Burning Questions About Book Publishing: What are editors thinking about when they want to buy a manuscript?

By Ruta Rimas

Thank you to those of you who submitted questions about book publishing. My two previous posts address the most common question – agents and what they do! (Post 1 here, Post 2 here)

The next question I was asked delves into the business of book publishing:

What are editors thinking about when they want to buy a manuscript?

(For the purposes of this post, assume that I am speaking about the big New York City houses that publish fiction and nonfiction, like HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster, Hachette, and Penguin Random House.)

As readers, we know that a book is a wonderful and complex piece of art, cherished and held on high. Every person who works in book publishing feels this same way – it’s an industry of book nerds, basically.

Book nerds work at the above publishers.

Books tend to be held to different standards, and are oftentimes considered more dignified than other forms of art or entertainment. As writers, we need to remember that though this is a creative industry, publishing houses are also profit-driven entertainment businesses, and many are part of a larger media conglomerate. A book is also a product. It’s consumed. It’s for sale, a piece of merchandise created to generate money.

So, what are things that editors might consider? There’s a multitude of factors, including but not limited to:

  • The overall idea: Is this manuscript compelling and fresh? What comparative titles are out there already and how will yours stand out?
  • The type of writing and the publisher’s aesthetic: What is the writing quality? Is the writing literary, beautiful, contemplative, meandering? Is the writing more commercial, accessible, easy-to-digest? A pop-culture imprint may be great for a biography about Beyoncé, but not the place for your Civil War-era romance, for example.
  • The marketplace: Do we see this book as making a huge commercial splash, is this book an award-winner, is this book quiet and niche? Who are the readers, where do we see this shelved at our accounts? Is this book regionally focused? How are other books like this one selling? How can we use those book sales to our advantage?
  • Sales expectations: How many copies do we think we can sell in hardcover? In paperback? In ebook? Are there subsidiary rights that we think we can exploit, like a sale into the UK or other foreign territories?
  • The advance: How do we balance our market-expectations with what we think we can afford to pay the writer? If we overpay, that’s bad for us and very bad for the author – it can kill their career if their book doesn’t earn out its advance. Are multiple houses interested? If so, how can we be competitive with our offer?
  • Marketing and publicity: Will this book require a significant investment in marketing and publicity? Does the author have a pre-existing platform or network that we can leverage in this regard?

This list of factors is not all inclusive but will give you a good idea of what editors are thinking about when they want to buy your manuscript. At the end of the day, for the big publishers, the best type of book balances the beauty of words and ideas with commercial success and wide appeal. For a book to be both literary and commercial is an editor’s dream.

Her Superpower: Interview with Author Lily Burana

by Julie Chibbaro

You’re alone in a room. There’s nothing around you that can distract you. No one needs you. You’ve made it this way. Because you have a priority, and that is to put down one word after another and make sense to someone other than yourself. You have to do this well, or no one will understand you. You have to do this every day till you’re done saying what you have to say.

Outside of that room is the world. You really want to go there, see your friends, lie in bed with your lover, or with a movie. Splash in the river. Garden.

But you cannot get out of the room until you finish what you’ve started, or you’ll have a lot of mental anguish.

To me, that’s what writing feels like.

Setting up the stakes, putting up the boundaries, getting it done so I can live with myself.

I look at other writers and marvel at how much they seem to be IN the world while writing about it. I think they have some superpower that I don’t. I thought that of Lily Burana, author of Strip City, Try, I Love A Man In Uniform, and her latest, Grace For Amateurs.

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It seemed like Lily (who was the featured guest at our very first Get Lit gathering) could write about anything, and still be active and involved in the world around her at the same time. When we talked, I asked Lily how she wrote so much and so well, who influences her, and how she can write about so many different topics, seemingly effortlessly. Her thoughtful and wide-ranging answers surprised me:

GLB: You are such a complex lady with an amazing scope to your writing. I am dying to know who your influences are or were. Feel free to take us through “a short history of Lily via the authors and books she has read.”

