting Published Happily Ever After. First, it took most
of that time to do enough writing of other kinds journalism,
journaling, poetry, essays, short fiction, advertising, public
relations, you name it to develop enough craft and insight
to complete a novel I considered readable, regardless of what anyone
else might think. Second, through direct experience I have learned
that major publishers these days are generally not nice,
and one should be very careful about entrusting the expressions
of one's soul work to their care. In fact, after having sold book
projects to three major, not-nice publishing houses in New York,
I joined the Nineties New Wave of independent publishers. That
experience led me not only to take up independent publishing, but
to become an activist for the cause, even a bit of a rabble-rouser.
Are We So Sensitive?
I make most
of my living these days from professional editing and various forms
of writing and publishing consultation. I've been editing from
the beginning of my alleged career, when double duty as a typesetter
and reporter at a weekly newspaper necessitated learning the skills
of copy-editing and copy-amputating along with the craft of writing.
Since then I have critiqued hundreds of manuscripts and edited
many books bound for publication, along with co-writing, ghostwriting,
and working with editors on my own books.
Thus I've had
considerable experience dealing with the tempestuous egos of writers
who are determined to defend their awkward sentence constructions,
florid overwriting, and clichéd expressions almost to the death.
And when I am edited, I will likewise defend my own stylistic weaknesses
nigh unto the bitter end. Whether I am dealing with my own protests
or those of my clients, I still marvel over the remarkably thin
and transparent skins of all writers. Why, I've often wondered,
are we so goddamned sensitive?
The cynic may
answer that we ink-stained wretches are just that: hopelessly neurotic
folk trying to sort out their unworkable lives through endless
writin' and ruminatin', and coming up with so little that's truly
defensible that the mere writing becomes more dear to them than
life itself. My own take is more charitable: I believe that most
writing done for creative purposes is truly soul work, the
attempt to render in words the invisible essence of our root consciousness.
So when some smart-ass editor comes along and suggests that what
we have written isn't very easy to read, or doesn't make sense,
or is just plain stupid, we naturally take offense. A deep, true,
pure part of ourselves has just been attacked for no good reason,
and we owe it to God and Cosmos to take up arms against the infidels.
What I often
have to remind myself and gently suggest in artful ways
to my editing clients is that while our writing may indeed
be inspired by the deepest and truest parts of ourselves, those
parts don't get put down on paper in their pure form. The mystical,
creative oomph we feel in the gut has to rise up through
layers of thinking, feeling, word-associating, conscious and unconscious
censorship, and sheer egotism before it can find expression in
words. Not surprisingly, this complex translation process can too
easily result in a hideous disfigurement of the original soulful
If we can recognize
the disguise and toss it in the trashcan before anyone else reads
it, we're lucky. That means we're on the way to developing some
craft, which is the responsibility we owe to our soulful impulses.
What hurts more than anything is to mistake a total mistranslation
of our soul for the thing itself, then hand it over to an impartial
reader whom we naturally expect to collapse in grateful
tears upon the first reading only to have our masterpiece
handed back with a quizzical look and the inquiry, "So is
this supposed to be funny, or what?"
If you are
wise, you will remember that you are nothing more or less than
a translator of the collective human soul. Whether you sell a million
copies of a book or labor for a lifetime in obscurity, you are
just the intermediary between the giving aspect of your own spirit
and the needs of readers who may be able to learn something from
you. Those who don't need to learn anything from you never will,
so it is no use trying to convince them of your skill or sincerity.
And the fact is that most people will never even encounter
your work, regardless of how wildly you succeed. Believe it or
not, the New York Times bestseller list means nothing to
billions of people across the world.
When you become
your own publisher, you swiftly become aware of the whole world's
stubborn resistance to hearing your soul messages. Even with several
years experience packaging, producing, and promoting my own books,
I am still shocked to discover how little response I will get from
finely-crafted advertising and publicity, tastefully placed in
just the right media with exquisite timing. I am stunned to witness,
for the third or fourth time, how the shrewdly-executed launch
of my latest title results not in an overwhelming flood of orders,
but an entirely manageable trickle. And though I have the good
fortune of working with a reliable national distributor, I am still
disheartened when that distributor's statements regularly show
significant numbers of my books coming back from bookstores
after just a few months of shelf life. Books that horrifyingly come
back like that are called "returns" in the trade;
many a carcass of an independent publisher has been crushed under
the smothering weight of returns.
