Working With a Book Packager
Today, I am so pleased to be able to talk about one of the best aspects of publishing: the fact that it can be so close to being a bakery, particularly when we start talking about your options: querying, finding a publisher or even working with a book packager.
Bear with me on the bakery thing. I promise this is not me just being hungry. I’m talking about paths and processes. There is no cookie cutter needed or a specific prerequisite in order to have a lovely slice of warm, icing-oozing deliciousness on your plate and dig in with pride knowing that you baked it. Sometimes, you went the whole way from scratch: raw idea, hours of frustration in front of your torture device of choice (laptop, pen and paper, hopefully not a stone tablet because then you’re really making the rest of us look bad with your dedication to premature gray hairs) and, hopefully, an agent and a publisher and a book on the shelf as the light at the end of the tunnel – or, sticking to the metaphor, the delicious cake rising in the oven while you prop up your feet and take a well-deserved Netflix break.
Ha. Kidding. You go right back and open a new .doc file and start all over again because you don’t know the word “break”. It’s totally not part of your vocabulary.
And sometimes, you get a little help at the beginning. You are still stirring the ingredients together, but they’ve already been set out for you to add your own particular flavor to. There’s an expert on the floor who is reminding you that you got this, has some words of wisdom to calm you down when you forget to pre-heat the oven and who standing next to you, ready to check that suspiciously soggy middle and reassure you that it can totally be fixed when it comes out.
And this is where we get to the actual heart of this post: working with a book packager.
What is a book packager?
First of all, let us define what a book packager is. If you think of a publishing house as the oven and the literary agent as the master chef who crimps up the sides of your promising dough, a book packager feels like a little bit of the second and extra preparation for the first: they develop wonderful recipes, match them up with the right enterprising hands to work them into delicious confections and give them a little extra TLC and support throughout the prep time, and then see which oven has the right temperature to bake them into perfection.
My particular experience with regards to book packaging focuses entirely on my work with Cake Literary, spearheaded by marvelous YA authors Sona Charaipotra and Dhonielle Clayton with excellent literary agenting and legal wrangling by wonder agent Victoria Marini of ICM. I’ve been working for Cake since 2014 (when I started as an intern on social media) and ended up sliding my chair over to the other side of the desk in 2015 when I auditioned as a writer.
From the vantage point of 2017 and graduating from being a baby writer to a debut author within a month (kidding, I am still a baby but I’ve just learned how to stand), I’ve had plenty of time to appreciate that extra TLC and support during manuscript prep time and I think I can speak on particular misconceptions that plenty of people may have about working for a book packager (I had them, too!) and the hidden benefits you might not consider.
So. Let’s talk about the messy fears first so we can mop them up.
What are the worries about working with a book packager?
First of all, the big one: “You’re going to be working with a book that isn’t yours.”
From the flip side of having toiled for hours over my book, my characters and their world – I can tell you that isn’t going to happen. For one thing, a packager is looking for you: your voice, your talent, how you coax words from flat-tasting, floury heaps in your mixing bowl into literally rising to the occasion with vim and vigor and more richness than even you might have expected from the first audition.
Any idea, even one that comes from within you, requires that extra time to process it and work through it and figure out how to make it completely yours, and by the end of all that time and baking, there is no way you are going to look at that manuscript and think it is not yours. You know every word, and you’re the one who gets to sign your name to it. When it’s right, it’s right.
The next stumbling block focuses on all that time readying for the oven – and how it might take away from your own recipes and potential delicacies while they are sitting in the freezer ready for show time.
I am not going to tell you that writing for a book packager doesn’t take too much time, because it does, but it also does not dominate. As with anything involving this industry, there are moments where there is rapid turnaround and you have to make a deadline – get the soufflé into the oven before it develops air bubbles, so to speak – and it’s all sugar flying in the air and smeared on your cheek, and then there’s the aftermath where you have to wait for the timer to go off again and you just don’t have anything to do that might distract you from your own projects.
Simply put: no, this is not going to put a crimp in your style and distract you from your own works in progress. I’ve had plenty of time to outline and plot and set aside notes, and often needed a moment to surface for air and think about something else just to get distance from the project on my plate, like always.
There’s also a lot of concern that putting your all into a project for a book packager isn’t going to pay off in terms of your career.
This just in: this thing, writing books for a packager, counts as part of your career, too. This is a writing credit. This is you proving that you work hard under deadline, that you have what it takes to stay with a prestigious outfit and bake with a taste they enjoy and feel proud to offer publishers, and it pays off with a book. All of that does count.
(I will also note, as an unrepresented author who is planning to query her own works independently, that being with Cake has given me opportunities to network and discuss plans for my career in a supportive environment, and I’ve heard similar remarks from friends at Paper Lantern Lit.)
What are the benefits of working with a book packager?
As I mentioned earlier, I definitely feel that there are a lot of benefits to working with a book packager: for one thing, those deadlines I mentioned.
Since I am a debut author, I hadn’t had that experience of being expected to do quick turnarounds, present samples from my draft and get almost immediate feedback in order to edit along the way or keep plot points in mind, and it’s definitely helped me think more about my own stories and their development, and the beats I want to hit in a particular plot.
Simply put, it’s made me a more organized author, one who realized that she needs an outline in order to turn out a faster, cleaner draft, and who is more understanding of the need for a process – and a bit (hopefully) more patient with herself as she devotes herself to working on making that process more efficient all around.
Also, having a team behind you to answer questions and make sure you aren’t lost about anything going on – whether it’s paperwork or a sudden substitution in the recipe that you aren’t sure about – is a wonderful, wonderful thing.
Writing, at the end of the day, is a solitary activity in that you have to sit down and put your ingredients together by yourself without anyone else typing up the words for you, but that doesn’t mean there can’t be people encouraging you to think the best of yourself and the story, and assuring you that there will be the right home for this marvelous creation you are collaborating on.
In addition, as an undergraduate student who started with Cake as a sophomore and is seeing her first book come out as a senior, it’s incredible to see just how and where writing can fit into my life without disturbing the rest of my schedule.
It gave me that sense of responsibility and balance that I think we so often have to learn on our own. I have a career and I was able to start it and work on my book while juggling homework and running to meet professors. It made me feel less like I was spinning my wheels and I was too young to be an official part of my community, and more like I was on the right path to publishing in my own way. At times, it’s felt very unconventional, but that’s also what’s amazing about book packaging: it proves that there is no right or wrong way to make it onto the shelves, as long as you have good people behind you and a tried and true recipe to help you get there.
If you’re considering auditioning for Cake Literary or Paper Lantern Lit, here is advice I feel qualified enough to give you:
- Definitely give a sample you are proud of and put your best foot forward.
- Be enthusiastic and optimistic, and be willing to seize an opportunity and try something new. (I’ve always thought of myself as not having the right voice to write an MG. Cake was sure I could – and apparently they knew best!)
- Don’t be shy about asking questions and make it clear you are confident in your abilities and your voice to order to make your project shine.
- Be ready for the ride! So much of this business is overwhelming and incredible once the ball gets rolling and I was appreciative of the people around me who reminded me to breathe, get what was on my plate done, not worry about what wasn’t there yet, and enjoy the experience.