• Bridge Ladies

    Bridge Ladies When I set out to learn about my mother's bridge club, the Jewish octogenarians behind the matching outfits and accessories, I never expected to fall in love with them. This is the story of the ladies, their game, their gen, and the ragged path that led me back to my mother.
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As I walk this land of broken dreams I have visions of many things

Somehow, I got to be fifty fucking years old and half my life has been lived in the service of helping writers bring their work to the public. There isn’t a day when I’m not that girl in an ill fitting Ann Taylor suit riding up the elevator on her first day of work at Simon and Schuster, or making my first offer on a book and being embarrassed to say the number, or opening the NYT and seeing my author get a rave review, or crying in front of my boss John Sterling when a book was trashed by same paper, or going to the National Book Critics Circle Award or a reading on the lower East Side, or asking an agent over lunch if he and his wife were gay (did not go over), the BEA when I slept with two writers, and the BEA when I picked my face so badly it bled. I remember pencil shavings covering my chest and post-its lining the walls, and playing Scrabble with Rick Moody in his boss’s office and soaking up everything I could learn about the literary life, hearing juicy gossip about people you only knew by reputation, spreading it.  I remember the great Alice Mayhew furiously marching down editorial row screaming “Amateur night, amateur night,” when she believed an agent had botched an auction. And I remember thinking that was the worst thing you could ever be called: an amateur.   I remember feeling betrayed, loved, admired, hurt, stung, played, and appreciated. Then there is every book I’ve ever worked on and the story of how it came into being, the back story of every decision and choice that we agonized over in the hope of getting it right.

So when a young editor takes me for coffee and asks my advice about whether there is any future for editors, I don’t know what to say. It breaks my heart. We only worried about whether we would make it, find a spot on editorial row and kill it. We didn’t worry about the future of publishing. We worried mightily whether there would be a place at the table, but we never doubted the existence of the table itself. How do you soldier on in the face of so much uncertainty? Do you think about the future of book publishing, the table?

36 Responses

  1. i think my horoscope this week was meant for you:

    (from rob brezsny’s Free Will Astrology newsletter)

    LEO (July 23-Aug. 22): Focus on what’s small and slippery, Leo. Turn your gaze away from what’s big and obvious. Exult in the salamander on the rock and a friend who has a new trick and the guilty pleasure you just discovered; excuse yourself from obsessing about the state of the
    economy, the meaning of life, and the clash between science and religion. Your pleasurable duty is to love what’s in the midst of changing, and not fixate on trying to make arrangements that will supposedly last forever.
    Don’t just grudgingly attend to the mercurial details; dive in as if playing with them were your central purpose.

    it showed up in my inbox just before your post did. the answer came before the question.

  2. I’m afraid to think about that table: That no empty chair will be left for me. That the dinner party will have long ago ended. That it will be like Lewis Carroll’s Tea Party, and I’ll arrive there just to discover a set of broken dishes and half-eaten biscuits.

    So I write, and hope for a standing-room only spot at the bar.

    • Midlist writers weren’t invited to the party in the first place, except as waitstaff and food stylists and the clowns in the corner making balloon animals.

      My heart fails to bleed for anyone working in the publishing industry who gets paid every month. A ‘future for editors?’ What does that mean? I’m pretty sure she’s not asking about crying and fucking and dropping shit on her chest, every woman’s birthright. She’s asking about health insurance and enough money to live in New York until she marries someone with a real job.

      She should edit on spec for a year, then convince herself to be thrilled with $20,000 minus 15% minus self-promotion costs plus unicorn rides for life. Plus the opportunity to make another 25K the following year–maybe. Editors worry about a place at the table? Writers worry about the *floor*. What if some new technology sweeps away the crumbs before we finish licking? That’s the truly scary future of publishing: Rise of the Roombas.

      That young editor makes three times my income and her major literary influences are Catcher in the Rye and Hunger Games and an undergrad paper on Identity and Agency in Yemeni Feminist Literature. She’s worried about uncertainty? What scares me is the opposite. The chance that I’m a complete fuckup who’s following a juvenile dream to the detriment of his son’s future recently rose from 93% to 95%. That’s a big slab of certainty. And yet those additional two percentage points are hardly my biggest problem. They don’t change anything.

