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I came across this line in one of Nina Bawden's works:

I have only once written a book, not to order, exactly, but to please a particular audience; a girl of seven who was, as she put it, 'a little bit blind'.

I'm trying to figure out what the writer means by 'not to order' in this context.

I'd appreciate any help!

EDIT: Here's a bit of context: The author mentions in the same extract that the girl suggested an idea for a book to be based on jewel thieves and a blind girl who does something brave. Also, the author writes that she's impressed by her ability to navigate through dark corridors even with limited eyesight. Both these factors formed the inspiration for the book.

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  • Substitute “on request”
    – Jim
    Aug 28, 2016 at 20:51

5 Answers 5

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If something is "made to order", it means it is:

Made in accordance with particular instructions or requirements.

The interpretation of this particular question is tricky however. The three commas in the first part make it difficult to know without further context how to correctly parse it.

My interpretation:

The book in question was being refered to as being "[not exactly] written to order". In other words, it was not exactly written for one particular girl, although the author clearly had the girl at the forefront of her mind when she wrote.

Alternative interpretation (supplied by Paul Richter)

The author was not instructed or required to write it, she wrote it (for the girl) of her own accord.

The question is who she is saying she has made the book "to order" for.

Perhaps reading on in the book would clarify this.

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    I would interpret 'not to order' here to mean that the author was not instructed or required to write it, she wrote it (for the girl) of her own accord. Jan 30, 2012 at 12:16
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    @Programming Enthusiast: I think you are probably best positioned to decide which is correct, since you have the context around the sentence. So I've appended Paul's interpretation to my answer.
    – Urbycoz
    Jan 30, 2012 at 15:20
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    Urbycoz's first answer has this right. The "root" sentence would be "I have only once written a book to order"---i.e., written a book to someone's specifications. She clarifies, though, that even this wasn't exactly to order, but rather to please a particular audience (in some sense a milder version of writing a book to order).
    – Henry
    Jan 30, 2012 at 17:27
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    What @Henry said.
    – Marthaª
    Jan 30, 2012 at 20:39
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    I think the "exactly" is confusing some of us, yet we haven't explicitly defined its use. Let's do so. The sentence sounds like it could be a reply to the question "Have you ever written a book to order (i.e., because you were instructed to)?" And the answer is, rephrased: "No, I have never written a book because I was instructed to. But I have once written a book for a very similar reason: to please a particular audience." The phrase "not X, exactly" means "very similar to X, but essentially not X". Jan 31, 2012 at 2:02
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To Nina Bawden, the term "written to order" seems to mean written at the request of a particular person for his or her enjoyment or benefit.

But in the nonfiction publishing industry, at least, many books published are written in response to contracts drawn up between individual authors and particular publishers. The publisher solicits manuscripts on specified subjects from authors whose work the publisher is already familiar with. The author agrees to write the book, the parties sign a contract to produce it, and the book is scheduled for publication in the publisher's next lineup of titles. This would seem to describe an industry in which a great many books are written to specification or, in other words, "to order."

In fact, mainstream publishing houses so rarely accept and publish unsolicited manuscripts that people in the publishing industry have given them a special (and not terribly flattering) name: over-the-transom manuscripts. Albert Greco, The Book Publishing Industry (2013) explains:

Over the Transom

A small number of manuscripts get published each year because they were submitted "over the transom" (i.e., sent unsolicited to a publishing firm with a "To Whom It May Concern" letter). This approach is done without the benefit of a sponsor (e.g., an agent, an author published by the firm, another editor, an academic advisor, etc.). Whenever a book firm receives a manuscript over the transom, it is relegated to the "slush" pile; in 2012, most large New York publishing firms receive well in excess of 100–150 over-the-transom manuscripts each week. How many of them ever get published?

Although no one keeps tabs on this type of submission, The New York Times once commented that the odds of this type of manuscript being published were 15,000 to 1. So the odds of a manuscript sent cold to a commercial publisher ever getting into print are, at best, remote. For example, J.K. Rowling was rejected by almost every trade house before Scholastic took a sample of an unknown author. Among university presses, the rejection rate for over-the-transom manuscripts is almost certainly higher.

Especially in nonfiction books, where the credibility of the author with regard to the factual information presented in the manuscript is crucial, it is highly unlikely that an unknown author will be approved for publication just because the person's writing is good.

So it may be true that Nina Bawden never wrote a book "to order"—and it seems quite likely that she is an excellent author—but it also seems likely that she never submitted more than one book over the transom and had it accepted for publication. In fact, her Wikipedia page indicates that her literary career closely tracks her marriage to Austen Kark, described as "a reporter who eventually rose to managing director of the BBC World Service." When you're trying to get started as an author, it helps to have a booster who is successful—or at least knows people—in an allied industry.

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If I had to give it a meaning without any research I would say that the book was written with no intent of getting sold, but just for a particular person. Not to order as in opposed to "Order now!". But that's just me.

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  • Could be. But I suspect not. You'd be more likely to say "to sell" or "to market" than "to order" in these circumstances.
    – Urbycoz
    Jan 30, 2012 at 15:29
  • @Eduardo: That's an interesting comment. I've added some information in my question. Perhaps that will make the context clear. Jan 30, 2012 at 15:44
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The author is correcting herself in mid-sentence (which explains why you found it difficult to parse). It is as if she had written the following:

I have only once written a book to order. Well, not "to order", exactly, but...

As others have explained, "to order" means "in accordance with instructions".

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To make something "to order" is to make it for a particular buyer who has placed an order for it.

To make something "not to order" is to make something and hope someone will buy it.

In this case, it was a "hybrid" situation, where the book was written for a particular (blind) person, even though technically, this person hadn't asked the author to write it, and hadn't offered to pay for the writing or even to buy a book in advance. That's why the author said, "not to order, exactly, but to please a particular person."

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