It Isn’t a Book Until It’s a Book

“The writing business is weird,” is a common statement from my darling hubby.  He is an incredibly left-brained person.  He has a degree in finance and works as an insurance broker.  He’s very good at what he does, and he’s a very intelligent person, but he doesn’t get the writing business at all.  And I’ve been doing this for almost 15 years now.

When I signed the contract for my last book, my husband wanted to go out and celebrate. 

“It’s not a book yet,” I said.  Not that I didn’t want to celebrate, mind you.  It’s exciting to sign a contract, and it creates a sense of anticipation that is thrilling beyond words.  But a contract is not a book.

The truth is that there are a lot of things that can go wrong between when a writer types the words “The End” on a manuscript, and when that box of books arrives on the writer’s doorstep as a finished product available on Amazon and other web sites. 

For example: It can take a very long time to sell a book.  In fact, some manuscripts – no matter how good, how polished, how interesting and unique – may never become books at all.  Finding the right publisher, the editor within the publishing company, and the right timing is a lot like picking lottery numbers in braille if you’re not blind.  It’s often a matter of luck as much as it is a matter of skill and talent.  It’s common to hear editors say things like “It’s a great story, but we just signed a contract for one very similar to yours,” or “We would have put something like this out last year, but we’re going a new direction this year.”

Timing is everything, only there’s very few methods of identifying when the timing is right for a certain type of book at a specific publishing house.

Another thing that can go wrong is the movement of editors from house to house.  It used to be that an editor began at a publishing company as a reader, then moved to assistant editor, then maybe to editor, then to senior editor, and then on to retirement after 30 or 40 years in the same company.  Not anymore. As with most people, editors don’t stay in one job for that long.  Like the rest of us, they are looking for a better opportunity, more creative freedom, a larger paycheck, or more flexibility in their schedule.  Whatever their reasons, editors tend to shift around from time to time.  Unfortunately, they don’t always take the books they’ve signed up with them.  When a new editor arrives, he or she is not necessarily obligated to see a contract through if the book hasn’t reached a certain “no turning back” point in the production process.  I know of several writers whose books have been orphaned when an editor changed jobs.  The new editor at the old publisher doesn’t want the book for whatever reason (he or she has a different style, doesn’t like the genre, doesn’t like the editor who left, etc.), and the old editor can’t take the manuscript to the new publisher either.  These orphaned manuscripts typically get returned to the writer with a short “so sorry” note attached.

Another reason a book may not make it to the shelves is corporate take-overs.  I worked on a non fiction book about Napoleon for a publisher who shall remain nameless.  I was hundreds of hours into research, writing, revisions, more revisions, etc., when I received word from the editor I had been working with that the publisher had been bought out by another company.  The new company was discontinuing the series of books for which I was writing.  They were terribly sorry to tell me, but my contract was being cancelled.  I could keep the advance I’d been paid (not that it was much, mind you), but there would be no book.  Talk about disappointing and frustrating.  One of these days I’ll do something with the research, but until recently, it was just too heart-breaking to even think about.

Publishing is a business, and like all businesses it is subject to setbacks, disappointments, and even failures sometimes.  There are any number of reasons why a well-written manuscript might not make it to your local Barnes & Noble in the form of a hard cover or paperback book, but the fact is it might not.

Yes, I still get excited about good news, a new contract, and even a positive email from an editor or agent, but these things no longer warrant an expensive dinner or a two pound box of chocolates.  Instead, I wait for the tangible object, the book itself arriving by FedEx on my door step, before do the happy dance around my living room and break out a bottle of late harvest Reisling.  Sometimes I think that knowing all the ways a manuscript can NOT be turned into a book makes the moment when it DOES happen all that much sweeter.

My husband is right – it is a weird business.  But I love this business, and all its warts and freckles.  It’s a huge part of who I am now; maybe that weirdness is rubbing off a little.  My kids will tell you I was weird to start with, so maybe it was a good match from the beginning.  Either way, I wouldn’t trade what I do. Now it’s off to bed.  I have that other job I have to go to in the morning.

Write well –


One thought on “It Isn’t a Book Until It’s a Book

  1. angus25 says:

    one of the panelists in a creative writing fellowship that i’ve been to years ago told us that a writer should be able to do something else other than writing if he wants to keep himself alive. well, that must be the case here in the philippines. anyway, i hope your book becomes a book in no time. 🙂

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