The getting-a-book-published basics, part II: the control conundrum

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My last post was so excessively long that I wore myself out, apparently: I barely had the energy to work my way through the couple of hundred e-mails from well-meaning readers of the Wall Street Journal, asking if (a) I’d seen this article and (b) whether those mentioned within its paragraphs were the same who kept threatening to sue my publishers (although not, perversely, yours truly) over my as-yet-to-be-released memoir, A FAMILY DARKLY: LOVE, LOSS, AND THE FINAL PASSIONS OF PHILIP K. DICK. I appreciate all of you kind souls taking the time to make sure I had (a), but since the answer to (b) is yes (and with arguments similar to those mentioned in the article), it would probably be prudent for me not to comment upon it here. Or, indeed, anywhere.

Except to say: ever get that feeling of déjà vu?

Back to the business at hand. For those of you who happened to miss yesterday’s epic post, I’m going to be devoting the next couple of weeks to explaining briefly how a manuscript moves from the writer’s fingertips to publication. There are several ways that this can happen, of course, and but for starters, let’s concentrate upon what most people mean by a book’s getting published: being brought to press and promoted by a large publisher. In the US, that publisher’s headquarters will probably be located in New York.

Everyone clear on the parameters — and that what I am about to say might not be applicable to a big publishing house in Paris, Johannesburg, or Vladivostok? Or indeed, a small, independent US publisher? Good. Let’s recap a bit from last time — and while we’re at it, let’s get conversant with some of the terms of the trade.

How a manuscript typically comes to publication at a major U.S. publishing house these days (as opposed to way back when)
As we discussed last time, fiction is typically sold as a completed manuscript; nonfiction is usually sold as a book proposal, a packet of marketing materials that includes a sample chapter and a competitive market analysis, showing how the proposed book will offer the target readership something different and better than similar books already on the market. While the proposal will also include a summary of each of the chapters in the book-to-be-written (in a section known as the annotated table of contents; for tips on how to construct this and the other constituent parts of a book proposal, please see the perversely-named HOW TO WRITE A BOOK PROPOSAL category on the archive list located at the lower right-hand side of this page), the editor will often ask the writer to add or subtract chapters or change the book’s running order.

Which underscores a point I made last time: a nonfiction book proposal is essentially a job application wherein the writer is trying to convince the publisher to pay him to write the book being proposed; a novel is a product that the author is trying to sell.

I can already feel some of your eyes glazing over from jargon fatigue, can’t I? Hang in there; I assure you that there are plot twists to come. (Not to mention a self-editing tip for those of you who long for the return of my December series of same!)

A hundred years ago, writers who wished to get their books published went about it in a fairly straightforward manner, by approaching editors at major publishing houses directly. If the editor liked the book, he would take it to what was (and still is) known as an editorial committee, a group of editors and higher-ups who collectively decided what books the house would bring out in the months and years to come. If the editorial committee decided to go ahead with the project, the publisher would typically pay the author an advance against projected royalties, edit the manuscript, and have it typeset (by hand, no less).

Today, a writer who intends to approach a large U.S. publisher generally must do so through an agent. The agent’s job is to ferret out which editors might be interested in her clients’ books and pitch to them. Unless an editor happens to be exceptionally well-established at his or her house, however, s/he is not the only one who needs to approve a book’s acquisition: typically, the book will still go before an editorial committee.

At that point, back in the day as well as now, it’s the editor’s turn to be the advocate for the book s/he wants to publish — and that’s not always an easy task, because other editors will be fighting for their pet projects at the meeting as well. Since a publishing house can only afford to bring out a very small number of books in any given marketing season, the battle for whose project will see print can become quite intense, and not only amongst the editors around the table. At a large publishing house, the marketing and legal departments might weigh in as well.

If a manuscript makes it through the hurly-burly of editorial committee debate, the editor will offer the writer a publication contract. (Actually, s/he will offer it to the writer’s agent, but it amounts to the same thing.) Contractual terms vary widely, but at base, a publishing contract will state that in return for pocketing the lion’s share of the profits, the publisher would bear all of the production and promotional costs, as well as responsibility for getting the book onto bookstore shelves.

