Whenever I dare to call myself a writer, there is always one question that inevitably follows: “What have you published?”
And there’s only one answer: “Nothing yet.” Which I may then follow up with a “but I do have my own blog, and a decent following on Open Salon.”
“Oh, so you’re a blogger,” my hypothetical interlocutor will say, unable to mask the subtle undertones of contempt that are inextricably tied to that label. It’s as though I’d told them I work for Barack Obama, and then revealed that I actually just make a few campaign phone calls from time to time. In both instances there is one key difference: I don’t actually get paid.
Unless somebody actually pays you (in actual currency) for writing, it’s as though you haven’t earned the right to call yourself a writer. Until you’re published, either in a journal or magazine or with your very own book or novel (assuming you haven’t self-published), you are nothing more than “someone who writes things” or worse, a “blogger”.
Stephen Markley is someone who understands these frustrations all too well. He was fresh out of college and hungry for success when he got the idea—both stupid and brilliant at the same time—to write a book about trying to publish the book he was writing as he was writing it. He titled the project Publish This Book and spent a year or so—a particularly eventful year in both his life and in politics due to the 2008 campaign—trying to make this crazy idea work.
Somehow it did, and a couple of years later my mother was perusing the shelves of Boarders when Publish This Book caught her eye and she bought it because it reminded her of me. After finishing the book, which she thoroughly enjoyed, she sent it across the ocean to me.
I’ll confess—my first reaction was anger. This guy was the same exact age as me and he’d managed to get himself published through this silly gimmick that I could have thought of myself. Still, it promised to have enough information about the process of publication that I figured it might prove useful, and I began reading it with a strong reluctance to like it, lest I have to admit to myself that this Stephen Markley person actually deserved his success.
But after the first two chapters, I was completely sold. Any writer who has ever dreamed of publication—and especially those who’ve actually subjected themselves to the process—would not be able to avoid identifying with Markley, who admits that he doesn’t want to wait for success to come when he’s too old to enjoy it and is sick and tired of being told to be patient and to consider how many rejection letters F. Scott Fitzgerald or Kurt Vonnegut got before they got published.
The narrative of Publish This Book is widely varied, with frustrated rants about the publishing industry, autobiographical digressions that provide insight into the narrator’s personality, [semi-fictionalized] descriptions of events that took place during the writing of the book, reactions to the unfinished product from his college professor Steven, his friends, and other writers (often presented as an imaginary dialog between Markley, his Id and his Ego), his feelings each step of the way as he lands an agent and ultimately a publisher, and finally a few completely random goodies like “Don’t Fact-Check This Chapter” in which he parodies an attempt to make his life more interesting in order to more easily sell the book which he labels “a premature memoir”. The book is just as hilarious as its uniqueness suggests, and once you accept certain things about the narrator (such as his affinity for toilet-humor and nasty sex-jokes) it’s impossible not to enjoy.
The truly astounding thing about Publish This Book is that it actually managed to get published at all. It’s simply not an intuitive piece of work—at the beginning you expect it to be a penis-joke-laden rant against the publishing industry but it eventually develops into something much different, and something much more profound. The nature of the narrative can lead you to believe—and it even fooled me—that the author is just winging it and has no idea how to make it a cohesive piece of literature that actually says something worthwhile.
But then out of nowhere, towards the end of the book comes a chapter called “Why We Write” which ties it all together, a deeply moving recollection of one of the author’s dear friends in high school dying in a tragic accident. I don’t want to give too much away so I won’t go into detail, but I must mention it here because it’s what made me decide to contact the author myself when I finished reading. Having also lost a friend in high school to a tragic accident and also feeling as though this experience constitutes a huge part of who I am and why I write, I felt I had to share that story with Stephen Markley.
I didn’t expect a reply. After all, in my mind it always seemed that once you were published that was it—you’d made it. Now you were wealthy and famous and living the good life and certainly not taking the time to respond to the thousands of fan letters you get every day.
