What Does Publication Mean?


The other day during lunch with friends, the conversation turned to books and writing, editing and publication.  J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series came up, specifically how the quality of her writing changed after she requested that the publisher stop editing her books.  The change, as one friend described it, was not a positive one, but that Rowling had become too verbose for her own good.  I found that interesting.  Not that her writing became bloated but that she could tell her publisher that she no longer wanted to be edited.  The conversation moved on to other topics, but my mind still batted that story around like a cat playing with a half-dead mouse.

First of all, I suspect Rowling’s writing is not so awful that it would miss editing, but I’d have thought she’d want the writing to be the best it could be.  I wondered why she no longer wanted to be edited.  Then I wondered, what did publication mean to her?  Was it to share the stories?  Was it to make money so she could get off the dole?  Was it for self-gratification?  Was it to say she was a successful writer?  I doubt there’s anyone in the world today who’d say she wasn’t successful as a writer.  She’s published.  She’s made billions.  She really wouldn’t have to write another word or do anything else for that matter.  Will she continue to write and stretch her abilities as a writer?  Is success only about publication and making money for a writer?

For me, publication is a measure of success, but isn’t the only one.  There’s what comes before, and what comes after to consider.  For the reading public, publication is the first step of success, becoming a blockbuster and making lots and lots of money seals it.  As a writer, though, success is cumulative.  When I’m working on a first draft, each 1000 words I finish writing in a day is a success, each finished chapter a success, each finished draft a success.  When I’m ready to begin marketing, then each query sent out is a success, each agent requesting the manuscript a success, and landing representation a success.  The same “steps of success” apply to the search for a publisher.  So publication is one step in the long stairway to writing heaven.  Writers dance up and down that stairway all the time.

Does publication make me a writer?  To the general reading public who aren’t writers, yes.  That is the general perception, I think.  And after the first publication, a writer is a writer forever.  Especially if the books do well! (smile)  But if they don’t, then a writer becomes a “used to be” a writer, like I used to be a musician.  I still listen to music, but I no longer play any instrument or participate in a performing group.  Back to writing, what about all that time the writer actually spends writing, even long before publication?  Doesn’t that make him or her a writer?  Even more so than publication.  The person is writing.  All the work that goes into writing — reading, research, coming up with ideas, characters, settings, a narrative structure, and an ending, and putting the right words down on paper, then revising, revising, revising — this is writing and makes a writer.  The commitment to the work, the dedication, the practice of writing, the creation.

What does publication mean?  At times, it means writing stops in favor of all the work of promotion.  But it shouldn’t mean the end of writing, the end of good ideas, of imagination.  For me, publication is a beginning: the beginning of the public life of the novel.  It is sharing stories among us.  And it doesn’t end there.  For real writers, it is the end of one era, the era of that particular story, and time to sit and stare.  Flannery O’Connor wrote in one of her essays: “There is a certain grain of stupidity the writer can hardly do without, and that is the quality of having to stare.”  When writers stare out a window or across the room, they are open and receptive to what their imaginations will give them, and they wait for it.  Staring….

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11 responses to “What Does Publication Mean?

  1. Writing is what makes you a writer. Whether or not you are published should never be allowed to take away from the joy of the process. Let’s face it, there are a lot of very talented writers who have never had something published and there are plenty of people who really can’t put two sentences together who have sold millions of books because of their fame. Rawling wrote what she wanted to write. The fact that it exploded into something so financially successful had more to do with the public’s reaction to it than anything else. I don’t think there is any way to plan that out. The best thing you can do for yourself is write what you want to write and let the chips fall where they may.

    • Thanks for the comment, Chad. I tend to agree mostly with what you’re saying. We write, therefore, we’re writers. But I think the decision to share what we write on a broader level than family and friends takes what we do to a different level. When we choose to share our writing on that professional level, then publication becomes society’s measure of whether we’re writers or not. I don’t agree with this — publication should only be one aspect of writing — but that seems to be the way of it….(smile)

  2. > I wondered why she no longer wanted to be edited.

    Does ANYBODY want to be edited? I welcome feedback and accept that I don’t have the last word in my professional writing, but, still, seeing others meddle in your thoughts on paper is often annoying.

    I assume that Ms. Rowling is just doing what most writers would do if they had the power and the richess – tellling the editor to take a hike. What we see in celebrities and what they do is what many people would do if they could, probably one reason why celebrities are celebrities.

