- by Barbara Keiler
The writing world has been abuzz with the recent announcement that the publishing group Houghton Mifflin Harcourt has temporarily suspended acquiring new manuscripts. This is not what I’d call cheery news. It’s certainly not the sort of headline that motivates a novelist to polish her latest masterpiece and have her agent overnight it to, say, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
In truth, the writing world is always full of news, some of it good, much of it not so good. Sales of books are down. Midlist is dead. Editorial personnel are being laid off. Print runs have plummeted. Bookstores are closing. People who used to spend their free time reading are now spending their free time playing computer games, chatting at social network sites and perusing blogs like this one.
So, I’ve decided to tune out the news. Ignore it. Pretend it doesn’t exist. Just say no.
This may be an odd position for a member of Novelists, Inc. to take. Novelists, Inc. is devoted to the needs of published authors of popular fiction, and its members are professionals. Being a professional entails paying attention to what’s going on in the business.
I used to take that responsibility seriously. I read several industry journals every month. I received the daily “Publisher’s Lunch” in my email box. I communicated frequently with other writers, sharing information, analyzing contract clauses and royalty numbers and passing along rumors concerning who was buying what and how much they were paying.
About a year ago, I discovered amid the detritus on my desk a pile of industry journals that I hadn’t read. Months of them. They’d come, I’d left them on my desk intending to get to them as soon as possible…and somehow, as soon as possible never arrived.
Not long after that, I realized that for some reason I was no longer receiving daily email digests from Publisher’s Lunch. And as useful and informative as that service is, I wasn’t missing it.
As I’ve gotten older, my muse has gotten moodier. When she hears bad news-for instance, that a publisher like Houghton Mifflin Harcourt has stopped accepting submissions-she shuts up and shuts down. The possibility that I might spend precious writing time not with her but cultivating “friends” on Facebook in an effort to promote my latest release would make her jealous. She reminds me of how very difficult it is to create under the best circumstances, and then warns me that if I allow circumstances to drop below her concept of “best,” she will be unable to create at all.
She didn’t use to be so touchy. When I started out, she and I were both full of vigor and ambition. We wanted fame and glory. We wanted money. We wanted hordes of devoted readers. But we’ve both aged. We’ve been knocked around by the publishing business, and now, more than anything else, we want to protect ourselves.
One way to protect ourselves is to avoid industry news-bad or good-and focus only on the process of creating.
Maybe I’m an ostrich, hiding my head in the sand. Maybe I’m a fool. But if other publishers follow Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s lead and decide to refuse submissions for the next few months, I don’t want to know about it. All I want to do is finish my current work-in-progress, and then have enough faith and optimism to start a new manuscript.
Bad news about the business deprives me of faith and optimism, and it causes my muse migraines and heartburn. I’ve got to take care of her so she’ll take care of me. I’ll let the business take care of itself.