But it turns out that’s not quite how it works, and this is the one major shortcoming (albeit an unavoidable one) of Publish This Book—the ending is premature. You know the book gets published but you have no way of knowing what happened after—and isn’t that the most important part after all? Especially for those of us who have dreamed of publication, it’s much more useful to know what that light at the end of the tunnel is like than simply getting a closer look at the tunnel.
That light, it would seem, isn’t quite as bright as it might look from inside the tunnel. Markley informed me that the book has been struggling sales-wise, mostly due to the fact that it’s so un-intuitive. Much to my gratification, he agreed to let me interview him as a promotion, which gave me the opportunity to ask the questions that were left in my mind after reading the book, and which I believe any aspiring author would be curious about as well. The answers, I hope you’ll find, are rather illuminating:
1- You asked this of the authors you talked to in your book, so now I want to ask you: How did it feel to hold the finished product in your hands for the first time?
It was pretty gratifying, I won’t lie. This was a moment I had been thinking about since I was maybe five years old, but the fact that I did it—and did it in my own peculiar, raging way with nary a compromise in sight—was weird and wonderful. At the same time, I was all too aware that the hard part was still coming, which is selling a strange, unintuitive book. I’ve basically been tackling that bitch of an issue ever since the first time I flipped through the printed copy.
2- In general, how was the book received by its audience? Are most of the e-mails you get positive? Have you gotten any particularly nasty hate mail?
I’ve been pretty astounded by the response. To be sure, the book is not flying off the shelves. There are a lot of factors for this probably, but one thing I can sustain myself on is the daily e-mails and Facebook messages from fans. Much like yourself, they write to me and tell me that the book spoke to them, inspired them, and—I’ve heard this a lot—made them laugh and cry in public. This is a pretty awesome thing to hear consistently about something you’ve written. The part that gets me is that you are not the first person to write and tell me about losing someone in your youth. I’ve gotten different iterations of that (as well as, “I’m also trying to be a writer” or “This is exactly how I felt when I got out of college”) from the day it came out. I find it immensely reassuring that there are people out there who think like me, who have the same passions and fears, who I’d surely be friends with if we’d grown up in the same small Ohio town. As for the haters, meh, you don’t get a book in print without having a terrifyingly thick skin.
3- How has your family reacted to the book? You toss in some ridiculously personal details about your sex life (having an orgasm while being choked with a belt comes to mind), and it’s impossible not to wonder if that has led to any awkwardness.
My entire life is awkwardness. Basically, the only way to write truthfully is to believe that no one will ever read it. Obviously, I had an advantage for 50% of this book because I really thought I was just going through a masturbatory experiment. The trick was to keep that fearlessness alive once I knew it was going to get published. If anything, I doubled down in the second half of the book.
4- Is there anything you seriously regret including in the book? If you had a second chance, is there anything you would change before submitting the final product for publication?
A lot of people ask me that, and I have to say 1) of course, and 2) but not really. There are all kinds of sections I could re-edit or change because I see them as flawed now, but I also think it’s BS to be like Evelyn Waugh and go back and edit the most embarrassing stuff out of a book you’ve already published. Cowardly even. The book represents a time and place and sentiment about my life and the country I lived in and the friends I had and the people I cared about, and if that becomes inconvenient post-publication, that’s something I’ll have to deal with (and believe me, in a few instances I am), but I’m going to try really hard to live a life free of regrets.
5- Other than yourself, the three biggest characters in the book are your professor Steven, your friend Justin who became an unexpected father, and your Love Interest with whom things were still up in the air at the conclusion of the narrative. How have your relationships with these people progressed since the book was published, and has its publication had a significant impact?
The book changed my relationship with all three. I was indeed the best man in Justin’s wedding, and I spend a good deal of my time figuring out ways to get back to Ohio to hang out with him, see Loren and their son. His friendship has become even more invaluable if that’s possible. I try to see Steven whenever I’m back in Oxford, and certainly he’s one of the first people I go to for advice still. He started his own editing agency, and if there are any nascent writers out there, I highly recommend checking it out. It’s called Hollow Tree Literary Services (www.hollowtreeliterary.com). As for the Love Interest—well—we’re no longer together. At age 25, it’s hard to see romantic relationships with much perspective, and that’s something I grappled with while writing the book and still do now. She remains one of the people I care about the most in this world, and my love and respect for her will never diminish.
