Publishing Trendsetter is a production of Market Partners International and Publishing Trends.

A True Tale of Being Published, Publishing by Gail Godwin: A Trendsetter Roundtable

Sometimes for any author, navigating the path of publishing is a little confusing. Their job is to focus on writing after all. Lucky for us, three time National Book Award finalist and bestselling author Gail Godwin wrote about her journey through the publishing process that began in 1958 when she met with a Knopf scout to try to get a story published. Godwin has seen the industry go through many phases. She’s had good editors, tricky editors, battles over titles, and fabulous book launch parties. She’s lived a long part of her life as an author, and catalogued it for readers in her new memoir, aptly named Publishing (Bloomsbury, 2015).  Samantha, Jennifer, and Moè sat down to talk about what they learned about publishing from someone on the other side of the industry.

Samantha Howard: Okay! So we all read Gail Godwin’s memoir, Publishing and we have opinions, right?PublishingCover

Jennifer Donovan: Yes, opinions galore and ready to share!

Moè Nakayama: Yes indeed!

Samantha: So I guess we’ll start with the easiest question, what did you guys think of the book?

Jennifer: I thought it was great insight into how an author’s mind works while they’re in the process of getting published.  It’s lucky for us that she kept journals and remembered so many details of what she was thinking at the time.  I will say, though, that her storytelling could be confusing. I was getting lost with her jumping around and had to refer to the timeline at the end of the book a few times.

Samantha: I’m willing to bet that’s why there was a timeline in the back.

Jennifer: Shout out to whoever thought to include it. It was very helpful!

Moè: To be honest, I feel like I would have gotten more out of the book if I was familiar with Gail Godwin’s other works. But I really enjoyed reading about the personal, human efforts that go into writing and publishing a book. It really is a memoir, and not a how-to about getting published.

Samantha: Yeah absolutely. I also haven’t read any of Gail Godwin’s work, but I still found it a rewarding read as someone in the publishing industry. It was rewarding to know that the industry was constantly changing in the 70s too. It’s not just now that we’re all panicking about jobs. She was very honest, and I liked that.  And it doesn’t hurt that she name dropped one of our bosses, Connie Sayre!

Moè: Yep! On three pages!

Jennifer: It’s also kind of scary how often the industry changes.  I feel like these days a lot of people will blame ebooks for all the flux, but it’s been like this for awhile, as we saw from Gail’s account.

Samantha: This is kind of stupid to say, but I was so surprised to hear about a time that Ballantine wasn’t owned by Random House. I think it just goes to show that take for granted the existence of the Big Five and the history behind it.

Moè: I was surprised by that, too, Jen. I guess it was silly of me to think it was particular to our times, but Gail’s stories about switching editors and restructured houses, etc., were really kind of eye-opening. And I agree, Sam. Reading this memoir made me want to learn more and look farther back into publishing history!

Jennifer: What would you say was the most eye opening moment in the book, for you?

Samantha: That whole story about her and Robert Gottlieb as her editor, and how he was just so lukewarm on her. And then boom, she got a new editor who felt more in line with Gail’s own vision for her work. Then she exploded into the world of bestseller-dom and National Book Award nominations.

Moè: For me, it was when – though I think there are multiple passages, not just one – Gail writes about her anxieties about other authors. She writes about awful tour escorts who go on about other authors and about a bad lunch with one of her editors, where the editor talked about other successful authors. It’s another kind of constant pressure that comes with being an author that I’d never thought to consider.

Samantha: What about you, Jen?

Jennifer:  For me, it was her paying for her own publicity. For some reason I never thought of an author with a bigger publishing house having to do that. I could picture self-published authors and maybe the small house ones, but she was with a big company.

Samantha: Yeah it is shocking to think of a company saying to her face, sorry we’re not spending any more money on your book.

Moè: Amazing example of how authors can try to take control of their own career.

Samantha: I do love how much she just carries on though. She is still writing, still getting her books out there. It seems like there was so much bad stuff along her publishing path that could have made her quit.

Jennifer: I think that’s because she was writing for herself and for her mother, who always wanted to be a famous author/playwright.

Moè: Yeah. She seems to have gone through many troubled agent-author-editor relationships— and I appreciated her honesty about that!

Samantha: Gosh, I loved Gail’s relationship with her mom, Kathleen.

Jennifer: That they wrote stories together from different perspectives? Too cute and a wonderful writing exercise for a child! I bet that’s where she learned a lot about character development.

Moè: Yes! I thought that history and creative lineage she shared with her mother was absolutely beautiful.

