Tag Archives: publishing

The Best Book You (Almost) Never Read

Maybe it’s the book you rescued from a yard sale, or the one you left abandoned on a shelf for years because the cover was awful.  Maybe it’s one that was mis-shelved at the library right between two of your favorites, and you found yourself looking at it on a whim.  Maybe you happened to hear two people randomly mention it within a few days of each other and then saw a copy on a friend’s coffee table.

Sometimes the best books are the ones we almost never read.

It’s definitely true in the publishing world that many of the most legendary classics are books that almost never saw the light of day…

Poems by Emily Dickinson, discovered after her death.

An unusually fat grade-school novel by an unknown writer rejected 12 times in a row (Harry Potter).

A quirky little picture book about some tea-drinking bunnies that was self-published because no one else wanted it (Peter Rabbit).

Even Moby Dick reportedly sold only 50 copies during Melville’s lifetime.

If you’ve ever read a book by Agatha Christie, Mary Higgins Clark, John Grisham, James Patterson, Madeleine L’Engle, Louis L’Amour, Dr. Seuss, or Margaret Mitchell, you’ve met an author in those pages whose books narrowly escaped dying in a dresser drawer, unpublished.  And it’s not just fluff fiction:  books by Chinua Achebe, E.E. Cummings, Jack Kerouac, William Golding, Alice Walker, James Joyce, George Orwell, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Yann Martel have been insulted, misunderstood, and unceremoniously shot down time and again.  And some that were printed in the author’s lifetime moldered on the bookstore shelves until the writer was dead and gone for decades (ever heard of Jane Austen?)

Aspiring writers often moan about the devilish catch-22 of getting anything published without platform when platform is so hard to achieve if you haven’t been published.  But our problem is hardly new to the internet age.  (Joseph Heller himself felt it, too.)  Loads of manuscripts pile up on publishers’ desks, and the poor guys/gals have to sort through the Pulitzers and the drivel without the help of a crystal ball.  They’re searching for the needle in a papery haystack.

At Blackwell’s in Oxford, I saw a great display of books wrapped in brown paper with just a handwritten teaser on the front.  “Wildly imaginative story about a shipwreck, a tiger, and the meaning of life.”  “One victim, a dozen suspects, all stranded on a luxury train in a blizzard.”  “A puzzle book written in exquisite prose, perfect for fans of so-and-so.”  What a super idea!  Pick the book blind, not for its reputation or its famous author or its fancy cover art; let it speak on its own terms.

Last year my reading resolution was to review the books I read (on Goodreads, Amazon, wherever).  What if next year’s reading resolution went something like this:  for every book I read because I already know and love the author I’ll try one by someone unknown?  For every bestseller I’ll browse the shelves for one I’ve never heard of?

What if we don’t let the big shots in New York dictate what we’ll read this year, but look for the treasure in the brown paper bag?

You can click on my Want-to-Read pile at Goodreads for some inspiration if you want.  But I’m on the lookout, too, so give me your best suggestions below.  What’s a book we’ve never heard of that you know we’d all love?

What’s the best book you almost never read?

Photo on Visual hunt

Friends and Books

Maybe you have felt that reading a book is like making a friend, or that, picking up someone else’s pages, you have made a connection across miles and time with the author.  You read someone else’s words and you think, Yes!  I feel the same.  As C.S. Lewis said, “Friendship … is born at the moment when one man says to another ‘What! You too? I thought that no one but myself . . .'”  For a lonely kid, that is the magic of books.

Now, as an author, I see another side of publishing, “red in tooth and claw” as it is.  Books are business, and business is not friendly.  Trying to get a manuscript published is like sucking up the courage needed to run naked across a stage while being pelted with rotten fruit and large pointy objects.  No one sane would do it at all.  But even in the muck of publishing, there is a nice side, the friendship that can bloom in unlikely ways through the pages of a book.

I have been privileged this year to make such a friend, a stranger across the country who was willing to review Thirty Thousand Days.  That it could have gone badly I am well aware.  Even as I sent off a copy, I dived under the bed to wait for tomatoes to fly.  But what I heard to my happy surprise was “What?  You too?” I am pleased to say that I have found a friend in Carolyn Litfin, and I am honored to know her.  If you should happen this week to read a book that makes you happy, find the author (she’s probably hiding under the bed) and tell her so.  We all have room for another friend.

Here’s Carolyn’s kind review.

Photo credit: krecimag via VisualHunt /  CC BY

Souped-up Slush Pile

Here’s a quick tutorial on the publishing industry for those of you who’ve never had a compulsion to stick pins in your pupils.

Step One: Pour weeks, months, years into heartbreaking work of staggering genius (thanks, Dave Eggers)
Step Two: Submit baby to publisher to be kicked back with rude note — get an agent!
Step Three: Submit baby to agent to be spat upon and returned with rude note — get publishing creds!
Step Four: Locate sharp object. Rinse and repeat.

After a few rounds of this, most authors relocate to SriLanka or thereabouts for a spiritual experience, rise above their publishing aspirations, and write a few dozen articles about rejecting their desires. Then they try again and are rewarded with nicer rejection letters due to their ascetic publishing credentials.

Aha! But there is another way. I am trying to decide if it releases you from this circle of purgatory or merely extends the process with the illusion of happy co-travelers. It is called authononmy, and is HarperCollins’ answer to the slush pile. Instead of submitting and waiting, waiting, waiting for rejection, you can upload your book, dialog with other writers, and watch it slowly rise to the top, at which point HarperCollins will perform the obligatory rejection publicly and with many kind words to ease the sting of defeat. For your writer types, you can check it out here:
Don’t forget to bring sharp objects.