6- You cite Jon Stewart in your acknowledgments and demand that he make you a guest on his show. Have you or your publicist tried to contact him? Is there an address that fans of the book can write to him and urge him to bring you on?
It turns out it’s really, really hard to get on the Daily Show. I think my publisher tried, but they might as well have tried to get the forward written by J.D. Salinger for all the success they had. This sucks, because it probably would have sold books. And actually a fan in Vancouver started a petition to get me on the Daily Show. I guess it didn’t go “viral” (I’ll admit I don’t know what defines something as going “viral”). The dude was for real, too. Here’s the link
7- The entire narrative of the book takes place during the last presidential campaign, and you’re not shy about trumpeting your fierce support for Barack Obama. Many of us who shared those sentiments at the time are now disillusioned, feeling that we’d been duped and his promise of Change was just a hollow campaign slogan. Many still believe he’s doing the best he can, and we just have to be patient and not expect any miracles. Where do you stand?
This is an incredibly complex question, which I’ve been answering a lot lately. I think the only people worth engaging in this question are on the left because the “conservative movement” in this country has wandered off into the wilderness; they’re not even speaking in terms of reality. To be sure, I am not thrilled with everything that has happened in the last two years. I have my criticisms of Obama in my back pocket, and I’m not afraid to wave them around. On the other hand, I find the hard left’s disillusionment glib and somewhat childish. What exactly did we think was going to happen when he got elected? That entrenched economic interests and ideologues of the Fox News-right would roll over and cry uncle? Obama has upended the status quo in important ways: he’s passed three of the most far-reaching pieces of legislation since Lyndon Johnson in the stimulus, health care reform, and the financial reform. The benefits of these are obviously very hard to explain to people not heavily engaged in policy (i.e. most of America). The very fact that we’re not in the midst of the next great depression is a testament to what the administration did upon taking office when the economy was shedding 700,000 jobs a month. And this doesn’t take into account the things he gets no credit for, ranging from tackling Swiss tax havens to the pre-emptive measures against the swine flu to his vastly underrated response to the Gulf oil spill (I think he said something like, “What do people want me to do? Go suck it up with a straw?”) As for the wars, obviously I’m not a fan, but I’m realistic about what options were available following the disastrous Bush years. All of the negative press, though, is exacerbated by a relentless news cycle that makes money from conflict and is now dominated by the communications arm of the Republican Party. I’ll probably write a book about all this someday, but until then I’m very conscious to remain maladjusted to easy narratives, and I think some people on the left are in the process of writing off Obama because he didn’t fix the world in two years while ignoring the necessary and important things he has done at great political cost. Now, does this mean I’m not deeply skeptical of some of his policies, ranging from Afghanistan to how his administration dealt with Wall Street? Of course not. But what’s not going to help is allowing prancing douche bags like John Boehner and Glenn Beck to seize the moment and deliver the country back into the grips of free market ideologues.
8- One of the lines that I think stands out quite strongly to those of us who’ve dreamed of publication is the advice you got from your professor Margaret: “Even when success comes there’s a renegotiation of what success means.” You also use a metaphor in which published authors are standing in a room while aspiring writers are standing outside and looking in through the keyhole, wanting nothing more than to get in the room as well. Now that you’re in the room, is it anything like you expected? Or have you had to renegotiate your notion of what success means?
No, trust me, this room has its own deficits. I renegotiated success almost immediately. I have a book, yes, but I have like five books in mind I want to write. Plus, I’m a sad-sack capitalist like everybody else, so I’d like to make enough money from writing to just, you know, live. As for what I expected—I’m not sure what I expected. I guess I failed to anticipate how distasteful I would find the selling process. I spent two-plus years crafting this book, pouring that blood, sweat, and tears into it, but now it’s like a toaster. It’s a toaster that I take around and try to sell to people like a door-to-door salesman. This has been an adjustment.