In return, the author will agree to provide the manuscript for by a particular date (usually quite soon for a novel — which, as you will recall, is already written before the agent takes it to the editor) or as much as a year and a half later for a book proposal. After the author delivers the completed manuscript (usually in both hard copy and as a Word document), if the editor wants changes, s/he will issue an editorial memo requesting them.

If your heart rate went up by more than a third at the very suggestion of being asked to alter your manuscript, you might want to sit down, put your feet up, and sip a soothing beverage whilst perusing the next section. (Chamomile tea might be a good choice.)

Why? Because when an author signs a book contract, she’s agreeing to more than allowing the publisher to print the book.

Control over the text itself
The author gets to decide what her own book does and doesn’t say, right? Not to mention how it’s expressed.

Actually, no, if she sells the rights to a publisher. While the author may negotiate over contested points, the editor will have final say over what will appear on the pages of the finished book. The contract will say so.

And no, in response to what you’re probably thinking: you’re almost certainly not going to be able to win an argument over whether something your editor wants changed will harm the artistic merit of the book. (Sorry about that, but it’s better that you’re aware of this fact going in.)

How do I know? Experience, mostly. After all, pretty much every first-time author faced with editorial demands has attempted to declare something along the lines of, “Hey, buddy, I’m the author of this work, and what you see on the page represents my artistic vision. Therefore, I refuse to revise in accordance with your (boneheaded) suggestion. Oh, well, that’s that.” Or at least thought it very loudly indeed.

That’s an argument that might conceivably work for a well-established, hugely marketable author, but as virtually all of those aforementioned first-time authors could tell you, no one, but no one, at a publishing house is going to find the “My art — my way!” argument particularly compelling.

Or even original.

Why? Well, remember my earlier quip about how publishing houses can only bring out a few titles in any book category per year, far, far more than their editors would like to bring to press?

Uh-huh. It’s never wise to issue a take-it-or-leave-it ultimatum to people so well equipped with alternatives that they can easily afford to leave it. Especially if the issue in question is something as small as cutting your favorite paragraph.

I’m telling you all this not to depress you — although it’s not all that difficult to imagine what I just typed having that effect, admittedly — but so that you will not waste your energy and reputation on battling over every single requested change with your editor. If you bring a book to successful publication, I can virtually guarantee that you will have to compromise on something; editorial control is built into the publishing process. Learning to pick your battles, figuring out when give in gracefully and when to go to the mat, will serve both your interests and your book’s best in the long run.

May I hear an amen? No? How about a few begrudging grunts of acknowledgment? Well, suit yourself, but if you found that last argument trying, you might want to find something to bite down upon before you read on.

Why, you ask with trembling voice? Well, final say over the actual text and the ability to determine the timing of publication are not generally the only authorial rights one signs over via a publishing contract.

Other matters that aspiring writers generally assume that they will control after they sign a book contract, but usually don’t
Just a few of the tidbits that most first-time authors are stunned to learn that they cannot dictate for their own books: the typeface, the type of binding, the use of italics or special fonts, the number of illustrations, if any, when it will come out, and what the cover will look like.

Also almost always beyond a first-time author’s ability to do anything about: the book’s title (that’s generally the marketing department’s call, believe it or not) and whether there is an acknowledgments page (the reason that they have become rarer in recent years is not that authors as a group have magically become less grateful, but that, like the dedication and epigraphs — those nifty quotes from other authors that often appear in published works — they take up extra page space, and thus render publishing a book more expensive).

I feel you glowering, but don’t blame me — I’m just the messenger here. As a memoirist whose title was summarily changed by her publisher from something she expected to be changed (Is That You, Pumpkin?) to one that was bizarrely ungrammatical (A Family Darkly), believe me, my sympathies are mostly on the writers’ side here. (And no, no publishing house employee was ever able to explain to me with any degree of precision what they thought their preferred title meant. The marketing department just thought it would be a good idea for the cover to make a vague reference to A SCANNER DARKLY, because the movie would be coming out around the same time.)

