The Message

Then one day you see you have a phone message. You punch in the numbers to retrieve it, and you hear your agent’s voice. Your heart staggers. “Hi, Craig,” she says, “I just had an interesting call from Simon…” and you stop breathing. This is it. It’s the moment. But wait: Is it a propitious time of the day? Should you hang up and kill a chicken and read its entrails to see if the auspices are good?

There are only two words she can say next. She can say yes, that the publisher likes it and wants to take it on. Or she can say no, that he just unearthed it under piles of other manuscripts, gave it a read, and decided to pass on it, thanks just the same. In the syllable-long pause, you feel yourself beginning to float. Whether you will continue ascending or thud back to earth hangs in the balance.

The message continues. “….and he was saying that he was feeling very ‘mea culpa’ about taking so long to get back to us about the book, but that he wanted….” Here you wrestle with a need to take the phone away from your ear so you can’t hear what you think must be bad news but in spite of your pusillanimous nature you let the rest of the message issue forth.

“…and he wants to make an offer on it, if we were still interested.”

You feel yourself soaring, you’ve become weightless, your smile is so wide you’d scare the Cheshire Cat, you listen to the message three or four more times, you’re swooning with gratitude.

You’ve sold another book. Buy drinks for the house. Strut your stuff. Wallow in self-congratulation. Celebrate as long as you can.

Because you know, even as you exult, that it may be first and ten just inside the red zone, but you’re not in the end zone yet.

Your agent tells you your publisher (“your publisher” is always a felicitous phrase) thinks that the manuscript is “pretty clean,” meaning he doesn’t want you to rewrite it from scratch, but to rewrite key parts that you thought were near-perfect. After a month or two or three during which you work out the terms of the contract, you meet the publisher for lunch to talk over the rewrite. Between bites of a sandwich, he wants to know what you think of the character of the mother.

You think she’s written just the way you intended, not so definite as to overwhelm the action, but sharp enough to leave an impression in the mind of a reader.

He agrees, but he has different notions. He has other notions about other sections, too.

The rewrite beat goes on for another month.  Finally, he reviews all the changes, pronounces it “almost there,” and passes it on to a junior editor, an enthusiastic young woman who suggests a new raft of changes. At last the book goes to the copyeditor, and you correct typos and inconsistencies. Then you get a request to do an illustration for the front matter, which goes through six, seven, maybe ten rounds of revision before it’s pronounced “perfect.”

When the advanced readers copies arrive, you hold the flimsy paperback in your hands, thinking, “Will this book come out before something horrible happens and the publisher decides to not go through with it?” You make scores of small changes throughout the text and send it back to your editor.

Two months later, a hefty box arrives, and there it is: your book in hardcover. Its cover pleases you. You turn it over and over in your hands. You sniff it. You read the jacket copy.

And then, before you can bring yourself to open it, to run your eyes over the creamy pages with the ranks of sentences you worked at like some kind of crazed blacksmith, heating them over and over and pounding and pounding and heating them again and again and reshaping each one over and over, two thoughts run through your mind:

Will it ever sell, and what will you work on next?

One Response to “The Message”

  1. Ron Slate Says:

    Last week Houghton Mifflin made an unprecedented announcement: it has called a moratorium on accepting new titles. The Houghton poets are terrified. I’m sure the novelists are, too. Maybe not Philip Roth. I have a book of poems scheduled to come out in April from this publisher. Will I have a publicist? Will there be someone in shipping to box up and post copies (should anyone want to buy one)? Will the book ever come out in paperback? Terror strikes the writer’s life in those idle hours when he/she isn’t writing, which is most of the time. Your post resonates with me. Avanti!