Wednesday, September 17, 2008

The Publishing Process

The surprises keep on coming. Today's guest blogger is Will Lavender, and if you've been around the web at all in the past few months, you've probably heard of his debut novel, OBEDIENCE. Listen to what he has to say about his publishing experience: 

I've been asked to go through the path to publication step by step. I wish I could give you a narrative of raw power, a startling insider's guide to the world of books that is as enlightening as it is provocative. The truth is far more mundane: there is a lot of luck, a lot of timing, and a lot of waiting (a LOT of waiting) on the way to seeing your book in print. Here is how it happened to me:

1. I wrote the book. Because I had no knowledge of really how to get published or what publication entailed, I simply wrote. It was, to say the least, liberating. Just me and my laptop, positioned there on the couch for three hours a day. In two months, I had a first draft.

2. Much editing. As other, more important people before me have said: editing is writing. I spent almost as long tweaking the manuscript as I had writing it. 

3. Once a polished draft was in front of me, I went to and began to accumulate a list of agents. I picked only agents who had websites, because frankly I didn't want to deal with snail mail. I began with a list of about 30 agents and went from there. 

3a. It is extremely important to be constantly, arduously on the lookout for scammers. They are legion in this business, and it is relatively easy to spot them: they're the people who want you to pay them to publish your book. If anyone asks you for money up front, pump the brakes. Hard. You can rest assured that something is not right with that picture.

4. Next came the query. The query is, outside of the manuscript itself (duh), the most important part of the process. A good manuscript paired with a bad query is pretty meaningless. There are all kinds of good queries; I've read literally hundreds of both kinds. I've read some great queries that are acute and in-depth, that detail the plot in pretty specific ways. 

My query, on the other hand, was very short and muscular; there was barely a comma in it. I described the hook, compared my book to a couple of others on the market, and that was it. No more than two and a half paragraphs, twelve or thirteen sentences. I wrote the query with this mantra in mind: "These people are dealing with hundreds of proposals a day, and I want them to read every word of my query."

5. After a couple of agent rejections, I did two things: I rewrote the first paragraph of the manuscript, added a strange little prologue, changed the title of the book, and overhauled my query. Who knows if these changes helped sell the novel, but it certainly didn't hurt. 

6. I began to get bites on the query soon after the above changes were made. I had five or six requests for partials in a matter of about three weeks, and two more requests for fulls soon after. In November of 2006, on Election Day, I signed with my now-agent and things began to get interesting. 

6a. Much has been said about picking an agent, about whether or not an agent is even necessary. Of course an agent is not mandatory (this much has been proven), but in my humble opinion it is extremely difficult to get much done in the world of publishing without an agent. I have no connections in the world of publishing; I'm sitting here in Kentucky, on a couch, with "Wheel of Fortune!" on the tube. I needed someone who had real, bona fide contacts in New York, and my agent of course has those. 

7. An interesting thing: my agent spent a good deal of time helping me tighten up the MS. I was unaware that agents did this. I thought they just schmoozed, ate at really expensive restaurants, and dropped bulky manila envelopes off in the Random House lobby. Turns out agents do quite a bit, from tracking royalties to explaining your contract to working on foreign rights and on and on. For about a month and a half, my agent and I worked hard at making OBEDIENCE as solid and as seamless as it could be. 

8. In early 2007 the book was submitted. The writer normally receives a submission notice, telling him or her what publishers are looking at the manuscript. My submission sheet was about 20 publishers long, which seems like a lot, but if you think about it that doesn't give a writer a tremendous chance of getting publishing. Twenty shots and that's it. 

8a. Cue insane levels of stress. 

9. The submission process can take a long time. I've heard from other writers that their manuscripts were considered for months, sometimes for more than a year. In one week, my agent had interest from at least one publisher. 

10. In the next couple of days, other publishers let my agent know they were interested. Nothing earth-shattering happens at this stage: my agent simply called me on the telephone and said, "________ is interested." 

10a. An interesting thing happened, then: my agent set up phonecalls with five editors. Because my agent specialized at this time in nonfiction, she thought it would be interesting (and beneficial) if I spoke to the interested parties on the phone, the way a nonfiction author will do when his or her project is being considered. Any questions, concerns, praise, criticism that these people had could be addressed in these conversations. 

10b. Questions, concerns, praise, criticism was addressed in five ten-minute phonecalls with acquisitions editors. 

11. Two of the publishers dropped out (my phone skills: mediocre at best), and I was left with three interested publishers. An auction was set up. Again, this is a pretty banal thing: my agent simply sent me an e-mail saying, "Auction tomorrow morning." 

11a. Auctions are, obviously, good for the writer. It means that more than one publishing house is vying for your manuscript, and of course that means more money. I've heard of situations where ten or twelve houses all make a bid, and in that case the advance the writer commands becomes astronomical. My case was pretty modest, but I was happy that I had more than one house ready to put up money for my product. (Again: duh.) 

11b. A side note here on my particular auction. There was what is called a preempt for my manuscript, which means that one of the three publishing houses wanted to make an offer that would kill the auction. They were hoping I would take the offer and therefore no other bids could be made. The catch to this preempt offer was that the publisher would control world rights. 

11c. If the publisher controls world rights, the author may make more money up front, but in any foreign country where the book sells, he or she would only get 80% of the money offered in an advance. 

12. Much gnashing of teeth followed. I, needless to say, slept none. 

13. We decided to let the book go into auction. There was already foreign interest, and my agent assured me that much money could be made around the world. If we controlled world rights rather than the publisher, more money could be made, and the agent could negotiate things like royalty percentages and things like that.

