What Does a Book Coach DO? Part 2: A Brief History of Book Coaching

Click HERE to read Part 1.

Book coaching is a profession that has emerged as a result of the changing forces in book publishing over the last decade. When mainstream publishers had a death-grip on the means of production and distribution of books, when they were the gatekeepers and curators of every book that was made available to the public, the work of a book coach was done “in house” by employees of the publishers. There was time to get each project ready for prime time, and time to nurture a writer’s career.

Editors often purchased book projects that were not fully cooked. If a book and a writer showed promise, they would give the writer an “advance” against sales, and then work with the writer to do what had to be done to get their idea into publishable shape. As a result, deep bonds formed between editors and writers, as the editors shepherded the writers’ work to fruition – think Maxwell Perkins guiding F. Scott Fitzgerald and Hemingway; or Ursula Nordstrom guiding Maurice Sendak and E.B. White.

If you haven’t read about those times or those publishing relationships, I highly recommend that you do. I can promise you that Nordstrom edited some of your favorite books because she edited Goodnight Moon, Charlotte's Web, Where the Wild Things Are, Harold and the Purple Crayon and The Giving Tree, among others.

Her letters are collected in the book Dear Genius by Leonard Marcus. You can follow her chatting with her writers about the rain, their gardens, the nuances of their work, and deeper matters of the human spirit. The New York Times Book Review wrote of Nordstrom, “When troubles of a deeper sort -- depression, writer's block, money worries -- struck, she was there, shoring up egos, prodding when necessary, securing advances. A long letter to Maurice Sendak, who, at 33, had written her in despair, is a model of selfless concern for a young man suffering doubt. She argues vehemently on behalf of his talent, cautioning him against comparing himself negatively with great writers. ''You may not be Tolstoy,'' she reasons, ''but Tolstoy wasn't Sendak, either.''

If you are a lover of books and writing and the creative spirit, Dear Genius will make you swoon

As for Maxwell Perkins, there is a movie about him called Genius, but I don’t recommend it. It’s pretty dull and lifeless. Better to read about Fitzgerald’s editing process, and Perkins’ role in it, in The Artful Edit by Susan Bell – another book I highly recommend. It’s a simple and clear breakdown of how to look at a piece from a macro level and a micro level, with fantastic editing examples from famous authors and their famous books.

The point of all this is that back in the day, a writer’s job was largely just to write. The myth of the lone genius in the attic or the garret was deeply entrenched in the lore of what it meant to be a writer, and the editor was the person who did everything else: got the work ready to publish, worked with the sales and marketing people, worked with the money people, worked with the cover artists, fielded requests for interviews and so on.

Publishing was a business built on the hunches of these editors. Each “product” was a totally new thing, unlike, say, toothpaste or cars, which could be mass produced. So the editors were charged with discerning what the reading public would buy. A blessing from them could turn the book into a mass-market hit, and make the writer’s entire career. Writers who were not chosen had no option but to set their work aside and try again, or take up some other creative endeavor.

Well, that’s not entirely true. A person with enough money in the bank could go to a “vanity publisher,” who would produce their book for a fee. These books were frowned upon by pretty much everyone because they had not been vetted and chosen.

This paradigm of the publishing industry was still largely in place when I graduated from college in 1986 and took a job working for two editors – one fiction and one nonfiction – at Ballantine Books, a division of Random House. Writers were still submitting their typed manuscripts through the mail. We had stacks and stacks of rubber-band-bound manuscripts in manila-padded envelopes in the office, towering so high they threatened to topple. I typed up the rejection letters that my editor bosses had written by hand on yellow legal pads, typed out the writer’s addresses on the envelopes, and walked them down to the mailroom.

 

A Seismic Shift in Publishing

Soon after I started at Random House, however, things began to change. Writers began to use word processors and to submit their work printed out by dot matrix printers or saved on floppy discs. Communication could happen instantly by fax machine. I took a job at a slick city magazine, and when I started, the art department was still cutting and pasting the text to lay out the pages. They used X-Acto knives and glue. While I was there, we were introduced to a digital graphical layout system, which was magical in its power and functionality, and wildly glitchy.

We all know what happened next: The world sped up – fast. The Internet, email, social media, and digital tools arose to allow content to be easily, instantly, and widely disseminated. In a relatively short period of time, the tools to self-publish became available, and e-books began grabbing significant market share. The sea changes that had already hit the music industry hit publishing, and now anyone could easily and instantly publish anything they wanted. And if they could find a way to connect with an audience, they could produce a hit and, in some cases, make a lot of money without ever bringing in a publishing professional.

The traditional publishing industry did not react very quickly to these changes – and in some cases, they still haven’t fully adapted. A case in point is the fact that a traditionally published book still takes approximately a year and a half to go from finished manuscript to finished book. Contrast that with the fact that an independently published e-book could be made available in, well, a few hours.

As their businesses got pushed and squeezed by the changes, publishers began to spend less and less time nurturing writers. Editors became more focused on acquisition – finding and purchasing books that would be big hits – and less focused on editorial development. There simply wasn’t time for them to work with writers in the way they used to. They needed to find books and produce books and get books into the hands of readers faster than they used to. They needed projects that were less of a risk, or in other words, already finished, already well-polished, and, increasingly, with the promise of big sales built into the mix.  

One person I spoke to who until recently worked as an acquisitions editor at a major publishing house said that she shepherded 50 books a year through the system. There is not much room in that program for nurturing the writer or developing an idea or building a career.

And so the work that used to be done by in-house editors – the slow work of developing books from scratch, polishing a work to perfection and helping writers improve their craft – started to be outsourced to freelance editors and book coaches, and in some cases, to agents who have an affinity for the hands-on developmental process.

A book coach is like a shepherd. We are committed to guiding you through the development of your entire book project -- from idea to solid rough draft; from rough draft to revised draft; from revised draft to ready-to-pitch or -publish draft.

Working with a book coach is an investment in your career.  It’s making a statement that you are serious about your work. When you work with a book coach, you are no longer trying to DIY the complex undertaking of writing a book that engages a reader. You are seeking sustained professional help.

Next week, I’ll talk about the DIY mentality when it comes to writing books, and about how to know whom to trust with your writing when you’re ready to make the investment.