I’m nearly sick of my own voice, so I can only imagine your frustration/boredom with the prospect of another word dribbling missive from this corner of the publishing world. For a quick escape, here is a link to Yahoo, a picture of a dog that got in a fight with a porcupine (legit), somebody smarter and more articulate than me.
If you’re still here…
In the course of real world events, sometimes somebody says something witty or profound that applies to the publishing industry even though it is originally directed at an entirely different audience, like, say, the graduating class of 2012 over at Wellesley High School in Wellesley, Massachusetts.
For those of you who didn’t see it originally on June 1st, Wellesley High English teacher, David McCullogh Jr. took a non-traditional approach to the commencement speech. He didn’t quote from Dr. Seuss’ Oh! The Places You’ll Go. He didn’t recite a long list of Succesory maxims.
He straight up told the kids, with all of their assorted kith and kin right there in the audience—
You are not special. You are not exceptional.
Contrary to what your u9 soccer trophy suggests, your glowing seventh grade report card, despite every assurance of a certain corpulent purple dinosaur, that nice Mister Rogers and your batty Aunt Sylvia, no matter how often your maternal caped crusader has swooped in to save you… you’re nothing special.
Yes, you’ve been pampered, cosseted, doted upon, helmeted, bubble-wrapped. Yes, capable adults with other things to do have held you, kissed you, fed you, wiped your mouth, wiped your bottom, trained you, taught you, tutored you, coached you, listened to you, counseled you, encouraged you, consoled you and encouraged you again. You’ve been nudged, cajoled, wheedled and implored. You’ve been feted and fawned over and called sweetie pie. Yes, you have. And, certainly, we’ve been to your games, your plays, your recitals, your science fairs. Absolutely, smiles ignite when you walk into a room, and hundreds gasp with delight at your every tweet. Why, maybe you’ve even had your picture in the Townsman! And now you’ve conquered high school… and, indisputably, here we all have gathered for you, the pride and joy of this fine community, the first to emerge from that magnificent new building…
But do not get the idea you’re anything special. Because you’re not.
The empirical evidence is everywhere, numbers even an English teacher can’t ignore. Newton, Natick, Nee… I am allowed to say Needham, yes? …that has to be two thousand high school graduates right there, give or take, and that’s just the neighborhood Ns. Across the country no fewer than 3.2 million seniors are graduating about now from more than 37,000 high schools. That’s 37,000 valedictorians… 37,000 class presidents… 92,000 harmonizing altos… 340,000 swaggering jocks… 2,185,967 pairs of Uggs. But why limit ourselves to high school? After all, you’re leaving it. So think about this: even if you’re one in a million, on a planet of 6.8 billion that means there are nearly 7,000 people just like you. (full speech here)
Earlier this week it was announced that a civil suit had been filed by disgruntled authors against PublishAmerica. As I am not all that interested in getting thrown frivolously into a lawsuit, I’ll reserve any real comment on what I might consider non-standard business practices as far PublishAmerica—a company that labels itself a traditional publishing house—goes. I will only say that, as I understand their operation, it varies significantly from any operation I’ve ever headed also called traditional publishing houses).
Thankfully, there are places to gather online to discuss different publishing operations, agents, and the assorted ephemera of the industry to get a better handle on how they are viewed in the community. One such website—Absolute Write—has a whole sub-forum devoted to Publish America. A quick review of the general Bewares forum shows there are dozens of other publishers and agents that seem to be challenged passing the bar of what is considered acceptable business practice (thank God for this never ending supply of italics. They make tip-toeing around things a smidge easier).
What I mean to say is that there are enough shady, fly-by-night, dangerously unqualified, well-meaning, but poorly informed operations out there who will publish your book using loose language and promises. Sometimes for a fee. Sometimes for hidden costs down the road. Sometimes with no cost, but also no chance in hell of being discovered by readers (why we’re all here). One thing that has become common with many of these operations is to proudly and boldly declare that they are in business because they believe writers have a right to be heard! They believe writers—but especially you—are special, and if it weren’t for the damn gatekeepers holding you back…
Hi. My name is Ben. And I’m a gatekeeper.
The simple truth is this—I see hundreds of books a year. The overwhelming majority of them are not special. They are not distinguishable from one another in quality or originality. They are a great lot of Cs. A mash-up of SVU, NYPD Blue, and LA Law.
Should they be published?
I can only answer whether or not they should be published with a Tyrus Books logo on the spine. I sometimes run into books that I truly love and adore, but that aren’t an editorial fit for our line. I sometimes find books that I’d be proud to publish, but I’m unable to come to terms with the agent. But mostly I get rehashed concepts and scraps of dialogue that inspire a slight shrug and an uninspired, “oh. Ok.”
Let’s be very clear about something—I believe in writers. When done right, a novel can be life-alteringly powerful. I have and will fight at great length to bring to light books that have moved me. No health insurance? No paycheck? Been there. Done that. The payment was always bigger when I could see the look in people’s eyes or hear in their voice how much a book that I loved moved them, too. If I were to then pretend that all books were that special, you’d know not to listen to me about books.
Is it an accomplishment to finish a novel? Sure. Many people talk about it and never do. But it doesn’t make an author special for having done it. What meaning can special have if every author who finishes a book—regardless of quality—is special?
It isn't easy to write a truly special book. It requires a hybrid of honed talent, natural gift, and a dedication to process. Plenty of people have those elements in varying quantities, but to put them all together, redlined and complete, is the elevating factor.
It's also the goal we should set for ourselves for everything we do.