Category Archives: editors

3

Why writing and editing are not the same

Full disclosure: I do not claim to have mastered the editorial craft, but this blog post is in response to the many people I’ve spoken to who wish to break into the publishing industry in order to become writers. Many intern applicants have told me that they want to go into publishing because they want to be writers. They, like most, believe that writing and editing go hand in hand. If you are a good writer, you must be a good editor. And vice-a-versa. I don’t blame them. It’s a reasonable assumption, one I even made myself. But I quickly learned that this is not always the case.

Writing and editing require very different skill sets. Among other qualifications, great writers must have a voice, they must have a story to tell and be able to bring it to life. The dialogue must be realistic and the characters vivid, interesting, engaging.

What, then, is the editor’s job? What makes a great editor?

Editors must be able to assemble the writer’s story in a cohesive manner, must clearly see what the finish product should look like and know how to achieve that endgame, like a master watchmaker who sees how all the minuscule, intricate parts of a timepiece should fit together so that each one works in perfect concert with the other, so that the whole mechanism runs smoothly, flawlessly, beautifully. Move a chapter here, dissect some paragraphs there, control the rhythm and pacing of the book as a ship’s captain does the wind.

Yes, great writers can make great editors. And great editors can make great writers. But to confuse the two jobs is a common mistake that we should all try to avoid. Not only does it cheapen the arts of both writing and editing, but publishing houses and literary agencies aren’t looking to hire writers. In fact, it’s often frowned upon and seen as a distraction or conflict of interest.

6

Book orphans

About two months ago, one of my clients turned in the manuscript for her new novel after having worked on it for several years.   She was a bit nervous but also very excited as this was the first novel she was publishing with her new publisher.  About a week after she submitted the material, I had a note from her editor that she was leaving the publishing house and, in fact, leaving publishing altogether.  She said that she would be editing the book on a freelance basis, but that the shepherding of it through the publishing process would not be her responsibility.

Needless to say, this was pretty devastating news to my client.  As I mentioned, this was a new publisher for her.  She had published five novels with her previous publisher and during those years had been edited by at least five different editors—each leaving the house or the business.  Now she was experiencing being “orphaned” again.

I made a couple of phone calls and as it happens the publisher of this particular house has promised me that he will be looking after my client himself.  Though he will not be doing the actual editing, he will be guiding the novel’s publication and so we’ll keep our fingers crossed that, with his help, this book will be a huge success.

It’s true, though, that the saga of the orphaned book is a real one and, in this age of downsizing and publishing mergers, it could well become a more frequent phenomenon.  This makes the agent’s job all the more important as we have to ensure more than ever that our clients and their work are well looked after and that their books are published well.

Last summer, another one of my clients had his book published after it had been transferred during the writing process to five different editors.  That story did have a happy ending.  The book’s final editor was totally devoted to the work and, in my opinion, his editorial suggestions made it even better.  The reviews have been phenomenal and the sales have been solid.  Equally as important, I have an author who was well satisfied with his publishing experience in the end.

But this is a tricky road to follow and it is important for the agent to be vigilant and take special care.  I found this piece in GalleyCat, which covers the topic and which, interestingly, quoted yours truly

So, I wonder, if your book were orphaned, what would you do?

5

An author and editor chat

Like any relationship, the one between an author and his or her editor is nuanced and complex. We work in an industry that has a great deal of turnover on the editorial side and there are times when a multi-published author might have several editors within a house during their tenure. I actually have a client on my list that has done three books, and has had five editors!

So when I saw this interview on Slate with author Sarah Dessen and her longtime editor Regina Hayes (eleven books and counting), I thought it was pretty cool and worth sharing. I like Hayes’s thought on her role in the editing process: “To provide a fresh eye on the overarching story and to ask a lot of questions.” Since writing is a solo sport, it can become challenging to keep perspective on your work, and having another reader can be a really important part of the process. It doesn’t have to be a professional editor, although certainly if there is that opportunity it can be advantageous, but any number of beta readers who are good at reading and responding with constructive criticism can be helpful.

