How much would you change your book to win a place in the publishing firmament? This is not a theoretical question. It is a question posed to writers every day, and thinking about it can help you understand exactly what you are writing about, and exactly why it matters to you – two keys to writing a good book.
I have four clients right now who are in the midst of struggling with this question. See if you would do what they are doing – and if not, ask yourself why. Ask yourself how far you WOULD go.
- My client whom I shall call Teresa began working on her second book somewhat feverishly about three months ago, because she realized – a little late -- that 2015 offered several awesome marketing opportunities too good to ignore. The book, which I can’t say almost anything about, is of the self-help variety, and is a true passion project for this writer. She’s obsessed with the topic. So Teresa hammers out 1/3 of this book, develops a proposal, and earlier this week, sent it off to a friend of a friend who is a top editor at a publishing house, and to a tippy top agent with whom she had a somewhat thin connection. Both of them love the project and want to take it on. The editor wants to twist the material around to take a very different slant and sit on a wholly different shelf in the bookstore. The agent wants to start pitching the book on Monday – yes, you read that right – and wants a complete re-jigging of how the book is presented. In four days. Right before the holiday. Teresa had a moment where she thought, “Screw all this compromise, I’m self publishing.” But then she realized that although re-jigging meant taking a slightly different perspective on the material, the integrity of the book was not actually compromised by the switch, and she remembered that her goal was traditional publishing, and she said yes to the agent’s offer.
- My client whom I shall call Susan had a hybrid book – a mix of several genres – that her agent has shopped around to a number of publishers. They got a bunch of rejections based on the unusual nature of the submission. One editor at a super awesome traditional publishing house, however, loved the writing and the ideas, asked if Susan would be willing to completely re-do the focus of her book – to make it less of a hybrid. There was no offer on the table, mind you. Just a request. Susan loves her vision. She worked hard to bring it to life. She didn’t want to change it. But she wanted the legitimacy and reach that this publisher could give her book, so she said yes. She will work to re-configure the entire thing, to re-frame it, on the chance that this editor might go for it.
- My client whom I shall call Peter has a top agent interested in his memoir. He has had a big career in a glamorous industry. His opening chapter, though intriguing, has the potential to offend on a number of accounts, and I suggested that he open somewhere else – at least for the pitch. My point was that he could go back to this opening later, when working with a publisher who knows the story inside and out, and who can better evaluate the target readers’ state of the mind. When pitching the agent, his only goal is to get her to say yes. That often involves giving her no reason to say no. He decided to make the change.
- My client whom I shall call Bill has a book in the galley stage – which is the last stage where you can change anything before it goes off to press. It’s the 11th hour, in other words. A few weeks ago, the editor and publisher insisted he change the title of the book – a title he has had attached to the book for about two years as he developed it, and a title he loves. They felt that the title was very misleading, and potentially a fatal flaw to marketing and sales. Bill said no, he wasn’t changing it. The editor and publisher insisted. Bill said no. It went around like this for many weeks – a very tense time. And the one day, Bill looked at the title they were proposing and he saw a way to tweak it that would be acceptable to him – and actually sort of awesome. He made the change.
We try so hard as writers to stick to our truth – to FIND our truth and to get it on the page – and bending to someone else’s will can seem heretical. But it is highly unusual for any writer to get all the way through the traditional publishing process without having to compromise something. It’s useful to think what you would and would not give up – and to know that if the answer is nothing (if you would change nothing) you probably want to look seriously at independent publishing.
Photo by Liz West