How *Not* to Get Published

In previous posts, I’ve shared the manuscripts of my nearly published children’s books Song of Life and When My Dad Was Little. Here is the story of how that “nearly” came to be…

Both of my stories were written during a period when I was facilitating a creative writing class at Alpine Valley School, the Sudbury school where I’ve been on staff I since November 1998. It was also around this time that I read many, many children’s books to my sister’s children during visits home to see my family.

From 2004 to 2006 I didn’t staff at AVS on a daily basis, but rather as a sub, trustee, and member of various committees, as for various reasons I had to take a full-time job at the University of Colorado. (Since my move to Austin this summer I’ve resumed a similar sort of substitute/consultant staff status.) When I returned to regular staffing at AVS for the 2006-07 school year, it was on a part-time basis, and I sought to supplement my Sudbury hours with freelance writing/editing and work for CASE.

Well, fairly early in that school year, I was talking with a prospective freelancing client whose ad described them as a children’s book publisher. Naturally, I mentioned that I happened to have a couple manuscripts of my own, and to my surprise, this person quickly and eagerly asked if I would submit them to her.

Before I knew it, I had contracts to review and sign, in addition to a substantial amount of work editing her other authors. Much as when I was offered my first teaching job, I thought I was all set, that my freelancing work was on the verge of really taking off. Enhancing this perception was some additional, early success in finding relatively easy and lucrative writing jobs.

I’m not sure at what point things turned with my pseudo-publisher, but at the very latest, it would have been one exciting morning when a package containing copies of Song of Life and When My Dad Was Little arrived at my apartment. Almost instantly the thrill of seeing my words become print was supplanted by a sinking feeling of horror, then outrage, when I saw what this publisher had done.

I’d suspected problems when I wasn’t given any galley proofs prior to the initial printing (one of the terms of our contract, incidentally). These suspicions were more than confirmed when I saw that the publisher had authorized several changes to both manuscripts without informing me, much less obtaining my approval. Perhaps the most egregious example was the wrecking of Song of Life‘s meter. As you know if you’ve read even the opening lines, this story is constructed as a poem with a regular, lilting rhythm. Well, in rigid homage to a stylistic rule prohibiting contractions outside of dialogue, every can’t and I’ll in my text was expanded, thereby throwing several large monkey wrenches into the path of my poem.

When My Dad Was Little was given some additions—not corrections, but new text—which, I was told, was meant to enhance the story’s function of teaching children recent history. Where I had written “there were four channels on TV,” the editor had inserted “black-and-white”—apparently oblivious to the fact that the ancient history in question was that of my childhood, which most certainly included color television.

Altogether, my manuscripts were disfigured to the point that I wouldn’t even show these so-called books to my own mother. But the fun was only beginning, as it took months and months of phone calls and emails to the publisher, as well as with some of my fellow authors (with whom I contemplated legal action), before I got back the rights to my own words. (Need I add that I never saw a dime of royalties, nor any evidence that my butchered books sold even a single copy?)

Is there a moral to this story? I’m not sure, but I expect to be very wary of any start-up publishers in my future, making sure they have enough qualified people on hand to attend to all the tasks involved getting books to market. Perhaps I’ll insist on contract language that makes it easier to withdraw if certain key conditions aren’t met. And who knows, maybe I’ll some day find the motivation to investigate self-publishing.

If you have any experience or advice regarding publishing creative work, I hope you’ll comment below. Thanks!


Filed under Writing

7 responses to “How *Not* to Get Published

  1. Emma

    I have a theory about why this happens, Bruce. It’s not a very kind one. But I think that people decide “I want to be an editor/publisher/writer/artist,” and hear “You can be anything you want!” and they think this means they can skip the important step of LEARNING how to be an editor/publisher/writer/artist. So this woman decides to open a publishing house because she likes children’s books. And BAM, she’s a publisher. There’s no respect for process–for the hours and hours of reading and writing and editing and learning about the business involved in excelling at the craft of making books. It reminds me of this woman I knew of who started her own educational publishing company. She was so flashy and won awards for having a Mom-friendly business, but she didn’t have the first clue what she was doing. She managed to stay in business for years. She began by hiring great freelancers but paid them so late and treated them so poorly that they refused to work for her again. Then, she just hired anyone who didn’t know of her reputation. Publishers kept giving her projects because she charged less money than anyone else. Finally, she ran out of freelancers with at least some experience to hire, and she made a huge mess of product. My company was once paid (nowhere close to what we should have been paid) to fix one of her million dollar messes. It was awful. It ended up being easier to scrap her ms. and start from scratch. She didn’t care to learn about her business. I don’t think she cared at all. It sounds like that may have been the case with your publisher friend who didn’t know people had color TVs in the olden days.

  2. Emma

    HA! I love that she changed “empathic” to “emphatic.” And the “Why all the caps? And dashes?” Very clever.

  3. Pingback: Schemes & Dreams | Write Learning

  4. Pingback: Song of Life | Write Learning

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