james rumford: the author’s lament

Spread from Rain School by James Rumford

You must read this eye-opening post by Hawai’i author/illustrator James Rumford.

I call it “eye-opening” because of Jim’s candor. He speaks freely about editor-author relationships, his disillusionment with the lack of creative nurturing by editors, why he thinks so many authors are turning to self-publishing, and ultimately what it would take for publishing to survive.

I share his wish that publishing houses were smaller (like in the old days), “when publishers cared about their authors and considered it important to nurture the fragile egos they had taken under their wing.” At one point, he refers to editors as “bosses,” not necessarily there to be liked, who “sometimes treat illustrators as hired help.”

I admit to being someone who bought into the romantic notion of the old-fashioned author-editor culture, only to be somewhat disappointed that, in my limited experience at least, it was nowhere to be found. Yet it must still exist, since I often read about other authors who love their editors and value them highly. Still, it’s disheartening to hear that Jim, with his enviable track record of creating unique, timeless books, is finding more evidence that such relationships are the exception rather than the rule.

I know that publishing is a business and there are things like bottom lines and profit margins. The oftentimes conflicting interests of art vs. commerce have always been part of the picture. But to me it’s common sense: take good care of your authors and artists; make it possible for them to do their best work. Be ever sensitive to the negative consequences of “art by committee.”  Then everyone stands to benefit.

Any time something gets too big and impersonal (i.e., corporate publishing), there is a price to be paid. This is true in any field, not just publishing. But we’re talking about art here. We already live in a society that may appreciate art, but for the most part doesn’t support and/or value its artists. This has to begin with those who profess to value art enough to devote their careers to disseminating it. We cannot lose sight that human beings make art and human beings have the power to either foster or destroy it. Yes, I know it’s way more complicated and I oversimplify in my idealistic thinking. But, oh, how money corrupts.

Please go read and share your thoughts.

♥ BTW,  I was thrilled to hear Jim’s gorgeous picture book, Rain School, was one of three titles selected for the 2011 Spirit of Paper Tigers Book Set. This means that new copies of the book will be donated to schools and libraries all over the world. A well deserved and suitable honor for a widely traveled, multilingual artist with a lifelong interest in different cultures. Be sure to read Marjorie Coughlan’s excellent interview with Jim to learn more about Rain School, and do visit the Paper Tigers Gallery to see more of his art.

Copyright © 2011 Jama Rattigan of Jama’s Alphabet Soup. All rights reserved.

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16 thoughts on “james rumford: the author’s lament

    1. This might be the only instance where I’ve actually read something where an author publicly discusses a conflict with his/her editor (and names names). Editors are in a position of power. I applaud Jim’s courage and determination to present his views in a fair manner.

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  1. Thanks for the link and the gorgeous copy of the cover of Rain School. It can be hard to balance idealism and reality, wishing and what is. Jama, how I wish you were queen of the world, or at least the book world, and we’ll make a place for James Rumford in the court, too.

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    1. Now that’s a wild fantasy if I ever heard one, and I fully appreciate your support! Let me see, what would I do if I were Queen of the Book World?

      1. Authors whose first names begin with “J” automatically get published. ☺

      2. I would distribute magic cupcakes to writers. One bite banishes all self doubt, two bites make first drafts easier, eat the whole thing and Colin Firth will invite you to England to help him write his memoir.

      3. Poets would be revered as they were in ancient times.

      Really, though, I think you’d make a much better Queen, Jeannine (your name even rhymes with the title). You’ve already earned the crown for raspberry muffins.🙂

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  2. I see things rather differently. I haven’t been publishing books for nearly as long as he has, but I’ve worked with a variety of short-story editors over the years, and I’ve heard my friends talk about their editorial relationships.

    I don’t think the tide toward self-publishing has much to do with editors. I do think editors are being squeezed by multiple pressures, and perhaps they do less hand-holding than in the “good old days,” but editors have brought so much to my published work–without ever dictating, or rewriting it themselves. A good editor knows how to elicit better work from a writer, and that skill still exists.

    I’m reading a self-published novel right now which I will not name. It’s competently plotted, but sorely in need of both an editor and a copyeditor. I keep seeing so many places where the editorial hand could have helped to sharpen the story.

    I think the drive toward self-publishing is because the road to traditional publication has many obstacles; digital media have made it easier than ever before to find a wide readership with a self-published book; and many authors report making a good living. If you can keep your rights and creative control, get the book out there faster, and sell enough copies to make a living, why not?

    Of course, I’m just speculating too–I suppose we would need a good survey to find out the real reasons behind a surge in self-publishing. But I think even self-published authors are well served by finding a good editor. The difference in this new world is that now authors will pay editors, instead of the other way around.

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  3. Aloha, e Jama,

    Thank you for featuring RAIN SCHOOL and for commenting on my blog posting about editor-talent relationships. And having read through the comments to your posting, I am pleased to see that what you and I have said has stirred things up a bit.

