When I was a kid, I believed publication certified that a book was good. A place on a library or bookstore shelf, on a classroom desk, implied serious merit, an imprimatur of significance. A lifetime of reading has taught me that publishing doesn’t make a book good at all. It can make a book, or its author, look “good,” temporarily or for a very long time. Publication also makes stories available to people and connects authors to individuals they may never meet face-to-face. Writers learn that it is no small gift when a publisher or editor invests resources, confidence, and time to bring your material into the world.
I am now author of two published books: Teacher at Point Blank and most recently MASS: A Sniper, a Father, and a Priest. Both are literary nonfiction, both published by small and mighty California presses—the first by Aunt Lute, in San Francisco, and the second by Pelekinesis, based in Claremont. I understand well that publication does not guarantee what the saturated marketplace tells us are the “true” measures of a writer’s value: a giant advance, huge sales, international prizes, millions of readers, and of course fame. And while those loud outcomes certainly do not preclude literary quality (many great books do garner such riches), the usual metrics highly depend on vagaries of timing, luck, geography, and even (now) algorithms that bury thousands of compelling books on any given day.
Writers who keep writing must commit to doing quality work even when web traffic is slow, sales are modest, money is scarce, and “likes” are few. The publishing landscape itself requires a broad perspective, a balance between single-mindedness (“this is the work I need to contribute”) and partnership (“I cannot go it all alone”).
When rewards do come, I’ve learned personally both to celebrate and take a humble pause. For any amplification my work receives, I know there are many, many voices we do not get to hear at all. Frustrations and disappointments are not unique in a business that can be discouraging, frivolous, and downright mean at times. The pursuit of popularity can create both a rush and an addictive, even toxic, distraction. Marketing matters, but too much time on social media drains creative energy, shaping everything into perpetual hustle.
What can a writer control, at any stage of publishing, without getting lost in the funhouse? I moderate my own participation in “the game” as I experience it and aspire to be wiser without getting cynical. I choose my professional associates thoughtfully, remembering that cliques are not unique to high school, and that smart people, including myself, can be shortsighted or even destructive. I’ve learned to be more gracious about compliments when they come. I am grateful for literary and personal allies who encourage and educate me, and I do my best to reciprocate and to pay things forward—via collaborations, reviews, recommendations—however I can.
Something else has kept my feet planted in reality. For more than two decades, I have worked with student writers who are often skeptical about books, and this career has kept me from being insulated by a creative “bubble.” Since 2010, I have also run a campus reading series that enables me to reach out to all kinds of writers and connect them with new, curious readers.
At my desk, being an active literary citizen means reading, citing, and appreciating good writing—for my own research as well as for inclusion in syllabi for my classes—whether or not an author has (yet) made somebody else’s “cool kids” list or been given the coveted stamp of New York publishing approval.
Writers are always jonesing for the next hit of literary adrenalin, the recognition or achievement finally certifying that we’re not imposters anymore, that we have finally “arrived.” I know this desire in myself, but I have learned how such hits can be tricky. They feel great but don’t make your writing better. I decided some time ago that I want my work to evolve and to endure beyond the scope of my own vanities, but it’s easier said than done.
At its best, publishing preserves our work in a kind of amber that can be discovered long after the kinetic “moment” has passed. A young woman approached me at a writers’ conference last spring to share that she had recently returned to Teacher at Point Blank. When she first read the book in grad school, she admitted to me, she’d found it jaded. But whatever drew her back, she said her reading the second round was much different. This time, she understood I was addressing hard things with love and that she wanted to do that, too, in her own work, and she was feeling the difficulty.
How kind of her to tell me that. Publishers small and large make these and so many other thrilling connections possible between readers and writers. For that blessing, I am ever thankful.
Jo Scott-Coe is the author of Teacher at Point Blank (Aunt Lute) and MASS: A Sniper, a Father, and a Priest (Pelekinesis). Her first-ever portrait of Kathy Leissner Whitman, “Listening to Kathy” (Catapult) received a Notable listing in Best American Essays and is now available in print. Scott-Coe’s nonfiction has appeared in Talking Writing, Tahoma Literary Review, Cultural Weekly, American Studies Journal, Pacific Coast Philology, Superstition Review, Fourth Genre, Ninth Letter, Salon, and many other publications. She is an associate professor of English composition at Riverside City College, where she was named 57th Distinguished Faculty Lecturer for her research on the epistolary history of Kathy Leissner. Scott-Coe also facilitates community writing workshops for the Inlandia Institute. You can find her on Twitter @joscottcoe, on Facebook at TeacherAtPointBlank, and at www.joscottcoe.com.