On Acknowledgments

Gatekeeper's note: I swear on a stack of manuscripts that this is not intended for any of my clients. You are all gracious, lovely, well-researched human beings, and know all of this already.

Rather, this is a more detailed look at a part of the publishing process most of us only dream about. With that in mind...


Oh, snap. So you've got your book deal, you're about to send in the final draft, and you've been thinking about this moment for years. (Just the way ten-year-olds of the theatrical persuasion stand in front of mirrors with a play crown and gold toy and practice thanking the Academy.) But--uh-oh. You've written a 300 pages (I know you're too bright to have included acknowledgments with your proposal/partial/full--really, really you are), but this suddenly seems darned stressful. Whom do you thank? How much space do you have? Do you have to thank everyone? (No.) Should you thank your agent? (You'd better.) What about your preschool teacher who handed you your first piece of lined paper? The second-grade teacher that taught you cursive? Well....

You get about three pages. Sorry, that's the absolute max. It costs money to print extra pages in your book, you know.

Here, the obvious contenders:
  • Your agent (duh)
  • Your editor (also duh)
A note: if, for some reason, you hate both of them, you'll just end up looking bad if you don't thank them. Anyone who reads your book (especially if they're in publishing) is very likely to check out the acknowledgments to see which of their colleagues has contributed to a work. (Really! It's fun. And a great getting-in-touch excuse: "I was reading and loving _____ and saw it was yours! That's awesome! Let's have lunch.") And you don't want anyone in the industry to think you ungrateful or ungracious. Or oblivious. 

If you seriously spend your days wishing they'd burst into flames just so you can rush-order a drop-delivery of gasoline, well, then you could just include them in a big long list of people to thank. Would anyone realize that some of the other names are about as significant as your newspaper delivery boy who always takes out your plants/windows/small pets and the woman who sold you a pen ten years ago? No. No one will know but you. And those who know you well enough to ask, but they probably won't.

Some not-so-obvious contenders:
  • Writing teachers/professors/coaches 
  • Anyone who read a draft before the final one
  • Anyone who helped you find your agent
  • Anyone who helped you significantly in your submissions process
A not-so-obvious contender who no one will tell you about, but you're expected to know:
  • The agent's assistant. After all, except in very rare cases, were it not for him/her, the agent would never have seen your work. Whether they chatted with you on the phone, sent you long emails about how much they love your work, etc., is irrelevant. When I was an assistant, the vast majority of authors were very grateful and put kind words in their acknowledgments. But there was one writer (who I helped more than usual) who didn't. I'm still a bit displeased about that. 
  • Ditto with assistants at the publishing house. Really, thanking anyone who works in the industry is just going to make you look gracious. 
  • If you love your cover, and know the name of the designer, you can thank him/her by name.
  • Consider, basically, anyone whose name you learn throughout the process. 
Now, as for what to say. Yes, you can go with the whole list thing. This makes sense if the list is really, really long. (Careful, though. You'll look a bit ridonkulous if you have 300 names.) But personal comments mean, of course, the most.

I read one of my very favorite acknowledgments this morning, which made me think of all of this:
"Not only does [the editor] have the patience of Mother Teresa, but she can keep more balls in the air than any juggler I know, and never drops a single one. She personifies grace under pressure. If [she] weren't an editor, she'd make a great emergency room doctor, or head of state."

Sweet. Who wouldn't love to be called Mother Teresa, a skilled juggler, supremely competent, and worthy of massive world power all at once? Wowza.

And, again, to my lovely clients reading this: no, this is not a hint. I promise. Pinkie swear with a chocolate butter cookie on top. Or if, for some strange reason, you dislike chocolate (I don't think any of my clients are so silly), a ridiculously difficult, very pretty, rolled-up, candy-striped Martha cookie. That'll keep you busy for the next few hours.

Questions? Responses? Discuss.


Lindsay said...

First of all, I hope all of us find ourselves in this situation very soon:-)

I would think that it would be extremely important to thank not only the agent, assistant/s and editor (these people deserve more than a thank you for believing in our work as much as we do) but to also thank critique partners, beta-testers, muses and family that put up with our insanity while said work was in process.

