So you want to be a published author. Let's say you've written a novel about murder and mayhem in a bird-watching club. You've done your research, sent out query letters, and found Ethel Bluestocking, a veteran literary agent eager to sell your novel, When the Sparrow Cries Wolf.
Bluestocking has written a charming cover letter and sent your manuscript to several editors in trade publishing. A good agent knows the landscape of editorial departments; a great agent knows the personal tastes of editors and the unique character of each list. A super-agent like Ethel Bluestocking knows that Barry Samuels, Senior Editor at Ballpoint Publishing (a division of Unimax Inc., the global media empire), is a die-hard bird-watching enthusiast with a penchant for murder mysteries.
Samuels feels confident that with his guidance, When the Sparrow Cries Wolf could be the fine book it is meant to be and he writes a memo explaining why. He then adds your manuscript to the agenda of the next Editorial Board meeting (sometimes also called the "pub board") and distributes your bio, marketing ideas, plot synopsis, and sample chapters to the colleagues who regularly attend this meeting.
Samuels explains why When the Sparrow Cries Wolf is worth publishing. He answers the sales director's questions with a list of retail outlets that cater to bird lovers (provided by the agent, who got it from you). He shows the marketing and publicity team an email printout expressing interest from the producer of a national radio show (Ethel Bluestocking makes a point of maintaining contacts in the media) and he seduces the publisher with promises of endorsements from three bestselling authors who love bird-watching. (It happens that Samuels is in a bird-watching club with David Sedaris, Joyce Carol Oates, and Toni Morrison.)
A heated discussion ensues about your book. Tom Slammit, the publisher, doesn't want to take a risk on an unknown author, but marketing director Mort Meyer longs to beef up this part of the list. He nudges the sales director, with whom he's had a discussion before the meeting. "Oh!" she says, remembering her cue, "I think this one will fly right off the shelves." Everyone groans, but the mood is lightened.
"I think it's a fresh idea, with a lot of potential.I don't even care about bird-watching, but I thought the writing was awesome," says publicist Tina Frisque. Sometimes they actually do talk about the quality of the writing.
"I didn't think it was that strong," says Mimi Bigones, another editor who is always competing with Barry Samuels. "It just didn't sing to me. We'd be going head-to-head with heavy hitters on the other spring lists. Elmore Leonard, John Lescroart, Lisa Scottoline... and that Agatha Christie anthology... "
"Isn't Agatha Christie dead?" asks Tina.
"Yes honey," replies art director Leo Palma-Cortes, "but that doesn't stop Penguin from crankin' out new editions of her books."
"There's no better author than a famous dead one," grumbles Slammit, sending a shudder through Samuels. The publisher is in a bad mood, and one way or another, he has to be on board if Samuels is going to acquire the book.
"You've got a good point — dead authors don't whine!" Veronica Pickle, the publicity director, chuckles.
"I don't know about this," Slammit continues, as he starts checking email on his Blackberry. "Who the hell cares about bird-watching anyway?"
Samuels can feel this acquisition slipping away, especially when Bigones raises another concern. "The title doesn't work for me. It's too long. You need something with more pizzazz."
"What do you mean by 'pizzazz,' Mimi?" Samuels asks, suddenly feeling tired.
"Oh, I don't know. Maid for Murder or something."
"Swallow This?" suggests Leo Palma-Cortes.
The discussion of alternative titles, sales track of similar books, and the merits of the manuscript itself continues until Slammit comes around, just enough. He's still isn't convinced, but the email he just read from his boss contained a mandate from Unimax corporate headquarters to beef up the list by acquiring more titles, and fast. A pretty good writer with an original idea and a completed fiction manuscript could be valuable, especially since this author isn't in a position to ask for a large advance, even with the legendary Edith Bluestocking representing the property.
"All right, it sounds like some of you really want to do this, but I'm not so sure. If you're going to make me give a hoot about a bunch of bird-watchers, I want more sex — and somebody better die right off the bat," Slammit declares.
Samuels sees his chance. "How about if we ask for a rewrite on the opening chapter, going in the direction Tom is suggesting," he says. The meeting is adjourned, and Samuels goes off to deliver the verdict, which isn't really a verdict at all, to Edith Bluestocking. Edith, in turn, calls you.
"Well," Edith says, "there's good news, but not the news you wanted to hear. Ballpoint is interested, but they want to see a rewrite of the first chapter. They want you to bump up the love interest and have a little more excitement right at the start — preferably in the form of a murder."
You are devastated. You considered your opening chapter to be a masterpiece. Like Mozart, you felt you had everything in its place, just right. However, this is a moment when you need to decide — are you willing to let go of your opinion and submit to the desire of the mysterious, faceless publishing house? Of course you are. You are a rookie author and you want to get published.
You thank Edith and say your goodbyes. Then you make a pot of coffee, turn on your computer, and try to think of someone to kill, preferably in the middle of having hot sex, in the first chapter.
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Sam Barry is a marketing and promotions manager at HarperOne as well as an author and musician. Barry offers advice to aspiring writers as one half of BookPage's Author Enablers team, and tours the country as a member of the Rock Bottom Remainders.
Kathi Kamen Goldmark has worked "on the inside" of publishing as a media escort and publicist for nearly every major publisher. She's also the other half of the Author Enablers column and the founding member of the Rock Bottom Remainders.
Books mentioned in this post
Kathi Kamen Goldmark and Sam Barry is the author of Write That Book Already! The Tough Love You Need to Get Published Now