Is it legal to strangle my publisher?
December 21, 2012 | Written by Chip MacGregor
Someone just wrote to say, “I can’t believe it! I spent an entire week writing a piece for a digital magazine that insisted they needed it on a tight deadline, skipped my daughter’s play, ignored family meals, then stayed up all hours writing. I got it done, turned it in, and the publisher is saying they’ve decided to run it… next month! Will I go to jail if I shoot him?”
Ah, the joys of the writing life.
True story: A publisher once hired me to do a fast-fix on a book. “I need this by Thursday morning,” he told me. “If I don’t have it by Thursday, I could be out of business.” His exact words.
So I took it, banged away, and met my deadline. I stayed up all night two nights in a row, grabbing coffee and blearily going through the manuscript line by line, fixing the problems and getting the book ready for publication. I finished at 4 Thursday morning, grabbed a couple hours of shut-eye, then drove an hour-and-a-half to the publisher’s office in order to turn it in by hand as they opened their doors. Mission accomplished. The publisher gave me a hearty thanks as I set the disk on his desk, and I headed to a coffee shop to try and stay awake for my drive home.
The following Wednesday, I’m at a breakfast meeting in the city, and who do I run into but Mr. Publisher. “Hey,” I say to him, “I haven’t heard from you — what did you think of the manuscript?”
He looked at me for a second with a blank look, then said, “Oh…you know, I haven’t gotten to that one yet.”
So I strangled him. Right there on the spot. Shoved several of those heavy restaurant pancakes they’re always serving down his evil throat. (Okay, not really. But I wanted to.)
The publishing business. It simply works on a different clock than the world of magazines and newspapers. But you live with their deadlines, so you write the best you can, turn it in, and hope they remember to publish it.
Often people ask why a book publisher needs a manuscript for a year before it hits store shelves — the reason has little to do with production (they could have hard copies in a couple weeks) and much to do with sales and marketing (they want to know how to pitch it, get it in front of bookstore owners, support it with quality marketing). All of that takes time, so an idea you have today, which takes you six months to write, and your agent six months to contract, and a publisher a year to produce, and the accounting people six months to get you a statement… means you may not be seeing much money on that bad boy for a couple years. This is all changing as we move to more and more toward ebooks, which can come out quickly and rely on more word-of-mouth. (The weakness of that system? We’ve seen too many bad ebooks that required better editing, and there have been too many ebooks that simply died because nobody had a plan for marketing and selling them.) Still, you can expect deadlines to tighten, things to be needed more quickly, magazines and books to be produced faster… and more of this sort of frustration to arise.
Sorry to hear this happened to you, my friend, but it happens to all of us who write for a living. And no, I doubt you’d go to jail for shooting a publisher (though I understand it’s still a misdemeanor in some states).