The shape of things to come

A moment of silence, please: my editor is moving on from my publishing house. He will be a mere wistful memory long before my memoir hits bookshelves near you. In fact, in all likelihood, he’ll be gone before the book is print-ready.

“Wait a minute,” I hear you cry, insightful and empathetic creatures that you are. “Does that mean the book deal is broken?”

A fine, fine question, and one that richly deserves an answer: no. The contract is with the publishing house, not the editor — even though the author’s primary personal contact at the publishing house is the editor. In fact, other than a single rushed howdy-do with the head of the publishing house at a writers’ conference several years ago (we argued over cocktails about whether women have jowls, as I recall: he said we don’t, the dictionary and I say we do), my editor has been my ONLY contact so far with my publishing house.

Which renders his departure slightly nerve-wracking.

In practical terms, his taking a powder means that rather than a single editor’s carrying my book all the way through the publication process, I may be dealing with several. Or — and this prospect frightens me even more than being ruled by committee — none at all. Since the book is already available for presale on Amazon (at a SIGNIFICANT discount, I might add.) It is possible that as of now, it’s the marketing department’s baby.

Just so you know, I have not been singled out by the gods for special punishment: editors move around so much these days that it is not uncommon for several editors to have say over the same book. Not to mention the marketing department (who picked the title for me, but that’s the subject of a whole other blog) and money folks. Gone are the days when a single editor guided a writer’s entire career.

Now that I have broken this news to you, I hear discontented noises out there — and no wonder, if you’re one of the many who have screwed up your courage to pitch to an overworked editor at a conference. “We expend all of this energy,” I hear you murmuring, “trying to blandish a particular editor to fall in love with our books. And then, just as soon as I’ve found someone who will treat our babies with respect, she disappears, and I’m left with someone I’ve never met before? AAAAAAAAAH!”

This is not how you were told it was going to be, is it?

The writers’ world has been surprisingly slow in adjusting to the realities of the ever-changing publishing market. You can hardly throw a piece of bread at the average writers’ conference without hitting some publishing professional who will tell you that he is looking to form long-term working relationships with talented writers; you can hardly pick up any publication designed for the edification of aspiring writers without seeing a list of tips on how to target and appeal to the perfect editor for your work, one who will bring out the best in your prose, as if every editor were Maxwell Perkins.

Good writing, we have all been told a million times, will always find a home.

This view is charming, but rather dated. I think it reflects writers’ desires for editors who will cherish their work more than publishing realities. Of course, we all want an editor who will adore our every semicolon — writers tend to be shy people who take umbrage when someone tells them to hack their work apart and reconstruct it, so ideally, the editor-author relationship should be based upon implicit trust. A truly fine editor becomes steeped in her authors’ style, lives it, breathes it, loves it – and believes in it too fiercely to allow the author to get away with the kind of shortcuts, clichés, and lazinesses to which even the best of us can fall prey from time to time.

What writer worth her salt wouldn’t walk across the continent barefoot to embrace an editor like that?

While this Platonic editor was always, I’m afraid, more prevalent in authors’ imaginations than in practice, in earlier days, such symbiotic relationships were not uncommon. Thirty years ago, if a respected editor moved to another press, he often took his authors with him; once established, editor-author relationships sometimes lasted for decades. Obviously, it wasn’t always idyllic — you have only to read anything written by any member of the Algonquin Round Table about their relationships with their publishers to realize that it wasn’t all cocktails and urbane chatter — but often, the relationship was pleasingly symbiotic, the proverbial well-oiled machine, with each party playing his necessary and indispensable role in the publication process.

Nowadays, however, the process resembles one of those Rube Goldberg machines where toast is made by a squirrel eating a nut on a string, the string in turn yanking the doormat out from under the bowling ball, the bowling ball falling on the teeter-totter, sending the fat lady flying into the air…you get the picture. Now, the individual parts of the publishing machine are so autonomous that, from where the author is sitting, they sometimes seem unrelated.

Realizing this can help you market your writing more efficiently. Now, instead of an editor’s falling in love with your novel or NF book and snapping it up as his personal project, a rather large group of people, all performing different functions within the Rube Goldberg machine, need to agree that the world needs your book badly enough for them to publish it.

Here’s how it works. In order to be acquired, your work needs to appeal first to the editor, who then takes it to the editorial meeting. Everyone at the editorial meeting, however, will also have a pet project which he wants to acquire; squabbling ensues, and the competition can get pretty vicious. (I have been assured by a reliable source that a novel of mine once engendered so much controversy at an editorial meeting that a chair was thrown. The publishing house decided to pass on the book, for reasons of furniture preservation.)

