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Behind the Scenes with Pat Walsh

Pat Walsh was one of the founding editors for MacAdam Cage, an independent publishing house with a terrific reputation for quality fiction and nonfiction and committed to supporting first time novelists. He recently left his job there to pursue a writing career, and has since published a book of advice for writers called 78 Reasons Why Your Book May Never Be Published and 14 Reasons Why It Just Might.

I had heard him described as one of the nicest guys in publishing, and perhaps one of the funniest, so I thought his book could be an interesting read. It turned out to be an immensely entertaining book, one that I have been touting all over the place. The advice is the best you can get—direct, to the point, and straight from the horse's mouth, so to speak. It is also wickedly sly, funny, and very opinionated.

He is currently working on a new book whose research involves plenty of poker playing, and yet he still found time within his hectic schedule to speak with me over the phone... in his slippers at three in the afternoon no less.

Georgie: I loved your book 78 Reasons Why Your Book May Never Be Published and, oddly enough, I'm not intending on writing a book or getting it published. I just really enjoyed reading your book. Your voice is funny, fresh, and self-deprecating, and the book provides a fascinating insider's guide to the world of publishing and, funnily enough, human nature. I wanted to interview you because I really would love more people to read your book.

Pat Walsh: Bless you!

Georgie: You're welcome. I wonder, what provoked you to write this book?

Walsh: Originally the idea came from an agent I knew—I don't know if she was my agent at the time but she was quickly to become my agent —who told me that she was sick of hearing me whine about this and that, and that I should write it all down in a book format instead. So after a while of thinking about doing that I started putting these things down. I wanted to write it as a straight narrative and researched a few books in the process and found that Betsy Lerner had already written the book I had planned to write, called The Forest for the Trees: An Editor's Advice to Writers. A fantastic, fantastic book.

I was reading her book after I had written a whole chapter on translating publishing language into English, particularly from rejection letters, and I remember finding that she had written the same chapter! I had been writing the sort of things people in publishing say as a form of double-speak. Things like, "I didn't fall in love with the book as much as I'd hoped to," which means "I hated this!" and "I really don't think it will get any support from the people in the house," means "I'm ashamed to show it to anyone." She had pretty much covered it all already. I was ready to tear my hair out. So what was originally a full chapter eventually had to be reduced to one paragraph.

There's a whole variety of reasons why books get rejected but nobody wants to do it in a blunt manner. In fact I think one of the reasons that people are responding to 78 Reasons is because it is written in a pretty blunt manner, at least I tried, and most publishing books aren't. They are written in a polite, soft way. And there is no reward in being blunt. If you respond with the truth at the time, and later on they have something that would be of interest to your publishing house, they don't want to send it to you because you were mean the first time. So it is easier to hide behind the language. But I don't really believe that language is something you should hide behind.

Georgie: The title is cheeky but also a little intimidating.

Walsh: The original title was What You Are Doing Wrong: 78 Reasons Why Your Book Will Never Be Published.

Georgie: [Laughs] Well, inside it you also have some pretty grim prognoses of the publishing industry. Do you think that would-be authors will read this book and be thoroughly discouraged?

Walsh: Well, I hope they are not, because it is not really meant to be discouraging. I see online reviews and blogs that say how discouraging it is, and it's really not meant to be. And the question begs, can a true writer be discouraged anyway, and I don't think so. And perhaps it is true, if you can be discouraged maybe this is not the profession for you. If you are not ready for knock-backs and rejection you are really in the wrong business. The number of people who have made it in the publishing industry without rejection is probably a handful over the past hundred years. It is actually meant to be encouraging. If you are doing something and not being successful and you read something that actually points out something that you have been doing and that you can change, I would hope that would be encouraging and help you be more successful.

Georgie: I have actually read almost unanimous enthusiasm for the book. I only read one rather disgruntled reader online who writes that you seem snide, bitter, and mean.

Walsh: Yeah, well he actually takes the opposite tack, and I think I write about people like him in the book, people who are thinking about an ideal. I read that one too, and I'd have liked to attack it as not well written but it was in fact well written. But the fact is that he totally disagrees and thinks that the writer should stay true and that the publishing industry should change to accommodate. A fair enough argument, the only problem with it is that it's not going to happen. He can wish it and stand over there and say that "I'm right and you are wrong," but it is not going to change.