LILY: My first and biggest influence, as a teenager, was Sylvia Plath, because she was the first writer I ever read who so beautifully and pitilessly explored the modern female condition, the double standard for women as opposed to men, depression, artistic ambition, the conflict of pleasing your family versus pursuing your own goals. We take all those subjects for granted now as “fair game,” but to be writing about such things in the 1950s and 60s was truly astonishing, as those were the “Good Girl” days. Plus Plath was a poet, and the emotional and sensory depth that her poetic gift lent to her writing really set a high standard for me. I was a total Plathophile. My mother was a librarian, and she’d bring home any obscure Plath thing she could find, like Plath’s book of short stories, Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams. There was also Memories of Ariel, which was a short memoir by Nancy Hunter Steiner, the woman who was chosen to be Plath’s roommate after she returned to college following her breakdown.

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The writers whose work I most admire—writing that manages to show the full emotional landscape and minute details of a life or a subculture or a setting—tend to be poets at heart: Dorothy Allison, Mary Karr, Plath, of course, plus newer writers like Patricia Lockwood. But I’ve also always loved social justice and political writing so I’ve been influenced by everything from punk ‘zine culture, to canonical LGBT authors like Audre Lorde, James Baldwin, Pat Califia, and Susie Bright, to progressive theologians like Nadia Bolz Weber. I enjoy fiction somewhat, but nonfiction is my true artistic engine. Everything I’m most moved by, and thus aspire to create, is organized around a central question: how do we, as artists, portray the lived experience in a vivid, unsparing, but hopeful way?

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I’ve never felt particularly pressured to limit myself to one “beat” or one particular subject. If it interests me enough to investigate it, I figure it’s fair game. I’m not a “write what you know” type. I’m a “write what obsesses you” type, because the more obsessed you are, the more you’ll get to know your topic, and the better the work will be. If you’re not passionate about a subject, you won’t have the steam to keep going. There’s too much fun stuff out in the world to distract you from anything that isn’t a near-consuming flame.

GLB: Again, the words “varied, complex, layered, deep” come to me when I think of your writing. From religious meditations to military-life musings to sex-worker woes, how do you manage to go so far out on so many limbs with your writing, and find the courage to then put the writing out there, despite the potential backlash to your ideas?

LILY: Please understand: I may summon up a lot of nerve to write into a number of difficult topics, but that’s only because that difficulty is counterbalanced by living a simple, and often solitary, life. You know me, so you know I’m not at all shy, but I am very self-protective. I’m not that brave, in terms of my ability to be able to deal with conflict or personal attack. If I were ever besieged by hordes of haters or trolls online, I might implode. God knows what kind of nervous breakdown I’d have if someone got in my face in person. I write the way that I write because I purposely and purposefully constructed for myself a very sedate, very quiet lifestyle: I spend a lot of time alone, thinking about what I’m going to write before I even get started. I tend to not write about something until I’m “finished” with it—that is, I have let it cool down enough in my mind and heart so I can observe it most clearly and honestly. I’m also able to write this way because I know I’ll always be a freelance schmo who doesn’t really need to worry about what Joe in Accounting thinks of me, or how I affect the image of the corporation or the congregation or the nurses on the fourth floor.

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As much as I put out there in writing, I keep a great deal to myself. Many writers are out and about a lot, and they have their family and their home all over Instagram, and I prefer not to. I’m much more reserved, much more guarded than is encouraged these days, when writers are expected to sort of be their own “lifestyle brand.” Readers want to know more about you, want to feel like they’re part of your circle, your family, your scene, but I don’t think I could be open with all of that and be as open as I am as a writer. I need a place to come back to that’s just mine and my family’s. The more protected I feel around the things I feel uneasy showing to the world, like my places of retreat (family, friends, home), the more daring I can be in what I do share with the world.

GLB: What sorts of things do you say to yourself when you’re getting ready to write? Do you have a schedule, a set rhythm, a series of mantras, or any affirmations to help you along in your process?

