Keith Gessen’s new Vanity Fair e-book, How a Book Is Born: The Making of “The Art of Fielding” (available for Kindle and Nook), is a thorough and riveting study of books and their business, and anyone with an interest in writing should do themselves a great favor by buying it right now. It’s $1.99 well spent.
But what is How a Book Is Born? To answer that, you should first know about The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach, the novel that Gessen follows from its conception in Harbach’s head all the way through to its publication. Harbach’s book takes place at a small liberal arts school and is about, among other things, baseball. But what it’s about, according to Michael Pietsch, Little, Brown’s publisher and editor, is “perfection, striving, youth. It’s about those years when your job is to learn everything you can learn and try to understand anything you can understand, to try to study literature, and philosophy, and figure out who you are, and who you might become.” Little, Brown is doing everything it can to position Fielding as a Great Book (putting it first in their catalogue; Pietsch, David Foster Wallace’s editor [including The Pale King], personally overseeing it), and it seems to be working. The book, which was released September 7, has climbed into Amazon’s Top 20 (and now has a one-week wait).
Gessen (author and co-founder of literary magazine n+1) is a close friend of Harbach’s, and write about seeing Fielding in its early form, including as an excerpt that Harbach used to apply to MFA programs, and as a submission he gave to a workshop of a small group of friends. This is the chronological beginning of Fielding‘s path to publication, but along the way, the e-book outlines every step the book went through in the run-up to its publication, and the result is totally engrossing.
Through straightforward, incisive prose, Gessen tells us about book cover designers (and how the challenge was to not reference baseball on the cover); agents and editors, and their relationship to one another and their relationship to authors; the agony and danger of revision; the agony of rejection; the bidding war for the rights to the book ($665,000 was the winning sum).
What makes all of this so compelling is simple: Harbach’s story is just exciting to read. Gessen jumps from one aspect of the industry to another, casting people like Chris Parris-Lamb (agent) and Keith Hayes (cover designer) like principal players in a tightly-wound ensemble narrative, taking time to describe “aquiline” noses and ping-pong affinities. The scope of the story is dizzying; Gessen uses a plate-spinning narrative style–he’ll tell you about one cog in the machine and then run over to another before you have time to get bored.
And just having these well-rendered personalities would be enough, but Gessen also spends ample time describing the publishing industry in general. He gives time to its economics and its traditional structure, and then he points out all the ways in which these things are changing or are being threatened (the main threat is–you guessed it–Amazon).
The value of Geffen’s e-book is its breadth. For anyone with an interest in writing and/or publishing, no matter which aspect, you’ll find a solid foundation of information in How a Book Is Born. You’ll learn things like how indie booksellers have more influence than ever before, as well as being provided with huge amounts of relevant figures (agents can receive 70 queries per week; acquiring editors get 10 agented submissions per week). It’s not exactly groundbreaking journalism, but the piece is full of information anyone outside the industry (and many within) would find useful. Coming from an MFA background, I can personally tell you that aspiring young writers are significantly under-educated about the business side of publishing. An article like this should be required reading. And, it counts for something that all this information is in one place and is delivered in such a captivating way.
At 17,000 words, Gessen’s article is long-form journalism done right (something the publishing industry is starting to figure out how to do well with the e-book format)–it’s long enough to bury you in its story but also short enough (and told briskly enough) that it is never boring. Its overall message: content is king. For all of the brisk narration Gessen engages in, and for all the uncertainty creeping into the publishing conversation, it still comes down to the fact that people want to read good books. And Gessen’s piece is a really good article about a good book.