No Control

A recent post on Miss Snark reveals the horrible truth that often writers have no control over what their books are called. That’s right, folks, your publisher can change the title to something they deem more commercial.

There was much debate over the title of the first book in my trilogy. I’d always imagined Magic or Madness as the series title with the actual books being called Reason and the Two Cities, Reason and Margarita, and Reason defeats the Evil Monster Marauding Zombies from Hell. Marketing intervened and the series title became the title of the first book, leaving me and my editors to come up with new titles for books two and three and thus the whole working title thing of Magic! Magic! Magic! Oi! Oi! Oi!.

In addition to not having final say about the title. Writers also usually have no control over the following:

  • The cover
  • The jacket copy
  • What font it’s typeset in
  • Whether there’s an author photo or not
  • When the book is published
  • What format the book is published in (that’s right, Scott did not decide that the third book of his paperback trilogy, Uglies, should be printed in hardcover)
  • Whether there’s a signing in your town or not (when I do a signing it’s usually because a bookshop has requested that I do one or because my publicist at Penguin has arranged one or because I’ve set it up myself—though I’m getting too jaded to do that anymore)
  • The cost of the book
  • Whether it’s available in your country
  • Whether it’s available as an audio book

Am I missing any? Feel free to add more in the comments.

What writers (mostly) have control over is the words within the covers of the book. (You know, excepting the copyright page etc.) That’s pretty much it.

P.S. I was so cheered up by the good news comments that I’d like to invite you to all to keep sharing your good news. I’m contemplating renaming my blog the Pollyanna blog. Or the Gladblog. The glad game rocks!

P.P.S. Congratulations to all of you for your good days and publishing triumphs and award nominations and absence of cancer and every other thing. So wonderful!

P.P.P.S. And do keep us all posted on the outcomes of all that good news. Orangedragonfly, that means you have to let us know when your husband gets home. (If you’re allowed to, I mean.)

P.P.P.P.S. Sadly Ellen Kushner jumped the gun in the good news comments: Magic’s Child is not yet finished. But as soon as it is I’ll be announcing it right here. (That is when I recover from the over-the-top celebrations!). In the meantime, good luck with your books. May they all be reprinted often and wind up on bestseller lists! May your days be beautiful, your health excellent, and your loved ones close by! (That’s right, I am Pollyanna the Glad Girl. Just got my hair bleached blonde yesterday.)

P.P.P.P.P.S If none of this makes any sense it’s because I’m working too hard and as an Australian I find that I’m deeply allergic to it.

P.P.P.P.P.P.S. Don’t forget to add more stuff writers have no control over to the comments.

P.P.P.P.P.P.P.S. I go sleep now . . .


  1. David Cake on #

    Greg Egan has shown that writers CAN have control over many things that are generally deemed uncontrollable (in his case, jacket photos, and any publicity appearances whatsoever) if they are willing to change publisher when they don’t get their way. Of course, it helps if you’re Greg Egan and other publishers are lining up to take you.

  2. marrije on #

    No control over how long and whether the book actually stays in print.

    Depressing, that one. But it’s not going to happen to you!

  3. ebear on #

    Print run!

  4. robin on #

    Aw, the glad game! I was the most pessimistic child known to man, and the glad game still made me happy each of the 92 times I read that book.(Just call me Aunt Polly, I guess.) So…I’m glad not to have any control over the cover art, jacket design, or typesetting, because I have horrible, horrible, horrible taste.

  5. tricia sullivan on #

    I’ve had loads of input on cover copy, so I’m not sure that’s universally a no-go area.

    The title thing has happened to me twice, so yeah. Apparently my titles only make sense AFTER you’ve read the book, and for some silly reason publishers seem to think they need to make sense beforehand. Go figure.

    In the UK I have had input on cover art several times. One time I had input and they did what I wanted, and everybody hated it. After that I stopped commenting! Give people like me enough rope and we’ll hang ourselfs.

    No control is not always a bad thing.

  6. Barry on #

    i actually got to write my own cover copy and had at least a say in the cover art, though my say wasn’t the only one, nor was it definitive.

    As to things we have no control over: catalog copy and presentation; catalog space; blurb usage (you can get ’em but no guarantee they’ll be used); number of and distribution of ARCs; promotional widgets.

