Book Review: Chris Mackenzie Jones, Behind the Book: Eleven Authors on Their Path to Publication
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Chris Mackenzie Jones, Behind the Book: Eleven Authors on Their Path to Publication. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2018. $60 hardcover, $20 paperback, $18 ebook.
Aside from hints in the acknowledgments, the process of how a book comes to be often remains hidden from readers. Behind the Book (2018), a new title in the Chicago Guides to Writing, Editing, and Publishing series, seeks to pull back the curtain. Chris Mackenzie Jones of the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis interviewed eleven first-time trade authors, using their stories to provide advice for aspiring writers.
For his case studies, Jones selected successful books published within the last decade, in genres ranging from young adult fantasy to travel memoir to paranormal romance. Literary fiction is the most represented genre; poetry, researched nonfiction, and scholarship are excluded. Books profiled include Zetta Elliott’s Bird (2008), a children’s picture book about coping with family drug addiction; Cynthia Bond’s Ruby (2014), a literary novel with themes of sexual abuse and racism; and Alan Heathcock’s Volt (2011), a collection of short stories. Probably the best known is Edan Lepucki’s California (2014), a postapocalyptic literary novel that became a bestseller after it was featured on The Colbert Report as a poster child for the ebook pricing dispute between Amazon and Hachette.
Jones organizes his chapters by stages of the publishing process, from the initial idea for a project through writing and revision to seeking an agent and publisher and finally to marketing the book. This chronological structure is a wise choice, for it gives the reader a central narrative and makes the book an easy reference guide. Each chapter includes anecdotes and advice from various authors about the stage being discussed. Unfortunately, Jones’s organization comes at the inevitable cost of scattering each author’s story through multiple chapters. It can be difficult to follow the account of each book’s genesis, and I found myself repeatedly flipping back to a listing of the eleven books for a reminder of who was who.
The publication experiences of the interviewees are engaging, and each is unique. In one case, Clara Bensen’s No Baggage: A Minimalist Tale of Love and Wandering (2016), the author was queried by multiple agents after writing a viral Salon article, resulting in her book’s publication only eight months later. More frequently, writers shelved their manuscripts for years before deciding to seek a publisher. One book was the result of a cross-country bike trip, whereas another came from a conversation with a tattoo artist. Jones reveals that even the creation of ultimately successful books can be anxiety ridden. When one author had not heard back from an agent, she emailed a fake spam message to see whether the agent was still on vacation (this strategy is not recommended, as the lack of an autoreply only increased her apprehension).
Behind the Book contains a treasure trove of advice for first-time writers. Some is commonly heard, such as the importance of setting aside work for a time before revising it, avoiding online reviews, and backing up one’s files (one author lost three chapters on a stolen laptop). Yet other guidance runs counter to conventional wisdom. Multiple authors successfully used their family members for initial reader feedback, despite the common view that family members are less candid. Interviewees found that their MFA programs devalued plot in favor of character; during the writing process, however, they discovered plot was equally important, even in literary novels. As an editor at a publishing house, I can second the tip to learn from rejection letters. Such editorial feedback should not be taken blindly but can provide valuable insight into how publishers view one’s work and how to make it more marketable. Suggestions for other places to submit should be seriously considered, for editors are well informed about which publishers are seeking certain types of books; often, a rejection is less about the quality of the project than about fit with the house.
In the digital age, self-publishing has become increasingly important to the literary landscape, and Behind the Book contains advice for when to consider this option. Readers of the Journal of Electronic Publishing should be aware that it does not discuss any ebook-only publications. Its focus on the author’s experience means that the book will be less interesting to publishing professionals. Agents and editors are heard from only occasionally; more of their perspective would have provided a fuller view. However, Jones’s emphasis on the inherent anxiety and difficulty of the literary publishing journey should inspire them to treat authors with care and respect.
Behind the Book is most useful for writers embarking on their first book project, especially those seeking to publish fiction with a trade house. Jones helpfully distills interviewees’ advice—along with that of other writing manuals—into takeaways at the end of each chapter. A universal theme among the eleven authors was the inevitability of setbacks and the need for perseverance. As the apt cover art suggests, the path to publication is often circuitous, and no two authors have the same experience. Much of the guidance has the tone of a pep talk, including “you can do it,” “dream big,” and “trust your vision.” What emerges from the accounts is that publishing a book is not easy or simple, yet it is ultimately rewarding. Budding authors should consider adding Behind the Book to their personal library.
Rafael Chaiken is Assistant Acquisitions Editor at the State University of New York Press, where he acquires scholarly books in Jewish studies. His titles have been winners of the Foreword INDIES Book of the Year and Independent Publisher Book Awards. He was previously a copy editor for SUNY Press and the Brown Daily Herald. He holds an AB from Brown University and an MA from the University at Albany, both in history. He is also an editor at Wikipedia.