"My editor [or agent] is taking FOREVER with my edits. They keep making and breaking promises about when they'll be done with their notes. What the f*ck?"
This is the single most common, gnarly professional conflict that comes up in book publishing. If you're an author stuck in it right now, here's the closest thing I have to professional Goo-Gone.
It’s been eight months.
It’s been ten months.
It’s been a year.
He said he was only going to take a month to get back to me.
She said we’d be putting the manuscript into production before the holidays.
Are these delays going to affect my pub date?
I’m so confused. I’m so angry.
We’ve been working on this proposal for two years. You said you wanted to aim for a January submission, and now it’s June.
This is really beginning to feel personal.
Am I just not a priority?
I can’t schedule anything in my life right now because I have no idea when I’m going to need to go back into the manuscript full-time.
I feel so disrespected.
What is HAPPENING?
Of all the professional conflicts I mediate as a literary agent, the ones I despise most are the Editorial Stuckness Breakdowns. Because I am lazy, I will henceforth refer to them as ESBs.
An ESB involves three key developments:
An author submits pages to some kind of editor1—to their in-house editor if they’re under contract; to their agent if pre-submission.
The editor takes way, way longer than anticipated or promised to offer feedback—and when (if) it ever appears, said feedback is often unusable in some way (vague, contradictory, off-base).
The unanticipated loss of momentum and direction causes the author significant distress.
Why do you despise ESBs so much?
OH, LET ME COUNT THE WAYS:
ESBs are by far the most common kind of conflict I deal with, especially since 2020 — to the extent that I suspect at least eight of you reading this will think I am subtweeting your specific, recent experiences. I am and I’m not. THEY’RE REALLY THAT COMMON.
They’re agonizingly complicated to address, typically involving a Gordian knot of causal factors.
They trigger significant stress reactions for everyone involved.
Untangling ESBs without doing significant damage to professional relationships and/or books can feel like defusing a bomb. And even if you and the author do everything “right,” the bomb occasionally blows up.
As much as I hate ESBs, I know from experience that most occur for rational, important, as-yet-subconscious reasons. I am bolding this because it’s very important you know this.
It therefore deeply benefits all parties in an ESB to pay close, curious attention to these developments; refrain from shaming and blaming each other; figure what’s going on, even if it’s something surprising and difficult; and thenceforth take whatever course-corrective collaborative action is called for.
What’s called for varies, but it’s almost always profoundly disruptive in some way.
Well this all sounds horrible. How on Earth can I avoid getting mired in an ESB?
I’m afraid you can’t.
If you’re an author with an agent and a realistic chance of publishing more than one commercial book in the future, you’re going to experience an ESB at some point. They’re so common now as to be (I suspect) a statistical inevitability.
Rather than give you false hope that successful authors can avoid ESBs, I am going to give you a little first-aid guide for getting yourself and your colleagues back up and functioning when they do. WHEN.
The guide is in three parts. You will learn to recognize ESBs when they’re in progress. You will discover—if you don’t know already—that ESBs are generally more complicated and professionally useful than they look.
Finally, you will embrace the paradox at the heart of ESB management: getting the best outcomes from one requires us to let go of all attempts to control what those best outcomes are.
For what it’s worth: I need this guide as much as you do. ESBs are a kind of irrational dynamic triggered by stress and trauma; they make all of us forgetful and stupid. Consider the following more of a tool than a talisman, meant to be picked up again and again vs. touched once to effect lifelong transformation.
Okay: LET’S GO.