Everything I needed to know about publishing, I learned from Gone With the Wind
According to Writer's Almanac, today is the 81st birthday of a book I loved as a kid and learned from as a writer.
It was on this day in 1936 that the novel Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell was first published. When she handed the manuscript over to editors, it was in terrible shape, with more than 1,000 pages of faded and dog-eared paper, poorly typed and with penciled changes. But they loved the story. They asked Mitchell to change the original title Tomorrow Is Another Day because at the time there were already thirteen books in print with the word "Tomorrow" in the title. They also asked her to change the main character's name from Pansy to Scarlett.
Gone with the Wind sold 50,000 copies sold in one day, a million copies six months, and two million by the end of the year. The sales of the book were even more impressive because it was in the middle of the Great Depression. The year it came out, employees at the Macmillan publishing company received Christmas bonuses for the first time in nearly a decade.
So I thought it would be fun to revisit our favorite moments from Gone With the Wind and see if we might extrapolate a few kernels of wisdom about what it takes to make a living as writers.
“I can't think about that right now. If I do, I'll go crazy. I'll think about that tomorrow.” Write what you want to write, then worry about selling it. Mitchell was told by everyone who knew anything that this book was a terrible idea, an untellable story, an unsalable manuscript. Instead of trying to defend her idea, she wrote the thing, then let the book speak for itself.
“You need kissing, badly. That's what's wrong with you. You should be kissed and often, and by someone who knows how.” ‘Tis a gift to be edited. Had Mitchell remained stubbornly married to that lame title and lamer name for her main character, not to mention the enormous quantity of verbiage that had to be cut, the book would have disappeared faster than Mammy's red long johns.
“Lawzy, we got to have a doctor. I don't know nothin' 'bout birthin' babies!” Writing books is my job. I am not a cover designer. I am not a PR pro. I am not an editor. One of the great challenges of our work is knowing when to stick by our guns and when to defer to the expertise of others. The publishing industry is unkind to control freaks.
“We're alike. Bad lots, both of us. Selfish and shrewd. But able to look things in the eyes as we call them by their right names.” It takes a thick skin, a certain amount of industry savvy, a strongly defined sense of self, and what Colleen calls “the kernel of arrogance” to do what we do and remain sane. It also takes a willingness to tell the truth, even in fiction, and even to ourselves.
“Tomorrow is another day.” Mitchell's first novel, a romance called Lost Laysen remained unpublished during her life, and Mitchell, who was a serious journalist, probably would have preferred that it remain that way. Written when she was 15, the novel is, um...well, it ain't Gone With the Wind. She gave it to her boyfriend who kept it until his death in 1945. Years later, the beau's son was going through his dead father's old stuff and -- fiddle-dee-dee! The silly scribblings of a teenage girl were suddenly Margaret Mitchell's First Novel. It was published by Scribner about ten years ago. I'll leave you to think thinky thoughts about legacy, longevity, and intellectual property.
“With enough courage, you can do without a reputation.” A thousand pages of poorly typed, pencil-whipped manuscript. And they read it.
“Great balls of fire! Don't bother me anymore, and don't call me sugar.” Writing is a solitary and crabby-making profession. I salute anyone who is able to love a writer.
“As God is my witness, as God is my witness they're not going to lick me. I'm going to live through this and when it's all over, I'll never be hungry again!” Just when you think you’ve broken through the brick wall, you’re back on your knees digging carrots. Sometimes, all you got left is your fist, your fury, and the blind faith that it all gets better after intermission.