Why editors still matter

By Caitlin Kelly

Publishers Weekly
Publishers Weekly (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Here’s a great essay from Publishers Weekly, (a must-read publication for any truly ambitious author), by a career editor:

A publisher once said to me, almost in passing, “We don’t pay you to edit.” The real message was: “Editing is not
crucial. If you’re an editor, what matters is acquiring.” After I’d left in-house editing and was being courted by an agency, the owner/agent said to me, “Remember, you can’t sit in your office and edit.” In other words, “If you’re an agent, what matters is selling.” One thing these comments imply is that editing is no longer the editor’s main function; editing is done on your own time. But that has been true since I went into the business 28 years ago.

As a freelance editor, these models no longer apply to my work. I no longer have to jump on every promising submission overnight. I no longer need to be looking over my shoulder, hoping for the approval of the marketing, publicity, and sales departments. I no longer have to determine the worth of any particular project a year before publication (and we know how often publishers get that right!). The burden on the freelance editor consists solely of helping the author write his or her best possible book.

The dirty secret of contemporary publishing — any author quickly learns — is that the verb “to edit” may not mean what you thought or hoped it would.

My first book, “Blown Away: American Women and Guns” was acquired by a very young and hungry editor who handed me back barely a page and half of notes on my final manuscript. I rocked! (Or did I?)

It quickly became clear to me that any editor was very short on time. There would be no long lunches (or even short ones) to discuss the world of letters. We maybe spoke to one another four or five times from acquisition to publication date — a span of more than two years.

The one time we did hang out — bizarre but true — was when I took her shooting in New Jersey and we spent the afternoon firing handguns at a local gun range. She wanted (which I really appreciated) to better understand the subject of my book. Our book.

My second book, “Malled” My Unintentional Career in Retail” came back to me with a suggestion that Chapters 1-10 more closely resemble the final two. Holy shit!I was terrified I wouldn’t be able to do it.

That editor, whose strong ideas about structure and tone were invaluable (if daunting) had previously worked for NASA — maybe great editing was rocket science!

I’m working on yet another book proposal right now and, if this one sells, (no guarantee, as ever), I sure hope I find a terrific editor. I owe Courtney, my editor for “Malled”, a deep debt of thanks for her willingness to push me as hard as she did, even making final edits as the book went into production in September 2010.

A great editor will save you. We all need them!

Yet it’s very odd when you find a publisher for a non-fiction book — essentially an intellectual blind date.

Whoever chooses to publish you assigns an editor you have likely never met and know nothing of. Yet you’re bound, (maybe more an arranged marriage?) for the next few years to one another’s taste, personality and schedules. It requires a great deal of mutual trust between strangers whose careers can be enhanced or seriously damaged if the book soars or tanks.

I’m dying to read this new book, “My Mistake”, by editor Daniel Menaker whose career included The New Yorker and Random House  — if only for its spectacular conflagration [ba-boom!] of an editorial bridge most New Yorkers still genuflect to — legendary power couple Tina Brown [ex-editor-in-chief of Vanity Fair, The New Yorker and the Daily Beast, among others] and her husband Harold Evans.

The review in the Times is by Meryl Gordon (who kindly blurbed my last book) and whose own next biography comes out next spring.

Journalism and publishing — certainly in New York City — is still a hothouse of interlocking egos, power and (artfully disguised) terror.

27 thoughts on “Why editors still matter

  1. Among self-published fiction authors such as myself, we constantly talk about editing. Getting a book edited and making sure its a good editing job is the difference between authors who are serious about their craft and about publishing a great story by themselves, and those who probably just want to say “I wrote and published a book” and go about it so half-assed. That’s why we edit the work as best we can. It’s not easy, but we do it, one way or another.

    1. With all due respect to tight budgets — how can you publish a book that has never been edited by anyone other than you? I send my book proposals out for review even before the agent sees them and my finished manuscripts get read by at least five first readers…

      I always want fresh eyes on my copy. There’s no way I think it’s ready with just my own opinion.

      1. Some people don’t care. It’s like doing homework you assign yourself but not getting the answers checked over by a parent or tutor before you turn it in (that’s the best metaphor I can come up with). But like I said, the people who usually don’t get second eyes on their manuscripts are usually not the very passionate ones. Either that or they assume that grammar and spelling take away from the creative process. Or they think they’re so perfect they need a slap in the face to tell them that their work needs work.

