Stephen Markley Interview Part 5: What do Publishers Want?

by Jerry Waxler

Everyone who tries to write a book discovers that the actual writing is only one leg of a journey. Getting it from your computer into the mind of a reader is a long and daunting task. It helps to attend writing workshops and ask published writers how they did it. Another way to gain insight into the process is to accompany Stephen Markley on his journey to publish his memoir, “Publish This Book.”

“Publish this Book” is Stephen Markley’s first, which doesn’t make him an expert on how to get published. Or does it? After all, he took a crazy concept and somehow managed to convince a publisher to print it and get it bookstores. That puts him considerably ahead of many aspiring authors who would love to follow in his footsteps. So how did he do it? Here’s the conversation I had with Markley.

Amid the humor, your serious ambitions to write

Jerry Waxler: Woven in amidst your effort to grow up is a fairly serious road map of trying to break into life as a writer, including some good insights into the publishing industry and process. I think it ought to become a cult classic for people who want to become published writers. Have writers groups or writer wannabe’s found your book yet?

Stephen Markley: Well, obviously I whole-heartedly agree with the part about becoming a cult classic. But I have heard from some writers who think it should be a step by step guide to finding an agent and publisher. That’s not what I was trying to accomplish. From a writer’s perspective, the book is about the existential dilemma of creative art: do I need someone to pay attention to my writing to bring it validation? How do I decide if my writing is worth something or if I’m kidding myself? What’s the point of creating it if no one reads it?

The book is about writing in the spiritual sense – not the nuts-and-bolts practical matters. I don’t want to teach readers how to write a gangbusters query letter or come up with the most perfect marketable idea. The point was to look at the intellectual resilience and emotional perseverance it takes to reach for such a lofty goal.

I get a lot of satisfaction from all the letters from aspiring writers who found it useful and inspirational while also being cautionary, which incidentally, is exactly what I meant for it to be.

I thought publishers like short books

Jerry: Okay then. So it’s not a guide to publishing, but at the same time, you must get an awful lot of questions about what you did right. For example, I enjoyed every page, but I heard the common wisdom for new authors is to keep it short. So much for common wisdom. Why was yours so long and more importantly why did the publishers go along with this?

Stephen: The book was long because I had a lot to say on a number of topics. If I write forty books over the course of a career, they’ll all be well north of 100,000 words because that’s just the kind of writer I’ve grown into. I’ve seen some reviews that said it was too long, but I’ve had more people tell me that when they got to the end, they had wished there was more. A friend from high school, Luisa (who’s mentioned in it), told me she had to slow down and force herself to only read thirty pages a day because she didn’t want it to be over. That’s a pretty awesome compliment. Even when I gave it to Steven, he said I should cut it by a quarter—until he read it and told me he didn’t have anything other than minor cuts. What I’m saying is that it’s the length it was because that was how it developed.

Like I said in the book, I had a moment of fear when I thought the publisher would want to cut it drastically but that never materialized. I’m perfectly fine with cutting when appropriate but the idea that we all have to write short books because it’s more salable or American attention spans are getting shorter is kind of silly. I think it’s far more important to write the best book you can and then let the reader decide if he or she can stand to read something longer than a stretched-out blog post. If you spend all your time trying to tailor your idea toward what “Publishing” wants or is looking for, you’ll write something considerably less interesting and still face almost exactly the same prospects of getting published.  The Publishing Industry is basically a monolithic lemming, always chasing the previous “next big thing” over cliff after cliff.

Gender Demographics

Jerry: I keep hearing that a huge proportion of all readers are women, and when I teach memoir classes, the ratio is often heavily skewed towards female participants, leading me to believe that women are the dominant force in book publishing decisions. You were successful in a story about a young man, fraught with political incorrectness, potty jokes, and a very male take on sex. So what do you think about the gender of your audience, the numbers of your male and female readers, and the reasons you were able to convince publishers you would have enough readers to make it worth their while.

Stephen: Strangely, young women seem to really like the book anyway. The majority of the e-mails or letters I get are from women in their twenties, possibly because they simply buy more books. On the other hand, I do approach sex frankly, unashamedly, and, I think, truthfully, but I’m not a chauvinist (well, by my mother’s standards maybe but that’s another story).

Even the story about casual sex with the Blonde Republican is more a story about my own failings and personal disappointment than it is about her. Even if a woman couldn’t relate to this, I think it makes hetero male sexuality recognizable. As for guys, well, it should make a lot of sense to anyone who’s been single in their twenties. I’m basically thinking what every twentysomething guy is thinking, which is something along the lines of, “Man, boobs are great, but boy do I miss that girl I fell in love with back in the day.”

Again, as far as publishers go, I was not thinking “Well, is this too much sex for the publishing world or not enough sex?” I was thinking, “I’ll write this book as well as I know how, and it will have to include a story about hooking up with that Blonde Republican even though I’d probably rather forget it.”


Visit Stephen Markley’s Home Page

To read my review of the book, click here.

More memoir writing resources

To see brief descriptions and links to all the essays on Memory Writers Network, click here.

To order my step-by-step how-to guide to write your memoir, click here.

To learn about my 200 page workbook about overcoming psychological blocks to writing, click here.

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