It’s a fact of life for writers that at a certain point, beyond a personal blog, to reach a larger audience your work will need to be vetted or massaged or reshaped (or sometimes, rejected or violated) by an editor. In publishing houses, moreover, it’s generally the editor who serves as your advocate or at least liaison with the other departments (generally, production and sales/marketing); he or she is the person who not only introduces you to those who will eventually sell your book, but also has to make the case as to why they should care when they undoubtedly have many, many others vying for their attention. The editorial relationship is the most important one a writer has, at least within a publishing company (we refer here to agents), and for this reason can have disastrous results when it’s not working, which usually happens when an editor no longer feels good about an author or a writer no longer “trusts” an editor, either because initial expectations going into the relationship were not communicated (or met) or because the original editor leaves the company and the writer has been assigned to a new one who does not feel the same enthusiasm for the work. Some of these situations are beyond a writer’s control, but it’s still a good idea to think realistically about what you want or expect from your editor, with a thought to keep things running as smoothly as possible. To gain some insight into what writers should look for in editors and how best to “manage” the relationship, we asked Haven Kimmel, Calvin Baker, Emily Gould and Don Van Natta Jr. to answer some questions.
These questions were:
- Did you have meetings with more than one editor before you sold your manuscript or book proposal? If so, what qualities did you look for in the editor when you first met? (And did these qualities turn out to be more or less important than you imagined?) How important was the editor (as opposed to say, the amount of money involved) in choosing your publisher?
- How many revisions did your book go through with your editor? Were you generally pleased with his or her guidance? Were there moments or periods of friction or tension or frustration, where you felt that the editor was not “getting” your ideas/work, and how did you resolve? Do you have any advice in terms of knowing when and how to fight or give in, so to speak?
- What are the most important qualities in an editor, e.g.,
shaping the manuscript or serving as an effective advocate in the
company at large (if that was an issue)?
Let’s dive in!
My first two books—one a completed manuscript, the other not even a thought in my head—sold over a decade ago, which should be said up front. The publishing industry was very different then, and even Doctorates in the Zeitgeist didn’t predict how soon, and how radically, book publishers would be facing not just a crisis, but extinction. I agreed with Updike, who said, while accepting an award, that the “book” as an artifact would never be replaced by a more sophisticated technology, for the simple reason that the book is the perfect complement to the human hand. Perhaps we were all naive, or self-serving. At any rate, Updike gave it his all and is dead now, so he was right enough at the time.
That first book of mine, a comic memoir about growing up in a farm town of 300 in Indiana in the 1960s, was sold in what is often called a “bidding war,” a term I loathe. While the process is much more like an auction, the military language is used because the egos of both the editors and the agents often guide the process, innocent civilians be damned. Given that publishing is a fishbowl smaller than the one in “Elmo’s World,” you can bet the players not only all know one another, they have complicated and sometimes bitter histories, and contracts are signed for less than lofty reasons every day. I write literary fiction and non-fiction, and the editors who specialize in that particular genre don’t even need the fishbowl: you can measure out their number in coffee spoons. Imagine how often they bid on the same manuscript or proposal, and how often the deeper pockets win. (Always.) Apologies for the 37 mixed metaphors, but I hope the point conveys.
Three editors participated in the auction, and the first editor, a woman I respect a lot, had to bow out immediately. She was employed by what was, then, one of the only remaining houses independently owned. Between the final two there were elements in play I couldn’t know, but in terms of their suitability for me and for the task at hand, either would have made me happy. I spoke extensively to all three by phone, just once, at the beginning of the process. After that the decision was not mine to make, and in fact I wasn’t informed until it was over.
Here I would like to offer a caveat to your readers, in terms of the tone of this question. Even in the golden days, when money flowed like the Mississippi and no one ever grew old, writers selling a first book could not approach Broadway or the Avenue of the Americas with a list of desired qualities in an editor, and if (then or now) you had an agent doing his or her job, the final decision was always based on money. My sweet creeping savior, the things I could say about agents! Their job is to tailor a contract that maximizes profit for both the author and themselves, and sometimes said contract is boilerplate and sometimes it has to be invented, but agents aren’t in this line of work because they are driven toward the sublime. Agents don’t weep over the ethereal pleasure of the perfect verb, or lose hours in deep engagement with a single poem by Anne Carson. Mine have all been wicked smart and quick-witted; two are without mercy. One was without conscience. If, reading this, you believe you will maintain purity as a writer AND be published by Bertelsmann? Bless your heart, I did, too. Agents know better, and they know better on your behalf. Now finish your milk—it’s time for prayer meeting.
I have published eight books (I think) (is that true?) and the editorial process was different for all of them. I had the same original editor, Amy Scheibe—first at Doubleday and then at the Free Press, a division of Simon & Schuster, where I followed her—for two memoirs and three of my four novels, so I was blessed with unusual consistency. She and I were unusually close in general. She became part of my family, and I part of hers, but I doubt you’ll get many responses from writers so lucky.
The prose in both of my memoirs was left untouched by Amy. With the first she reordered the essays, making them chronological (I had arranged them thematically), and asked me to write two additional pieces to fill in gaps she saw. With the second she required not even that much. There are reasons for her open hand with the memoirs I won’t go into here, but her instinct was right. Both books are exercises in voice, and in the fine particularities of place, and she bought them because she trusted me as a writer without limits. The only changes to the second were made by copyeditors, and here let us all tip our hats and buy a round for copyeditors, who are our best friends and we rarely acknowledge it. HATS OFF, y’all!