    Jenn Hubbard is pretty much right on all counts. I do want to say, however, that I talked about each of the points she raised in my blog. I have enjoyed good relations with my editors. I have “tasted” the good old days. I have benefited greatly from good editing. I have also encouraged self-published authors to get an editor, without whom their work is doomed, to put it harshly.

    Jenn Hubbard is right on all counts but for one: self-publishing. I know of a dozen big-league authors and illustrators of children’s books who are going the print-on-demand route. I see that sales of children’s books have fallen through the floor. I know of several top-notch editors who are out of work. One, who was extremely influential in revolutionizing the paperback industry, embraces the fact that he is out of work. Now, with print-on-demand and e-books, he feels he can bring to the fore talent that the business boys wouldn’t even consider.

    My thought is that it won’t be self-publishing as we knew it, you know, vanity publishing. No, it will be of a different kind. Editors and talent working one on one to produce books. This will change, too, as these small groups coalesce into larger groups.

    It is 1450 all over again. A few of Gutenberg’s press boys have left Mainz and are headed for the big cities of Europe, where the real money is. They set up printing shops. Soon, they see that they don’t have enough money to meet the demands. They call in investors, and before you know it, the model that we have used for publishing for the last five hundred-fifty years is born. Now that model is being dismantled. What is to come? Anyone’s guess, but one this is for sure: it won’t look like the old one.

    Aloha,
    James Rumford

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    1. Yes, Jim, the new model will be entirely different. “Self-published” used to imply a brand of desperation, synonymous with vanity publishing, as you mention. But not anymore.

      Interesting what you said about your editor friend who now feels liberated. I’m looking forward to new and different voices and the POD experience.

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  4. Thanks for you insightful comment, Jenn. I don’t think any of us doubts the value of a good editor (whether for traditional or self publishing) — immeasurable in many cases, and I do think, as you say, they have multiple pressures now that they didn’t have in the old days brought on by the nature of corporate publishing (where their own jobs are on the line every day).

    Yes, there is much less hand holding, and that might be perfectly okay with writers who don’t want or need that sort of thing. Clearly, something’s right about today’s editor-author relationships, or we wouldn’t still be seeing so many good books being published.

    With publishing being in such a state of turmoil, with all kinds of obstacles, it’s easy to see why so many have turned to self publishing. It make sense for new authors who can’t break into traditional publishing to try the self publishing route (and I would hope they’d seek editorial help). But why for those who are already well published traditionally? It seems to me this points to dissatisfaction, frustration, and/or disillusionment with either the editorial side of things, or having to convince too many entities to share one’s creative vision, or maybe even the publisher’s lack of promotional support (this is what I gather from Jim’s post, though I do not want to misrepresent anything he’s said or put words in his mouth).

    In any case, he’s been chronicling his self publishing journey, not knowing where it will lead, learning along the way, sharing his insights. It’s a wide open road, not for everyone, and we’re lucky he’s letting us go along for the ride.

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  5. My intent was largely to distinguish “editing” from “publishing.” Of all the phases a writer undergoes in the publishing process, I’ve found editing to be the most delightful. You’re usually dealing with a person who is very committed to your work: a word person, a reader, an excellent critiquer. I think of promotional support, cover selection, and advertising more as sales and marketing than editorial. And then there are factors even beyond the publisher’s control: reviews and bookstore buy-in, for example, which can greatly affect an author’s experience and a book’s success. So that’s where I’m coming from.

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    1. All the more reason to do everything possible to preserve that valuable author-editor experience, one on one as Jim says, without all kinds of “business-related” red tape and hurdles getting in the way. Do we not often hear of editors championing a book, only to get it rejected by the acquisition committee?

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  6. Very interesting. Another part of the structure seeing a rapid shift is literary agents, some of whom are starting up their own e-publishing companies. Authors are asking what the role of agents will be, with the apparent conflict of interest this new business model introduces. Will we need agents? Will they become something else, i.e. publicists or distributors? I, too, enjoyed great relationships with my editors in the old days when I was publishing my picture books and stories. They had the resources and the power, they held the building together. Now the walls are falling down. Much confusion here, from where I sit.

    Thanks for posting Jim’s article and your take on things, Jama. And I’m changing my name to Janet.

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    1. No need to change your name, Toby! As Queen, I can decree that “T” authors get automatically published too🙂.

      I’ve heard about agents starting e-publishing companies. Wild, isn’t it? All our old definitions will change as new roles are established.

      We often talk about how difficult it is to be a writer these days, but I also really sympathize with editors. As you said, once upon a time, “they had the resources and the power.” As it should be. But how much power can they have when they have to worry about losing their jobs if they happen to acquire a book that doesn’t do well? Didn’t the committee approve it? Does everyone on the team pay the price?

      MONEY MONEY MONEY

      It seems so simple: a writer with a story to tell. An editor who believes in it. A child who one day reads it.

      There’s just too much *@_)#_@$ that comes in between.

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