I also appreciated Dessen’s simple but important advice about writing: “Cutting is easy. Stretching is really hard. And just a bit of backstory can change everything.” In particular I’m in agreement on the part about backstory. You never want to be stuck asking why a character is motivated to act a certain way because something from their past has been left out of the story.

I’ve had the same intern the last few summers, and learned early  on in our working together that although she’s young, she has a good critical eye for material. Finding someone whose taste you can trust is a priceless commodity, and a good productive author/editor relationship is one to cherish. We’d like to hear your own stories of working with an editor and what that experience was like for you. Please share!

5

“We are in the business of communication!”

The title of this post is a phrase I find myself using all the time.  We “communicate” all day long by texting, by emailing, on Twitter, on Facebook, etc., but I wonder if we are really communicating. Even phone conversations seem to be a dying art.

The other day when I opened my e-mail in the morning, I found a very concerned message from an editor suggesting that one of my clients’ manuscript was deeply flawed and he suggested that he was going to have to reject it.  I reminded him, again by e-mail, of the clause in the client’s contract requiring the publisher to provide a list of the problems and to give the writer a chance to rectify the situation.  Over e-mail the issue certainly sounded dire and unfixable.  But then he and I talked and he suggested that we call the writer together.  He said he was going to tell her that one of her options was to put the current manuscript aside and begin a new one.  This was a person whom he had only e-mailed with and whom I had also mostly communicated with by e-mail, so we had no idea how she would react.

First, the editor e-mailed my client to make a date to talk.  This naturally freaked her out and she e-mailed me and asked what was going on.  I told her a bit about the problem (again by e-mail) and said we would cover the rest in our talk.  Frankly, I wasn’t sure she would participate in the conference call at all.  She did, though, and when she was told on the phone that one of her options was to put the current novel aside and begin again, she was hugely relieved.  She and I had a subsequent lovely and constructive conversation and we all “walked away” feeling good about what had seemed like an unfixable problem at the beginning of the day.  We all felt much more positive and moving forward.

This all goes to prove that picking up the phone and talking can be far more effective and satisfying than e-mailing as this article in Forbes suggests.

It’s true that phone conversations take longer than e-mailing but often they get more accomplished.  I don’t know about you, but I am going to try to talk more and e-mail less from now on and see what happens.  I would be curious to hear what you think about all of this.

5

Golden Age?

A few days back, NPR did an interesting interview with Little Brown publisher Michael Pietsch, best known for being the editor of authors like David Foster Wallace and James Patterson, who is just about to take over the helm of the Hachette Book group, one of Publishing’s “big six” conglomerates.  His declaration that we are now in “the golden age of publishing” might strike you as Panglossian delusion, or—if you are me—maybe, just possibly, a little bit true.

I suppose, as Zhou en Lai said about the impact of the French Revolution, it’s too early to say.  Pietsch is a persuasive spokesman for what the new indie publishing movement might regard as the ancient regime.   It’s true that he’s not all that likely to rail about the benefits of creative destruction—but he made some good points.

“What has changed in a really exciting way is the ways you can get people’s attention. It used to be one book review at a time, a daily review, maybe you get into Time magazine. Now there’s, with the Internet, this giant echo chamber. Anything good that happens, any genuine excitement that a book elicits can be amplified and repeated and streamed and forwarded and linked in a way that excitement spreads more quickly and universally than ever before. And what I’m seeing is that really wonderful books — the books that people get genuinely excited about because they change their lives, they give them new ideas — those books can travel faster, go further, sell more copies sooner than ever before. It’s just energized the whole business in a thrilling way.”

