Musings on the Wild World of Writing & Editing

The More Things Change

In my AP classes in high school, my teachers would prep students for the essay questions we might come across on test day. Fortunately, the College Board had set particular categories for each exam (e.g., in my English Language course, we had to prepare for an ADQ essay–Agree/Disagree/Qualify on any given subject based on primary and secondary sources). In World History and European History, I distinctly remember the category of “Change Over Time.” Basically we had to write what changed in a certain area over a certain time period and what stayed the same. In European History, that was pretty easy: the middle class is always rising. In World History, many students felt like being clever and would say that the only constant was change. The answer, though smart aleck-y, was often correct, though that’s not what the College Board was looking for. (I vaguely remember writing an essay about the change of China’s independence and loss of self-determination in the nineteenth century.) Although my classmates and I often whined and complained about having to write another CoT essay, in truth, we are quite adept at looking back at events and finding patterns. Oh and don’t worry, folks, I fully plan on writing a rant against teaching essay writing to the test. The challenge of the AP CoT essay was fairly simple, but when we turn it inwards, the task becomes exponentially more difficult. Looking at ourselves poses a deeper set of issues than studying a series of facts for a standardized test.

The Only Constant Is…

I’m reminded of a quote by Nelson Mandela that I have on my Facebook page under “Favorite Quotations”: “There is nothing like returning to a place that remains unchanged to find the ways in which you yourself have altered.” I chose that quote as one of my favorites because at the time I was feeling nostalgic, so I kept going back to old sites from my childhood. Indeed, my middle school baseball field remained unchanged, and the park where I first held hands with my first boyfriend had stayed the same. But in many ways these places were unrecognizable to me, because, of course, I had grown up and left behind the teenage girl who lived those moments. I was now viewing them from the lenses of a young woman, merely looking back on the reminisces of a 13-year-old girl.

I think I might have chosen creative nonfiction because I’m introspective and have an unfortunate tendency to navel gaze. I’m always looking inward, analyzing my thoughts and feelings, and I’m always looking back, picking apart the past for clues as to what went wrong (or right, as it were). But I think most people are fairly skilled at looking back and realizing how they’ve changed. We all chuckle a little at the follies of middle school or shake our heads at the dramatic events of high school. We can easily see how much we’ve changed from age 10 to 20 or age 30 to 40. But we are spectacularly bad at realizing how much we will change. I came across an article in the New York Times that gave some scientific insight to what I had already surmised might be true: Although right now I can tell how much I’ve changed in the past ten years, I will more than likely make an inaccurate prediction of how I will be in another ten years.

I think this article is another one of those instances where science attempts to give a logical explanation for something many people already assumed to be true. For example, the field of evolutionary psychology has provided scientific explanations for attractiveness in the case of the hour-glass figure in women and the square jaw, broad shoulders in men. I wouldn’t have thought much about the article except that I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about the process of reflecting. Partially this reflection comes from a desire to “sort myself out” before moving to New York, and partially this reflection merely comes from the time of year. New year, new beginnings, new life.

Reflections

One of my favorite paintings is The Penitent Magdalene by Georges de la Tour. To view a couple versions, click here and here. I’m not a Biblical scholar, and I abandoned my art history major long ago, so the reason I’m attracted to this painting has nothing to do with religious symbolism or la Tour’s skill with indirect lighting. It’s about the look on her face as she stares into the mirror, skull in her lap or on the table, dark and lustrous hair falling down her back. She is beautiful; she is pensive; she is contemplative. There are many versions of the Penitent Magdalene in artwork, much like the Pietà or the Madonna, but the versions that draw me in are the ones where Mary Magdalene stares not upwards at the heavens but downwards in the mirror, where she realizes that the answers to her salvation come not only from above, but from purging herself of the demons (figurative) within.

I connected this painting’s theme of reflection to one of my favorite poems, “Mirror” by Sylvia Plath:

I am silver and exact. I have no preconceptions.
What ever you see I swallow immediately
Just as it is, unmisted by love or dislike.
I am not cruel, only truthful—
The eye of a little god, four-cornered.
Most of the time I meditate on the opposite wall.
It is pink, with speckles. I have looked at it so long
I think it is a part of my heart. But it flickers.
Faces and darkness separate us over and over.
Now I am a lake. A woman bends over me,
Searching my reaches for what she really is.
Then she turns to those liars, the candles or the moon.
I see her back, and reflect it faithfully.
She rewards me with tears and an agitation of hands.
I am important to her. She comes and goes.
Each morning it is her face that replaces the darkness.
In me she has drowned a young girl, and in me an old woman
Rises toward her day after day, like a terrible fish.

I’m not going to go into a literary analysis of Plath’s poem. I did a project on it in the ninth grade, and that was enough for me in terms of academic study. The reason I’m going on and on about reflections is that I recently came across an article about New Year’s Resolutions for the publishing industry. I’ve often told people that publishing isn’t dying, merely going under a transformative process and a series of growing pains. The best way, in my opinion, for it to survive and flourish is to do some serious reflection. Jeremy Greenfield gives some succinct advice on some of the more pressing problems in publishing today: the cost of e-books, librarians versus publishers, intellectual property, etc.

