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What Books About Publishing Get Right. And What Books About Publishing Get Wrong.

The lack of diversity is on the mark. The author as all-powerful being is way off.

Books About Publishing
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“Write what you know,” goes the old saying. Perhaps it’s surprising, then, that there aren’t more books about publishing. Because there’s nothing authors know better than the often-fickle world of publishing – the rewrites, the pressure to sell, the ying-yang of the artistic vs. the commercial experience. 

But when writers do write about publishing, how much do they get right? Where’s the line between information and entertainment? Can a writer without publishing experience trust what they read in a novel about the industry? We spoke with four authors who’ve written recent books set in publishing to get their answers.  

What books about publishing get right

1. Publishing remains very white

Newsflash: The publishing houses’ supportive Juneteenth tweets do not change the makeup of the industry. It is still not diverse. The most recent Lee & Low Diversity in Publishing study found that 76% of those working in the industry (from the executive level to interns, covering all departments) are white. Just 5% are Black, 9% are disabled, and 19% identify as something other than straight. 

People have begun talking about the lack of diversity. In 2020, soon after George Floyd’s murder and the rash of protests that followed, the hashtag #WhatPublishingPaidMe highlighted stark differences in the book advances paid to white and Black authors with similar credentials. The following year, Zakiya Dalila Harris’ sharp debut thriller, The Other Black Girl, skewered the publishing industry for its lily whiteness. Harris’ protagonist, Nella, is the only Black person working in the editorial department at a (fictional) legacy publishing house when Hazel, another Black woman, joins. 

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“When I first came up with the idea for the book, I was still working in book publishing myself,” says Harris. “I had run into another Black woman at the bathroom sinks, and when neither of us said anything to one another, I remember returning to my desk and thinking, ‘Huh. That was weird.’ So, Nella and Hazel’s complicated relationship dynamic quite literally came from an interaction – or really, lack thereof – that I had while working in that very white corporate space.”

Harris notes that seeing statistics about publishing’s lack of diversity is important. But presenting them in a story could be more impactful. 

“My book wasn’t saying anything new – tons of people have done vital research on publishing’s demographics and are continuing to do so,” she says. “But humans are inundated with so many upsetting things of varying scales that it’s easy to be outraged by something and then promptly move on, especially if you’re not personally impacted by the issue. By pulling readers into the head and heart of Nella, my hope is that my novel viscerally demonstrates to readers why meaningful workplace diversity matters.”

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2. Writing a book is a big deal

You will find no one more excited about publishing than fictional authors. That fizz and passion often jump off the page because writers have experienced them, notes Chris Pavone, the author of five thrillers. Writing a book is a big deal.

His second novel, The Accident, features a literary agent and an author caught up in an international scandal. Pavone worked in publishing for two decades, so his knowledge is more intimate than even most authors. “It was important to me to portray publishing accurately, the jobs people do, their concerns and motivations, the ways they behave. In particular, I wanted to capture the excitement of a hot new project exploding into people’s lives,” he says. “I think that’s one of the primary things everyone loves about working in publishing – the constant possibility that something exciting is going to show up today.”

3. Publishing is not just about the writers

While authors do get their names on the cover, publishing encompasses a long list of other contributors, from editors to agents to marketers to cover designers. “I think authors are very aware that people go to work every day in support of this thing you have made,” says Jean Hanff Korelitz, whose 2021 literary mystery, The Plot, follows a once-promising writer who steals a plot idea from a former student. She consciously infused her main character, Jake, with that knowledge. “Jake reasonably fears his exposure [as a plot plagiarist]. He’s devastated, not just for his hard-won career as a writer – remember, he wrote every word of the book himself. He also feels the weight of those people who worked with him, their need to pay their rent, their need to buy their health insurance, feed their kids. For all that we as authors do in a room alone, he understands he is part of a group effort, a business that is more than himself.” 

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In her book, Harris mentions people who work at the publisher, from security to marketing to the mail room. “There are countless brilliant people – many whose names aren’t known by the general public – whose main goal is to help deliver writers’ messages to the masses. And that’s such a beautiful and important thing,” she says.

