How did you do on this weekend’s little quiz? How many examples did it take you to start to suspect that none of the exemplars were very adept at accepting feedback?
To hear agents and editors tell the tale, difficulty listening to and incorporating constructive criticism is the common cold of the writing breed: eventually, pretty much every writer seems to suffer from it in one form or another. They tend to attribute it to a writerly tendency to be so in love with their own words that the very notion of changing any of ‘em seems downright sacrilegious.
Of course, there are SOME writers who feel this way, but in my experience, that’s not really what is at the core of writers’ kicking and screaming over suggested changes. I suspect that in the vast majority of cases, the phenomenon has less to do with ego (which is what folks in the industry call it when they’re not being polite) than with unrealistic expectations going into the publishing experience.
Or, to put it another way: hands up, everyone who assumed when you first started writing that the draft the author believed was market-ready was identical, plus or minus some proofreading, to what would end up on the shelf at your local Barnes & Noble. Keep those hands raised if you also thought in your dimly-remembered innocence that agents never asked for manuscript changes and that only unmarketable books were subject to requests for major alterations by publishers.
And go ahead and give a great big primal scream if it is now or would ever have been news to you that the industry considers a manuscript a work-in-progress until the covers have actually been affixed to the book. In some cases, even after.
Let’s take a gander at that particular set of shattered assumptions, shall we? Don’t they all really stem from a belief that the writer has complete control over her artistic product — or, to put it a bit more graphically, that a manuscript must either be accepted as is or not at all?
One small problem with these beliefs: neither is true.
Oh, I can certainly understand why an aspiring writer would think that they were — you can hardly throw a piece of bread at a writers’ conference these days without hitting someone in the biz explaining at the top of his lungs that the literary market is so tight these days that a submission needs to be polished to the point where it could go to press as is in order to attract the attention of a really good agent or major publishing house.
This does not, however, mean that it will NOT be revised after that point.
In fact, you can bet your next-to-last nickel that it will, no matter how beautifully written that submission actually is. A manuscript’s being revised between acquisition and publication — and usually between the writer’s signing with an agent and the manuscript’s being submitted as well — is the NORM, not the exception. Typically, the editor who acquires the book, the higher-ups at the publishing house, the marketing department, AND the agent have creative input, at least to the extent of asking for changes.
In other words, our pal Alcibiades is not alone — and from his agent and editor’s points of view, it’s pretty astonishing that he would react as though he were. Because, you see, they know that he was not even the only author given a set of change requests that DAY.
Rather than sending you on your merry way for today with your tender sensibilities reeling into shock with the implications of all this for every manuscript currently under construction in the English language, I’m going to ask you to take a couple of deep, cleansing breaths.
No, not those little gasps: I want honest-to-goodness lung-swellers.
That’s better, isn’t it? To get you used to the concept of creative flux, I’m going to ask you to contemplate not the prospect of changing an entire manuscript at an agent or editor’s request, but merely a few short words.
Admittedly, I’m talking about some important words: the title of the book.
Ask 99.999% of aspiring writers — and about 90% of published authors — and they will tell you that a good title is crucial to the success of a book. When a stunner is chosen, then, it is set in stone.
Again, there are many good arguments to be made in favor of this belief. A good title intrigues potential readers: it has good meter, isn’t a cliché (and don’t we all wish the people who title movies understood THAT?), and feels good in the mouth. It is memorable, catchy, and ideally, has something to do with the content and/or tone of the book.
Knowing this, if you are like most authors, you have probably spent months or even years agonizing over whether the title you have selected for your baby is the right one.
So I really, really hate to be the one to break it to you, but the original title the writer bestows upon a manuscript is like the name given to a newborn kitten: the tyke may have been a perfect Cuddles in her infancy, but as an adult, she is probably going to transmogrify at some point into a Chelsea.
In other words, please do not be too disappointed if the title you picked is not be the one that ends up on the published book cover. The author’s choice seldom is.
Nice, deep breaths. That’s right.
This propensity to change is not, I’m told, a reflection upon writers’ ability to tell readers succinctly what their books are about so much as a practical demonstration that marketers control many ostensibly creative decisions. Even great titles hit the dust all the time, because they are too similar to other books currently on the market or don’t contain catchphrases that will resonate with the target market or even just don’t please the people who happen to be sitting in the room when the titling decision is made.
In fact, editorial rumor has it that many marketing departments will automatically reject the first title offered by the author, on general principle, no matter how good or how apt it may be, in order to put the publishing house’s stamp upon the book.
I don’t know how true this rumor is, but I can tell you for an absolute certainty that if your publisher retitles your book, literally everyone at the publishing house will think you are unreasonable to mind at all. In fact, they will probably be hurt if you are not positively thrilled with the new title.
Keep breathing. If you can get past this, the worst is over.
