“I cannot give you the formula for success,
but I can give you the formula for failure—
try to please everybody.”
–Herbert Bayard Swope
I spent the morning with a writer who was feeling torn and troubled. She had this three-book contract with a publisher. I remember the day she negotiated it; she was very happy that day. The first book went well, but during the time she was writing the second book, her editor received a good offer that included a promotion at a different publishing house and left. While happy for the editor, the author was worried about the departure’s impact on her and her books. The author was what we call orphaned.
Her worry was unfortunately justified. While those who make editorial assignments attempt to pair authors with editors who will love their work, sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. When it doesn’t, it can be a real nightmare for everyone involved.
The author and editor both can really put forth effort to mesh their visions, but there are times when no matter how hard one tries, or how many times one revises, the visions are just in different worlds. Sooner or later, usually after much teeth-gnashing and many attempts to please, one or the other realizes this just isn’t going to work out, and cries uncle.
That’s a painful time. Admitting defeat is never painless, but when you’ve made so many attempts to satisfy and please and still failed, it can be devastating. It can convince an author that she can’t write. It doesn’t seem to matter how many awards she’s won or great reviews she’s gotten or how many fan letters she’s received. Those things are in the past and this is now, and now, she can’t please her editor and somehow in her mind that equates to her not being able to write.
It’s easy to get mired down in negativity in these circumstances. It’s easy to feel that same doubt about your skills and abilities and gifts that you had when you first started writing. And it’s humbling, to say the least, to be told that the work isn’t acceptable.
But here’s a couple things we should remember and often forget in this situation:
1. Every match isn’t made in heaven. Some author/editor matches are never going to be productive. The two people involved see what is being done from totally different perspectives and they don’t (or can’t) appreciate the view from the other’s perspective. That’s not a flaw, it’s just the way it works because people are different. And even though it’s hard to remember that’s a plus, it really is a plus.
2. Purpose. If an author writes with purpose, then this type of challenge creates far less havoc for the writer, insofar as ability is concerned. Yes, a terminated contract can cause financial challenges and other kinds of havoc, but those types of challenges are easier to deal with if your writer’s esteem and worth isn’t trampled. You’re in a far better place mentally to accept that this is not personal. It isn’t a reflection on you but on the marketability of this work, at this time, by this publisher. No more than that.
You see, each publisher has a vision of what it wants its company to be. Each editor has a vision of what she wants her body of work to be and a vision of how that body of work fits into the publisher’s vision of itself. And then every writer has a vision of her career and how she fits in with the editor and the publisher and their visions–and a vision of each work within her body of work and how it fits in with her career and how that fits in with the editor and publishers’ visions. See my point?
It isn’t just about the book. Or the author. Or the editor. Or the publisher. Or the bookseller, for that matter. It’s about all of them, and more.
So when an author lets her writer’s esteem nosedive on an issue like this, it’s not really a fair thing to do. It’s taking everything onto herself and ignoring all the other spokes in the wheel. A wheel doesn’t have just one spoke. It requires more support and balance than that.
3. Terminating a contract can be a painful thing. You work hard to get one and then to lose it… well, it’s frustrating, and it can be financially crippling–if you’ve allowed yourself to be reliant on that which is not yet actually yours.
Many years ago, a then bestselling writer gave a piece of advice I’ve never forgotten. Never count on any money that isn’t in your hand–and only count on it if all terms and conditions for losing it have been met. In other words, remember that an advance is an advance against royalties. It isn’t royalties that you’ve already earned until the book has been accepted.
That advice sounded smart to me, so I don’t even include advance money in my budgeting. I get it. It’s there in the account. But I don’t rely on that money until such time as the manuscript is accepted and it’s mine. I pass this along because there have been times when that practice has proven its worth.
It’s not easy for most writers to survive financially. Yes, some are extremely well paid, but the majority don’t earn a decent living. Last I checked through Author’s Guild, the average income from writing was about $5K a year. But for those who are attempting to earn a living at it, it requires discipline and sound fiscal practices. Not spending what isn’t totally yours is a sound practice. And that includes reliance on projected income when there is no assurance that the projected income will be met.
Many contracts contain a clause that if the contract is terminated and conditions are such that the author must repay advance payments, that repayment is made from the first resell of the work or within a certain time. I’ve seen contracts with six months or a year and some with five years. This gives the author time to market the project elsewhere and another opportunity not to fall into financial havoc. But some contracts don’t have this provision and having to repay sums advanced immediately can cause financial hardships. The moral of that story is to know what you sign and plan accordingly.
It’s heartbreaking to see an author torn up about something like the termination of a contract. Losing an editor is always a difficult thing. You seek and seek the perfect one for you. Someone who sees the vision inside your head and gets your humor and trusts you to make things work logically and to pull things together in a way that makes sense. That’s a tall order, but we do manage to do it.
And then through no fault of anyone, that relationship is gone and the author and the new editor have to find their feet with each other and develop a new relationship. I’ve had this happen several times. Often it worked out great. Really great. On a couple of occasions it didn’t.
On those occasions, like this author, I tried to make it work. But the simple truth s, if it requires enormous effort, it’s not right. That’s a signal I learned to watch for, and one that’s proven valuable to me. When it’s not right, it’s no one’s fault. It’s just not a great match. A “not great” match can sometimes work, with time and trust and learned respect. But it does take the effort of both parties. I can’t say I’ve ever seen a good match grow into a great one, but I have seen some good matches be extremely productive ones.
I came to recognize these times and places in my life as turning points. And I have to say–looking back with the clarity you only get from hindsight–that those turns were good ones. I went into new directions, did new things that I came to love. I tried new ventures I wouldn’t have tried. Let’s face it. We all like comfort. And so long as we’re rocking along and we’re comfortable, we’re less apt to adventure. It’s human nature–and proof that it really is necessity that breeds invention.
How many times have you heard authors say that they tried this or wrote that as a last ditch effort? One to save their career, to allow them to keep writing? Or that an author switched genres because xyz happened and they had to take drastic measures?
Even with the benefit of others’ experiences in that vein, it’s hard to remember that turning points are good things when we’re the writer who is displaced or unsettled and we can’t see the path in front of us clearly. But knowing those times and challenges exist for others and that many others have successfully navigated them should offer us solace and hope and reassurance that strengthens us to lick our warriors’ wounds and cocoons that writer’s esteem. The truth is that the sooner we do recognize we’re at a turning point and we get going on locating and then walking that new path, the sooner we settle in again.
The thing is, we’re not ever going to really settle in. Not indefinitely and not if we’re lucky. Life doesn’t work that way. It always tosses new challenges into our paths. Maybe that’s a good thing. We stay interested, invested; we don’t stagnate or stop growing. We do get past the upset and get focused on the new adventure. And let’s face it. That can be exciting. Wonderful. Intriguing. Elevating and liberating.
Change isn’t a bad thing. Yes, it can create havoc, but mixing it up rejuvenates and that’s valuable, too. Change can be a terrific thing, even if the transitions themselves suck. And more often than not, they honestly do.
We can gripe and moan and be devastated, or we can vent and get over it and press on to what comes next. Obviously the sooner we press on, the sooner the transition passes. And obviously if we remember that no one person can please all other people the easier we’ll be on us during these times.
I think that’s a key stroke in success. We don’t let transitions attack us, the human being and writer inside. We accept that we all have different visions and goals and purposes and we come together for a time and when that time is done, it’s done, and it’s time for the next leg of the journey.
Really. Life is in the journey. And after all, we aren’t just building a career. We’re also building a life.