There are other
spine-chilling aspects of the book business that I could relate,
but I don't want to scare off potential self-publishers. For publishing
is truly a hero's journey that should not and would not
be undertaken by any sensible person who was properly forewarned.
Like Jonah, Odysseus, or Gilligan, you have to sail into the breach
yourself and face the killer whales, perfect storms, and situational
comedies of such a voyage without a decent inner tube, much less
a lifeboat. There's no point in being prematurely frightened away
from this risky undertaking when you will learn so much more from
being maturely frightened once you are too far gone to swim
safely back to shore.
When you visit
your local bookstore and see all the titles put out by the major
publishers, you may not be aware of a recent development in the
book market. The total volume and variety of titles in print now
owes more to the output of independent, out-of-New-York publishers
than to the mainstream houses, in fact, about 70% of all books
published today. This is due to the rapid growth in the number
of independent publishers, estimated at more than 53,000, a several-fold
increase from only ten years ago. Whereas the number of distinct,
major publishing conglomerates in New York
encompassing scores of once-independent houses and imprints is
now less than a dozen.
There was a
time when there were only three kinds of publishing: the "legitimate" mainstream
done almost exclusively in New York; a smaller tributary of university
and "literary" small-press publishing done on a regional
basis; and a trickle of "vanity" self-publishing, in
which writers financed the printing of their own work. Although
the tradition of self-publishing has some very distinguished alumni
including William Blake, Walt Whitman, and Anais Nin, it was long
regarded as the last refuge of otherwise unpublishable amateurs.
But independent publishing has emerged as a diverse force that
extends well beyond the small-press designation. And self-publishing
has become an industry unto itself, breaking free of the
"vanity" stigma and rapidly gaining prestige as the first
choice for emerging writers with an entrepreneurial bent, or for
established authors who have given up on mainstream publishers. I'm
proud to have followed the great e.e. cummings, who in 1935 published
a volume of his own poetry. Entitled No Thanks, the book listed
the thirteen major publishers who had rejected the work.
and self-publishers have received a millennial boost from technological
advances like 'print on demand', which enable the inexpensive production
of low-volume press runs, and which have inestimably accelerated
the democratization of publishing. Yet as with all democratic experiments,
the results are mixed. It's true that many more people are able
to get published today (if not noticed), and the amount of unedited,
amateurish writing that is physically available for reading is
consequently higher than ever. But because most of this material
remains buried in low press runs or the wide yet shallow World
Wide Web, the typical bookstore browser is not going to encounter
or pay much attention to it.
In regard to
books that are professional enough to reach bookstores however,
the effect of the new world order of publishing is largely salutary.
As the editor of an online review of independently published books,
I have seen an entertainingly wide range of efforts produced by
my peers over the last several years. At the low end, small-press
books are decidedly more amateurish than those issued by establishment
publishers; at the high end, they are technically as good if not
better, and have the advantage of presenting the unadulterated
visions and talents of writers whose work would not have cleared
the commercial hurdles that major publishers now present to authors.
But no matter
the method, publishing is a difficult and expensive business seemingly
designed to crush the naïve idealism that a soulful writer will
bring to it. Where an author naturally expects the whole world's
attention for a new work, the publisher knows just how tough it
will be to get a one or two percent response from a limited target
audience. Where a writer expects his or her words to be magically
and rapidly transported from the original manuscript to thousands
of bookstores nationwide, the publisher knows just how slow, detailed,
and cumbersome the processes of editing, pre-press production,
printing, marketing, and distribution can be.
Still, it can't
be denied that there could hardly be a worse time for the relationships
between publishers and authors than the modern era, whose starting
point can be approximately fixed in the early 1990s. That's when
the rush toward buy-outs and consolidation of the once-independent
major houses began shifting into warp speed. If you are a typical
bookstore browser without an entrée into the publishing scene,
you may not have noticed the momentous changes in the industry
over the last decade. After all, you still see the most prominent
books bearing the names of the best-known and once-venerable houses:
Simon & Schuster, Viking, Doubleday, Henry Holt, and so on.
What you don't
see is that the major houses have little connection to their own
esteemed literary histories anymore. Most of them are now subsidiaries
of much larger mega-marketing corporations, and their business
missions have shifted in a predictable manner. The major publishing
houses are far less interested in promoting their historical point
of view or a distinct style of literature, and are instead engaged
in an all-out battle for the highest profit margins that can be
wrested from books, any kind of books, but preferably the kind
that quickly turn into best-sellers (and then hit movies and other "synergistic" derivatives).
