Procrustean Publishing

I was very pleased, a few short months ago, when a literary agent said she loved the first book in my YA fantasy series and would like to market it. Who wouldn’t be thrilled?

The book was a bit long, she said. Publishers hesitate to take on a new author whose first book is above 100,000 words. My book was at about 122,000. So I rolled up my sleeves and cut 5,000 words, and she agreed that she could try to sell it that way. It’s still on the long side, but possibly part of the point of the exercise was that she will now be able to assure potential publishers that I’m flexible. (I also told her I would be willing to use a pen name, if anybody thought having a man who is over 65 write for a market that consists first and foremost of teenage girls was too weird.)

I’m now working hard on Book III. (I’ve already sent her Book II.) Because the series is really all just one monstrously long and complex tale, I have now found that I need to go back and make a few tiny changes in Book I. I’m sure tiny changes are okay, but today I felt I needed to restore an 800-word scene that I had cut. I’ve already scissored in a couple of shorter bits that are entirely new. Book I is growing again.

How this will play out in the one-size-fits-all world of publishing remains to be seen. I’d like to believe that a publisher will be so thrilled by the series that I’ll be given carte blanche to do as I will. That seems very unlikely. Paper is expensive. Shipping books to bookstores is expensive. And aside from the economic factor, I’m sure some publishers figure a buyer is more likely to try a new author if the book isn’t so fat/thick/massive/bulky as to be intimidating.

What I haven’t yet done is read through the entire text of Books I and II after finishing III (and possibly IV, which won’t be done before the end of the year). At that point, I might find that I need to add a few things — for continuity, for flavor, or just because I get a kick out of fresh ideas.

I’m not quite to the point of hoping that the series doesn’t sell to a mainstream publisher. There’s a certain panache in being published by a real publisher. It would be a feather in my cap, as my father used to say. The distribution would be good, I wouldn’t have to worry about cover art, more people would read and enjoy the books — there are some real advantages. But I am starting to feel that there’s also something to be said for self-publishing. In spite of all the added headaches, in spite of the ego deflation, if I self-publish I can edit the entire series into lapidary coherence before I unleash it on the world — and I won’t be forced to cut to fit a narrow word count.

One of the things I’ve added to Book I is a brief epigraph. It’s a quote from To Kill a Mockingbird: “Real courage is when you know you’re licked before you begin, but you begin anyway and see it through no matter what.” That describes the theme of my story pretty darn well … and it’s also a good motto for any author, especially an author who can foresee a potential clash between the publishing industry and the sometimes inconvenient but always vital needs of the story itself.

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