November 2nd, 2006 | Publishing | 14 Comments
So I’ve decided to start my own blog. Let me tell you something about myself . . .
I got started in publishing way back in 1977, right after the invention of movable type. I was in college, and answered an ad in the newspaper for somebody who needed a “copy editor.” I actually didn’t know what a “copy editor” was, but I figured I was good with grammar, so why not?
Turns out the job was to clean up the monthly edition of CLEARING Magazine – a rag aimed at junior high science teachers. I know NOTHING about science, but I do know words, so I had a good time working there. Went from copy editor to section editor to features writer to managing editor, before I finally graduated and had to find a real job.
I’ve worked with magazines, newspapers, and for the past twenty years or so with books. For years I made my living as a collaborative writer, doing projects with people like Chuck Colson and Bruce Wilkinson and David Jeremiah. I was hired by Promise Keepers to be one of their first writers, and have done dozens of books in both CBA and ABA. Was the Senior Editor for Vision House and Harvest House, then worked as a literary agent for several years with the Big Dog of Christian publishing, Alive Communications. (I still love Alive, by the way. A great company, doing excellent work in the industry and making a difference for Christian authors.) I left after several years in order to be a publisher with Time-Warner, then came back to the agenting biz just recently. I now run MacGregor Literary, trying to foster books that make a difference in the world.
For this first post, I thought it best to answer some of the frequent questions I was asked via an online writing web group called “The Writers View” . . .
For a writer submitting a first book proposal or first fiction manuscript to a publishing house, how much does it help for the writer to have many articles previously published in a variety of magazines (from local to regional to national publications)?
It always helps to be able to show one’s writing experience. If you don’t have a book under your name, then at least show the prospective publisher what writing you have done.
How long do you pursue-publication before you give up? Should I have given up earlier? Who knows who-or-what I would have been had I pursued something else all those years.
No one can answer that question for you. Was it worth it to you? Some of this relates to a core principle I preach: publishing your book does not validate your life. Seeing your name in print doesn’t automatically mean you are a good person, or that your life has been worthwhile. Who were you writing for? Why were you writing? What did you hope to accomplish? Answering your personal questions should reveal if your result was worth your investment. (However, I have the gift of prophecy, and can reveal to you that, had you not pursued your book, you’d have become a used car salesman in Arizona.)
Why don’t publishers share their in-house schedule for the book with the author? When I sign a contract and the ms deadline is agreed upon, I have no idea if the publisher intends to edit right away or let it sit for six months. I never know when to expect galleys, the deadline to send them back, and all the other million details and deadlines I am responsible for. Once the publisher knows when the book will be in production, why don’t they copy us on that schedule?
I can’t speak for your publisher, but at most major houses, they create a publishing schedule so that you would know when your book is going to release about a year in advance. The book is going to require marketing efforts and a sales plan that will be created months before the actual book is printed.
Do you find that authors truly want to be challenged? When they submit a manuscript are they (eventually) happy when it comes back to them with a 20-page letter of changes?
No. That’s human nature. Most of us hate rewriting, just as most of us hate diet and exercise and eating carrots instead of carrot cake. I would say most novelists are not happy to receive a 20-page change letter. On the other hand, the professionals swallow their pride and go back to work, making the changes. That is one of the significant difference I see between professional and amateur novelists.
What attracts you most to an unknown writer’s book proposal other than great writing?
A great, commercial idea. Sometimes a publisher will buy a book because they simply love the idea. That said, great writing is still the best sales tool an unknown writer can deploy.
What are you seeing when you say, "Aha! I just found the next great book/author!"?
Each editor would probably have different answers. For me, it is the fact that I can’t stop reading the proposal – I find myself having to continue turning the page. For another, it’s the use of dynamic images and words. For another, it is the unique voice employed by the writer. And for another, it is seeing an incredible vision for a book put down onto paper.
How do you evaluate the amount of advance you offer?
Every major publisher produces a profit-and-loss form (called a P&L) when they acquire the project. The P&L includes ballpark sales projections, generally with a high and a low number. It also includes an educated guess at what the hard costs of the book will be (paper, ink, art) and may include overhead and/or a preliminary marketing budget. Most important, it will tell the publisher what the author can expect to earn from the project. The advance is based upon the P&L, and is heavily weighted toward author earnings.
How much do politics play in the team decision making about which books to go with and which books to reject?
This question suggests the person posing it is inexperienced in the ways of the world. In my opinion, EVERY business decision has politics involved, no matter what type of business, no matter what the decision. That’s one of the reasons to work with a good agent who already has strong relationships with publishers and editors.
I’d like to know—what does the publisher really want?
Books that make money, from authors who work hard and are easy to get along with.
Does a publisher want another Gone With the Wind? One huge stupendous bestseller? Does he want a young author who can put out a series of books for a number of years? Does it not matter who or what the author is as long as the book is great? Does he want a book that doesn’t need any editing? Does he care about the book more, or the author?
There was an interview with the chairman of Sony in the Wall Street Journal last week. Sony is celebrating its 60th year in business, and the marketing types had put together a plan for trumpeting the company’s top 60 products. The chairman heard about it, and immediately put a stop to it. What consumer wants to bother with 60 products? One breakout bestseller for a publisher can pull an entire line of small books. We’re all looking for great writers, especially those with salable ideas who can produce regularly. But the thing all of us want most is a big book that will sell a lot of copies. (As for who “cares” most about a book…hard to say. If it’s your baby, you probably care about it most.)
What is one thing you wish writers would grasp so you would never have to repeat yourself again.
There are probably a variety of answers:
- that writers and publishers are partners, not competitors
- that you need an agent, even if you think it means "giving up fifteen per cent of your income"
- that great writing will always be discovered
- that publishing your book doesn’t give you a life
- that writing is easy and everyone can do it
What are the top ten things about authors that drive publishers nuts?
- "Here is my thirteenth email of the day for you."
- "I can turn this manuscript in the first of August, but I need the book out by the start of my conference speaking in October.
- "I know my due date is today…but is NEXT June okay with you?"
- "You’re not doing enough marketing on my book."
- "Since they’re having a pub board meeting today, I thought I’d sent you my new proposal. I need to know right away, since my life/health/family/career/TV show is riding on this."
- "My best friend told me this is a fabulous idea. She’s a cook at our local junior high."
- "I would NEVER allow you to include [fill in the blank] in my contract! I don’t know exactly what that is, but I read on the web that it’s the tool of Satan!"
- "I know my contract is for 70,000 words, but I’m turning in 125,000." [Note: you can also insert the number 22,000 at the end of that sentence.]
- "You want to edit this? But . . . God gave me these words!" [Note: You can also change this to read, "That’s the cover? But I was envisioning an all black cover!"]
- Hey . . . what about a novel series where we turn the Book of Revelation into a novel?
Got a question? Send it to me and I’ll try to answer it.
- Chip MacGregor