The Out-of-Control Author

image by CJS*64
image by CJS*64

When you’re writing just for yourself, you’re in control. Of everything. You control what your characters do, what they say and think and wear, what happens to them, where their story begins and ends. Every aspect of the story is completely in your hands. It’s your book. All yours.

When you work with a publisher, that changes.

All of a sudden, you’re not alone. You have a team. Other people are weighing in on decisions, if not outright making them for you. And the good news is, they’ve done this before and you haven’t, so their decisions are generally coming from the right place, based on knowledge and experience. The bad news is, you may not always agree with them, and when it comes down to it, you’re almost certainly going to lose control.

I don’t want to use my space here this month to make an argument about whether that’s good or bad, about whether an author’s loss of control is an argument for taking another route to publication. What I’d like to do, instead, is share my experience, and give you some tips for a) claiming the control that you can, and b) totally being okay with being out-of-control when it’s called for.

About a year before my debut novel The Kitchen Daughter came out, my agent raised a flag: the publisher was thinking about bringing the book out as a trade paperback original instead of hardcover. My first reaction, of course, was panic: What does that mean? Don’t they think the book’s strong enough to sell in hardcover? Is there any way in the world I could make back my advance if this happens? We’ve got to stop it!

My second reaction, somewhat more level-headed, was: I’ve got to find out more about what this means.

Step 1: Do your research.

That first emotional reaction may or may not be right. It might, of course. Either way, you’ve got more to gain by methodically gathering information and logically presenting a well-reasoned argument than you do by responding to news at the instant you hear it.

I read everything I could find on the internet about hardcover vs. paperback debut releases. I wrote (in confidence, of course) to a bunch of my author friends, those who had hardcover debuts and those who debuted in paperback, to ask them what they thought. I gathered up all the information I could. And then, based on all that, I asked myself what it is that I wanted, and how bad I wanted it.

Step 2: Express your opinion.

As it turned out, even having all the information I could gather at my fingertips, I didn’t have a passionate opinion. I had a slight preference for hardcover because a) it felt slightly more prestigious, and b) a hardcover release followed by a paperback one meant “two bites of the apple” as far as publicity, reaching readers, etc. But it was also a riskier gambit — the high price of a hardcover turns off some readers, and a serious hardcover flop might never even make it to paperback. I told my agent and editor that I’d go with whatever the publisher thought was best, and waited to hear.

Step 3: Once it’s decided, let it go.

This step’s easier said than done, right? But I think it’s the only healthy way to deal with the parts of the publishing process that are out of your control (or, come to think of it, pretty much any part of the publishing process whatsoever.)

In the end, The Kitchen Daughter was released in hardcover first, followed by a paperback release a little less than a year later. It felt good — except on days where sales weren’t looking so good, or I saw news of a paperback debut that launched a contemporary’s career into the stratosphere. I could spend a lot of time second-guessing whether that decision was right, but truth be told, we writers tend to spend way too much time second-guessing anyway. You can drive yourself crazy with if-onlys and what-ifs. I’ve learned to save them for my fiction.

How do you handle being out of control? Or do you?

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About Jael McHenry

Jael McHenry is the debut author of The Kitchen Daughter (Simon & Schuster/Gallery Books, April 12, 2011). Her work has appeared in publications such as the North American Review, Indiana Review, and the Graduate Review at American University, where she earned her MFA in Creative Writing. You can read more about Jael and her book at jaelmchenry.com or follow her on Twitter at @jaelmchenry.

Comments

  1. says

    Hmm, sometimes I wonder about this. True, I have a lot of control right now. The price of that control is the uncertainty of my inexperience.

    When I was a business manager, I noticed that asking my employees for input was a double-edged sword. They often had good ideas, and there’s much to be said for taking the pulse of a group. But sometimes, if their ideas didn’t quite fit what my experience told me was for the best, the ended up feeling slighted when I chose differently. I found that the more outwardly confident I was about our direction, the more I ultimately put them at ease.

    Staying alert, listening to my heart, and ensuring my voice is heard will remain important. But being at ease in the knowledge that a team of others has experience I lack–particularly on the business side of things–doesn’t sound all bad. Thanks for sharing your experience, Jael!

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  2. says

    Jael, I went through the same hardcover, paperback conniptions with my publisher and ended up in hardcover, could have saved myself a bunch of mental anguish by sidelining the whole issue. Also got pushed out of shape by a title skirmish (which I lost) but that’s worked out fine also. So my lesson is to save the energy for writing and not waste it on things that are basically out of your control.

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  3. says

    Jael, this is so timely for me as I am currently in the middle of revisions for my debut book, Crazy, hopefully being released in October 2014. Even though I am literally in the middle of the fire and sweating profusely, I can see that the end product is going to be well worth the pain. But boy is it hot in here!

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  4. says

    Jael-

    You certainly grasped the dilemma of hardcover first vs. trade paper first. The prestige, reviews and double-shot exposure of hardcover first is offset by the hardcover’s high price.

    For a new author in particular, that’s risky. Consumers are reluctant to invest $25 in an author they don’t yet trust. Low or middling hardcover sales then become like a cattle brand. They can cause retailers to stock you “conservatively”, since after all you’ve proved that you don’t sell well. The trade paperback can suffer.

