Guest-Editorial: Redefining Success in the Rapidly Changing Publishing World
By Lisa D. Ellis
Over the past few years, the publishing world has rapidly been changing, spinning into new—and somewhat unfamiliar—iterations. In fact, when I first decided to write professionally back in the ’90s, I could not have imagined the path that books would ultimately take today. It was almost 20 years ago when my novel, Finding Lily, first began to take shape, and the scope of publishing since I began this journey has completely evolved and changed.
Back then, when I began my first novel, I was fresh out of journalism school and I felt confident with my grasp of the logistics of getting published. After all, I had worked as a beat reporter for several newspapers and as an occasional columnist, and a handful of my short stories had found homes in small journals and magazines. Getting a contract for a full-length novel couldn’t be all that different from what I already knew, I had reasoned. The fact that I had no experience with literary agents or major publishing houses didn’t discourage me. So I wrote and wrote and wrote, finally completing my first full-length fiction manuscript in less than six months and easily securing a Hollywood agent to represent this book. Everything happened so easily that I wondered what all the fuss was about when writers spoke about all the challenges they faced.
I had no idea in those days of how hard it was for even a seasoned agent to sell an unknown writer’s first novel. Only after the rejections poured in from major publishers—along with the advice that I should rework my literary manuscript to make it more marketable—did I finally get an idea of the rocky terrain that lay ahead.
Fast-forward several years, and I did finally rework my manuscript and was happy with the new draft. But to my chagrin, my agent had since left the publishing world, so I decided to skip the representation and was lucky enough to secure a small literary publisher on my own. The publisher was excited to include my novel in a launch of a handful of fiction books she planned to introduce as part of a special imprint. But just as the cover for my book was being finalized and plans were made for the release date, the publisher became seriously ill and the company folded, dashing my hopes yet again.
This time, I signed with a well-known Boston agent with a stellar reputation. She was excited to pass my manuscript around and had high hopes for its fate. But yet again, these goals didn’t come to fruition. The publishing world was changing so rapidly, and most of the publishers could no longer afford to invest in small works like mine that had more literary value than commercial appeal. When none of the major publishing houses jumped at the chance to publish my book, I finally found myself disillusioned with novel-writing and wondered if it would ever really happen for me after all…
But I finally came to realize that not all change is bad. While the major publishers were tougher than ever for novice writers to crack, the popularity of the evolving world of ebooks has opened up a wealth of opportunities for writers trying to break in. I slowly but surely decided to embrace the new reality. I finally accepted an offer from a small print-on-demand publisher, and Finding Lily was finally made available to the general public in print and electronic form in 2013. It took almost 20 years to get to this point, but I am still thrilled to have realized my dream.
Therefore, when I was asked to guest-edit this special issue of Café Dissensus about a writer’s journey to getting published, I was honored to be involved in an issue so near and dear to my own heart. I hope my experiences, as well as those of all of the contributors, will resonate with many other writers who have come so close to realizing their goals, only to find a barrier in their way that had to be overcome. While the detours may be frustrating to face, it’s important never to give up, but to find new ways to keep literature alive, regardless of what publishing model and what form. What really matters is less the means of delivery and more that our writing is delivered at all.
At the onset of this journal project, I could not have predicted the outpouring of lovely—and heartfelt—essays I would receive from the contributors, who so generously and freely share their own journeys toward publishing their own work. Some talented writers have been exceptionally lucky to find a traditional home for their writing even in the face of the changing marketplace, while others, like me, have had to redefine their idea of what success might look like and what it would mean.
In fact, when I think of the future of literature moving forward, I can’t help but look backwards first . . . back to a memory of when I was a young girl and I received a copy of the classic book, Anne of Green Gables, which would become my favorite of all times and would in fact inspire me to want to write. I still remember the firmness of the hard-backed cover and the smooth lines of the spine, and the excitement I felt when I bent back the cover to reveal the crisp pages, seeing the lines jump out at me like clues on a treasure map. I remember marveling at how each sentence built upon the last and tugged me into a world that refused to let go even long after I had reached the last page. I can still easily summon up Anne’s room in Green Gables, the antics at Sleepy Hollow, and Gilbert dipping her braids in the ink well as though I had been there to witness this myself. I recently introduced my own children to Anne and her cast of friends in Green Gables (plus all of the sequels), and I hope that they, too, will be able to use this book as a way to experience new things and new places.
To me, that’s the real value of literature: the desire to walk in another person’s shoes and to share the experience with others, too. That’s also what struck me in this collection of writers’ essays that I share with you now—the desire of every writer included in this issue to relate his or her successes and frustrations in the hope that in the process, their story will ultimately help them form valuable connections. In coming together in this way to share our art, we all play a meaningful part to help keep good writing alive for future generations, regardless of whether the work is read in print, electronically, or in some other form we can’t yet anticipate.
Lisa D. Ellis is a journalist and fiction writer whose work has appeared in numerous newspapers, magazines, and literary journals. Her novel, Finding Lily, is available through Amazon.com and BarnesandNoble.com. She is now at work on two more novels, The Rasa-Lila and The Meaning of Marigolds.
For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.