Good To Be Queen (or King)

One of the adventures in life I’ve known I had to have from the relatively young age of 27 (I think that’s fairly young for us late-blooming Gen Xers) has been to publish books. Not write them, not sell them, edit them, or agent them–all glorious as hell in themselves, in my opinion–but publish them. Be the supporting energy behind a task force of creative writers and thinkers.

I think the difference between the desire to write and the desire to edit manuscripts is similar to the difference between the desire to edit and the desire to publish books. As a publisher of a new micro-house (and by that I probably mean the owner of a house, not just the employee publishers who manage entire lists of books for one house that’s corporately owned), I do everything from editing books, developing and training editors, and promoting books and the press’s brand to signing authors and promoting the house to new authors. I help the editors acquire and collaborate on the books just as the editors help the authors revise the books. The publisher is the energy behind the energy that transforms good manuscripts into books good enough to penetrate and enrich the culture.

Part of how I be that energy is to define and constantly refresh the scope of the house’s mandate and then assemble and develop the other creative people to do my will. I know, I sound like a major ham with all my talking of “doing of my will,” but there’s a certain egotism that’s the whole point of being a publisher. I think we’re all hams.

But before you dismiss publishers for their egotism, consider the ecological value of these hams, culturally speaking. Hams, if they’re really individualists, don’t just want a particular book to exist that wouldn’t exist were they not to publish it. That’s a pretty poor reason to be a publisher. In fact, that by itself is the mandate of the self-published author, really. Neither do they just want to have their own publishing turf to be comfortable in and rule over. That, by itself, is the mandate of the gigantic asshole.

Hams, by comparison, are kind of pretentious dorks, but also kind of heroes. They stand for something. And they stand against something. They’re about as serious in themselves as a grown woman showing up to her cubicle at work in a superhero costume. They actually imagine they are important. To something. And they do expect to one day be cheered by adoring, grateful fans for it. They have serious rock star-wannabe syndrome.

That said, a publisher’s value to a cultural ecosystem is no more about her ego than worm’s value to the physical ecosystem is solely about their love of eating detritus. A worm aerates the soil it burrows into for the detritus. But it doesn’t want to aerate the soil; it wants to eat the rotting, moldering plant matter in the soil. A publisher is similar: they want a certain kind of quiet glory and the self-importance that comes of remaining mostly anonymous, with all their publishing kin, as authors gain louder glory and visibility.

They aren’t explicitly interested in cultural pluralism; on the contrary, they’re interested in more of their books coming into the world and as many people as possible reading their books, even if that means they read no other books but theirs. At least that’s all I want out of my publishing life. But cultural pluralism results nonetheless from lots of different book and magazine publishers finding, and in some cases inspiring, new ideas, manuscripts, and authors to push onto shelves and online catalogs.

Now, I’m not claiming that publishers are the only agents of cultural pluralism, but they are potent and effective ones. And you can’t have the publisher without the ham.