The 7 Biggest Myths of Publishing (Know the Truth)
August 26, 2009
by Elizabeth Sims
by Elizabeth Sims
Writers talk about “giving birth” to a book, and that’s a beautiful metaphor. Same as with a baby, your book is first, well—conceived. Initially it’s just a mote of a thing, insubstantial and unreal, yet over time you feel it growing inside you. Eventually it begins kicking to get out.
A veteran author tells you, writer to writer, what getting published is really like—and confronts the seven biggest myths.
And so it happens: You acknowledge its inevitability, you work long and hard, you bleed, you sweat, you cry, and then one day the pains cease and you’re holding this beautiful little being in your hands. It has your DNA! And even though it comes from your deepest core, it’s really got a personality all its own. Naturally you hope that someday it will develop free will and learn basic skills like cleaning the oven or calculating algebra. You love it unconditionally. It’s your bundle of joy: your book.
Yet in truth, this metaphor is totally wrong. Having your book published is not like giving birth. It’s like having your newborn ripped from your arms and given to a foster family you’ve never laid eyes on in your life.
It’s a heavy trip, as laden with phony stories as parenthood is. In order to survive it in style, you need to know the truth behind the myths.
BOOK CONTRACTS ARE TOO COMPLICATED FOR A NORMAL PERSON TO UNDERSTAND.
I sold my first book myself (read: without an agent), to the leading publisher in my then-current niche. After the magical “We’d like to make you an offer!” phone call, I took a long walk in the sunshine to let the pleasure soak in. But I’d barely turned homeward when I realized I’d have to negotiate my own contract. And being a creative individual with severe allergies to numbers and money talk, my heart quailed.
The advance wasn’t big enough to attract an agent to negotiate for me, and I didn’t want to pay a lawyer’s fees. So I went out and bought two volumes on negotiating a book contract and forced myself to read them cover-to-cover, making notes on
anything that seemed beyond my intellect.
Amazingly, when the contracts arrived in the mail the next week, I could read them. Not only that, I knew enough to be outraged by them.
I phoned my editor. “Do some authors just sign these and send them back without asking for any changes?”
“Yeah, some do,” she admitted, sheepishly.
The good news: My editor had the power to negotiate, and I got much of what I wanted, such as a lower ceiling for royalty bumps, more subsidiary rights retained, elimination of the first-refusal clause, and more author’s copies. Ask for lots more than you’re willing to settle for.
Now is not the time to be meek. Remember, they’ve decided they want to publish your book—meaning they think they can make money from you—but you haven’t signed yet.
Even if an agent is representing you, you must read every line of your contract and make notes. Go over your concerns with your agent or publisher. This is the only time you actually wield power in the publisher-author relationship. Make the most of it.
YOUR PUBLISHING TEAM IS YOUR NEW FAMILY NOW.
They might be like family to one another, but they wouldn’t know you if they fell over you in the street.
You live in whatever nonglamorous town while they dwell in New York City and walk to the Met while eating fresh bialys and bumping into celebrities. You are an outsider. They are the foster parents who have just been granted custody of your child. If left alone, they’ll probably do an OK job. After all, they’re nice people and they mean well. But they’ll treat your kid a lot better if you participate, try to get to know them and find things to like about them.
Odds are you will have, as I do, a wonderful publishing team. I respect their skills and passion for their work, and we enjoy a cordial, professional relationship. However, at no time should you delude yourself that they work for you. They work for themselves, as do you, as does everybody.
Bring no neediness to any conversation. Never whine. Remember that if you pump out great salable books at the rate of one every 12–18 months, mutually beneficial results are bound to occur.
I’ve found that thanking people is a good obsession to develop. During an important conference, my cartons of books didn’t show up. Thousands of miles away, my publicist sat on his neck to find out what happened (they’d been addressed wrong), figure out where they were now (some other hotel) and get them delivered in the nick of time. He received chocolates.
IF YOUR BOOK HAS BEEN ACCEPTED BY A MAJOR PUBLISHER, IT MUST BE PERFECT JUST THE WAY IT IS.
This one makes me laugh every time.
