Saturday, July 23, 2011

Five-year planning

I did indeed email BOMH to my agent at the end of the day yesterday. Very glad to have it off my desk for a while! It will inevitably need further rounds of revision, this is the way of book-writing, but I'm pretty happy with it for now and will be interested to see what comes of it.

(When I was first starting out, I fantasized about big offers and huge corporate publishers, but now that I have published one novel with a small independent press and two with a corporate behemoth, the small-press option is looking pretty good to me again! What I am most hoping for, with this book, is an editor who loves it and who will be able to follow through on that commitment by securing strong in-house support: the book will then have to take its chances in the world, of course, and I think it is too intellectual and peculiar a tale to end up with monstrously large sales, but one of the most painful things about publishing The Explosionist was that my absolutely brilliant and wonderful editor - from whom I learned a huge amount about novel-writing and story-telling as we worked together on revisions - was laid off a couple weeks before the official publication date. The marketing group saw a bunch of lay-offs at the same time, and I don't think I'm breaching any secrets when I say that though the subsequent editor I was assigned is herself an extremely talented and inspiring editor, someone I'd be very happy to work with again in future on a project of her choosing, the in-house support and marketing for that pair of books was basically negligible! I will very much hope not to end up in that sort of situation again on either of these next two books I've got in the pipeline [i.e. BOMH and style].)

Every time I write a novel, by the way, I say I will not write another one! I don't know that I feel it quite so strongly this time as I felt it after the last one (that time I was mostly suffering from tenure-related fatigue plus the dispiriting knowledge of the likelihood of little support from the publisher as far as selling the book went). Novel-writing remains a uniquely interesting way for me to work out a question or problem and think through a set of issues, and ever since childhood I have secretly felt that there is no other worthwhile activity than novel-writing, or at least that there is no substitute for it in my life.

And yet everything to do with publication and book promotion seems deeply unsatisfactory and uninteresting to me, and there is an increasing suspicion in my mind that it is hardly worth writing the book if one is not going to put some decent further additional chunk of energy and dollars into promoting it. This is what I don't know that I really have time and vim for: surely that time and energy are better spent doing perhaps unstimulating but more deeply necessary work like writing student letters of recommendation, evaluating manuscripts for journals and presses, writing tenure review letters, etc.?

In other words, I have a strong inner need to write and to teach, and will always be doing both of those things for love rather than primarily for money (of course one must earn a crust!), but when it comes to the less immediately gratifying set of secondary responsibilities, I have some pretty time-consuming ones that arise from my 'real' job, and the book promotion stuff is always going to feel to me (let's say) tertiary rather than even merely secondary!

My promotional energies, this next time round, are really more likely to be centered on the little book on style than on BOMH. I've been thinking a lot over the last year or so about longer-term career stuff (I think it is a natural process of post-tenure reexamination), and it's come clearer to me what my priorities really will be over this next stretch.

I have a major and ambitious academic (or rather let's call it intellectual) project in its early stages, the ABCs of the novel book. Pushing that forward will be a priority, and I'll probably try and get outside funding for a year-long sabbatical of the residential-fellowship sort sometime in the next couple of years.

I'll continue to do bits and pieces of professional reviewing as they come my way, but I won't seek out a huge amount of it: it's not particularly lucrative, the short-term deadlines kill me when they fall during a busy teaching semester and the enjoyment-to-stress ratio is deeply unfavorable!

What I'd really like to do more of is speaking engagements. Guest lectures (distinguished or otherwise) at colleges and universities of course, but also speaking on literature to a wider range of different kinds of audiences: it would take a while to build this up as an actual income stream, lots of that sort of engagement doesn't necessarily come with dollars to speak of, but I think it is better suited to my core interests and concerns than trying to do a lot more reviewing.

(I have had some fun invitations in the last couple weeks: I'll be lecturing on Gulliver's Travels to the students in BU's core class at the end of November, and on Defoe's Journal of the Plague Year to the students in Siddartha Deb's Introduction to Fiction class at the New School in the spring. Both will pay honorariums, plus travel expenses in the case of the BU one, and I have a deep sense of the rightness of this sort of activity as fitting well with my core values and priorities! I think I am only an average reviewer, I bring to it fluency as a writer and a fully developed critical voice and of course a wide knowledge of literature but I do not feel it to be my particular metier, just a sort of side competency that arises from other things that are my true core strengths. But speaking about literature to an audience, bringing what's on the page really alive in terms of language and ideas and cultural contexts: that's my real thing!)

