The process of publishing a book has changed a bit since my own early days in the business. Looking back at my beginnings as a fresh-out-of-college editorial assistant, I marvel at how quaint it all seems now, sort of like a profession from another era. Well, I guess it was.
My first task, on my very first day of work at Ticknor & Fields (a small, long-defunct New Haven subsidiary of Houghton Mifflin Company) back in January of 1981, was to sit down with an empty scrapbook, a pair of scissors, and a jar of rubber cement. There had been some recent press about Houghton Mifflin’s resistance to a corporate buy-out. (Loyal, long-time authors like Kenneth Galbraith and Louis Auchincloss had made their voices heard, and the powers-that-be had listened. Houghton Mifflin, in 1981, was determined to remain fiercely independent. ) I was given the assignment of sorting through a huge stack of newspapers sent to us by the hired clipping service (talk about quaint!), carefully cutting out the articles, and pasting them neatly into the scrapbook. I worked on a stool in the kitchen, where it was also up to me to keep the coffee pot full and the sherry glasses washed. (Tea was served in the front room at four; sherry on Friday afternoons, or when well-known writers came to call. Calvin Trillin’s visits were occasions for cloth napkins and Chinese take-out.) I was twenty-one years old and in heaven.
In our tiny subsidiary, we all did a bit of everything, which meant, as time went on, that I often had a hand in book publicity as well as editorial work: writing press releases, putting press packets together, and then, of course, pasting all the positive newspaper reviews and feature stories into those precious scrapbooks.
It was a perfect way to familiarize myself with the names and faces in my new company, with the authors I was getting to know and the books I’d eagerly carry home to read over the weekends. Soon, I was also taking dictation and typing letters for my boss (three carbon copies of each for the files, a bottle of Wite-Out close at hand), fact –checking manuscripts in the reference room at Yale’s Sterling Library, packing up pages to be overnight mailed to authors, scribbling phone messages on little pink pads, studying the Chicago Manual of Style, and learning to wield a blue pencil as I began to proofread copy.
What amazed me the most about my thrilling (to me!) new career in publishing was the realization that every single book was really the physical manifestation of countless details, all lovingly and expertly attended to over the course of many months, and in some cases, years. It boggled my mind to watch the process unfold — from an innocuous, unread pile of typewritten pages secured with rubber bands to boxes of finished, pristine, beautiful books, ready to be stacked up on a book store’s front table.
How extraordinary it was to witness this alchemy up close, to become part of it, to understand that every single book I’d ever read had required the faith and expertise of so many different people, from the acquisition editor who said the first determined “yes,” to the copyeditor who carefully considered the placement of every semi-colon, to the production manager who inspected the glue application on the inside binding. Countless decisions to be made, and a nearly infinite number of tiny questions to be answered: fonts, margins, paper, leading, initial caps, space breaks, advertising budgets, print runs — the list went on. Names to be verified, serial commas to be made consistent, every line of every page of proof at every stage of the process to be checked, from sample pages to final pass. Every color in every jacket was examined against its Pantone original, while in the back room, our meticulous designer worked with a ruler and Exacto knife to ensure that every word of type on the front cover was perfectly placed into position – by hand.
Flash forward thirty-plus years, to my current life on the other side of the process and in a very different world. A world that can be summed up in a word: digital. What was once done laboriously and time intensively (searching for the spelling of some obscure actress’s name in an old edition of Who’s Who, for instance) can now be done in an instant, with a click of a key and a Google search. Long gone are the antique tools of the trade as it once was. Including paper.
The first manuscript I ever worked on was a first novel by a young author who appeared at the front door of our office with his 700-page mystery neatly typed and packed into three dark blue Brooks Brothers shirt boxes. A few months ago, I delivered my own manuscript to my publisher — by hitting a SEND button. Weeks later, when the copy-edited manuscript was returned to me, I opened it not as a meticulously hand-edited original typescript sent in an insured and tracked padded manila envelope, but as a Microsoft Word document. And then I set to work learning how to accept or decline the editor’s changes online, in the digital margins of my text, carrying on a virtual color-coded conversation with my copy editor, whose actual voice I will probably never hear. (Even a ringing phone is largely a thing of the past; why call and talk to a stranger, when you could text or email instead?)
As a writer with a new book coming out, I hold out little hope for print reviews; most of the small newspapers that do survive these days have long since shut down their book pages. My print run this time will be half what it was for my last book; that’s how many readers my publisher estimates have shifted to electronic devices.
