The other part of this job
First a gossipy story
When an editor at a publishing house wants to acquire a book, s/he must pitch it. Much like pitching a movie, the editor meets with fellow editors and colleagues from the marketing department, and they hash out whether to publish the book, and what to pay the author as an advance against future royalties.
When Girls star Lena Dunham wrote her book Not That Kind of Girl, the usual folks in big publishing got together. Girls was a hot show on HBO, and Dunham had become a public figure with a huge following, and her collection of essays might’ve made her the next David Sedaris. Better yet, a feminist, female David Sedaris, with pieces about rabbits and putting small stones in her sister’s vagina. Every editor in an acquisitions meeting has authors and manuscripts to champion. They want their books to find a readership. They know that the bigger an advance paid to the author the more money the promotions department will spend to support the book.
In many cases—most?—decisions have little to do with the quality of the book. In the Dunham case, the editor got the author a three-point-seven million dollar advance. Which meant that other editors and authors would be shut down. Their beloved projects would stall out.
Now the juicy part. It’s hearsay mind you, but from an excellent source. As the meeting broke up, and the editors were leaving, one editor grabbed the shoulders of Dunham’s editor. Both women, the editor who was shut out of acquiring her author’s work slammed Dunham’s editor against the wall, pinning her there by the shoulders and shouting, “Do you know how many truly great books and talented authors won’t get published because you got 3.7 million for that (inset expletive) book of yours?”
The scuffle broke up in an instant, but it demonstrates the passion people feel for good books. And the ugly truth about a book by a celebrity being “worth” more than a far better book by an undiscovered writer. And, no, it’s not fair. Big publishing is about building a consensus.
Thirty years ago a fellow student from Tom’s workshop phoned me late one night. He’d moved to New York City to find a niche in publishing and—he hoped—eventually get his novels out. Over the phone he shouted, “I’m at a party at George Plimpton’s house, and Gerry Howard is here telling everyone about YOU!”
My friend was livid. He was starving in an East Village closet, trying to make connections, and here I was in Portland, Oregon just making submissions long distance. And one of the most influential editors in publishing was already working to build a consensus around publishing my work.
To stay on the subject of Gerry Howard, he’s long been working on a book about another editor: The man who saved Faulkner from oblivion. Not to give too much away, as Gerry tells it, by the early seventies Faulkner’s books were all out of print. He’d been popular in the fifties, but two decades later no one read his work. That’s until an ambitious young editor took up the challenge. This editor—the subject of Gerry’s future book—approached his bosses and pitched them to relaunch Faulkner’s books. He argued that Faulkner had created a dense fictional world worth reexamining.
His bosses said no, Faulkner was a has-been. It would be a waste of time and money. In response, our editor—the man who saved Faulkner—wrote numerous think-piece articles for literary and cultural magazines. He submitted them all under false names, and argued the case for reexamining Faulkner from every angle. Within a few months the culture was buzzing about Faulkner, and the bosses approached our heroic editor and said, more or less, “What would you think about relaunching all of Faulkner’s work?” They said, “There seems to be so much buzz around it…”
In the same way Gerry was building consensus around me, this earlier editor had built consensus for reviving Faulkner. That’s why we still read Faulkner today. That consensus isn’t always about the quality of the work. It’s also about the likelihood of its success and the ease of promoting the book. The Dunham book got the money because it looked like the safer bet. In retrospect, at least.
Which brings us to the Story Night Contest
Over the next eight weeks we’ll all be voting on our favorite posted stories. A prize of ten thousand dollars will be split between the three stories that get the most “likes.”
Now the complication. I’m not going to play Story Police and choose sides, but Substack has alerted me about several fake accounts likely taken out by the same individual(s). They’ve also warned me about “bots,” whatever those are. In the past week, two stories have shot to the top of the “likes” going very far, very fast. And while both are valid stories, this has raised some red flags. I’ve no issue with authors building consensus—yes, ask your friends and family and church to vote for your story. But we can’t allow anyone to submit multiple subscriptions using fake emails. If that is the case.
In the spirit of publishing, yes, beat the bushes. Build consensus and drive people to like the stories you like. But we’ve got to guard against someone finding a way to upvote themselves multiple times. To do that I’ll repost the stories that are at issue, allowing for Comments. I encourage the many, many people who liked those stories to check in and post a hello. If dozens of people have liked a story it should be no problem to get an outpouring of Comments to confirm that those votes were valid.
In closing, I encourage everyone to network. Read the stories, build alliances. Support one another. Substack has agreed to update me about any suspicious activity.
P.S. While I do have my favorites, I haven’t “liked” any stories out of the fear that my preference might sway voters. Okay?