      Tell her no, there’s no future in publishing. Fuck you. Go to law school. You want a guarantee? Apply at Goldman Sachs.

      Tell her she’s fine. We’ll need editors as long as we need stories, and we’ll need stories as long as we’re alive. Everyone always thinks they live in the spotlight of history, a special time with special challenges and brand new opportunities, and it’s always bullshit. We’re a bunch of mediocre people in a mediocre industry scratching a mediocre living from a mediocre product, and in a hundred years nothing will have changed except the shape of the books. She’s gonna be okay.

      • As one late blooming fuck up to another you got the priorities so right. Uncertainty is never the devil it is made to be.

      • you should write greeting cards

      • I’ve got the crying and fucking down – well, maybe not the crying so much, but what is the dropping things on my chest reference? I don’t get it and don’t want to miss out on any opportunity to help me leech off the male sex.

      • Ha! I’ve certainly got the cliched mind and the self-absorption, amyg.

        Experts recommend pencil shavings, Deb.

        The scent of graphite
        Post-Its blossom on your wall
        What do they tell me?

      • Oh. So I guess donut filling won’t do? I’m pretty good at that.

      • Books will disappear someday, done in by little chips in our necks that create the illusion of words two feet from our noses. We’ll still need writers and editors, to say nothing of more chiropractors.

      • I’m on the other side of 50, and have already lost several good women to breast cancer along the way, most of them younger than me. So each day I don’t find a lump, I say a prayer of thanks.
        A good editor and a good agent are true gods, committed to bringing out the very best in the writers they work with. It is a selfless act of generosity to be an editor or an agent, to visualize true creative potential in another person and help them bring that out. Many people cannot do those jobs because their own egos get in the way. I am past 50 — there is a sweet young man in my writing program who is around 25 — he has shared his thesis manuscript in progress with me seeking my editorial comments. He is brilliant! It is an amazing work. Is it better than anything I have ever written — yes. But I’m not jealous — I’m grateful that he is allowing me to be part of his creative process.
        Every book that makes it to print has the potential to save the life of one person, to connect with one person and relieve their sadness, or loss, etc. In the Talmud it says, if you save one life, it is as if you saved the whole world.
        I have read books and poems that helped me back off the ledge. That is what the agent and editor are doing, saving lives every day, one life at a time …

      • Slow Reader, what a great comment.

  3. La la la la la. I have finally trained myself to write novels, so I will keep doing it. Can’t worry about the rest.

  4. It scares me. But I started writing not knowing if I’d ever be published, and I still don’t know, so uncertainty is something I live with. Whatever the new table looks like, I hope that writers will always have editors. I don’t think anything can replace the synergy of two different brains contributing to the same creative work.

    • Maybe if things change a bit editors can go BACK to being editors instead of having to do so much project management.

  5. You have the image text thing down. It’s almost as if you’ve read Eisenstein. What a joy.

  6. Yes, I am horrified at what is happening….but I was also horrified at the prospect of computers and cuisinarts. So what do I know. Anyway, you see it from your perspective, I see it not from the perspective of a writer, but a reader.
    Over the last couple months, Barnes and Nobles has been turned into a new kind of toy-r-us. Who can spell anymore, anyway. Games, puzzles, severe reduction of books and, of course, that e book reader thingie. Sunday I went over for a latte to check out the new books and had to contend with two rug rats throwing a ball up and down the carpet and then another kid playing with a mock-up of a Barbie Doll. As an after-thought, perhaps the doll was Jane Austen or Emily Dickinson or Emily Bronte…but my heart is still filled with sorrow. I wanted to go back and check if they were talking dolls “Reader, I married him.” There are only two used book stores in the town in which I exist and the B&N–I shall resort to Amazon or the sites of the small presses. Yesterday I ordered three books from Europa….great stuff. I know, I know, I will either end up on Hoarders or on page six; “Woman’s decayed body found under pile of one hundred copies of Don Quixote, clutching the neck of a doll that looked like Sarah Palin which was still saying “gotcha.”
    I’d write a apocalypse book about the death of books, but I think that’s been done. Oh, wait, I did, it’s called The Book Burners and takes Place in New Orleans post katrina and my heroes Pinch and Scrimp – one a ghost the other a vodoo princess…oh, never mind, going to walk Pete before daylight. I finished that book weeks ago.

