Category Archives: editors

0

Time to edit

I’d been considering writing about the editorial process for the blog today, so I was pleased this morning to see this PW interview all about that with author Eowyn Ivey and editors Reagan Arthur and Mary-Anne Harrington. Ivey, Arthur, and Harrington talk about taking her new novel, To the Bright Edge of the World, from an outline and 50 pages to a completed book.

Editing can be smooth sailing or a minefield or, most often, somewhere in between. (For example, sometimes an editor has to tell a writer to cool it with the mixed metaphors.) I always tell authors that it’s important that they are on board with the vision for the book. Their name is going on the cover. If they don’t agree with an edit, there’s something to discuss. Editors are not—nor do they tend to want to be—dictators. And I know from experience that editing can be very nerve-wracking, because you are taking on a role of omniscient authority but everyone knows you’re just one person with an opinion. An informed opinion, but an opinion nonetheless. I encourage authors who are in very strong disagreement to come to me and talk it out, so we can figure out the best way to get them and their editor on the same page—and so they can get it off their chest, regroup, and be diplomatic, or let me handle it if diplomacy feels beyond reach so that the relationship can continue forward smoothly.

I also generally suggest to authors that they ask themselves if changes they don’t agree with are possibly bad solutions to a problem they need to tackle another way. Maybe you don’t need to change your vision, but is it possible you’ve not executed that vision as well as you thought? Or can you explain to your editor what you’re seeing that they’re not, so that they’ll understand where they lost the thread? Maybe there’s a different, unobjectionable change that will get the job done. On the other hand, maybe the editor missed something because they don’t come from the same demographic as the character and writer, and the edit they’re suggesting doesn’t actually ring true. It can be hard at first blush to sort out which edits simply sting but are a good idea and which edits are a huge misstep, a path to a different book than the author wants to write, or a misread on the editor’s part. Edits are not an edict from on high, and they absolutely can be a conversation.

One of the best keys to a strong publishing experience is to trust that we’re all in this together.  If as an author you have a concern or a problem, know you’re almost certainly not the first person to have that issue, and your agent and editor should be more than capable of being professional enough to help resolve it. And your agent makes a great sounding board if you’re not quite sure how to move forward or want to express the unvarnished truth before taking a more diplomatic tack. A big part of what we’re here for is bringing the author and publisher back onto the same page when their interests or ideas begin to diverge so that everyone can move forward together.

2

A Second Opinion

GENIUS--Firth and Law

I was beginning to feel like I was the only person out there who liked the new film GENIUS.  It opened early last month, got a lousy 49% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and has been playing to steadily dwindling audiences ever since. The story of the tumultuous relationship between Thomas Wolfe and his legendary editor Maxwell Perkins, it stars Jude Law as Wolfe, Colin Firth as Perkins, and a whole lot of other British and Australian actors like Dominic West, Guy Pearce, and Nicole Kidman all playing Americans like Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Aline Bernstein.  It shouldn’t work, yet it does, splendidly. And somehow, in its long scenes between Firth and Law as Perkins and Wolfe wrestling Wolfe’s novels down to manageable length, it doesn’t bore; it only excites.  Well, it excited ME, at least, with its vivid depiction of the volatile, delicate relationship shared between authors and their editors.

 

Those were exactly the parts of the film most people found boring. Well, they are cerebral scenes depicting a cerebral process, but Firth and Law’s appealing performances, John Logan’s screenplay (based on A. Scott Berg’s biography Max Perkins: Editor of Genius), and Michael Grandage’s direction make it all spring right off the screen. To me those scenes were anything but boring, but as a literary professional, I’d been there many times, and so I enjoyed seeing the process played out in a dramatic context.

 

I felt like a bit of a voice in the wilderness, urging friends to ignore the reviews and the word of mouth and see it. But I was heartened two weeks ago to see that veteran Doubleday executive editor Gerald Howard liked the film enough to write this beautiful, informed piece for The Chronicle of Higher Education.  It’s more than a film review; it’s a fine piece of writing by someone who has spent his life in the editing trenches and knows what he’s talking about.

 

Genius is probably long gone from most movie theaters by now. But if you want to see a film that is a lovely valentine to writers, editors, and the whole big beast that is publishing, you could do a lot worse than to check it out on Netflix.

