Rebecca Slater, on balancing working as a writer with a career in publishing.
It is telling that, upon meeting both a writer and a publishing professional, I get a different reaction when I tell them I do both.
For the writer, the common reaction is: “Oh that must be so good for your writing.” (Often, followed by, “Reckon you can pass on my manuscript?”)
For the publishing professional, the standard reaction is: “Oh, that must be tough trying to write as well.”
And the thing is, I agree with both. There’s a publishing professional and a writer in me that has the same questions and concerns, and it’s this push/pull that makes working in publishing as a writer both difficult and rewarding.
As a writer, there’s no doubt that working in book publishing has enhanced my practice. At the most basic level, being surrounded by books and writing five days a week is an inspiring thing. The very act of walking into a building filled with books made my heart swell every day, and the number of times I’d catch myself reading a manuscript at my desk and think, “I’m getting paid to read right now”, were too many to count. It’s the people, too, that really make a difference. To be able to turn to the colleague next to you or to a fellow tea-drinker by the kettle and start chatting about books is such a stimulating experience (and one I have missed desperately when working in other non-bookish industries). The endless tea and cake was another thing I took for granted – there’s definitely a graph out there that charts the correlation between excellent readers and excellent bakers.
As a writer hoping to publish (one day, one day!), working within the industry also gave me an invaluable insight into the process of publishing itself. It may sound silly, but as a young writer first going into publishing, I had no idea how much time and effort and sheer people power it took to get a book from manuscript-on-screen to beautiful-thing-in-store. From agents, to publishers, to editors, to designers, to production staff, marketing, sales, booksellers, distributors – by the time a book gets into your hot little hands, it has been through many, many others. As a reader, so much of my love of books had been about the author, but seeing the time and passion publishing professionals put into each and every project made me really appreciate the work they do.
While there’s certainly a starry-eyed element to being a writer in publishing, there’s a hard dose of reality to be had too.
Learning to see my craft not just as a passion, but as an industry was a huge shift in perception for me. As writers, we often forget that publishers do not just usher our manuscripts into the world for the sake of art and humanity, but that they are commercial enterprises, businesses, with profit at their core. It sounds obvious, but without selling books, publishers don’t survive.
Working in publishing I gained a whole new appreciation for the ‘commercial book’ – not as some low-brow alternative to the ‘literary’ (which is how it’s so often perceived), but as the bread-and-butter of ‘trade publishing’ – the money-making product, the ‘bestseller’, that keeps the whole machine running. Without the ‘commercial’ there is no ‘literary’.
Without ‘commercial’-level sales, you’re probably not making a living as an author. Learning to see not only what sells, but how it’s sold was a massive learning curve for me. Sitting in on publishing meetings and seeing how much an author had to do and be in order to get their projects over the line – how the author was not jus pitching their work, but themselves too. Seeing how much the market plays into the publication of a title – the way current affairs, the media, the economy, social trends, and even sheer luck play into the success and failure of book projects.
In these ways, working in publishing taught me how to write – not just in the theoretical sense of judging quality and value, but in the very practical processes of working, editing, pitching, promoting. It taught me how to be a working writer, a published writer, and surrounded me with positive and successful examples on a daily basis.
While this is all sounds very educational and encouraging, the flip side of this, of course, is that it can be pretty disheartening too. To be surrounded by talented, published authors is at best, inspiring, but at worse, totally intimidating. To be surrounded by books is delightful, but also completely overwhelming.
For every book that’s published, there are thousands of manuscripts that are rejected. In such an environment it’s can be all too easy to slip into the mindset of: “Why try?”
Being a writer working outside of the book industry I think there’s more opportunity for fostering the kind of healthy ignorance that allows you to stay motivated and focused on your work. Too much ignorance is obviously unhelpful (in other words: writers, do your research!), but a little bit of self-delusion is helpful in finding the sheer guts – the cheek! – to throw your hat in the ring and declare yourself a writer, declare your contribution new and worthy of readership. Maintaining that confidence while knee-deep in publishing other people’s brilliant work, five days a week, is difficult to say the least.
There’s also a crucial matter of brain space. At a very basic level, the physical and mental acts of writing are very closely aligned with those of working in publishing. Sitting in front of a computer all day reading or editing someone else’s work, is not so far removed from the process of sitting all night and trying to read/edit your own work. While it’s work, yes, there’s a professional creative output involved in publishing that inevitably takes away from your personal creative output.
When I expressed interest in becoming an editor, I was told by one of my mentors “You can’t be an editor and a writer.”
Of course, she didn’t mean this in the literal sense (Virginia Woolf did it, right?), but what she was pointing at was the serious mental overlap between these two activities which make doing both so difficult.
While there’s no doubt that the two go hand-in-hand, like a couple down with PDA, it can be tricky to move forward, to fully nurture each individual thing, when the two are tied so closely together. After working in publishing full-time for a number of years, I recently made the decision to take some time out to focus on my writing. It’s a scary decision, knowing full-well the economic realities of being a writer, but I know it won’t be long before the world of publishing calls me back. Like a literary love-triangle, I see myself jetting back and fourth between the two throughout my life– meeting awkwardly in the middle occasionally – and then going our separate ways again, together, but amicably apart.
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Rebecca Slater is a writer and editor, currently completing a Masters of Creative Writing at the University of Oxford.