I do criticize the publishing industry for being feckless. And for concentrating too much on the bottom line which is a short term strategy rather than being a long term strategy, which is what the publishing industry really needs. But I tried to keep that to a minimum, and my editor did too, because this is not a book for the publishing industry, it is for writers trying to break in. Certainly I covered the fact that the industry is flawed and if you don't want to be part of it, don't be part of it.

We do these comparable things by holding two up books and trying to find one that is in the middle. But over time that creates a triangular system and books begin to be more and more like each other. And when people's entertainment dollars are being spread thinner for a variety of things... My dad has an ipod for example. He went straight from eight-tracks to mp3s. I mean, more and more of people's entertainment dollars are going into niches, and books are a large part of that with every genre becoming another niche, instead of the whole industry becoming one single niche. So, yes, there are a lot of things we can say about the publishing industry being flawed but I don't think that it helps the writer very much.

Georgie: Knowing your enemy certainly helps.

Walsh: Exactly. And I think I'm as hard on the industry as I am on writer's mistakes.

Georgie: I think that one thing I was most surprised about is that you say that with unsolicited manuscripts you judge a book primarily on its cover letter. Wow! What other feedback have you heard that you had taken for granted but which would-be authors have been shocked by?

Walsh: The feedback I've been getting has been from readings mainly —and, granted, there hasn't been that much. But the questions have been from people who have been stymied by the submission process, which I had thought was pretty open and clear. "Here are the submission guidelines," and then they don't follow them, or they only do the larger ones, and they still think it is supposed to work. They are constantly befuddled by why that is not the case. And a lot of questions like, "I got my submission back and it had not been read. I could see that the paperclip has not been removed." And my first thought is, "Then the cover letter is the problem." I often say that cover letters should take ten to twenty hours of solid work. It should be damn perfect. And it should come across as if it took you ten minutes. It is your face on the first date. It is all in that first impression. And still people are shocked at how much sloppiness there is.

Georgie: Yes, I see that sometimes with submissions we get here from self-published authors hoping for more exposure on our website.

Walsh: Actually one of my favorite books is a self-published book, for all the wrong reasons. It's called Why Airplanes Crash written by a former FAA investigator. I bought it when I was a reporter, hoping to learn something in case I ever covered a crash. I realized I knew nothing, and it does a good job of explaining things such as wind shear. In the middle of this book there is a fairly long chapter called "People and Places" which is comprised of anecdotes about what he has come across in his line of work. He has a story about how he is visiting this site of a crash, four dead bodies strewn across this field, and then suddenly he tells this horribly racist anecdote, in the middle of this book! I guess he ran into an older black guy who was interested in the pheasants in the plane, and he relayed the man's language with this dialect and it was just so awful and so wildly inappropriate in the middle of this story. Well, you know the great thing about self-publishing is that you don't know what you are going to get. They don't have an editor, they don't have a professional face, and no one is really looking into what is going on there. I don't like self-publishing. I think I have been pretty clear on this. I don't think that writers should write checks.

Georgie: I love what you write about self-publishing. I know it has been around as long as publishing has but do you think it has become bigger in the last few years?

Walsh: Oh, definitely, and it is because of the online thing. They found a new way to repackage it that got everyone so excited. Now you have Print on Demand, so you don't have to pay the bills, and internet marketing which is much cheaper. But the fact is self-publishing a book is much more expensive now that it was before the internet because of this. And they get you in with one program after another, co-op payments and so forth. I mean, you take out a $20,000 full page ad in the New York Times Book Review, and you charge $2,000 per book to go in there. And you advertise your company over the back of someone else. I mean, it is genius, but it is unethical. I have met two or three people who have had good self-publishing experiences. But, I keep thinking of... there was a place called Commonwealth, which was a vanity press in Canada that went under and they took everybody's money. But up until the last day— it ended up being raided—there were still authors defending it, saying it was wonderful, it was great, believers to the end. It's dangerous. I mean there are other, legitimate ways of getting your book published. But some authors just have a hard time accepting that it is not time yet. It is just going to take more time. For all the great things about writers they all seem to share a common impatience. Which, now being on their side of it, I can completely understand. Waiting for people to get back to you, call backs, checks to be sent, feedback, and nothing goes as quick as you hope it will. The writer who makes the best use of that time is the writer who is going to be the most successful.

Georgie: Do other publishers thank you for potentially alleviating glitter-pen cover letters and so forth?

