Working with Authors

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January 1997
by Curt Matthews, IPG/Chicago Review Press

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In simpler times, authors wrote the books, publishers touched up the spelling and punctuation, designed a suitable package, and published them. Except for literary books, this pattern no longer describes what successful publishers actually do.

Instead, an author’s manuscript is usually just a promising beginning for a shaping process that will result in a strong selling book. All sorts of marketing questions need to be asked and answered even before the editing — which is likely to be extensive — begins. Who is the book for? What is this audience really interested in? Are illustrations needed? What is the right tone, the right length, the right price?

Once in a great while the author’s views on these matters are exactly correct. Far more frequently the author’s very closeness to the subject prevents him or her from having an objective, balanced assessment of the material and the market for which it is intended. Most manuscripts need to be cut back here, augmented there, lightened up or made more serious, reorganized or restructured — in short, extensively rewritten by the author according to ideas insisted upon by the editor and publisher.

Some authors object to this process, but anyone who has been at this awhile knows that it is only the new and inexperienced authors who believe that every word they have written is sacred. Experienced authors in fact insist on strong editorial guidance. This is why they often follow strong editors who change publishing companies.

Independent presses, of course, often publish new authors and have to deal with their inexperience. The time to explain that every word is not sacred, and that extensive revisions will probably be needed, is before the author/publisher agreement is signed. If the author shows signs of being uncooperative, find another author.

If this advice sounds severe, consider the likely consequences of going forward with an uncooperative author. One consequence is the publication of a book that is wrong for its market. Such books fail to sell. Another consequence is that you or your editor is forced to rewrite the book, in which case you will have so much time tied up in the book that it will almost certainly be a financial failure even if it sells quite well.

But what if you have signed up the author and despite your best precautions find that you have a prima donna on your hands, or else an author who is simply incapable of responding to editorial direction? (The inspiration for this writing comes from the fact that I have one on my hands right now. I am not claiming that any of this is easy.)

The only reasonable course in such cases is to insist to the author that, if the book is to be published, either the royalty rate must be reduced to reflect the work that the author cannot or will not perform, or else that the royalty must be shared with a ghostwriter of the publisher’s choosing. To earn a full royalty, and author must do the full author’s job. (Similarly, if a book requires expensive illustrations not provided or paid for by the author, their cost must be reflected in the author’s royalty rate.) There are no spare percents to give away. All you have to give away is your profit margin.

Does this approach to authors sound Draconian and heartless? Will good authors stand for such treatment? They will, and with enthusiasm, if from the outset you involve them in the development of the marketing ideas that shape the book. The idea is to get them to focus not just on the publication of a book with their name on it, but on the publication of a successful book, i.e., one that sells many copies.

An excellent first step is to have your authors fill out a demanding author questionnaire. (If they refuse to fill it out, find another author.) This questionnaire, in addition to eliciting the usual biographical information, should request information on possible special markets, professional contacts, relevant specialized media, sources for blurbs, and possible sales “handles” or angles. The ideas the author supplies should be extensively discussed — with the author, not just within your own organization.

Then, when the book is past the editing stage, furnish to the author a written description of how your company goes about publicizing the books it publishes. This will provide a second opportunity to discuss with the author how the book will be marketed and the author’s role in making the book a success, and will have the collateral benefit of heading off certain misconceptions.

I cannot emphasize enough that involving the author in the marketing of his or her book is not simply a means of manipulation and control. Authors who really know their subjects (if yours doesn’t, find another author) are easily the best source for marketing ideas, especially niche marketing ideas; and the process of winnowing out the good ideas from the others will put your author in the right frame of mind to produce not just a book but a successful book.

Over the past few years many independent presses have been pleasantly surprised to find authors with fine track records at major houses showing up on their doorsteps prepared to accept a small fraction of the advances customarily offered by the major publishers. Most major houses do not want to hear an author’s marketing ideas, and if offered them anyway, summarily dismiss them. Many authors feel that they are treated like three-year-olds by such publishers.

If we are willing to listen to our authors (and we are crazy if we are not willing to listen), we can maintain their goodwill and cooperation — even when we need to be a little tougher on them. Or perhaps because we have been a little tougher.

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