Nobody knows anything

NotebookThe publishing industry is making a lot of noise right now. Independent bookstores are up against the wall, over in the USA the Borders chain of superstores is no more. Industry professionals from agents to publishers to, yes, authors are scrambling to find ways to turn the selling of ebooks into a viable business model, while practically every week a new piece of hardware is released to read said ebooks on. It’s chaos out there.

For all the turmoil, however, there are two simple truths that bring me considerable comfort. The first is this: my job as a writer doesn’t change. The second is something William Goldman said about the film business, but which applies just as well to the world of publishing, and it’s this: nobody knows anything.

The first point should be self-explanatory. Whatever’s happening out there in the world we like to call real, all that really matters to me as a writer is the words I put down. It doesn’t matter where they start, or where they end up – ink on paper, pixels on a screen – what matters to me is how they fit together. All I need to do my thing is a quiet room and the strange thoughts running through my head.

That’s not to say I can ignore the commercial realities. Far from it. Now more than ever it’s important for writers to be their own ambassadors. Why else do you think I write this blog? But, whenever I start thinking too hard about the business of publishing, and whenever I feel like I can’t see the wood for the trees, I remind myself that the trees are all I need to be concerned about. What’s behind this one? Where does this path lead? What’s lurking in the shadows under that rotten lightning-struck stump? If I’m lost in the forest that’s all to the good. Because that’s where all the best stories are hiding.

The second point is a rather famous quote from William Goldman’s wonderful account of his experiences in Hollywood: Adventures in the Screen Trade. The book’s some years old now, but I daresay it’s as relevant as ever. (By the way, even if you don’t recognise Goldman’s name you’ve no doubt seen many of his films: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, All the President’s Men, The Princess Bride and Misery, to name but a few.)

Goldman’s assertion that nobody knows anything is a dig at the whole Hollywood process of developing movies. It could be paraphrased as nobody knows what makes a successful movie. It explains why our cinema screens are so full of sequels and lookalikes. It explains why studios continue to make movies that make us clap our hands to our heads and say, ‘Why did they bother?’ It explains why, when a movie rises out of nowhere to become a box office smash, the people least able to explain why it’s a success are the ones who commissioned it in the first place.

The same can be said for the publishing business. Nobody knows anything. Now, that might sound like I’m biting the hand that feeds me (well, that keeps me in cold soup and crackers at any rate), but it’s not a criticism. Publishing, like moviemaking, is based on risk. A writer might think his book is wonderful. An agent might agree. A commissioning editor might back the both of them to the hilt. But when the book hits the stores, nobody really knows whether it’s going to fly high or sink without trace. Like Goldman said, nobody knows anything.

That’s why publishers have it tough. By comparison, writers have it easy. Sure, it’s hard to keep the faith when you’re writing and nobody’s reading. It’s hard to spend a year investing your entire soul in a story that’s destined only to gather dust in a forgotten drawer. But all of that’s beside the point. The point is, you’re doing what you do. And that’s all you need to do. If the rest of it is meant to happen, it’ll happen, whether you like it or not. Why? Because nobody knows anything.

It’s a joyful thought, and a liberating one, don’t you think?

7 thoughts on “Nobody knows anything

  1. Hear Hear! The writers have to keep writing. The rest will happen as it will. We need the stories though. Keep it up and the readers will find you! I THINK eventually the ebook thing will work out to everyone’s advantage, I hope so.

  2. “Nobody knows anything”. So true.
    “Adventures In The Screen Trade” is easily one of the most-thumbed books in my library. Essential reading – Goldman’s case for why Bambi is a more realistic film than The Deer Hunter is spot-on. Also his reasoning as to why Psycho has one of the worst endings in cinema history…
    I’d recommend reading “The Devil’s Candy”, Julie Salamon’s on-the-set account of the making of The Bonfire Of The Vanities movie. For continually jaw dropping examples of “nobody knows anything” in practice, it’s unbeatable.

  3. e-book is where I’m at right now. And I’m beginning to see that unless or until I become a “name” writer, the mid-size publishing houses here in the U.S. are going to simply ignore me. And I can pretty much forget about the big publishers. So I’ve simply made it a weekly chore to research the e-book market as much as I can.

    Clearly, that’s the only way a writer who isn’t a household name can get anything read these days.

  4. Ebooks means it’s never been easier to self-publish. The problem is that makes the noise-to-signal ratio very high. So finding readers is in no way guaranteed. Also, every writer needs a good editor. Yes, it’s hard to get published by ‘traditional’ routes, but here’s another truth: it always has been.
    Thanks for recommending Julie Salamon’s book, Phil – I’ll check it out.

  5. I’ve been struggling with doing all the promos for my books by myself for a little while now. I was beginning to grow despondent when my publisher told me they weren’t going to be helping. after a few weeks of fretting I decided just to keep writing and I immediately felt more at ease. Then I read this article and all was right again. Thank you 😀

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