Resolutions

I haven’t yet written about how antiquated and ridiculous copyright laws are (I fully intend to once I’ve done some more research), but I have gotten a bit into new meanings of ownership in the digital era. This whole issue of ownership with digital media has become a problem between librarians and publishers. Unlike print books, where you pay a one-time flat fee for the book and loan it out as much as possible after that, e-books are problematic to publishers, who haven’t taken a fancy to digital borrowing. I suppose the objection is that multiple people can borrow a digital copy at once, although this solution is easily remedied with appropriate software and a simple user interface that only allows one person at a time to check out an e-book. Publishers, to offset this potential loss, want libraries to pay fees after a certain number of loans in order to continue to loan it out via e-books. Libraries are, understandably, a bit annoyed, especially as their budgets shrink and their patrons disappear. Greenfield argues that librarians should focus on bigger fish for the time being. He recommends letting the publishers come around in their own time while librarians move their focus on more worthwhile issues. (He doesn’t name which issues, so whatever.)

I could comment on his other recommendations to publishers, agents, and writers, but the only other thing I wanted to fully discuss is his recommendation to readers about complaints concerning the prices of e-books. Many people do not understand why a digital file should cost $14.99, and Greenfield explains the value of a book, no matter the format. However, I tend to favor a more practical approach in defending the cost of an e-book. In a course I took last semester, a classmate complained of the cost of e-textbooks. I’d recently read an article about how some universities are pairing with publishers to cut the costs, so I explained to my fellow classmate that the cost of producing a book is much more than printing costs. The cost of the ink and binding and paper is only one aspect of publishing: paying the sales team, acquisitions team, editors, copyeditors, typesetters, and overhead costs; royalties to the author; marketing, including advanced reader copies and travel expenses for book signings and appearances; the list goes on. Plus, converting a book into a digital file has its own set of inherent costs.

The long road of traditional publishing is an expensive one; it’s no wonder many writers are turning to self-publishing. The costs of hiring a freelance copyeditor, a freelance book artist, and some fees are minimal compared to keeping (almost) all of your own profits. As the new year begins to unfold, it’s time for everyone in publishing (from writers to readers to agents to editors) to look in the mirror and reflect on both the goals of our individual parts and the sum of the whole. After all, change is the only constant, and only with collective group effort will we manage to remain successful.

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Comments on: "The More Things Change" (3)

  1. Interesting post. Though, isn’t the cost of producing an ebook offset by the fact they don’t have to produce paper and binding et cetera? I realize that sales/marketing still costs them, as you’ve stated, but even with ads nowadays being digital as well it would seem that the cost would even out.

    —- That poem by Plath is great. I really think she is the greatest stylist of the twentieth century; but I also feel that such a title (unnecessarily) diminishes her conceptual talents as well. Literary elites tend to categorize her as pop art, but I think overall she plumbed amazing depths both stylistically and conceptually. Her bio seems to overlay her work as well, where her death and subsequent trials and tribulations with Hughes’ choice of publication distracts from her poems themselves.

  2. Rachel K. Spurrier said:

    As I mentioned in my post, merely the overhead costs of a publishing house in NYC would be staggering (think Manhattan real estate). These publishing houses have funding, but as I mentioned, the cost of paying a sales team, a marketing team, a copyediting team, a creative team, and an acquisitions team is, well, a lot. Plus, every book that a house publishes is a risk–in this day and age, there’s always a chance that the book might not return a profit. The book and paper is minimal compared to the actual process of book production, which can last well over year and require a dozen or more people, depending on the size and scope of the project. I’ve worked at a press, and they relied mostly on interns (me included) to perform most of the grunt work, because there weren’t enough funds to pay us and our books never recouped the cost of production. We were a small university press, but by participating in the publishing process, I realized just how many hands affect the final outcome, and anyone who isn’t an intern needs pay and oftentimes benefits. Fewer people are buying books these days, and although people who read e-books read more often than non-electronic readers, publishers have to find a way to offset production costs (not counting ink and paper). In addition, any old books that were published before the e-reader era would need to be re-formatted into the new version. I’ve read more than one e-book with glaring typos and errors, no doubt from mistakes made during the shift. I am not a fan of e-book prices, but as a copyeditor and writer, I understand why.

    As for Sylvia Plath, I agree that she often deserves more credit than she gets. She gets lumped in with confessional writers accused of whining and letting it all hang out. In addition, only a few of her poems get put into anthologies used by high schools and intro comp college courses. The scope of her work is far greater than what usually gets thrown into American lit classes. I used to read more poetry and write more poetry, but once I got to college I shifted my focus to creative nonfiction. I still go back to my favorites, but I’m woefully behind where I should be.

    Thanks for reading!

  3. Interesting. I suppose I can begin to see how marketing takes up a large portion of the overhead for big-time publishers. I read the other day that Murdoch’s News Corp. lost over 2 billion this past fiscal year. With the decrease in book sales, I wonder if sometime in the near future we’ll see lesser known novelists giving in and letting ads intersperse their chapters (yikes!). Idea for a book: in the not-too-distant future, all publishing companies are owned by ad agencies, where ads exist in between sentences of a novel or poem. O, the horror. That would be a dark dystopia indeed.

    Yes, when it comes to anthologies, like Norton, there’s a hard and fast formula to representing the sine qua non Plath experience, and often it includes the so-called sappy “confessionalism poems” like Daddy and Lady Laz. But poems like the Moon and the Yew Tree or Edge or Mirror testify to her ability to “get outside of herself” (read: solipsism) and observe the overall context of her surroundings with an incredible depth of understanding.

    The thing about poetry — from what I’ve found anyway — is that it is pretty much just creative shorthand for things we’ve lost in our lives. For instance, one of the hallmarks of a lyric poem is its timelessness. In other words, the realization of being “woefully behind” on poetry means you are precisely right on time.. 😉

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