Three Questions You Must Know


I was recently out with an editor friend, Suzy Editor (which you will be surprised to know is not really her name) who works at one of the Big Six houses. As conversation among agents and editors tends to do, we turned to business, and specifically to that finest of fine lines, the line between assertively getting what you need from the house and becoming Authra, kaiju-author of dread and loathing.

See, publishing is an industry composed largely of arts-inclined people doing business, and at that a business that rises and falls on the creative output of authors, for whom nothing is more dear than said creative output. And everyone has opinions, lots of them, and also dreams and expectations of how it will be, accumulated over the 13 years it took to get to the point that someone finally says to you “here’s your cover art.” Which means stepped-on toes are virtually inevitable, and I would be shocked if there is a book in existence that nobody cried over at least once. So into this stew of already emotional water you add the limited resources of even the most on-it house, email’s inability to capture nuance, and the increasingly 24-7 nature of the business that means you might get emails from your editor at 6 am or your agent at 11. You can see that the opportunities to really, really stick your foot in it with your team are myriad.

Suzy Editor, I said, You are a very smart lady who people love to work with. (Seriously, I am not one for “dream agents” and “dream editors” and all but Suzy really does fit the bill.) Please, share your wisdom. What would you tell authors to do to avoid their emails setting their editors’ inboxes aflame, aside of course from running anything even slightly contentious by their agents first, who will hopefully be of the wise counsel variety and help prevent any unnecessary flamewars?

Suzy Editor replied with the following, which is genius:

I think it’s about picking your battles. Take cover consultation.

The reason an author frustrates the team in-house is not that she wants changes to the cover…it’s when she keeps adding on new changes in each iteration, and she doesn’t seem to care that that wastes time and money. Nor is she seeing the big picture of “the cover/copy/photo insert/whatever is a tool to SELL THE BOOK.”

So suddenly we’re all spending our days harping on the style of a border on one photo, haranguing people in other departments and holding up the cover, but why? We’re wasting our time, and it’s not helping her book.

Obviously, real problems should be addressed. I’d say there are three questions to be asked to avoid finding yourself in this category:

1) Was I honest to my agent/editor about my feelings? i.e., no fair hating your cover silently;

2) Did I speak up in a timely fashion so that changes can still be made? i.e, no retitling when the book is on press;

3) Will this change enable the book to sell enough additional copies to “earn out” the time & money & manpower it took to make the change?

If the answer to all three of those questions is “yes,” you are not being a diva.

Suzy Editor followed up my request to quote her on this with:

“Tell them I told it to you while weeping softly into a martini” and so in the interest of preserving publishing’s glam reputation, I comply.

In all seriousness, honesty, respect for others’ time, and thinking about the good of the book in the marketplace is advice that will pretty much never lead you astray. I’d add an additional caveat that you have to let the people on your team be good at what they are paid to do (otherwise why are you working with them?), and accepting that your process of publication won’t be exactly like what your friend/critique partner/Stephenie Meyer’s was like is also an excellent skill to cultivate as you enter the publishing process.


14 Responses to “Three Questions You Must Know”

  1. Ohhhh I LOVE this. And I do solemnly swear on my martini to never ever be a diva.

    Oh, except that I don’t actually like martinis. Can I get like a cosmo or something instead? 🙂

  2. “Email’s inability to capture nuance” – Whoops. A frustrating and often dramatic occurrence with which we are probably all already familiar. I’m glad to see it will still be a formidable foe when the recipient isn’t a family member.

  3. 3 Chantal Kirkland

    This sounds like pretty solid advice. Makes a ton of sense and can actually be a really great way to endear yourself (as the author) to your team (’cause we are all on the same team, right?) when you’re the one that’s awesome about stuff–and maybe other people aren’t. I don’t know–seems like good relationship-building advice. I love it and raise my glass in salute!