But the novels? Hahaha, I’m not crying—I have allergies! I’m not drowning, I’m waving! The original contract, the one that resulted from the auction, was for the memoir and “one as-yet-unwritten first novel.” The addendum was written by the editor who lost, entirely for my benefit. Her hope was that I would publish forever, and if she couldn’t be the one to make that happen she could at least up the bid not only to a second book but into fiction, knowing Amy would accept the terms. (Susan, I’ll never forget you. You’re the berries, as my sister says.) My agent closed the deal, then called to tell me. I said, swallowing against my rising distress, “But… yes. See. I am a poet and an academic—a poet, which is the opposite of money. Also opposite of: novelist. I’ve never written a novel, I don’t even have two or three youthful attempts languishing in a desk drawer.” The agent said, “I guess you’ll figure it out, or you’re going to owe Doubleday a whole lot of sorry.” So I sat down and did it, and Amy loved the first half. Her editorial letter was thirteen single-spaced pages, and each point was cross-referenced on the manuscript with a colored Post-it note. I was to revise two first-person alternating POVs into close-third, meaning that the interior voices (so necessary to the sweetly damaged, or the unreliable narrator!) would be gone, and all of that would have to be conveyed through prose alone. And the ending had to be the opposite of the way I’d written it. And one character had to be amplified, but she didn’t say how, and she had gone through paragraph by paragraph and marked those that had gone on a beat two long and those that needed one, two, or three beats more, which—HELLO—you tell me what that means. The beats: they were to my cranium. My response was to lie down on the sofa in my study and stare at the ceiling for nearly a month, until my husband called my dear friend Lawrence Naumoff, a southern writer of unmatched depth and overall talent who was about as sucker-punched by New York publishing as anyone I can name. He said, “Put her on the phone.” During the month of my suffering I had become wispy and vague and tubercular. I tried to say hello but was too precious. Lawrence said, in his superfine accent, “Well, what you have to decide is if you’re a real writer or not, and if you’re a real writer you’ll stand up and get something to eat, then sit down at your desk and start at the first word and retype the entire thing—no cutting and pasting—and you will do every last thing your editor tells you to do, and you will not argue or protect your darlings, and in fact you will never again protect a darling, or think being edited is a violence. Okay?” I blinked, said, “Gotcha.” And that’s what I did. And Amy was right on every point.
It got easier with the second novel (although THAT is a story, yowza) but the third I put through five brutal drafts, Amy smacking me on the flank all the way to the finish line. She had acquired the fourth novel (Iodine) but took a job elsewhere before I’d written it, and right up until it went into copyedit I had no editor at all. It was the most complicated novel I’d ever written, or ever will. There is no profit in going that direction, I suspect. The plot was so complicated and hinged on so many buried subtleties I had to keep track of progressions with a series of symbols, and after I’d finished the third draft I read it BACKWARD, for reasons I can’t discuss without twitching.
However, I had different editors for my two children’s books, and editors in children’s divisions are of a different species. The first was a picture book, the second a chapter book for readers aged 7-12. My editor for the chapter book (who will be my editor for the next one) was BY FAR the most exacting, always kindly. But BY FAR. I rewrote those hundred or so pages so many times the words themselves began to look like symbols, or little wiggly arsenic-based lifeforms, like the kind Esther Greenwood begins to see in The Bell Jar. So don’t all be going into children’s fiction because it’s easy. You’ll find yourself accepting your own hide as a gift, and thanking your editor for it.
I have an entirely different editor for fiction now, Chuck Adams at Algonquin. He acquired a horror novel, The Farm, on first draft, and a second novel I’m not allowed to think about. I have his edit for The Farm and it’s very good—he’s as good as it gets, I think. I have an entirely different editor for non-fiction, Luke Dempsey at Random House. My first book for him, Outlaw Quakerism, is due in April and will be published in 2012—the horror novel the year following. As with Amy, Luke and his partner Liz spend holidays with my family, and we vacation together. We email or speak by phone every day. I’ll be in New York in a few days, and I’ll stay with Luke and Liz, and drink to great excess with both my agent, Christopher, AND with Amy, who is still both my friend and my ally and my advocate. These are relationships I never thought I’d have, so I had to invent their navigation. I know it looks odd, spelled out this way—my closeness to my business associates, but really.
I am possessed of very little wisdom or advice where writing is concerned, but I do know a few things. Behave like a professional from the first word. Extreme eccentricity is seen through with lightning swiftness, so drop it. You do not have to live in Brooklyn, and your name does not have to be Jonathan, and the vagaries of the press and the critics add up to little more than a lion roaring at the desert. If it looks like white, heterosexual privilege, it is, and although I doubt there is another Quaker out there reading these words we are all tasked to speak truth to power; do it with surgical delicacy and grace. There is no hill you want to die on, but it is your name on the front of the book. Everyone involved in the process, from assistants to editors to publishers to journalists, is worthy of your complete attention and your unwavering politeness and kindness. If you’re tired or frustrated or feel shanghaied, have a cocktail, take your meds, keep your mouth shut. There are no geniuses here, and no one—not one person on this earth—is owed the honor of being published OR read by public. Most importantly, it is impossible for any editor or any house to create a bestseller. They put their efforts where they can, and as I once heard a commentator say during an IU basketball game, sometimes you get the W and sometimes you get the doughnut. Grown men do not wear shorts, outside of the beach or the grill, so dress like a man and stand like a man and take your punches like a man, which I say as a woman who took boxing lessons as a child but refrains from beating the crap out of other people out of respect for Quakerism. Truly, best of luck to all of you.
Next: Calvin Baker on how editing is not collaboration.