Diary of a First-Time Writer #8 – Meeting a Publisher

For me, the prospect of meeting with a publisher was the scariest moment of the entire process so far.  This was the point where, all of a sudden, it all became real and I wasn’t just writing things in my bedroom and kidding myself that one day somebody would actually read them but instead I was actually a proper author.  Or at least getting better at convincing other people that I was a proper author, which is maybe the same thing.   It was exciting but also quite frightening.


I think one of the reasons why it was frightening is because it’s easy to get yourself into a mindset where the belief that you’re going to fail almost becomes a source of comfort.  Yes, it’s frustrating being an unpublished author and you spend half your time telling yourself you deserve better but, at the same time, the fact that nobody ever actually sees your work means you can convince yourself that you’re secretly brilliant, yet tragically undiscovered.  Once people see your work – even if they say it’s quite good – you don’t have the safety net of imagining someone suddenly glancing at your work and hailing you an undiscovered genius.


The other reason I found it frightening was because I completely misunderstood what meeting a publisher actually involved.  In my head I was expecting something akin to the world’s most terrifying job interview where I’d be asked difficult questions to catch me out on my research, confronted over any possible holes in the book and ultimately laughed me out of the office.  Which would obviously be utterly terrifying.


Luckily meeting a publisher is not like that at all.  If you’ve got the point where a publisher wants to meet you, it’s safe to assume they actually like the idea and, in reality, they don’t want to catch you out at all.  They probably want to know how committed and enthusiastic you are about the project and they doubtless hope you can convince them you’re someone who can actually finish the project but their main aim is to convince you to work with them, rather than the other way round.  They’ll outline their vision for the look, feel and target audience of the book and try to establish whether there’s enough common ground in your respective visions for you to work together.  Incidentally this is another good reason to get your pitching document right – if you can successfully transmit the ‘feel’ of the book at that stage, it hopefully saves any awkwardness where you suddenly find you’re thinking along completely different lines!


Walking into a publishing house – or an agency for that matter –  is really, really exciting.  There’s a real thrill about wandering up to the reception desk and calmly stating you have a meeting with an editor.  The odds are you’ll have your agent with you and it’s absolutely brilliant to sit down with people who spend their lives working around books and spending an hour talking about your ideas without feeling like your being self-indulgent.   Moment like this are exactly what I dreamed of as a writer and, if happens to you – even if nothing ever goes further than that point – I think it’s worth just enjoying being there.


So how should you prepare for the meeting?


Other than looking over your proposal and ensuring it’s all fresh in your mind, it’s worth having a rough idea of how you want the book to look and feel and how you want publishers to pitch it.  Don’t be too precise but do make sure that – when the publisher starts talking about your thoughts – you know whether things sound right or wrong.   One of the things that absolutely sold Simon & Schuster to me was that, when I walked into the office for the meeting, Kerri (the non-fiction editor) had an Angela Carter book of fairytales on her desk as a reference point.  There and then, I decided I wanted to work with Simon & Schuster and the meeting had not even started!


I think, even without that, the meeting would have been really good.  TV, film and books tend to sell an image of publishing companies as business people in suits who put profit before art and try to blunt the edges from a writer’s work to make everything as bland as possible.  That certainly wasn’t my experience with Simon & Schuster.  Kerri, on the other hand, really enjoyed the darker and bloodier aspects of the book and her main goal was to ensure things didn’t become too saccharine or pleasant at any point!


But what do you do if the publisher’s vision is different to yours?  This is a difficult question – especially if they’re the only company showing serious interest.  My advice is to think about their suggestions very seriously.  Voice your opinions and see what they say but try to think seriously about whether their suggestions make sense.  Do voice your own opinions too and see what response you get but try and then weigh all the options up as objectively as possible.  It never serves anyone well to be too proud incorporate other people’s ideas or be so precious about your work that you disregard suggestions that would actually improve things.


At the same time, your name is going to be on the book and ultimately people are going to see the book that is eventually published as a representation of you as a writer.  And I’m sure there’s nothing more depressing than seeing your first book get utterly panned and your writing ability questioned when you’ve not even written the book you wanted to write in the first place.   So there are times when you might need to stick to your guns, even if you miss a chance to be published as a result. But be sure that there are genuinely good reasons, rather than simply your ego being a bit bruised by the fact that other people have ideas and suggestions about your work!


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