August Q&A 4

Q: Melissa gets us going on a discussion of nuts-and-bolts: How does a publishing contract work? How much (if any) freedom have you lost as far as what you write? At what point are you locked into a story idea? Have you ever had to finish writing something that you wanted to take in a completely different direction but could not because someone else’s money was invested in your original idea?

A: Publishing is an industry. This may sound self-evident—and the more you know about how it works, the more self-evident it is. Men and women are in it to make money, for themselves and their investors, and can’t afford to squander resources on losing prospects.

The problem comes with the question, What do we mean by a losing prospect? Because this is an industry that rests, not on a bedrock of manufacturing cars, selling pills, or lending money, but on an art form. Like rare stamps, a piece of art is worth precisely what someone will pay for it. Both a Monet and your cousin’s painting of her dog are nothing more than pigment on canvas. Who says one is worth more than the other?

The acquiring editor’s job is to know which of the fifty manuscripts she reads this week will cause people to fork over twenty-five dollars for a hardback, or seven for a paperback. Her job, and the reason she’s slowly made her way up in the company from starving-wage assistant through baby editor to someone able to pay large chunks of the company’s cash for a raw manuscript is because her guesses have proven better than the guesses of others.

The funny thing is, this editor is also a person who adores books, who has personal tastes and preferences that don’t always (don’t usually, in my experience) agree with the taste of the great reading public. She would love to be able to hand over $250,000 to a gem of a writer who’s never going to sell more than 10,000 copies of that gorgeous, quirky little book, but she knows that if she does that too many times, she’s out of a job. Publishing is an industry, not a patron of the arts or donor of MacArthur grants for writers.

However, the industry does leave a little bit of wiggle room for itself (and for the sanity of its editors, who really need to be able to look at themselves in the mirror without loathing.) So it gives brownie points for starred reviews and prizes. People who get those don’t always hit the NYTimes list, but they bring honor to the house, and if that’s not quite as good as DaVinci Code numbers, it’s worth something.

All of which is a long-winded way of saying that the editor’s preferences with that book you’re writing are not reached lightly. When I enter into a contract with a publishing house, I am agreeing not only to the specified word count and the due date, but to giving them more or less what they have come to expect. If you are under contract for a mystery novel and halfway into it, realize it would be much better as a romance, that’s a problem.

Sometimes, a conversation with the editor—if she’s a good editor, willing to listen to your concerns and as interested in making a good book as she is making sales—will give a direction that embraces the needs of both sides, and you’ll happily finish your romantic suspense novel without undue angst.

Other times, compromise isn’t possible. Maybe she sees an abrupt change a really bad idea in terms of building your career; maybe you can’t bear the idea of any suspense in your romance; maybe she’s under enormous pressure from the bottom line and simply can’t extend you the freedom you need. This is when you have to decide whether to bite the bullet and finish the book they’re expecting, or to put this book aside and work on one more to their needs, or even to buy yourself out of the contract entirely and take your publishing business elsewhere.

I personally have been very fortunate in the amount of freedom my publishers have given me. I’ve never yet had an editor demand that I change something I saw as essential to the book, and I’ve always found my editors’ suggestions extremely helpful in building the book.

If I wanted to write something entirely different, something my mainstream publishing house might not be too enthusiastic about, I would probably write it first, and then offer it around. Same way if I didn’t have any idea what it was going to be, if it was a book so nebulous and/or experimental that it was impossible to describe in advance. My usual publishers might, in the end, buy it, just to keep me in-house, although the money and promotional efforts wouldn’t be great. Or I could take it to another house, a small house perhaps, where the freedom would be greater, the risks smaller, and large reward would be about as likely as being struck by lightning on the tundra.

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  1. Melissa on August 8, 2006 at 4:21 pm

    Thank you for your insights. I know one person’s experience doesn’t constitute a statistical sampling, but being successfully published sounds much less painful than I imagined. I appreciate your time.

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