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Keeping Your Soul Work Alive:
A Meditation on Writing & Publishing in the New Millennium

by D. Patrick Miller

I had not realized just how heavy my writing was until I found myself lifting 430 pounds of it into the back of a Toyota wagon last summer, when I intercepted the shipment of my first novel. Review copies were already behind the three-months advance schedule required for independent publishers to get their one-in-a-million shot at a write-up in one of the country's major review media. If I had not called my printer to inquire why the lesser portion of my weighty prose had not arrived on schedule — over 800 pounds of it already having arrived at my national distributor's warehouse — then the books might have languished in the shipper's slush pile indefinitely. By hounding the shipping company until they connected me with a local dispatcher, I made sure that the books I had written, designed, typeset, and written publicity for did not languish a moment longer in a holding pattern.

This labor-intensive launch of my first full-length fiction was not at all like I imagined it back in my early twenties, when I first dreamed of making a career as a full-time author. Back then I thought that it would take a lot of struggle to create and finish a readable novel — why, it might not even happen before I was twenty-five! — but once that was done I would easily find a nice major publisher who would take care of the nasty business end of getting my work out to millions of readers. Whatever the logistics and commercial challenges were, that nice major publisher would take care of them, send me fat royalty checks and encourage me to keep working on those second, third, and fourth novels that would gradually add luster and depth to my distinguished career as a Real Writer.

In the ensuing twenty-odd years I have suffered two profound shocks to my youthful dream of Getting Published Happily Ever After. First, it took most of that time to do enough writing of other kinds — journalism, journaling, poetry, essays, short fiction, advertising, public relations, you name it — to develop enough craft and insight to complete a novel I considered readable, regardless of what anyone else might think. Second, through direct experience I have learned that major publishers these days are generally not nice, and one should be very careful about entrusting the expressions of one's soul work to their care. In fact, after having sold book projects to three major, not-nice publishing houses in New York, I joined the Nineties New Wave of independent publishers. That experience led me not only to take up independent publishing, but to become an activist for the cause, even a bit of a rabble-rouser.

Writers: Why Are We So Sensitive?

I make most of my living these days from professional editing and various forms of writing and publishing consultation. I've been editing from the beginning of my alleged career, when double duty as a typesetter and reporter at a weekly newspaper necessitated learning the skills of copy-editing and copy-amputating along with the craft of writing. Since then I have critiqued hundreds of manuscripts and edited many books bound for publication, along with co-writing, ghostwriting, and working with editors on my own books.

Thus I've had considerable experience dealing with the tempestuous egos of writers who are determined to defend their awkward sentence constructions, florid overwriting, and clichéd expressions almost to the death. And when I am edited, I will likewise defend my own stylistic weaknesses nigh unto the bitter end. Whether I am dealing with my own protests or those of my clients, I still marvel over the remarkably thin and transparent skins of all writers. Why, I've often wondered, are we so goddamned sensitive?

The cynic may answer that we ink-stained wretches are just that: hopelessly neurotic folk trying to sort out their unworkable lives through endless writin' and ruminatin', and coming up with so little that's truly defensible that the mere writing becomes more dear to them than life itself. My own take is more charitable: I believe that most writing done for creative purposes is truly soul work, the attempt to render in words the invisible essence of our root consciousness. So when some smart-ass editor comes along and suggests that what we have written isn't very easy to read, or doesn't make sense, or is just plain stupid, we naturally take offense. A deep, true, pure part of ourselves has just been attacked for no good reason, and we owe it to God and Cosmos to take up arms against the infidels.

What I often have to remind myself — and gently suggest in artful ways to my editing clients — is that while our writing may indeed be inspired by the deepest and truest parts of ourselves, those parts don't get put down on paper in their pure form. The mystical, creative oomph we feel in the gut has to rise up through layers of thinking, feeling, word-associating, conscious and unconscious censorship, and sheer egotism before it can find expression in words. Not surprisingly, this complex translation process can too easily result in a hideous disfigurement of the original soulful impulse.

If we can recognize the disguise and toss it in the trashcan before anyone else reads it, we're lucky. That means we're on the way to developing some craft, which is the responsibility we owe to our soulful impulses. What hurts more than anything is to mistake a total mistranslation of our soul for the thing itself, then hand it over to an impartial reader — whom we naturally expect to collapse in grateful tears upon the first reading — only to have our masterpiece handed back with a quizzical look and the inquiry, "So is this supposed to be funny, or what?"

If you are wise, you will remember that you are nothing more or less than a translator of the collective human soul. Whether you sell a million copies of a book or labor for a lifetime in obscurity, you are just the intermediary between the giving aspect of your own spirit and the needs of readers who may be able to learn something from you. Those who don't need to learn anything from you never will, so it is no use trying to convince them of your skill or sincerity. And the fact is that most people will never even encounter your work, regardless of how wildly you succeed. Believe it or not, the New York Times bestseller list means nothing to billions of people across the world.

