December 03, 2003

Why perfect?

Someone asked "How done must a book be when I do the 'get an agent' thing?" When I replied completely done, completely polished, they asked why.

I really didn't mean to rant, but here is my answer.

Yes, completely finished and polished because there are tons of people out there with good ideas and yet can't finish a novel to save their lives. Fine, it's not a failing, except when an person's livelihood is on the line.

Agents are overworked and want only people that will make them money by having good books they can sell to publishers. Remember out of all this, they're getting the smallest slice of the pie. And the best agents work in NYC, which is an expensive to set up shop.

Editors are mid-management. Yes they buy the book, but the publisher approves the buy and issues the checks. With every book, their job is on the line. They're also overworked, and usually take work home and work on weekends just to keep up with things they have to do. They only have time for books they know will be published.

And finishing a book isn't the same as revision. Revising is a skill all its own. Some people can finish a good novel only to revise it into a bad novel. When an editor/agent gets a book, they don't know how long the author been working on it, or if they had help that's no longer available. When I went to a convention at Harvard two years ago, I met a man who had sold a multi-book deal. The books were slated to appear January 2003. During one panel, while I was talking about writing villains, there was a woman gesturing wildly in the back. It turned out that this was his editor, signaling that he was to pay attention to me. She had bought a flawed novel and he was resisting/unable to rewrite it. As 2002 progressed, I heard murmurs that he was continuing to be difficult. Last I heard, the publisher had apparently backed out of the contract somehow on the "acceptable manuscript" clause.

When a book slips or is pulled, that creates a hole in the printing schedule and every book on the schedule needs to be juggled. These schedules are set up years in advance. I had to have my deadline pushed from June 1, 2003 to October 1, 2003 on book four. Originally it was set to be released in May 2004, which meant in 2002 the printing run was set up and the deadlines for dozens of authors were set for 2003. (Yes, I totally messed up.) But not only authors were affected. The art department started work on DOG WARRIOR'S cover in September 2003. By January, the sales department will be given book jackets and cover flats, briefed on the books, and sent out to start generating advance sales.

When I turn in DOG WARRIOR, it goes to my editor, who needs to read it at least once and make notes for changes. It comes back to me for changes. I mail it to my editor. He reads it again, changes in place. If things are good, he sends it to a copyeditor, who reads it and makes changes, and mail it out to me. I read the changes and mail it back. It goes to a typesetter then who types it in and formats it and galleys are mailed to me and a proofreader. All this has to be done soon enough before the book's actual release so that copies of the galleys can be sent out to reviewers and bookstore managers in order to generate pre-release buzz.

So the editor, copyeditor, typesetter, and proofreader all have a schedule with books coming through on a pre-set schedule that missing a deadline will mess up. Finally, after all the changed on the galleys, the book is put in the printing cue.

The book needs to be printed and bound, and then sent to the distributor, who ships them to bookstores, so that all the books can go out, all over the world, on the same release date. Not a small undertaking.

Daunting as it all may seem, realize that hundreds of people are going to be balanced on your book. Yes those words are near and dear to you, and represent months and maybe years of work. The truth is, though, everyone else -- from the moment you stick it in the mail -- who deals with your book it will be a matter of bread on the table.

Posted by wen at December 3, 2003 12:29 PM

Thanks again for sharing, Wen. I've read the same from many writing books and authors as well.

Posted by: Joel at December 3, 2003 07:19 PM