January 17, 2008

Publishing - What happens when you write a book?

I am writing this blog post on behalf of Kate, who so kindly suggested it as a topic. Perhaps my blog-reading would-be book- writers out there who are hopeful of being published will find this of interest and perhaps of use.

Now, of course, I am no expert, having had published only one non-fiction book, DIVIDED MINDS, and being in the midst of publishing another book, this one of poetry through a small non-profit press. But the bad thing is, my memory is terrible, so that I have forgotten a great deal of the process that took place with the first book. And as far as the poetry book is concerned, I am pretty sure that the procedure at this particular press is not standard at others; I dunno that there is, at small presses in general, any standard in particular, each one following its own idiosyncratic process according to its size, staffing and schedule.

That said, after the contract for DIVIDED MINDS was signed-- I did not sign the contract myself since only Lynnie was to earn royalties in exchange for all the time she took off from work to write the book-- after that, we were given a full year to produce a manuscript. Of course, we already had a good draft of it but it badly needed editorial help. As it turned out, our editor, D, was in absentia the entire year; she lied to our agent that she was working closely with us when she made no contact whatsoever, and she also failed to respond to any contact we initiated. Then when we finally got her to do something, she actively worked to undermine the book. She told us she was not going to edit at all; she would let the copy editor do that, the person responsible for correcting such aspects of the book as grammar, spelling and punctuation. According to her that was "all it needed." This was utter BS, but as I said, she wanted to undermine the enterprise and not to edit the book was as good a way as any to ensure it failed.

Not SOP in publishing I am certain of it, though editors no longer take as deep an interest in their writers as they used to, so I hear, nor spend as much time and energy on editing as they formerly did. So writers are more and more on their own in terms of preparing their own manuscripts for publishing, with some editorial input, yes, but not the coddling and "hand holding" relationships you read about in the past.

So we got the manuscript done, with help from Elizabeth, our agent-editor extraordinaire, and having learned through trial and error how to edit ourselves (more or less successfully). It was deeply flawed, I would come to feel, due to a lack of any editorial oversight, but that could not be helped, given D's, the acquisition editor's, determined efforts not to help the book be the best it could be (why she went to the effort even to acquire it for St Martin's in the first place is beyond me, given all she did to make it tank).

Once the ms was finished and the year was up, the book went into production, and now St M's had their year to get the book into print. This meant a flurry of copy editing and corrections and last minute corrections of those; getting credits and permissions for use of photographs; discussing cover design; then the galleys, the uncorrected proofs appeared, some sent to reviewers, one sent to the authors for very last minute minor corrections: single words or letters or punctuation mistakes. That was a thrill: to see the book in a published form, though not the final version: a paperback only, without the finished cover, only a mock-up of it, so to speak.

Meanwhile, the publishers's catalog came out a few months in advance of publication, with the company's publicity for the book for vendors and reviewers who might have been interested in getting a hold of the book once it was published. (Or perhaps a catalog even provides some of the major reviewers with advance notice of the books it may be interested in reviewing before they come out, I dunno for certain...)

As for my book of poetry, well, as I said, I am in the midst, but nothing is going as it went with the memoir. Instead of a year to write the manuscript, I sent it in as a finished book and it was chosen "as is" for publication. I learned this formally in late November or early December, though I had an email as early as October. Then I waited to hear a word from the publisher about the details...When I did hear, in the second week of January, it was with a 2 page letter of "assignments" -- I call them demands -- and a 12 page questionnaire with hidden assignments in that as well, all to be finished in five days. Now, it is true that this packet should have arrived around Dec 22, but was sent to Dr O's office when she was on vacation and thus was not seen until Jan 8th, when she returned. But even so, the idea that it was to be worked on the week of Christmas and throughout the holidays is unconscionable. Why, when the publishers knew the questionaire very well, and knew what was on it (it is for sales and marketing and is the same every year, used by their distributor) why they didn't send it in November, I do not know. I suspect the main person involved of severe procrastination, resulting in a deadline crunch for everyone else...

Be that as it may, the "assignment-demands" are legion and lengthy and struck me as daunting, if not impossible, until I enlisted my old publicist Diane to help out. She knew exactly how to get the information demanded on the forms, things like journals and addresses for reviews and advertisements, etc etc and set to work immediately. With her help and my working straight through for three days, I was almost done by last week, but for Dr O's contributions, which I expected would be the hold up...And of course they were. They are still not here, still not finished. But that turns out to be okay as it gave me more time to perfect the 500 wd and 100 wd essays that were part of the assignments. And time to worry at the manuscript a bit more.

