Sunday, October 23, 2011

The Scary World of Publishing

by Samantha Wilde

I actually like Halloween. And not for the usual reasons. I like the holiday it used to be and still is in some cultures--basically, a time to remember the dead, those who have gone before, ancestors. But I'm willing to go in for the whole scary Halloween theme because it's fun to be scared. By small ghosts holding plastic pumpkins. In real life, scary is rarely a good time.

And in publishing, would anyone ever choose a trick over a treat?

I haven't been in the industry long enough to have many scary tales, but there is one I will share.
It goes like this. When my first novel was heading out for praise, I had a few writers I hoped would be willing to give it a quote. One of those writers I particularly admired--and felt a kinship with through her work. Her work was also carried by the same publisher.

So I wrote her a letter. Sent it along to my editor's assistant so that it could accompany my book, and she would receive both at the same time. I don't remember exactly what I wrote in the short note.

I know it included a few lines of praise for the writer's work. I told her how much I enjoyed it. I said a few things about my novel, and I thanked her for giving it a read.

A few weeks later I received a concerned phone call from my agent. My editor was upset. Apparently, someone in the publishing house had opened this letter before it got to the author and returned it to my editor. It never did make it to this much admired writer. It didn't get there and I had a lot of apologizing to do. I had written a few words in the note about the title of my novel and how I didn't love it, and this was seen as reflecting poorly on my editor.

Now I loved my editor. It had never occurred to me that these few, brief, and not extremely emphatic words would have any effect--on anyone. It was mortifying. It reminded me of being a chastened child. I had many apologies to make. Of course I called my editor directly and explained that my complete ignorance of publishing standards was no reflection on her many gifts. Truthfully, I do self-deprecating humor all the time and considered this more of the same.

But the thought of someone reading that note?! That surprised and scared me. That's as spooky Halloween as I want anything to be. So is the chance of runing a professional relationship--or a career--because of a small, seemingly insignificant mistake.

It kind of made me want to retreat back into the touchy-feely-we're-all-good-people-doing-the-best-we-can yoga world. Things are a lot less scary there.

I've recovered now, of course! And learned something along the way. For example, that this reading of notes to writers is standard. Anything like this happen to any of you?

Sam is the author of THIS LITTLE MOMMY STAYED HOME. A graduate of Smith College and Yale Divinity School, she is the full-time mother of three young children, an ordained minister, and a yoga teacher. Her next novel will be out next winter. You can visit her at


  1. Yes, the writing (and reading of notes) is standard. I've never had a horror story develop from that, but did have a pleasant experience, where I never included contact info. in my note to a beloved author. She read the note with interest and tracked me down through her editor and publishing house so she could send me a private e-mail in response. That was nice! She couldn't do a blurb, as it turned out, because she had her own writing deadline and also teaching and blurbs she had already promised, but her note was a high point of my writing life!!

    I don't think an underling editor even sent out blurb requests for my collection. (Is that a horror story? Maybe!)

    I am cranky about this entire 'don't upset the editor/house/whatever' attitude that exists in the industry. I've had writer friends have their names spelled wrong on books, have covers not come in until last possible moments, have the wrong author photo put up, and have people outright lie to them about what's being done (or isn't) etc. And if writers complain they are seen as somehow 'difficult' or 'overly-sensitive'. After all, they hear, it's just 'business'. I think editors should adopt the same standards if a writer isn't happy about some 'business' aspect and says so. Writers actually talking about their publishing experiences is highly subversive, though, isn't it? It could change the way the industry is run.

    Bah humbug! (Oops, not the right holiday!!!) :)

  2. Sam, you poor thing - empathies!

    One thing I will say, I've had a lot more luck securing blurbs for myself by writing directly to writers rather than letting my editors/publishers get involved. The few times I've thought, "Really? Someone else wants to do this for me? Cool!" - those have resulted in zero blurbs.

    Oh, and I guess my blurb horror story would be that one new-to-me editor, having seen some of the amazing blurbs I'd gotten on previous books, asked me to solicit them for the first book I was doing with her. I did so, and secured three of the biggest bestsellers in that genre saying they'd be happy to read...and then the editor never sent them the books.

  3. Great story, Sam. I've made some gaffes too but the biggest was when I was meeting with some of the publishers marketing and sales people back in 2004.

    We were talking about the novel Devil Wears Prada and I made a comment that I didn't think much of it. (I knew it was NOT published by my house so I felt safe in saying that.) What I didn't know is that my publisher had wooed the author to their house for a really pricey sum.) I could have died.

  4. Oh my gosh, these ARE scary stories! I too have always solicited my own blurbs. The Internet makes that so much easier these days--my first requests were of writers I adored but didn't know, sent out through the snail mail. Waiting to hear was torture...

    I try to look at it as if the publishers and editors are the bosses in a big corporation. (they are, right?) I wouldn't burst into my boss's office complaining without thinking carefully about how to couch it...but then, let's face it, I'm kind of a wienie when it comes to conflict:)

  5. Samantha, I can't believe your scary story, plus these others that have been shared. I agree with Sandra's crankiness and I too have also solicited all my own blurbs directly. What a nutty biz this is!

  6. Dropping in to say hello to a fellow Smithie and congratulate you on the Elinor Lipman quote. She's one of my favorites -- but somehow I didn't discover that until I left Smith [snapping my fingers in anger].

  7. Good to hear some of you are in similar boats. I have surely learned something these past three years and do not feel so much like Dorothy outside of Kansas.

    Thanks, Ernessa, Smithie-dear. I adore Elinor Limpman and took her class while at Smith. It meant a great deal to me that she blurbed the book.

  8. I like Halloween too, but I do understand the analogy that you used to show your thoughts on how scary world of publishing is