"Publishing Agnosticism"—What It Is, Why It's Important, and What It Means for Authors

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BY EVE BRIDBURG, Executive Director of GrubStreet

Eve Bridburg

The first time I heard the term “publishing agnostic” was in November of 2011 at the Park Plaza hotel in Boston. Barry Eisler used it during a talk he gave to the GrubStreet community as part of our NEA-funded Publish it Forward series. He had shocked the publishing world by turning down a very lucrative book contract from St. Martins arguing that he could do better on his own. But by November he had decided to publish with Amazon instead.

Some fellow writers and pundits criticized this move to Amazon. “What gives?" they asked. “We thought you had defected to the self-publishing club.” It was by way of explaining his move from St. Martins to self-publishing to Amazon that Barry described himself as agnostic.

As one definition goes, an agnostic is someone who holds neither of two opposing positions. I think that’s how Barry was using the term. He was making the point that his decision to self-publish in the first place wasn’t about his endorsement or love of self-publishing, but rather about choosing the best way to reach his goals. When a new pathway emerged which better served those goals, he felt no conflict about changing tactics.

But Barry, whether he realized it or not, in using a term with deeply religious connotations, was also asking us – a room full of believers – to be doubters. He was asking us to question our blind faith in what almost every serious writer we’d worked with up until that point had ever wanted: a book deal with a traditional publisher. The bigger the publishing house, the better.

And it wasn’t just our writers. It was us, the teachers at and leaders of a major independent writing center. Having existed in the margins in our early years, we were understandably hungry for a track record, for evidence that our work mattered. And so we celebrated hugely when one of our flock got a story in the Atlantic Monthly or a book deal with Simon and Schuster. In 2003, we launched our first Muse and Marketplace Conference and soon began inviting literary agents and publishers to Boston to meet our writers. Many book deals followed.

After Barry’s talk, I started to wonder what being publishing agnostic might mean to us as an organization, and to writers everywhere. When the world is changing fast under your feet, you need to find your footing before you can decide where to go. We therefore started articulating our values and principles.

Here’s where we landed:

  1. Writing excellence is paramount because it is “good” writing that transforms lives and the world and entertains at the highest level. We can debate what “good” means, but for us it’s about the search for truth, hard work, and dedication to the craft no matter the genre.
  2. We are grown-ups. It’s up to each of us as writers and as the professionals supporting writers to understand and own the entire publishing process. It’s incumbent on each of us to engage in honest self-assessment to determine goals and objectives, strengths and weaknesses.
  3. Community is the glue. Writing is a lonely, difficult pursuit. Finding your people and being as generous as possible with them is key.
  4. Success in this space isn’t just measured monetarily. Money is nice of course when it means book sales for authors and the ability of a place like GrubStreet to provide more jobs, scholarships and free programming, but it’s not the only or most important measure.
  5. Choice is good, especially choice which respects the central role of writers and places control and financial equity in their hands.

These are the things we think about now when evaluating what kinds of programs to offer or who to invite to our Muse and Marketplace conference. This year, we’ll be welcoming A-list literary agents, editors from Random House and Penguin, along side e-publishers like Vook and Amazon. We’ll have an editor from Ploughshares and another from Electric Literature. As we always do, we’ll have a bookseller on hand selling the books of our visiting authors, but we’ll also be running an independent author shop for any participant or small press attending the conference. In short, we’ll be hosting a hybrid conference, inclusive of the many choices and pathways available to authors today.

Most of our writers seem to want the traditional path and that's great, but it's our responsibility as a professional development organization for writers to educate them about all pathways, especially since the industry is changing before our eyes. In our own work and what we bring to writers we now preach agnosticism and save our blind faith for the power and necessity of words.

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Eve Bridburg is the founder and Executive Director of GrubStreet, one the country’s leading creative writing centers. A former literary agent, Eve developed, edited and sold a wide variety of books to major publishers before returning four years ago to GrubStreet to oversee an expansion in programming designed to better equip writers to thrive in the digital age. She has presented widely about publishing at conferences and writes a monthly blog post called Publish it Forward which can be found at Grubdaily.org.

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