In the movie You’ve Got Mail, Joe Fox, multi-millionaire chain bookstore owner (played by Tom Hanks), advises small bookstore owner Kathleen Kelly (Meg Ryan): “It’s just business. It’s not personal. … Recite that to yourself.” Ryan’s character responds with, “Whatever something else is, it should begin by being personal.”
I see the merit in Kathleen Kelly’s sentiment, but having been in the rough-and-tumble world of publishing recently, I think I’m inclined to lean more toward Joe Fox’s approach. Yes, poetry, writing, and book-making are all endeavors that involve a person’s heart, even the soul. However, when it comes time to negotiate about matters like royalties, author’s copies, and similar factors, it’s time to put away the purple prose and break out the spreadsheets and graphs.
Lots of writers don’t want to hear this. They’d rather live in their sheltered creative Xanadu, pondering air castles and planning their next great narrative. On the other hand, rarely does one find publishers who can’t distinguish pragmatics from the emotional. Publishers, for the most part, are able to put aside their feelings and prejudices in favor of their latest project. I recently dealt with a publisher (name omitted intentionally) whose approach to book production was seen not as a creative-commercial enterprise, but rather, as an extension of her/his inner self. The publisher in question viewed the relationship with the writer as an deep emotional bond rather than seeing it primarily as a business arrangement. This person also slammed the work of similar publishers, some of whom he/she had worked with in the past.
As things became increasingly unprofessional, I politely declined the services of this publisher. I attempted to word the rejection softly, as I too have had my fair share of let-downs. In response, I was told that seeking a traditional or academic publisher was “insulting.” There were hurt feelings, apparently, despite my best attempts to avoid such ugliness. As a recent MFA grad seeking an experienced and respected publisher for my creative thesis (a mighty fine collection, if I do say so myself), I really don’t need a business partner who is affronted by every minor exchange. It’s great to be invested in your craft, whatever that may be. Likewise, it’s necessary to differentiate between an expression of intellect and an expression of love. A consumer decision is not a romance.
Yes, creating (be that writing or publishing) is showing the world a piece of yourself. But when that creation crosses the transom into product, it’s time to evolve into strategist. Even for those of us who’d rather “dwell in possibility,” there must come a time when strictly cognitive and logistical decisions predominate. Once the art is done, business belongs in its proper perspective. Let’s keep it professional.