My point is, while landing a publication contract for a first book is certainly a coup, you’ll have a much, much happier life as a professional writer if you don’t expect it all to be one big literary luncheon where the glitterati congratulate you warmly on the beauty of your prose and the insight of your book’s worldview. It’s going to be hard work — for a crash course in just how hard many first-time authors find it, please see the GETTING GOOD AT INCORPORATING FEEDBACK category on the list at right — and if you’re going to be successful at it, you’re going to need to come to terms with what you can and cannot control.

Speaking of which…

The hows and whens of book publishing
Another matter that the publication contract will specify is the format in which the publisher will release the book. Translation: it won’t be up to you whether your book will be released in hardcover or not. That may not distress you now, but it may well come the release date: historically, the author’s percentage of the cover price (a.k.a. the royalty) has been higher for a hardcover book than for a paperback.

One reason for that: hardcover books were considered more serious, literarily speaking, than a volume a reader could fold and stuff into a back pocket. In fact, until fairly recently, newspapers and magazines habitually reviewed only hardcovers for most novel categories, since that was the standard for high-quality fiction releases.

In the last 15-20 years, however, fiction (and quite a bit of nonfiction, too) has been released in trade paper, those high-quality softcovers that so conveniently may be rolled and stuffed into a purse or backpack, so the earlier review restriction has softened. That’s definitely good news for first-time novelists, as well as those of us who like to lug around several different books when we travel. Typically, the author’s royalty on a trade paper release is lower than for a hardback, but higher than for paper.

Everyone with me so far, or are you mentally calculating how much you will end up making per hour for writing your novel. Don’t even go there; that way lies madness.

Once an editor has acquired a manuscript, it is assigned a place in the publisher’s print queue. In other words, the publisher will tell the author when the book will actually be printed. Since much must happen between the time the editor receives a finished manuscript and when it goes to press, the contracted date by which the author must provide the book is generally months prior to the print date.

This, too, often comes as a surprise to a first-time author. If you wish to see your books published, though, you will have to come to terms with the fact that an author’s life is a hurry up/wait/hurry up/wait existence.

Its main manifestation: how long it takes for a major publisher to bring out a book. Although they sometimes will do a rush job to meet the demands of a current fad, the typical minimum time between an author’s signing a book contract and the volume’s appearance in bookstores is at least a year.

And that’s for fiction — which, as you will no doubt recall, is already written before the publisher has any contact with the book at all. For nonfiction, the time lapse is often substantially longer, in order to permit the author to write the book in question.

The moral: although one does indeed see books on current news stories hitting the shelves within a matter of weeks (the OJ Simpson trial, anyone?), that is most emphatically not the norm. A savvy writer takes this into account when constructing a narrative, avoiding references that might seem absolutely up-to-the-minute when he first types them, but will be as stale as last year’s fashions a year or two hence, when the book is finally available for readers to buy.

The publishing world’s term for a book that contains references likely to spoil over time is easily dated. Unless you are trying to tie your characters to a very specific time and place (as most contemporary fiction doesn’t), excising such references prior to submission usually increases its marketability.

A market-savvy self-editing tip for novelists and memoir-writers: go through your manuscript, highlighting any cultural reference that might not make sense to a reader five years hence. When in doubt, whip out your highlighting pen. Mention of a character on a TV show? Mark it. Complaint about a politician currently in office? Mark it? Any reference at all to Paris Hilton? Perez Hilton?

You get the idea. This is not a moral judgment you’re making, but a calculation about pop culture longevity.

While you’re reading, take the time to note what the reference is and the manuscript page on which it appears. After you finish, go back and read through the list: would your target reader have recognized each of these five years ago? If you’re writing for adults, would a reader in high school now know what you’re talking about? Are you really willing to bank on whether Arby’s latest moniker for a sandwich is here to stay — or that your target reader will even know about it?

If you aren’t sure about the long-term cultural resonance of, say, the McRib, walk into your local community library, find the person reading the 19th-century novel (if you can’t find one in the stacks, try behind the check-out desk), and offer to buy that kind soul a nice cup of coffee if s/he will be nice enough to take a gander at your list. If the lady with her nose in a minor Charlotte Brontë novel doesn’t recognize a cultural reference, chances are that it’s not as pervasive a phenomenon as you may have thought.

