March 11, 2008
On Birthing a Book
Some authors bite their nails. Others tap their feet. Some e-mail their editor incessantly. All eagerly await the arrival of their book, their baby, from the printer—or stork, if you’d like to extend the analogy.
Here’s a little secret: editors are doing the same thing at the same time. While there’s never a shortage of books and proposals vying for an editor’s attention, and while each book is thus one job among many, each book is also one of the many babies we’ve helped to deliver.
The emotional investment isn’t anywhere near that of the author, of course, but it’s significant nonetheless. So I often find myself, in the week leading up to a book’s anticipated delivery date, anticipating its delivery—loitering around the shipping/receiving bay, sneaking peeks inside the production manager’s in-box, even sometimes e-mailing my poor friend Taryn incessantly, asking if she’s heard news of when the book will arrive.
Such is the midwifery of editing as a profession. But there’s one other parallel: my work on a book, like a midwife’s on a baby, is effectively finished when it’s safely delivered.
From that point on in the publishing process, the author works primarily with the sales and marketing department to sell and market the book. In this analogy, if the editor is a midwife, the sales/marketing folk are the nannies. They attend to the book’s needs and, with the author, look after its best interests. They’re eager to see the book flourish (we lovingly refer to a book’s point person in sales/marketing as its “champion”), and they do what they can to help it along the way. But in a similar way to the editor, their investment is nowhere near that of the author.
In publishing, especially publishing in a long-tail environment, each book is a never-ending story bound only by its own inherent limitations, the limitations of a finite publishing program and the limitations of its story-teller and greatest advocate.
A book’s inherent limitations may involve time-bound illustrations or a very tightly focused argument or audience, but they’re generally recognized by the author and publisher going in. Also inherently obvious are the limitations of the publisher, who (in our case) has ninety other new babies to dress and feed and burp every year, and some twelve hundred older children who need attention of a different sort.
That leaves the book’s author, who like a parent has his or her own life to live but is also intimately invested in the growth and prospering of this little offspring. So publisher and book alike rely on the author to "parent" the book--to attend to the lion’s share of its promotion and even a fair bit of its sales. If you’re an author or even a would-be author, this fact perhaps more than any other should guide your approach to publication.
Your book will have inherent strengths and, yes, inherent weaknesses; so will your publisher, I daresay. So will you, of course, but you knew that going in and decided to birth a book anyway. So regardless of how exciting and gratifying the birth of a book is, for you the author it’s not the end: it’s the beginning.
Laura Barkat is about to birth her first book, Stone Crossings. I suppose you could say she’s been nesting—making space in her life for the responsibility of bearing a book. Some of her creative ideas include a book wiki, a book club blog and a media/blogger toolkit. If thinking beyond the ecstasy of writing for publication to the responsibilities of “parenting” a real, live book gives you the willies, you could do worse than turn to Laura as a mentor. And keep in mind that despite all the caveats listed above, you're not alone: an anxious editor and a champion marketer are right there with you, tapping their feet and biting their nails.