The Wacky World of a Working Writer
Excerpt © 2007 by Laura Resnick
I once attended a community theatre production of The Importance of Being Ernest which lives vibrantly in my memory because, somewhere in Act Two, the entire set collapsed, fell on the actors, and attacked the audience with flying debris.
This livened up an otherwise dull evening.
Of course, live theatre is rich with anecdotes of things that go wrong in the middle of performances. I once read an account of a restaurant delivery boy who saw a horrified expression cross Paul Newman’s face as the unwitting lad announced to him that his food had arrived… while Newman was in the middle of a matinee performance on Broadway. When the actor playing Tony in a regional production of West Side Story softly crooned the lyrics “the most beautiful sound I ever heard…” the hushed theatre was suddenly filled with the thundering crash of a toolbox falling off the catwalk. British actor Antony Sher’s Achilles tendon snapped in the middle of a performance of King Lear. Speaking of Shakespeare, an actor playing Richard III in Poland died when one of his fellow actors accidentally stabbed him for real in Act Five.
So, you see, there’s an even tougher profession than writing.
Relatively few of the gaffs and disasters of the publishing business actually happen to writers before a live audience, thank goodness, but we nonetheless get waylaid by our industry’s own hair-tearing brand of bizarre mix-ups, infuriating screw-ups, and wacky mistakes that are out of the writer’s control.
Let’s start with names. Don’t you just hate it when they get your name wrong? My name was misspelled two different ways (Resnich and Resnik) on one sole page of a publisher’s sales catalog one season.
“The very first byline I ever got in a real press read ‘Joan Yolen,'” says Jane Yolen. Another science fiction/fantasy writer recounts, “One of my novelizations was supposed to come out under a pseudonym, but the publisher ‘forgot’ and used my real name.” This also happened to romance writer Jo Ann Ferguson (and the novel came out simultaneously with a novella which was published under her pseudonym). Katharine Eliska Kimbriel’s name was misspelled on the title page (the only page she didn’t get to proofread in galleys) of Hidden Fires. Doranna Durgin’s name was also misspelled on the title page of a novel. Lillian Stewart Carl’s name was misspelled in a Locus ad. Vonda McIntyre’s name is misspelled on the spine of the Science Fiction Book Club edition of her first novel, The Exile Waiting. J. Ardian Lee’s first novel in Germany was copyrighted under the wrong name. When the producer of the ABC TV movie Volcano: Fire on the Mountain insisted to scriptwriter (and mystery novelist) Steven Womack that leaving the “n” off his first name in the title credits was no big deal, Womack replied, “Good thing you guys didn’t produce The Godfather. Otherwise, it would’ve starred Marlo Brando.”
Nor is it only the author’s name which publishers get wrong. Romance writer Anne Stuart notes that the protagonist’s name was misspelled in the back cover copy of her fifth novel. And sometimes it’s not the publisher that gets your name wrong: Cheryl Anne Porter once showed up at a signing to discover that, instead of her new romance novel, the bookstore had unwittingly ordered Gross Grub! by Cheryl Porter, a children’s writer.
Still on the subject of names, romance writer Suzanne Simmons’ name was simply left off the cover of her first novel: “Just a blank space where my name should have been. Once I got over the disappointment, I had to laugh. It’s turned out to be excellent training for the bizarre and sometimes inexplicable world of publishing.”
What could be as bad (I hear you ask) as having your name left off your book’s cover? How about seeing your name on someone else’s book? Amazon.com erroneously listed me as co-author of all of David Coe’s fantasy novels. (I naturally contacted David and demanded half of all his earnings.) Romance writer Annette Mahon reports, “One of my books had my cover and my title page… but everything else in it was someone else’s book.” Another writer once showed up at a signing to discover that, on a portion of the print run, her name and title had been slapped on some other writer’s book. Conversely, a romance novel by Judy Gill was once released with someone else’s cover on it.
Sometimes your name and cover appear on a novel that turns out to be only partly your own. Romance writer Becky Barker once found a portion of another writer’s novel in the middle of hers, for part of the print run. Yet another writer reports finding forty pages of a horror novel bound into about two thousand copies of her historical romance. About halfway through the original edition of Patricia Matthews’ first science fiction/fantasy novel, The Other People, the reader was suddenly thrust into the Old West, with cowboys, cattle, and shooting. No one found this more surprising than the author herself. By coincidence, a friend of hers under contract to the same publisher discovered “vampires, werewolves, and assorted odd people” stuck in the middle of his newly published novel about the Old West. There’d been a mix-up with the manuscripts when the books were printed. Fortunately for the writers, the publisher chose to go back to press and get correct versions of both novels into the marketplace. Meanwhile, editor Denise Little recalls the time that some pages from Penthouse Magazine accidentally got inserted (you should pardon the expression) between the covers of a Disney book. Now there’s a twist on sex education that could make Minnie Mouse wake up screaming.
