Of the many lessons I learned working at a corporate publishing house, here are the three I’m thankful for that you should know too.
1. Wordsmithing takes you only so far; at some point, you write to sell.
In the 1990s, I wrote my first proposals for pub board. (Pub board is where books are approved for publication.)
I was painstaking in how I crafted these proposals, revisiting every word. I took hard copies to my boss, the editorial director, and he would mark it up for further revision, to make it more persuasive.
It took me years to learn how to write a proposal that didn’t require a lot of revision. I was too concerned with how I was expressing things rather than what I was expressing. Until the board was convinced by the what, the how didn’t matter.
Writers, and especially novelists, fall in love with their words. They want to perfect their craft. All well and good. But at some point, you must pay attention to whether your efforts are actually improving your chances at selling or publishing the work, assuming that’s your goal.
The paradox of the writing life, though, is that sometimes how something is done is so unique and compelling that it doesn’t matter if the what is considered unmarketable or unpublishable.
There’s no way to know for sure if this applies to your work.
2. Being more descriptive and more explanatory doesn’t mean you’re more persuasive or effective.
I used to write very long proposals, long letters or e-mails, long project descriptions … you get the idea. I assumed that the more detail I could offer, the more convincing I’d be.
You’ve probably heard this famous quote, often attributed to Pascal: “If I had more time, I would write a shorter letter.”
It’s true. A sophisticated writer can express more with less. And he knows what to leave out—all those precious details that are diminishing the work rather than improving it.
Our insecurities can prompt us to write more and more, to ensure our point isn’t lost on the audience. We show AND we tell. We explain things in two or three or four different ways. We use three adjectives when maybe we don’t even need the one.
When it comes to the business side of writing (queries, proposals), often the more we say, the more we can get into trouble. I quickly found, when writing for the pub board, that I didn’t want to offer too much material to analyze, especially material that wasn’t clearly connected to the sales case. Otherwise, that material could be used against me. So I made damn sure that each piece of information I revealed had a distinct purpose in proving my case—not someone else’s.
These days, my preferences probably lean too far into Hemingway-esque territory. I love brevity. I’ve been accused of cutting too much.
Still, I say: Better to be a little mysterious, and respect your readers’ time and intelligence.
3. Even though the author’s concerns rarely come first at a publishing house, authors are the reason the best people stay in the business.
Authors have every reason to trust their publishers’ judgment when it comes to creating a book that will sell. They also have every reason to trust their editor, who is their best champion internally at the publishing house.
That said, the publisher will make decisions that benefit the bottom line of the publisher, and usually the author also benefits from that. If the author has concerns or demands that would cost the publisher a lot of money to address (and would not result in better sales for the book), then the publisher is unlikely to cooperate.
Some authors believe they deserve better consideration than that—that they are the No. 1 reason the publisher exists in the first place. Some authors are deeply mistrustful of their publishers (even their editors).
But what I learned over time is that the best people who work in publishing do so precisely because of the opportunity (privilege) of working with talented authors. And people who leave publishing remember and treasure those author relationships.
I am thankful this holiday season for the author relationships I had while at F+W, because even during those times I wanted to quit my job, the authors were always the best reminder of what made the job so great to begin with.
Photo courtesy Flickr’s » Zitona «