14. The auction went down. It isn't a real auction in the Texas, guy-on-a-potato-box-speaking-a-mile-a-minute way that I assumed it would be. My agent simply sent three e-mails with different dollar amounts and incentives explained in them. (These incentives were interesting: one company, for instance, offered a pretty substantial advance if the book became a New York Times bestseller. Another offered a certain amount of money if I sold 40,000 copies in one calendar year.) 

15. We chose the best offer. 

16. Celebration ensued. 

17. Now: the writer enters into a sort of dead period. Nothing happens for a couple of weeks. This is catch your breath time, I guess, calm down and get 'hold of yourself time. I certainly needed it. 

18. During this time, I received offers from around the world. The book ended up selling in twelve foreign countries, and most of this business was done in the first few days after the book sold in the States. 

18a. This is the point when you also meet your editor. This is important, to form as solid a relationship as possible with the person who is going to be suggesting changes to your book in the following months. Lucky for me, my editor was an extremely nice, understanding person, and we hit it off right away. 

19. We spent about four months tweaking the manuscript. Some of the changes my editor suggested were "line chances," which were tweaks to the sentences and words themselves. Other changes were much more substantial. The ending of the novel, in my case, changed in a pretty noticeable way. Characters were altered. Chapters were added. Chapters were taken out. This was the most arduous part of the process by far, but I believe the novel is better now than it was before my editor went in with her scalpel. 

19a. Some writers bristle at having their words and ideas changed. Two things about this: (1) an editor will likely not make you change anything; he or she will suggest a few ways to make a particular change and let you do it the way you see fit. And (2) we spend so much time as writers craving the attention of other people. We wait and wait and wait for someone to notice what we're doing, to listen to our fears and hopes and wants, to read our stuff and give it its proper due. Anything, anything to release it from our minds.

 It doesn't make sense, at least to me, that the writer, at this stage, after money has been promised, now that the book is so close to being complete, would turn his back on his or her editor and protect the work. These editors, after all, have your best interests in mind most of the time.* 

19b. * Note that phrase: "most of the time." I have heard stories of editors suggesting changes that would completely undercut the narrative and take the book in a different direction than the writer intended. In these cases, obviously, the writer has to use his or her best judgment. 

20. The manuscript was accepted by the publisher, which means that everything is (cue harp-wielding angels) finished. An important point, this number 20: you do not get paid the full amount due to you unless the manuscript is accepted. 

21. At this point corollary decisions are made: the cover is chosen (I was actually asked if I had any cover ideas); a publication date is set; blurbs (what the publisher calls "endorsements") are collected.* I really felt things coming together now. I was actually going to have a real book. A real book on the bookshelves. My goodness. 

21a. * Re: endorsements. The publisher collected mine. I have heard horror stories about blurbs; recently ran an article where a writer suggested that blurbs were extremely difficult to get, and she could only get them if she agreed to write blurbs for those writers who agreed to blurb her: a kind of you-scratch-my-back-and-I'll-scratch-yours situation. This was not the case at all in my experience.

22. Months passed. Another manuscript was begun. My daughter was born. Life moved on. Pre-publication reviews started coming in, all of them good-to-very-good. (Kirkus raved.) It seemed, I have to say, like an eternity. 

23. Almost one year to the day that the novel was purchased in auction, it arrived on the bookshelf. A strange day. I don't want to call it a disappointment, but it was a bit...surreal. I wasn't sure how to feel about seeing that book up there, bound and gleaming with my name on it. I felt pride, of course, but it was a checked pride. And I felt happiness, of course, but it was a happiness that was a bit muted. I think I thought, and still feel, that it was just the tip of something. There are more books to be written, more good work to be done. I didn't want to rest, to say, "Hey, I did that! Behold!" Most of all, I didn't want to take myself too seriously. 

24. Things continue to happen, almost two years since I began writing the book. Movie people have shown interest. The book has been reviewed in more places than I ever imagined (most of them positive; a couple not so much). I have spoken in front of large groups and in front of groups of five people. In one week, I am taking a trip to Amsterdam to promote the book. (Dutch Playboy wants an interview.) 

But through it all, I look back on the writing itself, because without those days of work nothing that happened after would have happened. I want to reclaim it, that innocence, the feeling that I was just playing around, just noodling a little with a story idea. Now things are much more serious, much more dire: money is at stake, my livelihood, the livelihood of my family. This changes things, makes it a little less...pure. Sometimes I wish I could go back to the beginning, when I was just starting OBEDIENCE, when nothing and everything was possible.


Will Lavender published his debut novel, Obedience, in February of 2008. You can read more about Will at his website or on his blog

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Pink Ink said...

That's a great post. I can relate to his comment:

*After a couple of agent rejections, I did two things: I rewrote the first paragraph of the manuscript, added a strange little prologue, changed the title of the book, and overhauled my query. Who knows if these changes helped sell the novel, but it certainly didn't hurt.*

I'm also tweaking my novel, after a few rejections, and I'm hoping the changes will help. Will's example is inspiring to me.

-Pink Ink from AW

Will said...

Good luck, Pink Ink. I've found that it's important to keep a balance: you have to believe in your product (confidence is extremely important, clearly), but you also have to be a little bit pliable. You have to understand that it's a business, and in a business you sometimes have to bend a little bit to market forces.

Again, best of luck.


Creative A said...

Pink, I had to do something similar once. A mentor sat me down and gave me the harsh truth about my WIP. I was trying to get it published, and I was told it wasn't ready. It hurt, but he was right. So I changed almost everything and it taught me quite a lot.

But Will, I do agree with you: confidence is huge. The trick for me is to believe in my ability as a writer - not a particular thing I wrote. I find that way, I can accept criticism to a piece without feeling crushed.


Anonymous said...

This is a really interesting enrty and I think it gives us all hope that there is the chance we can make it out there. Really cool and inspiring!

Creative A said...

Thanks for commenting, Aaron. It is a pretty cool story.


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