Reflections of a first-time author-Part 2

edie
Howard Owen, a friend, author and former colleague, taught me to always carry my book in the car in case someone wants to buy it. Edie Gross, another former colleague, did just that last week. (Photo by Laura Moyer)

Andi Russell, who does the Books page at the Free Lance-Star, where I used to work, invited me to participate in a new feature called the Local Author Spotlight. The Spotlight asks 17 questions of the writer. Here’s a preview of two of my answers:

What I learned from the writing/publishing process:

I was surprised to learn of the writer’s place in the publishing process. I compare it to the groom’s place in a wedding. He’s essential but strictly a minor player. I expected the writer to be an important player since he or she is the creator, the one who starts the process, and upon whom all others depend.

He is at first, but that changes when he surrenders the text to the publisher. Then, like the groom, he’s basically told where to stand and what to say. I don’t mean this in any way to be a criticism of History Press, my publisher. They have behaved honorably from day one. It’s my fault that I was not better informed as to what would happen to me and my work once I signed a contract with them.

What I learned is that after the writer surrenders his or her manuscript, it becomes the publisher’s book. The publisher decides how much of the writer’s text to use, what the book will look like, what it will be called, when it will reach the public, what it will sell for, what the writer will be paid, when he will be paid, and who will sell the book. The writer may be consulted on these points, and even get to argue them, but the publisher has final say.

The publisher prints the book or creates a digital equivalent and then ships it to retailers, the second major player in the process. Again, I was surprised to learn that the retail arm of the process appears to be dominated by one company, Amazon. The others, like Barnes & Noble and Books-A-Million, keep one or two books on hand in their stores, then reorder one or two more when those are gone. I don’t know what percentage of my sales have been through Amazon, but I bet it is significant.

And so it is not surprising, when sales revenues are divided, that the author stands third in line behind the publisher and the retailer. My sense after being involved in this process for more than a year is that the $22 list price for my book is split roughly $12 (publisher), $8 (retailer) and $2 (author). Please tell me if I have the numbers wrong. It might make me feel better.

My advice for those trying to write:

Don’t be deterred by anything that I’ve said in answer to the question above. Write that darn book and get it published. It will make you very happy.

PS: Reflection of a first-time author, Part 1 can be seen here.

I stand in praise of copy editors

The Washington Nationals host the Philadelphia Phillies in the first game of a four-game series at RFK Stadium in Washington DC on September 20, 2007. (Mike Morones/The Free Lance-Star)
The author with Laura Moyer at a Washington Nationals game in 2007.

One of History Press’ copy editors reviewed this manuscript and pronounced it fit. Well, mostly fit.

The book is “very well written,” he said, but it contains errors of “grammar, style, spelling and consistency.” He made about 40 blue-type changes in the document. Most were violations of the publisher’s house style.

That means, in my case, that Shedrick Thompson served in the “army,” not the “Army,” that Warrenton was a “colonial-era” town, not a “Colonial-era” one, and that Harry F. Byrd’s title was “former governor,” not “former Gov.”

I also learned that you don’t abbreviate South Carolina, that my former employer is “the Free Lance-Star,” despite what it says on the newspaper’s flag, and that Thompson was not “6 feet, 190 and labor-strong.” He was “six feet, 190 pounds and labor-strong.”

History Press generally follows the Chicago Manual of Style, but like all publishers it ignores the style book when it chooses. For example, the Chicago Manual recommends the use of the serial comma, the one that precedes the final item in a series. I dutifully placed these commas throughout, but that was for naught. History Press doesn’t like serial commas and removed them.

I confess to being a little defensive about these changes. I try to be a careful writer, as in full of care. I look things up, rewrite and submit what I believe is error-free copy. I am similar to the airline executive who insists on clean flip-down trays so passengers will trust the engines. I want clean copy so readers will trust my conclusions.

Even so, I believe in copy editors. They have made my writing better. Heck, I’m engaged to a professional copy editor. Laura Moyer read several versions of this book and offered countless valuable suggestions. When she finished, it had the feel of a fine oak dresser, worn by the touch of much good use.