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Monday, March 19, 2012

Losing Control

Deborah Raney dreamed of writing a book since the summer she read Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House books and discovered that a Kansas farm girl could, indeed, grow up to be a writer. After a happy twenty-year detour as a stay-at-home mom, Deb penned her first novel, A Vow to Cherish, which won a Silver Angel Award and inspired the acclaimed World Wide Pictures film of the same title. Since then, her books have won the RITA Award, HOLT Medallion, ACFW Carol Award, National Readers' Choice Award, as well as twice being finalists for the Christy Award.  She and her husband, Ken, have four children and four precious grandchildren who all live much too far away. Visit Deb at

On a writers' loop I'm on, the discussion of authors' rights came up––how much of our story we retain control over, and how much we must give up. This was my response:

There are SO many places along the road to being traditionally published, and/or having your novel optioned for film, that you DO lose control over your property. It was one of the biggest surprises to me after I sold my first novel. (This is long and full of parenthetical asides––sorry!––but if you don't read the whole thing, please at least read the last few paragraphs to see why I'm NOT complaining!)
I signed my first contract in 1994 and I agented myself for the first 9 years. That was back in the day when the secular market had closed to unagented authors, but the CBA was still allowing writers to submit over the transom.

My acquisitions editor told me they loved my book and wanted to publish it. I assumed that meant somebody would fix my typos, punctuation and grammar, the book would go to press a couple weeks later, and I'd be holding my (NYT bestselling, Pulitzer prize-winning HA!) published novel in my hands a week or two after that. Ha! The first thing I received after signing the contract was a 12-page editorial letter––the substantive edit––with dozens of suggestions for changing the plot, deepening the characters, and CUTTING some of my favorite passages in the novel. I've now written for Bethany House, WaterBrook Press/Random House, Barbour, Steeple Hill/Harlequin, Howard/Simon & Schuster, Abingdon Press (non-fiction) and have contributed to anthologies, thus worked on a smaller scale with Tyndale House, Multnomah, David C. Cook (then RiverOak), and others, and I can tell you that 12-page letter was one of the shorter ones. ; }

One of the main plot changes the publisher wanted me to make completely derailed the theme of my book! I argued hard for that one, and won. Because I was brand new and didn't want to rock the boat, I deferred to my editors on most other issues. (Eighteen years later, I'd say I still take 85-90 percent of my editors' suggestions because I TRUST them! They know their stuff!! But I'm also much braver to argue hard for a point I disagree on.)

Anyway, after extensive rewriting (mostly to fix all my head-hopping POV issues and to change many, many telling passages to SHOWING) my book went back to my editor for line edit (more changes), back again for copy edit (during which we found at least one HUGE timeline/continuity issue that we'd ALL missed in the early edits!) then back to me in galley form for one final read. And FINALLY, 15 months after I sold the book, it started showing up in bookstores.

Somewhere in the midst of all those edits, I learned that my publisher rarely uses the author's title. They promised me they wouldn't use a title I hated, but they didn't plan to use the one I'd submitted. We settled on something I didn't hate, but didn't love it either––A Time to Cherish. A few weeks later my niece informed me that Robin Jones Gunn had a YA book out with that same title. I didn't want people going into bookstores asking for my title and being sold the far-more-popular-far-more-well-known (and very lovely and delightful, but I didn't know that yet!) Robin Jones Gunn's book! So we changed the title to A Vow to Cherish, which I still didn't hate, but loved a lot less than the first one.

My publisher chose a cover that wasn't what I'd imagined at all, but that I liked just fine. Mostly. And at least my name was on the cover.

A few months later, I learned that my novel had been optioned for film. And shortly after that, I got the contract, which signed over ALL control of my story to World Wide Pictures. But it was Billy Graham's film company, so I trusted that even if they changed everything, I would at least be happy with the message of the film. I was sent the script to read when it was finished but it wasn't for approval, it was just a courtesy. And believe me, they changed almost everything they could change about my novel. (And it had changed even more dramatically by the time my husband and I got to watch the premiere in Hollywood the following July.)

Still, I don't believe there's one thing about the above scenario that I would change if given the chance to do it all over again. I had SO much to learn about writing and about the publishing industry. Working with my editors who changed so much of my story was like getting a degree in fiction writing. And I have no doubt that my first book would have been my last, had I not been coachable and taken that direction from my wonderful editors. (That's still true today, with 20+ novels under my belt!) 
I'm apparently getting better at titles because I've gotten to use my own on my last 10 or 12 books. I've gotten some great covers and some not so great ones, and I get varying degrees of input depending on the publisher, but again, I'm learning to trust publishers who've been in the business for far, far longer than I have.

About that movie? If I'd put my foot down and said, "I won't sign unless you give me story approval, etc." I have no doubt the contract would have gone to someone else. And that movie launched my career.

My first contract with that traditional publisher (for 2 books) paid an advance that fully covered 4 years of room/board/tuition for our oldest son's college. (The REASON I started writing in the first place! And the reason, with 4 kids, that I'm still writing. 30 semesters down, 2 to go!)

Yes, my name is on the covers of my books (and the credits of the movie) and the copyright is in my name in the Library of Congress info. But I've given up a lot of creative control to partner with traditional publishers. And because of the ever changing definitions of "out-of-print," in some cases I've given up the option to get the rights back to my books. But despite the frustrations of not always getting my way with MY books, I wouldn't have it any other way!

The publishing world is definitely going through some serious growing pains (I could NOT traverse these current waters without my wonderful agent of 9 years, Steve Laube!!) and things are changing to where it's becoming much more possible to self-publish successfully, but for where I started and what I wanted out of the writers' life, I would give up that portion of creative control all over again. Yes, it's meant I don't always have a say about certain aspects of my own books! But I'm proud to have partnered with some wonderful publishers who've made it possible for me to work full-time at the career I've dreamed of since I was a little girl.


  1. This is so interesting and eye-opening to read. And makes me love and respect Deb even more than I already did as I see her gracious maturity and non-diva-ness to be able to see greater good in what others would view as deal-breakers or career hamperers.

  2. Deb, thanks so much for sharing your wisdom with our readers. And I agree, Linda, Deb is one of the rare grace-filled, non-egos. I want to be like her when I grow up.

  3. This is probably one of the most informative, insightful blog posts I've read in quite a while that really gives a glimpse into what craft and humility in authorship means. Great reading.

  4. Truly helpful! So helpful to have an eyes-wide-open view of how LONG the road is to actual publication. Also, to know the things authors need to fight for, versus the things they can cave on. Thanks for sharing your journey with us!

  5. Thank you all for your kind comments and for allowing me to share my journey. It's frustrating at times, but if anyone ever asks me what I'd do if I didn't write, I suddenly remember all the things I love about this writing life! : )

  6. This was so inspiring! My second novel is about to come out and I'm writing the sequel to my debut novel. Sometimes I get so weary thinking that it's just too hard. It takes so long to see the fruit of my efforts. But this article encouraged me to press on and to be ready to deal with the big guns if God so allows me the opportunity. Thank you!

  7. Congratulations, Sherri! And DO hang in there! It's grueling, and there are disappointments along the way, but oh, oh, so worth it!


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