Circumstances Beyond Our Control

by Michelle Gagnon

I just handed in the final page proofs for my next thriller, which is always an exhilarating/terrifying moment for me. Exhilarating because I’m finally completely done with the book. And terrifying because from here on out, it’s beyond my control. I have to keep my fingers crossed that the myriad small changes I made are inserted into the final manuscript (since the final few drafts are actual paper copies that get mailed back and forth, sometimes things slip through the cracks. Sad but true, and the best argument I can see for switching to electronic editing across the board).

In line at FedEx, I started thinking about all of the things that are beyond our control as authors (many of which people assume we do control). Here’s my list:

Covers: I always fill out a lengthy form detailing characters, scenes, and plot points. I attach images that I think would look great on the cover, forward jpgs of covers that I loved from other people’s books, and pitch a few concepts. Now, so far I’ve been fortunate enough to receive covers that were vastly superior to anything I could have conceived. But still, there are always a few little things I’d prefer to change. This time, after some back and forth my publisher incorporated a few of the changes I requested into the final design. Here’s the original:

gatekeeper one

I felt the background color was too drab, and all of the text was at the bottom, so you barely noticed anything above the center of the page.

Now here’s the final version:

gatekeeper cover3

Better, right?

Typos: I’m not saying I’m perfect, but occasionally glaring typos appear in the text that were in no draft of the manuscript I submitted. My book club read The Tunnels, and when I walked in for our meeting three people shouted out, “Page 67! What happened there?” Half of the night was consumed by a discussion of some of the typos in the book. Somewhere between my final edits and the typesetting process, new typos appeared. Again, beyond my control (also the reason why I never crack the spine to read the final product. I have never once read one of my books after mailing off the line edits, because if I spot a typo it drives me nuts).

  • Missing Pages: I received emails from a few people who purchased Boneyard, only to discover that fifty pages were missing from the middle of the book. After talking to other authors, I learned that this is not that unusual. A glitch at the printing plant can ruin a whole batch of books. Fortunately, publishers are wonderful about shipping out a replacement copy, if it ever happens to you.
  • Print Runs: This can be make or break for an author. Say your initial print run was 20,000 books. Sell 15,000, and your book is a success story. But if the publisher printed 100,000 copies, and you sold 15,000, your book would be considered a dismal failure and you would be facing an uphill battle to get the next one published. Not fair, right? But as an author, you have no say in whether your print run is five thousand books or five million. You have to just keep your fingers crossed that your publisher’s sales projections are right.

I will say that in book publishing, I still have far more control than I ever did as a magazine writer. Back then, I’d hand in an article and six months later, something came out with my name on it that was virtually unrecognizable.Not always, but frequently enough to be depressing. In book publishing you are definitely allowed a firmer hold on the reins.

Off the top of my head, this is what I came up with (my brain is officially mush after spending the past week muttering sentences aloud over and over again). But I’d love to hear of more circumstances beyond our control, if they occur to you.


11 thoughts on “Circumstances Beyond Our Control

  1. Nice post, Michelle. All your points are true including the missing pages issue that happened on my second thriller, THE LAST SECRET. Approximately 20 pages were missing from a few copies. They tracked it down to a printing error and assured me it was only a small number that needed replacing. Your other points are pretty much what I’ve seen and heard.

    This whole issue of being or not being in control is why I believe so many writers are blogging and twittering and facebooking; why they have websites and enews letters, etc. Because all those things are forms of writing in which we do have control. No one can tell us what to say in our weekly blog here at TKZ. No editor is going to line edit our facebook status. No art or sales department will make the final decision on what our websites looks like. I’m not saying that leaving us in control of all these “writing” outlets is a good thing—sometimes it’s no better than the inmates running the insane asylum. But it does give writers a feeling of freedom and being in control that we don’t get from our publisher. Maybe we’re just teenagers rebelling against our strict publishing parents.

  2. As a pre-published author (sounds so much better than “unpublished”, doesn’t it?) I don’t have any true stories of what to beware of, but I appreciate knowing what I should be aware of should I get a contract.

    And I definitely like the second cover better.

  3. Michelle – I’ve had all the same things happen to me! I’m always amazed when I get emails from readers who think it’s my fault if there are missing pages or pages upside down in their books – but I’m always gracious and refer them to the publisher! I only wish we authors had more control over issues such as print runs but then we’d probably not get the numbers right either! I’ll just have to accept being a dismal failure:)

  4. To be honest, I kind of like the idea it being beyond our control. That leaves it up to fate. Success in such an environment means we are destined for something more than we could have gotten into on our own. Failure simply means it wasn’t meant to be. To fall into the middle means one is in the right place. And so on.

    Personally I live by the idiom of always do your best, and don’t expect anything for it. Then you’ll never be disatisfied with what you do get.

    …oh yeah, and the other idiom:

    Work out with a heavy bag an hour a day, in case you have to kick some fools butt for screwing things up.

  5. I agree, Joe, the ability to address some of these things online has made a difference for me. And Basil, I admire your attitude- afraid I’m a bit too Type A to match it!

  6. And Dana- I’m really happy with the final cover. But it was definitely a bit of a struggle to get any changes made! Next time, I’m going to try to get a “cover approval” clause in my contract.

  7. Michelle,

    I heard early on that my small press was VERY sensitive about their covers and getting author feedback. I did a thing similar to you sending in thoughts and ideas about what I felt would make a good cover. I won’t forget the day I got the email with my cover art. It wasn’t anything like I expected. Seemed more like a horror novel cover than a thriller.

    But I have gotten positive comments on it, so, oh well…

  8. That’s a great question- I’ve only worked with one publisher (a fairly large one), so I don’t know if smaller ones would be a different story.

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