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Big Six publisher, small-time author: A Rant

So Fifty Shades of Grey – the best-seller that started life as Twilight fanfic – is the book of the moment, which means that newspapers and blogs are filling up once more with death-of-the-traditional-publisher stories. One of the blog posts doing the rounds in my reading circles recently is this deeply cynical satire of the evolution of the Big Six publishers, which the author went on to defend in a later post:

As for editing, the brutal truth is that most books from the Big Six aren’t edited at all. Please bear in mind that acquisition editors are not line editors. Line-editing of manuscripts used to be part of their job description, but nowadays they are so vastly overworked that they simply don’t have time for it. (I have heard of a case where a single editor had an annual workload of one hundred books. It is not uncommon for an editor to be responsible for thirty titles a year.) In consequence, they will reject any work not by a name author unless the copy is clean, virtually error-free, and without any issues of consistency or continuity sufficient to annoy the target audience. …

In fact, if you are submitting to a Big Six publisher, you are advised by many experts to pay a professional editor to vet your manuscript before you submit. This is a service that some agents offer to their clients; Donald Maass, for instance, touts this as an important reason why one would sign with his agency. Unagented writers, or those whose agents are not skilled editors themselves, often hire freelance editors to do this work. But in no circumstances can you expect the ‘editor’ at a Big Six house to do it.

… ooookaaaaaaaay.

This was the point at which I became full of incandescent outrage, which demanded that I brew a strong cup of tea and sit down to compose a stiff letter to the editor blog entry.

(I’m a middle-class Brit. This is the way we handle outrage)

My first novel, FANG GIRL, is about to be published by one of the aforementioned Big Six publishers. Specifically, HarperCollins (or even more specifically, by HarperTeen, which is the Young Adult branch of the publisher). Now, I am not one of those star-like six-figure-advance debut authors that get their names splashed all over the news. I’m a small first-time author with a funny little book in a peculiar subset of a crowded and increasingly unfashionable subgenre (at least, that’s how I’d describe YA paranormal comedy, which is the answer I give when anyone asks what genre I write). I do not have a movie deal and a book tour and whatever other else you want to take as signs of superstardom. I am, in short, a deeply ordinary debut.

So… what did HarperTeen do for me?

I have not one but two editors (a senior one and her assistant) who have read my book so many times and so closely I suspect it’s probably printed on the inside of their eyeballs by now (sorry for that, Erica and Tyler…). I got a ten page editorial letter – single-spaced, no less, and in a small font – which covered everything from character arcs to plot holes to a complete dismantle-and-rebuild of the final 20% of the book. Which came on top of the line edits and queries in the manuscript itself. Which were… numerous. Seriously, I punched the air in triumph when I found a single page that didn’t have any purple pen on it (my editor uses purple, not red, possibly in an attempt to stop it looking like my manuscript is bleeding to death). I think my editors felt the same way, as one of them had drawn a little smiley at the top.

By the way, in the edit letter, my senior editor complimented me on producing such a clean draft. I don’t think she was being sarcastic.

(also by the way, that manuscript? Which took up an entire ream of paper? Express Fed-Ex’d from New York to me here in the UK, within a few working days, at my publisher’s expense. Considering it costs me £7 to send a single paperback book air mail to the States, I do not even want to consider the cost of that.)

So I removed all that suck and turned in a shiny new draft… and within a month had back a mere five page editorial letter of further comments and clarifications, plus a whole new set of line edits on the new stuff. Oh, and some more line edits on some of the old stuff, since both editors went through it again. But then that was the end of editing. Final version. Hooray! We’re done!

… oh, no, wait, now it goes off to the copyeditors. Two of them. So that they can check that every word of my weird British grammar has been correctly translated into American, and carefully make footnotes on anything that is in the slightest bit in doubt. Copyeditors, I have discovered, like to make footnotes.

Oh God, how they like to make footnotes.

(my absolute favourite one was the footnote featuring a serious and entirely straight-faced discussion between the two of them on the correct spelling of the word “n00b”)

So, some oh-God-I-don’t-even-want-to-count hundreds of footnotes later, both me and my editors get back the manuscript. I read it and manually approve or contest each and every change. My editors – both of them, remember – read all the copyeditors notes plus my comments and engage in a gentle cycle of beating me over the head with my own infelicities of style persuading the two parties into some form of agreement. The final final version of the manuscript is complete. Hooray! We’re done!