    On the flip side, trade paperbacks don’t necessarily get the review attention, speaking invitations and so on that author’s imagine make all the difference in sales.

    Even publishers find this a tough equation to solve. In the end it turns into a gut feeling, the judgement of the sales team and (nowadays) perhaps even an early reaction from a chain buyer.

    Ultimately, though, hardcover or trade paper doesn’t matter. What matters is what happens when a consumer actually reads the book. The truth is that people either buy at $25 or $15 and that’s that. You don’t hear folks say much anymore, “I think I’ll wait for the paperback.” Not in this age of discounted e-books.

    Just write the strongest book you can, go with the consensus on format…then do it again. That’s the best strategy, if you ask me. If original trade paper is the choice, then your excellent fiction will sooner or later build a readership large enough that plenty of people will pay that $25. Hardcover first will become the automatic choice and you’ll forget you ever had a dilemma.

    Problem solved.

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  5. Denise Willson says

    Great post, Jael. How great that we now have a choice. If you want all the power, self publish. If you want the opinion of industry experts, sign with a publisher. Write a good book first. Figure out how you intend to market it second. There is no power struggle, only choices.

    Denise Willson
    Author of A Keeper’s Truth and GOT

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  6. says

    Great post, Jael. It can be so disconcerting to go through these things and grapple with what you should do, what you can do, what is the RIGHT thing to do.

    And every case is different.

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  7. says

    Jael,

    So far in the publishing process, nothing has been too painful. I’m with a small press, and the choices we’ve made feel like they were reached together. They asked for my input on the cover, for example, so even though that decision is in their control, I feel they’ll consider my ideas. I think I’d be a little nervous if I was with a big publishing house and knew that many different people were making decisions about my book. Writing is so personal; the publishing process should feel that way, too. Like any relationship, you have to relinquish control on some issues, but it shouldn’t feel like you’re losing control, only that you’re compromising with someone who has your best interests in mind. In a perfect world, right? :)

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  8. says

    I’ve said from the beginning that I’d trust my agent and publisher to make the right decision when the time came. I’ve been an engineer for over 20 years, and one of the first things you learn is to seek out the experts in the areas you lack. The publishing business has become far too complex for me to become an expert while, at the same time, developing my writing skills. By all means, steer me in the right direction.

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  9. Marcy McKay says

    You nailed it, Jael. I have several published-author friends and have stood my them as fretted over things like hardback/trade, title changes, awful book covers, etc. I really enjoyed your post.

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  10. says

    How do I handle change?
    Step one: Inhale–one, two, three
    Exhale–one, two, three
    Step two: Go for a long walk or do Tia Chi or stretch
    Step three: Journal my approach to the situation
    Step four: Act. I do something constructive. There’s always something I can do–even if it is work on a different writing project.
    I adapt these steps to suit the situation.

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  11. says

    For me, as a would-be writer, this issue doesn’t even come up, so it’s interesting to read all the different views expressed here.

    I have to say, when (if) I ever get a book deal, I think I’d be so grateful that I probably would accept almost any suggestions as to format.

    One of the things I remember reading about Douglas Adams was how much time he spent rewriting his drafts, so they would look better when printed out. I think he made the point that it wasn’t making him a better author, just a nicer looking one, as it were.

    I think that speaks to your comment that “You can drive yourself crazy with if-onlys and what-ifs”. I know I do that all the time and I don’t even have a book deal (if I’m honest, I don’t even have a completed book to get a deal with!)

    Being out of control is a scary feeling, but I think that sometimes we have to let others do their job – even if we don’t agree with their decisions.

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  12. says

    I’ve only self-published before, but I’m thinking of trying the traditional route next time. If I do, I’ll have to be fully prepared to relinquish my artistic control over pretty much everything: the title, the copy, the packaging, the release dates…even the story itself, which I might be forced to rewrite to editorial demand.

    But here’s the thing: when you sell something, it is no longer yours. If I paint a picture and sell it to someone, the picture is theirs. I have no say over what frame they put it in, where they hang it, or whether they sell it on eBay or drop it in the basement and forget about it. If I write a story and sell it to someone (or a large group of someones), the story is theirs. They can gut it, wrap it in an awful cover, bury it, destroy it…I agreed to whatever decisions they make the second I signed the contract and accepted their money.

    Publishers don’t exist to help authors. They exist to buy the products we create and use them to make money for themselves. Maybe you’ll get super lucky and land a publisher that values your input, but that’s their generosity, not your right–just like if you sell your painting to a museum, you don’t have the right to complain if they stick it in a dark corner in the back next to a neon toilet nailed sideways to the wall.

    If you want your book to remain your book, then don’t sell the rights to it. Self-publish or find a small press with a reputation for involving authors in the publishing process.

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  13. says

    I enjoyed reading your fantastic example of taking whatever you can into your own hands and then sitting back and letting what you cannot control go. Often, people forget both of these things. I think educating yourself and preparing to accept what you cannot change are the best things you can do to combat the feeling of helplessness when you feel like something as vital as you novel is out of your hands.

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