Reasonableness is one of the first things to go when we toil to our our hearts and minds on the printed page

By Rachel Toor

The Chronicle for Higher Education, Chronicle Careers, June 29, 2007

In the mid-80s, a cult grew around one of those gray-haired, sensibly shod British ladies who speak with a squeaky voice. Barbara Woodhouse was a dog trainer. She insisted in her books and television series that there were no bad dogs, only bad owners.

By the time I left publishing, in the mid-90s, I had decided there were no bad books, only bad authors.

That, of course, is not true. There are plenty of bad books. But after a dozen years in the industry, the whining and whingeing of authors had worn me down: The conspiracy theories about how a publisher set out to ruin an author’s career by not sending his 15-year-old book to a small regional conference; the notion that a publisher sullied an author’s reputation by giving her a red cover; the complaint that there were not enough ads promoting the book (there were never enough ads); the indignation that we didn’t get the author reviewed in The New York Times, or booked on Oprah.

In general I adored my authors. But there were those few whose behavior suggested to me that flipping burgers or mucking out stalls would have been an easier and more pleasurable career choice. When I was an editorial assistant, I watched as one well-regarded author so managed to vex and trouble every single person at the press that by the time his book came out, no one would take his calls. Including his editor.

People go into publishing not only because they love books but because they love working with authors. Editors, in particular, are possessive: They speak of “my books,” “my authors.” It is, therefore, disconcerting and disturbing to see the disconnect in how some authors perceive publishers and how frequently writers are dissatisfied with the process. Friends in publishing think of those writers as the spawn of the devil, the evil seeds.

I asked my literary agent, Susan Arellano, what makes for a “bad” author. Susan has worked as an editor at both trade and university presses and now commands six-figure advances for academic authors. With characteristic acumen, she answered: “Bad authors are the ones who don’t know, or can’t remember, that publishing is a business.”

What does that mean? “It means that their egos take over and they want that New York Times ad even though they know that ads, more often than not, don’t sell books,” she said. “It means they think everyone in the world will want to buy their book, even though they know that a book on the semiotics of trout fishing has a very small audience.”

So how do you avoid being a bad author? Before you submit a manuscript to a press, make sure you’re writing to the right place. Ladette Randolph, associate director of the University of Nebraska Press, is, like most of the editors I know, quick to point out that she has few complaints about most of the writers she works with.

But she is frustrated by scholars who do not do enough research when it comes to submitting their work. “I daily receive proposals (and not just from junior scholars) for projects that are wildly wrong for our list,” she said.

When you’re looking for a publisher, look first at your own bookshelves. It’s easy to find the ones that publish in your field. Read the acknowledgment sections of the books you admire. There you’ll often find the name of the editor — and agent, if there was one.

Once you get settled with a press, do your job: Write a good book (of the appropriate length), prepare it according to the submission guidelines, and deliver it on time. Most publishers, especially at university presses, don’t care as much about exactly when you submit your final manuscript — regardless of the contract date — as that they know when to expect it.

Publishers plan years ahead. If you’re not going to make a deadline, let your editor know. If there’s not a multizeroed chunk of advance money losing interest, she’s likely not to make a fuss. But if you wait 10 years after the book is due and then send it in, chances are there won’t be a place for it on the next publishing list. That you’ve finished the book doesn’t mean the publisher has been waiting for it.

During the production process, keep in mind that no one goes into publishing because she wants to get rich, but do realize that publishers are professionals. They know their industry. Bill Sisler, director of the Harvard University Press, says, “What looks huge to an author — ‘my reputation will be ruined by being associated with such a shoddy product (my friends tell me)’; ‘that jacket design will embarrass me’; ‘I must have my alliterative, unintelligible title because it’s poetic and everyone will get the allusion’—  are often things that are unrelated to the actual publishing issues at stake.” Publishing, dear reader, is a business.

The most frequent complaint I hear from authors is that publishers don’t do enough for their books. The most frequent complaint I hear from publishers is that authors have unrealistic expectations.

Peter Agree, editor in chief at the University of Pennsylvania Press, recalls one of his former colleagues at Cornell University Press describing a certain kind of author: “S/he gives 110 percent and expects 125 percent in return.” That’s a common enough syndrome, Agree says, and adds that difficult authors “will press their points to extremes of obnoxiousness, in the name of reasonable self-interest. Gently inducting authors into the boundedness of the terrain of publication is an art, and it doesn’t always work in practice.”

Elizabeth Beier, executive editor at St. Martin’s Press, says that good authors understand that publishers want their books to succeed as much as authors do, and she advises writers not to “reflexively ascribe crass motives to publishers.” She says — and this is as true for academic authors as it is for those who go on to become best sellers — “Good authors can cogently describe their book in an appealing and efficient way, help think of promotional ideas, and have a sense of who the audience for their book truly is and what its size might actually be.”

Get your “elevator” pitch down — the one you can give in a 14-floor ride — and be able, also, to write a two-paragraph description for the lay reader. Don’t argue that “everybody” will buy your book because it is “interesting.” Don’t invoke the fictive “general reader.” Think hard about who needs to read your book. Often that’s people in your field or closely related fields, not everyone who subscribes to The New Yorker or listens to NPR.

Work with your publisher to find ways to reach the people who can reasonably be expected to buy your book.

Finally, don’t set yourself up for disappointment. Jeff Seroy, director of publicity at Farrar, Straus and Giroux, cautions: “Don’t introduce yourself to your publishers by talking about how poorly published you were by your previous publisher. This is a sure sign of an author who can’t be satisfied. That’s not to say that publishers always do a brilliant job. But I do believe that success depends on where you find it and the terms you set for it.”

We wouldn’t write if we didn’t want to be read. We get seduced by our topics and believe that the rest of the world should — and will — share our passions. But it doesn’t always work that way.

Authors need to be mindful about not being pains in the butt, while at the same time advocating for the things they truly care about. Not every comma is a matter of life and death, but if you haven’t heard from your editor in a while, it’s OK to drop a short e-mail and ask when you can expect to.

If all of this sounds obvious and reasonable, it is. But reasonableness is one of the first things to go when we toil to put our hearts and minds on the printed page. Books don’t get published by themselves, and most authors are gracious in recognizing that. Like any publishing veteran, the first section I read of a book is the acknowledgments. That’s often where you learn how “good” an author is, regardless of the quality of the content.