Image: Kevin Van Aelst
It’s a truth universally acknowledged that an author’s (often unstated) expectations usually go unmet.
No matter how many columns I write extolling the hard work that editors do — or how many interviews I do that show how editorial work goes far beyond fixing typos — I still hear from readers telling me about the sorry state of book editing and publishing, particularly in the academic arena.
Usually the complainers generalize from their own limited experience. The more scientifically minded will try to prove their point by offering up a sample set of two or three friends who were also treated badly by some overzealous or underzealous editor.
Many academics are stumped by the publishing process. From the outside, it seems that fierce and unapproachable gatekeepers, with all the power, relish ignoring and abusing the supplicants whose careers depend on getting their manuscripts published. The truth is, most editors are generous with their time and happy to answer questions. But many writers don’t know how to ask what they need to know.
The balance of power shifts once a manuscript is accepted — the author, who came as a petitioner, often becomes disgruntled and dissatisfied.
Like any relationship worth maintaining, the author-editor partnership takes work, clear communication, empathy, and a good notion of who’s responsible for taking out the garbage.
When I talk with authors, I’m sometimes reminded of a cartoon by Gary Larson. In the top half, a man lies in bed with a thought bubble that reads, "I wonder if she knows I exist. … Should I call her? Maybe she doesn’t even know I exist? Well, maybe she does. … I’ll call her. No, wait! … I’m not sure if she knows I exist. … Dang!" The bottom panel shows a woman lying in the opposite direction. Her thought bubble reads, "You know, I think I really like vanilla."
The caption: "Same planet, different worlds."
Here are some examples of the different worlds of writers and editors, with advice on how to resolve these common communication problems.
Meeting at a Meeting
Author: "I’m at a conference. I’ve just given a paper on a new bit of research and am looking forward to having time to dig in deeper. At the end of my session, an editor comes up and says she really enjoyed the paper. She wonders if I’m working on a book. Oh! I hadn’t thought of it as a book. I stammer out a response. She gives me her card and says she’d be interested in seeing a proposal or a finished manuscript. Now I have to send something to her. What if too much times goes by? Will she lose interest? How much time is too much? I panic myself into a lather."
Editor: "I’ve been standing around the book exhibit, having talked with 800 people, mostly listening to current authors complain that their book isn’t on display or wasn’t in the program ad. Former authors greet me with hugs and photos of their kids. Assistant professors ask for free copies of textbooks. I managed to hear a session, and this woman’s paper was great. A good book could come out of that research, which, if well executed, could be a good fit for my list. I’d be happy to consider it. And now, off to the next session."
Lesson: Editors will usually say they’re interested in anything shiny and new. Writers are often good at pitching their topics, especially in a presentation. While it’s great to make a personal connection — especially since both parties are looking for a match — after the meeting, a lot more still has to happen. What shows up on the page is what matters.
Strategy: When an editor expresses interest in your work and wants to see it, if you’re confused about what that means, just ask: "Does it matter when I get something to you? I’m just in the early stages." The editor will tell you if there’s some reason he or she wants it sooner rather than later. You are under no obligation to submit anything at this point, and neither has the editor done anything more than express interest. Just remember that when you have a draft ready to go, you’ll know at least one person to send it to.
Waiting Is the Hardest Part
Author: "I sent my manuscript to an editor who asked to see it two months ago and I’ve heard not one word. I hope she likes it. She’s probably going to reject it. I worked so hard! Why haven’t I heard back? I can’t start anything new until I finish this book. I’m up for tenure. What if I don’t get a contract? I bet she hates it. I don’t like that press anyway. I should have sent it somewhere else. Wait — is it too late to send it somewhere else?"
Editor: "I have to prepare for a sales conference, and I hate giving public presentations. My editorial assistant just quit, and no one is answering the phone. I need to redo the budget for that book with all the illustrations the author neglected to mention. I need to write a long editorial letter to my favorite author — this next one needs so much work I’ll have to spend the weekend on it. That pile of manuscripts has been hanging around for a long time. I have to get through enough of them to see which I want to send out for review and which I can reject."