… no, wait, now it goes off to the typesetters. Who lay out the book, deal with all those weird places where sentences look too short unless you hyphenate the words, find good typefaces for the chapter headings, inset the first letter of each chapter in funky style, work with the designer who is producing the custom typography for the title page and spine, make sure that there’s space for the as-yet-unwritten acknowledgements and end advertising pages, and send the whole thing back. Hooray! We’re done!

… no, wait, now both my editors read the whole thing again (as do I, but frankly at this point I have lost the will to live and would not notice if they’d randomly replaced one of my main characters with an iguana) and send it off to yet another completely independent proof-reader, who still manages to find things that the preceding five sets of eyeballs who’ve scrutinised this damn thing have missed (six sets, if you include my agent as well, who did the very very first set of line edits for me before we even started submitting the manuscript).

Now we’re finished.

… apart, of course, from the cover design (which takes two goes, each with very different concepts and multiple iterations), the back-cover copy (no, I don’t write it), the marketing copy (again, I don’t write it, and it’s a good thing too because I would be so terrified of giving away spoilers that it would end up saying something like “It’s, er, a book! About stuff! Please buy it?”), getting the ISBN and all that legal jazz, starting up the publicity machine (no, I’m not getting posters up in train stations and glamorous book tours, but rest assured that those publicity guys are not just sitting on their hands. Not even for a very minor debut author like me), and probably other stuff that I don’t even know is going on.

Let me just say once again: I am not a rockstar (and, er, I like to think that I am not a remarkably incompetent writer who needs to be patiently hand-reared into readability). I am not a celebrity with a guaranteed mega-hit kiss-and-tell biography. I am not the next Harry Potter or Hunger Games. I am a perfectly ordinary debut author.

With a lot of people working invisibly behind the scenes to stop me from sending a half-baked book gambolling out into the free market like a lamb into a flamethrower.

Yes, if I was self-publishing, I could hire all those people directly myself. If I could find them. And negotiate contracts. And had the money up-front to pay them. Or if they were unhinged enough to agree to only be paid based on future sales of the book (Here’s a fun experiment: Go find a professional artist. Ask them to do you a book cover. Suggest that they get paid a percentage of sales. Flee from the echoing peals of sarcastic laughter). And if I could navigate the legal and tax implications of hiring all those people to work on my commercial project. And if, frankly, I wanted to project manage all of that, on top of my day job and writing more books.

Some people can do it (hi there, Amanda Hocking!). I can’t. I know that I can’t. I am profoundly grateful that a system exists whereby I don’t. And, looking at the numbers on the account sheet, I think I am reasonably paid by my publisher for the work that I do, and they are reasonably paid for the work that they do. Because they do a hell of a lot.

Of course, this is just my personal experience, and the plural of anecdote is not data. But when I hear statements about greedy Big Six publishers not doing anything to justify their existence? The pungent scent of bovine excrement wafts past my delicate nostrils.

Ahem. And breathe…

11 thoughts on “Big Six publisher, small-time author: A Rant

  1. A fantastic post, and I particularly enjoyed the last few sentences. I do hope you have sent a copy TO your editors.

  2. Amen 🙂

    I’m at Harper Children’s and my experience is exactly the same as yours. The people over there work their tails off, and it makes me mad to hear that kind of blanket dismissal of a whole industry. These publishing houses are full of PEOPLE who love what they do.

    I just ignore most of these dumb articles now, but I appreciate you standing up for your team.

  3. AWESOME post! Sharing widely as an example when folks decry publishing and bandy about the lack of editing myth.

    :Waves: (from a fellow Knight Agency/Nephele client)

  4. I’m a book blogger and I see weekly what difference a indie author’s book and a book that has been published by one of those big publishers can mean to the reader’s enjoyment. Good luck with your debut novel. I loved reading your post and I’ve added ‘Fang Girl’ to my goodreads wishlist. I can not wait to get myself a copy Helen. Laugh out Loud, while I’m reading I’m even going to keep a eye out too see if that iguana shows up somewhere 😀

    • I loved reading your post and I’ve added ‘Fang Girl’ to my goodreads wishlist.

      *huge grin* That comment has made my day!

      (there are no iguanas in FANG GIRL, but there is an evil, undead, silently sarcastic goldfish…)

  5. Pingback: Editor’s Summer Guest Series: Editors Edit

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