I questioned for a while whether to write about this on my blog. Would editors to whom I am, via my agent, submitting my manuscript be put off by my discussion of literary fiction and technology? By pondering aloud whether to pursue an e-book route or not would I be pushing potential publishers away? But I think not. It is just a discussion. I have made no decisions. There are far too many factors and unknowns, and more than anything right now the question of how to get my story out into the world, given all the possible channels and structures, is more confusing than anything else.
Nathan Bransford, blogger and former literary agent, put up a thought provoking post a few days ago titled “Why are so many literary writers technophobic?” He cites a number of literary writers’ comments—ranging from musings to rants—regarding ebooks, social media and the Internet. Ray Bradbury, Jonathan Franzen, Zadie Smith are among those he mentions. His post elicited 69 (to date) responses, some of which are quite insightful and raise the notions of fear of change, academia, generational differences, mass culture, use of time, distraction, complacency and all kinds of other elements that may be contributing to the divide that seems to exist between writers of “literary” fiction and the adoption of new technologies.
I would love to see my book in print, a physical object, with a beautiful glossy cover and satisfyingly papery pages. Something I can bring to dance and writing events, pull out of my bag and leave in high traffic areas, sign and hand over to a friend or colleague or stranger. Something that a person can read on a subway and flip over to show the title to the person next to her who asked what she is reading. But I know this is not the only way to share my story, and I care immensely about getting it out to as many readers as possible. Thus I’ve been trying to educate myself on the various options that exist, the various publishing mechanisms that might be appropriate for distributing the story.
As a part of this effort, I attended a multi-hour session on ebooks, offered by Grub Street, the fantastic Boston-based center for creative writing. And while I entered the room with the notion that I could easily embrace the ebook thing, I left wondering if that is indeed the case. Two things happened to me during those hours: 1) I learned the nitty gritty of turning a manuscript into an ePub file, including the disheartening fact that one has to strip the manuscript of virtually all formatting, including any paragraph breaks not related to chapter breaks, any tabs or intendations, any centering of quotes or poems or other material not presented in simple paragraphs of prose. Talk about reducing the aesthetics of a book! Does this make me old-fashioned? I truly wonder.
The second thing was that I ran into a straight-talking, honest and successful agent who has been kind enough to read some of my chapters in the past, and when she found out which workshop I was attending, she said, verbatim: “Don’t do an ebook except as a last resort. Your book is too good. Your manuscript has only been on submission for 5 months? That’s nothing. Give it at least two years.” Wow. There is so much to parse out of that statement. I don’t even know where to begin.
One: an ebook as a last resort. This at a time when the blogosphere is rife with examples of writers, some of them already successfully published traditionally, who are choosing to go straight to ebooks for their next work. What to make of this?
Two: “Your book is too good.” Well, that is very flattering, for sure, but what does it mean? And what about trying to find a way to have an ebook AND a print book simultaneously? Surely that shouldn’t be a “last resort?” What was the agent really saying? Was she echoeing the phenomenon that Nathan Bransford was highlighting, of “literary” fiction—and presumably readers of such—not being aligned with technology?
Three: “Give it at least two years.” Well, this I can undersatnd. I’m willing to wait until I find what I feel is the right method to release my book. It took me eight years to complete, why should I rush now? And that gives me time to work on the next one, so there can be less of a gap between the publication of the two. (Yes, I’m ever the optimist.) This is the one part of the statement that resonates with me.
These are truly interesting times, my friends, in which to try to publish. And on an ending note: my mentor and one-time professor and employer, Paul Levy, most recently the CEO of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, put out his own book via CreateSpace just a few days ago. It’s a print book, not an ebook, but he has self-published it. In his words: “Entitled Goal Play! Leadership lessons from the Soccer Field, the book presents insights from sports, health care, business and government to help leaders get better outcomes.” Paul Levy is an unequaled leader with an illustrious career, including positions such as Director of the Arkansas Department of Energy, Executive Director of the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority and Executive Dean for Administration at the Harvard Medical School. One would think that he would easily get a deal from a traditional publishing house. He certainly has the proverbial “platform,” including a widely-read blog. (http://runningahospital.blogspot.com/) And yet, when asked why he didn’t choose that route, he says: “Publishers offer me nothing. They expect me to do all the publicity. I have my own outreach arms.”
If this is true for non-fiction, why such a perceived difference for literary fiction?