Walsh: It is funny, but ninety percent of what is in this book is in other books. It is just told in a different way. Everyone says, "Don't get cute with this. Try to write a serious letter that displays your talents, not your goofiness." There are exceptions, some books written by one person in particular, who I won't name (because he will sue me for slander) but whose advice I disagree with wholeheartedly. Some people do preach to "grab them by the throat." But really, a lot of my stuff—this is old stuff. I just hope that it is just tighter and more manageable. If you need to know something in particular you can just flip to it. Does the industry feel affected? Well I doubt it. Ninety percent of houses aren't looking at their slush piles at all. And of those remaining ten percent, they are only giving about five percent the most cursory of glances, so they don't care anymore. They are just returning it. It is just a chore that an unpaid intern does every now and again.

Georgie: What have been your biggest surprises in the world of publishing? Books that you never thought would have taken off, or anything else like that.

Walsh: I think that my publisher had expectations of doing the great American novel—Lonesome Dove or something like that. Player Piano was one he cited a lot. And I think one of our biggest surprises was that some of our quirkier titles were the ones that took off. Ella Minnow Pea was one of our first books that did very well. And that is a 27,000-word "progressively lipogrammatic epistolary fable." And it doesn't fit in the paradigm at all. But people are scared of quirky. It wasn't the first book that made money, but it was the first book that really got everybody's attention, and everybody had rejected it. The house that bought it for paperback rights had first rejected it. We took a certain amount of shameless pride in taking what they had rejected and selling it back to them.

Georgie: Do you think that "quirky" works better with smaller publishers?

Walsh: Not really. Some houses do great with quirky. Look at Chronicle. I don't understand why people still think of Chronicle as small. They do a large amount of titles and make and enormous amount of money.

Georgie: Now that you have left MacAdam Cage and stopped editing... well, perhaps I shouldn't say stopped editing...?

Walsh: Oh, I'm still editing? I'm still circling typos in books I'm reading. [Laughs] I just found one in a book about storytelling. But mostly I'm spending my time trying to write. I'm still in my slippers at three o'clock in the afternoon, which is great. But it is a lot harder. When you are editing there are so many deadlines—twenty or thirty of them—and you are lucky if you make half of them. But when you are writing you only have one deadline. You just finish the book and turn it in. And it is so easy to procrastinate. And although I'm getting better, it is hard. I know one writer and he can write a book in three months. I don't know how he does it. It is beyond me.

Georgie: I know! Ian Rankin says he takes ten weeks.

Walsh: [Groans]

Georgie: But then he says he does about a year and a half of research.

Walsh: Well, yeah. I think you can build it up and then hope it comes pouring out of you. But man—it is tough.

Georgie: I have to ask—did you get writer's block whilst writing a book about writing?

Walsh: You know, I never actually did because of the way I formatted the book. If I got blocked on one part I could go off and work on another part. Luckily with that book it was easy. I wrote this book in the middle of the night at my kitchen table—from ten to around dawn over five or six months. I never sat down in the middle of the day and said "I'm going to work now." And, now, that's exactly what I'm doing—working in the day.

Georgie: What are you working on now?

Walsh: I'm writing a narrative nonfiction book about poker.

Georgie: Ooh—nice research job!

Walsh: It is! Well, I played in the world series of poker. Clearly I didn't win.

Georgie: [Laughs] So now you are doing an interview rather than lying on a Caribbean beach! Well, let me ask you this: you mention hubris several times throughout the book—in your opinion, is that the worst thing a writer can commit?

Walsh: I don't think so. I just think that it is something you have to earn. If Cormac McCarthy has hubris does anyone care? No, they won't. And whether hubris is the tragic flaw in literature remains to be seen. But, no, I don't think that it is. It takes a certain level of confidence, as I say in the book, to take the body of literature and say that there is something missing. By saying it is wholly incomplete without me. And every writer has a certain amount of that. But they also have a certain amount of insecurity. This is why so many writers can't take criticism, because it will shatter their own self confidence. But you know —there are so many types, and finding commonalities between writers is extremely difficult. I think having the right mixture between self-confidence and insecurity is a nice balance. Believing that you can do it and also believing you have something to learn. There is that theory that the greatest book has never been published. That it languishes in someone's desk draw or something.

Georgie: Many cite A Confederacy of Dunces as a similar sort of fable.

