I got off the phone the other afternoon with a long-time publishing colleague. We worked together for three years on the cusp of the Random House empire’s creation and years later we continue to compare notes around changes in the industry. We talk about:
- What’s “clicking” and what’s not (for authors, readers, booksellers, the media).
- What we’re trying to make happen for the books and ideas we’re most excited about.
- What our authors and clients are missing…and how they’re going to get it!
It can be a high-wire act to talk about the push-me-pull-me of publishing success. It’s easy to point fingers when things aren’t working as planned. It’s easy to pop open the champagne when they are. It’s easy to “expect” and “assume” that the author does “this” and the publisher does “that.” But it’s not a this-or-that relationship. It’s a COLLABORATION!
Whether you self-publish or traditionally publish, the concept of collaboration is getting lost on the proverbial editing room floor. In my conversations with my friend, we didn’t call it a “collaboration equation,” but that’s what I believe it is. It’s what has worked for me and my authors for my entire career as an acquisitions editor, an imprint director, and as an editorial and publishing strategist today:
- It’s what worked for David Allen, author of the mega-bestselling Getting Things Done (originally titled Zen and the Art of In-Box Management), when we started out with some 5,000 or 6,000 copies in print and sold more copies month after month. He shared the investment with the publisher to expand the book’s reach in waves of promotion and outreach.
- It’s what worked for the now-iconic novelist and national treasure Barbara Kingsolver who, following the inspiration of Terry McMillan in an article in Poets and Writers, built her relationship with booksellers and readers one thank-you note at a time (and so much more). Yes, everyone who read The Bean Trees book loved it, but Barbara’s passion—and efforts—made it so easy for others to collaborate with her and to help find champions and readers for the book.
- It’s what worked for Harriet Lerner when I said she couldn’t call her book Witches and Bitches (or some such working title on a manuscript that had been turned down by dozens of publishers). I spent two weeks brainstorming titles and suggested The Dance of Anger at a launch meeting (plus a major rewrite!). That was the beginning of a taking a feminist book of psychology into the mainstream and an eventual 2.5 million copies in print today.
- It’s what worked for recent author Shama Kabani and the launch of The Zen of Social Media Marketing with a mainstream publisher after a successful self-publication. The cover design was beautifully refined, the manuscript was further developed and expanded, and the publisher and author committed to ongoing support, ebook enhancements, and now a second edition in the works.
The collaboration equation between authors and traditional publishers has lessons for all aspiring and established writers—even in today’s publishing world.
Traditional publishers have a set of requirements to take on a book project and to make it work, including:
- A strong idea that they can explain to others in order to get them excited and committed to the success of the book
- Strong writing as well as a compelling voice that is exactly right for the intended market
- An author “footprint” that can be built upon: If no one knows the author or book exists, if there’s no trace of it yet established, how will people discover it?
- A partner who understands (and is willing to get better at wooing readers, reviewers, retailers, audiences)
- An entrepreneurial, even evangelic spirit who believes in their work and its potential impact
- A professional who does great work and is open to making it even greater and more effective—including investing time and money in their own success.
In traditional publishing there’s a “contract,” an equation, a bargain. In my 25+ years as a rising editor and editorial executive, I always thought of my relationships with authors like marriage. My career, reputation, relationship with the author and literary agent, all depended on getting the best possible book completed and launched. I aspired to make the book even better than our wildest hopes could have imagined.
Publishing has always had a bit of the hope-against-hope, “if you build it they will come,” type of spirit. Some of that optimism and emotional investment is waning in the new world of publishing, but it’s there more of the time than you’d think.
The other side of the equation is what the publisher offers (in spite of disappointments and frequent let-downs):
- A belief that the books and authors they invest in and acquire are worthwhile—that they matter
- A belief that an audience for the book can be found
- A vision for how the books they commit to can be positioned and launched
- The investment to produce a well-crafted “product” with design, editing, and production standards we recognize as professional
- An organized group of people to get the finished book “done” (if you don’t meet your deadlines the contract can be cancelled!)
- An enterprise that wants to monetize the book itself through distribution to the fullest extent possible, utilizing the latest digital publishing pathways, marketing and promotional activities, bulk sales, foreign sales, niche markets, and media opportunities
Here’s the thing: Publishing remains the ultimate “craft” business. In spite of all the technological changes, the rise of ereaders, online marketing and virtual communities, connecting ideas and stories with readers is still an art. It’s a work of passion that relies on word of mouth, enthusiasm, luck, and the talents of many people.
Truly listening to others, hearing what “lands” and what doesn’t, making it easy for people to talk about challenging, new, and even scary ideas—all that is possible when we allow partners and collaborators to care about our projects alongside of us.
We need to allow other people to care. As authors, publishers, and advisers, we need to cultivate, engage in, and work together in the deep, collective determination to reach a shared goal. Taking stories and ideas out into the world is not a solo enterprise—it’s a collaborative process of shared discovery, hope, zeal, and commercial effort.
Without collaboration we are lone voices in the forest with no one to hear us.
Want to learn about the 4 roles of collaboration?
If you would like to see and hear collaboration in action, check out the recording of a videocast call I did recently with Elizabeth Marshall here.
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