One of the fastest ways to turn writing mediocre is to write by committee.
It’s how a lot of the studios work, which is a fairly complete explanation for the unintentional dumbness of some movies. I still recall Mad magazine lampooning the whole ‘corporate committee movie’ process, years ago – the writers, under pressure from ‘good ideas’ delivered by studio bosses, ended up making Cinderella.
That’s also true of books. It’s perhaps surprising but true – the book you see on the shop shelves from commercial publishers may not be quite the vision of the author on the cover.
Here’s how it works.
Sometimes, during the acceptance process, the publisher suggests changes that actually improve the vision the author has. That’s fine.
But sometimes the publisher also suggests changes that dilute that vision. On my experience this is usually a marketing matter – the bottom line for commercial publishing – because some aspect of content is thought necessary in order to make the book reach the target market.
This target market may not be the one the author had in mind, but it has to be accepted in order to get the contract to have the book published at all.
I’ve had that happen to me twice – both times in studies I did of colonial-age settler society where the publishers insisted that there had to be an introductory chapter on Maori history.
The other way the vision can be diluted is, again, through the marketing side of the publishing process. Authors typically sign away any right to control the title or appearance of their book. And while they are consulted about titles, on my experience, often the marketing department has final say.
In my non-fiction – again, more than once – that’s involved either accepting a title that doesn’t really describe the vision of the book; or a subtitle that promises something the book was never written to meet.
The problem is that, certainly in New Zealand, history is a quite viciously guarded territory – with the predictable result, which I’ve again had happen multiple times, that some academic stranger erupts in public, angrily declaring I am so worthless and incompetent I can’t even write content to match the title, and it’s my fault for being useless and stupid and it proves I shouldn’t be writing in their territory, ha ha ha ha. Sigh.
The thing is that marketing departments are usually right – if an author is to engage an audience, the book has to be able to match what the market demands. That stands at odds with the fact that for writing to feel authentic, it has to match the author’s passion.
In over thirty years and more than 50 books, I haven’t yet found a proper answer to that.
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015