I became a book editor in extremis. My company, Bantam Books, was undergoing one of those periodic downsizings in 1991. Sadly, they happen all the time. I had graduated from cover copy into middle-front-office-land, but it wasn’t easy to pin down just exactly what I did for a living. Behind the scenes, I made it organically easier for editors, sales reps and other execs to do their jobs more effectively, but try explaining that to the McKinsey consulting dweebs who were then evaluating our human resources for easily-rolled heads.
Late one Friday afternoon, Bantam mass market publisher Lou Aronica walked into my office and said, “The Senior Editor in charge of our Westerns is leaving. I think you should take his job.” I said, “I don’t know how to edit a book.” He said, “Sure you do. You edit the stuff your people write. Besides, I’ll be looking over your shoulder.” I said, “I don’t know what a book should cost.” He said, “I’ll teach you how to read a P&L.” A couple more objections, and I said, “You’re serious, aren’t you?” He just stared with a pained expression. “One thing though. I need your answer on Monday. I need it early Monday morning.” Then Lou repeated, “I really think you should take this job.”
Linda and I talked it over, but it was obvious even to me – forever oblivious, always, to the most blatant office politics – that Lou was trying to save me from the McKinsey maw. I’d already heard that Bantam tended to hire you, then figure out what to do with you later. Now, here it was, coming true as advertised. On Monday morning, I became a Bantam Books Senior Editor, with 00.00 editorial experience, and one nanosecond later my former position was excised from the corporate flow chart with neck-snapping Orwellian finality.
So, what exactly does an editor do? The first guy I asked was my friend and guru Ian Ballantine, who also seemed to think I would turn out OK; he said Lou had done a smart thing, which I took to be a two-man compliment. I’ll never forget Ian’s instant response: “What do you do? You read your tits off!” You might have an image of a guy in an office poring over a manuscript with blue pencil in hand, maybe a green banker’s lamp illuminating the desktop, soft light bouncing off mahogany-paneled walls while a golden retriever snoozes at his feet. And that’s definitely how an editor spends most of hisser time, usually without the mahogany, lamp and pooch. But forget the office. The one thing editors do not do at the office is edit. There’s no time! That’s because there are dozens of decisions to be made on each book, and meetings upon meetings to make sure every aspect of the company has everything it needs to package, promote, distribute and sell it. That editing stuff with the blue pencil takes place at home, mostly on nights and weekends. And the stack of work crying for an editorial onceover never ends, because it has to be self-regenerating if you expect to keep your job.
You meet with agents, who, over time, suss out what you like. If you’re lucky, you have an assistant (I didn’t, for some of my years as an editor; I’ve kicked a copying machine many, many times!) who helps you sort through unsolicited manuscripts and over-the-transom agented submissions. I used to hear about the huge stack of submissions that faced every editor and took it with a grain of salt. Folks, it’s true! Most unsolicited works are easily dismissed after only a page or two; it’s the few that are right on the edge that drive you crazy. Some houses don’t read anything unsolicited, and though that has to depress struggling authors, I can understand why.
Suppose you find something you like. Now you have to convince the rest of the company, starting with the weekly editorial board, who sit around a big conference table to hear what cool stuff has been coming in. This is your first audience – for the single most important function of an editor inside a big publishing house is the role of cheerleader, the author’s corporate champion. You have already guessed on a cover price, a trim size, a page count, a print run, a pub date (no sooner than a year from now) and you have come up with a profitable scenario. Now you have to personally fire up the executive staff and the sales reps, who will be doing the physical “sell-in” to bookstores many months from now. If your readout flashes green all the way down, you get your money authorized, and you own yourself a book, my friend! That is, unless the author and agent think you’re being entirely too frugal and demand that you creak open the corporate wallet a little wider. Then it’s back to the P&L, or else you must wave goodbye to the girl you really wanted to date, for that’s exactly what it feels like to lose a book you loved. Auctions, now, are a whole nother story, because the competitive juices begin to flow, and before long you’re wildly overprojecting the number of books you can actually sell. Same thing for screenplays, recording contracts, fine art, and wine. Everybody gets excited and tends to pay too much. Auctions can make you pick your own pocket, but most agents worth their salt can’t seem to hear a problem there — and if there’s lots of interest from capable editors who would each do a good job (all that figures in too), an auction is the only responsible way to make sure the writer’s getting the market price, inflated though it may have become.
For the editor, there are two immensely joyous days in the life of any book. First is the day you call the author or agent and tell them they have a deal. (Or, after an auction, they call you.) Second is the day you get the first carton from the bindery, crack it open, and hold the finished book in your hands for the first time. I have known editors to cry at this second point. Heck, I’ve done it. But in between those two landmarks is the potential — not the certainty, but the serious possibility – of unholy hell.
