October 22, 2019

Non Fiction Book Editing — My Proposal Needs Improvement?

Rachelle Gardner, Literary Agent

Rachelle Gardner, Literary Agent, post a while back “More on Revision Letters” http://bit.ly/afn0w7. In effect an author wonders: “The agent liked my proposal, but I got this long list of suggested changes. What does it mean? What should I do now?”

This same problem emerges for nonfiction authors, either with their agent or an acquisitions editor who works for the publisher.

1. Good news, the publisher didn’t say NO.

Only proposals that are in serious contention receive a letter filled with suggested changes (additions, subtractions). You are actually in a negotiation process, and the editor is noting your response. How easy or difficult will you be to work with?

Evaluate the level of the changes. At the bottom end, you will receive copyediting suggestions: capitalization, punctuation, and so on. These are the domain of the publisher and its house style, and they are simply attempting to reduce the in-house labor by asking you to make these changes. Make them, doing a search-and-replace whenever possible.

Then, walk through your manuscript, finding each element and evaluating it. What can you do to meet the objection and still remain true to your project? Propose doing that.

Dissertation-to-book authors often face the biggest challenges. One of these is moving text into the footnotes. Sometimes what’s ahead is what I term “the two-foot shuffle.” Now you move things into the notes; later you will be asked to keep your notes under 5% of the entire manuscript. All the side discussions effective get cut.

2. The advice is coming from more than one source

In the nonfiction world, an acquisition editor (employed by the publisher) often sends copies of proposals out for two “blind” reviews, meaning each reviewer is not told who the author is, what the author does, and so on. This removes as much extraneous bias as possible.

The feedback that results can contain conflicting messages. My favorite is add “2 more chapters, but cut 100 pages.” The author can rightly ask, “Which is it?” And the answer, of course, is “both.”

Because more than one reviewer can be engaged, you may want to test the advice for “multiple personalities.” Can you discern 2 (or perhaps even 3) voices? Gather the various changes requested into 2 (or 3) lists.

What can result at times is a “Mr. Ying” and “Ms. Yang” lists. Sometimes one or the other of these reviewers demonstrates his or her own bias in the review, not directly, but through all the little changes or challenges.

After reading the lists, you might be able to picture what they would have done had they authored the project. You might propose adding one or two paragraphs in your Introduction about the reasons you chose to write your book the way you did in the face of several options. Make sure that other approaches see themselves in your text, even if you only acknowledge their approach as an unpursued option at the start.

3. The revisions are proposals from future reviewers

These are proposals. I often ask authors to “take them into account” and “take them for what they are worth.” By that I mean to address the changes to the extent this is possible.

Let’s suppose that one comment points to a paragraph that is unclear (unnuanced, etc.). An intelligent reader who knows your subject is signaling a problem here. Now what can you do to remove (or at least reduce) the potential for misunderstanding? Propose to do that.

But sometimes you might be baffled by the reviewer’s comment. Tell your editor that you are open to making an improvement, but a little puzzled as to exactly what to do. Some editors will clarify; others will demur or even drop the request.

The point through all of this: How wonderful for your “blind” reviewer to signal where he or she will take up issue with your book in public reviews later. Keep their attention on your main thesis; don’t let the conversation get side-tracked on minor issues. That is, always fix the minor issues.

4. Your editor (and publisher) wants the best book possible

Through it all, remember that your editor (and publisher and reviewers) wants to produce the best book possible.

Your publisher is investing often $40,000 or more in getting your book ready for printing. The company have done this before and thinks it has learned a few things about titles and covers.

What has been amazing to witness (oh, about 1000 times) is how anxious many first-time authors are, but how relaxed many third-time authors can be. Aim to behave like you have confidence in the team working with you to produce the best book it can.

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