I do agree with Pietsch. But it’s also true that the internet is so vast, fractured and compartmentalized, that lighting this wildfire word of mouth—getting something to go viral—is harder than a status update and a clever tweet.  Once upon a time, back in the (possibly mythical) days of the “monoculture,” when most Americans had some shared sense of big books, popular musicians, and hit TV, Time magazine had a huge subscription base—a review there, or a spot on a leading morning show could launch a book into best-sellerdom.  This is still true to a certain extent, but I have heard plenty of publicity directors note (and sometimes mourn) the demise of the old certitudes.  It seems to me that publishers see the potential of our new paradigm, where newspaper book reviews are few but book bloggers proliferate and readers can rave about their favorite authors to a potentially unlimited audience, but are still figuring out just how to leverage it. Publicity and marketing plans includes online marketing and social media, but publishing houses are a long way from mastering these new tools.

As you all doubtless have heard, cultivating an on-line presence is regarded as much the author’s duty as the ability to write.  This can feel a bit burdensome, but it’s also true that authors have greater influence over the fates of their books then once they did.  Most authors were never in a position to call up a Today Show producer and pitch their stories, but they can, with diligence and work and a pinch of luck, try to connect their book with its readers.

What do you think?

Golden Age?  France in 1788?

Why some authors hate publishers

A long-time client, who is very dear to our agency, pointed us in the direction of a piece by Michael Levin in the HuffPost that I’d missed when it ran last week.  Our client was distressed by Mr. Levin’s assertions about the nefarious tactics mustache twirling publishers use to victimize authors.  Understandably, since Mr. Levin writes with such passion and seeming authority, she was concerned that the picture he paints is an accurate depiction of the culture of book publishing as 2012 draws to a close and we count down to the  Mayan apocalypse (which, of course, if it comes to pass will make this discussion irrelevant).

After reading the piece Jane and I had basically the same reaction which boiled down to “Why do the people talking trash about our business always seem to be the ones who understand it the least or who have a bag full of sour grapes they’re carrying around with them?”  And, then I got all happy because I didn’t have to scrounge around looking for a blog topic this week.

We promised our client that we’d go through Mr. Levin’s arguments and respond to them from our point of view and this, more or less (with my usual digressions and irritating asides), is what I hope to do here.

Mr. Levin’s argument boils down to four salient points:  (1) Publishers hate authors even though authors and the work they produce are their lifeblood. (2) Publishers are reducing advances and royalties across the board with the added perk of also reducing marketing and promotion for their titles. (3) Publishers’ dependence on BookScan (the tracking system for sales) guarantees that unless an author has a boffo success, their career is over faster than you can say “reserve for returns.”  And (4) by lowering the quality of the product because they refuse to pay what good authors are worth, publishers are ensuring that the public stops buying books and turns to other sources (the Internet) for their information and entertainment kicks.

Alrighty, then!  This should be quick(ish).

(1)   Publishers are the partners and adversaries of agents.  We work with and against them for the good of our authors, who have our first allegiance.  That said, most publishers (and the term includes all the people who make books happen at a publishing house from the CEO to the intern who opens the mail) we deal with daily, sometimes hourly, are incredibly hard working, thoughtful, engaged, and compassionate.  I’ve said this before and it bears repeating, very few people go into our business to achieve their dreams of Trump-like wealth.  Salaries are low in publishing compared to those in other media, and the work is painstaking and, often thankless (Exhibit A: Mr. Levin).  Publishing types do their jobs—which entail long hours after they’ve left the office sitting with a manuscript that needs to be shaped on a granular level—because they LOVE books.  Period.  With all the challenges publishers are faced with in this increasingly digital world, the level of care they bring to the curating of great (and even not so great) books is impressive.

(2)  Not sure which publishers Mr. Levin is talking about but our agency has had its best year ever.  We’ve sold over 100 books this year and have been paid advances, ranging from five to seven figures, on every one of them.  Perhaps there are some tiny houses that are embracing the “no advance” model but we work with the Big Six as well as many, many smaller independent publishers and have not seen this no-advance/lower-royalty model Mr. Levin describes.

