Advice From an Author Advocate

By Rachel Toor

The Chronicle of Higher Education, The Chronicle Review, April 28, 2000

A few years ago, about six months after I’d left scholarly publishing and was busy spending my days riding horses and running, my friend Peter, a zoologist, approached me about editing an opinion article that he had been asked to write for The Chronicle. I was delighted to be of assistance. Even as my body had gotten harder, my times faster, and my riding more fluid, I felt my brain turning to mush. I was thrilled at the prospect of once again using some of the knowledge I’d accumulated during 12 years in scholarly publishing. Since Peter was — and still is — my good friend, sometime running coach (I periodically fire him, and then come crawling back after a particularly bad race), and owner of the horses I was riding, I went to work on his writing.

While I would never have been so invasive while constrained by my role as an acquisitions editor, in this case I went to town: rewriting, adding my own ideas, gleefully breaking all the commandments of respectful editing. Luckily, my work is good and Peter’s ego is Teflon. Delighted with what I had done, he suggested that I be listed as coauthor. At first I demurred, but finally agreed. It would be a kick, I thought, for an old English major to be named as an author of an article about maternal-infant attachment in goats.

It fell to Peter to deal with the editors of The Chronicle. That was unfortunate. During the course of the negotiations that naturally occur between author and publisher, Peter so managed to aggravate and annoy the editors that, rather than continuing to deal with him, they fired us. They did, however, send along a consolation check, which Peter, his ego unflustered and his staunch sense of fairness intact, signed over to me.

After that experience, I declared that, as long as I was around, Peter would not be allowed to deal directly with publishers. He is undoubtedly one of the most interesting and generous people I know. He is often charming and delightful. But he can also be curmudgeonly, bloody-minded, stubborn, arrogant, and exceedingly difficult. I have seen this man argue with a local sheriff about the rules of the road.

So it surprised me to learn that Peter, even Peter, who had been so fearless when dealing with The Chronicle editors, felt intimidated by the prospect of having to submit his book manuscript to a publisher.

Hospitals have identified a similar problem: A person who is ailing, weak, and vulnerable, who in other aspects of life may be stunningly accomplished, can easily fall apart in the hospital. Enter the patient advocate: someone who helps you make your way through a foreign and sometimes labyrinthine system, someone who looks out for your interests when you are, unaccustomedly, not in control of the situation.

Literary agents serve an analogous role for some authors. But scholarly publishing doesn’t pay the kind of top-dollar advances that most agents like to deal for. There aren’t a lot of movie options taken out on monographs. There isn’t, fundamentally, a whole lot to motivate an agent to take on an academic author. But that doesn’t mean that the authors of scholarly books couldn’t use an agent to improve their quality of life (if not their remuneration).

I have become, unofficially, an author advocate, not only for Peter, but also for a number of my academic friends who find themselves having to make their way through the sometimes confusing world of book publishing. Lee, a historian, calls me. She sent her manuscript to Prestige University Press eight months ago. She has heard nothing. When I ask if she has contacted the editor, she says that she hasn’t wanted to pester him. I gently explain to her that, after hearing not a peep for eight months, no sane person could construe a call or an e-mail message as pestering.

What we have to remember here is that Lee, while sane by many standards, is not in her right mind when it comes to dealing with a potential publisher. She is suffering — and I do mean suffering — from what my friend Julius has called “academentia.” Submitting a manuscript for publication can be a vexed and troubled process. The stakes, for academics, are high: Not having a book out can mean not having a job. The name of the publisher is, in some cases, almost as important as the author’s own name; the imprint on the spine of the book can mean tenure or a shot at a more prestigious job. Delays in book production can lead to delays in career promotion. Yes, there are plenty of good reasons for academics, particularly those just starting off, to be anxious.

“Rach, I called the editor.” Lee is breathless. “He actually thanked me. Said that he’d been meaning to get back to me, but other things kept getting in the way. And guess what? He already has two glowing readers reports and is sending me a contract.”

