Writing a book? Read This....
Part One: Realism, Humility and Persistence are Required
My views on publishing tend toward the positive because my belief is that the status of books in civilization is secure, despite gloomy assessments of their present and future. I’ve been so involved with books for so long that I think I understand the process – and the problems, of which there are many.
This piece, the first of two, is about problems, of process and ultimately about human nature. Every book is an act of commitment, especially when the topic is not “sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll,” as those of us from the 1960s used to say.
For the purposes of this assessment, set aside the actual concept, research, and writing of the book, which should be the most challenging part, especially when the goal is to convey information. The issues are what happens as the manuscript makes its way from an author to readers in print, ebook, or audio, purchased or borrowed.
Here they are, not necessarily in order of importance.
Among other considerations are fashion, trends, and bias du jour. A friend who is a distinguished author recently met with a publisher about the next book under option. The proposed subject was a biography of a lesser-known member of the Founders’ generation, a close friend of Alexander Hamilton who died very young. The reaction, probably framed less bluntly, was: “Dead white man. Think of something else.”
Publishing trade newsletters list acquisitions by publishers, which I read like box scores. Many of them now are based on the premise that the author needs to be rewarded for having overcome obstacles of race, gender, abuse, national origin, and miscarriages of justice. All certainly valid subjects and currently in vogue. Authors on other topics should recognize their limitations in terms of perceived appeal.
Agents and Editors:
If you are a first-time writer or even someone with a modest track record – that is, you are not a celebrity or recognized public figure – finding an agent and then an editor is, in almost every respect, a test of persistence and suspended self-importance.
Agents and editors of consequence are inundated with proposals and solicitations. There should be – but tends not to be – a practice that every submission is at least acknowledged with a receipt and an assurance that if further contact is worthwhile, notice of that will happen. Being ignored is disappointing and often demoralizing.
Everyone knows the legendary sagas of authors whose work was rejected over and over again and then published to triumphant success. It does happen, roughly on a scale equal to winning a lottery or being hit by lightning.
Agents and editors make decisions based on the expected sales of the book when published. Books are literature, but they are also commodities to be sold, and that’s where in market terms their value is determined.
The Principle of an “Ask”:
When you are asked for something, it is you who are in charge of saying yes, no, or maybe. When the position is reversed, as it is when an aspiring author is looking for an agent, an editor, or a publisher, don’t be deterred by attitudes of condescension. Usually this is not personal, although it may feel that way. It is characteristic in transactions. How a response is framed is always on a spectrum from thoughtful to brutish. After it comes, move on. You probably will not forget the rejection, but it is best to leave it behind.
Working with an Editor:
From the outset be absolutely clear on what kind of assistance you expect or need. If there are problems, talk to the editor and do not have the agent do it for you. That creates a distance that tends to be unbridgeable. The editorial relationship is based on a measure of mutual respect. Agents are your representative and have your interests in mind, but it is the editor and publisher whose energy and enthusiasm you want to secure with effort and persistence.
And if you think you need more editorial help than you are getting from the publisher, consider finding a freelancer to work with. Many of them have had long careers in the book world and will have more time to devote to your book than in-house editors. While they will cost you something, the price may well be worth the satisfaction.
Once a book is ready to be sold to booksellers, the power shifts to the publisher’s sales representatives and to the buyers in stores. The “Anticipated Top Selling Books,” a category devised by the Department of Justice to describe about 2 percent of all books – and which were at the center of the recent judicial rejection of Penguin Random House’s takeover of Simon & Schuster – are where the significant revenue is generated and therefore likely to get the most attention from the salespeople. Once again, this is a transaction.
The author and the in-house editor seek to ignite support from sales reps and booksellers beyond the ATSBs. In some respects, this is as hard a task as writing the book itself. Gathering blurbs from recognizable names. Providing the sales department with what are known as “comps”: books that are similar to yours as models, preferably those that succeeded. Drafting an incisive description for the book and devising a title and a cover that appeals to you.
It is almost always a mistake for a publisher to insist on a title or a cover that the author really doesn’t like, even when the sales force does. But do listen to their reasoning. They are telling you what they think imagining their bookstore visits. Unresolved disagreement tends to create emotional distance. As in any relationship, navigating differences are essential to staying together.
And of course, do not expect the salespeople or the booksellers to read every book on offer. They cannot and will not. As the wonderful song from the Fats Waller musical Ain’t Misbehavin’ puts it: “Find out what they like and how they like it and let [them] have it just that way.”
In the next part of this exegesis in a week-- another open letter to authors – I will explore the issues of marketing, publicity, book parties, and the importance of respect in this whole confounding process.
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