Once your book has cleared this significant hurdle, it also has to be approved by the finance department, the marketing department, the legal department, and all of the other cogs in the publishing house’s machine. The input of these non-artistic entities, in case you are interested, is the primary reason that the formerly common advice to “revise and resubmit” has more or less fallen out of editorial vocabularies; editorial tastes are now not the only ones being consulted.

Thus the relative ease with which high-concept books pass through the publishing process: as my learned father used to say, complex people tend not to be popular. The same is true, alas, for books. The market appeal of MEMOIRS OF A MONKEE! can be grasped far more readily by a disparate group of people than a tender novel full of gentle symbolism about growing up in rural Washington, even if the novel’s writing deserves the Pulitzer Prize.

This structural shift is both very good and very bad for the first-time author. Good, insofar as a multiplicity of enthusiasts within the publishing house helps protect an author whose editor leaves mid-project – if your book bounces from one desk to another, the probability is much higher than in previous years that the eyes it falls under will be sympathetic. Now, once a book is acquired, it does not have a single cheerleader, but a squad complete with pom-pom girls and school administration. It’s bad, however, insofar as many more people need to fall in love with your writing, your story, your platform, your target demographics, etc. before you see a book contract.

And, as you may have noticed, it’s significantly harder for a new author to get published than it was even twenty years ago. So when an agent you’ve queried says, “Gee, I could have sold your book in the ‘80s, but now, I’ll have to pass,” she’s not just being nice. The way publishing decisions are made really has changed radically, and in ways that pose a significant disadvantage to the non-celebrity author trying to break into the biz.

If it makes you feel any better, the current environment is harder on editors, too. The average tenure of junior editors at major publishing houses is quite short, and, as those of you who read Publishers Weekly are no doubt already aware, editorial staffs are constantly being rearranged and streamlined. It’s not a job where you unpack your storage boxes before you have a corner office.

Occasionally, the editorial cast at a publishing house changes radically enough between when a book is acquired and when it is published that the cheering squad is rooting for another book. We’ve all heard horror stories about the hot new novelist who gets a big advance, only to find at the last minute that the publicity budget for his work has been shifted to another project. Believe it or not, the promotional budget is seldom specified in the book contract, so the author is very much subject to publishing house whim.

Now, all of us have a choice about how to respond to this change in publishing. We can sit around and sigh for those good old past times when writers formed lifetime working friendships with their editors, or we can eschew romanticism for the present and try to adapt ourselves to current conditions. Personally, I have only so much energy – given the choice between expending it in resentment, however well-founded, and in getting my words and ideas out before the public, my strategic sense tells me that I don’t have the luxury of sitting around and wishing I had F. Scott Fitzgerald’s editor. (Well, okay, not to sit around for more than a few minutes at a time…) I am a working writer, and it is my job to be realistic about the challenges I face.

We are traveling down an arduous road, my friends, one replete with fresh pitfalls every few feet; don’t let the tireless romantics of the conference and writers’ guide circuits convince you otherwise, or you’ll end up screaming in the night, wondering where you went wrong in a kindly world that’s eager for your work. Make your work as perfect as possible, by all means, but do be aware that the more people who are involved in the acquisition process, the less control — and even knowledge — you will have over how your book fares at even your dream publishing house.

We can all learn from the example of Louisa May Alcott, the author of that perennial YA favorite, LITTLE WOMEN, who struggled for seventeen years before she got her big break. Louisa wrote every day, mostly for ill-paying newspapers, primarily under pseudonyms, because she needed the money to support her family. Her first two books were, to put it kindly, great big flops, and she flailed about from genre to genre, trying to find her market. In a rejection letter, a publisher who declined her romance novel (which was, incidentally, quite good) mentioned that they would be willing to take a look at a book for girls. Louisa, by her own admission, didn’t like girls much, but as a writing professional, she gave it the old college try.

LITTLE WOMEN has never been out of print since. In the midst of her struggle to find her voice, she wrote, “I shall make a battering-ram of my head, and make my way through this rough-and-tumble world.”

May we all have her tenacity and permanent in-print status, my friends — although perhaps with swifter guardian angels, ones willing to whisper in the ears of the small army of people who need to approve each acquisition: “Buy this book.”

Now that I have depressed you all into a stupor, keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini