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A Discussion With Lisa Rojany-Buccieri, a Book Doctor

"Anyone who doctors your book, makes you pay for publishing and printing the book and then says they can sell all your inventory, probably also has some swamp land in Florida they'd like to sell you."

By RoseEtta Stone


Lisa Rojany-Buccieri is a publishing executive with 15 years' experience in the industry. Lisa has also written nearly 40 children's books and co-written one NY Times bestselling adult nonfiction hardcover, Fund Your Future (Berkley, 2002) with Julie Stav. Her books have received various accolades, such as reaching Number 1 on the Publishers Weekly Bestseller List two years in a row (Make Your Own Valentines, PSS/Putnam), and winning the American Bookseller's Pick of the List (Giant Animal Fold-Outs: Kangaroo & Company, PSS/Putnam). King Arthur's Camelot (Dutton) was selected to be a Book of the Month Club selection; Child Magazine chose her Exploring the Human Body (Barron's) as one of its Best New Parenting Books; and The Magic Feather (Troll) won a Parent's Choice Silver Honor Award.

Lisa is currently spearheading a new children's book packaging and publishing division at Americhip Books, focusing on integrating light, sound, animation, paper engineering, and other cutting-edge technologies with stories and art. She has been Editorial/Publishing Director for Golden Books, Price Stern Sloan/Penguin Group USA, Intervisual Books, Gateway Learning Corp (Hooked on Phonics), and others. She is often called upon to speak about children's publishing, writing, and editing at U.C.L.A. Writer's Program Extension courses and other venues. Right now she is working on a book for Wiley entitled Writing Children's Books for Dummies (due out in spring 2005). She also runs her own company, Editorial Services of Los Angeles, in which she helps other writers make their work the best it can be.


RoseEtta Stone: Why Lisa, when the Internet is overflowing with writing courses, workshops, forums, groups, and guidance, etc.; when writing classes are offered in schools nationwide; when critique groups in all writing genres abound; when more self-help and how-to books on writing are available than can be read in one lifetime, would anyone ever want or need the services of book doctors?

Lisa Rojany-Buccieri: Writing is often a solitary activity. We get so involved in our stories that once we commit them to hard copy and print them out, we have this strange notion that our work is complete, that it is written in stone. However, often the work has just begun. How do you begin the process of rewriting? Usually the process starts with feedback. How do you get feedback you can trust, from someone who knows what they are doing, and someone who will let your voice shine?   My experience tells me that people need unique feedback to their unique manuscript issues, a generalization or an exercise in a how-to book simply is not exact enough. Sure, you can try all those other venues, and I would recommend them for writers still looking for their niche. But if you hit a wall and you want concentrated, caring help from someone who will take their cues from you and help you through the process to make your work the best it can be, book doctors and editors are the way to go. Remember, even editors like me need editing feedback when they write.

RES: How long have you been working privately as a freelance book doctor, and approximately how many clients have you worked with, so far?  

ROJANY: Fifteen years as a writer and editor. Hundreds of clients so far, both corporate (publishing houses), and private (writers like you and me).

RES: Please explain the difference between book doctors, editors, and ghost writers.

ROJANY: Good question! I think all three overlap, frankly, just like freelancers can also be called independent contractors. In general, a book doctor is pulled in sometime during the writing process to make fixes that the writer cannot or does not want to make. An editor is also pulled in sometime in the process and works with the writer (and often the publisher), to help the writer make the necessary fixes. A ghost writer is hired from the start to do most of the writing. All are usually uncredited.   All three, if they are doing their job well, make sure their input is invisible. Throughout this interview, I will refer to editors and book doctors synonymously, as do most of my colleagues.

RES: When do you believe writers should hire book doctors: before submitting their manuscripts to publishers or after receiving a certain number of rejections, (how many)? In other words, should they attempt to have their first book published on their own, then come to you when and if all else fails? Or come to you first?

ROJANY: I think that as long as the writer is part of a writing group or a writing class and has done some research into the process so as not to appear to be a dilettante, that he/she can go ahead and submit the manuscript to appropriate publishers, making sure the manuscript is in the correct format, etc. Just make sure someone with a good editorial eye reads it over for glaring errors. How many times a writer can take rejection before they figure something is wrong is subjective and individual. Writers who have been published usually get an editor to look over something first so that they always present their best foot forward to the publisher. I have noticed that the more serious a writer is about their writing, the more committed they are to the editorial process.    

RES: "The more committed they are to the editorial process?"

ROJANY: The back and forth feedback of two people, editor and writer, committed to making the manuscript the best it can be.

RES: Do most book doctors feel that their expertise extends to all literary genres? Or does each one specialize only in a certain specific type of writing (i.e., childrens' books, mysteries, cookbooks)? And should writers choose book doctors making the former or latter claim?

ROJANY: Again, it depends. With childrens' books, most editors have a potpourri of experience and can work on almost anything in terms of style, flow, plot, readability, characterization, etc. I'd say that applies to grown-up fiction as well. However, with nonfiction, it depends on the editor's experience and the complexity of the material. For instance, I just finished co-writing a financial book on mutual funds ["Fund Your Future," which will be published in December, 2001], a subject about which I knew nothing. However, my job was to make the material understandable, so my lack of expertise was actually quite helpful, because I could tell right away what was understandable to the layperson and what needed more work.