The Challenges of Publishing

When you become your own publisher, you swiftly become aware of the whole world's stubborn resistance to hearing your soul messages. Even with several years experience packaging, producing, and promoting my own books, I am still shocked to discover how little response I will get from finely-crafted advertising and publicity, tastefully placed in just the right media with exquisite timing. I am stunned to witness, for the third or fourth time, how the shrewdly-executed launch of my latest title results not in an overwhelming flood of orders, but an entirely manageable trickle. And though I have the good fortune of working with a reliable national distributor, I am still disheartened when that distributor's statements regularly show significant numbers of my books coming back from bookstores after just a few months of shelf life. Books that horrifyingly come back like that are called "returns" in the trade; many a carcass of an independent publisher has been crushed under the smothering weight of returns.

There are other spine-chilling aspects of the book business that I could relate, but I don't want to scare off potential self-publishers. For publishing is truly a hero's journey that should not and would not be undertaken by any sensible person who was properly forewarned. Like Jonah, Odysseus, or Gilligan, you have to sail into the breach yourself and face the killer whales, perfect storms, and situational comedies of such a voyage without a decent inner tube, much less a lifeboat. There's no point in being prematurely frightened away from this risky undertaking when you will learn so much more from being maturely frightened once you are too far gone to swim safely back to shore.

When you visit your local bookstore and see all the titles put out by the major publishers, you may not be aware of a recent development in the book market. The total volume and variety of titles in print now owes more to the output of independent, out-of-New-York publishers than to the mainstream houses, in fact, about 70% of all books published today. This is due to the rapid growth in the number of independent publishers, estimated at more than 53,000, a several-fold increase from only ten years ago. Whereas the number of distinct, major publishing conglomerates in New York — encompassing scores of once-independent houses and imprints — is now less than a dozen.

There was a time when there were only three kinds of publishing: the "legitimate" mainstream done almost exclusively in New York; a smaller tributary of university and "literary" small-press publishing done on a regional basis; and a trickle of "vanity" self-publishing, in which writers financed the printing of their own work. Although the tradition of self-publishing has some very distinguished alumni including William Blake, Walt Whitman, and Anais Nin, it was long regarded as the last refuge of otherwise unpublishable amateurs. But independent publishing has emerged as a diverse force that extends well beyond the small-press designation. And self-publishing has become an industry unto itself, breaking free of the "vanity" stigma and rapidly gaining prestige as the first choice for emerging writers with an entrepreneurial bent, or for established authors who have given up on mainstream publishers. I'm proud to have followed the great e.e. cummings, who in 1935 published a volume of his own poetry. Entitled No Thanks, the book listed the thirteen major publishers who had rejected the work.

Small presses and self-publishers have received a millennial boost from technological advances like 'print on demand', which enable the inexpensive production of low-volume press runs, and which have inestimably accelerated the democratization of publishing. Yet as with all democratic experiments, the results are mixed. It's true that many more people are able to get published today (if not noticed), and the amount of unedited, amateurish writing that is physically available for reading is consequently higher than ever. But because most of this material remains buried in low press runs or the wide yet shallow World Wide Web, the typical bookstore browser is not going to encounter or pay much attention to it.

In regard to books that are professional enough to reach bookstores however, the effect of the new world order of publishing is largely salutary. As the editor of an online review of independently published books, I have seen an entertainingly wide range of efforts produced by my peers over the last several years. At the low end, small-press books are decidedly more amateurish than those issued by establishment publishers; at the high end, they are technically as good if not better, and have the advantage of presenting the unadulterated visions and talents of writers whose work would not have cleared the commercial hurdles that major publishers now present to authors.

But no matter the method, publishing is a difficult and expensive business seemingly designed to crush the naïve idealism that a soulful writer will bring to it. Where an author naturally expects the whole world's attention for a new work, the publisher knows just how tough it will be to get a one or two percent response from a limited target audience. Where a writer expects his or her words to be magically and rapidly transported from the original manuscript to thousands of bookstores nationwide, the publisher knows just how slow, detailed, and cumbersome the processes of editing, pre-press production, printing, marketing, and distribution can be.

Still, it can't be denied that there could hardly be a worse time for the relationships between publishers and authors than the modern era, whose starting point can be approximately fixed in the early 1990s. That's when the rush toward buy-outs and consolidation of the once-independent major houses began shifting into warp speed. If you are a typical bookstore browser without an entrée into the publishing scene, you may not have noticed the momentous changes in the industry over the last decade. After all, you still see the most prominent books bearing the names of the best-known and once-venerable houses: Simon & Schuster, Viking, Doubleday, Henry Holt, and so on.

