October 6, 2008
The Perfect Recipe for a Modern American Publisher
One of my favorite quotes about publishing comes from John Tebbel's Between Covers. Tebbel recounts a conversation Mark Twain had with Frank Nelson Doubleday, in which Twain offered "the perfect recipe for a modern American publisher":
Take an idiot from a lunatic asylum and marry him to an idiot woman and the fourth generation of this connection should be a good publisher. (p. 138)
As Tebbel's book chronicles, there is a long, tension-filled and hilarious history of the relationship between authors and publishers. Many examples of strong, constructive and congenial relationships populate the past as well. I suspect that publishing is no more subject to these dynamics than any other endeavor involving more than one human being.
If it is more volatile, perhaps it is due to the often subjective nature of publishing. Predicting sales (and thus advances and royalties) is an art, not a science--thus it can be a point of tension. Knowing how and when to revise a manuscript is an art, not a science--thus also a point of potential tension.
Books have also been compared to being an author's "baby." There is a protective, parental concern that can hover over this toddler. As a parent's identity is wrapped up with what children say or how they perform, the same can be true with an author and their book. Publishers and editors and marketers are wise to take note of these factors.
I like the idea of working in partnership with authors, as a team. We each have strengths to bring to the table and seek to establish a mutual trust that focuses on doing what is best for everyone and for the book. Is that ideal? Perhaps. But it's an ideal that's worth the effort.