On November 5, a powerhouse trio of Minnesota writers entertained those of us who descended upon Grand Marais for a festival that celebrated readers and writers. Lorna Landvik, Faith Sullivan, and Judith Guest held a panel discussion about the writing life.
The number of books the three of them have had published, and the incredible success they’ve seen, is worthy of admiration. From Lorna’s Patty Jane’s House of Curl to Faith’s The Cape Ann to Judy’s Ordinary People (yes, Ordinary People!), it’s hard to find comparable success among other Minnesota authors.
But these successes do not guarantee future success. A successful book by a successful author does not mean you have a winning ticket, which was incredibly disheartening to hear. If Lorna and Faith and Judy have trouble getting published today, what about us “ordinary” authors? Or writers who have not yet been published?
I offer a little more detail from each author.
Lorna: She became a household name across the country with Patty Jane’s House of Curl and Angry Housewives Eating Bon Bons. These novels are female-centric and were big hits with book clubs. Lorna had a big publisher but when she wrote a manuscript that featured aliens, her editor said no, no, no…too big of a departure from what she had been writing. So she put the manuscript away for years and when she decided she wanted to publish it, she had to publish it herself. Lorna Landvik self-published. I’m happy to say my publisher, the University of Minnesota Press, recognized Lorna’s appeal and re-issued Mayor of the Universe.
Faith: Like Lorna, she also had a big New York publisher. But after a phone call with her editor, in which the editor asked Faith to change a key scene in a manuscript, a distraught Faith refused and instead chose to stay true to the story. It cost her the publisher, but Faith found her footing with Minnesota-based indie publisher, Milkweed. Milkweed has published Faith’s Gardenias and Goodnight, Mr. Wodehouse.
Judy: Judy said she has two manuscripts with her agent, and the agent so far has not been able to sell them to an editor. What?!?! This woman wrote Ordinary People! You would think that would be enough to put in a cover letter to get someone to take on your next work.
My takeaways from this talk:
- Past success in the literary world does not equal future success.
- Big publishers are thinking of the market, not necessarily literature.
- Big publishers want to put authors in a box and want them to stay within a genre. Crossing genres is not encouraged.
- Independent and small presses care about literature and are willing to take risks on authors.
- Good writing will be published somewhere, somehow.
Writers get a lot of ‘discouragement’ or ‘warning’ messages in the age of the internet. It is a tough business. But I hope talented young writers will ignore that fact. When working toward goals, especially as a writer, discouragement is simply negativity that throws off good work.
I think it is true that past success doesn’t always translate into future success. It is also true that the publishing market has become way too concerned with profit margins and this has stifled creativity, relegating many great books to small publishers. However, there is an unspoken flip side of the coin here. One big reason past success doesn’t translate to the future for writers is because writing books is really hard. A blunt possibility is that a factor in big names having trouble getting published later is that they often aren’t presenting works with the same quality level as what broke them out. Sometimes, as stated, they deviate from their ‘thing’ and the publisher doesn’t like that, but sometimes, too, they stay too close to what they did to get started and the industry and audience tires of their work.
I look at Judith as a major inspiration. Ordinary People is an all time great novel–but therein lies the danger. She hasn’t come up with a book of that caliber since. Part of this could be due to her best manuscripts laying unused by publishers, but I suspect she simply hasn’t been able to come up with work of that level again. Reading Ordinary People and her second book Second Heaven is illustrative. Second Heaven is a good book by a major talent, but doesn’t have the magic of Ordinary People. There’s no shame in that, most writers never approach the level of Ordinary People. There is a reality there though, that part of the difficulty described here has something to do with what writers are able to come up with. It’s hard to keep the wellspring flowing in the same quality and quantity–writing is so very difficult.
I think getting a book published by a major publisher, that does well, does makes it easier to get published again. But it is complex and that good will wears off too quickly.
A writer needs to stay true to the original concept, format and content. With Saoutchik, the publisher wanted to cut out all of vol. I – he said no one wants to read about that (historical context, religion, family, etc.), people only want to read about cars. We refused to cut it out and it got ugly. Unpleasantly ugly. Ultimately, we said that if the book isn’t published the way we intended, then there would be no book (for this publisher). Blackmail can work. Every award we’ve one has praised Vol. I. One presumes that there will be smooth sailing for the next book, however, probably not.
Lisa M. Bolt Simons said:
“Good writing will be published somewhere, somehow.” We do certainly hope. There are so many talented writers out there with the LITERARY skill and not just a famous name! Thanks for this insightful piece.
We know all these things, right? All we can do is keep writing.