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Winter 2002

The path to publication
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The Miracle Worker

The Path to Publication

By Belinda Anderson

It was every writer’s dream — a publisher wanted a collection of my short stories. The manuscript already was out of my hands, ready for the press to magically convert my words to a bookstore product emblazoned with the title The Well Ain’t Dry Yet. As my mind raced ahead to the happily-ever-after land of book signings and royalty checks, the actual process of publishing seemed a slight housekeeping detail.

My enlightenment began when the mail brought an intimidating, multi-page contract. But the angst over that was nothing compared to my next shock — the publisher expected me to provide yet another manuscript, camera-ready for the printer. Coaxing my word processing program to format according to the specifications nearly drove me insane. Even a step I looked forward to, the chance to give thanks in the acknowledgments, became an exercise in agony over whom to include and who might be offended at being omitted.

I hope this sharing of my journey to publication of a first book will help other writers understand more about publishing procedures. I hadn’t anticipated the stages beyond acceptance. I’’ve been writing and publishing my entire adult life, first as a reporter at a newspaper where other people placed my words on the page. In my freelance work, manuscripts travel by computer disk or e-mail to editors who transform my compositions into a printed product. Book publishing, I discovered, can be an entirely different matter.

The contract
Compared to other contracts I’ve seen since, the Mountain State Press document seemed pretty fair. Mountain State is, after all, a nonprofit press dedicated to promoting West Virginia authors. However, like all contracts, it was designed to protect the party that had it drawn. I tried to educate myself by checking with authors

I knew and reading such books as Kirsch’s Handbook of Publishing Law.

The board was responsive to most of my concerns, but unwilling to budge on a clause that gave the publisher 50 percent of all future royalties on any “additional usage,” including film, television and radio. (Geez, I thought, I was the one who sweated to produce the stories. The publisher’s viewpoint was that it was taking a chance on me and deserved its share for that investment.)

I considered my bargaining position and decided that if the worst case scenario was getting half the proceeds from an audiotape production or a television movie, I could live with that. After all, creativity is a renewable resource. As the title of my book says, The Well Ain’t Dry Yet.

One of the first surprises along the path of book publishing was discovering that I was expected to provide camera- ready copy. I was accustomed to letting editors worry about getting the information into print. Sometimes there’s a compatibility problem with word processing software, but usually a text version will work, or I’ll simply paste the piece into the body of an e-mail.

Mountain State Press was very specific about the document it expected me to provide. My computer seemed to find those specifications unreasonable. I couldn’t decide whether to curse or cry as I tried to format the manuscript according to the publisher’s specifications, so I did neither. Instead, I slogged my way, by trial and error, to the required result.

People imagine authors and their editors dining together in New York. I never even met my editor until after we’d finished revising my manuscript by mail, phone and e-mail.

After I received Mountain State’s offer, I called Carolyn Sturgeon to introduce myself. When I discovered that this college professor’s dissertation focused on freshman composition, I quivered in a reflex of fear. Then I realized that having a meticulous editor could be a very good thing for my manuscript. When she told me that one of my stories had brought her to tears, I knew this would be a good partnership.

Carolyn proved to be just as passionate about producing a good manuscript as I was. She was respectful of my work, never making a change — even about a single word choice — without consulting me first. Working with her was one of the most enjoyable aspects of the publication process. She was an equal advocate for me and the press.

When the idea of having a book published was still a dream, I luxuriated in the daydream of being able to publicly thank everyone who had ever helped me. When the opportunity actually presented itself, I quickly realized that it would be impossible to recognize everyone who had touched my life.

How could I decide whom to include and whom to leave out? I considered giving up altogether, but that seemed cowardly. Then I decided to write the acknowledgements based upon this question: How did this particular collection of stories come into existence?

The answers began flowing. I knew I had to thank my editor, Carolyn, who was so efficient and responsive, and Mountain State Press for its dedication to West Virginia authors. Then there were the writers, colleagues and friends who also directly contributed by reading, critiquing and encouraging. One paragraph was decided.

I remembered three high school English teachers whose encouragement guided my path. Teachers seldom receive the recognition they deserve. Another paragraph completed.