The manuscript, ah, the manuscript. Now that is a problem in itself. I feel like scrapping the whole thing, frankly. I don't even think the poems in it are any good, many of them, and certainly, due to the overall subject -- schizophrenia -- not my best. My best poems have little to do with mental illness, but were written when well and when not dealing with it, except perhaps from a distance (as in my poem What You Know and When You Know It, which I wrote in October). Now I am getting cold feet, as I do not want my first, and perhaps my only, book of poetry to be a collection of my second-best poems. I dunno how I got suckered into this! I guess because I heard there was this poetry series about chronic illness and I had some -- many -- poems about my own, so that I thought I could "win" it...But for what?

In point of fact, if I publish this second rate book, I lose the chance to enter a better book in the Emily Dickinson contest in 2008 or 2009, whenever it is given. That award goes only to someone over 50 years old who has never published a book of poetry before. Plus, there is a cash award of $10,000.00! Wouldn't that be better than what this publisher is putting me through? It is not that I do not want to do readings and publicity or community service...I am perfectly happy to do so. But to be ORDERED to because of government grants providing the funding for the publishers...well, I dunno. It seems like any other publisher would be easier to deal with! But the most important doubt I have has to do with the poems themselves: do I want to publish what I consider second rate poems? Despite everyone else's assurance that they are "good" I do not believe they are, and what is more, the people who have written blurbs for the back cover have not written anything but that they are "deeply felt and moving," which is code for "otherwise crappy poems." Nothing is said about them as poems, because there is nothing to be said, only about my intentions, about my feelings. "Deeply felt"...Hah! Well, in fact I agree, after looking at what I wrote, that a lot of the poems are lacking...And I took out three or four as unbearable to me, poems I was persuaded to keep by Dr O, despite profound doubts about them all along...Well, I will not allow them in the book, not any longer. If I do publish this volume, I refuse to do so with those despised poems included.

Enough is enough. I dunno what to do. I want to publish a good book of poems, a book of good poems, not just any book, not just so that I can say "I wrote a poetry book." I don't care if I have to wait...I really don't. I'm almost thinking at this point I'd rather wait till 2010 and try for the E.D. award than go forward with this particular one. I also don't know that I want to be roped into this publishers requirements either. What to do, what to do?

Posted by pamwagg at January 17, 2008 09:29 PM | TrackBack


Hi Debbie and Kate,

Debbie, you most certainly do have a chance at getting a book published! Once you have a book ready, all you have to do is...Oh, you know, I know. You are simply discouraged, and with good reason, but you do have a chance. You just need to keep hope alive and try the smaller presses. You know, there was a huge story in I think it was the Boston Globe recently about a woman who SELF-published a novel, which was just now picked up by a big publisher and film company for 2 million! So you see, small presses and self-publishing do not necessarily mean a dead end street. It all depends on how you market yourself...

Kate, how are you enjoying Eat, Shoots and Leaves? I bought it too, but have not had the time or energy to read it yet, tho I sorely need to. Thanks for your confidence in my poems. I took out the few that I truly hated, and that stuck in my craw from day one, and now I do not totally hate the book as I once did. So I'm going ahead with publishing it, though I wish I had published another, the better one, first. Oh yes, about the editor abdicating her editing job: she did not relegate COPYediting to the copyeditor, but ALL editing. She did NOTHING. She said the copyeditor could do the editing entirely, which was crazy, but she basically decided not to do a thing, and told us so. (Then lied and told our agent that she was working closely with us!). THAT was what was so irksome and upsetting about it. The copy editor, though, was a fool, changing such things as "older than I" to "older than me" and "to whom am I speaking" to "whom am I speaking to"!!!!! So you see what we were up against?

Ah me, well, everyone should have such "problems" right?

Thanks again, you two.

Pam W

Posted by: Pam W at January 26, 2008 09:04 PM

Thanks Pam. You know I'm reading this book called The Elements of Editing by Arthur Plotnik and he says it is not uncommon for the acquisitions editor to pass the actual copyediting down to a junior member. Very interesting to me as I'm only just now trying to consciously learn how to edit and proofread. My usual way is to edit as I go along which is probably not the correct way to approach writing well.

As to the quality of your poems, I am absolutely sure that they are all very good. The publishers wouldn't have chosen you if they thought your work was second rate, and I'm assuming they have quite a lot of experience reading and assessing poems. It's natural to have cold feet but don't let that stop you from putting on some warm socks and holding firm to publishing your work. This is only your first book of poems and it will pave the way for your other work. Don't give in to negativity Pam!

Posted by: Kate K. at January 24, 2008 09:27 PM

Hi, Pam--Thanks for the rundown on what it's like to actually get published. Very interesting. Some of us without a chance of getting a book published (like me, for instance) might envy your quandary about whether to publish the less good stuff now or wait for a better opportunity later. I have no idea what the right thing to do is. Keep us posted!

Posted by: Debbie at January 18, 2008 04:11 PM

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