By Shawn Coyne | Published: January 10, 2014
Here’s some more from THE STORY GRID.
Many years ago I had to do the one thing an editor hates to do above all others. I had to cancel a book.
For fiction, publishers often buy multiple books from a single author. They buy one that is just about ready for publication. And then they buy one or two additional titles that are not yet written in order to lock in a reasonable price for someone they think has a future.
I did this with Steve Pressfield back when I worked at Doubleday. Steve had no idea what to write after GATES OF FIRE and as a guy who believes wholeheartedly in “spec work,” he was hesitant to sign a two book deal. Thank God he did or he may have never written TIDES OF WAR.
Cancellation happens when a book under contract comes in and does not meet the standards of the publishing house. That is, the author delivers the next book in the contract and it’s—in the opinion of that publisher—unacceptable. What really sucks is that the author has to pay back any money that the publisher advanced him to write the thing in the first place.
So imagine being staked one or two years’ worth of cash to write a novel. You turn it in and the company who pledged to support you—and paid your living expenses to prove it—doesn’t like it. After they crush your spirit telling you that the book isn’t good enough, they then point to a clause in the contract that says you have to pay them back all of the money that you already spent to write the thing in the first place.
It’s like getting a job in America and passage out of Ireland during the potato famine only to find yourself rejected by the rich guy who paid for your voyage. He sends you straight back to the ould sod with a double debt and no way to pay it back. Talk about the luck of the Irish!
Now imagine being the face of the publisher. The grim reaper that has to deliver the news. This is the most heinous job an editor has. If there is one of their tasks that all editors would encourage publishers to outsource, it’s this one.
In the case that still haunts me, the author had worked extraordinarily hard, diligently responded to all of the editorial challenges that I raised, and did everything he could to save the book from cancellation. But alas, in the final analysis, the book just didn’t work. By the publisher’s standards, which I stood by and still do, it was unpublishable.
The author was heartbroken. And as we all want to do when things fall apart for us, he wanted to blame someone else. He decided to blame the publishing company for the decision, which meant in reality ME. He sued the company claiming that we had not lived up to our editorial responsibilities. That meant really, as the final arbiter of his work, that I had not lived up to my responsibilities.
I had spent countless hours analyzing the book, providing feedback, offering specific ideas and suggestions to address fundamental problems with his novel etc. But at the end of the process, the writer unfortunately was unable to execute the plans I’d suggested for revision. So I made the difficult decision to cancel the book.
That’s no small thing for an editor to do. At the time, I was responsible for bringing in (acquiring from agents) and editing a large chunk of the company’s commercial fiction list. I was not alone in my task. The publisher, head of marketing, head of publicity, editor in chief and a number of others had to sign off on every one of my acquisitions. I wasn’t some all-powerful gatekeeper/tastemaker. I was an editorial funnel of sorts with limited power but maximum exposure to blame. If my books worked, it was a team effort. If they bombed, I was the idiot who pushed the book through. A favorite phrase among editors is “You’re in a crowd with success, but alone in failure.”
To throw in the towel on one of only six or seven titles I edited that year was certainly not going to advance my career. It involved writing off hundreds of thousands of dollars on the company’s ledgers. And it would be one of the first things discussed at my annual review.
Ugh, my heart still pounds thinking about it.
I was the featured witness in the legal proceeding. And the publisher spent quite a bit of money preparing me to testify. When I met with the company’s head legal counsel, she simply told me that all I had to do was explain what I could and could not do as an editor.
I came back with, “Well, it’s really complicated.”
She smiled and said that being the head counsel for a multinational, multibillion dollar corporation was pretty complicated too, and that perhaps I might think of a way of simplifying my job so that people with zero experience with book publishing could understand it. She told me that if she were asked to do the same for her job, she might compare herself to the Luca Brasi character in Mario Puzo and Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather. When the company is threatened by third parties, they call her to take care of it.
“See how simple it can be?”
I nodded and tried to think of a character in The Godfather who would be equivalent of an editor. But all I could think of was the foot soldier in Tessio’s crew who had to go to “Louis’ restaurant in the Bronx.” The guy who had to duct tape a snub-nosed Smith and Wesson .38 to the back of the old fashioned toilet with the pull chain. The loud revolver that Michael Corleone would use to shoot Sollozzo and McCluskey.
