Conventional wisdom would suggest that authors who work in publishing would be the most critical as their insider knowledge allows them to judge the editing, selling and marketing capabilities of the house releasing their book. But in fact, what we discovered when we interviewed a number of people, is that these authors are among the most contented. Instead of hearing how there were no copies in this store or that store, or the publisher wasn’t supporting the book with ads and an author tour, we heard nothing but praise.
Is this because publishing authors know you catch more flies with honey than vinegar? Or is it that because they understand the challenges of publishing, they are more realistic?
For a majority of the authors we talked to, writing was something they had been doing long before starting their careers in publishing. For some, publication was a natural evolution from their current jobs. “I’ve been in publishing my entire adult life, and spent a good part of it at Franklin Spier, an ad agency catering to the book industry. I ended up being the creative partner there, so for many years I wrote about other peoples’ books,” explained Erin McHugh, bookseller for Barnes & Noble and author/co-author of over 20 books, including her upcoming One Good Deed (Abrams, Sep 2012). “After that, I spent a few years doing various things, finally deciding enough was enough — it was time for me to start trying to write my own books.”
For others, bringing their writing into a professional forum meant a tricky balance of making the most of their industry knowledge while not exploiting their contacts. “I really tried to be careful not to trade on my industry connections when I first started the process several years ago,” said Jennifer E. Smith, author of YA books including The Statistical Probability of Love at First Sight (Poppy, Jan 2012) and Senior Editor at Ballantine Books. “I was working at a literary agency at the time, but instead of approaching them, I sent out blind queries to several other agents. After being offered representation elsewhere, I ultimately ended up staying at the agency where I worked, but all throughout the process, I wanted to be sure the book was being evaluated on its merits, and not because of who I knew in the industry.”
In fact, showing her debut novel to others in the industry proved especially nerve-wracking for Bronwen Hruska, Publisher of Soho Press and author of soon-to-be-published novel Accelerated (Pegasus Books, Oct 2012). “I have never been more nervous waiting for a read than when I sent the manuscript to Juris Jurjevics, who founded Soho Press with my mother in 1986. In addition to being a brilliant editor and novelist in his own right, he has no idea how to sugar coat … The idea of having total strangers read the book isn’t nearly as terrifying.” For Carole DeSanti, Editor at Large at Penguin and author of recently published The Unruly Passions of Eugenie R. (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Mar 2012), publishing peers and professional critics were the toughest crowd to face: “I clenched my jaw for weeks before the New York Times review ran, and narrowly avoided major dental work, I think….”
When experiencing the publishing process from the other side of the desk, many spoke of their willingness to embrace their role as authors. “As an editor, it’s really nice when you have an author that trusts the publisher, and so I try to do the same with my own books,” Jennifer E. Smith explained. “And it’s easier for me to step back a little bit, because I know what’s going on at each stage in the process, so I’m not wondering why I’m not hearing about something or what’s happening at any given moment.” Carole DeSanti agrees, adding, “It’s important to learn about your own ‘stress points,’ as an author, too, and be aware enough not to project them onto the publisher. Given my experience I tried to operate this way — not that I’m perfect!” John Donatich, Director of Yale University Press and author of recently acclaimed novel The Variations (Henry Holt, Feb 2012), had high praise for his editor: “My editor, Jack Macrae, was incredible, taking me through many drafts. He was so “inside” the narrative that he would call me up and tell me things about my main character I didn’t know. It was terrific fun to gossip about these made up characters with him.”
In fact, Jason Pinter, Senior Marketing manager at Grove/Atlantic and author of the Henry Parker series tries to keep a clear separation between his day job and writing career. “I keep my writing life very separate from my publishing life, and don’t talk about my work with colleagues unless they ask,” he said. However, as a writer, he has been able to still find support in other fans of the genre. “I think, especially working primarily in the crime fiction field, writing in that genre has allowed me to really become a part of the community rather than sit on the bleachers.”
