Books are to society what Twinkies and cockroaches are to nuclear apocalypse: They find a way to survive. If the movie National Treasure is to be believed, when the Library of Alexandria collapsed, someone managed to save a few scrolls and hide them in a secret tomb underneath New York’s Trinity Church. And so I have no doubt that when the sun explodes and we’re all living inside ramshackle shelters made of Santorum 2012 pins, we’ll still be reading stories.
It’s this permanence that makes books such a vital part of my career at the moment. I’m a freelance journalist and have been for quite some time. I write about pop culture—particularly comedy, television and video games—and there came a point about two years ago when I decided it was time to take things to the next level. I began looking for writing opportunities outside the cozy confines of my hometown Chicago magazines and newspapers, and was met with a bit of trepidation. Which is a nice way of saying that only one person wrote me back. I was shocked. Didn’t they see the “humor” piece I wrote for Time Out Chicago, where I tried to run a marathon without any training or preparation whatsoever? I was told it was very funny. The lack of response seemed to be a nice way of saying it sucked.
So I decided to sit down with the one editor who had responded, and my next visit to New York involved a few beers and some straight-talk from one of the most gracious folks I’ve encountered in the journo business. His advice was to-the-point: He couldn’t hire me as a writer because, well, if he wanted someone to do a story about a particular stand-up comic or pop culture phenom, he could hire the person who literally wrote the book on said stand-up comic or pop culture phenom. And this, he made clear, was going to be true for every article I pitched.
Fact was, I needed a book, and I didn’t have the slightest idea how to start.
It’s now today (or, more to the point, a couple of years later), and I still have no idea. I’m bookless, but still completely convinced that a book is the next step in my trajectory—a lasting impression in the ephemera-fueled journalism world in which I live. You can debate—as many do—the merit of actually printing out those words, having them edited and binding them between two pieces of thick white paper. But the truth is that no matter how few copies a book might sell, it’s still out there, the tangible result of your (possibly) fool-hardy efforts.
“But Steve,” you might say, “this is a site about self-publishing. Write that book! Put it out yourself! Be the change you want to see in the world! Stop ordering sushi every three days from the same place in Park Slope to the point where the delivery guy gives you a weird look and extra chopsticks as if all this sushi was for two people!” Fair point.
But I’m terrified. As much as books are permanent, so too is the shame I might feel if I were to fill an entire volume and nothing were to come of it. What if it lies there (to continue with the fish references), like an eel roll on a plastic plate? So what are my alternatives? I post my deepest thoughts on a blog and hope my Twitter followers enjoy it? Bury the Word document for future computer archaeologists to dust off and put in an e-museum? Print out a bunch of copies and bring it to my family’s Passover Seder as a makeshift Haggadah?
Obviously there are other options, but the truth is that I simply don’t trust myself to write a book that nobody’s asked me for. If there’s not someone (preferably a distinguished editor), looking over my shoulder waiting for me to finish, there really doesn’t seem like much of a reason to get it done. I mean it’s not like I have this novel or sacred text that’s dying to be put down on paper—as in, it’s not as easy as writing everything from my head, every day, for a year. The ideas I have are journalistic in nature, and developing them involves a lot of research and, in some cases, a fair amount of travel. That’s a huge amount of time and financial loss to incur without a guarantee of publication.
I envy those who have the determination and will to write their own book and see the whole process through. Basically, I look up to every single person featured on this site. But the good news is that there’s a place for people like me—a place where books are made, dreams are realized and money is placed delicately in bank accounts. And the only reported cost is your sanity, which is fine by me.
I’m talking about mainstream publishing, responsible for all those Urban Outfitters books and, to a lesser extent, most other ones. It’s a place where the rules are far more nebulous than self-publishing. In fact, traditional publishers seem to abide by crazy-person-shouting-in-the-street logic, where facts are finessed to make sense in hindsight, because really, the success of a book can usually be attributed mostly to blind luck or the sort of charismatic personality that can sell copies no matter how bad the damn thing is (see the titles by the cast of The Jersey Shore or any Kardashian). But most importantly, mainstream publishing is a place that—unlike me—has actually been responsible for producing a fair number of books over the years.
Self-publishing is fuckin’ hard. Mainstream publishing—from the POV of actually getting a book published—is harder. And I have just enough of a propensity for metaphorical (and literal) self-flagellation to give it a whirl. It’s my hope that this column provides some insight into the world of mainstream publishing—and if it’s a cautionary tale, all the better. But really, I’m looking for permanence, and what makes a better book than the potential for no book at all?