Skip to content

Notes from the Underdogs

It’s not controversial to say that the book publishing world is, and has been for the past several years, a mess. What was once a genteel profession for those with a certain sensibility (and, often, family money) has become a starved and desperate industry.

The twilight of the twentieth century and dawn of the twenty-first saw mergers and consolidations that shrunk the publishing world to what was called the “Big Six”—Penguin, Random House, Macmillan, HarperCollins, Hachette and Simon & Schuster. Our current decade has seen the industry shrink further; Penguin merged with Random House to form Penguin Random House—a many-headed mutant which then devoured Knopf. Technological innovations certainly haven’t helped the flailing industry, either. In the recent dispute between Hachette and Amazon over e-book prices, never has a New York publishing titan looked like such an underdog.

But all this tumult makes one forget the true underdog of the publishing world: the author. Enter Gail Godwin with her Publishing: A Writer’s Memoir (Bloomsbury, 224 pages, $25), a book that can be read, by chance and historical coincidence, a case study in the ills of the contemporary New York publishing world.

Godwin’s memoir, despite its broad name, is a detailed remembering of the author’s life as a writer. It recalls her time at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop—Vonnegut wrote her some nice comments—and it recounts the many books she wrote following her graduation from that esteemed program. Godwin describes the books’ characters and plots, her own feelings about the work, and, most interestingly, how she got published. She describes phone calls from her agent and her relationships with her editors, who, as firms merged and got bought up, rotated in and out like faceless suitors on a dance card.

A struggling industry is not an easy one to publish in; that was true then as it is now. Riffing off Virginia Woolf’s famous saying that “on or about December, 1910, human character changed,” Godwin writes, “on Labor Day weekend, 1983, the publishing business changed for me.” With that little “for me” tacked onto the end, Godwin’s words make for a far less grandiose assertion, but they do accurately sum up Godwin’s memoir: it is a personal rather than a political or cultural account.

Her memoir does not strive to unveil the darker aspects of the literary world—like, for example, the one that preys upon hapless innocents’ hopes to become the next Somebody in Literature. (For that, see Darryl Lorenzo Wellington’s very good, albeit recycled, essay “Reality Publishing” in n+1’s MFA vs. NYC.[*] ) Nor does it strive to affirm the writer and condemn the money-driven publisher.

Godwin details her difficulties with the industry, but she does not allow herself to truly criticize. She recalls the consequences of an industry driven by numbers and cash—when she does not sell not enough copies, her publisher will not pay for publicity and she has to hire her own, regardless of how good the book actually is—but she takes this in stride. She has a good-natured temperament, which has probably helped her in life and in dealing with the industry. But that also means she has missed the chance to call out an industry that ought to be. This is not to say that the publishing industry is evil or malicious, or inherently bad in some way. Gail Godwin’s memoir merely shows that large publishing houses, due to economic reasons, have not focused on what publishing ought to do, first and foremost: facilitate the production of great literature, whether or not it makes money in the process.

In the end, perhaps it’s wrong to ask that from Godwin, since it’s not in her nature. She’s a storyteller who prefers the trees to the forest. She’s also a storyteller who believes that she can do both—write literary fiction and make money. As the famous editor Robert Gottlieb described her in an interview with The Paris Review, “Gail was extremely sensitive, and she viewed herself as a highly successful commercial writer, whereas I viewed her as a rather literary writer with a limited readership. She couldn’t live that way, and eventually, although we worked together very cordially on several books, she moved to Viking.”

Godwin addresses this in her book, and that moment is perhaps the angriest she ever gets. She writes, “How could anyone have gotten me so wrong? I viewed myself as a literary writer who wanted to reach a larger audience and make enough money to take time off from teaching.” She came of age in a time when this was probably possible, whereas Gottlieb, a man in the thick of things, knows that publishing doesn’t really work that way.

If only she had been able to feel that anger for the proper target, the struggling industry so focused on the bottom line. What a book Publishing might’ve been.


[*] [Correction: A previous version of this post misstated Darryl Lorenzo Wellington’s name; it has been corrected, and we regret the error.]