After you have figured out which references need to be changed or omitted, go back and examine the ones you decided could stay. Is that reference actually necessary to the paragraph in which it appears? Is there another way that you could make the same point without, for instance, using a brand name?

Meanwhile, back at the ranch…
As I was walking you through that last exercise, I spotted some raised hands out there. “Um, Anne?” the folks attached to those hands inquire timidly. “I don’t mean to seem shallow about my writing, but I notice that you haven’t said much about how and when an author actually gets paid for her work. Since I will have invested years of unpaid effort in writing a novel or perhaps months in constructing a marketable book proposal, is it unreasonable for me to wonder when I might start to see some sort of a tangible return on that investment?”

Of course it isn’t shallow. Let’s take a closer look at how and when a writer might conceivably start cashing in for those manuscripts and/or book proposals she’s written on spec.

How authors get paid for their books
As I mentioned in passing above, an author who publishes through a large publisher is paid a pre-agreed proportion of the book’s sale price, known as a royalty. An advance against royalties (known colloquially just as an advance) is an up-front payment of a proportion of what the publisher expects the author’s percentage of the jacket price for the initial print run (i.e., the total number of books in the first edition).

Generally speaking, the more spectacularly the publisher expects the book to sell, the larger the advance. That’s a calculation based upon a lot of factors: how much it will cost to print the book (anything over 500 pages requires more expensive binding, for instance, and color photos are expensive to reproduce), how large the already-existing market is for similar books, how difficult the marketing department thinks it will be to reach those readers, whether Barnes and Noble is having a bad year, and so forth.

It is, in fact, a guesstimate — and as such, tends to be low, especially for first-time authors.

Why not aim high, let the author quit her day job, and hope for the best? Because the advance is by definition an estimate of a number that no human being could predict with absolute accuracy, if the publisher’s estimate was too high, and thus the advance too large for the royalties to exceed, the author is seldom expected to pay back the advance if the book doesn’t sell well. However, once the book is released, the author does not receive further royalty payments until after her agreed-upon share of the books sold exceeds the amount of the advance.

Since approximately 2/3rds of you just gasped audibly, let me repeat that last bit: the advance is not in addition to royalties, but a prepaid portion of them. An advance is not a signing bonus, as most people think, but a down payment toward what a publisher believes it will eventually owe the author.

While your jaw is already dropped, let me hasten to add that royalties over and above the advance amount are usually not paid on an as-the-books-sell basis, which could entail the publisher’s cutting a check every other day, but at regularly-scheduled intervals. Once every three or six months is fairly standard.

The moral: read your publication contract carefully. If you don’t understand what it says, ask your agent to explain it to you; it’s her job.

Those hands just shot up again, didn’t they? “I’m glad you brought that up, Anne. You’ve made it clear why I would need an agent to help me though this process, which sounds like a drawn-out and somewhat unpredictable one. So how do I go about finding the paragon who will protect me and my work?”

I’m glad you asked, hand-raisers — but I’m afraid agent-seeking is a topic for another day.

Before I signed off, allow me to add: don’t feel bad if you were previously unaware of how writers get paid; half the published authors I know were completely in the dark about that last point until their first books had been out for five months or so. It’s not something that we talk about much in the writing community, perversely. And that’s a shame, because In the current market, when advances for new are often reflective of the gloomiest projections, while those for bestselling authors keep rising, I suspect that a significant percentage of the authors who sign their first publication contracts in the months to come are going to be mystified at being offered an honorarium when they expected enough dosh, if not to allow them to retire to write full-time, at least to permit cut back their hours.

Don’t panic; conditions change. One thing you may rely upon to remain the same, however: the writer who is in it for the love of literature probably going to be happier enduring the ups and downs of getting published than the one who walks into it with dollar signs in his eyes. Good writing is a gift to humanity, after all, every bit as much as it is a commodity for its author to sell.

Keep up the good work!

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