Walsh: That book was great. Not only in terms of story and storytelling, but also in terms of serving as an inspirational hope for so many. It is also a good example of timing. I mean if he had been published in 1972, which is, I think, when he started sending it out, it wouldn't have worked. He was far ahead of the publishing world. If he had stuck it in a draw and worked on something else and resubmitted it ten years later it would have worked. It just wasn't the time for that book. And some writers are lucky and they write the book that it's the right time for right then.

Georgie: Right. And the odds of doing that seem to be about as good as the odds of you winning the poker championship.

Walsh: Yeah, yeah—rub that right in! I'll be back. There's always next year.

Georgie: Uh huh... And, so, as opposed to hubris, I have a feeling that perhaps honesty, both to others and primarily with oneself, could be the strongest asset for a writer?

Walsh: Oh, absolutely. Well, there's honesty on the page and, as you say, being honest with yourself. These are two different things, and I've seen writers who have one but not the other.

Georgie: Or, as you point out, don't lie to your agent!

Walsh: Oh, yeah, and you'd be surprised how many people do that. Trying to posit themselves as something else to get one step closer to being published and will embolden themselves and do anything to do so. And that is a different kind of honesty—that is careerism. And what I'm saying is that it doesn't work out in the long run. I mean, if your plants look thirsty you don't pee on them.

Georgie: Now that you are out of MacAdam Cage what are you reading for pleasure?

Walsh: Well, I think I own every book on poker ever published! But, I have been reading this book on storytelling—Story by Robert McKee. I think it is mostly about screenwriting. One of my writers recommended it to me. Also, I've done some rereading. I have just reread The Remains of the Day. And, let's see, I have a copy of Moby Dick that I am ashamed to admit I haven't ever read. So I think that will be my next big read. Although, I'll probably end up picking that up and then putting it down and picking up David Sedaris again.

Georgie: And again and again...

Walsh: Exactly! It is so great seeing a guy like that—for as blue as it is, and for how out there it seemingly is as opposed to the trend for making everything so palatable for middle America—it is so great to see him do so well. It is just so great. Barrel Fever is such an amazing book! And I mean, if you were to describe it to people, well, it's this book of humorous gay essays, everyone's eyes would just shoot to the ground. They'd be saying "Oh, yeah, I've already got one of those?"

I mean, this is how stupid publishing is. I remember once I was pitching a book called Letters to Montgomery Clift and it is a coming-of-age story about a Filipino boy who is orphaned or his parents disappear and he is shipped off to stay with his crazy auntie in the states, and he starts seeing visions of Montgomery Clift. It is about coming to terms with being gay, abuse, mental illness, etc. I pitched it for paperback rights to this guy, and he says, "Look, it sounds great, but— and this is so embarrassing—but I already have a Filipino book." [Laughs] I mean, he couldn't buy it because of that. And you are so proud of your industry when you hear that sort of stuff. It was only when I explained to him how many more Filipinos there were in the States that he become interested. He didn't buy it and we sold it to someone else. But still, it is shameful to hear stories like that. And the thing is, no one knows what people are going to buy. It is guesswork. And we are constantly surprised. The Lovely Bones is an example. Nobody knew that book was going to take off they way it did. It was no better or worse than another dozen books released at that time, and yet it took off and no one saw that coming.

When I was at MacAdam Cage I would often pick the most quirky one to do well, and sometimes I was wrong but more often I was right. They either do very well or do nothing at all. Actually MacAdam Cage have one coming up called the Mysterious Secret of the Valuable Treasure which is just so funny! I really hope it does well. Books like that is what it is all about. One of the pleasures of working with books is when a book that you love becomes something that others love, too.

Books mentioned in this post

  1. Ella Minnow Pea
    Used Trade Paper $5.95
  2. Player Piano
    Used Trade Paper $9.95
  3. Lonesome Dove (Lonesome Dove)
    Used Trade Paper $9.50
  4. The Forest for the Trees: An... Used Trade Paper $4.95

  5. Seventy-eight Reasons Why Your Book... Used Trade Paper $4.95
  6. A Confederacy of Dunces
    Used Trade Paper $7.50
  7. Story: Substance, Structure, Style,...
    Used Hardcover $23.00
  8. The Remains of the Day
    Used Trade Paper $5.95
  9. Moby-Dick (Bantam Classic)
    Used Mass Market $2.95
  10. Barrel Fever: Stories and Essays
    Used Trade Paper $4.50
  11. Letters To Montgomery Clift : Novel... Used Trade Paper $8.00
  12. The Lovely Bones
    Used Trade Paper $3.50

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