Out today in paperback, Chris Pavone’s The Accident is a fast-paced suspense that gives readers a glimpse into the publishing industry. The behind-the-scenes moments come straight from Pavone’s own history: He worked for 20 years as an editor. Here, Pavone gives us the dirt on the lessons he picked up on the job.
Authors travel a number of well-worn roads to their first published books: MFA programs and writing workshops, journalism and screenwriting and teaching; all of these are jobs that help people hone their prose styles and storytelling skills. Me, I worked in the book-publishing business for a couple decades. I was a copy editor and a proofreader, a managing editor and an associate publisher and even a ghostwriter, but mostly I was an acquisitions editor. I learned a few things in those jobs that are useful to me now. Not necessarily things about writing, but about doing the job of someone who writes. About being an author.
1. The first few pages are crucial
The people who make career-defining decisions about a book are pitched thousands of books per year. Every day, their inboxes are refreshed with an unreadable volume of material. If an author is lucky, these people will start reading page 1. If they don’t like page 1, they probably won’t turn to page 2. Instead they’ll pick up something else, something that might have a more compelling page 1. So whatever’s going to be good about a book ought to be good from the get-go.
2. Editing works
Not because all editors are brilliant plot theorists and meticulous prose technicians who can immediately spot what’s wrong with a manuscript and offer the perfect solutions. They’re not, and they don’t. But I’ve never met a manuscript that didn’t get better during editing, sometimes by orders of magnitude. Rigorous criticism helps everything improve, and I want my books to be as improved as possible. The editing stages may not be fun—the opposite is probably more accurate—but this is work, after all. It’s not supposed to be fun, it’s supposed to be productive.
3. No book will appeal to every reader
Maybe 2% of adult Americans will read the single best-selling new novel in any given year. Another way of saying that: a mere 98% of the population will not read my next book, in the very best-case scenario. There are millions of avid readers who enjoy only crime fiction; others read exclusively history and politics. Some people plow through a romance novel every week, while others devour a steady diet of self-help. There’s no way to appeal to everyone, and no reason to try: It will only ensure that a book appeals to absolutely no one whatsoever.
4. Being early helps
Just because my editor gives me a week to review something doesn’t mean I should use all seven days, not unless I really need them (like if I’ve spent five of them in the hospital). A lot can go wrong along every book’s journey from manuscript to publication. But if I do my bits early, I help prevent those problems from blossoming into disasters that could impact the viability of my book.
5. Showing up pays dividends
“I’m coming to New York!” author says to editor. Immediately after hanging up, editor marches down the hallway to publicist’s office, and to marketing manager’s. “Hey,” she says, “we’re going to meet with this author in a couple of weeks, so let’s talk about our plans for the book again.” That’s a conversation that might not happen if author wasn’t showing up. And that conversation might result in something—some publicity pitch or marketing effort or social-media campaign—that otherwise wouldn’t exist. It also helps to be able to associate some faces and handshakes and voices with the people on the other end of all those emails, the people entrusted with an author’s career. Plus, they buy lunch.
6. Publishing is slow for two distinct reasons
First: There’s a finite number of staff at any house. Those people handle a lot of tasks over many stages for a tremendous quantity of titles—all with the goal of improving the text, getting rid of mistakes, and making it look appealing. So books wait in queues for attention. Second: Book retailers make their buying and merchandising decisions many months in advance of publication; a lot of important publicity outlets operate on a similarly long lead. So if a book were published in a couple months instead of the normal year, the book’s retail distribution and media exposure might suffer, possibly immensely. Which is to say that even if book production could be sped up, it usually shouldn’t. The slowness is a built-in part of the game, like in baseball, not solvable by any single player or even team.
7. Care about what you care about, and shut the f*!$ up about the rest
Yes, I very much want my opinion to be heard on certain issues. But there are other things I care about marginally at best, and am informed about minimally at most. For these issues, the better part of valor is to keep my lightly held, half-ignorant opinions from getting in the way. Other people are paid to know what they’re doing, and I think one of my jobs is to let them do theirs. Authors write books. Publishers publish books. There’s a difference.