The Director Dish

Are people who work in publishing just frustrated writers?

I have spoken to undergraduate English and journalism classes many times about careers in book publishing, and one of the things I always tell the students is: if you want to be a writer, don’t get a job in publishing. Why is that, you ask? (As they always do.) There are many reasons:

  1. You’ll get overwhelmed in seeing the number of manuscripts that get submitted and quickly rejected.
  2. You’ll see so much bad writing that you’ll lose confidence in your own.
  3. You’ll see so much good writing that you’ll lose confidence in your own.
  4. You’ll see books you think are great get skewered by reviewers and you’ll be terrified that the same will happen to your book—if it even gets noticed at all, because you’ll also know that fewer than 10 percent of your publishing house’s books get reviewed by the major media.
  5. You’ll see books you had high hopes for sink fast, and you won’t want that to happen to your own book.
  6. You’ll be sick of “working with words” and won’t want to spend your evenings and weekends doing the same thing you do all day long at work.
  7. You’ll have a headache from staring at the computer all day and won’t want to stare it at home too.
  8. Compared to the camaraderie of most publishing houses, writing is a lonely endeavor and you won’t be able to reconcile the two.
  9. Your mind will be filled with other writers’ manuscripts and you won’t be able to separate your own story from theirs.
  10. You’ll start to enjoy the job, and even though you won’t be getting paid very much, you’ll be getting something—and probably a lot more than you’re getting for your own writing right now. So you end up staying, moving up the ranks, perhaps moving to a different publisher, and then the next thing you know you’ve made a career out of helping other writers succeed. But you won’t have your own novel or short story or poetry collection to show for it.

If you want to write the Great American Novel or the Best Poetry Collection—or Anything Else creative—go to work for an insurance company (like Ted Kooser did) or on a cruise ship (like J D Salinger did) or as a dentist (like Zane Grey or Faye Kellerman did ) or as a military officer (like George Orwell did) or as an airline reservation agent (like Harper Lee did) or as the Postmaster (like William Faulkner did). Or, all else failing, go to work as an exterminator, just as William Burroughs did. But don’t be an editor!

In a few years after I retire, keep your eye out for my Great American Novel, which I have been working on for over twenty-five years (roughly the same amount of time I’ve been in publishing) . . .

-Donna (@donnashear)