As you’ll recall, a couple weeks ago I talked about a pretty bad dream of mine and what it might mean, specifically as it related to my work in progress. I said then that two interpretations for that dream came to mind, and while I’m sure there are others, both rang true. One was easy enough to figure out: I’m doing something really tough, and I’m unsure if I’ll succeed. It’s an uneasy alliance, this book and me. (Though, for the record, we seem to be getting along better these days. At least, I’ve not had another house dream to tell me otherwise. Oh, I’m still plenty uncertain, but if I listen too long and hard to that anxiety-rat scuttling around my skull . . . well, that way lies paralysis.)
So let’s talk about the second interpretation today because I think that it has a broader applicability to all us writers. Sooner or later, if we’re in traditional publishing, we’ll face this.
And face what, you ask?
Why, being orphaned.
No, I don’t mean an orphan in the traditional sense of no parents. I’m talking, specifically, about something writers face all the time: having their works orphaned, or their series interrupted. That is, the marketing team goes away, or the line’s discontinued, or a lot of key people—the editor, the publisher—leave the company . . . that kind of thing. Many pro writers have talked about this, and there are quite a few horror stories out there as, for example, in the case of Dr. Yvonne Thorton’s experience with Kaplan Publishing in 2010. Read this article in its entirety; it’s enough to set your teeth. In a nutshell, though, Thorton, who had already written a very well-received memoir, went with Kaplan Publishing for her second book on the strength of a lot of promises by Kaplan about how they’d really push the book, etc., etc. She even turned down offers of more money from other publishers. As Kris Rusch talks about it on her blog, Thorton only understood something was going terribly wrong—i.e., that her book was DOA or published “dead,” with no marketing push, no support, no nothing—when she realized that her book wasn’t available as an e-book preorder. She did the logical thing and wrote to her editor—but the email bounced back. And that was because the editor was gone and the line discontinued. Someone just forget to mention this tiny little fact to Thorton.
Rusch is correct when she says this kind of thing happens to writers all the time. That’s because she’s been in the biz for quite a while, and it’s happened not only to her but other pros. Take the time to read about her experiences, too; if you don’t get a tiny little shiver down your spine, you’re not paying attention.
In fact, that kind of being cut off at the knees happened to me several years ago, with another publisher and a different series. Here I am, all set to write a trilogy. I’ve done two books in the series; I’ve mapped out where the next story has to go. I’m daring to think about more books and a new series. In the interim, I’ve done stories for the series, and a whole other stand-alone when another writer crapped out and the editor needed someone to fill in, pronto. Things are looking great, and I’m excited: my first trilogy, within my reach.
But then—one day—I get this call from the principal editor: the line’s going away; the parent company went defunct; and there just ain’t gonna be a third book.
To say I was bummed is putting it mildly. To say that I was in despair would be much closer. Of course, it wasn’t just me who’d gotten the axe; it was every single author in the line; it was the editor, the copy-editors, the continuity people, the graphics folks . . . a lot of pink slips in various guises, and not a damn thing any of us could do about it.
What does this have to do with me and my dream?
It’s pretty simple, actually: let’s fast forward a couple years, and here I am, a couple books under my belt and more either in the pipeline or my head. (If I could only figure out how to do a direct cerebral transfer of all those books into a computer...)
Except . . . one of my publishers is going through some big transitions. In essence, the entire team that put together a bunch of books have all gone on to other jobs: first, it was one marketing guy, followed by the rep from the parent company. Not that long after, the publisher’s gone. Then the two marketing and library outreach folks go adios—and, finally, just a couple weeks ago, my editor. My lovely, wonderful editor. My editor.
Now none of this came as a surprise in the Thorton-way of surprises, and in fact, if a writer had to be orphaned, both these people--as well as the editor from that first time years back when an entire line disappeared beneath my feet--have been pros about it. Every single time someone’s left, there’s been a phone call, and a long one at that: nothing perfunctory, and all of it sincere. In the case of my editor, I got two: from the editor and then the publisher, both of them trying to be as reassuring as they could. I know they also went on to call every single author and his/her agent. They kept everybody in the loop, and in the case of the key marketing person, I subsequently got a phone call and then several emails from the person who’s stepping into the job—and that person’s already doing some heavy-lifting for me.
So let me repeat: I am bummed and feel kind of down, but I'm not devastated. If there has to be a shake-up or big change, this is the way a writer ought to find out. These guys have been consummate pros, and at this point in time, I have absolutely no reason to believe that the same commitment and care the company’s given my books won’t continue. I’m not having a Thorton-style experience at this moment. As of right now, my books are as caught up as they’re could possibly be given the circumstances and I am confident the publisher—a very wonderful and warm person—is committed to giving them their best possible shot.
Except . . . I had that dream: about a house in which I didn’t belong and a relationship/marriage I wasn’t comfortable with.
It’s not such a stretch to see the house as a publishing “house.” The relationship I had with the original team was very special. I was comfortable with those guys; I liked them as pros and people. (I still like and wish them well; I wouldn’t spend this much psychic energy on them otherwise. Fine, go work for the Antichrist; see what I care.)
But now there is nobody at the house that I really know in the sense of having closely worked with them to birth a book—and I’m understandably anxious. I’m not the only author in the house. What if they bring in an editor who really hates what I do? That person won't have originally acquired me; that person will be handed me and that's a very different animal. So what if how I write just doesn’t appeal or fit with whatever his or her vision is/will be? What if we simply don’t get on? What if she/he doesn’t get my jokes? What if I say something dumb, or we can’t have a good time while we’re at it? Sure, I’m a pro and I’ll get the work done—but shaping a book of the heart (and all my books are that) should be enjoyable; it should be collegial; there ought to be the sense that we’re all doing something really important together, as a team.
Maybe you think that’s . . . oh, I don’t know . . . so much treacle, or just naïve. You’re a cog, Bick; there are dozens of other talented and way more talented writers, and you’re nothing very special.
On the other hand, part of what Kris Rusch has to say about writers and power, broadly speaking, applies to me: in my dream, I’m stuck and helpless. I think that reflects my angst that there is/was nothing I could do about, say, my editor leaving; it wasn’t up to me. In that sense, the dream is an accurate reflection of my inability to do anything to change what was happening about a person to whom I was very attached and really liked. What happened wasn’t personal . . . and yet it affected and continues to affect me in a very personal way because my work is personal. It can’t be any other way. Every book I manage to publish is the best book I’ve ever written at that point in time, and I would be a fool not to hope that every book gets the best possible shot at reaching an audience.
It’s just the future that bugs me, I guess, and the next new face and the realization that as much as I—like all of us—would like for things to remain comfortable and familiar, change will happen. This is a part of doing business in this business, and it happens to everyone. For some, it all goes down in a terrible way. For others, like me, the change goes forward with as much care and sensitivity as possible.
So, it’s like that old serenity prayer: accepting what I can’t change while having the courage to change the things that I can. For me, right now, that means writing the next best book I’ve ever written—and then the one after that.
I’ll let you know if I find myself in the bad house of my dreams anytime soon.