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Sunday, June 28, 2015

Work With and Trust Your Publisher. Otherwise—What’s the Point?

I am going to begin with the punch line: the quality award-winning book you are currently reading did not start out that way, and is almost always quite different than the original submitted manuscript.

This post was prompted by a couple recent exchanges between one or our developmental editors and an author, and myself and an author. One of these turned out positively, when the author listened, respectively disagreed on an issue, but understood our expertise and appreciated our time and guidance and graciously dug in to make his manuscript better. The other author, well, his ego got in the way of his work (more on ego below). One got the feeling he was used to telling people what was what, rather than listening and cooperating with people who knew more than him. He is no longer with us (his request, happily granted).

Both experiences ended up well for Savas Beatie.

As an author myself who has produced a number of books with several publishers foreign and domestic, I know how this game works from both sides of the fence, up close and personal.

Seeking out a specific publisher in the hope of the acceptance of your manuscript is an important step for any author. It is often a daunting and lengthy process that usually ends in rejection. The purpose of this post is not how to go about the submission process, but what you, as an author, should do once your book is accepted. The answer is simple: cooperate in every regard. Leave your ego at the door and listen.

Those who do, succeed. Those who do not usually fail in demonstrable ways.

Few if any successful marriages begin by picking a random stranger out of a crowd and proposing. Assuming you care about your manuscript’s future prospects, choosing a publisher is not that much different than choosing a spouse. You find someone you like and have things in common with, including a compatible vision of your future course. You watch them in action in a variety of settings, and judge accordingly. In other words, you select a publisher with a winning track record of stellar (and repeat) authors, award-winning titles, outstanding book design, aggressive marketing, quality customer service, and so on. And then you follow their advice.

Once you find that publisher (“spouse”), how do you handle your relationship going forward from acceptance of your manuscript through editorial development, design, publication, and beyond?  Do you view it as an adversarial relationship or a partnership with someone who knows more than you and has your best interests at heart because both of your are joined at the hip?

Do you really listen (as in to listen to understand?), or do you listen only so you can formulate a push-back argument? Do you resist most substantive suggestions, argue about key points, get heated when your editor offers ways to improve your work, and then knock the board game to the floor? Surprisingly, some authors do. This is not only a good way to end up in divorce court rather quickly, but also to never be accepted by that publisher again and earn a negative reputation in what is really a very small community.

Editors and publishers talk. A lot. Especially after the second gin and tonic. When books leave us, I often get an email or a phone call asking, "What's wrong with this author? Or is there an issue with the manuscript? Why didn't you fight to keep it? Should I accept it?" On occasion, I make those phone calls, too.

Pull up a chair and let me explain.

Think of your publisher as you might an architect or engineer. Do you hire an architect with decades of experience to design your house and then argue about where support beams go? Or what building materials are up to code? Or whether too many windows weaken a wall? Do you insist on a roof the architect repeatedly tells you is too heavy? Or demand a design the expert explains will destroy the resale value of your dream house?

One would hope not. These are all fundamental matters that go to the heart of the viability of your building, whereas adjusting the width of a hallway or making your kitchen a little larger do not. You have seen this architect’s successful and award-winning work before—that is why you hired him. Signing a contract with him does not magically give you a degree in that subject or the decades of experience he has under his belt in the pond you now wish to wade into.

A publishing company puts its own time, expertise, and money—lots of it—on the line with your manuscript. You selected that company because you know the quality of the final product. Those great books don’t magically end up looking and reading as they do. There is a process along the way that is often grinding and time-consuming. And well worth it.

The Schedule.

When the publisher sets a schedule, or asks you to wait patiently because the company has its own internal ways of doing things—listen. Patience is a virtue. You have one book that consumes your thoughts. The publisher has scores of them in various stages of acceptance and production. You send one email to a publisher and don’t get an immediate reply, but the publisher gets 150 a day—and deals with everything else. Everyone at the company who needs to know, knows you exist. When your turn comes in the schedule, rest assured you will hear from your publisher.

The Development.

Most publishers assign a developmental editor (they have different labels at different companies) to craft your manuscript into a book. This includes everything from the length of chapters and chapter order, to what should go into the footnotes, proper transitions, what belongs in the appendices—the works. When they speak--LISTEN to what they tell you. If they tell you there is too much “fat” in your book—LISTEN. If they suggest cutting your work from 150,000 words to 120,000 words because of redundancy—LISTEN. They understand the pitfalls most authors cannot see—and will warn and advise you accordingly.

