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The Uncivil Servant: Getting Published, Odds and Obstacles

Mitchell Abidor
December 8, 2017

Discussed in this essay: Under the Cover: The Creation, Production, and Reception of a Novel by Clayton Childress. Princeton University Press, 308 pages, 2017.

EVEN SOMEONE who is part of the publishing system as an author is unaware of how the soup is made, and there can be no more fascinating, enjoyable, insightful, and well-written a guide to what goes on in the publishing kitchen than Clayton Childress’ wonderful Under the Cover.

No book can be viewed as every book, but it can certainly be assumed that most non-best-seller, non-big-name-uthor books resemble Cornelia Nixon’s Jarrettsville, the historical novel that Childress follows from creation through production and on to reception. As he shows, a book’s procession to success requires patience, devotion, hope, and no small amount of luck.

The cast of characters in Under the Cover is impressively large. Getting published requires first getting through two gates: finding an agent, since almost no books are published that are not presented and represented by an agent, and then finding a publisher. Just the first step requires an enormous amount of ability, since, as Childress reports, one agent accepts just .009% of the manuscripts sent him. Publishers then accept or reject what the agents show them, the agents serving as a screen to prevent the publishers from being swamped beneath a sea of manuscripts. As Childress writes, “Editors, for the most part, decide what to publish from an already well-pruned list of what agents have prescreened for them, and it is only after an agent has done her job that an editor’s work of deciding what to publish truly begins.”

Race and personal networks, Childress tells us, are key factors: Almost all agents are white (a Publishers Weekly survey in 2014 pegged it at 88 percent) and the plurality are located in New York. This militates against non-white writers being able to break through, since agents would tend, he posits, to identify more easily with writers who resemble them. Similarly, agents have networks of editors at publishing houses they deal with, who know and trust their judgments, and whose tastes the agents are aware of, which again serves to restrict the pool of publishable authors.

ALONG THE Way we get brief histories of the role of agent and editor, how the professions were born and developed over the course of the 20th century, leading to the work and accomplishments of a super-editor like Maxwell Perkins, who wrestled the massive and diffuse manuscripts of Thomas Wolfe down to size and turned Scott Fitzgerald from an author in the reject pile to an American classic.

We learn of the importance of the decision about how to classify a novel, how hard it is for sales staff to push it, the importance of where it is placed in the publisher’s catalog of new releases (Jarrettsville earns placement at the head of the catalogue of Counterpoint, the medium-sized house that paid author Nixon a medium-sized advance of $6,000). The various proposed covers are dissected, the final choice an effort to avoid having the book seen as aimed specifically at either men or at women. Signals from significant individuals at Counterpoint lead to an increase in the efforts to promote the book — and, most importantly, a reading by the book’s editor results in a complete restructuring of the novel.

The final leg of the process is reception, and here Jarretsville hit a roadblock in the form of a negative New York Times review, written by a historian, not a novelist. The newspaper’s choice of reviewer was particularly significant, because Childress makes a case for the existence within book reviewing of a system of author omertà, a concept borrowed from the Mafia: a novelist won’t say anything unnecessarily negative about a colleague’s novel (or an historian about another historian’s book) unless there is some major point to be learned. As Childress correctly points out, most novels written by non-big-name authors will simply be ignored, so why add the shame of a poor review to a book that likely won’t be read anyway?

The selling of the actual book yields some fascinating insights into the operation of Amazon, which now accounts for 30 percent of all book sales in the U.S. Its harm to brick-and-mortar stores is an oft-told tale, but there is much more to its impact: Amazon’s enormous sales allow the company to have enormous leverage with publishers, not only to receive both a share of the revenue for every book sold but “to require that publishers put that money back into Amazon as advertising purchases in the next calendar year.” As if this frightful double-dipping were not enough, Amazon has set up a program internally called “Project Gazelle” — not because it was sleek and beautiful but because, after breaking publishers down into categories based on how dependent they are on Amazon, those “most dependent on Amazon (mostly small and independent publishers) were then targeted for increased … fees and lower revenue splits. Amazon’s founder, Jeff Bezos clarified the meaning of the project’s name when joking that ‘Amazon should approach these small publishers the way a cheetah would approach a sickly gazelle,’ picking them off first and weakening the overall herd of publishers before targeting the rest.”

IN THE END, despite the poor Times review, Jarrettsville did reasonably well: sales met the advance. Childress conferred with reading groups around the country that read the book and was able to statistically demonstrate something we all instinctively know, that people read their own lives into books and read books into their lives based on a number of parameters: age, gender, region of origin, region of reading . . . Every text is multiple, and our readings, as he shows, often do not match the writer’s intentions, but a book, once put out into the world, is like a child, and escapes its progenitor’s desires.

Mitchell Abidor, a contributing writer to Jewish Currents, is a writer and translator living in Brooklyn. Among his books are a translation of Victor Serge’s Notebooks 1936-1947, May Made Me: An Oral History of My 1968 in France, and I’ll Forget it When I Die, a history of the Bisbee Deportation of 1917. His writings have appeared in The New York Times, Foreign Affairs, Liberties, Dissent, The New York Review of Books, and many other publications.