I could give you hundreds of examples, but as I have personal experience with this phenomenon, I’ll share it with you. My memoir was originally titled IS THAT YOU, PUMPKIN?, but I certainly did not expect it to stick. As a freelance editor and friend of hundreds of aspiring writers, I have held a lot of weeping authors’ hands in the aftermath of their titles being ruthlessly changed from above.
In short, I was expecting my title to be changed, and frankly, I was not expecting to be consulted about it. I am, after all, not a person with a marketing degree, but a writer and editor. I know a good title when I see one, but I cannot legitimately claim to know why one book will make its way up to the cash register while the one next to it won’t. I was prepared, then, to be humble and bow to the inevitable. I was prepared to be spectacularly reasonable.
This compliant attitude, I am sorry to report, was not adequate to deal with the situation. I could have been as chipper as Shirley Temple in tap-dancing shoes and as willing to change my habits as a first-time dieter, and it still would not have been enough.
As it happens, outside forces intervened, sealing my fate. At the time, my former writing teacher Philip K. Dick’s work was, and remains, popular with moviemakers: one of the selling points of my memoir was that two movies based upon his works were scheduled to come out within the next year and a half, A SCANNER DARKLY in the fall of 2005 and THE GOLDEN MAN in the summer of 2006. However, movie schedules being what they are and animation being time-consuming, A SCANNER DARKLY’s release date got pushed back to March, 2006. And THE GOLDEN MAN (retitled NEXT) was pushed back to 2007.
This could not have been better news to the folks sitting in marketing meetings in 2005, talking about my book. IS THAT YOU, PUMPKIN? was already scheduled to be published in the winter of 2006. In the blink of an eye, my nebulous publication date gelled into almost instantaneous firmness, to coincide with a film release date, and the marketing department decided within the course of a single meeting to change the title of my book to A FAMILY DARKLY.
“Interesting,” I said cautiously when my editor first told me that my baby had been rechristened while I was looking the other way. “Um, do you mind if I ask what A FAMILY DARKLY means?”
Thereupon followed much scintillating discussion – and no, I still haven’t found out what it means, or why it was deemed necessary to throw the rules of grammar to the winds. Suffice it to say that both sides set forth their arguments; mine were deemed too “academic” (meaning that I hold an earned doctorate from a major research university, which apparently rendered my opinion on what motivates book buyers, if not actually valueless, at any rate very amusing indeed to marketing types), and the title remained changed.
Some of you have gone cataleptic with horror, haven’t you? Try wiggling your toes and allowing yourself to be distracted by the question murmured by some of your fellow readers: “Why did they bother to discuss it with you at all, if they had already made up their minds?”
An excellent question, and one that richly deserves an answer; half the published writers I know have wailed this very question skyward repeatedly after their titles were summarily changed by their publishers. I believe that the answer lies in the field of psychology.
Because, you see, when a brand-new title is imposed upon a book, the publishers don’t just want the author to go along with it: they want the author to LIKE it. And if the title goes through several permutations, they want the author to be more enthusiastic about the final change than about the first one.
In other words: get out those tap-dancing shoes, Shirley.
Furthermore, your enthusiasm is, if you please, to be instantaneous, despite the fact that if the marketing department is mistaken about the market value of the new title, the author is invariably blamed. (Think about it: haven’t you always held your favorite writers responsible if their new books have silly monikers?)
Oh, and unless your contract states specifically that you have veto power over the title, you’re going to lose the fight hands down, even if you don’t suffer the argumentative handicap of holding postgraduate degrees.
This is not the kind of frustration you can complain about to your writing friends, either. You will see it in their eyes, even if they are too polite to say it out loud: you have a publishing contract, and you’re COMPLAINING?
Thus, the hapless author gets it from both sides: you’re an uncooperative, unrealistic, market-ignorant mule to your publishers, and you’re a self-centered, quibbling deal-blower to your friends. All anyone can agree about is that you are ungrateful beyond human example.
I wish I could report that I had found a clever way to navigate past this Scylla and Charybdis, to win the battle AND the war — but I have not, nor has any author I know. The best you can hope to be, when your time comes, is polite and professional. And a damned good tap-dancer.
I guess, in the end, all the writer can do is accept that some things, like the weather and the titles of her own books, are simply beyond her control, now and forever, amen. For my next book, I gave it my SECOND-best title, reserving my first choice for the inevitable discussion with the folks on the editorial side.
You know what? They kind of liked both of ‘em — and I preserved my reputation for being cooperative and flexible.
Why did I chose to tell you this story at the beginning of my series on taking feedback well, you ask? Simple: to demonstrate just how flexible a first-time author is expected to be — and how high the stakes can be if she can’t quite manage to bend on a small point.
If you’re going to limber up, I think you deserve to know for whom you will be performing that nifty dance routine. Keep up the good work!