Canceling a project – reality check

I had a very tough decision to make last week – I canceled a book contract. I read the final product and decided the manuscript couldn’t be saved.

These decisions are never easily made because of the time and effort already expended. It’s been a painful time for everyone involved because it came as a shock to both sides. I was thinking, “what the hell?” and I’m sure the author was thinking much the same thing.

In order to avoid this kind of pain, I thought I’d go over some of the elements that may lead to this sad end.

Yes,Virginia, Projects Can Be Canceled

It’s natural to think that you’re on Easy Street once the ink is dry on your contract, and for nearly every author, that’s true. However, a contract can go south at any point during the production process – and they happen for all kinds of reasons.

The most common reason is orphaning – when the editor leaves the publishing house. With the editor’s exit, the author has lost their advocate, the person who fought for and bought the book. There isn’t much an author can do about this, and they have to hope that another editor will be willing to pick it up.

Other reasons for canceling a project can be artistic differences, personality differences, severe miscommunication, or a sudden change in the marketplace which would render the project iffy to readers.

The important thing to remember is that projects can and do get canceled for reasons beyond your control. But what about the ones you can control? In the estimable words of Joan Rivers, “can we talk?”

Did You Discuss the Final Product?

It doesn’t matter whether the project is still unwritten and at the proposal stage, or if it’s complete; before I sign a new author, I go over my vision for the book. It may be that the author and I are on different pages as to what we think this book should say and how to say it. It’s vital to establish this so there aren’t any surprises when the author turns in his/her final manuscript.

If you are offered a contract for publication, MAKE SURE YOU DISCUSS YOUR JOINT VISION. There is nothing worse than having your editor tell you the final isn’t at all what she was expecting. If both parties have discussed it, then there is no room for confusion.

Or is there?

Did You Deliver the Goods?

If you and your editor thoroughly discussed and agreed upon the ultimate vision for your book, then it’s your responsibility to deliver that product. After all, that’s the story your editor bought. And to buy that book, she had to advocate the marketability of your book to her submissions team.

And in spite of how much an editor advocated the strengths of your book to her submissions team, and as much as she may have striven for open communication, she is always aware of the risk that she might not get what she is expecting.

In order to avoid this, always have the vision that you both agreed on taped to your monitor so you don’t stray off the beaten path. This is what killed the project this past week. I dug out our email communication and saw that we had both agreed on how this story should be organized and structured. The final product wasn’t anything like it, and I was devastated.

And angry.

See, it’s not just a matter of “oops, I drove off the main highway, heh, heh, lemme rewrite that.” While you’re busy writing and editing, I’m giving your book info to our sales teams who go out and generate traction for the book. They’re testing the waters to see book buyers’ reactions. So there is a lot of time, expense, and energy being expended on your behalf. If you don’t deliver the goods, then what do I tell my sales teams? My cover designer?

Always remember, it’s not all about you. You have an entire team working on your behalf in order to ensure our mutual success. You have a responsibility to live up to your part of the bargain.

Just Let Me Rewrite It

So maybe you didn’t deliver the goods, and your first reaction is to offer to rewrite it. It’s not that easy. Even for little spuds like us, we placed you in our seasonal lineup. Now we have to decide whether we’ll take your book out of the lineup so you can perform the rewrites and alert our sales people, or whether we’ll let the project go.

The reason we might opt for letting the project go relies on the level of faith and trust we have in you. See, we’ve already had our vision conversation and everything was ostensibly clear as a bell. Having you turn in something completely off course shakes our faith in your ability to get the job done. We’re wondering if you have a retention problem or whether you simply decided to disregard all previous conversations and write what you felt like.

Either suspicion isn’t exactly good news for you. Publishing a book is a lot like getting married. If one of the partners can no longer be trusted, the other party has to decide whether they can forgive and forget, or whether to cut their loses before something else blows up. Offering to rewrite your book makes me personally want to scream, “why didn’t you do that in the first place? After all, we TALKED ABOUT IT.”

Besides, I may have reasons why I no longer trust you to rewrite it.

Did You Consult Others?

Sometimes authors get a book deal and decide they’re too scared or nervous (or new) to tackle this task all by themselves. So they hire an indie editor to help them along – to keep them on the straight and narrow. The problem with this is the number of people a writer may consult.

I’ve seen very new, green, raw authors hire a bevy of different people with varying levels of writing experience, and the result was that the authors had no clue as to which advice was valid. If they didn’t like what Editor 1 had to say, they’d simply consult Editor 2…or Editor 3. They’d keep going down the line until they found someone who would tell them what they wanted to hear.

This isn’t editing; it’s musical chairs. And the one who will end up not having a chair when the music stops is the author – not the consulting editors.

If you decide to hire a whole team of editors to get you through the day, the buck still stops with you, and it’s your literary neck on the line. It isn’t your indie editor’s responsibility to translate what you and your publisher discussed and agreed upon.

Lastly, if you’re so inclined to hire outside help, your best bet is to hire ONE editor and for crying out loud – listen to them.

Did You Check Your Ego at the Door?

