May, 2008

Everyone Needs an Editor. Yes, Even You. “There are two kinds of editors, those who correct your copy and those who say it’s wonderful,” wrote the eminent political historian, Theodore H. White. He was absolutely correct.

Everyone needs an editor. There’s not a writer alive who doesn’t. That means you, and it likewise means me, too. I will be the first to admit that editors make my work better. A good editor can make a good work a great one, and a decent one a good one. One prominent book editor summed up the role of the editor quite nicely. “I see my [editorial] role as helping the writer to realize he or her intention. I never want to impose any other goal on the writer, and I never want the book to be mine,” she wrote. A good editor can help you realize your vision even when you’ve reached the point where you just don’t see the problems with your manuscript any more. And I guarantee you that every writer reaches that point sooner or later. Likewise, a good editor’s work is transparent to anyone but you as the author–the reading public should never be able to tell where your work ends and the editor’s work begins.

In a perfect world, author and editor form a seamless team. Both share a common vision for the work, and both are dedicated to making it the best work possible. There has to be chemistry between the author and the editor, or the project will be in serious trouble. On one of my projects with Potomac Books, they assigned a copy editor that claimed to be knowledgeable about the Civil War, but proved not to be. I had to educate him, and we never developed a chemistry between us. Before long, I was responding to each of his inquiries with a surly, grouchy response. It was an awful experience, and I told the publisher that if this guy ever came near one of my projects again, I would pull the project from Potomac Books and take it elsewhere. And I was as serious as a heart attack when I said that. Fortunately, they realized that I was serious, and he came nowhere near the next book that I did with Potomac.

Here’s another tip. While the author has the ultimate say, the editor usually isn’t making suggestions about things just for their amusement or good health. Take those suggestions seriously; they’re offered for the betterment of your project. With the notable exception of the idiot referenced in the last paragraph, I rarely veto the suggestions of my editors for just that reason. I have found that they rarely steer you wrong.

However, as I said in the last post, you’ve got to set your ego aside when you deal with an editor. You cannot get offended by their constructive criticisms, and you likewise cannot allow your ego to cause you to dig your heels in and disregard a good suggestion of your editor just because you’ve got your boxers in a bunch over something that the editor said. You just can’t do that.

The editor’s role is crucial, and a good one can make or break your book. Keep that in mind when you deal with your editor, or be prepared to suffer the consequences.

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It’s All About the Marketing, Stupid. There are several reasons why I enjoy working with Ted Savas so much. First, Ted and I have been friends for a long time. Second, we share the same philosophies about what makes a good book, including the idea that there can never be too many maps or illustrations in a book. Most importantly, though, is that Ted gets marketing. Even though he’s a lawyer by training, Ted has a very strong entrepreneurial spirit, and he gets marketing. He’s been really successful with selling his books, with placing them with the book clubs, and even in selling the movie rights to one of his titles. What’s more, he encourages his authors to market, because everyone benefits from the sale of books. Ted’s marketing director, Sarah Keeney, maintains a blog on the topic of marketing and selling books, which I commend to you.

Bruce Franklin, the owner of Westholme Publishing, is also adept at marketing. Bruce has been tremendously successful in getting his titles, including Russ Bonds’ Stealing the General, reviewed in The Wall Street Journal, which really spurs sales. Dan Hoisington, of Edinborough Press, who will be publishing my Dahlgren bio, is also astute at marketing; he provides each of his authors with their own web site to hawk their books.

These three, however, are the exception and not the rule. Most publishers are abysmal at marketing. Thomas Publications, which published my first book, is terrible at it. At least when I was doing business with them, they were not affiliated with a distributor, meaning that unless the book was sold in Gettysburg or on Amazon, forget it. Your book will never, ever stand a chance of getting into the big box bookstores. As I mentioned in yesterday’s update to the first post in this series, Potomac Books is absolutely horrible at marketing. I can’t tell you how many times I complained about the wretched job of marketing was being done by them, and nothing helped.

