Thursday, October 16, 2008

Book acquisitions are usually group decisions

So many authors come to me with the fantasy that one, sole editor will read their work (usually at a desk in a quiet office), make a decision, and act on that decision with a yes or a no. They're surprised when I say that in book acquisitions this almost never happens, and in article acquisitions it seldom does. First, the work is often glanced over or culled by assistants, even when the work is addressed to the editor (although most editors make a point of at least looking at everything that is addressed to them personally and some won't use assistants for this work). Second, few editors sit in a quiet room and read in a leisurely way at a desk. There is usually a lot going on, there are multiple manuscripts to review, and editors frequently take work home. Third, the vast majority of editorial acquisition decisions at a publishing house are made in a group environment. It's not that editors don't have power -- many of them have a lot of it -- but that publishers are group organisms where communication is vital, and where the opinion of colleagues is often highly respected. Most editors like to chat acquisitions over with colleagues, and at almost all houses some sort of conference is mandatory.

This month's Poets and Writers magazine (one of the oh-so-few writer's magazines I find truly energizing) has a helpful interview with Chuck Adams, the acquiring editor of Sara Gruen's bestselling novel Water For Elephants at Algonquin Books. The article is noteworthy because it is so authentically written (hard to define, but it sounds right for trade literary publishing, as so few articles in the writer magazines manage to do), and I noticed one good reason why -- the author is Jofie Ferrari-Adler, who is an editor at Grove/Atlantic; he used to be an editor at Viking. The series is called "Agents and Editors," and I recommend it highly. Here is the relevant part from the interview about how Water For Elephants was acquired.

"I started reading it and immediately just loved it. I gave a copy to Ina Stern, our associate publisher, on a Friday. We both came on on Monday and went, 'Oh my God! We have to have this book.' It was the first and, with the exception of one other book I've brought in, the only time that every editor here and the publisher said 'We have to have this book.' Usually there's one naysayer, and sometimes several, but in this case everyone agreed."

Notice how the editor loved it, but still immediately discussed it with the associate publisher, the team at the editorial meeting, and the publisher. This is not usually a mother-or-father-may-I kind of discussion when you are dealing with seasoned professionals, but rather a combination reality check and group coordination to see what others have planned as well. Books and their authors may come and go, but the editorial team has to work together far beyond the influence of one publishing experience. The acquisition has to fit with the editor, the house, the list (what the editor has published overall -- a kind of editorial identity), and the catalogues. It's not that things are matchy matchy, and many times they aren't. Editors break their own rules often, and houses often publish titles that represent departures for them. But discussions almost always preceded acquisitions, especially when money is involved, and your submission may have an interesting life of its own at various meetings or in e-mail forwarding within any given house.

The book journal, part nine: Don't just do something, stand there!

When book writing is going well, writing can feel so pleasurable. But when the writing must stop for some reason (often after the submission of a chapter to an editor or agent), it's easy to hear the party music come to a screeching halt and wonder where the momentum went. Feeling a little down-in-the-dumps at these times is not unusual (this is also common right after submitting the completed manuscript).

If you freeze, thawing out again can be tough, so I have adopted a mechanical approach. I give myself some simple, time-restricted jobs, and I complete each one carefully, almost doltishly, with a constant awareness that it is real work and that it does serve the book. The best jobs for this are ones I can do in one or two hours, tops, and that have a definite beginning and end. Here are some examples of some good start-again tasks for the new chapter:

1. Make sure that I have accurate computer entries for every source I used in the just-handed-in chapter, plus photocopies of the title page and quoted pages for the file so I don't have to look it all up again if I lose my computer file.

2. Make sure I have a triple backup of the chapter. This means (a) e-mailing it to myself to put one on the server; and (b) e-mailing one to my mom, who never deletes anything. In addition to the computer file, these two extras are a little bit of insurance and they're pretty reliable.

3. Return all the library books that won't be needed for this new chapter, and check out the news ones that will. Organize them on the bookshelf, and mark appropriate chapters with Post-Its so I don't have to flip around while writing.

4. Re-read main sources for the chapter. This can be important! Sometimes I'm a few weeks or months from the last reading, and memories can fuzz. Re-reading is such an easy, relaxing prep for writing, and often it can be quite helpful.

5. Type out material that I know I intend to quote, and make sure an accurate citation is attached to it to avoid accidental plagiarism (a sin that is easier to do by mistake than you might think).

6. Use the Alastair Fowler writing method (discussed elsewhere in this blog) to brainstorm some ideas for the new chapter.

7. Write a teeny something, even if only a line or two, to get going again. This works rather like priming a pump.

Usually by this time I'm writing, but I confess that early first drafts generally feel stupid, unformed, confusing, and not very promising at all. That's okay. If I get stuck again I do another simple little task. If the writing is still going slowly, then sometimes I go out for coffee, bring a notebook, and commit to write one paragraph before leaving the cafe.

Oh, and by the way, I now have a proposal plus 75 manuscript pages. Some days I only wrote part of one page, and other days I wrote ten or more pages. Even on the part-of days, it adds up.

If you write longer books, is that better?

One of my academic friends has written 15 books. He comes out with a new one every other year with comforting regularity. I've been to several of his book events, and it's fun. He has a readership, he is well-compensated for his efforts, and within his field he's famous. He keynotes at academic conferences and he enjoys the professional perks that go along with being well-published (full professorship at a superb university, excellent publisher, better salary, pretty much unassailable politically on campus, all that comforting stuff).

His books are also very short. As in really short. As in "Don't you think this should be an article?" short.

That last phrase -- and I'll blog about it more in the future -- is a line I hear over and over again from people who think articles are short and books are long, and if a topic is focused narrowly then it's an article, not a book. I say it's up to the author and the market, but it is just fine to publish short books.

Authors come to me often with the stress that they haven't written "enough" for a book (whatever enough is). Sometimes they'll ask if their chapters are long enough in manuscript. Long enough? Hmmm... like you should add breadcrumbs to the ground veal to pad a chapter out if it's too short? How would I -- or you the author -- know when it was "long enough"? Would we hit a magic page or word count?

Personally I think length is irrelevant when considering either chapters or books, and I also have an enormous fondness for short. Not too short, not Hemingway short (I have no taste for his astringent style or for the recommendations of that annoying and terse Strunk & White book either) not "I didn't say what I meant" short, but tastefully brief, just-right, well-considered and well-said.