Tales from the Before Time, Round Two

All writers have a few horror stories to tell.  This is one of ours.

It happened quite a while ago, back when one of the ways that young (or youngish, anyhow) freelance novelists made their grocery money was by writing work-for-hire YA series novels for book packagers.  The way the process usually worked was like this:  a book packager would come up with an idea for a six-book series — I’m still not sure why six was usually the magic number — and sell it to a publisher.  Then the book packager would find one or two or even six hungry writers to write the individual volumes, based on a series bible created by the packager.  The deadlines were usually short, the pay was usually low, the royalties were in almost all cases nonexistent, and the series bibles were either laughably nonspecific or so nitpicking as to be ridiculous.

But groceries have to be bought, so there we were.

We’d written the second book in a YA series which shall remain nameless, and I flatter myself that we’d actually done a pretty good job working within the constraints of the project.  We’d finished the manuscript and turned it in; we’d done the necessary revisions; we’d gotten back the copyedited manuscript and gone over it and turned it back in; we’d gone over the galleys and sent them back in; and as far as we knew, we were done.  So we packed up the mini-van and went down to New York for a few days to visit my husband and coauthor’s old family homestead — and returned to find an “attempted delivery” FedEx notice on our front door and a “Call me right now!” message on our answering machine from our editor at the book packager.

What had happened while we were away:  The cover flats for the novels in the series had come back from the printer  (in packager-land, in those days, the covers were often printed before the novels were even written), and only then did the editor discover that the graphic designer had made the spine of the novel too small for the contracted word length of the novels in the series.  Reprinting the covers was out of the question — too time-consuming and too expensive.  Instead, each of the novels in the series was going to have to lose 10,000 typeset words.

We were lucky.  We got a copy of the galleys (that was the FedEx package), and I got to go through it removing single words and parts of sentences with a pair of tweezers sharp red pencil while keeping a running count of the total on a handy scratchpad, which meant that by the time I was finished, the novel — while considerably attenuated — at least still made sense.  The first novel in the series had entire paragraphs and even whole scenes removed with a hatchet by the editor, because it was scheduled to go to the printers the very next day.

(Before you ask:  I don’t know what happened to the graphic designer.  But I do know that it always pays to be nice to the publisher’s art department, because if they decide that they don’t like you, they have it in their power to do dreadful things.)

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