MisCon 28: Books – From Idea to Marketplace

by syaffolee

(To see all my posts on MisCon, go here.)

In the panel transcriptions, I’m mostly paraphrasing what the panelists said. If there are any errors, they’re mine and mine alone. For any corrections, just drop me a note.

Panel title: Books – From Idea to Marketplace
Panel members: C.J. Cherryh, Sheila Gilbert, Todd Lockwood, Betsy Wollheim
Panel description: Writer, acquiring editor, copy editor, editor, art director, cover artist, publisher. C.J. Cherryh, Betsy Wollheim, Sheila Gilbert, and Todd Lockwood discuss taking a book from concept to the shelves.

BW: So you start with a manuscript, right?

CJC: I start with ideas and words on paper. It’s later when you get to the contract. I have a long relationship with DAW. I usually contract three books at a time. They have advances so the writer can keep eating while writing.

SG: The advance is against royalties.

CJC: It takes a while for it to earn out. You get a portion of the cover price which is set in the contract. First you get as good and clean a manuscript as possible before it goes to the next person. Writing is not straightforward. Life can intervene. When I forget where I left off, I do a rolling rewrite. I can do it in about a week. I also edit for spelling, etc. because if a copy editor has to pick up a pencil, then they’ll start “correcting” five other things. After that, I send the manuscript to my agent and Betsy at the same time since the book is already in the schedule.

BW: It’s different with Carolyn compared to a new writer because she has carte blanche. I don’t want the copy editors to change her style, but that’s very rare. Later, I contact the author by letter or phone call for edits. Each author is treated differently. Some like bullet points rather than letters or phone calls. It’s completely individual.

SG: I like direct communication because then I can brainstorm with the author.

BW: My preference is also like Sheila’s, but some authors only like things a certain way.

SG: We can come up with possible solutions and talk things through. It’s best if I can talk to the author in person. Sometimes for new authors, there are long silences while they’re trying to process it. After, we’re then ready to revise. We go through the revisions and do page proofs.

CJC: Sometimes we get mistakes from the typesetter with things like transposed text. For one book, there was a last minute problem. Every time there was an umlaut followed by a comma, it caused the printer to delete a letter and add a space. Since this was early in the digital era, it had to be fixed manually. For proofs, we look for things that shouldn’t be. Mistakes can creep in due to mechanical and electronic errors.

BW: Publishers now do a lot of the printing work.

SG: We also format ebooks.

CJC: In the old days, if we needed to change something, the change needed to be the same number of spaces because it would screw up the paragraphs. Today, it’s more flexible but there’s still not much room. You can’t just rewrite everything or there will be many headaches for everyone else.

SG: You might see lots of glaring errors, but you have to ask yourself, is it important?

CJC: Before you get to that stage, you should reformat your manuscript. It will change the position of the words and you’ll see the errors. Read it aloud to make yourself. Read it as a reader.

SG: Mistakes can also be created from previous changes. If it’s obviously glaring, then it’s probably a computer process.

Q: As the cover artist, once you get the manuscript, what happens?

TL: Once the manuscript gets to that stage, we already have the cover.

BW: We already have the books in their scheduled slots. Sometimes we get a cover even before the book is written.

TL: Usually I have a phone conversation with the author for what they want to see on the cover. Sometimes the author still doesn’t know.

BW: It sucks for all of us, except maybe the booksellers. We think twice about hiring an artist if the artist won’t read the manuscript. They need to understand the story.

TL: If the author gets an email saying that what was depicted on the cover didn’t happen in the book, I get blamed.

SG: Some authors change scenes to match the cover.

TL: Sometimes I do the cover from the book’s outline. But authors deviate from outlines.

BW: Lester del Rey liked a cover so much, he wrote in the extra scene in the Thomas Covenant series. Needless to say, Stephen R. Donaldson wasn’t pleased about that and they had to do damage control…

CJC: For my latest book, I have to come up with a title by Tuesday.

Q: You work with the writers personally, but most authors haven’t met their editors. For the process of submissions, do you need to be agented?

BW: Not at DAW but most other companies only look at agented authors.

SG: Check publishers’ websites for what they want. At one time, publishers had rotating slush piles.

CJC: It was a system of slush pile readers who mined for gems.

SG: Once, there was a fictitious person to whom you could submit manuscripts to. It was to protect the slush pile readers.

CJC: The competition in the slush pile is varied. I have read the slush pile at DAW before. Gems do stand out among the gravel.

Q: What happens with the galleys?

CJC: Now I can do post-its on pdf files so I can search for changes.

SG: It’s great for corresponding with authors from Canada because before, manuscripts would get stopped at the border. After production, authors and readers go through it. There are promotional tools like ARCs (advance reader copies) if we have time–usually minimum four months before the book comes out. Some companies have it six months before. Then there’s work on the cover and catalog, etc. It’s time sensitive.

Q: How did the workflow change with ebooks?

BW: Ebooks have been a learning experience. Before, scanning created many errors. So now we’re pulling them and proofing.

SG: They used to do it with an outside company with no quality control. Now they have at least two people keying and comparing manuscripts.

Q: Are there things you like to illustrate or not?

TL: I don’t like covers with the hero’s back to the viewer and facing the monster. Or the back of the monster. I want the face on the cover to convey personality. I want to convey the soul of the book with action. However, I don’t want to give away the second part of the book on the cover.

CJC: Readers get unhappy if you give away the ending.

TL: Usually three to five chapters in, I will find something that is cover worthy.

Q: Is there a situation where you picked a scene from the first page?

TL: No, but sometimes the cover is literally a scene from the book but usually it’s the essence of the story. Sometimes it requires phone calls and emails to the author. Sometimes it’s obvious. If I haven’t nailed it down, Sheila is a sounding board.

CJC: There might be a mention in a science fiction book that the clothes were similar to colonial times, but Todd makes it look like future fashion. He doesn’t make the cover suggest that the story is about George Washington.

BW: In one book, there was a line about a statue perfect in its arrogance. That made it into the cover. Most art directors don’t read the books.

SG: Usually the art directors base the covers on what the editor has told them. Then when they show the cover, everyone else hates it so they’re back to square one. Then they have to do it over again and then the art director is asked why they’ve gone over budget. So it’s better to read it and have confidence that the cover has something to do with the book.

TL: Sometimes something else could be the problem. One artist had a piece of artwork that everyone thought was fine, but the director for some reason was adamant that it had to be redone. It turned out that the director thought the character in the art had no pants because he was colorblind.

BW: I know one art director who took it to the entire department to present a cover.

SG: We shot one cover where we had to move mannequins around the office.

BW: People thought we had dead people in the windowsill.

Q: How can we break in as an editor?

BW: You can become an intern, but unfortunately we don’t pay interns. As an intern, you can gain experience. Then you can apply for the position.

SG: These days for any career, there are many unpaid internships.

Q: During post-publication, what do you expect from the author?

BW: A lot of authors do their own marketing online. People are interested in the author’s voice, not the publisher.

SG: Blogs are great marketing tools. It can reach everywhere. But it also has to be professional. Online, you can see how people look like. On the phone, you get an image, but it can be wrong. For instance, Jim Hines. People read and interact on his blog and already feel like they’re friends with him when they do meet him in person.

Q: What’s the difference between a query letter and a cover letter?

SG: A query letter asks if you want to see more of the manuscript. A cover letter comes with the manuscript.