The University Bookman


Summer 2016

Books in Little: The Good Old Days of Publishing

book cover imagePublishing: A Writer’s Memoir
by Gail Godwin.
Bloomsbury, 2015.
Paperback, 224 pages, $16.

Ashlee Cowles

Gail Godwin, a National Book Award finalist and New York Times bestselling author, provides an insider’s perspective on the tumultuous journey of a career novelist in her latest book, Publishing: A Writer’s Memoir. Covering Godwin’s writing career from her start in the 1970s to the present day, Publishing is a testament to how much the publishing industry has changed and continues to change.

Many hope to “publish a novel one day,” and in our digital age, many can. Countless bloggers and podcasters claim we are in the midst of an “indie publishing” and ebook revolution, and the past few years have already seen several showdowns between and the remaining “big five” giants of traditional publishing—Penguin Random House, Macmillan, HarperCollins, Hachette, and Simon & Schuster. These changes can be unsettling for those who prefer the scent of dusty bookshops or appreciate the quality control provided by the so-called gatekeepers of the traditional industry, but Godwin’s book suggests the longing for the “good old days” of publishing began decades before the release of the Kindle.

Of course publishing had begun to change when I was admitted to its inner sanctum in 1970. Publishing as a family business, as a literate, gentlemanly occupation, had already taken on the sepia hues of nostalgia, but the new publishing, whatever that creature would turn out to be, hadn’t reared its head yet. In the meantime, “the industry,” as John Hawkins referred to it in his acerbic moods, went through some ungainly and ruthless stages. It still hasn’t finished deciding what kind of creature it is supposed to be, and is now circling its wagons to fend off its monster predator, the Internet.

This memoir is not only a personal story of publication, but a reflection on an increasingly market-driven industry where the people who work in it are constantly “watching their backs” and “wondering who among them is the least indispensable.” Godwin describes a world where it is not enough for an author to write good books, he or she must also be willing to become a brand (“readers want to be able to know who you are quickly”) and essentially perform (not read) onstage at numerous speaking events to stand out amid the noise. Yet in the end, Publishing confirms what has likely always been the case and will probably always be the case: traditional publishing is a competitive industry, and writing fiction—especially works of literary merit—is no vocation for those searching for a “get rich quick” scheme.

Godwin’s memoir is an interesting read for book lovers curious about what goes on behind the scenes, but it also reveals that despite the constant clamoring for “more diversity” by agents and editors, this industry is made up largely of people who share a strikingly similar worldview. It makes one wonder if publishing’s “monster predator,” the Internet, might just be the best hope for other voices longing to be heard.  

Ashlee Cowles is a former Russell Kirk Center Wilbur Fellow, a literature teacher at a classical high school, and the author of the novel Beneath Wandering Stars (Merit Press, August 2016).

Posted: August 18, 2016 in Books in Little.

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