  7. I just finished a historical novel by my friend Vanitha Sankaran called “Watermark” – it’s about the time when paper was just starting to attract attention and beginning to replace parchment. Remember the Inquisition? People – women in particular – writing love poems on paper were deemed heretics and burned to death. The powers-that-be (the Church) were terrified of what the people would write when they had ample access to paper and could voice their opinions.

    We’re in such times, and they are a changin’ and yes, I think about the future of publishing a lot. Some will burn people at the stake, some will burn, some will write, and some will decide to make paper.

    What we’re all trying to figure out is, what’s the modern equivalent of paper? Those who figure it out will have a seat at the new table, which I bet will still have books on it.

    (And I agree with AJ – we’ll always need editors.)

    • I do remember the Inquisition….it was a hot and muggy day, the archbishop called my name, threw my book into the pyre…..The Church, the Bishop, and Me: Ten Days Praying Naked.

    • The Church was terrified of what people would write when they got some paper. Wow. I never knew that; interesting.
      Your comment made me think of comments on the internet — this “Betsy blog” is focused, but you know how some commenting gets out-of-control: political ones, and even Music ones.
      You get — Bob Dylan fans arguing with each other over which version is better, etc. etc., swearing etc. It’s unbelievable. (Not only Dylan — many music videos — I’ll read the texts and think, “People are passionate about their music, that’s great.” And then it can get to be too much, also! It’s crazy.)

      The concept of being afraid of what people will write once they get paper — it’s like the internet: what will they type in, once they are free to comment?
      Now we’re findin’ out!!

      It can be really good, and inspiring, and the flip-side is, it can get crazy and obnoxious. There’s a video posted of Fleetwood Mac performing “Rhiannon” — the comments were escalating in intensity and the next time I checked it, the comments had been “disabled” and the post title had been changed from “AWESOME PERFORMANCE” to “Just Enjoy The Music” or something like that.

      I thought that was great. The person who posted sort of — cut off debate. It must have begun to look like cyberspace “graffiti” to the person who had offered us that video.

  8. “I remember thinking that was the worst thing you could ever be called: an amateur.”

    I envy you your perspective. I’ve long thought the worst thing a person could ever be called is a child molester.

    As we all know, books have been around a long time. They replaced scrolls because they were more convenient than scrolls, and have about them a quality of obviousness that makes one wonder why they weren’t thought of earlier. What may be most notable about them nowadays is that they’re a form of cultural communication that antedates the human mastery of electricity. That which gives such forms of cultural communication as the internet and the e-book their power and attraction is their ease of use, which is in no small part dependent upon electricity. Lose the juice, and the communications revolution is over; stay plugged in, and the old-fashioned physical book will almost certainly go the way of the scroll. Either way, writers will need editors, wherever they can find them, and they will need publishers, whatever form they may take.

    It seems that one of the things that makes us human is a compulsive need to communicate. For as long as we’ve known, some of that communication has been through the telling of stories. I tell stories in written words because that’s just part of who I am. I’m not sure I should try to tell them this early in the morning, before I’ve finished my first mug of tea, but I hopped on this train and am now peering down the track, looking for the station where it’s going to stop. In some way, I guess I still treasure the youthful dream of “becoming a famous writer,” but the world that dream came out of no longer exists. I console myself by soldiering on, writing my writings as best I can, getting them published wherever I can and can stand to, and believing that if one person finds value in one thing I’ve written, then I’ve done my job.

    Here’s my station, time for me to get off.

    • “I remember thinking that was the worst thing you could ever be called: an amateur.”

