Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Why working in publishing stinks

I intended to spend this week sequestered in my lab, fussing with my Hack Test until it was ready for public consumption.

Instead, I found something that forced me from the confines of my beakers and bubbling chemicals.

Daniel Menaker is the former Executive Editor-in-Chief at Random House and fiction editor of The New Yorker. He has written a column listing 11 reasons why the publishing industry is awful and one reason why it is good. I’d recommend reading the column in its entirety, but let me give you a few excerpts if you’re busy.

Publishing is often an extremely negative culture... This circumstance in turn increases the usual business safety of self-protective guardedness. You’re more likely to be “right” if you express doubts about a proposal’s or a manuscript’s prospects than if you support it with enthusiasm.

Genuine literary discernment is often a liability in editors. And it should be -- at least when it is unaccompanied by a broader, more popular sensibility, it should be. When you are trying to acquire books that hundreds of thousands of people will buy, read, and like, you have to have some of the eclectic and demotic taste of the reading public.

Review coverage means far less than it used to --when, for example, a front-page review in the New York Times Book Review usually guaranteed a certain level of recognition and sales. This is true partly because of the thinning of the ranks of newspapers’ stand-alone review supplements and partly because the Internet has fragmented people’s cultural attention. (As a sometimes literary critic, I appreciate the truth in this statement. The Internet gave everyone a platform, but it also made most of the platforms mean less. That’s not a good or bad thing. It simply is.)

You must almost entirely give up reading for pleasure. (My wife works in publishing — textbook publishing, specifically. I occasionally ask her why she doesn’t read for fun anymore. Then, she reminds me that she already read for 10 hours at work. Sometimes, doing what you love for a living means loving it less.)

Menaker makes several other interesting points, but there’s no reason for me to recapitulate them all. Back to the lab.

-Jason Lea,



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