Blogger: Janet Kobobel Grant
We’ve all heard over and over again what traditional publishers bring to the table that self-published authors can’t generally access. Just to recount, lest we forget, the primary assets publishers cart into the equation are: curation (only the brightest and the best are chosen to be published); top-notch editing; marketing muscle; and an array of distribution channels.
While I generally give a thumbs up to that list and have seen over and over again how often publishers deliver these assets to my clients, the other day I launched into a traditionally published book that had me raging over its inferiority. The publisher failed miserably on two counts: curation and editing.
The publisher performed admirably on marketing and distribution since this book reached the New York Times best-seller list. How that ever managed to happen is beyond the comprehension of the reading snob who resides inside of me.
Well, actually I suspect I do know how the book landed on the best-selling list. It was one of the first memoirs written about a hot topic. I have to believe that a number of the publisher’s employees knew the emperor wore no clothes, but, hey, “hay” was to be made in publishing this manuscript.
What do I wish the publisher had done differently? I wish the publisher had respected readers enough to search out a person who was more articulate, more facile with the language, and better able to explain his or her motivations beyond, “I just had to do it.”
It’s not as if the book started out of the gate with a great stride. No, this book stumbled out of the gate. I read the first page and thought, “Oh, oh, this is a flat beginning.” My foreboding proved to be accurate. Because the book was categorized as a memoir, the publisher was suggesting that the writing at least resides on the border of literary, that it utilizes fiction techniques to recount a person’s life, and that the author be able to articulate why he or she made certain choices.
Instead, this memoir had next to no dialogue in the first half of the book–yes, half of the book. Very few individuals were described. Their names were given, but neither personality quirks nor physical appearance played any role in the writing. I had no idea what the communities the author lived in looked like, nor did I have much sense of the passage of seasons. With neither keen introspection nor vivid writing to commend it, little was left in the book to enjoy.
I kept reading past that first page only because it was my book club’s selection for November, and I always feel an obligation to try hard to finish a book for the group. Of course, my challenge then became to find some points of redemption in the book when our club met to discuss it so I could say something nice in the midst of my litany of flaws. Yeah, that took some careful thought.
I wish that the publishing house’s editor, on receiving this manuscript, had the insight, courage and professionalism to reject it. To go back to the author and to offer sheaves of suggestions. Or to go to the managing editor and to say, “If this manuscript is to be saved, we have to bring on a collaborator. Either that, or we don’t publish the book.”
One thing I don’t know is what kind of pressure the editor had to make the manuscript just work. Obviously a lot of hope and financial investment went into getting this book onto the bestsellers list. But even if he or she didn’t insist on an outright rejection of the turned-in manuscript, the editor should have insisted major help be brought in to make the manuscript a worthy book. One that truly had been curated.
Lest my complaints seem glib or easy to make but hard to employ, I just want to add that I worked as an editor at several publishing houses. And one of the hardest decisions I ever made was to reject manuscripts. I never came to that conclusion easily, but I did get there.
On one particular occasion, I fussed and fumed and tussled with the author to make changes to the manuscript, which he finally proclaimed inspired, verbatim. Stunned, I realized that he wouldn’t change one word in the manuscript, which was in serious need of more work. This author was not a lightweight but was known not just nationally but also internationally.
I’m thankful and proud of the publisher who chose to support me, a fairly new editor, in my decision to reject the manuscript. That’s what publishers and editors are supposed to do.
What do you wish publishers did differently?
What happens when publishers fail in their roles. Click to tweet.
A reader’s complaint: Publishers making poor choices. Click to tweet.