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The Perils of the Book-as-Baby Syndrome

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When I was small and ungrateful, my mother would quote to me from King Lear: “How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is to have a thankless child!” I would hiss at her, I was that bad. But what goes around comes around, and I’ve been coping recently with the painful experience of a seriously thankless author.

Thankless, miffed authors are nothing new at my little company. We’ve published about 250 books over the past 25 years, and have had our share. We’ve fixed their grammar, altered their prose. We’ve re-rendered their crude illustrations. We’ve let their books go out of print (when sales ran down to fewer than 100 a year). We’ve changed their titles. We’ve designed covers that they didn’t like. We have declined to send them on costly author tours. We have been crass, insensitive, wrong-headed, neglectful, and greedy. But this is the first time we’ve been sued.

What May Have Led to Litigation

I won’t say more (my attorney advises), but I’ve been thinking a lot about what turned this author, this lovely, creative, friendly woman (who wrote an excellent little book that has earned her royalties in the high five figures) into a serpent’s tooth, so to speak. We gave the book what we considered a more marketable title and cover design, and the proof of our judgment has been in the numbers. More than 70,000 copies have been sold, and sales are not only holding strong but actually increasing. She’s made more on the book than we have, so it can’t really be about money. I’ve decided it’s about parenthood. It’s about giving up a child and then being overwhelmed by separation pangs. About seeing your child raised by strangers–strangers who might be able to help it get ahead in the world better than you, but who will never love it as much.

How often have you had an author describe the creative process as a gestation? Or had an author mourn the actual publication of a book because now their nest was empty?

The language would probably be different if more of our authors were men. However I suspect the feelings would be the same–the feelings of creating something fine from scratch and then giving up control.

If you’re one of the many PMA members who are both authors and publishers of their own books, you get it all: the creation, the joy of giving your baby book a life, and the struggles of launching it into a cruel, competitive world. Of course, you also get to blame yourself if it bombs–a painful process, but easier on the budget than paying legal fees.

I’m trying hard to learn good lessons from this lawsuit, lessons that will help me be a better publisher, a better partner to my authors. And if my mother were still around, I’d be apologizing. Now I know how she felt.

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