"Caveat emptor: Buyer beware"

RES: What are the best ways, Lisa, of finding legitimate, reputable, highly skilled, ethical book doctors, and what credentials, experience, and/or background should they possess?

ROJANY: Work with writers' organizations and make your editor or book doctor send a client list or resume before you hire them. Also, always make phone contact if possible beforehand to make sure you are compatible, and comfortable, and can work together.

RES: How can one avoid unscrupulous "book doctors," who, for example, make specious promises or claims, and prey upon writers by perpetuating hoaxes that are only exposed after writers spend large sums of money they can ill afford for "services" they never receive?

ROJANY: Caveat emptor: Buyer beware. Check up on them; that's your job.   If they are affiliated with an organization, chances are that organization knows something about them.

RES: Can you give us examples of the types of promises (made by fraudulent or unqualified individuals claiming to be book doctors), that potential clients should be wary of?

ROJANY: Anyone who promises that they can get a book published by a major publisher is full of it unless they ARE the publisher. Anyone who makes you pay for publishing and printing the book and then says they can sell it probably also has some swamp land in Florida they'd like to sell you. And if someone offers to agent a manuscript for you for a fee, say 10% of all monies earned, it is then considered unscrupulous for them to also charge an editing fee themselves, (though it's OK to refer you elsewhere).

RES: What, generally, are the actual services provided by legitimate book doctors? And how are fees based on these services calculated?

ROJANY: Book doctors, like editors, offer a range of services. The more complicated, the more they will charge. A simple read-through and proofreading with a comment letter might result in a lower fee, while a complex line-by-line edit would be more. As for my colleagues' fees, they are all over the place. I charge by the hour and I make clients pay up front for the hours I estimate it will take. If it looks like I will go over the agreed-upon time, I call to make sure it's OK. If I do it under the time agreed-upon, I return the money.

RES: It shouldn't be assumed, then, that most book doctors' services and rates fall within a comparable range?

ROJANY: Doubt it. People with more experience and more of a track record are going to charge more than someone with just a good eye and an English degree.

"The writer has to make a decision. If his or her work is not getting the response he/she wants, then either choose to do something about it or get out of the profession."

RES: In regard to finding book doctors -- and the belief that hiring editors (who, after all, knows what editors want better than editors themselves do?), guarantees publication, as does hiring similarly credentialed writing professionals. Is this a myth? If so, why, after paying for the services of skilled, credentialed, professional writing experts with long histories of successful publication, IS expecting your book(s) to be published an illogical or unreasonable presumption?

ROJANY: Wow--that's a loaded question! Well, you can have the most gorgeous manuscript out there and it might still not find a home. That's happened to many writers and it will continue to happen forever, unfortunately. Publishing is cyclical, so that often affects what is considered "hot" and "timely." There are a lot fewer publishers these days, so you have fewer venues to submit to. Sometimes a great manuscript never gets past the opinionated intern reading it. There are more reasons why books do not get published than there are reasons a book is published. That said, there are exceptions. One thing I can tell you for sure, getting published has a lot less to do with talent than with perseverance. However, just because something gets published doesn't mean it's good or ought to be imitated. A lot of what gets published has zero to do with style and story and characterization and grammar and everything to do with politics, timing, market holes, perceived need by the publisher, who you know, etc. You name it. Also, different houses have different standards. What's considered award-winning material at one house might not make it out of the slush pile at another.

Really, the writer has to make a decision. If his or her work is not getting the response he/she wants, then either choose to do something about it or get out of the profession, while remembering that a story that is not considered timely one year might be just perfect another year at the same publisher! Writers need to use their judgment re: getting help or not.

RES: Is a writer, then, who doesn't get published after paying a legitimate book doctor for his/her services, ever justified in feeling that he or she didn't get his or her money's worth?

ROJANY: This is a subjective business. Unless a manuscript comes back untouched with no comments, then I would like to assume that the editor is honest about his/her work. As I said above, getting published may have nothing to do with how perfect your manuscript is.

RES: And, have clients who didn't get published in what they considered a reasonable amount of time, ever returned asking a book doctor to try again? Or, in worst case scenarios, felt victimized enough to accuse the book doctor of not fulfilling their contractual obligations? And/or demanded a refund on the grounds that the book doctor failed to meet their (the client's) expectations?

ROJANY: Many questions there. First, I have worked with clients before the book was submitted and after the publisher has suggested further changes, yes. Second, I am not aware of a writer demanding her money back from a book editor. However, I speak from the publishing side, which in my experience is still a "gentlemanly" profession, for lack of a better term.  

RES: Does the contractual relationship between book doctors and clients ever include referrals to literary agents, editors, or publishers? If not, considering the numerous contacts book doctors have in the publishing field, is it their usual practice to make informal referrals or recommendations to clients on their own?

