Earlier this year, in May, I had an in-depth and engaging conversation with Len Epp at LeanPub. Last week, it was posted as part of their new Backmatter podcast, which is focused specifically on the publishing industry and its latest trends. In each episode Len interviews a professional from the publishing world about their background and their insider’s perspective on what’s happening in the huge and evolving world of book publishing.
We cover a lot of ground, and part of what makes the conversation so interesting is Len’s line of questioning and knowledge of what I do. Rather than approaching this as a how-to-publish-Q&A, it is more of a conversation with some give and take. (A nice change of pace for me!) Here are a few excerpts from the conversation.
On editing and editing styles
Len: You’re a self-described “late sleeping, bourbon drinking editor.” And while I’d love to talk to you about the first two parts of that description—because I more or less identify with them—I’d like to talk to you a little bit about your experience editing.
For any aspiring editors out there, for example, can you maybe talk about how you got your first gig and what that was like, and how you managed the facet of your career that when you’re maturing as an editor?
Jane: I feel like I’m the worst person to learn editing from, because I don’t necessarily think I learned in a way that’s writer-friendly. Let me explain that. … I was mentored by an editor who had very much a kind of a “scorched earth” editing style, where she would just totally rip things apart, rewrite them, and then send it back to the writer to basically sign off on.
On writer etiquette and frustration with the business
Len: One of the really interesting things for me in your Great Courses course was the importance of etiquette, where at times it seemed strange that you would have to highlight things that seemed like common sense, and at other times you were describing sets of rules that seemed as byzantine and arbitrary as cricket, or courtly manners under the Sun King.
I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about that? I mean, what is it about people who are aspiring authors that can lead them into behavior in that realm, where they wouldn’t walk into a store and get really demanding with the person they’re talking to or expect them to—”Hey drop everything you’re doing and do a bunch of work for me, please. And get back to me within a day.” I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about that. What is it about aspiring authors that leads them down a path they might not otherwise follow in the rest of their life?
Jane: There’s a certain category of aspiring author, particularly the person who has had a professional career, maybe they’re coming back to writing, which was their first love, like as they near retirement, or they have a chance at a second career. And often these people have held positions of authority or respect, like doctors, lawyers, people in investment banking for instance.
When they face the publishing industry from the outside, and they’re trying to get attention for their work—they can’t get a response. They’re sent cryptic rejections, no one will listen to them, they can’t pick up the phone and talk to a real person. They are very upset. Suddenly, all of this status that they have in the world means nothing. And I think it just really exacerbates the frustration, and also a lot of the vitriol that’s heaped on traditional publishing.
On the history of authorship
Len: So I wanted to ask you about the past. You make the great point on your website that writers have been innovating since the Gutenberg era, and I was wondering if you could talk, perhaps, about one or two of the highlights of writers adapting and innovating in the history of book publishing that really stand out for you.
Jane: One of the examples I frequently point to is Samuel Johnson. It was a time when things flipped, where the market was big enough that authors could sustain their careers based on sales. He was operating during a time when more and more books were being published. There was a growing literate class, and you could be a successful author just on bookstore sales.
Now, what’s interesting about that is, at the time, he was bucking the trend. Because it was considered more—I don’t want to say polite—but it was more customary for you to be paid for your work through some sort of patron, and you would dedicate your work to that patron and receive money. Or you were born into privilege, and you didn’t need money. So, there was something a bit crass there in that move, that he would just say, “Forget you, patron-whoever-you-are. I can live on my book sales.”
Many thanks to Len and LeanPub for an excellent and fun conversation.