When an editor explains that your manuscript isn’t grounded in enough firsthand sources—he is telling you your structure does not have enough of a foundation to stand on its own. He is your architect. To argue is akin to replacing your brain with your ego. When expert readers review your manuscript and think it is confusing or difficult to follow, or poorly structured or reasoned, and offer key substantive suggestions on how to improve it—are you listening, or is your ego pushing back against the very expertise you “hired?” Work with them, not against them. Cooperate.

Cooperation, however, does not mean bow down and always say “yes.” It means know how and where to pick your battles. Make your own respectful suggestions and do your best to work hand-in-hand as you would with your spouse on matters of import to you and your family. Never forget (there is that “ego” thing again) that your experienced developmental editor crafts rough manuscripts into polished books on a daily basis. You don’t. He has gone through this same process dozens of times. The odds are, you have not. He understands weight-bearing walls and inspection codes better than you do.

Here is another way to look at it: Who is more likely to be the better judge of the end product, someone working with editors and outside reviewers, all of whom agree on X, or an author who does something entirely different for a living digging in his heels and demanding Y. The author is betting his ego, while the publisher is betting his livelihood. Clarifying, yes?

Now think of what you, as an author, do for a living. Now, whatever that is, imagine someone who does not do what you do asking your advice, and then arguing with this and with that and then rejecting it. No one is always right, but if you are advising on matters within your area of expertise, the odds are pretty good that your advice is sound--especially if you have a long track record of success.

Ask any person who has achieved success in their chosen field how they became successful. Nearly all of them will candidly tell you they sought out people who had already done what they want to do—people who knew more than they did. They then put their ego aside, listened, cooperated, and followed their advice.

My mentors were Tom Broadfoot, Bob Younger, and a friend who worked in high places in publishing in NYC. I was a lawyer and had written a few things that had manged to get into print--but I was not a publisher. But I wanted to be one. So when experts like Tom and Bob told me things--I LISTENED. I LEARNED. I COOPERATED. I put my ego aside and used my brain to think. Success heals any bruises your ego might suffer along the way.

If there is a true roadblock on a key matter, you might respectfully ask for another set of eyes on that issue in particular. Maybe like this: “On this issue we see things differently and it is very important to me. Before you make your decision, would you mind if the managing director or another editor takes a look at this one issue? I would appreciate that.”

I don’t know of a single publisher or editor who would not honor that wish. That is much better than getting heated, pushing back, complaining, and leading with your ego instead of your brain.

Leave your ego at the door. Enjoy the journey. Reap the rewards.


Anonymous said...

What an insight to an industry I've never given much thought to. Just walk into the book store, or go to Amazon and buy the thing. Never giving a thought as to all the effort put into bringing a book to life.

Ted Fritsch

Anonymous said...

What's too often forgotten: It's always about the story.

Because so many books don't have one.


Anonymous said...

Recognize good advice when you get it? You'd have to be a damn fool not to revel in the wisdom contained in this blog post -- and, fortunately, I'm not one.

Look for our my forthcoming book "Discovering Gettysburg: An Unconventional Introduction to the Greatest Little Town in America and the Monumental Battle That Made It Famous," by Stephen Coleman, illustrated by the talented and whimsical Tim Hartman

Jack rRes said...

The third offer came with a proviso - that we spent $70,000 of the $1000,000 to hire another writer (an ex-employee and friend of the pub house executive) to actually write our book for us!! (after paying the agent we would have been left with pennies for a major research project and several years of our time).

The second project was a fiction MS of my own, the result of twenty years research. I wrote a 130,000 word MS and then flew to San Diego to meet with an editor who had an excellent (and well researched by me) reputation. I paid serious money to have my 130,000 word ms professionally edited. The editor did a brilliant job and the result was 100,000 word MS that I am very happy with. I then sent a query to an agent that had been recommended (not the first on in NY!). The agent asked to read the entire MS. The agent then responded that the project had potential but “needed a good editor”and he recommended someone (a friend as it turned out), who could edit my “raw” MS. This was clearly bullshit - steering money and business to a crony.

Jack Rees said...

Based on my previous experience with the film industry - I immediately detect here a pattern, a “game” in which first authors are milked in order to channel money to cronies. No wonder self-publishing is gaining so much popularity. 

As if this is not bad enough - the chances of earning a worthwhile income from writing (like paying the bills) seems slim based on fewer than ever advances and 7% royalties. It seems one’s time as a writer is only worthwhile if a blockbuster and film rights are involved.

That said, my soured opinion is of “big mainstream publishing’ rather than niche publishers who do understand that a first book is most likely an opportunity to begin a mutually beneficial and long lasting professional relationship.

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