4. Publishing encompasses more than the traditional Big Five

You won’t find a lot of nitty-gritty details in most publishing-focused novels – a deep dive on the monopolistic implications of a Simon & Schuster-Penguin merger would feel dated almost immediately. But you will find smaller publishing houses, university presses, self-published authors, and more. That’s great to see because it is true to life. Many authors have their feet in multiple spaces, too.

British author Laura Lam has written many books for traditional publishing houses. They also self-​published the “Romancing the Page” series, set in the world of sci-fi and fantasy publishing, under the name Laura Ambrose. In the initial book, two former writing critique partners fall in love, which is as good a meet-cute as you can get for book lovers. Lam says they wrote the series to “work through some of my emotions about publishing, both the good and the bad.” They continue to write books for traditional publishers but found more freedom in self-publishing. 

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5. Three-martini lunches

Or more. Alcohol-soaked prose is most definitely built on truth. Notes Pavone, “When I was an editor, I spent a lot of time with literary agents – coffee and lunches, drinks and more drinks.” 

What books about publishing get wrong

1. A great idea will make a successful book

So many times, we read books about authors who become rich and famous when they publish an amazing book. That can happen, but instant hits are extremely rare. Many authors keep their day jobs far longer than books would have you realize. That can make the truth hard to swallow for aspiring writers. Success can take years and doesn’t follow a predictable path. Sometimes authors themselves aren’t even sure why a book failed to catch fire commercially. “You can’t dictate what the outcome is for your book, really,” Lam says. “It’s so easy to internalize stuff and be like, ‘Well, did I fail?’ when really, it’s just that the industry is the industry, the market is the market. I’ve learned to let go of the outcome.” 

2. Authors have all the power

Books about publishing often portray authors as superstars (to be fair, this happens most often in books that aren’t expressly about the authors but more focused behind the scenes). Lam says that power dynamic has not been their experience. “You are functioning within this capitalist mega-conglomerate. And you don’t have as much power as you as you would like to, even if an editor really loves your book,” they say. “A lot of the time, it comes down to the bottom line.”

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3. Everything is about the bottom line

That said…it’s not all about the money. Publishing is an industry on the decline, like so many things. According to industry research provider IBISWorld, revenue has fallen at a rate of 2.1% annually over the past five years, to $29.8 billion, so money is a concern. 

But Pavone thinks the portrait of publishers as cravenly commercial rings false. “I think the venality is often inaccurate – editors, agents, publishers, they’re all commonly depicted primarily as crass and greedy, racing to the bottom to make a buck at the expense of the artistically pure authors,” he says. “My experience is that no one works in publishing to get rich. People do it because they love good writing, good books, important ideas, talented authors. There are far easier ways to make far more money.”

4. Rejection is personal

Fictional authors often take their revenge on the mean agent/editor who snubbed their work by proving them wrong. The book (or B plot) ends with the hugely successful, wrongly rejected author getting the last laugh when their tome becomes a bestseller. 

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Hanff Korelitz suggests looking at things differently. She says the industry isn’t nearly as personal as novels might make you think. “I am the author of two early novels rejected everywhere in the world, in multiple countries. Yes, it was devastating, but I tried to write a better book the next time, and while those novels were never published, I’m glad I wrote them. I think I learn something from every book I write. I wish more people would not see it personally when they are rejected,” she says. “And I hope they consider writing another book.” 

5. You write a book, turn it in, and then you’re completely done

The authors interviewed just chuckled at this scenario that plays out again and again in novels. Suffice it to say, you write a book, turn it in, and then begin the long editing process. 

What’s perhaps the most universal truth is that authors will never run out of material to mine about publishing. “I think people in the publishing world are very fascinating. It’s such a mix of different individuals: book-​people, grammar-people, business-​people, people-people…there’s so much to write about there!” says Harris. 

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Want to read book recommendations from the authors featured in this article? Check out their book picks.

Toni Fitzgerald is the copy editor for The Writer. Her favorite recent publishing-​related read is the “Finlay Donovan” series by Elle Cosimano. Website: tonifitz76.com

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