When Bad Things Happen to Good Writers

I once taught a workshop with this title.  It focused on all the myriad things that can go wrong between when a writer finishes a manuscript, and when the book actually arrives on shelves.  I gathered the information from both personal experience, and from the experience of my writer friends around the world.  It’s almost mind-boggling, the number of things that can get in the way of a good story becoming a book.

Now, I have a new one to add to my personal list.  My publisher contacted me earlier this week.  I had sent an email to follow up with them because I hadn’t heard whether they had received my manuscript or not, and it had been over a month since I sent it.  The answer was yes, they had it, but they hadn’t read it yet.  This seemed confusing to me because the editor had told me months ago that the deadline was crucial if we were to make a Fall ’09 release.  I made the deadline, so how was it they could sit on the envelope for a month?  Out of curiosity, I emailed my editor and asked about the release date.  It took a few days for the reply.

“We have decided to release your book on the Fall ’10 list.”

SAY WHAT??? 

“Because we are a small publisher, we can only realistically release a certain number of books a year, and we already have an edgy YA on the list for this fall, and we don’t want your book competing with this other book.   We can’t make the spring list for this year, obviously, and we don’t think it’s a good spring title. That puts us on the Fall ’10 track.”

To say that I was disappointed would be a monumental understatement.  I can see why many people who are new to this business opt for the Print On Demand/Vanity Press options.  It is so aggravating, so infuriating, when things like this happen. Unfortunately, it’s a reality of the industry.

I had a contract with a publisher to write a kids’ activity travel guide (many years ago).  I was many hours of research and writing into the project when the editor contacted me and told me to hold off.  At first she told me that they may be taking the series I was writing for “in a new direction.” Eventually, the truth was revealed: the publisher was being bought out, staff were being let go, and the series I would be writing for was being overtaken by an existing series from the other publisher.  I was allowed to keep the advance I had been paid, but the book was never finished.

That one wasn’t the worst, however.  I was under contract with an educational publisher to write a book about Napoleon and the Napoleonic Empire.  I had done hundreds of hours of research, writing, and revising.  This contract had no advance, so everything I would earn would come with the final submission of the manuscript.  After months of work on this book, I was becoming a French history expert.  Then, as I was finishing the editorial revisions on the final draft, I got a certified letter (not even a personal phone call!) telling me that the series had been put on hold due to a down-turn in the educational publishing market.  Current projects were to be halted, no new projects would be started, and writers who were not yet published with this company would not be. 

I still have all the research.  I use the two revised manuscripts to show classes what a revised manuscript from an editor really looks like. I have no book to show them to go with it, however.

I know someone who’s book was nearly cancelled because of Hurricane Katrina.  I know others whose works were delayed because of the massive tsunami in the Indian Ocean.  Editors will leave one publishing house for another, creating orphaned books and orphaned writers. Editors die and create similar situations for those writers with whom they were working. For many years in the ’90s, large publishing houses were gobbling up small ones on a daily basis and creating similar circumstances in the new, merged company. 

All of this makes one wonder why any of us bother to get into this crazy industry in the first place. I guess it’s because we each feel a need, a compelling drive, to put words on paper and have others find truth in them.  We see this as our opportunity to connect with others, and we are willing to endure the slings and arrows of publishing misfortune in order to achieve it. Or maybe we are all just a bit loony.  I know my husband would probably opt for that last explanation.

Whatever it is, we keep going.  Despite my disappointment at this turn, it won’t stop me.  The book will come out – just a bit slower than I had anticipated.  I’ll write others.  They’ll come out much slower than I want, too.  For now, I’ll update my workshop with this tilted title and see about offering it at some writing conferences.

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6 thoughts on “When Bad Things Happen to Good Writers

  1. mapelba says:

    I just keep trying even if it is loony (and it certainly is).

  2. ceylanthewriter says:

    Thank you so much for this enlightening post. Keep on posting!

    Ceylan

  3. Tooty says:

    I have two works with a publisher at present. I don’t expect anything good will come of it. I have an internet chum who has just self-published with Lulu. Do you think this might be the right direction these days?
    Tooty.

  4. Kim Justesen says:

    I think it’s hard to say what the right thing to do is for anyone. So much depends on the manuscript, the genre, the market, and the writer. Even the country the publisher is located in may impact the circumstances. Writer friends who live in Canada and Australia describe different challenges because of different regulations. It’s up to the individual writer to decide what is the best direction.

  5. legendoftheprotectors says:

    Funny, many think getting the agent’s the hard part. 🙂
    I don’t think there is an easy part. Good luck, and can’t wait for your YA in ’10.

  6. drtombibey says:

    Ms. Kim,

    Writing and medicine are a lot alike. You continue on in spite of the craziness, ’cause that is what you are and you have to.

    In medicine much of the fooliness is generated by folks who aren’t Docs, and I expect in writing the problem is similar.

    Dr. B

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