“But it’s my baby—I worked on it for five years. I’ve already revised! This is not a first draft!”
Realize that your editor is a professional at what he does—he makes his living and reputation helping authors put their books into the best possible shape.
Then, make up your mind to be open and nondefensive.
Most changes editors request are minor, and you think about it and go, “Oh yeah, that plot point would work better if I put it earlier in the book.” Or, “Gosh, I never realized how flat that dialogue really sounds. I need to create more hostility between the characters there.”
But how do you not melt down when your editor asks for a huge change?
Eliminating a major character, putting in a new one, drastically revamping the ending (with concordant alterations to the rest of the manuscript to accommodate it)—those are big. If your editor asks for a major change and after thinking it over you agree, you’ve got some work ahead of you. Welcome it, because it’ll make you a better writer.
Any major change is simply a bunch of minor changes put together, so approach it that way; make a list of what you have to do, and get going. If you feel stymied or have serious reservations about the suggested changes, talk it over with your editor. You’ll be surprised at how many good ideas will result.
Remember that in the end, it’s your book. If you give a concrete reason for refusing to make a given change, that will help you test your position, and it’ll help your editor learn, too. I’ve never had an editor do this, but if one ever asked me to dumb down a passage or avoid some subject because of political correctness (“We might offend someone!”), I would balk, and I’d expect you to do the same.
IT’S IMPORTANT FOR AUTHORS TO HAVE INPUT ON COVER ART.
For some incomprehensible reason, this is one of the biggest topics on the minds of new authors. Listen: Because you are an author, you by definition have no artistic talent, so to imagine yourself capable of distinguishing a good book cover from a bad one is laughable. Your publisher trusts the job to experts in graphic design. This doesn’t mean every cover will be perfect for every book, but it does mean you should relax about the art.
WORKING WITH YOUR COPY EDITOR IS BORING AND ARDUOUS.
Not so; the great thing about copy editing is seeing your manuscript through the eyes of someone fresh to it. Your copy editor will, if she’s good, challenge any grammar and mechanics you’ve hot-footed it over and suggest micro-improvements that never would have occurred to you. She can also catch embarrassing mistakes (I once had a character divide 20 million by 10 and come out with 200,000, instead of 2 million).
Any time you have a chance to review edits or make additional ones, have a sheet of proofreader’s marks handy, and make your marks with meticulous clarity.
IF YOU’RE COMING OUT IN HARDCOVER, IT’S PRACTICALLY GUARANTEED YOU’LL BE REVIEWED IN THE NEW YORK TIMES.
In fact, it’s rare for a debut author to be reviewed in The New York Times, so don’t get your hopes up; the first-time authors featured there are one in a million. If you’ve received a massive advance (which usually generates big buzz in the book media) and your book is being packaged as literary, those things could help.
But who knows whether you should hope for such a high-profile review or not. A favorable one may not boost your sales the way you expect, and a savage one could make you feel suicidal. There’s no shame in focusing on lower-profile reviews—good ones can add up, and bad ones won’t be catastrophic.
WITH ALL THE IMPORTANT THINGS YOU HAVE TO DO NOW, IT’S OK TO PUT YOUR NEXT BOOK ON THE BACK BURNER FOR A WHILE.
This isn’t so much a myth as a lie you enthusiastically tell yourself as you’re thrilling to the image of your book jacket on Amazon.com, just above the “pre-order” button.
You actually began telling yourself this lie as you painstakingly went over your contract, executed whatever edits you needed to, dealt with the galley proofs and started work on the suddenly endless project of promotion.
“But I must set up a page on MyFace! It’s free! I’ll interact with my future readers there! How else is my book gonna—”
OK, yes, you do have to do promotion on your own, but you need to create a balance. If you did everything you possibly could to promote your current book, you’d never finish another one. And there is nothing more important than writing your next book. Nothing.
So, don’t let temptations get in the way of your writing schedule. I’ve found it best to demand a certain minimum word count from myself every writing day, either 1,000 or 1,500, depending on what else is going on. If you slam down your words faithfully, you’re going to have a career.
In short, put your faith in your writing.
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