The Accidental Publisher

When I started looking for a job in publishing after moving to New York many years ago, the reason was simple. I wanted to know how it worked. It seemed a sensible thing for a writer (who at that time had written two unpublished novels and was working on a third) to know.

At that very early point in my literary career, my sole publishing “success” was a letter to the editor in Harper’s magazine. The letter, which I still have somewhere, was in response to a piece by Madison Smartt Bell (wow, Dragon Dictate got the correct spelling of his middle name) on “brat pack” fiction.

In any case, I applied for every job as an editorial assistant that I could find. Then, as now, editorial assistants are young. At the time, I was pushing 28, and virtually every person I talked to seemed to think that I was a lousy prospect because of a) my age, and b) my being a writer.

Despite their there having been over the years lots of fine editors who were also writers (think Toni Morrison, Dan Menaker, Kathryn Harrison – who sold her first novel when she was working at Viking Press [I never met her, but I was working there at the time, too] – and many others), publishers tended to be leery of writers in their editorial food chain. But I finally found a brand-new HR person (in those days they called in the personnel department) and because I could write, she seemed to think that I was a natural. I went to work as one of two assistants to Roger Cooper, who was then the publisher Berkley Publishing, the paperback arm of Putnam Berkley, which had not yet become a part of Penguin.

I earned, as Roger’s second assistant, essentially nothing, but I and my then-wife had just gotten out of graduate school and could more or less afford the rent subsidized apartment that we lucked into as a matter of family connections.

It was an interesting era of change in publishing. For years, the paperback had been dominant, but sometime in the mid-80s, trade books—hardcovers—experienced a resurgence, with trade novels (my apologies to anyone whose major interest is nonfiction, but as a novelist I’m most interested in fiction) selling millions of copies, which if memory serves, coincided with the explosion in discount book retailers like Crown Books that preceded the super chains, Borders and Barnes & Noble, and so forth, with their massive discounts.

What most impressed me about publishing was how much it took to publish a book. I remember much delight in going from the editorial meeting on Monday morning, in which decisions were made about what to publish, to the cover conference on Wednesday or Thursday, where editorial met with the art department and art came together with marketing copy to create the covers that the rest of the world saw on the racks in the book stores and grocery stores and airports and wherever else fine books were sold.

It was not my intent, then or even later, after I began to publish, to become a publisher. The barrier to entry was way too high. So high that it was unthinkable. I mean, this was something you just wouldn’t even consider, unless you had a mimeograph machine.

But then things changed again. Big time. (If you have no idea what I’m talking about, then I hope the coma wasn’t too unpleasant.)

The barrier to entry is now so low the ants in my kitchen (dying, as we speak, I promise) could drag a dog over it — and these are really little ants.

So what’s a novelist to do? Lots of writers—not just novelists, either—have made the decision. Become your own publisher. There are many who have made serious money doing so. But becoming your own publisher means having to learn to do a lot more than writing a good story. I’ll try to go into the stuff that I’m thinking you really need to learn in later posts. For now, probably the best resource on what you might need if you wanted to self-publish comes from David Carnoy. This is must-read stuff.

I’ve argued that the tools of self-publishing—which I prefer to think of as direct publishing—are tools that can be used not just by individuals, but also by startup publishers as well. I’m still on the fence, really, but let’s say I do decide to publish my own work, which I’ll discuss in later posts. If I’m going to learn how to be a publisher, then I’m going to be a publisher, not just my own press.

And I have what has been called “one of the coolest logos I’ve ever seen.” What else do I need?

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About Steve, i.e., him

Stephen Stark is an award-winning novelist and bestselling ghostwriter. His fiction and nonfiction has appeared in numerous publications, including The New Yorker, the Washington Post, and the New York Times, Poets & Writers and in many other journals. He has been a fellow and taught at the Bread Loaf Writers Conference, and won an NEA Literature Fellowship in fiction. His novel, Second Son, was a New York Times Book Review Notable Book of 1992, and a New and Noteworthy Paperback of 1994.

Tell me what you think. Seriously.