    More to come, I’m sure…

  7. LauraAnneG. on #

    NOBODY has control over print runs, except for a small, cranky gnome somewhere in the Publisher’s office, who speaks only to an even crankier gnome in the Sales office, who consults an Ouija board in the Big Bookselling Chain’s Central Office. S’truth.

    I see preliminary sketches for my covers from most of my publishers, but have no illusions that anyone in the art department listens to a damn thing the editor says, much less the author. They’re too busy dealing with the mischegas of their own talent (ie the artist).

    And Copy is a tricky thing — it’s been my experience sitting on both sides of the desk that authors often write the worst copy for their own material. In fact, Publisher A doesn’t like me to write my own copy — despite the fact that they pay me to write copy for other people in their list!

  8. LauraAnneG. on #

    oh, and I forgot to mention the one thing that’s really the most important: for the most part, we have no control over our editor. You can choose who it’s submitted to, but if Editor A likes it, but does’t have time to take it on, they can pass it along at any point to their up-and-coming assistant or co-worker. And if your editor leaves, the author often gets reassigned based on workloads, not preferences.

  9. Barry Goldblatt on #

    Hmm, I’ve never run into issues with the author photo before, but the rest is spot on.

    But, umm, Justine: are you honestly blond now???? I just can’t picture it. ;^)

  10. veejane on #

    Really, on some SF/fantasy covers, the author can’t possibly have worse taste than the editors do!

    I hate a lot of covers. I think I’d be a terribly cranky author, especially knowing I have no control over the process.

  11. shana on #

    I feel I would be remiss if i didn’t point out that many (though certainly not all) of these are points which a good agent will be able to acquire meaningful consultation on…

    definitely not all. publicity, book price, typeface, audio, film, and translation and most certainly not staying in print are some that of the ones that there’s very little that can be done about.

    and laura anne g’s gnomes make me feel somewhat better about the complete lack of control over print runs. let alone understanding of, prediction of, or translation of the meaningfulness of such print runs!

  12. Sarah Monette on #

    Also, the author has no control over whether there will be any indication anywhere that the book is part of a series.

  13. Malsperanza on #

    Slightly tangential:

    ~Whether a particular bookstore will stock the book. (Also: *publishers* have no control over that–despite what their authors often think!)

    ~Overseas sales and distribution: whether and where

    ~Whether there will be foreign-language editions and translations

    ~What part of the bookstore the book is in (e.g., “Fiction” vs. “Literature” vs. “Fantasy” section… publisher can sometimes but not always influence that; usually it is entirely up to the bookstore or distributor)

    Things an author can influence but isn’t always able to insist on/veto:

    ~Whether there will be footnotes, pictures, captions

    ~Anything to do with marketing at all

  14. little willow on #

    I’m often say that I’m the Little Red Hen, and if I want something done right, I’ll do it myself. Some of my friends don’t mind when their books are bought and made into things which do not resemble the original, and I just screech, “How can you be so blaze about it? How can you shrug it off? They did it WROOOONG!” Yeah. Lucky for the publishing world and the entertainment world, I plan on doing all of my own book-to-film/TV screenplay adaptations, thankyouverymuch. 🙂

  15. David Louis Edelman on #

    In my own personal experience, I did get a chance to see several different cover art treatments and consult with my editor over the cover. The jacket copy was my own, word for word. And funny enough, the typeface they used turned out to be the same one I write in (Garamond).

    From my own limited experience it seems that publishers are certainly willing to listen to ideas and suggestions about many of these other things in your list. But they’re not going to drag the author into the process; you need to be assertive.

    And even when they have no intention of following my suggestions, my editor has been happy to explain to me why not, and to point out that arcane piece of the publishing biz that I’m not taking into account.

  16. Melissa Marr on #

    Sometimes, though, they can go far the other way. My publisher (HarperCollins) has given me insane amts of control–cover copy, bio, photo, input on cover design, even selecting the model for the cover . . . areas where I had no expectation of control or input, other areas where I’ve shrugged and said “um, sure” because I’ve no opinion either way.

    The only area so far where I’ve wanted and had NO voice has been release date.

    It’s only my first novel though so I’m sure there will be other areas wherein I’ve absolutely no voice. . .

  17. Author on #

    My memoir was published last year by a major house with a 15000 first printing then a second of 2500. After 18 mos. the book has had a 64% return rate and the house has canceled the trade paperback. Has anyone else had this bad of an experience? My advance was $25K and I think we’re almost at breakeven/ I have yet to recive royalties.