Anyway, I do have a simple and I think quite effective plan to help some of this happen: even if I only get very meager dollars for both books, I am going to do whatever it takes to retain the excellent Lauren Cerand in her capacity as independent publicist! With the style book and the notion of building a broader audience for literary speaking engagements as the primary mandate, and the novel as part of the bigger picture but not the central priority.

I am teaching two new classes in the fall, one an undergraduate seminar on Swift and Pope that I know will be huge fun (it's a new rubric for a class, but I've taught a lot of the individual works before, especially the Swift stuff), the other my own version of the MA seminar we require of all of our incoming graduate students. That was an interesting chance to think about what I assume as the fundamentals of my own discipline; I'll probably write a separate post on that, or perhaps even paste in the readings I ended up choosing.

I find myself with little desire to get extremely strongly engaged in the professional organizations for my discipline (MLA) and subfield (ASECS), though some presence in both is a basic component of my responsibilities as a faculty member at Columbia; I am more interested, I think, in questions about education as they affect my home institution, and I would guess I would be much more likely to move in the direction of dean of undergraduate or graduate education than to be the editor of a major journal in my field or the head of a professional organization like ASECS. Surely it will be the case at some point during the next stretch of my career, too, that I will serve as Director of Graduate Studies for my home department! Now I am in the realm of indiscretion, but I am currently protected against huge institutional service requirements by the fact that my salary is so low that I cannot in good faith take on a job like that without a significant raise, and raises are not traditionally given in academia as a consequence of that sort of a commitment (it is assumed that some release from teaching is a sufficient compensation); raises only come from outside offers; QED if someone asks me to do something huge and I say "I only can say yes to that if you raise my salary at least 20K," it is effectively the same thing as saying no!

It is one of the great benefits of getting older that one comes to know oneself much better than is possible at age eighteen. If I assess what I've done in the last ten years, I would say that I have done well on the count of working hard and getting a lot done, but that my own impatience to be always doing something has led to inefficiencies and often wasted effort (i.e. a preference for writing the next book rather than sinking additional resources in trying to get people to read the previous one): the notion for the next few years (it is a project of midlife!) is to consolidate and build, not so much to forge out in completely new directions.

(That said, if interesting new opportunities present themselves, I am there!)


  1. As someone with a previous military career, and later a MBA path through the business world, I find your discussions on your creative writing process combined with glimpses of your academic world so very enlightening and fascinating.

    Creativity, especially in writing and teaching (and providing one is successful enough at both to keep beans on the table and generate a lifestyle that meets that person's needs); from my little corner of the world seems like such a magnificent, albeit very challenging, way to leave one's mark in life.

    Thanks for the glimpse through the keyhole.

  2. The one thing I've learned after getting even older than you is that it's a nearly total waste of my time and energy to sink any resoucres in getting people to read my work. If they do, they do: but it's not why I write

  3. De-lurking to second Spokane Al's comment... An English PhD student (ABD!!! as of this summer) at a peer institution, I find myself constantly struggling to balance my 'academic' work with my 'creative' pursuits. Even though I see them as inextricable, few in my department (perhaps reflecting the profession writ large?) seem to feel the same way, and thus I perpetually feel like I am neglecting something in trying to write both a dissertation AND a novel at the same time -- even as they mutually inform and illuminate each other!! All of which is to say that I enjoy reading your posts about such matters.

  4. I am a self-published novelist, writing historical books for teens. I began my writing career (??) after I retired from the federal government. I, too, have been disappointed that I have not attracted a large readership as a publish on demand (POD) author. Recently, however, I became interested in digital formatting of my POD books through publisher. My first reformat is not out there in cyberspace and in five days sold 50 books. I am now reformatting the second book and hope to have it finished by the end of the day. It will then be available as an ebook and can be downloaded on most all eReaders on the market. I set my own price (less than the POD hard copy set by on the same book) and get 85% royalty from and 70% from affiliates like, Barnes and Noble (,etc. Look up, it will blow your mind.

  5. jenny, i found this via richard nash's reposting on red lemonade. i really appreciated this post and your entire blog. for what it#s worth, i have added you to my blogroll on my own blog where i have also reposted my reply to richard nash. a ramble, really...cheers from berlin! marcus