Tuesday, April 2, 2019

How NOT to Sell a Book

As an editor, I occasionally run across writers who are not nice people. They're angry, difficult to work with, believe their words are chiseled in stone on the tablet Moses carried down from Mount Sinai, and worst of all, they're condescending and think they know better than everyone about everything. Despite all these charming qualities, a few of them do manage to get published eventually, but their writing careers are often short-lived.

When I had just started editing for a major genre publishing house, an acquisitions editor sent me a manuscript. Normally a lovely person, on this occasion she was edgy and irritable. She wanted a fast read and I gave her one. The author had a long publishing history and won a couple of awards, but she regarded him warily. I soon discovered why. He had an ugly temper and didn’t have much use for women.

Apparently, this guy also didn't know how to write, so how had he been published so often? The book I read was not only shot through with errors such as misplaced modifiers, dangling participles, and verb-subject conflicts, but was also liberally dosed with misspellings, punctuation errors and complete lapses of connective tissue.

The manuscript was dominated by the most awful bigotry and misogyny I've ever read in print. The protagonist regarded women and Indians as sub-humans. Every female character was a lying, conniving bundle of loose morals, and every single one of them was violently sexually assaulted, often multiple times, before they were carved into pieces. Every Indian was a thieving murderous heathen, and most of them were carved up as well. There wasn't a single person anywhere in the book that any reader with a normal psychological profile could have liked. Every character was a violent, rotten-to-the-core S.O.B, the worst of mankind elevated to God-like status in this lame excuse for a book.

I wrote a scathing letter explaining why the book should be turned down and the editor practically burst into tears of gratitude. Apparently, she had been trying to get rid of this particular author for a while, but felt as if she had no justifiable reason to do so because she inherited him and he was a “name.” I gave her lots of reasons to say goodbye.

I expect authors to be on their best behavior while they're trying to convince me to recommend their book for acquisition. That means courtesy, flexibility, a willingness to listen and be open to the idea that I have their best interests at heart. My experience has taught me to see deeper into the heart of their books than they can. They need not fear I’ll take over their books; I’m not that kind of editor. Instead, I provide detailed roadmaps for repairs and improvements that will make the finished book not only better but something that will captivate readers and leave them wanting more.

Most authors get that I am on their side and not trying to change their voice or their viewpoint but only guide them to enhance their stories in ways that will make them more satisfying to readers. But not all of them do.

Case in point. I edited a book a long while ago but never heard anything more. I’d recommended against acquisition because the book was not well-written. The protagonist was not likable, and the story was fractured, with the protagonist disappearing from the story for long stretches while the author chased rabbits down another road.

Imagine my surprise when it landed on my lap for a developmental edit, but the story gets worse. My letter recommending against acquisition had been shared with the author and, inspired, he had employed his writing group to “critique” and rewrite the book, producing a perfect four-humped camel. Editing it into publishable shape was literally like being in hell, trying to weave together disparate threads of story even though the threads were all on fire and burning away even as I worked to knit them back together.

The story of how the book got bought is a tale in itself, but to the best of my understanding it involved a lot of chicanery, an “auction” for a hot literary property that never actually took place, an agent who conducted this fictional auction fired by the author and then rehired, and a general hoodwinking of the publishing company across the board. Game, set, match. Book sold.

But believe me dear readers when I say this was the last book this author will ever sell to a publisher. Publishing is a small, insular world, and the story of this whole sorry episode was circulated. In the future, if this author and his writing committee ever manage to produce another book, he will have to self-publish it.

My advice? If you want to have a long, satisfying writing career, be a decent human being. Employ good manners and simple common courtesy, and when your editor makes a suggestion, listen thoughtfully. You don’t have to agree with the suggestion, but you do have to be polite when you’re arguing against it.

Patricia Burkhart Smith, February 15, 1949 - August 23, 2021

The late Patricia B. Smith was a journalist and the author of 11 published books, including Idiot’s Guide: Flipping Houses, Alzheimer's For Dummies and Sleep Disorders for Dummies.

Pat was also an experienced professional developmental editor who served as an Editorial Evaluation and Developmental Coordinator for Five Star Publishing. She also worked with private clients and helped many authors land their first publishing contracts. Several of her clients have achieved notable success, including two winners of the Missouri Writers’ Guild Show-me Best Book of the Year Award.

Pat Smith passed away in 2021.


  1. With traditional publishing, a lot of badly written (from a structure, voice, cast, setting, and/or ability to string words together is a glorious way) books are published. Authors don't have to be "perfect." That's what frustrates so many unpublished authors when they are rejected and "hear" their story isn't good enough. It has often been "who you know" with major publishers. And who they "owe." :)

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. Sadly, this is true, Diana, and it's the same in Hollywood. The teenaged son of an Academy Award-winning producer can sell a puerile screenplay for six figures just by Daddy picking up the phone while truly superior screenplays by unknown outsiders get rejected out of hand. But thus was it ever so.

      Good friends kept recommending a much-lauded author to me. She'd won so many awards, was featured on Oprah's Book Club, sold hundreds of thousands of books, etc. I plowed through one book and just didn't get it, so I made myself read another. I finally determined that while her writing may have been fine, her life experiences led her to focus on dark and hopeless subject matter that didn't appeal to me at all. In her books, women always come out on the losing end, accept that their lot is suffering and torment and acquiescence. I could never stomach the idea of reading another of her books once I figured that out. I have plenty of drama in my own life without allowing the cause of a helpless and clueless heroine to take up space in my brain.

      I guess that's where the cliché "different strokes for different folks" comes into play.

  2. Terrific post, Pat, and such great advice. I have touted the "behave" mantra to writers for a long time. Writing is a profession and we should act like professionals when dealing with being edited and all other aspects of the business side. Be creative, silly, emotional and all that while writing, but then put on your good hat and shoes and act properly.

  3. Thank you, Maryann. I do so wish we could host classes at writers' conferences to teach aspiring writers how to behave. Years ago, I proposed a class on writers' manners to a conference where I'd spoken twice previously and received favorable reviews. But they didn't like the idea of me telling authors they needed to behave to advance their careers so the idea was rejected.

  4. I can't even imagine the frustration that comes with being a developmental editor, but I know how much I appreciate the one who has helped me through four books at Five Star.

    1. I love the work about 99% of the time, Patricia. Working in collaboration with a great author to bring a riveting novel to market is very satisfying. I put a little bit of my heart into each edit. :-)

  5. The world no longer values good manners or professional decorum. Many writers, both new and experienced, think their words are chiseled in stone. I've dealt with a few who fought me every step of the way, but more who have been an absolute dream to work with. "Different strokes for different folks" is no excuse for rudeness. Great post, Pat! :-)

  6. Great post. Makes me want to sit down over coffee with you to hear more of your stories. The only time I fought an editor—an erotic romance—was over the word Had. I find the word a trap once the time frame is established. I’m sure by the end of the edit, she wanted to dump me.

  7. Oh, Polly, I'd love that. I do wish I lived closer to more of you. Perhaps we need to arrange a meet-up for the bloggers.


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