From The Chronicle of Higher Education, October 7, 2018
Publishing is midwifery — mostly unglamorous, with many hours spent hunched over manuscripts. While book and journal editors tend to be self-effacing helpers, they have a strong sense of what needs to be done to make a project the best it can be. After all, telling academic experts that you know how to improve something they’ve worked on for a long time takes more than a spoonful of confidence.
A beloved literary agent once said to me, “If I say there’s a problem, there’s a problem. I always know what’s not working, but I may not have the best suggestion for how to fix it. That’s up to you.”
It’s a gift to have someone point out what’s not working in your manuscript. Good authors pay attention to every single suggestion, no matter how trivial, and are grateful. And yet still, we complain. Based on my years on both sides of the table, in publishing and then as a professor myself, here are five common complaints from writers about the publishing process:
“I got no editing.” Most authors who complain about not getting edited don’t realize — or value — all the things the publisher actually did do to the manuscript. The changes may have fixed what you viewed as trivial mistakes, things you didn’t care about but helped the ultimate reader. That includes boring stuff like making sure the coding for the printer is correct and that the chapter titles are consistent. Depending on how old you are, you may have added two spaces after a period, one of which had to be deleted from every sentence in your manuscript.
Recently I spoke with a best-selling author who complained about not getting editing. “My editor did nothing,” he said. And yet, when I asked him about a few things he’d included in the book that struck me as a bit off, he said his editor made him put them in. The same editor who did no work on the manuscript?
You can’t whine about not getting enough editing and then agree to make changes that you don’t like. There’s a Goldilocks quality that makes only some editing seem just right — and it tends to be the kind that doesn’t dent your ego by pointing out what come to seem like embarrassing missteps in your work.
The bottom line is that it’s always your book. If you don’t agree with a particular suggestion, don’t accept it. But do think hard about the problem it’s trying to solve. No good editor ever forces language on a writer. It’s always a negotiation. Sometimes, after getting what you think is a final draft done and out of your hair, the last thing you want to do is go over it one more time. But if you don’t, then you can’t really complain about the final edit.
“They made me cut it.” Writing a book is hard, hard, hard. Doing it well takes passionate intensity. Often, you’re afraid that you’re going to leave something important out. You get so interested and invested in your research that everything seems essential. You fall in love with the sound of your own voice and cling to the stories you want to tell.
However, if you look at your contract — somewhere near the top — you’ll find a word count. And there’s a reason for that. Books are expensive to produce, and the longer they are, the more expensive. More important, most manuscripts can be cut substantially just by cleaning up and tightening the language.
If you can’t bear to cut your references or work harder to slim down your prose, you don’t get to complain that your book costs too much. Most long books don’t merit all those trees. Most would be better if cut, so instead of griping about it, do the work.
If you can’t do it — and it’s true, many of us are reluctant to murder our darlings — enlist help. If you care about the success of your book, hire someone to help you pare it down. There are plenty of freelance editors out there — all those people who fell off or never made it to the tenure track — who will know better than you what can be omitted.
“It’s taking too long.” Yes, it’s possible to publish a book in a matter of weeks. When there’s a big news event, publishers can produce instant books. How many of those have you actually read?
It’s not so much printing and binding that take time, it’s editing, designing, and planning a marketing strategy. It’s also the limited resources each press has available. In poetry, books are scheduled for publication years out because no one wants to flood the market with slim volumes of work for which there’s not much commercial demand. Yes, it’s important to bring them out — but slowly, so that each book gets the attention it deserves and the world doesn’t feel overwhelmed by too much poetry. (Though wouldn’t it be nice to live in a world where “too much poetry” was a complaint?)
Publishers plan out their seasonal lists, and at this point, most have plenty in the pipeline. Your editor should be able to give you an idea of when the book will come out once you send in the final, complete, and revised manuscript. After that, you’ll still have plenty of work to do: dealing with the copy-edited manuscript, proofing the pages, creating or commissioning an index, plus filling out all of the marketing materials it’s incumbent on you to take seriously if you want your book to do well.
To me, this waiting time, when the intellectual heavy-lifting on that book is done, is best spent getting started on the next one.
“My book didn’t get enough attention.”No author ever gets enough reviews, gigs, sales. And those who do — the lucky few who get sent on book tours — complain about how exhausted they are.
It’s up to authors to do the bulk of the promotional work. Your publisher will work with you, and support you, but they probably won’t send you on a multi-city book tour. I always silently giggle when I hear author friends talk about “touring.” They make it sound glamorous, but I know that really they’re just driving around to bookstores in towns and cities where, if they’re lucky, their local friends will bring a few friends to hear them read. The booksellers may ask them to sign the few copies in stock and give them a bottle of water.
Everyone in publishing realizes that ads do little more than soothe egos. Do you decide which movies to go see based on advertising? Is that how you pick your brand of toothpaste? If your book is on something that’s getting news play, it’s up to you to write op-ed pieces. Your publisher may help you pitch them, but you have to do the work instead of sitting around and waiting to be asked to weigh in.
How hard did you work on the marketing questionnaire your publisher asked you to fill out? Did you list all the places and people who might be interested to know about the book, along with ways to contact them?
Sometimes bad things happen to good books. Big news events — hurricanes, Supreme Court justice retirements, 9/11 — can supplant even the most buzzworthy books.
Remember that it’s in your publisher’s interest for your book to succeed. By the time it comes out, they’ve already invested in it. Help them make it work. Don’t ascribe bad motives to their efforts on your behalf. Keep communications open. Most of all, please don’t make their jobs harder by being a big pain in the butt.
“They’re getting rich off me; I should have self-published.” Most of the money a publisher makes comes from a small number of authors. Most books don’t even earn back their advances. Authors who think publishers are rolling in dough may also believe Bernie Madoff was a great money manager.
Those who think technology has turned publishing into a matter of simply printing out pages and binding them don’t understand the overhead that goes into the process. What you gain from going with an established publisher is expertise in a variety of areas. You get to keep company with other authors whose work you admire. You get (free!) prepublication reviews from your most distinguished peers — and a chance to fix embarrassing mistakes of fact and weak argumentation before it’s all set into type.
Most university presses keep books in stock for, like, well, forever. Unlike in commercial publishing, most academic editors stay at their presses for a long time. They’re not living in luxury thanks to your monograph.
Complain — but only to your closest friends. When you’ve spent so much time, energy, and love working on a book project, it’s only natural to want others to care about it as much as you do. If you get lucky, you’ll find an editor who loves your work almost as much as you do, and a press staff that does everything they can to make it work.
Even then, you may end up disappointed in ways big or small. That’s OK. Complain to your partner or your dog. But don’t trash the press to colleagues and please try to remain professional in your dealings with your publisher and its various staff members. Who knows? You may want to write another book for them.
Rachel Toor is a professor of creative writing at Eastern Washington University’s writing program in Spokane, and a former acquisitions editor at Oxford University Press and Duke University Press. Her website is Racheltoor.com .