Encounters in Publishing #2: Give Me a Hopeless Manuscript Any Day, by Maria Gagliano

I’ve wanted to be a book editor as far back as high school. I remember a specific conversation over coffee and chicken fingers at the diner with my friend Cheryl. I was telling her I wanted to be an English major when we got to Rutgers, and from there, figure out how to get into book publishing and become an editor.

“That’s cool. What would you do, exactly? Fix punctuation and stuff?” she asked.

“No, I think it’s, like, someone’s job to help people actually write the books,” I said. “I don’t want to get involved in grammar. No way.”

And I was right. It’s really someone’s job—my job, in fact—to help authors write their books. I’ve been doing it for almost a decade now, and I’ve seen my share of troubled manuscripts. Since I work in nonfiction, where people often write books because they’re an expert in a field, not because they’re an eloquent writer, I’ve had some particularly rough babies that eventually grew into real books.

But for all the heartache that manuscripts can cause, I never imagined my biggest battles would have nothing to do with what lies between the pages. The real woes, the ones that have made me question my life choices, usually revolve around one thing: the cover.

Finding a cover that the agent, publisher, publicity director, sales director, author, author’s wife, author’s entire social network, and author’s great aunt Flo all love is not easy. And it’s the editor’s job to collate everyone’s opinions, share them with the other parties, then report back to everyone else.

So, for example, say you’re my author. You share your cover ideas with me, which I then share with our editorial team and art director. A handful of your ideas are usually attempted, along with a few more we cook up in the meeting. Cover designs tend to emerge a few weeks later, some you’ll see, some you’ll never see because we don’t like them. I’ve worked at imprints where the editor shows the author just one cover—the one that the majority of people in-house feels is “the one.” Other imprints have the editor send several designs so the author can choose (or in some cases, so they can see why an idea that sounded good in theory is terrible in practice).

I click send on the email containing your cover(s), then wait. That’s when things get interesting. You might love it, in which case everyone involved is thrilled, and we start drinking early.

But chances are, you hate it. It’s not at all what you’d envisioned when you told me “a white background with an iconic central image, “ or “a funky graphic that’s at once edgy but not too ‘out there.’” And I can’t blame you. You’ve likely been dreaming up this cover for years, and here it is—finally! How can it possibly be everything you’d hoped for? Sometimes it is, and more. But often it just isn’t. It’s not anyone’s fault (well, sometimes it is, but not always).

From there, I attempt to gather some constructive feedback I can take to our art director. “She feels the font is too whimsical. She hates purple. She worries it looks too much like Eat, Pray, Love. Her focus group hates it. Her mom hates it. She hates it.”

Then I get a revised cover to share with you, based on our conversation, and the conversation I had with our art director. Chances are, you think it’s a little better, but something’s still off. The colors are wrong. The image is wrong. The title is in the wrong place. You hate it.

I go back to our art director. Tell him what you told me. I show you revisions. We talk. I pass on the message. Repeat. In the middle of this, we’re showing the revisions to different departments in-house to make sure it sits well with them. And while publicity says they love purple, sales wants whimsical fonts, the publisher wants it to echo Eat, Pray, Love, and I haven’t returned my mom’s calls all week, it’s my job to be the bridge between everyone in-house and you.

In rare instances, this goes on until we tweak a cover to a point where everyone is satisfied, but no one is 100% happy. But usually we keep at it until we have something everyone loves on some level. Sales thinks the buyers will like it. Publicity thinks the media would want to show it. Our publisher thinks it’s got bestseller potential, and I’ve finally come up for air long enough to call my mother.

We have a cover. Please, just don’t post it on Twitter and ask people what they think.

Maria Gagliano is a writer, editor, baker, and co-publisher of Slice. Her writing has appeared in BUST magazine, Salon, and, among other publications. When she’s not playing with words, she’s teaching herself to sew, garden, pickle, preserve, and cook like her Sicilian parents. She shares her (mis)adventures at