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How to lose your faith in the publishing industry in a minute and a half…or less

Posted by E on May 29, 2011

It was about eight years or so, give or take a couple of months, when my partner invited me to a friend of hers’ cottage party. I’d been to plenty of those with my old varsity fencing team (where coaches and athletes got drunk and made out), so I didn’t think anything of it. Later that night I would feel ridiculously underdressed, having just realized that the so-called “cottage party” was really an assembly of über-wealthy people gathering in the most-done up fancy cottage I’d ever seen. A rustic mansion, if you will.

So, as I typically tend to do at the few cocktail parties I’ve ever attended, I stood in the corner pulling down on my short skirt and trying not to look too awkward as I sipped on my absurdly-expensive glass of Merlot – which probably cost less than my entire get-up. Alas, you get the point.

Then the hostess of this lavish banquet – which was spread out over a twenty-seat table setting, if you can imagine – came over, put her arm around my shoulders, and asked, “So I hear you’re a writer?”
I nodded, which prompted her to break into a smile as she said, “Well, then, I have to introduce you to one of my dear friends. His book is coming out imminently.”

Fast-forward a half hour later. I was sitting in the “Lodge” part of the mansion, a glorious spectacle of exposed brick and a rustic fireplace that went up twenty feet, across from a bespectacled middle-aged man smiling benevolently at me as he knocked back his Merlot faster than you could say “publishing deal.”
This was it, the eager young writer in me thought. My chance to glean a few words of wisdom from this self-professed self-help guru. I leaned forward, my eyes glowing with adoration, and asked him with bated breath what all of us unpublished writers really want to know, “How did you do it? How did you break out?”
My new friend leaned back in his overstuffed chaise, looked left and right conspiratorially, then met my eyes again.
“Well, first of all,” he started to say, pacing his words out evenly, slowly, no doubt enjoying the act of stretching out the anticipation of a seemingly-vapid twenty-something, “you’ve gotta do your homework. You’ve gotta get yourself an agent. Not just any agent, but a Jew agent. I did my homework and made a list of a couple dozen Jew agents in New York, and I targeted them specifically. Those New York Jews, they’re connected to everybody, they know everybody. So I persisted until I got the best agent, and like I said, I made sure she was a Jew agent, a real shark. That’s the most important part.”
He took another sip while I tried to digest the information. Then he dropped another bombshell.
“She told me all you need is a good title and a gimmick. You don’t even have to write the book.”
I nearly dropped my glass. “W-what? I thought you had to finish a manuscript….”
My friend shook his head vehemently. “No, no, that’s just for amateurs. No, in this business, all you need in a catchy title that can be spun off into a dozen books. She got on the phone with her editor contacts and already got me multiple book deals. Get this, I hadn’t even written more than the first couple of chapters.”
“B-but… how can they do that?”
He chuckled, delighting in my shock. “They’ve got their own writers, my dear. Their own in-house writers. They don’t need you to write the book. All you need is a platform and a gimmicky title – and of course, a Jew agent – and you’re set.”

This was the night I “woke up” when it came to the publishing industry, the moment of personal nadir when I lost my childish naiveté about how things really work. Before that, I thought that in order to get published, all you had to do was write a brilliant book. And then I came face-to-face with someone who was to hit stardom within a few months, and who had done little, if nothing, for it. Not just that, but whose attitude about Jews made me uncomfortable.

I knew then that there are other factors at work in an author’s success, and that luck, rather than simply talent, plays a huge part in it. In the last eight years, I’ve shared this story with a lot of close friends and aspiring writers who believe in “the system.” Not that I don’t, of course. But there’s something flawed, I think, in a process that allows someone to skyrocket to best-selling stardom and have “his” book(s) translated into 30 languages when they’ve done not a hell of a lot, other than come up with, yes, a catchy title. Of course, this man enjoys his success, and how can I blame him? But personally, I think I would have a slight twinge of guilt, a modicum of personal discomfort, in representing a franchise that I didn’t even write or create.
But to each his own, I guess.

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One Response to “How to lose your faith in the publishing industry in a minute and a half…or less”

  1. Elisa said

    Ok guys. I know you’re reading this because a bunch of you commented on this post in my Facebook account. But would love it if you’d leave some public comments as well, just to kick-start the conversation if you know what I mean

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