Still, authors coming from the publishing industry found areas where they could apply their professional expertise. For Bronwen Hruska, being able to apply some of Soho’s marketing strategies to her own book proved to be a great collaboration. “There were a few things we’ve been doing at Soho for our big books that I suggested we might try with Accelerated,” said Bronwen. “Claiborne Hancock and Jessica Case have embraced me (and all my big ideas). I think it’s been interesting for them to see how another independent publisher does it (it’s always interesting for me to get a glimpse of the inner workings of another press). They can steal whatever they like from our plan going forward (and I hope they do!).”
When asked how her bookselling experience has helped her during the publishing process, Erin McHugh saw home turf advantages in addition to marketing know-how: “You mean besides putting them in the front of the store all the time? I do think you get a better idea of what type of jackets are moving a book — from color to type treatment to artwork.” She has also, however, observed the importance of balance in promoting herself as an author. “I use social media — Facebook and Twitter primarily — to promote my books and keep folks interested in my writing, but I try very hard to avoid the temptation of overpromoting myself and my books. I think it’s a real problem with a lot of writers. We’re home alone, and it’s hard not to shout our wares from the virtual rooftops all day long.”
As much as these writers understand what it’s like from the other side of the table, inevitably there will be some points of contention. “I’ve certainly offered feedback on covers and marketing, at times at odds with my publisher, and there have been battles I’ve fought and lost and others I’ve won,” said Jason Pinter. “When I sold The Mark, I told myself I was going to do all the positive things my authors had done to contribute to the publication of their works, and none of the negatives. I’d say I’ve been 71% successful.”
When asked what it is like being published by a company other than his/her employer, all the authors we talked to found their relationships with their employers to be different from that with their publishers, a separation that has allowed their employers to be supportive of their creative work. John Donatich described Yale University Press as being very encouraging of his work, though, he did not that it comes with the territory: “I work at a university who routinely reviews publication — even expects it from certain folk. I’ve also worked at places where that wasn’t so.”
For Carole DeSanti, there were some noticeable differences: “At Houghton Harcourt they seem to be a bit stricter about things like word and character limits, and in general their process felt a bit more formal than ours at Penguin. (Of course, some are Bostonians!) And yes, my employer and my colleagues have been wonderfully supportive. Since I’ve been working on this book for so long, I think they were a bit relieved, too.” David Levithan, Editorial Director of Scholastic, continues the longstanding pattern of people working in children’s publishing also writing children’s books. As the author of popular novels like Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist written with Rachel Cohn (Knopf Books for Young Readers, 2006) and soon-to-be-published Every Day (Knopf Books for Young Readers, Aug 2012), David commented on a much bigger discrepancy between his employer and his publisher: “My relationship to each is completely different. Although the coffee machines at the Random House office are legendary, and cannot be replicated elsewhere.”
Because of their experience both in publishing and as authors, everyone seemed to be in agreement that self-publishing is probably not a path they would consider in the future. “Yes, it’s easier than ever to do,” commented Bronwen Hruska. “But the truth of that fact only ensures that there will be more and more ebooks out there and it will be harder and harder, as a reader, to navigate the crowded marketplace. I think going forward, readers are going to have to pay more attention to the publisher’s brand as a way to identify which books are worth their time and money.” For John Donatich, traditional publishing isn’t just a choice; it’s a lifestyle: “I want to live in a publishing town where people pick up after their dogs (copyedit), attend town meetings (sell books to bookstores) and mow their lawns (make pretty books).”
No matter what the future of publishing, these authors plan to continue to write. “I just finished my new YA novel, This Is What Happy Looks Like, which will be out next spring, and I’m hoping to start something else soon,” said Jennifer E. Smith. “It’s always a bit of a juggling act, doing both jobs, but I feel really lucky to have found two things I love this much.” Erin McHugh also echoed this sentiment; when asked if she will continue writing, she answered, “Until I drop dead. I’ve known I wanted to do this my whole life, and I ain’t stopping now.”
Also, for related reading:
Who edits the editors? from National Post