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The Swords of Wicked Men, Part V


So here is a lesson on compromise in the publishing game.

In previous blogs, I have warned writers about the numerous changes — large and small, aggravating and silly — that are required when publishing a book through a commercial press. In this posting, I will explore this point in greater detail.

Faithful readers of my blog may recall that I signed a contract to write a history of American terrorism for my long-time publisher, Rowman & Littlefield, back in 2009. I was assigned a dynamic young associate editor, Carrie Broadwell-Tkach, and we established a terrific working relationship as we prepared my book Coming For to Carry Me Home: Race in America from Abolitionism to Jim Crow. On the terrorism project, Carrie even allowed me to choose an unconventional, poetic book title: The Swords of Wicked Men: Terrorist Attacks on American Soil. The title was derived from Shakespeare:

That high All-Seer that I dallied with

Hath turn’d my feigned prayer on my head

And given in earnest what I begg’d in jest.

Thus doth he force the swords of wicked men

To turn their own points on their masters’ bosoms.

—William Shakespeare, King Richard III, Act V, Scene i

It was, and remains, my favorite title for any book I have written thus far.

This is where the tale grows ugly and why this project has become an object lesson on the trials and tribulations of writing books for publication.

My troubles began when Carrie was reassigned. “Due to some recent restructuring of our editorial department, I am no longer going to be the American history editor at R & L,” she explained in an email on April 9, 2012. “I am shifting over to the international history side of things, and the editor who currently handles American political science will now be taking over American history as well.” Carrie told me the gentleman’s name and continued with the narrative. “He and I have had a lengthy conversation about your forthcoming book, and he will be handling it during the production process. I have very much enjoyed working with you for the past year, and I am sorry that we won’t have the opportunity to continue working together.”

So there it was. The best editor I had ever worked with was no longer assigned to my project.

I cannot tell you how many times this sort of editorial shakeup has occurred in my writing career.

Three reactions are possible: Dismay, elation, or something in between. The downside, of course, is that a trusted adviser and confidant departs, leaving the author vulnerable to the vicissitudes of the publishing meat grinder. The slightly optimistic feature of frequent turnover among editors is that a book proposal that meets with resistance from one editor may earn raves from another — even at the same publisher. This realization explains why I sometimes pitch a book to a publisher that rejected my work in the past. New editors bring new sensibilities, good or bad, to the work.

As for my book on terrorism, the new editor was hardly satisfactory. He was unwilling or unable to reply to emails or speak with me on the telephone. To be blunt, he was underwhelmed by me and my work. I soon felt the same way about him.

Two issues illustrated the divide between us: The book cover and the book title.

When I saw the first book cover splashed in red and featuring drawings of tall buildings, I was pleased.

Yet someone at the press decided a redesign was in order. I was less pleased — I missed the colorful book cover — but it was satisfactory.

A problem then arose with the title. The Rowman & Littlefield marketing department thought that The Swords of Wicked Men sounded too much like a treatise on medieval weaponry. Moreover, because catalogs and websites sometimes omit the subtitle behind the colon, the marketers thought the title would be confusing for the book-buying public.

Someone decided to call it Terrorist Attacks on American Soil: From the Civil War to the Present. I was incensed. In an email, I explained that the title of another book, Terrorism on American Soil: A Concise History of Plots and Perpetrators from the Famous to the Forgotten, was too close to this new title. In addition, Terrorism on American Soil featured a photograph of the 1920 Wall Street bombing, the same incident featured in the photograph on my book cover (although a slightly different scene). Also, because my book included the Mountain Meadows Massacre, an episode from 1857, the events were not from the Civil War to the present. At a minimum, we needed to add the word “era” behind “Civil War.” I also preferred to change “the present” to “the twenty-first century.” Thus, the modified new title would be: Terrorist Attacks on American Soil: From the Civil War Era to the Twenty-first Century.

Without Carrie to argue my case, however, my new editor-in-absentia simply did not have the time or inclination to listen to an author’s whining. I was told that insofar as the new title was concerned, I could “take it or leave it.”