        But the best writers get their work looked at. I always have someone look over my work before I send it out to publishers or I publish it myself. You cannot believe how it’s benefited me in the long run.

  2. rich

    My book Adrenal Fatigue For Dummies coming out in February 2014. Wiley tends to have multiple editors working on these books, including a project editor, copy editor and one or two technical editors. Many publishing companies, unfortunately, are laying off editors and decreasing their time as they realign. The one publisher who is actually hiring editors? Amazon. Amazing.

  3. wow, it sounds daunting and terrifying to say the least. you must cross your fingers and take a leap of faith in order to get through it, i’m sure – good luck with the new book )

  4. rich

    that is one hell of an advance… I need to say that I first cam across this blog after buying and reading your book. It drives me nuts to no end to see people read a book at the bookstore and then put it down. I feel the need to purchase something every time I hit a bookstore understanding how many hours it takes to write something, the revision process..etc. anyway, your book was well written,,,reminded me of my own experiences…

    1. It is, isn’t it?

      Thanks much for coming to Broadside — and buying and reading Malled. That’s such a powerful point — so many people tell me, with pride, they read it at the library. While I am delighted to find readers, I need *paying* readers, as does every author. In Canada, authors of certain books (mine included; I’m a Canadian citizen, although I don’t know if you need to be) can register for an annual payment of library-lending-based royalties. I’ve been told the maximum payout is about $350 or so, but it’s an important principle and I’ll be happy to get anything I’ve earned from that program.

  5. As a fellow freelance editor, I try to get my clients to enjoy their time with me. I want to build a relationship with my authors. I also try to convince my authors that I am their advocate, and seek to improve their ms. While I enjoy the working lunches, sometimes due to author location they are not possible. Skype is a great tool for meeting with clients who are removed from me by location but I miss the personal interaction.

    1. People tend to come back to those they enjoy, certainly.

      It’s an interesting challenge to offer the sort of truly critical (helpful) eye that some writers really need, but not to discourage them. Writing well is damn hard work, which some people find annoying. 🙂

      1. One of the most challenging aspects of being an editor with a new client is explaining that I am more of a coach and guide rather than the enemy. I explain that I look to improve their writing not write for them. Many of my clients are from Amazon who have self published and then realized the ms needed some serious editing, I often get clients who read the comments on Amazon and then decide they might wish to hire an editor. I try to catch authors before self publishing but I fail often, and have to deal with improving a ms that even a cursory lite edit would have helped.

      2. The very fact you have to explain that (and I don’t want to sound as rude as this will sound to your clients) tells me they’re amateurs. So you are good to work with them.

        Professionals have usually studied writing formally, have attended many such conferences, worked with editors for years, or decades, before they even attempt to commercially publish. It’s very clear to us that an editorial eye is essential. Not every editor is kind or adds great value, but very very very few writers are so excellent they can simply throw their material at an audience without any extra set of eyes first.

        I cringe at some of my books’ published sentences — even years later, even after several editorial passes on it.

  6. I really wish more of the self-published authors understood what editing gains them. How do they expect to build a sense of dependability when their overall story is good but the grammar and spelling are horrid? Not to mention those miniscule inconsistencies that make an attentive reader (and thus a probable repeat reader) stop mid-graf and start looking back to see what they might have misread.

    Many of my friends are aspiring writers of one sort or another, and they often have me proof their material for them. One in particular had me edit his debut novel. What drives me nuts is that he took my edits and tossed them, because he got defensive about the work. Grr… I didn’t change it to make him look dumb, I changed it because the spelling was WRONG or because the main character suddenly became a year older than he should have been. THEN, it goes to print and the writer didn’t incorporate ANY of the changes. Blah!

    The worst part is that now, after spending weeks editing the novel, I can’t use it as a resume bullet because he didn’t accept any of my changes and now the book isn’t something I could use to help me get a job as a copy editor.

    I could almost kick a hobbit. … Almost.

    1. I know how you feel Hans. It is difficult to deal with an author who gets defensive and does not take creative criticism well. Sometimes prospective authors act as if I am going to take their ms and scribble all over it with a huge red Crayon just to show how superior I am and how stupid they are. One prospective client expected me to look over her ms, bless it, and pass it back to her. She was rather pissed when I mentioned several errors, probably out of ignorance of proper formatting for references per CMoS, and suggested corrections. I too cannot use her book as I cringe every time I see it on Amazon Kindle and am secretly glad my name does not appear within.