    • Hi, Peter! Yes, writers who understand that a really good, professional editor can help them make their writing better actually would want to be edited. Which is the reason I was mystified with Rowling’s decision. But you’re right about the rich and famous — they have more power to throw around and do what they want…. Which is not why I want to be “rich and famous….” (laughing) Good to see you!

  3. It’s not just the act of writing which makes one a writer. One’s relationship with writing defines one as a Writer.

    I write extensively for my job. I don’t consider myself a Writer. Why? It isn’t a passion; it isn’t a profession; it’s simply a job skill.

    Being a chemist was a profession. Being an industrial hygienist is a profession for me; it is a passion. The passion and claiming it as a profession is what makes me one.

    This revolves around the origin of the word ‘profession’ – when one professes to a way of life. Hence the Catholics’ Profession of Faith: a clear statement of beliefs (relationship with God), which makes one a Roman Catholic.

    Your passion for writing leads you to profess yourself to be a Writer. This is, of course, predicated upon one actually writing. It has, as Chad observed, nothing to do with the quality of one’s writing: it is the quality of one’s relationship with that activity.

    This gets into the philosophical “what do you do for a living” vs. “What are you”? For some, these are synonymous. Something which I reject. I am a mother, but it isn’t a profession for me. A fact which annoys a friend, who certainly considers herself first and foremost to be a mother and (apparently) thinks less of me as a mother due to this. Then again, her exaltation of motherhood annoys some of our other friends…

    • I like your conclusions about passion and relationship for something. I also have a passion for classical music — at one time, I considered myself a musician. But my relationship with music changed as I realized that its language was not mine for creative expression.

      I think it’s crucial for a person to have a relationship with what they do that’s more than simply “this is what I do.” Or beyond simply saying “I am a writer.” That relationship needs to be an active one in which the person is involved intimately with the activity, seeking to know more, to understand, to respect and to honor it.

      We each do far more than one thing in our lives. Joseph Campbell suggested that our souls want us to do something that has a greater purpose. Maybe for some it’s having children, for others it’s saving lives, for others it’s sharing an art.

      This thing to remember: not to limit oneself in the doing or the thinking…..

  4. > writers (…) actually would want to be edited

    What do you mean exactly by “being edited”? For me, an “editor” can decide how the final writing looks like, even if the author is not convinced by the editor’s argument, because the editor has the power to publish or not to publish. I have difficulty to imagine any writer to want such a person on his back, but they are just a fact of writer’s life. On the other hand, every writer should welcome feedback by a knowledgeable reader: what’s too long and what’s too muddled, and what’s great, if and only if the writer can decide how the final writing should look like. I don’t know what exactly Ms. Rowling rejected when she didn’t want to be edited – did she really think her writing couldn’t profit from good feedback or was she just tired of the editor’s attitude to have the last word? Ms. Rowling has enough writer power by now that publishers have to bow before her, let alone simple editors.

    • Professional editors do not dictate to an author. The author always has the final say. After all, the author’s name goes on the book, not the editor’s. So a really good editor will make suggestions, open a dialogue with the author, be able to substantiate his/her suggestions, show the author in examples, etc. The author decides if she will make any changes or not.

      My experiences with editors have been amicable and professional. No one has ever said to me, “Do it my way or I won’t publish you!” Just not done. I can understand where you might get the idea, though.

      The relationship between a publisher and author is a collaborative one, in the best of scenarios. They need each other. The author needs the publisher to publish his book. The publisher wants the author’s book because she believes that she can publish it well and make a little money, too. It would not be in the best interests of a publisher to have dictatorial editors on staff.

      How J.K. Rowling views the editorial process or what her experience with her editors at Bloomsbury was, who knows? Her decision not to be edited is an unusual one so I do wish she’d clarify her position and explain herself.

  5. Peter T:
    does this reflect your professional experiences? I’ve never tried to get published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal. (I was, but as a secondary author – I didn’t write the paper or have any input besides “is this representation of your data correct?”) Would the editor of a journal give the absolute yes/no on publishing?

    • I suppose in the scholarly journal arena, for example, an editor might have veto power if a writer doesn’t comply to his/her suggestions. If something doesn’t stand up to the peer review, the editor would say no I would guess.

      A publisher would refuse to publish something if the author breached the contract in some way, e.g. committed libel, lied when passing it off as truth, not meeting deadlines, creating a controversy detrimental to the publisher and its potential gain in publishing — there are some circumstances when publicity is not good.

      The editor-author relationship for a fiction work, though, is usually helpful and supportive for the writer…..

  6. Pingback: Once Again, What Does Publication Mean? | Anatomy of Perceval

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