ROJANY: Referrals are a very delicate matter. We don't want to use up our precious contacts for anything that is not stellar, or timely, or at the publishable stage. I offer up a referral very rarely and it is usually because I know a publisher who is looking for that type of material. Agents make it their job to provide that service, not book doctors.

RES: Conversely, can't book doctors, even bona fide ones, be charged with collusion for such referrals and recommendations, (the headline-making type of collusion wherein agents, publishers, and editors refer writers to each other -- the underlying motive not being publication, but separating clients from their money)?

ROJANY: Exactly why agents shouldn't edit and editors shouldn't agent -- at least not for the same client.

RES: Notwithstanding what does or doesn't constitute collusion, guaranteed publication (and not having to pay a book doctor one cent until your book is actually published), are there other common misconceptions concerning the services book doctors do or don't provide?

ROJANY: Extensive phone time counts as chargeable work after a certain point. Keep a list of questions. Don't abuse our time, especially if you have been given a good rate.

RES: Have you ever been satisfied with a "doctoring" job you've done, only to have a client disagree with your editorial suggestions or advice? How did or would you handle such a situation?

ROJANY: Depends on my position. As an Editorial Director in a publishing house, I get to make the final decisions and I go out of my way to make sure the writer is on board with me. As a freelance editor or book doctor, if I am hired by the publisher or editorial director, I let them duke it out. If I am hired by the writer, hey, it's her manuscript, she can take my advice or not. I never offer an edit without a good reason.

RES: How frequently, if ever, do you think book doctors come across a manuscript which they feel has everything right and nothing wrong with it, and merits publication just as it is? In cases where "doctoring" isn't necessary, is the client still charged a reading fee?

ROJANY: That's like finding a four-leaf clover; however, I have read some manuscripts that are so clean, strong, and compelling that my advice has been to submit as is, and let the in-house editor or publisher make the changes he/she deems necessary. And yes, if I spend time on something, I charge for it.

RES: Define a "clean" manuscript for us, Lisa.

ROJANY: No typos, correct formatting, rare misspellings or grammatical errors all the way to all issues such as plot and character being sufficiently addressed.

RES: And under what circumstances, if any, would you refuse a book doctoring job?

ROJANY: If I felt I could not do the material justice, or did not have the expertise necessary (say, for an arcane subject matter for a nonfiction job), in that case I will refer to a colleague who does.

"Not one book in the English language has ever been published without an editor making some changes."

RES: A few last questions: You spoke earlier about editors and/or publishers making changes that writers cannot or don't want to make -- what happens if and when writers like their work as is, and don't agree with editors' and publishers' proposed changes? If they'd rather have their book published elsewhere than be forced to make changes they don't believe will make their work any better than it already is?

ROJANY: I have really never heard of writers not letting editors or publishers make changes they felt were necessary. And I have never heard of any writer crazy enough (except for one with clout who has a powerful reputation), to pull out of a publishing deal because a publisher made them make changes they didn't want to make. If any writer is in this situation, then she would probably not be reading this in the first place.    

RES: And you also said that, "even editors like [you] need editing feedback when they write." Should we, therefore, assume that book doctors themselves, and even published writers, are at times in need of book doctors? Under what circumstances would that help be needed?

ROJANY: Everyone needs an editor and feedback; that's a fact. Not one book in the English language has ever been published without an editor making some changes. Anyone can get stuck or can improve their book, that's where we come in.

RES: You offer discounts to SCBWI members. Do you know whether book doctors generally give discounts to members of certain writers' organizations?

ROJANY: No idea. I just believe that if a writer is serious enough to educate him or herself, which these organizations give them a chance to do, then they are serious enough for me to give them a break.

RES: Finally, is there anything Lisa, that you could share with us from your illustrious career in book publishing, which would help aspiring childrens' book authors?

ROJANY: Illustrious? Hardly. I have so much to learn, just like everyone else, otherwise I'd be too bored to bother. I would say that it helps to belong to SCBWI because they can teach new writers so much about the business side of writing. I would also recommend belonging to a writers' group with two other writers whom you respect and feel comfortable taking advice from.   Keep up on what's happening in other media and entertainment forums because that affects the market, so read a newsmagazine and a trade publishing magazine and the newspaper at least once a week. Go to childrens' sections of independent bookstores, surround yourself with a pile of books, and sit on the floor like a kid so you can experience reading from their stature while spying on them to see what kinds of books they gravitate toward. And when you've got a story in good shape, volunteer to do something in a classroom so that, in turn, you can read this "story you found" to kids and get feedback straight from the horse's mouth; it's a great learning tool and since it's not "your" story, it frees them up to tell the truth.

RES: Thank you, Lisa, for this wonderful, in-depth interview.

*Note: Portions of Lisa Rojany-Buccieri's "bio" were quoted from SCBWI's "List of Freelance Editors & Manuscript Doctors," for which I gratefully acknowledge permission granted by Stephen Mooser, President of the Society of Children's Book Writers & Illustrators.    

Copyright 2001 by RoseEtta Stone. All rights reserved.

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