Ironically, I've made a significant portion of my living from editing
other authors' books that are bound for publication in New York.
That's because in-house editing takes too much time and care, and
thus too many dollars out of the bottom line, for the major houses
to do much of it anymore.
Now, New York
editors who buy a manuscript in need of shaping or polishing often
require authors to find and pay for their own editing
not to mention their own publicity and tour accommodations a
practice that has become fairly common these days. Especially for
so-called "mid-list" authors, whose books sell well enough
to earn back publishers' investments and pay a little in royalties,
but which are far from being best-sellers. The fate of the mid-list
author has been the cause of much hand-wringing and hair-pulling
in professional writing circles of late, and for good reason. Not
only are they treated with increasing disrespect by major publishers,
they are finding it difficult to stay in print, and in their chosen
career, at all.
but unknown writers are often told that they lack a "platform" for
their work meaning that they aren't movie stars, or diet
doctors, or business leaders whose advice has instantaneous national
drawing power. Witness this passage from a letter by Donna Marie
Williams, an African-American journalist who has authored such
recent titles as Black-Eyed Peas for the Soul and Sensual
editor mentioned, I don't have a promotional platform. That's true.
And beyond the one-month launch, none of my publishers have helped
me to develop one. I know that's the reality of publishing today.
My reality is, I'm a writer, not a marketer. So does that mean
I have to get out of the writing business, because I'm not a good
promoter? These past four years I've done everything I know to
do to push my books, and I've gotten only so far. Yet every editor
I've ever worked with has appreciated my hard work, professionalism,
writing talent, and willingness to go the extra mile. Very frustrating."
made me wonder: Did John Steinbeck start out with a platform? Did
Virginia Woolf, or James Baldwin, or John McPhee? Would the first,
second, or third works of these noted twentieth-century writers
have been published if they had to face the mindset of twenty-first
century establishment publishers? And what's happening to the unknown
Steinbecks, Woolfs, Baldwins and McPhees of today who are working
hard to hone their craft, but haven't had the time to construct
a promotional platform?
publishing is still large enough to produce some good literature
in most categories, and it still treats a few writers with the
respect they deserve. Note that I said a few. As an editor
with many connections to mainstream publishing, I can vouch for
the fact that the mistreatment of writers is now commonplace. Thus
I often find myself advising authors that they face a Faustian
choice in launching their careers. They can self-publish or publish
with a small, independent house to preserve their integrity and
creative spirit as long as they keep their day job and commit
all their spare time and discretionary funds to spreading the word
about their work. Or they can pursue the traditional dream of getting
a major publisher and a big advance as long as they're willing
to face the probability that, even if they achieve their unlikely
goal, they may soon find themselves in the middle of a nightmare
rather than a dream come true.
But the enthusiasm
of would-be-published writers is virtually impossible to dampen.
And I believe that their enthusiasm has as much to do with the
natural impetus of soul work as it does with mere egotism or wishful
thinking. In fact I have come to see the struggle to write well
and share one's writing as a spiritual path in its own right a
path in which disappointment and exasperation teach the seeker
just as much as vision and inspiration. To stay on the path means
that you must increasingly become both tough and forgiving, hardened
and softened, skeptical and idealistic. As you mature, you will
increasingly appreciate the joyful hardship of writing for its
own sake, and worry less about whether you make a fortune (or even
a living) by it. That means you will become an ever more effective
medium for your soul's timeless expression while becoming less
attached to your personal, temporal stake in it.
process is rarely pleasant, and one doesn't usually feel or act
very spiritual as the raiments of pride and self-esteem are progressively
shredded before your very eyes. But if you are a serious writer,
you'll have to endure this process of internal purification regardless
of your degree of external success. Publishing may be an especially
insane and unkind business these days, but I cannot imagine it
ever becoming perfectly ordered and fair. If so, those of us working
hard to convey the very stuff of the human soul in mere words would
have to go elsewhere for the karmic kicks in the teeth that serve
to make us eloquent, insightful, and maybe a little bit wise.
Miller is an author, editor, and independent publisher who recently
released his first novel, Love After Life, under the Fearless
Books imprint. He webmasters an online magazine called The Fearless
Reader, including the
"Fearless Reviews" of books from independent publishers,
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