“If I Knew How to Sell Sh-t, I’d Be Selling Sh-t. I Wouldn’t Be Writing”

Reading between the lines.
July 12 2013 9:00 AM

Jincy Willett and Thomas Dunne

The Slate Book Review author-editor conversation.

Author Jincy Willett and editor Thomas Dunne.
Author Jincy Willett, left, and editor Thomas Dunne

Courtesy of Jincy Willett (L) and St. Martin's Press (R)

Thomas Dunne, the publisher of Thomas Dunne Books at St. Martin’s Press, has published Jincy Willett’s writing since 1987.  Amy Falls Down, Willett’s fourth book with Dunne, features novelist Amy Gallup as she navigates the new world of publishing—one in which tweets, platforms, and author branding seem as important as the book itself. In this conversation, Willett and Dunne discuss the evolution of the publishing business, how writers promote their books, and why Willett isn’t writing a best-seller every year.

Jincy Willett: It seems to me that what has changed about publishing is that now writers who are just getting started have to have agents. I find it hard to view this as anything but bad. Before, the new writer had to rise from the slush pile—to catch and hold the attention of readers—underpaid, educated people whose job it was to sift through a mountain of mostly unpublishable manuscripts. You had to write something good enough to keep that person reading. Now you have to write something good enough to keep an agent reading. The path to publication, which was always fraught and rocky (and rightly so), is much steeper now, and it’s all mixed up with marketing. Like Amy, I’ve not had to grapple with all of this, because I rose from the slush in the olden days. But I’ve witnessed the struggles of younger writers, and I feel bad for them. They’re actually expected to think like marketers—to answer questions like, “Who’s your book in the tradition of?” For God’s sake, it’s in the tradition of me.  

Thomas Dunne: Agents are unavoidable.

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Willett: But I didn’t need an agent in 1987. What has changed? Is it one more sign of the looming apocalypse, or are there just too many people submitting manuscripts now?

Dunne: Bingo. In the early days, we managed to read all the slush, at least the first few pages of slush. Now we can’t keep up with what the agents send us. Of course, there’s always self-publishing, which takes out both filters—the filter of the agent and the filter of the publisher/editor. I have encountered people, literate people, who had as many as 80 manuscripts in their closet, all terrible, but that was before the Internet. In the past 20 years or so, half the country thinks they have a book in them. Mass education, writing groups, creative writing programs, egad, so many people think they can write. Most cannot, and then there are a surprising number of people who are pretty darn good at stringing words together but have nothing to say, no story to tell. As Amy herself says, “There may still be more readers than writers, but surely we’re approaching some kind of catastrophic tipping point.”

Willett: Enter the agent.

Dunne: Precisely.

Willett: And hundreds of thousands of books are published every year, most of them unread by anybody outside the writer’s immediate family.

Dunne: You worry too much. The marketplace will sort out the stuff that won’t sell.

Willett: Sounds like an article of faith to me.   

Dunne: Amy’s right about platforms. I hate that word as much as she does. As much as you do. But they’re a fact of life. If the would-be writer is a big-shot business consultant or professional lecturer—

Willett: —or has walked on the moon—

Dunne: —or let’s say you’re a TV celebrity and you want to write a novel. Any good agent will jump right on it. If you’re an embryonic Kardashian, you’ll get a book done.

Willett: A novel written by some slave in a basement. Yay. OK, what do you think of Amy’s point—which is obviously my point, since, let’s face it, Amy is basically me—that authors shouldn’t have to worry about marketing? I don’t, but I’m friends with other writers, and I teach, and it seems as though in order to even get an agent they’re expected to figure out what their book is in the tradition of and how to market it and what their stupid platform is, and that’s just ludicrous. If I knew how to sell shit, I’d be selling shit. I wouldn’t be writing.

Dunne: (Sardonic laugh.)

Willett: OK, so I spend most of my time not writing, which you’ve never understood is an important part of the writing process.

Dunne: (Snort.)