5

When nothing works

Often, when I tell people what my job is, they reply that it sounds really fun.  The fact is that most of the time it is. I get to read for a living.  I live in a world of ideas.  I work with people on all sides of the business who are creative and passionate about helping writers succeed in a pretty competitive marketplace.  I love that there is so much variety in what I am doing in a single day—editing a proposal, discussing a new idea with a client, talking about a potential project with a publisher, negotiating contract terms, helping to plan a publicity and marketing campaign, etc.

The other side of this, though, is what to do when nothing seems to be working.  Yes, there are times when it seems nobody is interested in the projects we are submitting.  Editors like the idea but can’t relate to the “voice”; they don’t think the concept works for their list; they can’t define a big enough market; the author isn’t qualified to be writing the book he or she is proposing or don’t have a big enough platform…I’ve heard it all.  Sometimes this gets really discouraging, especially during periods when it seems to be happening with everything we are submitting.

We ask ourselves what we are doing wrong.  Are we picking the wrong projects, presenting them in the wrong way, sending to the wrong editors and publishers?  What is it?  And then we think that maybe we should change up everything—do things differently.

While considering this the other day, I looked up “what to do when nothing works” on Google and I found 300,000,000 entries.  Astonishing! I read through some of them, but, in the end, after a long career full of these experiences, I have come to the conclusion that what I need to do is to stop second guessing myself and just keep doing what I’ve always done: Look for those new ideas and help our clients present them in fresh and original ways.  Identify new editors and new publishing opportunities.  Just keep moving forward.  To quote myself:  “NEXT!”

What do you do when nothing seems to be working in your world?

0

It’s never too late to start writing

What do you think about waiting until you’re almost 80 to start a new career? If you’re legendary book editor Dick Jackson, the answer is no time like the present!

As reported in a fascinating article in Publisher’s Weekly, Jackson retired from book publishing in 2005 after a long and very successful career as a children’s book editor. It was in 2013 when he was being treated for cancer that this creativity as an author was piqued and he began pitching ideas to former colleagues. He is still in treatment and his cancer is not in remission, and yet he now has 8 (yes, that’s 8!) picture books under contract! The first of which, HAVE A LOOK, SAYS BOOK, has just been published by Atheneum, where he previously had his own imprint. At the age of 81, he is making his debut as an author! And what a debut it is, with illustrations by Kevin Hawkes. Future books will be illustrated by Jerry Pinkney and Laura Vaccaro Seeger. It helps to have the kind of deep experience and relationships in children’s book publishing that he has, but even so it’s an amazing journey he’s taken from editor to author, especially given the circumstances of his age and health.

I hope this story serves as inspiration for those of you aspiring writers who might be feeling discouraged or frustrated that the process isn’t always fun, fast or rewarding. You never know when or how that might change and you will get the spark that becomes your first published book. Keep on keeping on!

All-Important Deadlines

 Jane Dystel wrote an informative blog post earlier this week about the Acceptability clause, which can come into play when an author’s completed work proves unsatisfactory (fortunately, a rare occurrence)  or when an author does not make the contracted deadline.

The writing process requires great discipline, but it can also be unpredictable. Authors may promise, and fully believe, that their work will be completed and delivered by a certain date, but that date might prove to be somewhat unrealistic. As soon as it becomes clear to a writer that this may be a looming problem, he or should make it known to the agent and editor.

In this business, where publication dates are slotted in so far ahead, a late arrival of a manuscript can create a domino-effect of problems. The editing process may turn out to be extensive, requiring large amounts of time for rewrites. Publishers’ catalogs are planned seasonally, far in advance. And so it is not a good thing if your book is already in the Fall catalog but, because you turned in your manuscript so late, it now won’t be coming out till the following Spring. Consider your editor: she will now have to add your late manuscript to the ones she will already be working on from other authors who turned in their work on time. That creates quite an editorial logjam.

Moreover, marketing plans are also made far ahead, timed to the book’s publication. If that publication is delayed but you already have several big media breaks or appearances set, then everyone, especially you, will wind up with egg on their faces. And of course, avoidable problems like these do not leave your publisher happy, or willing, to work with you again.

