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The editor talks herself into an acquisition

June 30th, 2010

An interesting thing can happen when an editor writes to express interest in a book or article without stating specifically that s/he wishes to acquire it.  Authors get these notes all the time — fishing expeditions where the editor asks to see more without making any sort of verbal commitment.

What does the editor want?  Often, the answer can boil down to a sales pitch.  Sometimes the editor wants to be convinced.  I don’t mean a hard sell, and I certainly don’t mean a phone call (I have met two editors in ten years who want that), but what I do mean is a clear, author-elucidated expression of how and why this book can work for this press now, and what the author (yes the author) plans to do to make it a success.

Author after author comes to me with a variation on the theme that the press should already know this.  “Don’t they know how to sell their own books?” some cry.  Or (and I’m always fascinated by this one) “They are the professionals, not me — I expect them to tell me what to do and I’ll do it.”

I would gently submit that becoming an author means becoming a publishing professional, and learning as much as one can about the real industry versus the imaginary one.  The elements of selling an idea to a publisher and then later leading the effort to support one’s book in the marketplace are part of this.

Where and how does one learn?  I recommend the presses themselves.  The first step is a study of the catalogs and the booths at conferences to see how they sell other books.  This rich endeavor can take a professional lifetime (I’m always, always learning new things from this).  The second step is to learn from prominent academic authors.  See how they promote their work online and at conferences.  See how they sell.  Once we establish just who it is that we admire, we can learn so much.

Finally, there are some good books on publishing out there, although I’ve found the genre to be a bit goofy and less-than-professional, to be quite honest, which is why I don’t send authors to the how-to-publish aisle right away.  But books such as Thinking Like Your Editor, and The Forest For the Trees, although written for trade authors, do have thoughts for academic authors as well.  In some respects an editor is an editor when it comes to what they worry about: successful acquisitions and ultimately job security.

An editor is doing more than just saying yes when s/he acquires your book.  This person is actually aligning her or his career with yours, and betting that your work will make that editor’s list seem more robust, credible, and salesworthy.  Think about it — that’s a big statement from an editor, so is it any wonder that some of them fish around a bit, and seem to want and need a little more reassurance that you and I know our jobs?

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Publishing is partly a job

February 25th, 2010

It might seem odd to say that the art of publishing is similar to the art of getting and keeping a job, but the parallels exist.  Asking someone to publish your book is similar to asking someone to hire you — in both cases your professional futures are united for a common good, and how you do reflects on one another.  An editor is in many ways a boss, and the author-editor relationship is more hierarchical than many authors would like to admit.  When an author recently asked where self-expression fits into the editorial process (she was exasperated that her publisher asked for changes to a manuscript she wanted to be accepted as-is), I said that I didn’t see publishing as about self-expression so much as collaboration, and in many ways more about the editor’s and publisher’s needs for the list than about indulging the author’s wishes and hopes.

This doesn’t mean authors should pander to publishers, or blindly do what they’re told.  We didn’t become academics to produce work-for-hire.  But it does mean that when one shops for a publisher one looks for a temporary job in the publishing world, and all the elements of excellent boss-employee relations come into play, including only writing for (working for) someone you respect, and understanding that when a publisher signs an author, the publisher has a voice similar to that of an employer — certainly not dictatorial, but important, powerful, and worth heeding for the common intellectual good.

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Paging Dr. Syntax

December 17th, 2009

I found a great new blog today, “Dr Syntax,” the blog of Peter Ginna, publisher and editorial director of Bloomsbury Press.  It has intelligent observations on book designers, e-books, visiting the grave of Camus, thoughts on how authors should respond to bad reviews, and much more.  As I follow it I’ll let you know about interesting posts, etc.

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