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ASK THE EDITOR What Makes a Book Ready to Publish?

By Susan Malone

March, 2002

Writers (from first-timers to sometimes seasoned pros) often get caught in confusion as to what makes a book ready to publish. It may seem finished, and we may think we’re done, when often we’ve just begun. This is, of course, much more pronounced with new writers than multi-published veterans. Even the latter sometimes miss vital points, although usually the holes are much longer and wider and deeper with the former.

What I hear most often is something that goes thus: “All of my friends and relatives and even people I don’t know tell me my book is wonderful; why won’t NY buy it?” Or, “REAL readers love my book, it’s just those hoity-toity editors in publishing who don’t recognize the quality.”

While I’m the last one to say that NY is infallible, a method to the publishing industry’s madness does exist. And ninety-nine times out of 100, the problem lies with the book itself, and NOT with editors failing to see its quality. Now, the book’s problem might not be huge, but the unfortunate truth in publishing today remains that agents and editors no longer have time to meticulously critique submissions—not only the ones with enough problems to preclude them from selling anytime soon, but also those that “just miss.” That’s not to say that the book won’t ultimately be ready for publication, the point is that it isn’t there YET.

What muddies the waters for most folks is that “all those friends and relatives loved it.” This can of worms remains a huge bugaboo for new writers. So, let’s pick it apart, piece by piece.

First off, those friends and relatives cannot be objective. Even if they want to be, strive to be, keep that in their consciousness as they read (and all this would come from a true minority in the first place), for an untrained reader to remain objective about someone’s work whom they know is about as possible as a woman judging her own niece in a beauty pageant. Yeah, the child may not be the product of her own body, but lots and lots of emotions get tied up in a relationship so close. Most often, those people WANT to love your work. But even then, all of the emotions might not be completely positive. Which would lead one to believe then that such reviews might be more harsh, but that’s almost never the case. For all the weird psychological reasons that go into creative endeavors, those you know will rarely give you the straight scoop. As a paradoxical example, they may give glowing reports out of their own guilt for disliking what they read.

However, this is not a psychology discussion, but rather one about books, so back to that. But the point remains that personal relationships are too convoluted to keep the business part of one’s aim separate.

The next problem with relying on outside reads by nonprofessionals is that fan mail, however it comes, is by its very nature about what the reader LIKED. An entire litany of things he didn’t like may exist, but only the truly perverse among us care to be messengers of ill tidings. When someone asks, “Do you like my dress?” Even if it’s one of those pink-flowered muumuus that make said person look like a deranged cow, we say, “Why, isn’t the stitch work nice?” And we answer thus no matter how much they entreat us to tell the truth. Now, a true friend would give an honest answer, but that happens one in a hundred—if you’re lucky.

A third big obstacle comes from the fact that readers, even voracious ones, can rarely put into words what they find missing. They may like the characters, but can’t remember them once finished with the book. A response from that reader would almost always be—I really liked such and such character. Period. An editor would know and be able to specifically tell you what went wrong. A reader may like the story, but get lost in the plot. Said reader would just say that she liked the story. An editor would pinpoint where the plot went awry, and if it could be fixed. And remember, the reader you know, or ask for a read, will finish the book BECAUSE of you, when the masses may have stopped on page ten.

The point here is that the job of editors is exactly the opposite from that of readers, but they arrive at the same finish line, hopefully at the same time. Yes, they’ll usually say what positively tweaked them. But if an editor has a true working relationship with an agent, he’ll tell that agent what DIDN’T make him smile—i.e., why he won’t be buying the book at this time, or ever, if such is the case. These days, you’re actually lucky to get any feedback, as again agents and editors just don’t have the time. So when criticism comes, count your lucky stars, listen to it, use what works and as they say in Twelve-step groups, leave the rest. Just don’t do the last step until you’ve truly exhausted the first three. You could be throwing out invaluable advice that will take your book to the level you desire—publication.

No matter how well-meaning your friends and family may be, refrain from letting them read your manuscript in progress, or even once just finished. You need professional eyes for a true read of your book. You can find those eyes in many places. Seek them out. Keep your waters clear, and your own eye focussed. Besides, all of those well-meaning friends and relatives can rave over the book once it gets into print—and they BUY a copy.

Susan M. Malone is author of: By the Book (novel); BodySculpting; Fourth and Long; and Five Keys for Understanding Men, and owns a successful editorial service. Fifteen Malone-edited books have recently sold to traditional publishers! Malone is a contributing editor to Authorlink.com. http://www.maloneeditorial.com