And even though I have a publicist in New York who is already hard at work arranging my visits to bookstores and sending out bound galleys, the process of spreading the word about a new book has gone largely digital as well. Which means that my job as author no longer ends with writing the final lines and holding forth in a few publication-week interviews, but extends into the equally essential and ongoing industry of ensuring that, in the midst of this busy, distracted on-line world, potential readers actually know that my book exists.
For the first time, my latest book contract included a clause about social media. Maintaining a website and a Facebook presence and a Twitter account is now part of the writer’s job description. (I think I’m supposed to bone up on Pintrest and Tumblr, too.)
Three years ago, when The Gift of an Ordinary Day was published, a friend suggested it might be fun to make a video to go along with it. I invited my book group and some neighbors over, read a few pages out loud in front of the camera, and pulled a bunch of my husband’s family photos out of the albums. It was fun. And the video took on a life of its own, becoming a virtual messenger for the themes of the book.
This time, there was no question: Nowadays, nearly every new book arrives with its own book trailer video. The truth is, all of these new publishing to-dos have been making me anxious. Not only have I felt the pressure of making the book itself all it can be, but also the pressure of fulfilling my authorial obligation to initiate word of mouth about it in every possible venue: updating my website, planning a blog tour, producing a video, setting up events at bookstores. In other words, going public. (If you are someone who chooses to spend much of her life sitting quietly at home alone in a room, the prospect of making self-promotion your new full-time job — even if it is largely on-line — is enough to keep you awake at night. It does me.)
All summer the video project loomed. I had an idea, but no certainty that my vision would actually work. The friendly crew that filmed my first video had moved on. Finally, the deadline was upon me. I had no choice but to put my faith in the process, hire a couple of strangers to come film it, and begin.
And what I found myself thinking this week — as shooting began on my four-minute film, as Steve snapped countless potential author photos, as the book jacket was being finalized, and as plans for recording the audio version were made — is that much as things have changed in this business, it is STILL exacting attention to detail, and the concerted efforts of many passionate people, that make book publishing such a special and uniquely collaborative endeavor.
The scrapbooks of my publishing youth may be gone, my manuscript may exist in pixels instead of on paper, my book may not ever be reviewed in the pages of the Boston Globe or the New York Times, and yet the process remains as exacting and, in its own way, as deeply collegial, as viscerally satisfying, and as detail-oriented as ever.
The other day, three final jacket proofs arrived from the designer, real covers to be spread upon my dining room table, the type in each a slightly different shade of burnt orange. Which to choose? The audio producer sent me the script, printed out in large type, so that I’ll have time to practice reading it aloud before heading to New York next month to record in the studio; careful attention to detail is what will make our four days together go off without a hitch. And for two days, as our house became a film set and as Tom and Melissa of Long Haul Films shot hour upon hour of footage here, I marveled at their ability to maintain enthusiastic concentration as they focused their lenses upon the minutiae of my tactile, ordinary, everyday life and somehow turned it into art. Perhaps it is simply the willingness to pay such close attention, to bring such devotion to the details, that is, in the end, what lifts any process from mundane to meaningful.
It took one whole extra trip from Boston to New Hampshire to nail the shot the film makers wanted of hands around a steaming mug of tea. Six takes of zipping a jacket, tying up shoes. Lots of waiting around for the clouds to break and the sun to shine. Gracie, making tennis ball catch after tennis ball catch for the camera. And during that time, as my family and two dear friends willingly gave up big chunks of their day to assist in this project, and as a slew of last-minute emails arrived from Grand Central, my publisher in New York, I found myself feeling suddenly and immensely grateful for the entire team that fate and circumstance have brought together here, to help guide one modest midlife memoir into the world.
Of course, all this makes me see that what really matters to people who work with books has not changed at all in thirty years: A passion for a well-told story. A profound, ongoing love affair with words. The quiet thrill of holding a new hardcover in your hands, turning the first pages, receiving the urgent, insistent news that is shared between human beings when we summon the courage to reveal ourselves to one another.
In January, this book I’ve been laboring over for the last year and a half will be published. But the Magical Journey, I’m happy to say now, didn’t conclude with the final sentences I wrote last spring. In fact, that brief moment of ending simply marked the beginning of another journey, from the intensely private work of writing to the very public work of sharing. How lucky I am to be accompanied on this new path by such a dedicated group of friends and readers and co-workers, each of whom is as delighted by and as dedicated to the details as I am. Already I feel less alone. And even, dare I say it, excited about the next leg of the trip. Stay tuned!