Those Unpublishable Manuscripts
We’ve all had them – those manuscripts that arrive on our desks that should not be published. They have little merit in either content or expression, and our initial impulse is to return them immediately. How do we deal with them?
If the project comes from a trade publisher, the contract with the author was probably signed more than a year before, based on a proposal. In the intervening months, the writer may have experienced personal problems or simply been busy with other things. That explains why the manuscript is hurried, incomplete or a raw first draft. The publisher could reject it, but if this book is needed to balance either the publisher’s seasonal list or its budget, the firm is loath to delay it. Ideally, the publisher sends it to a “book doctor” kind of editor who specializes in reorganizing and rewriting texts and in partnering with authors to make the final drafts as good as they can be (see “Should Editors Be Able to Write?”). These projects might require hundreds of hours of work compressed into a couple of months, but what if the publisher’s fee won’t stretch so far?
Some of the most elaborate books published today originate not with publishers but with companies, institutions or individuals who, for professional or personal reasons, want to make a book idea into a reality. The subject usually focuses on the history of the sponsor or on some special interest, such as art or astronomy, and the volume is almost always heavily illustrated, beautiful and expensive to produce. It needs a team of expert writers, editors, designers and image researchers to “package” it and make it attractive to a traditional publisher. Problems arise when the initiators don’t recognize the limits of their writing and publishing ability. What are our responsibilities when we’re asked to edit one of these manuscripts and we know that the text, even after a skilled edit, can never be brought up to standard? Even if the institution attempts to publish the book itself, the final product will embarrass everyone associated with it.
Today, anyone can self-publish, and indie publishing is expanding. Some talented writers choose to go this route because they want more control over their books and a higher percentage of the revenues. Other writers, however, lack experience and natural ability, and their novels or nonfiction texts need much more development and revision before they should ever be published. How should editors respond to requests to work on these not-yet-ready manuscripts? It’s easy to say no, but should we also offer brief cautionary advice to these writers?
These tough questions involve judgment and ethics, but they are not new to editors — the traditional gatekeepers of what got published. We can no longer play that role in today’s open publishing environment. But if we see ourselves as professionals rather than as skilled craftspeople, what is our role in the print and online publishing market today? If we are independent operators, how do we balance our need for clients and projects with our understanding of what would really be best for each particular manuscript? What do you think?
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