It doesn’t always, unfortunately, turn out so tidily. You toil away on a manuscript for years and then send it off to its fate with a publisher, where it may languish at the bottom of a pile on an editor’s desk for months before someone realizes that the press has stopped publishing in your field. The peer-review process is usually good and helpful, but it can sometimes go horribly awry: Your manuscript may be sent to a reviewer who is hostile toward your dissertation adviser, or toward your methodology, or your ideology. It may be sent to a reader on whose desk it then accumulates dust for many months before the reader gets around to writing a review that is helpful to neither the press nor the author — then the manuscript is sent off again. All the while, the tenure clock is ticking — tick tock …

No doubt about it, it’s a scary process, and it can bring out the worst in people. The stinky thing about scholarly publishing is that nice authors often do finish last. As an editor, you are so inundated with manuscripts and phone calls and e-mails and meetings and conferences that you, all too human, tend to deal with whatever intrudes most urgently.

So pushy people often get the most attention. Of course, that is not always a plus. Many years ago, while a lowly editorial assistant, I managed to achieve a remarkable feat: By the time the book by a certain incredibly difficult author appeared bound between covers, I was the only person left at the press who would speak to him. He had alienated the entire staff, person by person. True, his book did come out more quickly than many. But lest authors hasten to harangue, berate, and nudge to death their publishers, all in the hope of getting quicker results, I feel compelled to reveal a truth known to most publishers. When an author is truly difficult, despite good work and the best of intentions on the part of publishing professionals, a karmic reminder of the process somehow always manages to appear in the finished product. In this case, it was a typo on the title page.

Mean and nasty people do not need author advocates. Nice ones, like my friends, do. Take Craig, a philosopher. Poor guy had been given two book contracts by a press, and then his editor left. It happens. It’s not a good thing. It is rare for editors to inherit a book with as much enthusiasm as they would have if they had discovered it themselves.

Before leaving, Craig’s original editor had pleaded with him to make contact with the heir apparent to his books. He called and had a nice conversation with his new editor. Then he heard nothing for many months. He called again. The editor seemed to recall his name, and they had basically the same conversation as before. Pleasant, but not reassuring. Craig called the deserter, who felt appropriately guilty, but powerless to help. Then it hit her: Call the editor’s assistant. Establish a relationship with him or her. If an editorial assistant feels ownership over your project, you’ll never walk alone. He did, she did, and the books were safe.

So, if you don’t have a friend who has left publishing and needs to work off favors, realize that an advocate may well be sitting outside the office of your editor. Many people in publishing started out as editorial assistants, ravenous for author contact. These are generally smart people, fresh out of good colleges. They opt to live on subsistence wages because they love books and exist in the hope that they will be the one in a hundred who will make it up the publishing ladder to become an acquisitions editor. (Those who take the job as a pit stop on the way to graduate school are equally happy to have personal contact with the professoriate.)

These folks are intellectual groupies. You want them on your side. They can provide access to your editor, and they will lend a hand and an eye to shepherd the fruit of your labor through the process. It’s often an editorial assistant who will catch the author’s name spelled incorrectly on the dust jacket. Or who will remind the production folks that the book really needs to be ready in time for the M.L.A., A.H.A., A.P.A., or whatever other alphabetical combo may be decisive in determining the course of your career. The editorial assistant can be an important friend. Treat him or her with respect and kindness, and you will have a happier publishing experience.

As acquisitions editors have changed— from red-pencil, Maxwell-Perkins types who mold manuscripts, to M.B.A. types who talk about product lines and markets (yes, even in scholarly publishing) — authors need to trust and rely on the people closest to their work. But the process begins and ends with the acquisitions editor — the person who gives you a contract, takes you out to dinner to celebrate an important prize, and, in between, convinces the marketing department that there are, in fact, people who will want to buy your book. So it’s important to make the best connection you can with a good editor. Many are overwhelmingly busy, but most are approachable. The idea of calling, or e-mailing, an editor may be fearsome; the reality is often pleasant.

Although I’ve left publishing, I can still feel the publisher’s burden: the scramble to publish more books, to find those texts that will keep on selling for years; the pressures of traveling in search of new authors, reading another 50 revised dissertations to discover one that will end up winning a prize, dealing with the author whose need is so great that you are drained after a simple conversation. But now I can also hear the author’s side: the fear, the uncertainty, over the fact that it is the quality of your mind that is being judged. Neither side in scholarly publishing has an easy job.

With my friends, then, I try to be sympathetic and supportive, and often ask the question that no one else dares to raise: “So, how far along are you on that manuscript? When are you planning to finish it and send it off?” One of the people I love most in the world started out as an author more than a decade ago. I had given him a contract for a book, and then we became friends. The book is not yet finished. I know that I am one of the few who still ask about the manuscript. I feel it’s my job. Not as his former editor, but as his friend. It’s almost done, he says.