The Story of a Book

This continues The Healing Voices Series on Alice Miller: Icon & Ideas

Alice Miller’s first book, The Drama of the Gifted Child, radically changed how we approach trauma and therapy today. It announced a ground-breaking theory that upbringing is what causes mental illness. This idea has permeated how people generally interpret their own life stories. Her ideas on family, guilt, abuse, and healing have found their way into ordinary lives across the county through media, for example The Oprah Winfrey Show. But, before the show, and the zeitgeist which Oprah showcased, came Alice Miller’s book. This is a brief retelling of the story of Miller’s first book.

The story of a book differs from stories inside books. Aspiring authors often forget that editors and agents are looking for what the greatest number of readers will buy. Whether the narrative is remarkable can be secondary. Books on popular or provocative topics which relate to a profession or culture sell well but are replaced by crops of new books published season after season. Once or twice in a career might an editor or agent discover the rare book, greater than a bestseller, which is cultural catalyst, replaced by no new title. That book both reveals and unleashes new markets that last for decades. Miller’s first book was such a discovery.

Some editors receive 20 or more manuscripts each week, and as many as 90 book proposals each month. Agents pour through even more of both. While evaluating thousands of pages piled on their desks, editors and agents are vigilant, following print publications and chat rooms and writer blogs. One editor discovered her Eureka book during her daily commute. Arriving at Manhattan’s Penn Station, she noticed throngs of people teeming into Madison Square Garden (located above Penn Station) to hear a Texan preacher. Assuming (rightly) they would all buy his books, she signed Joel Osteen. The Osteen books revitalized the Christian book market for big New York publishing. J.K. Rowling’s first agent tirelessly presented Rowling’s first manuscript to prospective editors for over a year, exhausting the list of every possible buyer in children’s literature. He was only able to sell the book to a newly hired editor with a new book line and the rare freedom to take a big chance.[1] There are many stories about how rare game-changers come out of nowhere to become the “it” book which people must read to keep up with small talk at cocktail parties, on dates, or with friends or colleagues. Miller’s book joined the short list of game-changers, having shown little hope of success at the start.

First published as The Drama of the Gifted Child in German in 1979,[2] Miller’s book was discovered by editors from Harper & Row during the Frankfurt Book Fair. They passed it along to a Vintage Books editor renowned for her expertise in psychoanalysis. Her decision to publish Miller’s unique take on psychoanalysis seemed easy, even though breaking an unknown author into the U.S. market would be a challenge.

Today launching new authors is tougher than ever. Authors must not just offer a book proposal but also ready-made audiences, like media shows, massive blogs, or a preaching event that can fill Madison Square Garden. Publishing forty years ago worked differently, however, with different surprise endings. Editors could afford to take a few risks to test unknown authors. Vintage offered a cautious $10,000 advance to secure English rights in Miller’s book. They were betting that psychoanalysts would be curious to read a little book with provocative ideas. The bet seemed risk-free. After the rights were secure and the translation underway, Miller and her new editors made the fateful decision to change the title to Prisoners of Childhood.[3]

For a few early months, all ran smoothly. Vintage began publicity in advance of publication. It was counting on book reviews to bring the book to the attention of readers. Marketing then was simpler: Reviews made or broke the success of book sales forty years ago. The problem for Miller’s book became immediately apparent: professional journals declined to review it.[4] Some blamed Miller’s obscurity. Others suggested journal editors steered clear of anyone, much less someone from Europe, much less a woman, who dared to challenge Freudian and Jungian schools of thought. Either way, without reviews, academics and professionals would not know or buy the book. Ironically, years later, market observers would note a similar resistance to give a hearing to critics of Miller’s established views and personal contradictions, the most vocal critic being her son.

The next best option for Vintage was the general media. General media was a big wide world, spanning The New York Times Review of Books, Reader’s Digest, newspapers, and psychology magazines. Editors were under commercial pressure to cover only the most appealing topics. Ads were taking over more page space to pay for increasing publication costs. Fewer articles had to retain readers to keep circulation steady. The last thing editors wanted to do was challenge or frustrate readers as they believed a book on nuances in psychoanalysis would do. Miller’s book found no welcome in general media. Rejected by reviewers, her first book in America was about to hit the market destined to fall flat fast, and then fade into obscurity.[6]

Here the story takes a surprising turn. No editor or agent can plan for a book to become a game-changer, but diverse trends had been building for decades and were about to converge. Miller’s book sales were about to reveal brand new trends in therapy and catalyze how personal narratives would be interpreted for decades. Alice Miller was about to become like Rowling but without the tireless agent, like Osteen but without having had to fill Madison Square Garden with a reading audience.

Something else happened at that time. As soon as the new book was released, Miller would change her mind about the title, and problems would brew. Her association with Vintage would end up short-lived. Her comet-like rise to fame would, from its very inception, reveal a self-defeating combative style.


Next week The Story of a Book will conclude, to be followed in this series by a review of key themes and ideas we see in therapy and in our culture that have links to Alice Miller.


FOOTNOTES

[1] Crum, Maddie. Here’s How J.K. Rowling’s First Agent Knew Harry Potter Was a Smash Hit. Huffington Post. June 12, 2017. Accessed 9/26/20 https://www.huffpost.com/entry/the-agent-who-discovered-jk-rowling-explains-why-her-stories-are-magical_n_592342a9e4b094cdba568f76

[2] Originally published in German as Das Drama des begabten Kindes (The Drama of the Gifted Child) in 1979 by Suhrkamp Verlag Frankfurt am Main.

[3] Isay, Jane. How I Found Alice Miller, and Lost Her. The Huffington Post. June 28, 2010. Accessed 9/1/2020. This article is a great read by an unparalleled book editor on finding and losing Alice Miller as an author.

[4] Isay. Op sit.

[6] Isay. Op. Sit.

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