And that guy never came on camera.
She also made it clear that what I said would deeply impact—not only the writer and the publishing company at loggerheads over this one cancellation—but the entire industry. If I did not defend the publishing company’s right to independently evaluate a work according to its own standards of quality, the “delivery and acceptance” clause in every single book publishing contract from that point forward (and backward) would be in play. That is, the crucial clause that allows a publisher to commission a work without committing to publish it would be contested over and over again.
A huge can of worms.
If I blew it and failed to simply explain what an editor could and could not do…
Now I’m not a company kind of guy. I come from blue collar stock, union members who have a deep distrust of corporate overseers, especially anyone referred to as your “boss.” I still think “The Man” is out to get all of us. If there’s an underdog out there defending some righteous fundamental rule of professional decency, count me in to join up.
But if a publishing company was denied the right to determine whether or not a book met its standards, the business (as it was back then in the late 90s) would implode. What right thinking businessman would back a publishing house if it didn’t have complete control over what it published? And with no financial backing, there would be no houses. And with no houses, there would be no advance checks to fund writers’ work. Again, this was almost twenty years ago before writers could effectively publish themselves. Knowing that then would have saved me a lot of agita.
So there was a lot riding on my testimony. And as is the case in any legal proceeding, the lawyers involved were tasked in buttressing or punching holes in my reasoning. This made the ability to make a clear and watertight explanation of what it is an Editor (employed by a publisher) can and cannot do for a writer all the more challenging…
Everything boiled down to the author’s contention that the Editor was required to
1. Find the problems in his book and
2. Show him how to fix them.
If the author listened to the editor and addressed and “fixed” the problems that were presented to him, then the author and the author’s lawyers believed that the publisher must accept the work as publishable. Because editorial content is subjective (one person’s work of genius is another’s piece of trash) if the author diligently works to respond to the problems, they must publish the book.
That kind of makes sense in a strict “reasonable” argument way.
But practically, it’s ridiculous.
I said as much in my deposition, but too little effect. The opposing counsel kept coming back with the same litany of questions, trying to back me into a corner and admit that the publisher and I were the ones who failed to live up to the terms of the contract and not his client. But I answered in the same way every time.
Until he finally lost his composure and asked, “Okay, Mr. Coyne, so if writing a book requires more than diligently responding to a quote expert unquote—like yourself (he coughed dramatically)—what exactly does it require?”
Now, I was given the gift [and in far too many instances the curse] of being born with what some call the Black Irish temperament. Being Black Irish essentially means that there is a critical mass of irritation one can withstand before one tips over into a state of verbal exuberance. Screaming and so forth.
The plus of being Black Irish, despite the reactions one receives to the vociferous volume by which one’s thoughts are expressed, is that such a threshold often releases innovative thought. While I didn’t come up with a perfect pop culture analogy to convey just what it is an Editor does, I did come up with a damn good metaphor.
“Sir, let me make this easy for you. The writer is a contractor. The editor works for the building department.
“I can analyze his structure from top to bottom and point out the problems with the plumbing, the wiring, the cabinets, the floors, the light fixtures, the staircases, etc. until I’m blue in the face. And the writer can address each of those problems and bring them up to what he perceives as code. But if the foundation of the building is faulty, all of my nudges to fix the minutiae of smaller structural elements will come to naught.
“The foundation for this book is not sturdy enough to support the artifice. I’ve explained that to your client. To his credit, he’s tried to excavate and patch the holes and shore up the instability, but that work is not enough to make the building sound.
“What I do is inspect and offer possible solutions to fixing the problems. I cannot fix the problems myself. If I did, I should receive the appropriate credit and be compensated as such. But that is not my role. Designing and constructing a Story building so that it can withstand a hurricane while it also brings joy to its beholder is the work of a Writer. Inspecting the building to make it stand for as long a period of time as possible is the work of an Editor.”
A few months after that deposition, in Summary Judgment, the court ruled in favor of the Publisher.
Luca Brasi bought me lunch.