Publishing school lesson: authors and editors

“Publishing School”, a welcome new series in The Awl, looks at “real-world” issues related to writing and publishing a book. I like the approach of this series because articles on writing and publishing are often written in tones of end-times hysteria (the end of the printed book, the death of the novel) or irrational hopefulness (the latest multi-million dollar advance, ten steps to a winning promotional platform).

In the latest instalment, five writers answer questions about their book editors, namely: how did they select their editor, what was the revision process like, and what are the most important qualities in an editor? The article is lengthy but I recommend it for the variety of experiences these authors relate.

In US book publishing, the editor is the person who acquires your book, sometimes in a “bidding war” with other editors that is managed by an agent. (In Australia and the UK, this person is known as either a commissioning editor, an associate publisher, or a publisher.) Once acquired, your editor might not do much actual editing of your manuscript. That role frequently falls to a freelancer or to an in-house line- or copy-editor, although, as the article makes clear, authors prefer their editors to actually edit. One point a few of the authors made is that the skill to acquire books is quite different from the skill to edit them. Those editors who are rising to the top of their respective trees might not always have the time, inclination, or even the ability to do the kind of editing an author might expect. One author suggests the way to find out what kind of editor your potential editor might be is to ask an agent or other authors who have worked with the editor.

As someone who has worked as an in-house editor, as an agent, and now as a freelance manuscript developer/coach, I agree with novelist Calvin Baker’s contention that there’s always a tension between the creative and the economic in an author’s relationship with their editor.

Editors, by definition, serve a dual role. They are among the work’s first readers, and have a privileged position in the creative process. This relationship, though, is liminal, near the end of life for the work as private manuscript, and near the beginning of its second, but not yet final incarnation, as public object.

Non-fiction writer Don Van Natta provides some great definitions of what a good editor should do for you, whether you’re engaging them independently prior to selling your manuscript, or following acquisition by a publishing house:

A really good editor … polishes your copy without trampling your voice, finds the factual and logical holes in your manuscript that need to be plugged and keeps you from embarrassing yourself. … The best editors see themselves as your silent partner, generously looking to make your work shine even more. The best editors become as familiar with the material as you, and they challenge you to think of ways to enhance the story-telling and elevate the writing and then they still find a way to improve things when you can’t any longer.

Behind these comments lie an important point that not all new authors understand: you must be willing to regard your own work through the public and commercial gaze that the editor must bring to your manuscript.

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