What you don't see is that the major houses have little connection to their own esteemed literary histories anymore. Most of them are now subsidiaries of much larger mega-marketing corporations, and their business missions have shifted in a predictable manner. The major publishing houses are far less interested in promoting their historical point of view or a distinct style of literature, and are instead engaged in an all-out battle for the highest profit margins that can be wrested from books, any kind of books, but preferably the kind that quickly turn into best-sellers (and then hit movies and other "synergistic" derivatives). Ironically, I've made a significant portion of my living from editing other authors' books that are bound for publication in New York. That's because in-house editing takes too much time and care, and thus too many dollars out of the bottom line, for the major houses to do much of it anymore.

Now, New York editors who buy a manuscript in need of shaping or polishing often require authors to find and pay for their own editing — not to mention their own publicity and tour accommodations — a practice that has become fairly common these days. Especially for so-called "mid-list" authors, whose books sell well enough to earn back publishers' investments and pay a little in royalties, but which are far from being best-sellers. The fate of the mid-list author has been the cause of much hand-wringing and hair-pulling in professional writing circles of late, and for good reason. Not only are they treated with increasing disrespect by major publishers, they are finding it difficult to stay in print, and in their chosen career, at all.

Worse, talented but unknown writers are often told that they lack a "platform" for their work — meaning that they aren't movie stars, or diet doctors, or business leaders whose advice has instantaneous national drawing power. Witness this passage from a letter by Donna Marie Williams, an African-American journalist who has authored such recent titles as Black-Eyed Peas for the Soul and Sensual Celibacy:

"As one editor mentioned, I don't have a promotional platform. That's true. And beyond the one-month launch, none of my publishers have helped me to develop one. I know that's the reality of publishing today. My reality is, I'm a writer, not a marketer. So does that mean I have to get out of the writing business, because I'm not a good promoter? These past four years I've done everything I know to do to push my books, and I've gotten only so far. Yet every editor I've ever worked with has appreciated my hard work, professionalism, writing talent, and willingness to go the extra mile. Very frustrating."

Williams' letter made me wonder: Did John Steinbeck start out with a platform? Did Virginia Woolf, or James Baldwin, or John McPhee? Would the first, second, or third works of these noted twentieth-century writers have been published if they had to face the mindset of twenty-first century establishment publishers? And what's happening to the unknown Steinbecks, Woolfs, Baldwins and McPhees of today who are working hard to hone their craft, but haven't had the time to construct a promotional platform?

Whither the Writer Today?

Mainstream publishing is still large enough to produce some good literature in most categories, and it still treats a few writers with the respect they deserve. Note that I said a few. As an editor with many connections to mainstream publishing, I can vouch for the fact that the mistreatment of writers is now commonplace. Thus I often find myself advising authors that they face a Faustian choice in launching their careers. They can self-publish or publish with a small, independent house to preserve their integrity and creative spirit — as long as they keep their day job and commit all their spare time and discretionary funds to spreading the word about their work. Or they can pursue the traditional dream of getting a major publisher and a big advance — as long as they're willing to face the probability that, even if they achieve their unlikely goal, they may soon find themselves in the middle of a nightmare rather than a dream come true.

But the enthusiasm of would-be-published writers is virtually impossible to dampen. And I believe that their enthusiasm has as much to do with the natural impetus of soul work as it does with mere egotism or wishful thinking. In fact I have come to see the struggle to write well and share one's writing as a spiritual path in its own right — a path in which disappointment and exasperation teach the seeker just as much as vision and inspiration. To stay on the path means that you must increasingly become both tough and forgiving, hardened and softened, skeptical and idealistic. As you mature, you will increasingly appreciate the joyful hardship of writing for its own sake, and worry less about whether you make a fortune (or even a living) by it. That means you will become an ever more effective medium for your soul's timeless expression while becoming less attached to your personal, temporal stake in it.

This ennobling process is rarely pleasant, and one doesn't usually feel or act very spiritual as the raiments of pride and self-esteem are progressively shredded before your very eyes. But if you are a serious writer, you'll have to endure this process of internal purification regardless of your degree of external success. Publishing may be an especially insane and unkind business these days, but I cannot imagine it ever becoming perfectly ordered and fair. If so, those of us working hard to convey the very stuff of the human soul in mere words would have to go elsewhere for the karmic kicks in the teeth that serve to make us eloquent, insightful, and maybe a little bit wise.

D. Patrick Miller is an author, editor, and independent publisher who recently released his first novel, Love After Life, under the Fearless Books imprint. He webmasters an online magazine called The Fearless Reader, including the "Fearless Reviews" of books from independent publishers, at

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