(3)  We depend on BookScan too when we are considering signing up an author.  It’s a tremendous tool that lets you know what you’re up against when trying to find a new home for a previously published author whose book didn’t do well.  Has BookScan ever been a deciding factor in not signing up a book?  Probably, but only if we were very much on the fence about it anyway.  I’d venture to say that this is the same process publishers go through because we’ve had numerous authors whose BookScan sales, how to put it delicately?, were in the toilet and we still sold their next book and the book after that.  Bottom line, if your next idea is great or your genius undeniable, or your platform has reached critical mass, BookScan will not destroy your career.

(4)  Really?  Take a look at the best books of the year lists that are cropping up all over the place right now and tell me if you think important, brilliant, exciting fiction and non-fiction isn’t being published any more.  And, given the fact that book sales have risen in the digital age, it seems that a new generation of readers is turning to…books…for their information and their entertainment kicks!

Seems to me that publishers don’t hate authors any more than authors hate publishers.  In this complicated new world we live in, we all (on both sides of the business) need to take responsibility for our own failures and flaws as well as advocate for our strengths and successes rather than succumbing to paranoid fantasies about how much “they” hate us.

3

Publishing relationships

Recently I came across this interesting piece, and it got me to thinking about the value of publishing relationships.

It has long been felt that ours is a “people business,” and I strong believe this is true.  Even with the growth of social media and e-mail, talking face to face always seems to get things done faster and more cordially.

And, in this age of such enormous change in our business, talking to each other about how we can all benefit from these changes is more important than ever.  This goes for publishers and agents, editors and agents, authors and editors, authors and agents, and on and on.  As these relationships grow and develop, they become more and more valuable to our clients and their books.

Recently one of my authors has faced some real challenges with their publisher where there is a great deal at stake. And so in addressing these challenges I included people who I have “grown up with” in the business – people who now are at the top of the publishing company.  My younger colleagues who are directly involved in the issues involved have “slapped my hand” about this; they think I am going around them.  But I don’t agree.  I am simply using the fact that I know these folks at the head of the company can solve the problems and I am telling them directly how concerned I am.  I know by doing this that ultimately these longtime relationships will help solve the issues.

Then there are always the points where there is a disagreement or misunderstanding between colleagues.  Last week, I felt an editor had done something underhanded regarding one of my authors and when I brought this up a couple of days later at a lunch with the head of her company, we discussed it – each of us passionately defending our point of view — and ultimately agreed that we would put this behind us and move forward.  Had we not had a long and solid relationship, this would not have happened.

I actually feel so fortunate to have made so many good friends over the years in this business; I have met and gotten to know some very smart, quite wonderful people.  It is indeed one of the reasons why I love this business and have stayed in it so long.

4

Tips from a former editor, now published author

Following up on my last blog post, I’m writing today with more advice from a (in this case former) big-house editor. I worked with Chris Pavone when he was an editor at Clarkson Potter, as well as when he was at Artisan, and now he can add bestselling author to his resume since his first novel, THE EXPATS, has hit the list.

I really like seeing the insider information from WritersDigest.com and was especially curious to see Chris’s tips on how to avoid editors rejecting your work. There is some solid if basic (and blunt) advice here, mostly for beginning authors. Much of what he suggests it seems to me is really more for authors before they’ve pitched to agents. I’d hope that most agents submitting projects to editors have made sure their authors have corrected all of these holes before the proposal or manuscript hits the desk of an editor.

What I love most about the piece is the comments. Writers are so grateful for seasoned feedback, and it’s clear from Pavone’s background that he knows of which he speaks since he rejected hundreds if not thousands of proposals and manuscripts in his day.

It got me to thinking of asking the question of our readers – what’s the best publishing advice you’ve ever received? From whom? And the worst? Where do you go when you need advice on how to pitch your work? Please share your stories and ideas here and let us know what’s helpful, and maybe more importantly, what isn’t.