  4. This is solid advice and I agree about email (or even blog responses) not being able to capture conversation nuances. Haven’t most of us accidentally stepped on a toe or two? If you reply “no”, then either I don’t believe you or you choose and edit every word carefully. Me…I have a tendency to bang out an reply and move on and then…OOPS


    So Ms. Holly…Martinis in the bar at National? First round on me! 🙂

  5. Its true that no two experiences of the same event will be identical. Another example could be that I got my catheter before my epidural during my last c-section prep. My friend, got to have her epidural first. So you see, I endured crippling agony, while she did not.

    I think I’m due to have the agony free experience next time ’round.

  6. To me, this post comes directly from Alpha Centauri or something. When my book was published, I understood that the publisher had an idea what the title should be and how the jacket should look. My part was inside. I knew what my duties were. We didn’t question each other’s part of the job. I was just interested in getting a book published so I could go do the author book-signing thing and peddle it. It’s been three years, and I’m still thrilled that it all worked out so well so far, and now it’s turning into three separate screen projects. Unagented, by the way.

    I’ve got a YA novel done, but it’s strange to find that it’s no cinch to show prospective agents that my focus is on authoring a book to sell like nuts on its own, and I’m ready and willing and quite capable of pushing it anyway. Maybe I could have prevented a years’ worth of query rejections just by saying, “I’ve already demonstrated that I’ll take care of my part ofthe business and let you do yours.” In an industry as crazy and hurting as book publishing, I’m astonished that any of the survivors need the kind of babysitting you talk about.

  7. Damn, I was so looking forward to being a diva. Oh, well, I can still drink the martini.

  8. I’ve been so lucky … never had a cover I didn’t love. It might have been different, but it was always beautifully done. Love the way you advise authors on how to negotiate these tricky waters.

  9. 9 nova

    Out of 143 rejections I don’t think you were one of them. Then again, who knows?
    I published through Createspace four months ago. I have stayed above 20,000 in Fiction for almost all of it. My Kindle sales are good. My reviews are great. My replies from Agents has consisted of form mail rejections. This is a puzzling thing, No?

    • Just based on my own experience–with the rise in epub/self pub options lots of queries that carry credentials like these–or even Top 10, Amazon Breakout Novel finalist/winner, etc–are coming through the gate. So though it doesn’t diminish your accomplishment, those factors are less of a must-request than you might think. If your query isn’t getting the results you want, you might check out a site like Queryshark ( to see if you can hone your pitch–for this book or the next one. Hope this helps.

      • 11 nova


        Thank you replying.

        I posted basically the same thing on another Agents blog, yes, I am querying by blog post I suppose. I was told I was already a success. That writing and making money, or hoping to is wrong. Last time I checked everyone else in the world, including agents, expected to get paid. You do something you enjoy, you are are good at it, in every other field you expect to get paid. Except for artists.

        Second. I write. I know I am good. Very good perhaps. Isn’t the agents job to sell me on using him or her? You are working for the artist? No? I think because so many people so badly wish to get published that the whole Agent thing has gotten twisted. Traditional publishing is dying for a lot of reasons. When did a gatekeeper in NY become the sole judge of what will sell in VA? A casual check of what is selling on Amazon, once you past cookbooks and McBooks, that traditional publishing houses have lost touch for the most part with their market.

        Writing this I decided I am not going to bother anymore. I am selling online through Barnes and Noble an Amazon. I will look for a small press and ship them my book to distribute for me. I know my second book is a very good. I can make more money this way. I was contacted for movie rights. I can hire an etertainment lawyer for that. Same thing for foreign rights. Thanks. I am going to press “Submit” but in writing this everything fell into place.

  10. I’ve been so lucky … never had a cover I didn’t love. It might have been different, but it was always beautifully done. Love the way you advise authors on how to negotiate these tricky waters.

  11. cheers on the martini… 🙂 love the way you visualize a great advice to authors. Sometimes,no matter how hard you tell them. it needs a scene visualization to really get the picture.

  1. 1 In the Blogosphere: 3/8 – 3/12 « Ricki Schultz

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