Recently, I completed editing the proofs for my forthcoming book Clockfire, due out of Coach House Books this fall. Editing proofs is an odd thing. It’s your last chance to make changes or to catch errors before the publisher more or less “carves the book in stone.”
Most of the time, this “approval” process is basically a spell-check. By the time the book is at this stage, it’s been edited a number of times and there aren’t a lot of errors. Also, a lot of the things you might want to change as an author — like the font or the page design — simply aren’t things you have any control over.
Since this book and my last book (Ex Machina) are both being handled by small presses, I’ve got a lot more control than large-press authors. Small presses tend to cede greater levels of control to authors given that they aren’t paying out large sums of money to authors. And the culture of small presses is generally more congenial. Besides, for poetry, there is so little money involved that no marketing hive-minds bother to issue insane declarations or buzzspeak demands.
(You also get more input if you aren’t crazy as hell and make genuine efforts to be pleasant. Or simply don’t make idiotic suggestions. If I demanded that Clockfire be set in Comic Sans, I don’t think that idea would be entertained. In this instance, I didn’t make any font requests, just approved the font suggested. The very fact that I was asked about the fonts sums up nicely the attitudes of these two presses concerning how to work with authors. Most authors don’t care about fonts, though they should, but are always worrying about cover design. That’s something I’d like to discuss later, in another post.)
I find the proof stage to be strange. It’s the first time that I’m hit by the fact that the book will actually exist. It’s the first time the manuscript looks like a real book — it’s laid out exactly how it’ll be printed, page-by-page, just not bound — and it’s the first time that you’re forced, as an author, to confront the words you wrote presented to you in pages you didn’t design and type up yourself.
It’s alienating, in a good way. It alienates you from the text and lets you view it, literally “view” it, as the reader will (although never with the same degree of innocence). It looks suddenly like something you didn’t write and you can get about as much objectivity as you’re likely to get before you can’t make anymore changes (because the book is published) and this objectivity is no longer useful.
I think I enjoy seeing the proof for the first time as much as I enjoy seeing the published book for the first time. By the time you hold the published book, your work is done (aside from anything you’ll do to promote the book). I like finishing things, but my real interest is in the process, so the proof is exciting because I know I’m near the end but still have a last-minute opportunity to engage with a project I’ve been working on for some time (I started writing Clockfire in 2007 although I made gestures towards the idea in 2006). All the stupid things I was worrying about regarding the manuscript seem to melt away when I see the proofs, and I can see at a glance what’s working and what needs some last-minute work.
This makes me a slow, detail-oriented reader of proofs, which I’ve sometimes read also for literary journals or my friends. I read the ISBN numbers and check to make sure that they are the same everywhere. I read the press’s address and phone number. I read the page numbers. It’s usually a waste of time but on occasions I’ve actually caught something.
Of course, I read all the stuff you’d normally read too. As I say, by this time you’ve gone back and forth with the press’s editor and made any significant changes. But the proof is your last chance to cut a cliché, fix some awkward phrasing, or do anything at all which now so obviously NEEDS to be done. I tend to do last-minute pruning, but in this case I did a few more substantial rewrites and redrafted one entire poem.
I also fixated on a few lines, as I do, and have to thank Alana Wilcox and Kevin Connelly for not saying, “Why they hell are you fixating on these stupid phrases, which are fine anyway” and instead offering rewrites of their own. Pay attention, kids: that’s how you can tell a good editor from a bad one. A good editor treats even a stupid fixation seriously, while keeping the train on the tracks and moving forward.
Maybe I’ll become jaded by proofs and the general publishing process as I put out more books, but for now I’m professing proof-love and general Clockfire excitement. I know some authors read this blog, so I ask you: how do you feel about your proofs? Excitement or anxiety?