Do Acknowledgments Right: An Author’s Guide

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An editor recently handed me the fresh-off-the-press copy of a book by one of my authors. “Ta-da,” she said with exaggerated flourish. Holding the finished book for the first time knowing you had a part in its creation can make any staid agent break out in a Broadway tune. Luckily for the editor, I didn’t launch into my rendition of “Defying Gravity,” but we were flying high as we chatted. I flipped through the crisp pages of the book until I got to the end, pausing at the acknowledgments. They took up a total of one short paragraph and looked as if my author spent as much time on it as I did with the grocery list in my handbag. I tried to hid my slight deflation as I left an otherwise upbeat meeting, kicking myself for failing to advise my client on this one thing.

Acknowledgments are the only part of the book that editors will not venture to edit, though maybe they should since many authors make unintentional missteps: They don’t put enough effort into it. They omit people they should have included. They skip it all together. Granted the section is of least importance to the reading public and many authors understandably run out of steam after delivering the manuscript. But imagine the winning screenwriter at the upcoming Oscar ceremony getting on stage and saying…nothing. The orchestra plays that infuriating time’s-up song so persistently because each winner has many industry people to thank. In Hollywood as in book publishing, it takes a village.

Here, then, is a guide for authors about this seemingly superfluous part of the book.

1. Don’t make it too personal

Sure, thank family and friends, but don’t forget the team of professionals who worked on your book. You probably know to tip your hat to your editor and agent but what about your editor’s assistant? She (or he), after all, is the person who puts in the check request to get you paid. She likely read your original proposal or manuscript and thought enough of it to pass to your editor for consideration. If you don’t know her name, look at reply emails from your editor about any administrative requests you had. The assistant is usually copied on them.

2. Include people you’ve never met

Your editor is your go-between in the publishing house, which means you don’t have contact with all the people who work on your book. Furthermore, many folks on the publishing side (versus editorial) responsible for marketing, publicity, social media and sales don’t get heavily involved until the manuscript is complete. While you may not appreciate their contributions until long after you turn in your acknowledgments, trust me when I say these people will be critical to your book’s success and deserve a shout-out. Find out their names and proactively thank them.

3. Apply the rule of omission

This should go without saying. Do not under any circumstance use the space to vent about anyone. Period. If you hate the cover design, express your disappointment by omitting the art director’s name. (Conversely if you love the cover, find out who she is and include her.) If you don’t think the publicist lifted a finger to help your book, I’ll bet she did more than you thought and would argue to include her. But if you absolutely don’t want to recognize someone, it is your prerogative. The three exceptions to the rule of omission are 1) your significant other, 2) your editor, and 3) your agent. No matter your personal feelings, you need to include all three in the acknowledgments. That’s what professional writers do.

4. Personality makes it personal

How do you thank a bunch of people effectively? Leave a little of yourself on the page. Be genuine. Try to avoid blanket-thanking a long list of names. Instead, group names in related clusters and say something distinctive about each group. You don’t have to be long-winded. Be enthusiastic. Be specific. Be yourself. You created an entire manuscript, for heaven’s sake. Apply the same care, voice and craft here.

5. Tips on managing

Here’s the best way to make sure you don’t miss anyone. Ask your editor or her trusted assistant for help. Or ask your agent to ask for you. Any of them will gladly put a list together. Note this is not your dedication. You usually limit the dedication to one or a few individuals, but feel free to go hogwild with acknowledgments. I’ve never encountered acknowledgments that were too long. That said, aim for 500–1,000 words — roughly up to the length of this piece, which is 900 words. If you can’t thank people effectively in that amount of space, seek help from an editor. I’m not being sarcastic.

Final thoughts

Authors, think of this as your Oscar speech minus the time-keeping orchestra. By acknowledging people who made your book possible, you make them feel special. In the good karma department, you end the book on a note of gratitude. And it doesn’t cost you anything. This is what’s known as a win-win situation. Why not take advantage of the opportunity?

If your book has gone to the printer and you neglected to thank some notable people, you can still publish acknowledgments on your book’s website. If you missed your chance with the hardcover edition, ask your editor about adding acknowledgments to the paperback edition. Same if there will be a revised edition of your book.

If all else fails, you can break out in a thank you song.

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