Today, thank goodness, is the last installment of my series on how to deal with revision requests — and buckle your seatbelts, everybody; it’s going to be a bumpy night.
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! Hanging upside-down from my toes like a bat!”) keeps us from sharing common experiences.
Also, most published writers are too nice (or too reputation-savvy) to discuss the problems their books have encountered on the way to publication, even in the relative safety of a writing class or literary contest. So their published comments on the subject tend to sound as though they’ve just joined a major sports franchise: “Everyone here has been wonderfully supportive. I’m just trying to do my best for the team.”
Understandable, of course, but not as helpful to constructing aspiring writers’ expectations of the publishing process as it might be.
Especially for a first book. If you are new to the writing game, you are, unfortunately, far more susceptible to micro-editing than a better-established author; from the editor’s prospective, you have fewer bargaining chips, and from yours, you do not yet have the market experience to be able to put your foot down with credibility.
To put it bluntly, you do not yet have a comeback to that all-too-common editorial comment, “Look, I know what sells, and you don’t.”
While it definitely behooves a new author to recognize that this statement is usually true, today, we’re going to tackle the worst-case scenario for when it isn’t: what do you do if your agent or, still worse, your editor has asked you to make a major textual change that you genuinely feel would be harmful to the book AND every polite, professional means of demurring has failed?
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 post — or, indeed, the ones from throughout this entire series. 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.
If you have taken the steps in order, by the time you are ready to proceed to the more serious argumentative steps below, you will have learned enough about your critiquer to be able to avoid his pet peeves in argument. You also will already have taken the minor points off the table, in order to concentrate on the primary issues; Steps 1 — 10 (explained in my last posts) will achieve that.
Even if you cannot resolve all of your contested points, you will at least have learned a great deal about WHY the editor wants the changes — and how flexible he is. If he’s a my-way-or-the-highway kind of guy, or if he is terrified of symbolism, or if he’s a point-of-view Nazi, you’re MUCH better off knowing that early in the editing process.
This may not, in short, be someone accustomed to compromise.
From here on out, I am going to assume that you have been a model of restraint and courtesy throughout your dealings with the poor advice-giver. Let’s move on to what you do when your editor or agent has refused to fall in with your first genteel indications of displeasure.
(11) Make the changes you have already agreed to make — then reassess.
It’s a good idea to wait a few days, deadlines permitting, before implementing ANY changes you conceded in your earlier discussions. It’s been my experience that my clients tend to feel rather let down if they make the changes right away, as though they had lost the fight entirely. Taking some time to let the intense feelings subside permits you to reassess the text calmly.
Then take a look at the remaining contested points: is there any way at all that you could make those changes, now that you have won some of the concessions that you wanted? In other words, are you sure that you want to push this fight to the next level?
(12) Make your case — but do not, under any circumstances, resort to ultimatum.
I know, I know: so far, this has been a list of dos, rather than don’ts. I mention this because it’s almost always the first thing a writer wants to do at this juncture.
Heck, for many writers, it’s the first thing they want to do when any conflict arises with their agents or editors; I’ve known writers who have threatened to dump agents who went three days without answering an e-mail.
I can’t imagine how writers gained a reputation for being a hypersensitive bunch.
I’m not bringing up our collective reputation flippantly — it does affect how folks in the industry respond to our e-mails when we’re angry. It’s not all that uncommon for an agent to hold off on answering a writer’s anguished outcry for a few days or even a week, waiting for this author to calm down.
Unfortunately, many writers interpret silence as rejection. (Can’t imagine why they would leap to that conclusion, can you, when some agencies now no longer bother to inform submitters that their manuscripts have been rejected?) After a few such missives, upping the ante to an ultimatum may well appear to be the only means to get an agent or editor’s attention.
Don’t do it.
Even if you are 100% right, engaging in a pitched battle with your editor after the book is often like a Mini Cooper’s contesting the right of way with a Mac truck: legally, the truck may have to yield to the Mini, but if it does not, the Mini is going to be far more damaged than the truck, right?
As I MAY have mentioned before, the steps to come are to be reserved for ONLY those situations where you have tried several rounds of tactful, non-confrontational approaches to ironing out your differences with your editor or agent FIRST. If you escalate the conflict too early in the discussion process — as, alas, too many writers do — before you have tried the preliminary steps, you run the risk of being dismissed as unable to take criticism.
At worst, your passion in defense of your book may come across to your editor as an ultimatum: take my book as is or not at all. Or, in the case of a revision request impasse with an agent, as an implied threat: stop asking me to change my manuscript and start sending it out to editors, or I’ll take it to another agency.
Bad, bad, BAD idea. This is not an industry that takes well to ultimata. They’re far too likely to say, in the words of the immortal Noël Coward, “Pack up your talent; there’s always plenty more.”