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LILY: I live and die by “all first drafts are shit.” If I didn’t have that drilled into my head, on a loop like a mantra, I’d never get anything done. That, and “you’ll go over it again later.” Like many writers, I have this negative fantasy that everyone else churns out these flawless pieces on the first try, when in fact, a good piece of writing, even a short one, can take years and years to perfect. Knowing that I can revise it until I’m satisfied gives me the courage to get started in the first place.

Marie Brennan: On Crushing Disappointment

By Flora Stadler

I was pretty far into adulthood before I realized that failure wasn’t my cue to slink off in shame from something. Learning feels like failure if you’re not comfortable making mistakes.

My late, great journalism professor William Serrin liked to jokingly say, “No indignity is too great.” For me, it meant you should dare to try and fail, to put yourself out there. You should dare to ask. “No” is nothing, and “Yes” is always possible. Keep looking for the yes.

So when I asked the very accomplished fantasy author and essayist Marie Brennan—a Harvard grad whose writing awards are too numerous to list here—if she would agree to an interview, I was thrilled to find the yes.

Her philosophy below is reflected in her popular Memoirs of Lady Trent series, following the adventures of a dragon naturalist who’s accomplished in her own right and doesn’t let fear of failure slow her down. You’ll find these and Brennan’s many other books at Indiebound.

Following the theme of failure and disappointment, I asked her:

What’s the one thing you’ve learned about failure, either in your personal life or your career, that has been the most useful to you?

“For a lot of people, failure looks like a wall. The end of the road. A sign that you should turn around and go back.

I see it as a hurdle.

Like many professional writers, I have a stack of rejection letters for my short stories and novels. Back before self-publishing became a viable option, there were basically two possible responses to those rejections. Walk away… or pick yourself up and try again. Try harder. Revise the story, or write a new one, a *better* one. Level up.

People talk about editors as ‘gatekeepers’ and mean the word negatively, but it also has its positive side. Having somebody say ‘not good enough yet’ isn’t a condemnation; it’s a challenge. I never got away from having an initial reaction of crushing disappointment—I still haven’t—but after that fades, my motto is ‘Oh yeah? Watch *this*.’

I love the fact that self-publishing has opened doors for so many people, and especially for stories that don’t fit the traditional market—but it can also let you get away with coasting. There’s nobody but yourself standing between you and the upload button. It’s a bit like lifting weights: if you only ever lift things that are easy for you, then you won’t gain much strength. It’s possible to be your own gatekeeper, of course, but it takes a lot of self-discipline, because it’s always tempting to say ‘eh, good enough.’

Whether it’s in writing or some other field, though, we all need hurdles. New obstacles, not to make ourselves stop, but to make us leap higher. Because the satisfaction when you clear that bar is tremendous, and so is the reward.”

Craft Book Recommendation: The Elements of Style by William Strunk and E.B. White

by Ruta Rimas

July is coming to an end and so the back-to-school sales are on. These dog days of summer seem the right time, then, to recommend a back-to-basics text, one that plants the roots of good writing: The Elements of Style. It’s an informative, straightforward writing manual from the grandfather of writing instruction, William Strunk, Jr., and updated by one of his former students, E.B. White. Yes, E.B. White, author of the children’s classic, Charlotte’s Web. The Elements of Style is generally used in college or upper-level English courses to instruct young writers on how to clearly communicate.

The fourth edition of the classic writing book.

Though it’s an introductory text, it’s invaluable to those of us who have been writing for a very long time, too. “Writing is hard, even for authors who do it all the time,” says Roger Angell in his introduction to the fourth edition. It’s true. Writing is hard, and it’s smart practice to remind ourselves of the basics.

In this slim volume, Strunk and White take us through the rules of rhetoric. It’s not a comprehensive text, but instead offers easy-to-understand rules of usage, principles of composition, commonly misused words and expressions, and a list of approaches to style. Strunk and White remind readers to embrace the Oxford comma, use the active voice, and put statements in the positive form. My favorite edict, one that I share with the writers I edit, is to Omit Needless Words (S&W consider one phrase, “the fact that,” to be particularly excruciating to encounter, and offer a chart with other options to use).

