Thursday, 2 December 2010

A Cautionary Tale Meg Harper

This won’t be an erudite blog – it’ll probably be more of a venting of current angst – but hopefully it might be helpful to anyone else involved in what I call para-writing ie. all the work that writers do that has something to do with writing but isn’t actually the thing itself! I love it – I’m not someone who wants to write all day, everyday – but it certainly has its moments.
So – the history. For the last three summers I have run a 3 day creative writing course for adults, with the aim of publishing an anthology of their work. The first year we published ‘Banbury Stories’, the second year we published ‘New Stories for Old’ and this year we are still hoping to publish ‘Oxfordshire Originals’.
This year, one of the students approached me to explain that he was a small publisher himself. He publishes directories. He knows the process and thought he could do a better job than could be done through Lulu. He was interested in the idea of us forming a sort of co-operative. We would all agree to buy 7 books but would not contribute anything else to the cost of publication and he would aim to promote the book commercially. He thought he could cover his expenses and even make a small profit for us all. For him it was an experiment in publishing something more creative, he explained – and the group would get their work published to a higher specification at little extra cost. He hoped, if it was a success, to publish further anthologies of Oxfordshire Originals on the same basis – not quite vanity publishing but heading in that direction.
I am not a risk-taker on the whole, but on this occasion I thought it was worth a shot. The student seemed to know what he was doing and be very genuine and I still believe that he is. I agreed to be the editor of his version of the anthology as an experiment. Unfortunately, I don’t think he had enough awareness of how time-consuming editing is and we have, I think, had a misunderstanding about what was meant by ‘the stories are to be ready by the end of November’. To cut a long story short, despite my best efforts and protestations, he has gone to press with a book which has far too many minor errors in it for my liking.
I explained my discomfort and asked him to get in touch with his printer urgently to delay the print-run but he has refused and instead is threatening to abort the whole project . I therefore emailed the contributors to ask if they would prefer to go ahead or for me to do my usual Lulu version after Christmas and I’m waiting for the verdict. So far, its 2 all! Meanwhile, the student has emailed the contributors, telling them that I’ve lost faith in the project (untrue) and offering them a different deal which really is vanity publishing.
Deep sigh. What do I learn from this apart from not to take risks?
1. Not all publishing is done to the same high standards of editing! Clearly certain directories are not!
2. Just because someone is a publisher, he/she won’t necessarily know how long the process of editing fiction takes.
3. We are vulnerable. I feel my goodwill has been taken advantage of here. I have put more time into this than if I had been creating my own publication, all unpaid, but am not being treated as an equal partner in the process. I may be being paranoid but I think there are people out there who see publishing as a way to make a quick buck because other people are so keen to be published. That makes writers who also work as creative writing teachers vulnerable and also their students.
4. Some people don’t care about perfection – they just want something published. Others care very deeply that a book is as perfect as it possibly can be and will hold out for that. I have both sorts in my creative writing group – and it will make this situation difficult to resolve.
Perhaps I have felt even more perfectionist than normal because my latest book, ‘Stop, thief!, a book of only 500 words has a glaring misprint on (would you believe it?) page 13. Apparently, the wrong file was sent to the printer! Ironic, hey?
Well, wish me luck! There are some good stories in the book so if it does get published by my student, you can order it from Amazon and enjoy – and count the errors too!

Meg Harper
Latest book: ‘Stop, thief!’, published by A&C Black


catdownunder said...

I think I might be the perfectionist type - which surprises me because I am very untidy! However, putting your writing on display is surely like putting yourself on display. You want to be noticed but you also want to be noticed for the right reasons. You do not want to be noticed because your filthy shirt is only half tucked in and your shoes, fingernails and hair are dirty. You want to look as if you are put together in some sort of coherent fashion, not just as if you grabbed any ill-fitting garments from the wardrobe. It is pride in onself or, in this case, the work you have done.
All I can say is that I sympathise!

Meg Harper said...

Very well put, Cat! Thank you! Though I see something has gone wrong and we have two blogs today. Oops! Sorry folks, it it's me!

Elaine AM Smith said...

It is hurtful to know something could have been better than it is. I feel for you. You have responsibility on top of your personal perfection-ism.

Nicola Morgan said...

Meg, I'm very sorry you've had this experience. All you say is true, but it's not just that some people are not as perfectionist as others: it's that some people don't even recognise the seriousness of errors, or even notice them sufficiently. They seem to think this is pedantry, but the majority of readers, pedants or not, HATE it when they see an error, and even if most readers will miss most errors, most will find some. So, you are absolutely right to have taken the stance you did and I'm just very sorry your professionalisn wasn't respected or valued.

Linda Strachan said...

What a horrible experience. You are not being a perfectionist because you want things to be correct - you are being professional.
You have tried to do the best for your students and someone else has not only messed you about, they have tried to damage your reputation with your students, which is unforgivable.

I also know how horrible it is to see mistakes in your book once it is printed because it has happened to me. It is worse when you know the error was not yours - but your name is on the cover so you are thinking that people will assume it was your mistake.
Even though it is probably etched in your heart, try not to let it worry you too much. Chances are most people will not notice it or will ignore a single error because they are too busy enjoying the story. Don't let it spoil your joy in your new book.

Stroppy Author said...

I do feel for you, Meg - how frustrating and upsetting. But perhaps the publisher will have learned something from this. I don't think I'd trust any of his directories, though!

Penny Dolan said...

Meg, this is the sort of soul-destroying as well as time-consuming tangle that it's so easy to walk into and hard to get free from. You, as the tutor, are right and professional in wanting perfection (or as near as possible) for the writing's own sake and as a good work standard for your students. The person who offered to do this has - probably not intending to - tweaked his "student" role into his professional printer/publisher role and therefore doesn't like being challenged. No wonder it's got complicated!!! Don't let it get to you too much. Go with what most people want, and remember for next time. As you say, some people just want to be "published" BUT sadly that doesn't actually mean they want to spend serious time on improving their starry project. nb. You do not need to have your name on the cover, either. But a horrible twist when you have put so much into the group, been open with them, and then found this hasn't been reciprocated. Do something nice for yourself soon.

Julie P said...

You must be so disappointed and it's put you in such a difficult position. I'm sure it will be resolved in the end and I should imagine you've all learned something through it. What a pain though.