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The Out-of-Control Author

image by CJS*64 [1]
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?

About Jael McHenry [2]

Jael McHenry is the debut author of The Kitchen Daughter [3] (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 [4] or follow her on Twitter at @jaelmchenry.