Samantha: Well once she got John Hawkins as an agent, he seems to be a great advocate for her, as well as her mother, and her husband. She had a great team of people around her, even when her editorial situations floundered.

Jennifer: Yeah, I think she lucked out with literary agents, even though she struggled so much with publishers. Just goes to show how important both sides of the industry are.

Samantha: Absolutely. Do you guys feel like you learned anything about the industry overall?

Jennifer: I think I learned a lot about the recent history of the industry, allowing that it was told through a biased point of view.  I think I learned a lot more about contracts, which I wasn’t expecting at all.

Moè: I guess my takeaway is the incredible amount of trust that needs to be there— between agent, author, editor, and also any other supporting players— for a book to come through.

Moè: So, Gail’s memoir features a wide cast of characters, and many of them make only brief appearances. Were there any characters that stuck with you?

Jennifer: I would say Linda Grey made a huge impact, just from how Gail was able to describe her so fully in such a short amount of time. It was a lovely tribute to someone who passed away and now I think I’ll think of her when I read The Wings of the Dove just as Gail does.

Moè: Me too! Her chapter on Linda Grey was my favorite as well.

Samantha:  Hmmm. That’s a great question. I think her mother was really the person who stuck with me the most. That moment where she is telling her mom that she’s going to get published and her mom is like “I know what this means, truly.” it made my heart leap. And how her mom sewed silk covers for all of her own journals? I loved that.

Jennifer: I now want to sew silk covers for my journals.

Samantha: Right? I guess it’s a marker of why I liked her so much. She didn’t seem to get much work published, but she clearly treated it with a lot of love.

Moè: Yes. So adorable! Gail’s relationship with her mother really is special. I feel like these stories— where the parent and the child pursue the same dream— can get pretty ugly sometimes, but in Gail and Kathleen’s case, they both found a love for writing together. It wasn’t a burden for either of them, and I think that’s why her mother really is able to appreciate and celebrate when Gail tells her she’s getting published.

Jennifer: You know what else I found interesting? How she kept running into old friends. The publishing industry is so tiny.

Samantha: Yes! It is a small industry indeed! And so many NYC editors live in upstate New York. It’s all such a truism.

Moè: And I think in some ways, it’s an industry that depends on its smallness. Lots of ideas are shared and even deals made over lunches, it seems.

Samantha: Oh absolutely. Lunch is where the business happens in a lot of this industry.

Jennifer: What did we think of the ending?

Samantha: I loved the end! It smacked of old school publishing to me, or at least, what I imagine it to be. A big party for a book, where people came in from out of town. And then after the official party, it just moved locations to her hotel room. It was a way to show that she’s happy with her career and life, in my mind.

Jennifer: I agree! It was a good chance for her to be like, I’m not done yet. The party keeps on going and her writing will keep on going too.

Moè: I like that! I found it meaningful that Gail’s memoir ended with a party, where she is surrounded by her colleagues and friends. Her book is less about the solitary practice of writing, and more about— as the title suggests— the collaborative effort of publishing. It made an impression on me, because I went into the book thinking it would mostly be about her slaving through endless edits and struggling with writer’s block…

Samantha: Do you think there’s anything in this book that you could apply to your own journey in the publishing industry?

Jennifer: I think it’s a good lesson on being flexible, but sticking by what you believe.  In publishing, things will change (for Gail: editors, final drafts, titles, etc.) and you need to go with the flow, but you also need to know when to dig your heels in.  I think that’ll be important to remember going forward in my career.

Moè: Hmm. It’s a little hard for me to say right now, because I haven’t quite decided which part to play in publishing… But it was helpful to be reminded of how “human” the business really is (and ought to be). Whether you’re an agent, an editor, a publicist, or an author tour escort… I think it’s important to remember you’re not just working with books, you’re working with people. The connections you make matter, as do the conversations you have.

Samantha: I think what I learned is what I already alluded to a bit, but that, this industry is always kind of changing and in some kind of turmoil! The industry going through a rapid period of growth, but that’s really nothing new. That’s kind of a relief to me. Everyone made it when companies were buying other companies like crazy, so we’ll make it through this time of digitization, and economic struggle.

Moè: I love that idea. Very comforting and encouraging!

Jennifer: What a lovely, optimistic takeaway!

One Trackback

  1. […] they should definitely read the book knowing that it is ultimately a work of fiction. I think Publishing: A Memoir, one of our earlier Roundtables, might be a more moderate view of the industry, albeit from the point of view of an author instead […]

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