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Louis Greenberg

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

What writers should know about the publishing process

Working in books, as I’ve said often before, I have many personae, and often they don’t match. When I don my writer mask, I want to be alone and inspired and in sepulchral-yet-fresh-as-a-mountain-field silence and air; when I submit I want to be loved and cradled and told it’s okay, I want to be the centre of the world. As an editor and proofreader and abettor of publishers, I try to be an empathetic stickler; I try to get what you’re saying but I know damn well that I know the best way to say it. My designer face is used to blushing at its baroque and hare-brained schemes, which the client generally rejects and improves upon immeasurably.

The benefit of owning all these interlocking masks is that sometimes you can get them to talk to each other; you can, if you will, play a little schizo puppet show.

I thought about this while a writing friend was nervously awaiting her readers’ reports, and while I was simultaneously waiting for a manuscript in the mail. I realised just how hurt and uncared-for I often ended up feeling in the process of letting my writing go, and some sound advice would have come in handy.

Here’s what my Publishing Self would advise my Writing Self:


1. Be patient when you submit your manuscript. Even if you are an established author, your pages have to wend their tedious way from email to printer to envelope to post room to mail or courier service to post box to reader’s in-tray to reader’s desk and back again. Times three. It’s not personal, everyone is keen to read what you’ve written, but their lives won’t stop when you hit send.

2. Realise also that manuscript assessment is a short and inattentive job. It is not an edit, and it is not a careful read. Your manuscript is glossed quickly and assessed according to some simple criteria: Is this publishable? Will it sell some? Will it be okay with some more work or does it need a major overhaul? That’s all. Don’t be upset if the reader didn’t get the Homeric subtext of the ocean love scene on page 72 which in time will be a definining keynote master stroke of the century. Perhaps it will, perhaps other readers will get it.

3. If you want a proper edit at this stage, hire an editor. You will pay quite a lot, but your editor will get the ocean love scene, plus tell you in detail everything the publisher’s reader hasn’t been paid to do.

4. If you can’t hire an editor, get the manuscript in as perfect condition as you can before you submit, possibly with the help of the right friends or a mentor but NOT with the help of just anyone. There are many more people out there who will break your spirit and mess with your head than who will constructively help you with your book. If you are honest with yourself, you will know the difference. The people you love the most may well be the worst people to show your book.

5. If your book is accepted for publication, the publisher’s editor will be paid for a certain number of hours and will spend a pre-defined amount of time on your manuscript. In the ideal world money and time wouldn’t matter and every manuscript would be polished to a gem. But in the real world you would prefer them to spend that time working on substance rather than acting as a spell-checker and proofreader.

6. Don’t obsess about your published book. Your sales will be disappointing, reviews will be disappointing (even if they are good they won’t feel like a mother’s hug), publicity will be embarrassing. You may feel a distinct anticlimax. Once you’ve finished a book, take a short break and start something new. Your old work is gone, not yours now, the readers’. Always have something new. The publishing process is a laborious hiatus in a writer’s creative process.

7. You are a writer because you write. You know that rare feeling when you’ve hit the sweet spot and the hours disappear as the lines rattle out? That’s what we all work and practise for.

 

Recent comments:

  • <a href="http://helenmoffett.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Helen</a>
    Helen
    November 17th, 2009 @13:49 #
     
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    Brilliant, Louis. Everything I have said at length and far less eloquently in my various outpourings of advice to writers. This hits several nails on the head, in a few deft swings.

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  • <a href="http://louisgreenberg.com" rel="nofollow">Louis Greenberg</a>
    Louis Greenberg
    November 17th, 2009 @14:21 #
     
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    As a footnote, after I had checked and posted this piece I spotted seven errors. Self-editing is a fraught and rocky meander.

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  • <a href="http://fionasnyckers.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Fiona</a>
    Fiona
    November 17th, 2009 @16:30 #
     
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    Yes, this is brilliant. I only wish it were longer or had a sequel. There's so much more I'd like to know about the process - like how marketing decisions are made, both by the publisher and by the bookseller.

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  • Ben - Editor
    Ben - Editor
    November 17th, 2009 @16:38 #
     
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    It's a must-read post, Louis. Nicely done - and thanks.

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  • <a href="http://margieorford.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Margie</a>
    Margie
    November 17th, 2009 @17:02 #
     
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    You forgot to mention that having a book/books published does not cure the psychological disorder that drives one to write in the first place - it only makes it worse!

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  • <a href="http://margieorford.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Margie</a>
    Margie
    November 17th, 2009 @17:03 #
     
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    Alexander McCall Smith gave excellent advice once: he said if you feel as if you have a book inside you then got to a doctor at once, have him x-ray you and then have the offending object removed. Far less painful.

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  • <a href="http://sarahlotz.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Sarah Lotz</a>
    Sarah Lotz
    November 17th, 2009 @17:56 #
     
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    Excellent post, Louis. I look forward to your notes on the hazards of collaboration...mwahahaha. RE number 3 - all I can say is thank god for Helen, my fairy goddess-editor x.
    Oh, and by the way, nice work on Fiona's website - love it.

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  • <a href="http://louisgreenberg.com" rel="nofollow">Louis Greenberg</a>
    Louis Greenberg
    November 17th, 2009 @19:27 #
     
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    Glad it was interesting. Hmm, Fiona - marketing and publicity decisions... I know a filthy amount of behind-the-scenes dirt on that...Thanks, Sarah... I might crack open my writer's diary on the hazards of collaborating... hehehehehehehe
    Meanwhile Margie is the model of the short-break-and-get-on-with-it approach... respect.

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  • <a href="http://liesljobson.bookslive.co.za" rel="nofollow">Liesl</a>
    Liesl
    November 18th, 2009 @07:39 #
     
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    It's sage advice, Louis, to which I would add:
    Read your work aloud before you send it out.

    Read every word of your work aloud before you send it out. Whether it is a short poem or a 90 000 word novel. When you read it aloud, a whole bunch of obvious narrative troubles are highlighted at the point in time when you can still fix them.

    I discovered numerous errors in the pre-publication proofs of my 45 000 word manuscript as I read it aloud, e.g. full stops that had got lost in the typesetting process (which could be fixed) and overwritten passages (which couldn't). While the printer waited for these pages to be signed off, I was frantically coaxing the italics in where they'd been left out, and so on.

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  • <a href="http://helenmoffett.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Helen</a>
    Helen
    November 18th, 2009 @09:25 #
     
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    This is the single most NB piece of advice I give everyone I train or supervise or work with. Thanks for including it, Liesl.

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