Yes, even with the author of a book they love. Most standard publishing and agency contracts are specifically written to make it far from difficult for an editor to dump an uncooperative writer.
So do try your utmost not to allow the situation to degenerate into ultimatum-flinging. You may be hopping mad, and thus have to do violence to your emotions in order to take the early non-confrontational steps I advised earlier, but trust me, it’s honestly in your best interest to be as sweet as pie socially while you are raising hell textually.
(13) Separate the fact-based issues from the opinion-based issues, and demonstrate that you are correct about the facts.
This may seem as though you should have done it at the beginning of the process, but providing someone who regards himself as an authority on a book with evidence that he is flat-out wrong is actually a fairly confrontational move. Few of us like admitting that we are wrong, and occasionally, one does meet an editor or agent who is on, as we say on this coast, his own little power trip. Even if you absolutely have to prove your contentions, it’s best not to humiliate your opponent.
Be very clear about whether it is the fact in your book your critiquer is contesting or your interpretation of them — an issue very likely to be muddied in a memoir or other nonfiction book. If you have done your homework and can back up your claims, the should be non-negotiable; if it is the facts, quietly provide photocopies of reputable print sources for your contentions. (Print sources are better than electronic ones in this instance, as the printed word has greater power in the publishing industry than does electronica.)
On questions of grammar, for instance, simply photocopy the page in one of the standard editing guides — you own a copy of Strunk & White, right? — and mail it to your critiquer. Write a nice cover letter, of course, saying, “Hey, after our discussion about this, I thought I should double-check my facts, and…”
Don’t gloat, and don’t negotiate: you are sending this corroboration as a courtesy, not as persuasion. This evidence is merely your way of explaining why you will NOT be making the requested factual or grammatical changes. Do it politely, and finish your cover letter with an assurance that you’re already busily working on the OTHER changes he’s requested.
At the end of this step, you should have a list of all of the remaining contested issues that are purely matters of opinion. Again, reassess: are the remaining points worth a fight?
(14) Bring in outside help, if appropriate.
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 recognize 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, FYI; the media seem a little fuzzy about how that fact might conceivably affect the Democratic nomination this year), electors can in fact change their votes in a pinch.
In other words, 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 and are in dispute with an editor at a small press, you may need to explore other options for outside help.
Running the remaining suggestions past your first readers, for instance. Your bargaining position will be marginally stronger 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 agent or 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. You will have given them a piece of proof that they can use if higher-ups at the publishing house raise the concern.
(15) For the opinion-based suggestions, 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 steps #13 and #14 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 several times now, 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 that strikes you as untoward.”
You can fight the good fight for only so long, though, so do not allow this kind 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.
(16) Know when to stop arguing. Either walk away or give in — but either way, 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. Period. If you have done everything possible to make sure that you understand how and why your agent or editor thinks they are necessary, and you still genuinely feel that incorporating the last of the requested revisions will ruin the book, take your book and go home.
Or — and once most authors ponder it a little, they tend to prefer this route — go ahead and make the changes. If your agent is indeed right about the book’s being more marketable that way, it may well be worth trying. (You can always discuss the possibility of changing it back with the acquiring editor after she picks it up, after all.)
What you should NOT do is allow the conflict to drag on for months or even weeks after both sides have made their positions clear. It’s not in your interest, and it’s almost impossible not to sound whiny at that juncture.
Nor should you try the surprisingly common reviser’s trick of just skipping certain parts of the requested revisions. Once you have discussed it and lost your appeal, you do need to keep up your end of the deal. Trust me, although you can sometime get away with not making minor changes that were not the bones of contention, 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 precisely the ultimatum I advised you above to avoid at all costs: take my book as is or forget it. Strategically, it’s always a poor idea to offer a this-or-that choice unless you are comfortable with BOTH of the options you are presenting.
With an agent, this may well be a choice you are willing to offer — although it is not one that you should consider lightly, in light of how hard it is to land an agent these days. If you have another book in the drawer that your agent might interested in representing, this might be a good time to pull it out.
With an editor who has already bought your book, however, you have considerably less leeway. 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’re willing for the answer to be, “Fine — go ahead and take the book away.”
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.
Just get on with it — and move as swiftly as possible from revision to working on your next book.
(17) Be proud that you handled it professionally, regardless of the outcome — and move on with your life.
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 — a polite note accompanying the manuscript, saying that you have revised it, along with a numbered list of major changes, will suffice.
I know this all 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 a well-recognized phenomenon, after all: most reasonable folks 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.
In the shorter term, 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 through the steps methodically, 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 next week, I shall be moving on from this ultra-depressing topic to lighter, more congenial matters, such as increasing conflict in a storyline and how to kill off your characters with aplomb. A relief for everyone, I expect, including your humble correspondent.
And since you have all been such brave little troopers throughout this disturbing series, I have a treat in store for you tomorrow. So make sure to tune in — and keep up the good work!