However, these examples notwithstanding, you may well be the author of everything between the covers of your book… as well as the material that got left out. My copy of Asimov’s Guide To the Bible is missing about forty pages in the middle. A fantasy writer I know says her publisher dropped the final three chapters from one of her books. She only discovered this when they delivered the galleys so late that they claimed there was no time to do anything about the missing chapters. Vonda McIntyre says that a Swedish publisher left out the last chapter of Dreamsnake. She adds, “Dreamsnake is a very existential book without the last chapter.” (Since the last chapter was Chapter 13, McIntyre thinks maybe the editor was triskaidekaphobic.) Denise Little was managing a bookstore in Texas when James Michener’s Texas was released. The store sold four thousand hardcover copies of the novel before discovering that their entire shipment was defective: sixty-four pages were missing from the middle of the book. (Strangely, only four customers ever returned their copies.)
The worst example of missing pages may come from a writer who sold her first novel to a little-known Kensington imprint called Precious Gems. When her advance copies arrived, she discovered that some ten thousand words were haphazardly chopped out of the book after she had proofread the galleys. “When I called my editor, deliriously angry, she told me that Precious Gems had changed the standard word-count for the imprint some four hours before my book was printed.” So the editor simply went through the manuscript making random cuts without notifying the author then or later.
Even when all the words are there, though, the book may still not be the one you expected to get. Three chapters of a Judy Gill novel were published upside down. The pages were out of order in part of the print run of a novel by Madeline Baker. Another writer’s book was released with dozens of typos on every page when the printer received the wrong computer file.
And those are all just examples of what can go wrong on the inside of a published book. Back when I was romance novelist Laura Leone, I once got a cover so bad that my editor wouldn’t show it to me until I was safely eight hundred miles away from her. (It was baaaaaad—and the book earned less than any other romance novel I ever wrote.) Kensington once released a romance novel with an elaborately embossed and flocked cover which might have been a winner… except that the flocking wore off during shipping; so when it arrived in stores, the female cover model’s breasts looked naked. (Explanation for the men in our audience: This look doesn’t attract women readers.) Through some mysterious oversight, the cover of a Christina Dodd romance novel portrayed a heroine with three arms. Novelist Katie Daniel was asked to revise a character’s physical description after the wrong model showed up for the cover shoot. When Vonda McIntyre asked to see the Dutch cover of Dreamsnake, her Dutch editor said, “I’ll show it to you only if you promise not to kill me.” McIntyre saw the cover and says, “I tried to kill him.”
Speaking of murder and mayhem, the IRS terrorized writer Pat Rice when a publisher’s accounting department wildly misreported her income. The confusion resulted from the accounting department having spent much of the year sending checks for the wrong amounts and also sending checks to the wrong address while Rice struggled valiantly to get accurate sums delivered to the right address. In an equally convoluted mix-up, a science fiction/fantasy writer reports being contracted to create an entire tie-in series for an agent/packager who, it was later revealed, didn’t actually have the rights to the project. So the writer had wasted all the work she’d already invested in planning the series and writing several chapters of the first book.
On a darker note, U.S. book sales nosedived immediately following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Major media appearances were cancelled, blockbuster releases went unnoticed, sell-throughs were abysmal, and midlist novelists came close to standing on street corners with signs saying, “Will write for food.” Book sales took a similar plunge a decade earlier, during the First Gulf War. Denise Little, who was a mass market buyer for Barnes & Noble before moving over to the dark side (i.e. becoming an editor) advises writers whose sales records are hurt by such catastrophic events to chart their releases against a calendar so that, in future negotiations, they can convincingly demonstrate that their terrible sales in that instance had absolutely nothing to do with their overall career patterns.
Finally, I have saved the best for last. Remember Kensington’s previously-mentioned romance imprint, Precious Gems, where a writer woke up one day to find ten thousand words missing from her published novel? Another Precious Gems writer has an even better (or, rather, worse) tale to tell. Trish Jensen, writing under the pseudonym Trish Graves, sold them a novel called Just This Once in which the hero, among other things, mentors a teenage boy, steering him away from street gangs and towards organized sports. So you may imagine the author’s shock when, upon reading her galleys, she discovered that the editor had changed the boy into a raccoon.
(I think I speak for everyone here when I say, “What?“)
When Jensen asked the editor why on earth she had rewritten a teenager as a small nocturnal carnivore, the editor replied that the hero’s mentoring the boy could be misconstrued as having undertones of pedophilia. (All together now: “Huh?“) So the obvious solution was to rewrite the kid as an animal.
I am not making this up.
Jensen says, “I screamed to high heaven, my agent screamed to high heaven. We wanted the book pulled. Kensington said it was too late. They couldn’t pull it, and it was too late to turn it back into what it had been.” Understandably, she adds, “I was heartsick for a long time. To this day I can’t look at that book.”
The lesson here is that when you allow an editor absolute control over your work, as that Precious Gems contract stipulated, the results can be worse than your wildest nightmares. Jensen made sure her next contract with Kensington didn’t have that clause, and she warned other Precious Gems writers about it, too. She’s wryly philosophical about the experience these days, saying, “Now I’m known as ‘the raccoon author.'”
As for Precious Gems, the imprint no longer exists. It folded within a few years of the raccoon episode. A rare example of things turning out as they should in the publishing industry.
Sadly, Trish Jensen died in 2014, and Patricia Matthews passed away in 2006.