When it comes to personalization, it seems to me that this should always be done for anyone who went out of their way to go above and beyond the call of duty for the benefit of you, your book or your career. Though this could include any number of people, I always think of the agents that pull things from slush piles and take the time to ask for revisions, rather than to reject immediately as well as AG's example of the assistant who rallied on a writer's behalf to get their work represented. Wow. I think those people deserve more than a short blurb but it's at least a good start.

Karen Amanda Hooper said...

Loved this post!

Sadly, I am nowhere near having to think about this part of the process, but it was still fun to read about.

My future A list already contains some awesome people.

I'm wondering if I should include International Delight for all the flavored creamers they have supplied during my writing sessions. Hmm...

Agency Gatekeeper said...

Yes, Karen. I think you should. :)

Anonymous said...

First off, I would like to thank GK for approving this message.

This is great advice. I must admit, I'm on the fence about whether one should thank beta readers. The ones who become dear lifelong friends certainly. . .but I'm not sure I've got any of those.

Here's the thing. . .many flake out before finishing the book, some flake before starting, and those who do finish are just as likely to flake before the next book (even if you've given comments for more than one full MS of theirs - yeah, I'm grateful, not bitter, don't get me wrong, but I also happen to be able to count).

And personally there are only a few MS's I've beta-read in which I'd be genuinely excited to be thanked for my humble contributions. And if I do thank someone who has already been "paid" in the form of a reciprocal critique, and they don't thank me back (assuming both find publication), well, AWK-ward.

And how do I know if my beta-readers really would want to be included anyway? Many of them can't be relied upon to return an e-mail promptly if at all. . .:)

I also want to thank authors who have been influential from afar, but then I worry the same thing. What if they or their living grandkids don't like the book? Should I try to get them to look at it before it goes to press and decide if they want to be mentioned?

Agent, editor, assistant(s). . .no-brainers, though, right? :)

But outside of that, so many pitfalls lurking. . .What to do?! More detailed etiquette suggestions, please! (We'll compile them into your book later).


Agency Gatekeeper said...

Okay. So let's say you have a critique group/writing workshop/book group/group of beta-readers. There will always be the one guy who writes badly and assumes he's got the most important work of everyone in the room and deserves more time. He'll probably go first and read with great (though often misplaced) emphasis--not unlike (bad) performance poetry (the kind that gets literal snaps), but almost.

Then there will be the sweet, scared ones, who read in quiet, shaky voices and offer to not take up as much time as everyone else.

Both of the aforementioned types will not be helpful critique-ers. The first will be insulting, rude and unhelpful; the latter will be wishy-washy, vague, and unhelpful.

So put a line through those.

There's also, usually, the strange dude with a lot of talent but who you'd never want to talk to too much or he'll ask you to dinner, like, every day.

There's the guy who comes up with a ridiculous idea (setting his otherwise boring story on the surface of the sun, say) and writes a new chapter for every session.

Then there's the workshop star--but he/she will be too busy.

Who does that leave? The ones who are your friends anyway.

Look. If you don't genuinely like someone, and they're not your editor, agent, or assistant to either, you don't need to put them in. As long as you have those four, really, you're golden.

From there, only the people you like get in.

Agency Gatekeeper said...

And I think thanking a published/famous author is a bit awkward, unless it's really obvious that your story comes from something they inspired. But if you do that, it'd only be polite to send them a quick note and a copy before publication. Depending on what you say/wrote/ripped off, they may not like you, but at least they had some warning.

Lindsay said...

Excellent distinctions AG and Anon. When I mentioned critique partners and beta-testers, I really was only thinking of the ones with staying power. Honestly, out of the handful of beta testers I use, only one of them would I think to include in the acknowledgements and yes, she is now a good friend.

Regarding the published author, I agree that it might seem odd to include them. A good friend of mine (and former college professor) has some 4 or 5 novels published and has assisted me along the way, yet I can't imagine him feeling comfortable in acknowledgements to be honest (let's take a moment to step into my fantasy world where these "acknowledgements" are something I need to consider for real:-). More than anything, I think he appreciated my phone call thanking him:-)

:) said...