This thin and mighty reference allows us to reflect on our own writing.  Are our sentences convoluted, complicated, or overstuffed? Are we more in love with the purple of our prose rather than the information we are conveying or the purpose of the passage?  S&W value definite, specific, and concrete language (ex: “He showed satisfaction as he took possession of his well-earned reward” is vague and wordy; rewrite that in definite terms and you’ll have “He grinned as he pocketed the coin.”). Word choice matters. Sentence construction is important. Style and mechanics go hand in hand.

After reviewing The Elements of Style, pick up Charlotte’s Web. You’ll notice that E.B. White takes to heart all that Strunk taught him. His storytelling is clear, written with deliberate precision, utilizes varied sentence length, and is never overabundant in its descriptions.

Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White

Consider this excerpt, when Charlotte, a spider, begins weaving a new web to praise her pig-friend, Wilbur:

And so, talking to herself, the spider worked at her difficult task. When it was completed, she felt hungry. She ate a small bug that she had been saving. Then she slept.

Next morning, Wilbur arose and stood beneath the web. He breathed the morning air into his lungs. Drops of dew, catching the sun, made the web stand out clearly. When Lurvy arrived with breakfast, there was the handsome pig, and over him, woven neatly in block letters, was the word, “TERRIFIC.” Another miracle. (p.94)

Perhaps find inspiration from the book’s arachnid star who weaves simple words into her web to describe her porcine companion. One word, sometimes two, was all she needed. Maybe it’s what your writing needs, too.

Reading About Writing Doesn’t Count as Writing

by Kristen Holt-Browning

I am a sucker for any book that promises a glimpse into “the writer’s life”—books that, in discussing the daily practices of authors, will (I hope) offer a clear and well-trodden path to I can follow to literary accomplishment.

There are plenty of books that offer this big-picture, life-of-the-writer perspective. I’m often dipping in and out of The Writer’s Chapbook: A Compendium of Fact, Opinion, Wit, and Advice from The Paris Review Interviews. Each section opens with a question—“When Did You Begin Writing?,” “How Important Is Plot?,” “Are You Friends with Other Writers?”—and contains brief responses from a variety of writers. Louise DeSalvo’s The Art of Slow Writing: Reflections on Time, Craft, and Creativity, devotes chapters to the value of writing partners, of keeping a journal, and of finding one’s own writing rhythm, interspersed with examples drawn from the writing lives of Virginia Woolf, Stephen King, and many others.

And then there’s Deborah Levy’s The Cost of Living: A Working Autobiography, a book not, at first glance, about how to write—and yet entirely about writing. In her early 50s, Levy is divorced, living in a shabby apartment with her daughters. She writes about lugging a space heater into the shed where she writes. She describes biking home from the grocery store with a chicken tied to the seat—only for the chicken to fall off and get run over by a car (she rescues it, brings it home, and cooks it anyway). She ruminates on the dissolution of her marriage, and the death of her mother, and she worries about paying the bills.

“I no longer had a study at the most professionally busy time of my life. I wrote where I could and concentrated on making a home for my daughters. . . . to be making this kind of home, a space for a mother and her daughters, was so hard and humbling, profound and interesting, that to my surprise I found I could work very well in the chaos of time. I was thinking clearly, lucidly; the move up the hill and the new situation had freed something that had been trapped and stifled. I became physically strong at fifty, just as my bones were supposed to be losing their strength. I had energy because I had no choice but to have energy. I had to write to support my children and I had to do all the heavy lifting. Freedom is never free. Anyone who has struggled to be free knows how much it costs.”

Writing isn’t a part of life. It is a life. Levy is a woman, a mother, an ex-wife, a friend. She befriends an elderly neighbor, she reminisces about Greece, she rides a bike up a hill in London. She is cold, she is frustrated, she is elated. And always, she is a writer.

 

The Cost of Living doesn’t offer any tips or schedules. It offers a single, ever-shifting perspective on a specific life of writing. It reminds me that being a writer isn’t about habits or word counts; it’s in the living, and it’s in the writing.

Do you have a favorite book about the writing life? Comment below with the title for a chance to win a free copy of The Cost of Living!