Most publishers are understanding when an author lets them know that the manuscript will be coming in later than expected, and they will make adjustments if necessary. Just be sure to alert them as far in advance as possible—because nobody likes nasty surprises.

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Boston and Austin

As spring finally approaches (fingers crossed that the snow forecast for later today fails to materialize,) I’m looking forward to a couple of terrific writers’ conferences. The first is Grub Street’s Muse and the Marketplace, a Boston-based literary extravaganza that takes place first week of May, by which point, sunshine and shovels will surely have vanquished the snow. Right?

There, I’ll listen to pitches, give detailed manuscript critiques, and sit in on as many workshops as I can, especially Adam Stumacher and Qais Akbar Omar’s panel discussion on “Politics and Prose” where they’ll explore the altogether tricky business  of addressing political issues through narrative.   Next up is the Writer’s League of Texas Conference in June.  Both Boston and Austin are literary (rhyming) towns with their own vibrant cultures of letters, and I love to see how place affects writers and their works.   In any event, The WLT conference organizers asked me, as well as host of other Texas-bound agents and editors, to respond to some questions about the publishing process that I thought I might pass along.  If you don’t have plans to be in the Lone Star State or Beantown in the next few months, you might have a look.  Both Grub Street and the Writers League of Texas have robust websites that are teeming with excellent resources.

2

Timing is everything

I was reading about the big auction for film rights this week in Variety.com to Lynsey Addario’s recently published IT’S WHAT I DO. It’s a memoir by the award-winning war photojournalist and has been promoted by Gwyneth Paltrow on goop.com, excerpted in the New York Times Magazine, and picked as a best book by Amazon for February. What’s interesting to me is that the book is selling pretty modestly according to Bookscan, but Hollywood jumped all over it. Why? I’d say in large part because of the recent success at the box office of another wartime memoir, AMERICAN SNIPER. This time it will be Steven Spielberg making the movie and Jennifer Lawrence starring in it. Those kinds of deals in Hollywood can take months or years to set up, but when you have a hot topic, a book like this practically sells itself, even if it’s not a big bestseller.

I see examples of the power of timing all the time in my work. I once sold a book to an editor who I met for coffee who told me she was looking for a memoir about a young person with bipolar disorder, and I happened to be going out that day with a  mother/daughter memoir about just that. That editor bought the book, PERFECT CHAOS by Linea and Cinda Johnson.

Sometimes it goes the other way too. One time I submitted a proposal for a project that I thought was unique in the marketplace but it turns out a similar book was published almost at the same time my submission went out. That one wasn’t meant to be so we reworked it and sold it as something entirely different.

When things aren’t going your way or you’re feeling frustrated by the rejection pile or low sales on your books, just remember that your time might not be now but if you keep putting yourself out there and working hard and pounding the pavement, that time will come. And when it does, it will be a good reminder that timing is everything, or at least a big piece of the publishing puzzle.

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The role of the editor

This afternoon, a group of us were sitting around our offices discussing how the editor’s role continues to change as our business evolves, and I thought I would share with you some of our thoughts.

Years ago, the primary role of the editor was to work with the author to make the book better in anticipation of its publication.  Well known examples from the past include: Maxwell Perkins, Bob Gottlieb, Ellis Amburn, Jack Shoemaker, Judith Jones and many, many more. These editors literally spent night and day with their authors until they had a polished, publishable manuscript.

Over the years, however, as publishing became more of a “bottom line” business, these editors started disappearing and those who were left had the primary responsibility of acquiring manuscripts.  The actual editing, if it was done at all, was farmed out to freelancers, a number of whom were solid, working editors who had been let go  by major publishers in waves of acquisition and downsizing.

Today, there seems to be a new breed of editor—the person who acts as both editor and publisher and oftentimes has a publishing imprint with his or her name on it.  These people are responsible for everything—the book acquisition, the editing, the marketing and publicity, etc.   In fact, the only thing they aren’t responsible for themselves is probably selling the books into the accounts.  They are, however, responsible for the bottom line of their imprint, much as a publisher is.  Examples of these editors include Sarah Crichton (Farrar, Straus &  Giroux), Margaret McElderry (Simon & Schuster) and Amy Einhorn (Flatiron/Macmillan).

We are all curious about what the next editor evolution will be.  I would love to know what you think about all this and what your experience with editors has been.

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?