Publishing: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

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Not entirely related to this post, but I couldn’t resist

I’ve now been working at Thomas Dunne Books for about a month and a half. I started getting the hang of things a few weeks into the internship, and I even got to fill in as an interim assistant for one of the editors here! According to someone I work for, I’ve been exposed to a lot more than typical interns see, and I’ve done some pretty substantial jobs. I do not by any means think myself a publishing industry expert, but I have gained an insider’s perspective, so I feel confident enough to write this post about what I perceive to be the good, the bad, and the ugly of book publishing.

The Good

Free books? Free books! FREE BOOKS!!!

One of my friends laughed when I gushed about how excited I was that I have acquired (physically, not editorially, of course) piles and piles of books here, all without spending a penny. He thought it was hilarious that I was so visibly happy about this bookshelf boost, but I think it’s downright magical every time I receive a new book. Yes, it will be difficult logistically to get all these treasures home, but I will find a way. I must find a way.

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New Perspectives on Books

Walking through a bookstore is now a very different experience for me. I automatically check who the publisher is every time I pick up a book, and I know how things like the blurbs on the first few pages or the quote from a comparable author on the front got there. I understand how a certain book got so much hype, why I’m seeing it everywhere I turn, why it’s on a particular table or shelf. In a nutshell, I’ve learned more about the world of effort that goes into a single title.

Rewarding

Nobody in publishing is in it for the money. Working for a publishing house is not going to earn you anywhere near a fortune, which means that everybody who’s working here wants to be working with books. There are tiresome projects, difficult authors, pestering agents, and outdated databases to deal with every day, but there are also those projects that make everything else worth it. A manuscript that you’re really excited to edit, an author who’s great to work with, a book that’s bound for the bestseller list. The feeling that your job is rewarding in some shape or form is what keeps anyone in any job going, publishing just provides a sweeter end product for bibliophiles.

The People

Like I said, everybody who’s working here wants to be working with books. They have to love what they do, or else publishing is a rather thankless industry. The shared passion (both here at Macmillan and in publishing in general) makes for a great workplace culture, and though it may sound starry-eyed, I do believe that book people are good people. It’s incredible to work for a company, specifically in the editorial department here, where everyone actually wants to be doing their job.

The Bad

Not Dying, But Changing

The publishing industry is not dying. People will never stop writing stories, ebook sales are still only a small part of the equation (I would know, I’ve seen the numbers), the physical book is not endangered. However, the industry is undoubtedly changing. There are only five major publishing houses, and many companies are downsizing. For instance, Thomas Dunne Books announced shortly after I arrived that the imprint would now consist of the publisher and three other people. While the rest of the former TLD team is still employed, the change indicates the widespread job insecurity in the industry. The pickings are slim and competitive, and with companies merging left and right, it’s like the ground is moving beneath your feet. Even people who have been working in publishing for a long time might not know if their job will still exist in a few years, so I’ve been told.

New Perspectives on Books Continued

When you work for a publishing house or a literary agency, books are no longer those beloved relics that can transport and enchant you. They are commodities. Forget all that jazz about never judging a book by its cover because this whole industry is about judging a book by its cover. When you’re an editor reading a submission, it’s not all about whether the writing is good, or if you even like it that much. Those things are important, but financial potential is a new factor in the equation. Editors also take into account what their imprint is known for and/or good at. For instance, imprints that publish commercial/popular fiction will not pick up the next MFA-holding, literary fiction-writing big shot. On the other hand, imprints that publish literary fiction will not pick up anything that relies mostly on plot, as commercial fiction does. Though it’s not as simple as reducing a book to sales figures, it can feel that way sometimes.

Highly Geographically Concentrated

By this I mean that publishing houses are overwhelmingly based in New York. If you know even a little bit about the industry, this will not be news to you. In the public imagination, Editors = New York City. It’s just the way it is. With a few notable exceptions, almost every major publishing house (definitely all of the Big Five) calls Manhattan home. For die-hard New Yorkers, this is not a problem. For everyone else, namely me, it can be.

I love New York, I really do. I think it’s an amazing city and I have so much fun here, but the cost of living is outrageous and, on top of that, living here is frankly exhausting. I’m not sure I can see myself in the city for more than a few years; I’m pretty convinced that I’d like to settle elsewhere, ideally somewhere with constantly overcast skies, but how do I do that if I want to work for a major publishing house? I’m still looking for that answer. Going to grad school in the UK and finding work there is a strong possibility.

The Ugly

Systems

I can’t speak for other publishing houses, but the online systems here often feel dated. Perhaps that’s partially because I’m using a PC for the first time in almost ten years and it feels like childhood. Besides the PC thing, though, there are some online databases that are slow and frustrating, and it’s hard to deal with sometimes. Not impossible, but hard.

So. Much. Paper.

We print hard copies (often multiple) of pretty much everything, including full manuscripts. Use your imagination on that one.

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It’s Messy

Many, if not most, editors make their notes on manuscripts by hand (which I then type up for them with the more recent invention of Track Changes in Word). The production department brings us corrections, again made by hand, to approve. Errors are sometimes not caught until it’s almost too late, and sometimes they’re not caught at all. Publishing is very, very human, and with such humanity comes mess.

The Beautiful

It’s Messy

Call me a romantic, but I also think that publishing’s very messiness is endearing and, yes, beautiful. This might sound a little too it’s-the-imperfections-that-make-you-perfect of me. Still, seeing a stack of paper covered in scrawls and sticky notes gives me a little jolt of joy, even if it’s not necessarily the most environmental, effective, or streamlined system. The publishing industry is far from perfect, but that’s part of its charm to me.

~Natalie

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