Perfect! Thanks, GK and Lindsay!


Anonymous said...

I came here from Nathan Bransford's blog. I wondered whether writing acknowledgements before a final page count was established was pretentious of me. What if the signatures matched without any acknowledgements written.

So I came to read and have to say I'm shocked at what I found. To be mentioned in someone's work is a profound means of thanks by a writer, and to say that an agent (and an agent's assistant and the editor and the editor's assistant) are not only expected but obligated to be mentioned makes me uncomfortable.

Now don't get me wrong. I was raised with manners, say thank you, give credit where credit is due, etc. It's a profound frustration of mine when authors talk about how great their agents are but never mention them by name or list them on their websites.

But for the author to be obliged to mention his/her agent goes against the grain of the author/agent relationship. An agent receives 15% in exchange for representing and selling the author's work. Doing so is simply a fulfillment of the agent's job and not some great favor to the author.

If it was a difficult sell, if the agent stuck with it when things seemed bleak, these types of things seem appropriate for an inclusion of thanks. But for just doing what was already agreed the agent would do and then demand public appreciation makes me uncomfortable.

You make a strong point about it being good for networking and agency marketing, but that seems to warrant inclusion in the author bio than an acknowledgement.

Anonymous said...

Is it bad form (or insulting to your current agent) to thank an agent who inspried you but bailed on the project (in a nice way)?
Same for an early read editor who ended up passing, but offered great/helpful notes?
I don't want to upset current editor or agent.

Agency Gatekeeper said...

Anon #1,
You don't HAVE to acknowledge anyone.

But if you're hoping to have a long-term, happy relationship with your agent--do know that it may upset him/her to not be thanked in this way. It's a fairly standard practice, and I would hope that you'd like your agent enough to want to.

That said, if you don't, there is no official obligation. You could always send a thank you note/email instead.

Agency Gatekeeper said...

Anon #2,
That's a sticky situation. I think it might make more sense to send a lengthy, detailed email to those earlier agents/eds, tell them how much and what you appreciate, and that your book is coming out and it wouldn't be the same project without them. They'll understand, appreciate your graciousness, and certainly won't expect to be in your acknowledgments.

Snarky Agent-man said...

@Anon 8:39am: While GK is polite enough to say you don't have to thank anyone, I'm here to say you will look like a literary asshole if you don't. If you used your extensive publishing contacts to sell your own book, maybe even as a preempt or at auction, negotiated your own contract, settled a royalty or advanced schedule, or prevented the publishing house from screwing you over, then you don't have to thank your agent or his assistant, who was doing all the grunt work to make his life easier and more organized so that he could arrange your book auction.

If you advocated for your company to pay massive amounts of money to buy a project that you love and think will do well on the market, put that product through production for 9-12 months (while working on other projects on different schedules), coordinated with sales, publicity, and marketing to make sure that people know about your book, can get it, and care enough to buy it, then you don't need to thank your editor. Or the assistant that sent you your contract, organized your pre-publication blurbs, and made sure the editor had her head on straight.

People in publishing don't make heaps of money, but one of the few benefits is knowing that the author appreciated all the work that you did on their book, even off-the-clock, weekend-or-vacation work. It's one little thing that really does count.

And don't forget to thank your marketing, publicity, sales, and design people!

Lindsay said...

Wow, I lost track of this thread for a few days and it got interesting! Anon, while I have no experience with this yet, I can't imagine leaving one's agent out of the acknowledgements. Though I understand your point regarding agents being compensated for their sale of your book, I simply do not agree. After all, unless I am misunderstanding the hypothetical scenario, there wouldn't be a publishing contract without them right?

MBW aka Olleymae said...

Who knew that innocent-looking acknowledgments page could be so explosive?? I definitely do the day dream thing and already have several mental versions of my acknowledgments floating around my brain.

Thanks for the etiquette overview.

Also, Snarky Agent-man with the made up Blogger profile, you make some great points!

Karen L. Simpson said...

Thank you for this information. I'm finally in this situation and I had been wondering how go about this. Now I can start listing with some confidence that all the important people will be included.