John Updike

Ironically enough, on a day in which the New York Times runs an article highlighting the popularity of vanity publishing—self-publishing a book—which on average generates sales of 150 books in total, per author, it also dutifully records the death of one of our greatest men of letters, John Updike, who has sold millions of books to a public thirsty for his work.

As a junior at Rutgers studying creative writing, my instructor told us to choose one author and read his or her entire body of work. Accidentally, fortuitously, unthinkingly, I chose Updike, one of the great examples of why it’s often better to be lucky than good in your decisions.

I began and continued to read his works, and am currently finishing his latest, The Widows of Eastwick, providentially written about the area were I live (“Eastwick” is a combination of my town, East Greenwich, and the adjoining Warwick or Wickford, I’m not sure which). His final book will appear in June.

When I think of great, contemporary writers I tend to think of John Irving and Phillip Roth, but Updike has always stood apart for me, a man of enormous intellect whose non-fiction and criticism are as lyrical as his fiction. Best known for the “Rabbit Run” tetralogy, his works actually range far and wide, always describing the nuances of middle class life and values (or lack thereof).

Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom resides with Jay Gatsby as an epochal fictional presence in American letters. The “Rabbit Run” series is one of fewer than four or five I’ve ever read twice, at vastly different stages of my life, to gain further understanding.

I want to continue reading Updike’s body of work but, alas, it is approaching completion. I think back to that assignment in late 1966, and I realize that I, too, am nearing completion.


9 thoughts on “John Updike

  1. In case some of your readers don’t know the distinction, vanity publishing companies–also known as subsidy publishers–prey on hapless authors of family histories and the like, feeding their delusions and wildly overcharging them for doing their printing and binding.

    Self-publishing is different. Self-publishing is publishing done by a small publishing company, often a publishing company in which author and publisher are the same person. The self-publisher finds and hires the printer, the editors, the designers, etc., just like any other publisher.

    Successful self-published authors include Tom Paine, Mark Twain, Virginia Woolf, Gertrude Stein, and James Joyce.

  2. And just to make sure we’re clear: Self-publishing can be useful for back-of-the-room sales or web site sales, but MOST self-publishing is the same as vanity in that it is driven by the ego of the author who cannot sell the idea to a commercial publisher.

    Self-publishing makes sense in niche markets, that don’t have the volume to attract a publisher (I both commercially publish and self-publish).

    HOWEVER, to cite Mark Twain, et. al., is disingenuous. One in 100,000 self-published books may make a decent showing. If you want credibility, self-publishing is not the way to go. And there are consultants, printers, artists, and so on who specialize in the self-publishing market, making their money on the ego of the self-publishers.

    Someone tried to convince me he was commercially published because he incorporated a little separate company to print his book! I told him that I wasn’t about to work in the Mentor Program with people who couldn’t even tell themselves the truth.

  3. Alan wrote,

    “HOWEVER, to cite Mark Twain, et. al., is disingenuous. One in 100,000 self-published books may make a decent showing. If you want credibility, self-publishing is not the way to go. And there are consultants, printers, artists, and so on who specialize in the self-publishing market, making their money on the ego of the self-publishers.”

    Leaving aside “disingenuous,” I agree with Alan that the majority of self-published books are commercial failures. I also agree with Alan that if you want to use your book to establish credibility in the broadest markets, self-publishing is not the way to go. Thus, consultants reading this blog who are using their books for gravity marketing, to use Alan’s term, will choose to seek an established commercial publisher.

    On the other hand, the history of self-publishing is full of brilliant success stories. Knowing full well, as we all do, that most self-publishers are commercial failures, I cited a number of self-publishing successes. I cited Tom Paine, Mark Twain, Virginia Woolf, Gertrude Stein, and James Joyce. This was not to indicate typical results. Obviously not! It was to demonstrate that the problem for most self-publishers does not lie with self-publishing. If Mark Twain can make a success with self-publishing, Joe Doaks’s problem can’t be that he, too, is self-publishing.

    We may then ask, Where does Joe Doaks’s problem lie? In my view, it lies with Doaks’s product or promotion, not with the fact that he is self-publishing.

    Self-publishing can be ideal. It is especially well-suited to tightly-targeted markets. CPAs, for example, or macrame users, rather than the general market of all readers in the United States.

    A tightly-targeted market makes selling and marketing a book easier. In addition, people in those tightly-targeted market can be good judges of the quality of specialized books, so they don’t need a publisher’s nod of approval to assure them of quality.

    Like Alan, I have published both with large commercial houses and through my own corporation. My books and CDs reach a tightly-targeted market, namely, bar candidates. My work has been enormously more successful when I published it myself. That said, running a publishing business is not for the faint-hearted. Publishing is manufacturing, among other things, with all the details that can go wrong in any manufacturing process.

    If what you want is prestige, not money, by all means, go with a large commercial house if you possibly can.

    MCG

  4. I’m going to say this again, please don’t make me say it a third time: Joe Doaks’s problem is that he’s not Mark Twain. Citing me a handful of exceptions will never prove a rule. Most people who self-publish have not had the crucible of an agent and publisher to ensure their material is of quality. You have to begin with quality and valuable writing. The marketing is secondary, although things like “Turkey Soup for the Housepainter” may well prove that it’s ALL about marketing.

    “Prestige not money” is also disingenuous, I can’t think of a better word. You will NOT make money self-publishing 99% of the time. It has its uses and, ironically, works best for those who have previously commercially published.

  5. Bravo, Alan,

    We are saying the same thing. You are right that you have to begin with quality. So, as I said, “Joe Doaks’s problem is his product or promotion, not the fact that he’s self-publishing.”

    One way to improve quality is to get help from an agent and editor at a commercial publisher. Another is to go out and hire the help you need. But as I have said, publishing is not a business for the faint-hearted.

    We do not disagree about any facts, Alan. We both know them from experience.

    MCG

  6. It is amazing how certain random elements of our past leave such an impression on us as we move forward in life.

    As for the topic of self/vanity or publisher publishing–like anything else they all have their place. When a tool or practice is utilitized properly it succeeds.

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