      1. Sorry to hear this…

        It sounds (?) as though you’ve got to do a lot more client education IF you want to work with people at this level of the game. I don’t envy you that sort of mulishness!

      2. Everyone gets edited. It’s how it’s done. My writing is no more my “baby” than anything else I produce for income. I am proud of it and work hard on it, but at the end of the day someone is paying me for what THEY want. 🙂

      3. That’s a really interesting question. I would guess (?) that NF writers — by definition, working with facts/data/research/reporting are less emotional about their copy (as if?!) than fiction, which is clearly wholly invented and therefore feels much more personal.

        I think a *wise* new author gets that editors are there to help. It is a team sport. The fantasy of simply dropping off your precious manuscript and having it go directly to the printer is purely that…

    2. It’s a fascinating exchange…I admire the hell out of both of you for even trying to work with people like this. I can’t do it and never would. I have way too much stress from my other work as it is.

      I am beyond grateful for people (like my unpaid first readers) who are willing to give me (it is a gift!) their time and attention (as I do for their 80K word manuscripts as well) for their insights, advice and fixes on my books — whether tone, typos, anything! I literally had two dear friends reading Malled the week it went into production — and on their very last-minute advice made even more major-but-small changes. One of them is a very senior executive in publishing (she has worked with Pulitzer winners and Frank McCourt)– why on earth would I NOT listen to her?

      The ugly truth seems to be that professionals publish for money (and enhanced, we hope, reputation within our industry) and amateurs publish out of (?) pure ego.

      I also wonder (and this is NOT meant to disrespect either of you as editors!!!) if your clients really have no idea what the editor’s role if (i.e. they need to be educated) and/or they do not value (?) what you bring to them because….?

      Is that unfair?

      1. Not unfair at all. One of the major problems I often encounter with prospective clients is explaining just what an editor does. Many non-professional authors are ignorant of the benefits an editor brings to their ms.

        My editor’s guild hosts tables, coffee hours and luncheons around the greater Puget Sound and Portland areas.

        During these coffee hours many aspiring authors will typically ask why they should hire the services of an editor. Many new authors are also shocked by the cost of a good editor.

        Because so many authors publish for vanity (very few actually make any money), it is hard to justify spending up to several thousands of dollars on a vanity project.

        However, that vanity can work for the aspiring editor because we often mention that this is something you are going to publically release, then how much is their vanity worth.

        I tend to work towards the lower end of the pay scale because editing is not my primary income and I do it more for love of the written word, than financial necessity. Many of my clients are the typical Starbuck lounging hopefuls that many cannot afford a full edit.

        I try to work within the budget of the author. I do a lot of developmental editing and very little line editing, I also do a lot of proofreading and research verification. I specialize in military jargon, proper weapons use (particularly firearms), and military technical expertise.

        Many of my authors are not “gun people” but want to write geopolitical military fiction or male-orientated adventures where guns, weapons, military jargon, and such come into play.

        Patience is one of the best attributes that an editor can have especially in dealing with the clueless Starbuck lounging hopefuls.

      2. “Many new authors are also shocked by the cost of a good editor.”

        Again — because they have no idea what they are doing! God bless your patience with them. With the enormous glut of data readily and freely available on the Internet from seasoned writers and editors, there’s really no excuse for that sort of ignorance. Publishing (when not done only out of vanity) is a business, plain and simple. Publishers have P & L statements as much as any other industry.

  7. A compelling post, and a very engrossing conversation. I am editing now, as my job, and I truly love those opportunities to clarify, improve or develop a piece of writing. I especially enjoy seeing a writer energized by the feedback and support an editor can give.

    A lot of my time, as well, is taken over with sales concerns. Sometimes it leaves me wondering what I bring to the job, with a degree in English, as opposed to other skills that are needed. I’m glad I’m not the only one sometimes wondering about this industry.

    So often I find your posts falling upon similar thoughts and struggles of my own. I could say that it is serendipitous, these crossings of ideas. I was in salary negotiations a couple months ago when I read your post on women not asking for more money – so I did – and I got it. I’m glad I did, as I work damn hard, and the increase to salary feels fair.

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