Lesson: It’s not always about you, authors. Editors have lots of books at various points in the pipeline. It can take a while to get to through a stack of manuscripts. And editors, remember that authors are delicate creatures, and they worry. For many, silence feels scary.
Strategy: Authors, if it feels as if you’ve been waiting forever (like, more than a month) and you’ve heard nothing, send a short, polite note saying, "I just wanted to make sure you received my manuscript." And editors, because you’re human (and editorial assistants come and go), you might have forgotten: We need acknowledgment of receipt so we don’t think we’ve become spam. Or that you hate us.
Author: "I know I should send an email to remind my editor that I exist. So I write a long chatty one: ‘The basement flooded, my dog is sick, I’m on faculty senate, grading is sucking the life out of me, I’m up for tenure next year, and, oh, by the way, any word on my manuscript?’ "
Editor: "What is this email about? Why didn’t she say in the subject line? Though I’m sorry to hear about it, I don’t have time to read about her dog’s bout of gastroenteritis. Does she need something from me? I’ll read this later and respond when I have time. (Except I never have enough time.)"
Lesson: Some people deal with stress and procrastination by writing long emails. Those missives can build a sense of connectedness and intimacy between editor and writer. But there’s just not enough time in the day to read both full manuscripts and lengthy messages. Sometimes things fall off the radar, and a little reminder can help.
Strategy: If you want an update from an editor, send a quick, clear email with a subject line of "Just checking in," and say you’re wondering where in the process your project is. Has it been sent for peer review? When might you expect to hear something? And editors: Be honest. If the book hasn’t gone out yet, let the writer know. Try not to make promises you can’t keep, which leaves authors hanging. It makes them crazy. Crazier.
Clear and Direct
Author: "My editor rarely responds, so I decided to just ask a direct question. I even put it in the subject line of the email. I didn’t include any personal stuff but was businesslike and concise. And still I didn’t hear back."
Editor: "I love when authors understand how busy I am and write professional messages. I need to check with the folks in production/marketing/publicity before I can respond with a good answer. When I hear from my colleagues, I’ll get back to this writer immediately."
Lesson: If you need to know something, make it easy for the other person to answer, and realize that editors often need input from others before they can get back to you. But don’t be so brusque that you forget there’s a human connection.
Strategy: Authors: Your editors are advocating for you within the press, even when you don’t hear from them directly. Trust them to do their job. If it seems to be taking too long to get an answer, send a "just checking in" message, or even better, request a phone conversation with an indication of what you want to talk about. Editors: Reward good authors by letting them know that you need to check with your colleagues and you’ll get back as soon as you can. Best if you can give an indication of how long that will take.
Author: "I hate that $&#^% cover design! It doesn’t represent the work I’ve done in the book. Blue is a terrible color. Why would they choose blue? And look how small the typeface is. They clearly don’t care about this book at all. Or about me. I’m going to tell them that this is completely unacceptable."
Editor: "After rejecting four designs that weren’t right — mostly because the author’s description of the book was so opaque the designer had little to work with — we finally came up with one I think is good. I hope the author likes it as much as I do. It will appeal to the market in a way that may help bring this book to the wider readership it deserves."
Lesson: Everyone wants your book to succeed. Authors have unspoken ideas about what the physical product should look like. Often they can’t say what they like and can only critique. Most presses are open to hearing the writer’s ideas for the cover. Editors need to remember that some authors may not write another book, and will live with this cover design/title/typeface for the rest of their lives, so of course it means a lot to them.
Strategy: Authors, if you have an idea for the cover, mock it up say, "I know I’m not a professional, but what would you think of something like this?" Be as specific as you can about what you like and don’t like, and write it up in a memo. (If you want to use a Cindy Sherman photo, be prepared to pay a hefty permission fee.) Send a list of the press’s cover designs that you admire. Editors: Solicit the author’s feedback early and pass it on to the designers.
It Never Goes Without Saying
Plenty of other communications issues will arise, but I’ve found that things always go smoothest when everyone is clear and direct. No nagging or blaming necessary. Ask polite questions and recognize how busy everyone’s lives are. No one wants a book to fail.
And always say thank you. To every single person who works on the book. It takes a village.