B: Who’s there?
A: Orphaned Author.
B: Orphaned Author who?
The joke above popped into my head unbidden a few weeks ago. I texted it – inappropriately, perhaps – to a friend of mine who is an orphaned author, and has, well… not really enjoyed being an orphaned author.
What is an orphaned author, you ask? And why would it suck to be one?
An orphaned author is an author whose book has been bought by a particular editor at a particular publishing house, only to have that editor quit, leave, retire, fill-in-the-blank-what-have-you, and be indisposed when the book in question is published.
Why does it suck? Well, it can suck for a number of reasons. For my friend, it sucked because it was his debut novel that was being published (already an experience that can be daunting, and that brings a writer into uncharted territory).
An editor who’s investing in your book really gets in there, you see. They go through the torturous work of making sure the manuscript is up to snuff, working with you through multiple editorial rounds. Then they fight for other people within the publishing house to read your manuscript, and fall in love with it – just like they did. And finally, they metaphysically hold your hand as the publishing house sends you off into the Great Big Scary World, AKA your book tour, or what-have-you.
A book’s success depends upon the people who get behind it. If these people have no clue who you are or what you wrote about, and/or don’t care, well… you’re pretty much sunk. For a debut author in particular, this can make or break a career. As readers, if you ever come across a wonderful debut novel and think to yourself, “Why haven’t I heard of this?” well… the answer is likely some combination of bad timing and ineffective media outlets… and sometimes a lack of enthusiasm from within the publishing house that published it. I mean, it happens. Resources are precious, and in publishing – a field that is in the midst of some serious growing pains – there are not enough to go around.
All this is to say my friend, the debut author, has legitimate reason to begrudge his orphan status. It’s seriously stressful. You, as authors, really have no control over this. Your job is to sit back and be gracious, and, of course, “write the best book you can write.” Stay positive and do everything you can to promote you book, and no matter if it succeeds or fails, try not to point fingers, because it’s likely you don’t know what happened during those in-house launch meetings (the meetings publishers hold when they determine when to publish and how to market your book), and, quite frankly, it’s better that you don’t.
Why did this silly joke pop into my head the other day? Because I am an orphaned author. My editor (and publisher) was Amy Einhorn. She bought my second novel on behalf of Penguin/Putnam/Amy Einhorn Books. And last August, she moved to Flatiron Books/St. Martin’s.
I was, admittedly, frantic when I learned of the news.
Have you heard of Amy Einhorn? She is a force to be reckoned with. When she launched her eponymous imprint, she hit it out of the park with her first title… a little book you might’ve heard of, called The Help, by Katherine Stockett. Reporters have written profiles about Amy in Gotham Magazine and The Observer. Amy makes books succeed in a climate where, hey – let’s admit it – books ain’t doing so well. It is her job to make lightning hit the same spot twice, and she’s damned good at it. When she left, I was understandably panicked.
Enter Jake Morrissey, my new editor.
To be clear, this is an appreciation piece, so if you are not in the mood for my grateful Pollyanna chatter, best to click away now. But if you are an author who would like to hear a surprisingly upbeat message about the bloodsport that is writing, by all means, keep on scrolling.
My new novel, Three Martini Lunch, was a very ambitious undertaking. It takes place during the 1950s, and is written in three stylized voices from the era. Oh, did I forget to mention, there are three first-person narrators? The book takes on Greenwich Village, beatniks, jazz, the publishing biz, race, class, sex, gender, sexual orientation… and plenty of other things I’m already too exhausted to try to list off. As a writer, I was trying to stretch myself with this book. I sold it to Amy because I trusted her to guide me through the inevitable madness that I knew would descend upon me in trying to write this book. And we were in early editorial stages when Amy left.
Lots of things could’ve happened. I could’ve gotten paired up with an editor who didn’t give a damn, who only made the lightest of editorial comments, let the manuscript go to the publisher without a second thought. But luckily enough, I got Jake.
One of Jake’s recent successes is Marlon James’s A Brief History of Seven Killings. If you haven’t read it or at least googled it yet, you really should. Michiko Kakutani named it one of the top 10 books for 2014, and for good reason.
Anyway, back to my point: Jake rolled up his sleeves, gave me comments, read and re-read, and gave me comments again. He was patient, he was insightful and tireless, and all for a book that he didn’t technically acquire! Dear Reader, let me tell you: This is not always the way things work out.
So, the long and the short of it is being an orphaned author has worked out OK for me so far. Instead of just getting one great editor’s input, I got two (wow, pressure’s on me now for this book to be good, I guess). Amy certainly put her two cents in early on, and I am super grateful to her. And Jake added to this concoction and helped both me and my book find our way out of the dark and into the light. I can't actually imagine getting the book to the place where I wanted without BOTH of them. So I guess I'm lucky in the end. Not to mention greedy.
I’m really only halfway through this process – there’s still the question of whether or not the book will be popular in-house, and whether the PR/marketing people will get behind it and "do their thing." But my last experience with the Penguin/Putnam team was 100% positive, so there is solid reason to hope it will be again.
For now, I’m just grateful that as an orphaned author, Jake did not hang me out to dry. Instead, he worked quite hard with me on my edits, helped me to make my second novel the book I wanted it to be, and I feel not so much orphaned as adopted.
With any luck, by this time next year, you’ll have heard of my book.