It took nearly 18 years — along with four titles, four agents, 12 rewrites and at least 50 rejections — before author Bill Morris published his latest novel, ‘Motor City Burning.’
So long as you write what you wish to write, that is all that matters; and whether it matters for ages or only for hours, nobody can say.
The MFAs of the country may be able to reliably create an inner circle of talented writers to form a community, but they have a much harder time creating an outer circle of potential fans.
I began to realize that the bohemian writer life in the big city that I had dreamed of as a kid was really all just a big pile of malarkey.
Also, it makes it sound like the editor is a trainer and I am a golden retriever, but it is wise to offer praise. My editor made it clear she loved the book and in our discussions we’d confirmed that our visions of its best incarnation aligned, so she could also give me notes like, “I just feel like this section is so long and talky and boring,” and my trust in her and maybe my Stockholm syndrome were strong enough that I could hear her.
My first clue that my book would not be a bestseller came in a marketing meeting about six months prior to publication. Actually there were several clues in that meeting. The first came when a marketing assistant suggested that I start a blog, and I had to explain that her bosses had acquired my book in part because I was a well-known blogger.
I have very specific advice for aspiring writers: go to New York. And if you can’t go to New York, go to the place that represents New York to you, where the standards for writing are high, there are other people who share your dreams, and where you can talk, talk, talk about your interests. Writing books begins in talking about it, like most human projects, and in being close to those who have already done what you propose to do.
The New York Times Book Review: You spent your early years as an editor at the New American Library and the Dial Press. What are your fondest memories of working in publishing? What has been the most significant change you’ve witnessed in the field?
E.L. Doctorow: At New American Library, a mass-market reprinter, we were publishing books with a price of 50 or 75 cents or a dollar and a quarter for a huge novel, and distributing them in great numbers all over the country. Or we’d buy a good first novel that had sold maybe 2,000 copies in hardcover, and print a hundred thousand and put it in every airport and railroad and bus station in the country. That was wonderfully satisfying work. NAL’s list was eclectic — publishing Mickey Spillane, but also Faulkner; Erskine Caldwell’s “Tobacco Road,” but also Susanne K. Langer’s “Philosophy in a New Key.” We published “The Signet Classic Shakespeare,” of which I was the house editor, and a science list which fell to me to handle. It was all very exciting, reading these books, bidding for the reprint rights, entertaining proposals, and dealing with the likes of Ayn Rand and Ian Fleming. But the game changed with the advent of the trade paperback. Trade publishers were now keeping the reprint rights for lists of their own. And so the mass-market business changed, and some of the reprinters went to what they called “originals” — genre products like thrillers, romances and so on. You can still find good classic public-domain titles at the big paperback houses like NAL, but they’re not freely distributed as they used to be — they are mostly on educational lists so far as I can tell.
I moved over to Dial, a trade publisher, in the mid 1960s, and it was a very exciting place to be — not only because this was the Sixties but because your most creative juices were required just to keep that house in business. I was editing Mailer, James Baldwin. I published William Kennedy’s first novel, Ernest J. Gaines, Thomas Berger and a book by Joan Baez. But also a hoax called “Report From Iron Mountain,” a satirically inspired, dryly written presumed government study claiming that peace was not only unattainable but undesirable. This was during the Vietnam War, you see. The book was covered on the front page of The New York Times and hit the best-seller list.
Conglomeration — the acquisition of houses by large corporations — is the story of how things have changed. Trade publishing was never purely a business. How could it be when a house’s prime assets were the tastes of its editors? You floated the consequential books with the money you earned with the commercial things on your list. Publishing was a cottage industry. People loved to be in it and took its low salaries in return for its creative excitements. A house’s balance sheet could veer from good to dismal and back again from year to year. That’s because it didn’t offer products that were endlessly the same, like breakfast cereals or automobile tires. The hunches of its editors were very hard to quantify on a balance sheet. Now, wanting publishing to be a business like any other, the big conglomerates naturally like to increase their profit margins from one year to the next. There’s a pressure on editors to sober up and produce books that earn their keep. Oddly the conglomerates have more money to play with, and so, perversely, they may be less daring, less freewheeling. This is not true of the best of them, of course. Good books are still published with vigor and are still major acts of the culture, but the corporate ethos makes it probably not as much fun.
Read the full interview here.