Control issues

I’ve just been reminded — rather rudely, in fact — of just how little control the author actually has over most of the aspects of the publication process. Oh, we all have our fantasies about how our books will be so perfect by the time we send them to the publishing house that not one comma needs to be changed, but even if that were true (and possible), the vast majority of what happens to a book after a publishing house gets its mitts on it happens AROUND the text, rather than TO it. Every couple of weeks throughout the publishing process, the writer is reminded of that.

And that in turn reminded me that it had been awhile since I filled my dear readers in on the publication process for my memoir, A FAMILY DARKLY: LOVE, LOSS, AND THE FINAL PASSIONS OF PHILIP K. DICK. I haven’t been talking about my book much lately, partially for legal reasons (yes, my publisher is STILL being threatened with a lawsuit of puzzling purpose; my publisher has asked me not to discuss it in any detail in this forum, but if you’re interested, I’m told that a lengthy pseudonymous debate has been dragging on for months at the estate-owned Philip fan forum. I haven’t been following it myself, but if you’re a fan of vituperative personal abuse, it’s apparently been the place to be), and partially because, from the author’s point of view, the period after the final draft has been overnighted to the publisher is rather uneventful.

Which is to say, a great deal is going on, but the author (and, to a surprising extent, the author’s agent) is often left out of the loop. Scads of decisions are made outside the author’s presence, as it were; as with the title change, I found out about most of them only in retrospect.

“Title change?” I hear some of you asking, clutching your manuscripts to your chests. “What do you mean, someone else picked the title for your book? Could that happen to ME?”

In a word, yes.

For those of you new to this forum, the title of my memoir was changed (it was originally entitled IS THAT YOU, PUMPKIN?) summarily by my publisher, without either my consent or my input. That in itself was not at all unusual — as I have mentioned before, there are many publishing houses where first books are AUTOMATICALLY retitled by publicity departments, more or less on general principle. Puts their mark on the book, I guess. What was odd (but, alas, not unheard-of) was that I learned of the title change by stumbling across my book, months before I had been told it would be available for presale, on Amazon.

It was, I admit, a bit startling. It was also the first time I had seen the cover.

I’ve been polling all of the current first-time authors I know (and I know plenty) on the subject, and this sort of “oops — did we forget to let you know?” issue seems to be the norm, rather than the exception. Remember last month (October 13, to be precise), when I broke the news to you that you probably would not be the person titling your own book? Well, here’s a list of other little details that the writers I polled found to be beyond their control since I posted that:

– Their release dates

– The number of chapters and/or the overall length of their books

– The narrative tone

– The subject matter, in one or more important respects

– Final grammatical choices

– The target audience

None of these, interestingly enough, were changed because the original drafts and/or plans were not good; in fact, in most of these cases, the authors had actually been praised for the very aspect of the book that ended up getting changed. (Or so report the authors, and they have no reason to make up stories of personal disappointment.) Sometimes these changes work, sometimes they don’t. It’s sort of like when a self-styled handy friend targets an appliance of yours that works just fine, but makes a noise while it functions: it’s impossible to tinker with one part of the mechanism without throwing the others out of kilter, necessitating further adjustments. Depending upon the skill of the tinkerer and the initial structural stability of the tinkeree, the end product can purr like a kitten and work like John Henry — or it can cough and splutter itself to a standstill.

What seems to be common to every experience of this kind is that the author, like the appliance-owner, stands on the sidelines, making small squeaks of terror while her baby is reworked.

Interestingly enough, all of these writers report that they felt powerless even over matters that were set forth specifically in the contract as areas of joint approval. (I, for instance, technically had approval rights over the cover — and we’ve seen how THAT worked out. And this is, mind you, with an editor who loves the book and likes me personally.) As Thomas Hobbes was so fond of saying, “Rights are the ability to enforce them.” Once a book cover is posted on, say, Amazon or B & N, there’s not a whole lot the author can do about it.

As so many first-time authors can tell you to their chagrin, publishers’ minds are apt to change without warning, so cultivating a Zen-like calm in the face of ever-changing circumstances is arguably in your best interest. My current mantra is “But it IS being published” — repeated about 150 times per day, it’s fairly effectual in keeping teeth-grinding at bay.

Which may be the reason that I have a reputation at my agency and publishing house for being ultra laid-back. Since NYC publishing types are prone to rather peppery exchanges, my being naturally soft-voiced gives the impression of being far more reasonable than the actual content of the discussion would dictate. And, to tell you the absolute truth, it’s been my experience that Manhattanite agents, editors, publishers, and publicists tend to zone out during the I-statements that we West Coast denizens have been taught to use in argument: I have long suspected that each time I say, “I think” or “I feel”, my genuinely kind and conscientious agent and publisher take it as a signal to take a ten-second nap.

We West Coasters have a reputation for being laid-back, you know; we should take advantage of it more often.

One of the most valuable tools you can have in your writer’s kit is a vast amount of long-term patience. You’re going to need all of it you can, precisely when you think you have exhausted it though months and years of writing and agent-hunting. As I keep saying over and over again in this forum, the race is not finished until your book has been on the bookshelf at Borders for six months. Then, and only then, will your efforts on its behalf get to flag a little.

Lest this sound impatient on my part, or anything but exhausted, do bear in mind that my inspiration-to-publication road has been unusually SHORT. In fact, the pace has been quite blistering, by industry standards. I started writing the book in February, 2004; I won the PNWA contest in July, 2004; I signed with my agent in October, 2004, after delays that were almost entirely self-imposed (S.G. had offered representation some time before, but I wanted to take the time both to get to know her and the two other agents I was considering and finish a first draft of the book before I signed); I spent the rest of the autumn of 2004 revising my book proposal; the book went out to editors at the end of January, 2005, and it sold in the middle of March of this year. I delivered the manuscript at the beginning of June, and according to Amazon, those eager readers who have pre-ordered it (at a significant discount, I should report) will be receiving physical copies of the book in early February, 2006.

That’s less than two years after the original urge to write the book popped into my head. And I have STILL found occasion to use every ounce of patience in the face of change that I had stored in my writer’s tool kit. Not to mention every iota of the flexibility I had hidden there, and the support of every writing friend I have made over the years. Because the vast majority of what happens to a book after it is bought by a publisher has absolutely nothing to do with the writing, but with accommodating the professional and personal preferences of a seeming army of competing departments within the publishing house. With so many voices clamoring, the author’s is bound to get drowned out every once in awhile.

Everyone chant with me now: but it IS being published. But it is being published.

Keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

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