I took it.

This image became the official design with the new title.

Here is the object lesson for new and would-be writers: Compromise happens. If you are Stephen King, John Grisham, James Patterson, or David McCullough, you have the power to dictate terms to a publisher. Otherwise, they dictate terms to you.

Terrorist Attacks on American Soil: From the Civil War to the Present is a terrible title. Not only is it too close to the title of a book that already has been published, but it is inaccurate since the first chapter covers a pre-Civil War event. I feel terribly misused by my long-time publisher.

Sure, I could take my football and go home, but what good would that do?

I hope it will be a good book — sell a lot of copies, be fun to read, and enhance my ability to get future books published — but it is not my magnum opus. I do not expect to see it mentioned in my obituary or carved on my headstone as an epitaph. It is just another book in what I hope will be a long line of successful books that I write and publish. I can pout about it — as well as bitch and moan in this blog — but after the pity party ends, I must shake it off and move on down the road.

This is the lesson for writing — and, if I want to be pretentious, for life — we all suffer our setbacks and disappointments, but there is no use in dwelling on them. We must pick ourselves up and move on to the next thing. What is the old adage? The difference between a winner and loser is that they both get knocked down, but the winner gets up at least one more time than he gets knocked down.

Winning means getting the book published no matter how often one gets knocked down in the process.

I remember how upset I was when I was haggling with Rutledge Hill Press over my 2004 book Life and Death in Civil War Prisons. The press made me cut two chapters so the marketers could print fewer pages and price the book below $25.00. I was furious. It reminded me of the famous scene from the film Amadeus when the emperor tells Mozart to cut some notes from a musical composition. I am no Mozart, but I certainly understand the frustration when a non-artist dictates modifications to an artist.

Amadeus--"Too Many Notes"

How dare commerce trump art! I raged against the dying of the light, but make no mistake — the light died. The publisher had the final word. I begrudgingly cut the two chapters from Life and Death in Civil War Prisons (which, by the way, I wanted to call Secrets of My Prison House, based on a Shakespeare quote from Hamlet, until the publisher forced me to change the title).

As a postscript to the prisons book: I turned one of the excised chapters into an article, “Faces of the Florence Stockade,” for Blue & Gray magazine in 2010. A PDF version of the article can be found under the “Books and Articles” tab of my website. Even a setback can be transformed into an opportunity upon occasion.

I fretted about the assault on my artistic integrity when I prepared Life and Death in Civil War Prisons back in 2003. Honestly, though, it was a lot of time and energy wasted on a relatively trivial matter. Aside from me, no one cared then, and no one cares now.

My advice is this: When the publisher insists on changes, the author should decide when to acquiesce and when to fight. Realize, however, that you probably will lose the fight. In that case, you have to decide whether to walk away from the deal or submit to the publisher’s whims. Walking away may involve breach of contract, so keep that fact in mind.

Pick your cliché: Half a loaf is better than no loaf. Why snatch defeat from the jaws of victory?

I have always believed that a partial victory is better than no victory at all. Eyes on the prize — Get your book into print. Everything else is noise or distraction.

Okay, so maybe I am a whore. I have become such a whore, in fact, I sometimes joke that I will do anything to get my work into print. Cut some or all of the chapters? You bet! Change the title to something stupid and inaccurate? No problem! Rewrite it into iambic pentameter? Yes, my liege! Remove the verbs? You got it! Sorry — that should be, “You it!”

Why am I so accommodating? For this reason: Whores get the job done.

Don’t stand on principle. Stand on success. Get the job done. Be a whore, and a good one.

So, yes, I am pouting now, but my book will be published and eventually I will be the only one who knows or cares about the compromises I made along the way.

Terrorist Attacks on American Soil: From the Civil War to the Present is scheduled to appear in November 2012, assuming the date does not change, as it already has several times. I will provide details in a blog posting closer to publication time.

Thus endeth the sad, sorry lesson on compromise.


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