Thinking further about encouragement, I knew I wanted to name all the members of my immediate family. It struck me that this might come across as sentimental, maybe even amateurish. But executive assistant Lisa Contreras at Mountain State Press had told me, “It’s your book.” It gave me great pleasure to thank the people who have been the constants in my life: My mother, who neatly summarized the maddening world of publication by saying, “You’re on a slow train, but you’re going somewhere.” My sister-in-law, who advised me always to write from my heart. My sister, who drew my attention to a display at the state fair, prompting the story, “Full Bloom.”

Almost there
The pre-press proofs arrived via Express Mail on a Saturday morning. First, exaltation: This is my book. Then, terror: This is my last chance to fix it.

Despite careful previous readings by both author and editor, there were punctuation problems and odd text flows. And, at this stage, every change would cost money. I had to let go of the desire to reshape wording that now seemed awkward, or to trim unnecessary bits. I wanted to change the order of two stories. I wanted to rework a few character names that now seemed repetitious. Too late.

I’d had such difficulty trying to format the manuscript according to the publisher’s specifications that I’d submitted the simplest document possible. Now I wished it had a more polished look. Too late.

One of my characters, a wise old quilter, said that letting go was the hardest thing. I could hear her telling me, just as she had told another character, “Honey, let go.”

I focused instead on the passages that made me laugh, on the endings that seemed just right, on the themes of healing and growth that threaded their way through the stories.

It wouldn’t be perfect. But it was time to let it go.

The final frontier
The exaltation/terror reflex was becoming more familiar. I received an e-mail from Mountain State Press saying that the printer would be shipping on the tenth of the month. Terrific! Marvelous! Wait — I had never seen the corrected manuscript, and my editor was out of town. Who had eyeballed the corrections before the book went to press? No one. The printer allegedly made the corrections before going straight to press.

It’s funny: When I’m trying to bring a story to an original, satisfactory ending, my imagination seems to take a siesta. Now, however, it was churning out visions of grievous misspellings and layout disasters so egregious that I’d have to buy a wheelbarrow for toting the books to the landfill.

Let it go. The book was miles and miles away. Let it go.

Yeah, right.

The publisher estimated the book would arrive mid-week, so I planned to go Charleston the following Friday to autograph books for customers requesting a book signed by the author. (Or to help with the landfill convoy.) Wednesday came and went. No book. Thursday evening the board president called to explain that the books were making their way from Virginia as partial truckloads, languishing in warehouses along the way. Maybe he didn’t exactly say languishing.

Surely the books would arrive by Monday. Monday, I got the word — the book definitely would arrive Wednesday. Or Thursday.

Then, Tuesday evening, the e-mail came: The books had arrived — nine months from the date of Mountain State’s first letter. I called the publisher’s office. “Your book is beautiful,” Lisa assured the new mother. “Do me a favor,” I begged. “Look at the table of contents.” I’d had a nightmare in which the page numbers were all jumbled.

Lisa soothed me. “It’s fine,” she confirmed. Next I called my editor, interrupting her work on her dissertation. “You’re incorrigible,” she said, but I was sure I detected fondness in her voice. Yes, she would meet me Wednesday.

Board President Bill Haydon admitted me to the Mountain State Press office and handed me the first copy of The Well Ain’t Dry Yet. It was an incredible experience to hold in my hands a book with my name on the cover. Perhaps the best moment was opening it to see the dedication to my parents in print.

I sneaked off to the University of Charleston student center to sit with iced tea, the book and the list of final corrections. Yes, they’d been made. Wonderful folks, those printers. I was in such a jubilant mood that when I met Carolyn, I insisted on treating her to lunch. The least I could do was buy her a cheap salad at Bob Evans.

I headed home with a box of books in the trunk of my car, just like John Grisham with his first title. On the way, I stopped at Grandview Park near Beckley to stretch and walk. Like a child with a new doll, I took one of my books with me on the hiking trail. At an overlook, I gazed at a mountain vista similar to the one on my cover. Gratitude filled me, and I walked back in a more serene mood.

I came across a family taking pictures of each other. I asked one woman if she’d like me to use her camera to capture all of them together. She thought that was a wonderful idea, and so did another member of her party, who produced another camera. This was an enthusiastic bunch — they wanted to know where I was from and where I’d been. The next thing I knew, I was showing them my book and they were swearing they’d order copies right away.

I was back on the highway when I remembered that I had 64 books in the trunk.