On Friday, the unbound page proofs for “The Little Way of Ruthie Leming” (pre-order here for April 9, 2013, publication) arrived by FedEx. This is the last chance I will have to go over the text for errors, misspellings, etc. At this point, I really have been going over this manuscript with a fine-toothed comb, as has a copy editor at the publishing house. And we’re about to do it again. The process is laborious and tedious, but thank God for it, because this sifting, and re-sifting, is making for a better book.

I have been thinking about what a difference working with a publisher has made in the creative process, as opposed to the faddish idea of self-publishing via the Internet. If you saw the first draft of my book, and compared it to the final draft, you would see a big difference — one very much for the better, I think. (Erin Manning has seen drafts all along the way, and may wish to comment on this.) I had very close and very helpful editing all along — editing that saved me from my greatest weaknesses, stylistically and otherwise.

In particular, owing to my personality and my professional training, I had a tendency to stop the narrative to make a philosophical or theological point, as if I were writing an op-ed column, or a blog entry. This is how I think, and this is how I write — but the story I had to tell here was hurt by that habit. Interestingly, dealing with this in the editing process helped me see more clearly a fundamental difference between Ruthie and me: I reflexively analyze everything, whereas Ruthie was very much a go-with-the-flow sort of person. There are strengths and weaknesses to both approaches, but that’s the way we both were; having my editor tell me repeatedly, in his margin notes, to stay focused on the story, not the analysis, helped me to see more clearly this distinction between my sister and me, and how that affected our lives and our relationship to each other.

I have been writing professionally for 23 years. I know how to do this reasonably well. But my editor helped me be so much better than I am, and he helped this story, which I deeply want to be read as a tribute to my late sister and the community that cared for her, be told in a far more effective way than I could have done on my own. I would not have had this at all if I had self-published.

Anyway, here we are nine months away from publication, and the book is 99.9 percent finished. I proof these pages and FedEx them back to New York by September 7. We have bound galleys sometime in September, which go out to reviewers, editors, producers, et alia — this for a book that won’t be in bookstores till the spring. Here’s why they do this, according to an interview with Jamie Raab, the head of Grand Central Publishing, which is my publisher:

I wish that people could come in and see what goes on in a publishing house day by day. Some of the books that you think are so-called small books, I’ve got to tell you, we spend a lot of our time meeting about the books, big and small, and making people in-house read them. We have big marketing meetings and small. We’re not just throwing books out there. That’s so far from the truth. Anyone who thinks that, I wish they could be a fly on the wall at least in the house I work for. There is a whole company working for you. We start marketing, in most cases, a year in advance before a book comes out. The most important thing an author can do is have his or her book in on time.

There are a lot of people in this kitchen. We have an infrastructure that we have to support. You still need the editors, production department, marketing resources, and the artist who designs the book. Everyone thinks that there isn’t a lot of manpower involved in putting out an eBook. There’s more to it than most people ever consider.

If you want to make money quickly and put a book out there and price it at 99 cents so that it becomes enticing, I understand! You can build an audience. Some authors are climbing the Amazon list but, when a publisher approaches them, more times than not, they choose to go with a publisher.

This is true. I visited the Grand Central Publishing offices this summer, and met with a bunch of the staff, especially the publicity staff. It was startling for me, and even humbling, to see how many people there are dedicated to publishing and promoting my work. This book will find a far greater audience because of them than it otherwise would have done. None of that guarantees success; I did lots of interviews for “Crunchy Cons,” but like 95 percent or more (seriously!) of all books, it undersold. But having a publishing house and its marketing team behind one’s book makes success more likely than if I had released the book on my own, via Amazon, and depended solely on my blog and word of mouth to spread the word.

Don’t get me wrong, I am glad that we live in a time in which it’s easy for writers to release their work online and, one hopes, find an audience. The democratization of publishing, from a writer’s point of view, is a good thing. That said, there is simply no substitute for what a publishing house can do for the writer. For this writer, at least. In my experience, aspiring writers are still far better off trying to go the conventional publishing route, as opposed to putting all their hope on a self-publishing success. Of course there have been some amazing successes with self-publishing. But we wouldn’t have heard about the failures, now would we?

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