My biggest gripe is with the university presses. Since they really don’t have to worry about making a profit for the most part, they don’t do much marketing at all. As I said in the first post in this series, LSU sold 5 copies of my book last year. Kent State, which has also published three of my books, also does not do an especially good job of marketing, although Susan Cash, the marketing director, tries. Maybe it’s that they tend to price their books at outrageous prices. I don’t know. I just know that the titles that they have published haven’t sold at all.

And then there’s McFarland, in a league all of its own for abysmal marketing and for ridiculously expensive pricing. At least they’re honest about it. They don’t even attempt to sell their books to the big box retailers.

So, it falls upon the author to sell his or her own book. You’ve got to get out there and sell it. For me, it’s a trade-off. I’m self-employed, and if I don’t work, I don’t get paid. Consequently, I’ve got to do a careful balancing between what’s the best use of my time. I do as many appearances as I can, but certainly not as many as I could simply because I cannot afford to be away from the office any longer than I already am. I try to maintain a fairly high profile for my work, and I’m getting ready to launch a website for the sole purpose of selling my books (the design is nearly finished; I will announce its launch here when it’s ready).

J.D. and I put up a website to sell Plenty of Blame to Go Around: Jeb Stuart’s Controversial Ride to Gettysburg, and it’s been successful. Its companion site, for One Continuous Fight: The Retreat from Gettysburg and the Pursuit of Lee’s Army of Norther Virginia, July 4-14, 1863, is being finalized as I write this.

Don’t expect your publisher to sell your books. Be grateful when it does. Otherwise, you’ve got to do it yourself. That’s an important piece of information that I really wish I had known ten years ago.

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Be Careful What You Wish For. You Just Might Get It. I’ve learned that having someone review my work for accuracy and readability is imperative. When he was still alive and well enough to do so, Brian Pohanka read just about everything that I wrote, and often gave excellent feedback. I still have a network of people that I turn to to provide this invaluable service, including, but not limited to, J. D. Petruzzi, Scott Patchan, Horace Mewborn, Bob O’Neill, Teej Smith, and one or two others. Their feedback is critical. They point out mistakes. They point out bad writing. And most of all, they give me their honest, unblinking assessment of my work, whether it’s what I want to hear or not. Inevitably, the work is ALWAYS better as a result of the feedback that I get from them, and I value the fact that they feel comfortable enough with our relationships to do that for me, knowing that I will set my ego aside and not get offended by whatever they might have to say about what I’ve asked them to read for me.

It can be difficult to hear somebody say “this sucks,” especially when you’ve poured your heart and soul into the work. But, you have to hear that feedback, take it to heart, and make the changes that they suggest. And you have to do so with no ego. You can’t get all offended by it and get all huffy and sulky over it. Otherwise, you can jeopardize your relationships, and your ego can get in the way of producing your best product.

The first time I had someone review my work and it got shredded, it stung. My feelings were hurt, and I sulked about it for a few days. Susan reminded me that I’d asked for an honest assessment, so I had no right to sulk over it. The gist of her comment was, “be careful what you wish for. You just might get it.” And she was right.

The simple truth is that you’ve just got to suck it up, say thank you, and do what needs to be done to make your product what you want it to be. You can’t sulk over it, and you most assuredly cannot be offended by it.

I try to do the same thing when I’m asked to review things. First, I appreciate the effort that others have given on my behalf, and I try to return the favor whenever possible. But I will not ever sugarcoat things. I tell people that they’re going to get an honest and unblinking assessment of their work and that if they think that can’t take that, then they’re better off not asking me to review their stuff for them. Ultimately, it’s not worth losing a friendship over. At the same time, I’m not doing them any favors if I don’t tell them the God’s honest truth about their work. And if they get all huffy about it after being warned, then it’s on them and not on me.

The bottom line is: be careful what you wish for, because you just might get it. If you don’t want an honest and unblinking assessment of your work, then please don’t waste my time or yours by asking me to review it for you. In return, I will do exactly the same thing.

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