      I envy you your perspective. I’ve long thought the worst thing a person could ever be called is a child molester.

      How about “amateur child molester”, eh?

      See? Editing!

  9. I don’t doubt the existence of the table at all. it may be a different shape or set differently, but I don’t see it gong away. Digital media have made a real difference in what I read and where my money goes; my money is spent on new work, not the B&N sale shelves. Publishers, if they have any sense, are using my money to set a place at the table. I think there are a lot of readers like me and there are more every day.

  10. Photographers are a few years’ further into the digital revolution than where publishing sits right now. Digital cameras have gradually pushed film almost entirely aside, and the change has made it much more difficult to properly value and sell a photographer’s work. Now anyone can have a fat DSLR camera with a factory lens and take six hundred photos at a pop from which a handful will be usable. The quality of the images we make now, as a society, has sunk to a new low even as we’re drowning in the sheer number of them – if you compare your dad’s black and white film images to the muddy, out-of-focus digital photos all over facebook, you’ll see the difference in quality.

    The same thing will happen in literature, I would imagine, although I don’t know enough about publishing to understand exactly how that will play out. What I do know is that a beautiful finished product will always stand out. It will be undervalued, but it will be noticed.

    Photographers are all about the boutique concept these days. We are small and fiercely independent, and our work has become more innovative. It has to be, to stand out from the masses. Some shooters like me have gone back to film, some do amazing digital composites, others use color in unusual ways. My stock photography house sells it all, and my agent is still there to guide my work and get it sold.

    My point, I guess, is that beautiful work – crafted, thoughtful work – will always find a place at the table. There just won’t be as much on the plate.

  11. How does anyone soldier on in the face on uncertainty? You find something you love to do and you do it. If you have to do something else at the same time to pay the bills, you do that too.

    (Great post.)

  12. Sorry, I tried to imbed this vid but it’s come out as a link (of sorts) instead. Nevertheless, an interesting 8 minutes in the conversation about publication.

  13. Every night when I went to bed as a child I would wonder if it was the night the voices would tell the man in the other room we were all better off dead. It was my choice to believe I could create a good life when I escaped. And my choice to go back and drag that man out of his hell and get him help.

    A changing publishing industry? Pfft. I decide if I write.

  14. When I lived in NY– working for a big house, right in the belly of the beast– I was plagued by the fear that the end was neigh. Since I moved to Seattle, I’ve gotten a different perspective. There are lots of smaller presses and outlets here who are more boutique, more concerned with the book than the bottom line because they don’t have all that presure. Generally people get more excited about new technology in this town than they do in NY (in my experience) so maybe they can accept that things are changing more than people who are entrenched in the old ways.

    Many industries move from boutique to mass production and then back to boutique. Just look at farming. Who is to say that that’s not exactly what’s happening with book publishing?

  15. no. i just keep writing to the best of my ability. i’ve not received payment for anything i’ve written although that will change in a month or two.

    i’m canadian and canadians read books because it’s too fucking cold to do much approx. 6 months of the year.

    we have conversations, too. remember those?

  16. “We only worried about whether we would make it, find a spot on editorial row and kill it.”

    Suddenly I wish you’d write a memoir of your life as an editor. I would read that book. In fact I want to read it now more than ever — now that things are changing, or stand to change. It would be so poignant.

    Or I’ve had too much coffee.

    As long as there are books, I think we’ll have publishing, editing, agent-ing, etc. Real books or digital books. Though, today I was having a discussion about someone who is in Brazil right now and has to wait until he’s back in the states to download a certain book onto his iPad. Something about where it’s registered, what books are available to what global regions. I promptly ran around the kitchen, pumping my fists and shouting, “There will always be books! Books are still the best! Always! Books always win!”

    Real books. Artifacts. Physical presences.

    Too much coffee.

  17. I just saw this clip of Peter Senge talking about learning organizations and who will survive in the future. Thought maybe publishers should be listening to Senge saying “fear cramps imagination.” Are publishers willing to look at the larger world and reflect on it and check their old assumptions in order to survive, and thrive? Or will they go to the bar?


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