Belinda Acosta: Book Packager

For writers who can meet deadlines and are team players, working with a book packager can be a great way to get published.

By Marcela Landres
Published on LatinoLA: July 5, 2009

Belinda Acosta: Book Packager

What do Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, Goosebumps, and the For Dummies series have in common? They were created by packagers, which are essentially production companies for books. A packager hires the team of people--writers, editors, illustrators, production managers, etc.--to make a book or series of books. The packager sells the concept to a publishing company and depending on the deal delivers a finished manuscript, or camera-ready proofs, or even bound books. For writers who can meet deadlines and are team players, working with a packager can be a great way to get published.

Read this month's Q&A with Belinda Acosta, author of the packaged novel Damas, Dramas, and Ana Ruiz, to learn more.

Belinda Acosta works as a journalist in Austin, Texas, writing reviews and features on books, film, and the arts, in addition to a weekly column on television (TV Eye) for the Austin Chronicle. Her work has appeared in Poets & Writers, Latino USA, Latino Magazine, AlterNet and other publications. She was a Michener Fellow at the University of Texas at Austin where she received her MFA in Writing in 1997. Damas, Dramas, and Ana Ruiz (Grand Central Publishing, August 2009) is her first novel.

For more info, visit: http://qclubbooks.blogspot.com

Q: Who is the packager behind Damas, Dramas, and Ana Ruiz and how did you connect with them?

A: That would be Ellen Jacob of Jacob Packaged Goods in New York. I responded to an e-mail Ellen sent out a couple of years ago, looking for writers for a vaguely described project. My curiosity was piqued and I responded. We corresponded off and on over a period of three months or so before the project was officially launched.

Q: Would you describe the process of writing a novel for a packager?

A: Ellen had provided a constellation of characters to work with and the backdrop (the quincea??era). Originally, it was to be a young adult novel set in Los Angeles. It was eventually changed to an adult novel, directed to women and mothers. The final logline, to use a filmmaking term became: a mother-daughter story centered around a quincea??era.

Since I had little knowledge of LA Latino culture, I said I would be more comfortable setting it in San Antonio, since I had spent some time there. It's ninety minutes from Austin, where I've lived for the last twenty years. Once the final logline was settled, I was left alone to make up the entire story, using some of the original character names Ellen suggested. They--meaning Ellen and Selina McLemore, the editor at Grand Central Publishing--approved the outline of the book, but ultimately I had a lot of freedom in developing the story, which was great. I'm sure I would have bucked against any more direct involvement. I don't write in a team nor have I ever wanted to work with a writing partner.

Q: What are the advantages of writing for a packager?

A: As a working journalist, I knew what it was like to write on deadline. It's how I've worked for the last 10 years. And since my own novel was stuck, I thought this would give me a break from my own work, would be a great way to work on another project that was challenging, see it to completion, and learn something in the process. And I did learn a lot. I have an MFA from the Michener Center at the University of Texas at Austin, so I have a huge appreciation for the art and craft of writing, but I'm not sure I was as strong in the mechanics of assembling a novel-length work. The mechanics I learned from being a working journalist, but the journalism pieces I've written are usually no more than 10,000 words. So, taking on a project that required 80,000 to 90,000 words was a huge leap. I felt sure I could deliver and I didn't think it would be easy, but actually doing it, in a compressed time period, was the hardest thing I've ever done. Harder than writing my Master's Thesis.

Q: What are the disadvantages of writing for a packager?

A: I don't know if my experience is typical, but what I hated was the extremely short turn around time. It was something like four or five months to turn around the first draft. Some extra time was tagged on when I had a family emergency, but only about two additional months, I think. Again, my journalism background makes me uniquely qualified to work under a hard deadline. What was new to me was learning what a deeply intimate process writing a novel really is, especially when you're writing it on a short deadline. It is in your head all the time. You sleep with it; it infiltrates your waking life and lurks around all your personal relationships. It's like having a perpetually nursing child with you at all times. Ideally, I would have taken a leave from my day job. I write a weekly column for the Austin Chronicle (TV Eye), the alt weekly in town, but that was not an option.

I've often joked that writing a novel is like being pregnant. You can't be pregnant then take a couple of days off because you want to slip into that smart cocktail dress for a day. The same is true of writing a novel, particularly when you're careening toward a deadline. While I had no choice but to juggle my day job and the novel, it was schizophrenic. Just when I got in a groove with the book, I had to stop and return to the column (or another feature--I also write reviews and features for the books, arts, and screens sections of the Austin Chronicle). Once I finished the column, I had to re-orient myself to the novel. It's not impossible, but my God, it was psychically difficult. Not impossible, but it was a difficult.

In many ways, I felt like a surrogate mother. Over time, since I was given so much freedom, and because writing a novel is such an intimate process, I eventually drew very close to the project. I created it from a basic idea: the words, the story, the characters, all of it. I would have never written a book centered around a quincea??era on my own, not because I have anything against them, but because it would have never occurred to me. That was all Ellen's idea. I got hired to deliver it. So, while she holds the copyright, I have my name on the cover and will share in the proceeds. So, if you're one of those people dying to get your name on a book cover but dread pitching to publishers, working for a packager may have strong appeal. Personally, my goal is to write a novel that stands the test of time. Will DAMAS do that? I have no idea but I think it's a fun read full of characters that I enjoyed discovering and playing with. In the end, I have a huge sense of accomplishment and I thank Ellen for the opportunity to bring her idea to life.

Q: What advice could you offer to writers who are considering working with a packager?

A: Know yourself and know your packager. Be sure the packager understands how writers work--or at least how you work. Get your own agent to represent you. Do not sign anything until you understand what is expected of you, how deeply (or distantly the packager wants to work with you in creating the work, and if that works for you. As I said, I don't want a writing partner, but if you need one, and the packager wants to play that role, that might be a viable working relationship for you. Ask questions, if you have them, and make sure you understand the response. Remember that your time is valuable. Time spent on a packager's project is time not spent on your own. I think there's something to be said for stepping away from your work and letting it proof. If you think you can stand a break from your work, then take it. I would encourage someone in a similar position that I was in to have a clear idea of what you want to learn from this project--not just what you want (most writers want to be published)--but what do you need to learn to become a better writer? How can taking on the packager's project add to your personal writing arsenal? If there is nothing to learn from the venture, personally, I would avoid it.

About Marcela Landres:
Marcela Landres is the author of the e-book How Editors Think. She is an Editorial Consultant who specializes in helping Latinos get published and was formerly an editor at Simon & Schuster.
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