The changes you DON’T want to make, part V: the extremities

Today, thank goodness, is the last installment of my series on how to deal with change requests that you feel will damage your book if made. I have been dealing with this topic at length, because for all of the complaints one hears amongst writers about unreasonable editorial demands, writers actually do not tend to talk much amongst themselves about practical means of accommodating or rejecting requested changes. Yet another area, I suspect, where fear of appearing less accomplished than other writers (“Of course, I can make those changes! In my sleep!”) keeps us from sharing common experiences.

Before I move on to the final steps of the process, I want to repeat my earlier disclaimer: please do NOT take the steps advised below before taking the ones described in my last four blogs. Starting the delicate negotiation process in the middle will not speed your efforts; it will, however, greatly increase the probability of insulting your editor and/or agent, upon whose good opinion your work is largely dependent. Take it slowly, and remember to be polite at all times.

That being said, let’s move on to what you do when your editor or agent has refused to cooperate with your first genteel indications of displeasure.

(10) Bring in outside help.

If you have an agent, this is a great time to turn the matter over to her — the situation has gone beyond your ability to negotiate. Your agent may well know more about this editor than you do, or about editorial imperatives within the publishing house. There may be more going on here than you realize — such as, for instance, the hiring of a new senior editor who has just declared strong opposition to the kind of argument you are making in your book.

If you do turn the issue over to your agent, you must accept that you are no longer one of the negotiators. As such, you must accept the outcome. Think of it like the electoral college: technically, you are not voting for a presidential candidate, but for an elector who has PLEDGED to vote for that candidate. Like delegates taking the primary and/or caucus results from their states to the national elections (who are bound to vote for particular candidates only on the first ballot), electors can in fact change their votes in a pinch. Your agent may come back with a compromise that does not please you.

If the agent is the one making the suggestions, however, or if you do not have an agent, you need to explore other options for outside help. Running the remaining suggestions past your first readers, for instance. If you can legitimately go back to your critiquer and say, “Hey, I know that you are pretty firmly committed to my removing the Ellen character, but none of my 15 first readers drew the same conclusion you did about her. Your concern was about male readers, and half of mine were men. Would you be open to reading a revised manuscript that did retain Ellen, to see if any of the compensatory changes I made alters your dislike of her?”

If you are writing nonfiction, consider calling in an expert in the field to back you up. Having spent many years teaching in a university, I can tell you that most academics will very happily devote half an hour to talking to any writer who is interested in their life’s work. You may have trouble tracking down a famous professor to corroborate your points, but it is often surprisingly easy to get to one of the top people in the field. Offer to add a footnote or a line in your acknowledgments in exchange.

If the expert supports your view, resist the urge to gloat. Call your editor and say, “Hey, I’ve been thinking a lot about what you said about point X, and you raised an excellent point.” (Even if he didn’t.) “I thought I should double-check, so I contacted…” (Refer to your expert by every title she has ever held.) “And SHE says…”

Few editors or agents would continue to argue with you at this point.

(11) Recognize that you are dealing with someone else’s OPINION, not fact, and you may not be able to change his mind.

If the editor/agent categorically refused to negotiate certain points (or all of them), you may have found yourself reduced to point #10 rather quickly. Once you have winnowed out all of the fact-based objections and tried to prove that you are not alone in believing as you do, you just have to face that your critiquer may not actually have any rational reasons for certain of his objections. Something in your book may have rubbed him the wrong way, and he wants it out.

“In all matters of opinion,” Mark Twain wrote, “our adversaries are insane.”

It is seldom worth the energy to debate the merits of a personal dislike, but if you try, keep your tone respectful. Frequent use of such phrases as, “I respect your opinion, but…” and “I can see what you mean, but I think…” will go a long way toward keeping the conversation civil.

In an extremity, you can always go the Gaslight route — implying gently that the fault is not in the text, but in the beholder — but I warn you, it can provoke anger. Tread carefully as you say: “I’ve been over all of Ellen’s dialogue, and I’m afraid I still don’t see where it is overtly political. If you can identify it, I’d be happy to take out any particular phrase.”

You can fight the good fight for only so long, though, so do not allow this discussion to go for many rounds. Try to keep the squabbles brief, so that they do not come to dominate your relationship with your editor or agent.

(12) Know when to give in — but keep a copy of your original version.

Ultimately, you cannot move forward in the publication process unless your agent and editor approve of your work. As tempting as it might be to ignore the worst of the advice, don’t. Although you can often get away with not making minor changes, I can assure you that your critiquer WILL notice if you do not make the major ones. If, after you make your case as persuasively as you can while still remaining polite, and you have exhausted your other options for proving your point, prove that the book, and not the passage, is most important to you.
Make the changes.

Yes, I know it’s awful, but your only other viable option remaining would be to produce an ultimatum of your own: take my book as is or forget it. With an agent, this may well be a choice you are willing to offer. With an editor who has already bought your book, however, it is different. Given how VERY likely it is that an affronted editor will drop the book, and how very much harder it will be for your agent to re-sell it, now that it has a history of conflict, do make very sure that you are comfortable with BOTH of the options you are presenting before you present the ultimatum.

Many unpublished writers have romantic conceptions about the purity of their visions, but honestly, I have seen very few books where the entire point of the book was lost due to a stupid editorial decision. Consider this: you need to get your book published before you can make a name for yourself as an author. If the disagreement between you becomes a pitched battle, you are inevitably the loser in the end. Do not allow the argument to go on long enough or become vicious enough that the editor considers dropping the book — or your agent considers dropping you.

I know this sounds like a nightmare for your reputation, but often, poor editorial choices harm the author less than you’d think within the industry. Forced editorial changes that are bad ideas are common enough that everyone in the publishing industry will merely shrug sympathetically and believe you when you mention in later years that your did not want to make the changes in question.

If you make sure to keep a copy of the original version of the book, the one before any of the hateful changes, you can always reinstate your vision in future editions — or, and this actually isn’t terribly far-fetched, if the editor is replaced anytime in the near future. Editors move around a great deal these days, you know.

After you decide to play ball, get the manuscript off your desk as soon as humanly possible; don’t give yourself time to continue to agonize. No need to send a cover letter admitting that you’ve thrown in the towel; just a polite note accompanying the manuscript, saying that you have revised it, will suffice.

Notice what has happened here: although it may not feel like it at the time, you are actually better off than you were at the beginning of the revision process. By being polite and professional, you will have established yourself as being reliably pleasant under pressure, a trait publishing house like to know that their authors have before sending them on publicity tours. By going methodically through the steps, you probably will have gained at least a few concessions, so you will be better off than you would have been if you had just kept quiet and made them all.

You will definitely be better off than the many, many writers who, upon being faced with nasty editorial demands, just throw up their hands and hide for months on end, procrastinating about dealing with the book at all. I can’t even begin to count the number of times I have heard agents and editors complain bitterly about writers who do that. Instead, you kept your dignity and worked through the problem like a professional. Bravo! (Or brava, as the case may be.)

I hope that you will never be in a position to need this advice, of course — but now you are prepared if you ever should. Starting tomorrow, I shall be moving on from this ultra-depressing topic to lighter, more congenial matters. A relief for everyone, I expect, including your humble correspondent.

Keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

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