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Reading Matters

Doug Wilhelm is a full-time writer and an independent publisher in Weybridge, Vemont. His newest book is the novel STREET OF STORYTELLERS (Rootstock, 2019). His 15 previous novels for young adults include THE REVEALERS (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2003), which has been the focus of reading-and-discussion projects in well over 1,000 middle schools.

What does it mean to be "published" today?

Last week I wondered here how young writers will develop the working skills they need to build a career, when ever-fewer newspapers have ever-fewer editors who could give them a chance and help them hammer their stuff into shape. And here’s a related question: now that anyone can publish anything with a few keystrokes, what does it mean to be published any more? Does it, and should it, mean anything?

It always has, until now. For better or worse (and it’s been both), a published writer has been someone whose work has been vetted and accepted by professional editors — by people with standards and (theoretically, at least) a sharp eye, who reject most of the submissions they receive. This continues to be so, in the traditional book industry — but that’s only about half of today’s book world, counting by the number of titles published each year. More and more published writers have gone independent or gone with small presses, exasperated by the conglomeration of the major publishing houses, and by their corporate-minded fixation on short-term returns and books patterned on last year’s bestsellers.

I’m among these now-independent authors; and this approach has its challenges, God knows, but it’s fine for those of us who’ve been around a little while and done the traditional route. We can present ourselves as published, and that credential has meaning.

But what about someone coming up or struggling to break through? I have conversations fairly often with writers who are working very hard on book projects, who’ve gotten nowhere with established houses and are thinking about going independent. If they do, they won’t have the shaping experience of working with a skilled editor, unless they hire one — and if they do, the fact that the editor is working for them changes that dynamic. A lot can be learned, if the editor can be candid — but if his/her paycheck depends on your good favor, how brutally honest will an editor, also striving to scratch out a living, tend to be?

That’s one question. Another is: To what extent can a person who publishes a first book independently hope to get it book reviewed? There’s now an explosion of books being brought out this way, and the established review journals have differing standards on whether they’ll even consider the books they see as self-published. So do the widely read book blogs and review sites. This is understandable: the number of these new books is overwhelming, and if the author has paid to bring the title out, that is commonly seen as a self-published book and tossed aside, figuratively or literally, not to be evaluated for review-worthiness at all.

This goes right to the question of what it means to be published. The established houses have always rejected worthy books that haven’t fit into editors’ ideas about, not just what is good, but also what they’re looking for, what their firm’s target market is, and what they believe they can sell. In other words, really good books have often been rejected. So many very good books, when they finally do come out, trail a story of rejection that seems ridiculous — like the first Harry Potter, which was rejected by the first 12 British publishing houses that considered it.

Until Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (its original UK title) came out, in 1997 — Bloomsbury in London did a first run of just 1,000 copies — J.K. Rowling was not a published author. Obviously this didn’t mean she wasn’t good.

So what does published mean in this changing-and-rearranging era? Anyone can publish their work on the Net pretty much immediately; the Web is full of fan-fiction sites and the like. And an ebook is basically free to bring out, once you’ve got the page layouts together.

I don’t have an answer for this, not that it would matter if I did, but I do think it’s one of the most meaningful questions floating around the world of books and reading today. Yes, a hard-working writer doesn’t have to be blocked from publishing any more, just because his/her book doesn’t fit someone’s predilections or formula — but how will those books get noticed once they do come out? Should it mean something to be published, or is it just a great new age in which publishing, in the sense of getting your words out there, has become completely open? If so, will new ways of vetting and identifying the worthiest works and writers evolve fairly quickly, along with everything else — and will they be more effective, less enclosed and elitist, than the traditional ways have been?

It may be a very good thing, on balance, that writers today have the power to be published just because we want to be. The book establishment no longer controls the means of production. But only when you’ve worked with good editors do you realize the value they can really have to the work you’ve done, and can do going forward.

I love the way the publishing world is opening up, for those of us who want to reach readers — but I do wonder if we’ll mostly just float around like individual cells, connecting easily to the new, digital means of production but never to a system of evaluation and feedback that can credential us in a real-world way that no graduate program or marketing campaign can. It should mean something to be published. I wonder, looking ahead, if it ever really will again.

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