This is usually the reaction I get when people find out that I write fiction. By their surprise, you would have thought I told them I play the lute or am studying taxidermy.
We like to think that those who work in book publishing wind up there due to their great love for literature. That is partially true. My good friend Marcy Flamholtz who worked in operations and sales for Penguin and Disney said it best when asked how she came to work in the world of books: "If you're an editor, you aspire to be in publishing. But if you're in finance, operations or contracts you just... wind up there. It's like Hoboken."
For the past 11 years I've worked in the contracts department negotiating and drafting author agreements, first for a decade at Penguin, and most recently at Hyperion. My contracts career began in 1996 after I completed film school at Penn State. It didn't take long to find out that there weren't many skills that transferred from shooting on a Bolex to drafting a warranty and indemnity clause (other than the fact that a tiny adjustment to either once you've finished wrecks the entire thing). I loved writing screenplays, but I needed a job. Since I didn't know anyone in the film or television industry at that point, I decided to try my luck with books.
Contracts is a department most see (rightly so) as void of creativity. People seem to think contracts workers spend their spare time writing out flow-through clauses and signing Christmas cards with, "Notwithstanding anything to the contrary in the foregoing." While we do share a laugh when we try to report our days off as force majeure, there are plenty of creative types who work in this area of publishing. According to my experience, this is because:
1) You don't take your work home with you. Contracts are confidential so when you leave work, you can mentally leave it, too.
2) You can read for pleasure. There are only a few departments in which you don't have to read your own company's books for some aspect of your job, and contracts happens to be one of them.
3) You don't have to put your creative energy into others' creative endeavors. You get the creativity stimulation of being around writers and books without having to actively take part in the creative process. This means the creative energy within you is truly your own.
Happily for me, contracts is a department that allows to you the freedom of mind to write. Working there has revealed plenty of other useful things about book publishing:
There's a market for the unlikeliest books
It wasn't until I drafted a contract for a mystical quilting chocolate cat mystery that I thought, "I should write a book." It occurred to me then that if there's a market for books on cats that quilt while solving crime, there must be room out in the world for my story. When writers set their sights on completing a book, they often focus narrowly on what will sell. An advantage of handling so many agreements has been seeing an overview of what the editors across various imprints are buying by way of book projects. Working at Penguin, showed me there was room in the book market for absolutely everything. While sometimes it seems the industry only wants memoirs and other times you can't give one away, following trends can be a gamble.
If you're going to spend a year with characters, write what you know and love most, and don't fixate on the market. Put your manuscript-in-progress on the coffee table to hold a plant, use it to balance out a leg of your couch or use it to stand on when you need an extra two inches to reach the light bulb, but don't stick it in a drawer and forget about it. Styles come and go, editors leave, and market tastes change. There's a hustle factor in getting your book published, but there's also a patience factor. Give your book project time, rather than giving it up. With time and attention, your book'll get better and better, which means a market -- and an agent/publisher team that'll take you to the contracts stage -- will find you.
Get a book agent to eyeball your contract before signing
Even if you're entering into a book deal sans representation, you want someone versed in publishing-related contracts examining documents that dictate when and how you get paid for your book, as well as which rights you'll hold upon its publication. Don't resort to the guy who handled your Nana's estate planning. Would you ask a veterinarian handle your open-heart surgery? Same principle
Mo' advance money, mo' problems
Working in contracts means you see advances in all shapes and sizes, and bigger isn't necessarily better. Here's an example to illustrate: Say you throw a party: You invite someone who shows up and brings $40 worth of beer. They are fun to hang out with and everyone who talks to that person has a good time. You will invite them back. Another guest comes empty-handed, is bossy and eats at least $200 worth of guacamole. Unless they've going to have George Clooney in tow, chances are you won't seek them out for the next one.
In much the same way, if you wind up with a large advance for a book and your book doesn't earn it back, when you're angling to write a second title, your publisher's interest may have left the building. However, if you start off more modestly and do your part as an author who cooperates and helps stimulate sales, a publisher is likelier to give you a shot at writing that next book. While few of us would turn down a big advance if we were lucky enough to get one, if you're aiming to be a writer with a lengthy publishing career, starting small isn't such a bad thing.
Don't expect publishers to treat the book like your baby
Every book on human behavior states pretty much the same thing: People avoid rejection at all costs. This applies even more to a human being who's spent a year of their life writing a 350-page story about a three-legged dog winning a regional spelling bee. So even if your story is a thinly veiled allegory on how you could never really make your Dad proud, when you come down to it, no one in the book business cares. Ultimately, they're looking at your story as a bankable widget, and the sooner you embrace that fact the better you will feel when the "no's" start coming. And they will come.
Whether it's finding the right agent, getting a book deal, liking your edits, liking your publication date or having someone like me tell your agent that you can't have cover approval, inevitably someone involved in the publishing process will shoot something down that's important to you. Often, it'll even be for your own good. But either way, you must realize publishing is a collective endeavor. As solitary as the writing process can be, an author doesn't get a book deal solely because they are a swell person or they finally wrote their way into forgiving their father. Publishers look for a good return on the cost they are willing to make with their time and money. Their "no's" will undoubtedly feel personal. They're not. If you take them as such, you'll compromise your will to write, which is part of what got you the point of penning your own book.
The thing is, publishers need writers. They need them to write about dogs that win spelling bees and chocolate cats who hunt down killers. They need them to work out crap with their parents, so they wind up writing about it. But if you let the "no's" beat you down then none of your readers will get to share in your stories, solve any mysteries alongside your feline protagonist or enjoy any of those hard-won family victories with you. That's why you wrote your book in the first place.
I wrote screenplays at 22 because I thought you had to be at least 40 to write a book. After closing over 1,000 contracts, I now know writing a book isn't some Herculean feat that only scholars and tortured introverts can reach. It's for all of us who believed in ourselves long enough to see a good story through and found a few key people in publishing to believe in them along the way. No real mystery. Sorry, cat.
Jean Marie Pierson will publish her debut novel with Dorchester in March 2008.