by Sophie Perinot
Our books are our babies. They’ve kept us up nights, and acted badly in front of company (like those agents we queried too early), but we love them to death and we are very, very possessive of them. And, like most parents, we have high hopes for them. We dream that someday they will leave our laptop, pass through the wheels of publishing, and grace a shelf (wooden, virtual or both) somewhere.
Sometimes the “possessive” author part of us and the part that wants what’s best for our books are in direct conflict. What do I mean? Have you heard of the “helicopter parent?” I would argue the “helicopter author” also exists—she’s in all of us (guys, you can read “he’s” if it makes you feel better) and if we don’t keep her under control our book will suffer.
Repeat after me—“I am a wordsmith, I write, I write really well. But it takes a lot more than writing to make a book a success—it takes a village (it’s okay, you can steal that phrase from Hillary Clinton, everyone else has). Once I have a publisher I will let the professionals who work there do their jobs.”
That’s precisely what I told myself when I signed the contract for my debut novel (The Sister Queens). Despite being type-A, I was going to make a conscious effort not to micromanage every step on the publication trail, and not to freak out when I discovered that I didn’t have the political capital to do so anyway. So far, I am pretty proud of myself, and I am going to share the secrets to my tongue-biting success.
1) I keep my eye on the BIG picture—book sales. I want to sell books. My publisher wants to sell books. We both want to sell books to people who are not ME (and not my friends and family for that matter). So what I like—in terms of a cover, or a title or blog-ad copy, etc.—runs a distant second to what a majority of book-buying, cash-carrying potential readers will like.
And the truth is, I am not in a position to predict what will catch the eye of the average book buyer. I am not trained to do that (nor have I conducted studies or otherwise made it my business to keep my fingers on the pulse of such things). Which leads to my next point.
2) I remind myself as often as necessary, that years of experience and professional training DO count for something. Publishing is a competitive industry. The folks my publisher hired didn’t just walk off the street and say “this looks better than working at McDonalds.” They are professionals. The marketing and art department folks are trained to know what gets a book picked up off a “new releases” table. They have been designing covers and brainstorming titles for years. With this in mind, I decided, even as I was offering my own cover ideas (as my editor asked me to) I would stop well short of trying to “direct the brush” of the cover artists, and I would accept that they might know best.
Similarly, my editor has been polishing manuscripts since well before I thought of writing them. So, when I received editorial suggestions from my editor, instead of growling “my baby is perfect as I wrote it,” I consciously adopted a listening frame of mind, and seriously considered every suggestion. My editor gave me the gift of “outside eyes” and not just any old eyes, veteran eyes.
Was ceding some control over a novel I’ve lived with and loved easy—not all the time. Did I take every suggestion my editor made—no (ultimately it’s my name on the cover). But neither did I assume I knew best (or if I did assume that for some, giddy, amount of time—I made sure not to email my editor until the feeling passed).
Bottom line: I wanted a deal with a major publisher precisely so that I could tap into the resources and experience of “the best.” Disregarding the type of accumulated expertise a publisher has to offer is just stupid and stubborn. It is like going to the hospital and insisting on doing your own appendectomy.
My novel has now moved on to the production department. Just recently I saw sample pages. Am I happy with the results of my “campaign of collaboration?” Yes. My novel is still my baby, but she has my editor’s eyes. She looks spiffy in the cover designer’s custom creation. She’s all grown up and ready to hit the shelves in March 2012. In case your wondering, I’ll be the woman in Barnes & Noble snapping pictures of her on display like she’s a kindergartner getting on the school bus for the first time. “Say Cheese.”