Some time last March, my brand-name publisher and I hit a major roadblock. I wanted to write a narrative, profile-driven book about Gen Y, and my publisher, after giving me the green light, decided that it wanted a book that was structured thematically. My publisher, perhaps justifiably, told me: “Profiles don’t sell.”
As it turns out, as the writer, I had very little leverage in this situation—according to my contract, the publisher could deem the manuscript “unfit” for practically any reason. On top of that, it could demand I return the portion of the advance I’d been paid. If there was glory in sticking to my guns, I couldn’t see it. And was this the moment, when I had so much to lose, both financially and professionally, to be a purist about my vision? What to do?
In my case, break up with no backup plan. I didn’t have some quixotic vision of myself as a crusader against making my work more commercial. I’ve written two other books with major publishers, A Little Bit Married and New Girl on the Job, and worked for a decade as a freelance journalist. I have a lot of respect for editors. I’m greatly indebted to many, from the New York Times to Forbes, who have brought clarity and perspective to my writing.
More than anything, though, the breakup crystallized a key issue that pierces to the center of the publisher-author symbiosis. Who knows best: author or publisher? Writing is always highly subjective. Megahits like The Help and Harry Potter were rejected by more than a dozen publishers, and The Diary of Anne Frank was found in the slush pile. Winners can be missed. And what sells is based on comparison—or “comps”—of similar titles and how they’ve performed. Publishing has no Nate Silver (that alarmingly accurate predictor of political races); it’s an inexact, highly unpredictable industry.
Still, publishers are in the business of selling books—which some are still quite good at—so wouldn’t it behoove an author like me, one who still has a lot to prove in terms of my value to their bottom line, just to march to their orders and do what they say? Isn’t a highly compromised book with a big name publisher better than no book at all? Why couldn’t I bring myself to just do it their way? Why couldn’t I settle?
However naïve or corny this might sound, I believed in the story and the way I was telling it, through the eyes of the seven young people who all embodied different characteristics of the generation— there was an African-American woman who served two tours of duty in Iraq and bought her body armor off the Internet, and a gay Latino man, the first person in his family to attend college, whose father swam across the Rio Grande. There were the less dramatic but equally important stories that define the struggles and triumphs of my generation, like those who were laid off during the recession and those who are at the helm of the next wave of clean-tech and Internet startups.
I believed then as now that readers relate to stories and a compelling narrative. What my publisher was asking me to do was to chop up the stories, put them through a meat grinder, and reconstruct them. They thought it would capture the big picture, but I thought it would turn out a denatured, sanitized product that looked like nothing that I had set out to write, the literary equivalent of a sliced and diced mortgage-backed security.
I found a new publisher—a young, nimble company that is working mostly in the e-book market. My new editor liked the book the way it was. However, I sacrificed an advance and a print edition (at least for now). Was it worth it? Or is having creative backbone something for a bygone era?
Only time will resolve these existential questions. But the lesson for me is that fighting for your vision is wrenching—it’s much easier to write the book your publisher wants you to write, however diluted the final product turns out. Publishers write the checks and, therefore, “know best.” However, that’s changing, with many technologically democratizing new models that are showing, from time to time, that it’s the author who knows best. And while I may never get my name on that coveted print edition, I can read my book on my iPad, which makes the principled stance a bit less punishing.