  18. jonathan on #

    i’ve found the publisher sometimes *lets* you have control, right at the moment when you have no time and no resources to do so. you know, the kind of thing where they go, could you give us some cover copy *now*. that’s happened once or twice.

    on the willingness of greg egan to change publishers back upthread: i don’t think it was his *choice*. i don’t think he was up for it, and it happened. i think his publisher opted not to persevere.

  19. Rebecca on #

    you’re not seriously blonde. that’s some pollyanna joke. right? i have never seen pollyanna. but….are you serious?

  20. Ellen Kushner on #

    Sorry I jumped the gun – as that dopey girl says in “Les Enfants du Paradis,” “I have such faith in you….” (of course then he lets her down horribly and goes nuts). Looking forward to raucous celebration – though I suspect what you’ll really want to do is sleep for a week.

    I don’t want you to be blonde. Not even in jest. If you really want to be Glad, go for ringlets. Hee.

  21. Diana on #

    Dear Justine,

    Shut up and go write your book. I don’t want to see you on here again until your book is done.

    Much love,

    A fan who should take her own advice

  22. Karen Miller on #

    Voyager spoiled me rotten with my first 2 books. Not only did they ask what I thought the covers might be, they used a fantastic artist who cared about what I thought and consulted with me to make sure there were no screaming howlers contained in the artwork. And the design department made them look pretty. With my upcoming Stargate novel, I got asked about cover imagery and it was used, plus I got to write my back cover blurb. I expect I’ll have less input with Orbit on design, but after asking me to retitle bk 2 they gave me every chance to come up with something we both liked. I did, so phew. (That’s hard to do, retitle a book.) I’ve loved the covers they’ve done for other authors so I have no qualms for mine.

    I think I’ve been gosmackingly lucky. I hope it holds!

  23. Diana on #

    The title thing has happened to me twice, so yeah. Apparently my titles only make sense AFTER you’ve read the book, and for some silly reason publishers seem to think they need to make sense beforehand. Go figure.

    There’s the rub. The first title I submitted for the second book in my series was roundly rejected for being too obscure (it’s a popular Latin phrase that would make perfect sense not long into the book, and besides, it’s got the series title in it!) But who understood “Prisoner of Azkaban” before reading? Blah.

    I got no say over my flap copy, but then again, many parts of it were lifted straight out of my original query letter and synopsis, so I had no complaints. I got minor input on my cover, but then they changed it anyway, and then all I haggled about was the size of my name (which they made larger upon request).

  24. mathman on #

    Author, if you got the standard hardcover royalty rates (10%), even with no increased royalty once more copies are sold (say, increase to 15% after 10k copies, etc.), and your hardcover was the usual $24.95 (let’s say $25 bucks for ease of math), then you did not earn out your advance. You sold 6300 copies (17500 with a 64% return rate), and “earned” $15,750 in royalties, which is still almost 10k short of earning out.

    If you got another common royalty breakdown (i.e., 12.5% after 5k, 15% after 10k), then you STILL would not have earned out a 25k advance, and would only have “earned” about $16500 and change. I don’t think you’re anywhere near breakeven unless your book was much more expensive than the average hardcover, your publisher got a lot of pre-publication money back on foreign or subsidiary rights, or your royalty rate was about twice the average.

    I’m sorry you had a bad experience. I wish I knew more about how the memoir industry works.

  25. n.c. murphy on #

    I’m a writer (yet to be published) I found your blog through a goggle search of Jill Grinberg. I am submitting my YA/Fantasy series, The Secrets of Pretty Penelope(at least that is what I call it for now, no power correct?) to her this week and was some looking for more insight.

    I loved your comments on what writers have no control over, it makes the hair on my neck quiver. After putting so much thought, so much time and effort. All the hours researching agents, publishing houses. All the months agonizing over characters, names, birthdates, conflicts, love interests, etc. The tast of picking out a title (falling in love with it) and calling your MS that title for years (six) only for it to be gutted by a stranger, sad really.

    Just my thoughts.


  26. lili on #

    Sometimes no control is a good thing.

    I wanted to call my novel ‘East of the Sun’. It was a good name! it was meaningful on so many levels. but they didn’t like it.

    i groaned and moaned and came up with lots of others and then settled on ‘Scatterheart’, which is so. much. better. and now i hate ‘east of the sun’.

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