Listening to others requires that authors need to give their egos a serious time out. Authors are working with people who are more experienced and that means the author’s ideas will be stretched, tweaked, edited, red-lined, bent, and jiggled. Authors whose egos are in check realize their words don’t come directly from the hands of the Great Cosmic Muffin, and those extra set of experienced eyes are a godsend, not a threat.

But too many times, authors fight the very people they hired – which strikes me as a waste of money. The ego just can’t let go of the fact that someone DARES to critique their brilliant tomes. In fact, I’ve seen many cases where new writers hired outside editors specifically as an ego stroke – they were supposed to be the author’s private cheerleading team.

As hard as it is to show your work to a professional, you need to remember they are there to help you. Show them your rewrites so you can be sure that you’re on the right course. After all, you’ll need to show it to your publisher, so wouldn’t it make sense to feel confident about that final result?

The ego plays a lot of mean tricks on people, and no one is more susceptible than the new writer. And this is where the new writer may lose their publishing contract. Best advice, ditch the ego. They suck.

Is The Story Bigger Than Your Talents?

This is where I see the ego also playing too big a role. There are times when a story is simply too big for a new writer to tell effectively. Stories require major organization, foundation, character development, pacing, flow, continuity, and keeping one’s eye on the ball. If you don’t have enough writing experience, you can turn a great story into something sophomoric and unmarketable.

This is what happened to my canceled project. The story was huge and multi-layered, and the author simply didn’t have the writing chops to accomplish the job. What are your choices if this happens to you?

  • Consider shelving the project and take the time to perfect your craft.
  • Write the story and get in with a good crit group.
  • Hire an indie editor – and listen to them.
  • Consider a ghost writer

In short, there are reasons for a contract being canceled but, to me, there is no reason for canceling a contract because the author committed these particular errors. Right or wrong, publishers assume they’re working with professionals, and it doesn’t matter if they’re debut authors or multi-published authors.

Always give yourself a reality check, and maybe you can avoid making noob blunders and hearing the devastating news that your contract has been canceled.

17 Responses to Canceling a project – reality check

  1. Lynn, how do you ALWAYS mange to say EXACTLY what I need to hear, when I need to hear it? Thank you. 🙂

  2. Chris says:

    Sucks to be that guy.

  3. Very important post, Lynn, and not something I’ve seen explained so clearly. I’ll do a short post sending people over here quite soon – that ok?

    You’ve said it better than I ever could.

  4. Call me a cynic but, if that new writer was a celeb, then any old crap would be acceptable. We see it all the time on the bookshelves.

  5. Ludens says:

    True, but those books are not bought for the writing. Presumably the manuscript in the example is, and by ignoring her publisher’s plans the author has harmed her chances of success. That’s fine if it was just her own success, but it’s Behler publishing who pays the bill here.

  6. I agree with you to a point, Trevor. I’ve had plenty celeb books come my way, and I passed on them because said celeb could barely rub a verb and noun together. I’ve recommended they hire a ghost writer, but their egos wouldn’t permit the idea that someone else was needed to basically “do their closeup, Mr. DeMille.”

    Probably stupid on my part because the cha-ching factor would have been high, but I have a pesky problem with only publishing quality books. And like Ludens says, those books aren’t bought for their quality. It’s what I call “Literary Peeping Tom.”

  7. Thanks for the props, Nicola. Blast away.

  8. Col Bury says:

    Interesting post. Thanks for these insights.

  9. C. N. Nevets says:

    This is a great post, Lynn. I appreciate that not only the frank insight into publishing, but also the even, level tone with which the post is written. You’re not trashing authors or discouraging new prospects; you’re lamenting a deal gone south and trying to give us ample advice that should prevent us from making the same mistakes.

    As an author nearing completion of his first novel he hopes to publish, I find this sort of post invaluable and all-too rare.

    Thanks so much!

  10. […] • When your book contract gets canceled, Lynn Price explains exactly why it was probably all your fault, putz: Canceling a Project — Reality Check […]

  11. abandonata says:

    Who are these authors who hire an independent editor?? Surely there can’t be any money left from their book after that! Most bizarre….

    ‘Authors are working with people who are more experienced …’ Often, and it’s great when it is the case, but even editors have to learn their craft and I have twice worked with inexperienced editors who messed up totally. (And then I complain to the commissioning editor and the book is re-edited.) It is not always the case that authors are inexperienced, nor that editors are experienced.

  12. This was tremandous and valuable info. Thanks for posting it.

  13. I had a novel contracted to an e-publisher in the US and I asked for the contract to be changed. Before the revised contract was approved, my editor died suddenly – heart attack. The replacement editor disliked the book intensely and that was the end. The same book, 3 years later, was contracted to a European independent publisher and they went bankrupt. I’m hoping that 3rd time is a charm and I’m still looking!

  14. Oh, Derek, how disheartening for you! But the upside is that you appear to have a good book, so keep plugging away! Best of luck to you.

  15. […] can happen — a publisher cancels a contract. Editorial director Lynn Price tells you why it happens and how to avoid […]

  16. […] us, having a contract cancelled feels worse than not getting it in the first place. Check out this editorial director’s take on why contracts sometimes get […]

  17. […] us, having a contract cancelled feels worse than not getting it in the first place. Check out this editorial director’s take on why contracts sometimes get […]

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