9- Throughout the book, you worry that because most of what you write is nothing like Publish This Book—your true passion is for fiction—you could have a hard time getting anything else published. Also, your chances of publishing a second book now depend almost entirely on how well this book does in terms of sales. Consider this question an opportunity to vent your frustrations or include any additional insights into the world of publishing that you’ve gained since publication.
Publishing as we know it is surely fucked. I just don’t see any way around that with the proliferation of self-publishing, Kindle and other e-readers, and an increasingly disinterested consumer base. As soon as e-books become the dominant medium, they’re going to start getting pirated the way music is. There are people being born today who will never pay for a single file of music their entire lives, and in maybe ten to twenty years, there will be people who will never pay for a book. Right now the books that succeed are pre-packaged to be bestsellers, and there’s roughly a billion tricks that publishers employ to make sure this happens. It’s an insular world that operates with very small margins and is so risk-averse it’s like a mother following her child around a pool cupping her hands behind the boy just in case he slips and cracks his head. That’s kind of why I’m so happy with my publisher, Sourcebooks. Because when my editor read the entire manuscript, he said something to me like, “This will be hard to get into people’s hands, but it’s one of my favorite books I’ve ever worked on as an editor.” I feel as if they recognized they were taking a chance on something that’s very unorthodox in so many ways. All this is obviously bad news for us up-and-coming writers, but I’m still optimistic. You have to be, right? My general feeling is that good writing will be discovered if the author is persistent enough—or, if your mother is persistent enough in the case of John Kennedy Toole.
10- Any final thoughts or words of advice for those of us who still dream of holding that published copy of our very own books in our hands?
Perseverance. You can’t control luck and you mostly can’t control talent (mostly), but you are the one in charge of how much work you put into it. This is still something I grapple with because I feel as if I put a tremendous amount of work into writing, yet I always feel guilty that I’m not doing enough, I’m not trying hard enough, I’m not looking for new opportunities enough. This guilt is probably a good thing. At the same time, just make sure you have fun. Life—and youth especially—is gone so quickly, so while you pursue your dream make sure you’re enjoying yourself at least some of the time. Go on a road trip, stay up until dawn with your friends, kiss a strange girl at a bar. One day you will not be able to do any of this, so make sure you don’t miss the chance now.
I don’t know about you, but after reading this I don’t feel nearly as bad about not being published. After all, it’s rarely about merit (though in Markley’s case it was) and almost always about business. If you really want to get published, it’s not enough to write something great. You have to write something that sells, or at least that the people who work in the [rapidly crumbling] publishing industry think would sell.
I for one am not about start writing my own mystery-thriller in which the hero discovers clues that reveal things about Jesus that weren’t in the Bible, or a so-called “memoir” in which I recount my experiences as a crack-addict trying to raise a child in an inner-city slum, or any of these bullshit knock-offs that publishers seem to be looking for these days.
The next time someone asks you “what have you published?” you can explain to them how meaningless publication has become. Ask them if they’ve ever downloaded an mp3 that didn’t come from a major record label, and whether they thought any less of the music because some industry hack didn’t think he could make a buck off of it. Then tell them that hundreds of people have read what you’ve published yourself online, and ask them what difference it makes whether some editor decided it should go on the front page.
The only difference these things make is in how many people actually hear the music or read the piece. Yes, it’s nice when somebody “in the business” decides that something you’ve done has merit, but what’s really important is the audience and their reaction. Your audience will no doubt be larger if you’ve got an editor or a publisher behind you, but as long as you can appreciate the fact that at least some other people out there are appreciating what you do—then screw the editors.
I probably don’t speak for Stephen Markley when I write that, because he did manage to get his foot in the door and now he’d certainly like to stay there. And having so thoroughly enjoyed Publish This Book, I would definitely like to see more Stephen Markley titles on the shelves in the years to come, and I can’t help but be curious about the non-self-referential post-modern-autobiographical quasi-memoir-type stuff that he can write. So I’ll happily plug his book for you one more time, and hope that you not only decide to buy it but that you’ll find it as enjoyable and as worthwhile a reading experience as I did.