First, if it’s like most nonfiction books or novels from established authors, you have to wait for it to be written. That can take – probably should take – about a year. Then, when you finally get your manuscript, it’s probably not ready to go to press just yet. One author I know was told by an editor that the script was “perfect!” Said author asked me, how can that be? And I said, “there’s no such thing as a perfect script, mate.” What the editor was trying to do was abdicate the editing part and just get the book onto the frickin schedule. It’s been done before, though rarely enough that it’s still surprising to hear. But as each and every one of my authors can assure you, never by me.
Nope, that’s when you start work. A good editor is nothing more than an attentive reader who is biased in favor of the author. You don’t have to be an expert: that shows up downstream when your publisher hires a good copyeditor, a professional pedant who uses hisser mighty powers for good. The sun came up through the right window, it has to go down through the left window, etc. In movies, they call such a person a script supervisor, and s/he (usually she) is responsible for any continuity errors, which yobbo bloggers love to spot: he drank half his beer, but the mug’s full in the reverse angle, huh-huh-huh! These things happen in books too (the most infamous literary blooper occurs early in ROBINSON CRUSOE, when the title character strips naked, swims out to the ship — and starts filling his pockets with supplies!), and you call ‘em when you see ‘em, but you as editor don’t have to dig down that deep for every single one. The copyeditor, bless hisser superhuman heart, does that for you. (Did you know you don’t have to be a great speller to be a great author? If you’re atrocious, that’ll definitely get in the way, but a good copyeditor can make even a substandard speller look like Noah Webster.)
You, the editor, are looking for clarity and natural narrative propulsion. You’re also similar to a theater or film director who requests, more! Or louder! Because like a director, you’re trying to make it as easy as possible for the author to express him- or herself in hisser own voice, to coax out the best performance s/he can humanly give. Authors are human beings too. (Agents? Welll…just kidding!) And different authors respond to different kinds of treatment. There are certain actors – many if not most of the really good ones — who dislike being “spoon-fed,” or having a director speak the line exactly the way he wants to hear it. To them, that’s insulting. The director is no longer asking for interpretation, only mimicry. Well, it’s the same with many if not most good authors. You might suggest a word or two – after all, each of us has a slightly different internal thesaurus – but most authors in my experience really want to hear what effect they’re having on the reader, especially if it’s an unintended one. Are their characters behaving rationally and consistently, and do the changes the story produces in them make sense? Is a technical bit of nonfiction easily understood by a lay reader – in other words, you? Are they misdoing something simple like using a particular word or phrase too often? It can be hard to discern the forest when you’ve just spent a year painting in the trees one by one. Authors simply need straight talk from somebody they can trust before letting this precious creation into the outside world. What surprised me the most during the years I spent editing was that even when I got to work with brilliant authors, personal heroes whose pencils I’m not fit to sharpen, they’d tell me, I’m just as nervous turning this one in as I was my first. That’s Thing #1 you have to realize, and your script-side manner flows naturally from that. You’re not only a cheerleader, you can be a shrink too. A famous, bestselling and rich mystery author who had and has thousands of adoring fans used to phone a longtime editor in the middle of the night to read the latest chapter aloud. Am I still doing this right?
Nobody does much good by shouting – it’s a cordial business where you make a deal with your voice over the phone and contract points rarely change after that verbal handshake – but a tiny few authors consider the relationship incontrovertibly adversarial. You’re nothing but a suit in the employ of the greedy publisher. They’re correct in one sense: you wouldn’t be in business if you didn’t think you could make money by publishing their work. But trust me, there are lots of easier ways to get rich. I have heard some horror stories about shameful behavior that are almost beyond belief, but editors have hardly cornered the market on arrogance.
Editors want their authors to succeed. Not for the money (they don’t participate financially in a bestseller, as the author and agent do), but for the satisfaction and the back-pats which accrue to their reputations. And while each author is justifiably concerned about one particular title, the editor has ten or twenty in various stages of publication, and is constantly reading submissions to buy still more. (That takes real understanding from the writer’s standpoint, again best expressed with a romantic metaphor: you’re seeing other people?) Most of the authors I’ve worked with are swell folks, but not every single one. What really hurts is when you’ve long loved the person on the page. I guess that happens to movie and music people too – I would imagine much more frequently. But even when a project is “snake-bit,” as we say down South, and formerly simple things seem to go wrong at every possible turn, bringing the wrath of everybody down onto you, there’s still that magic moment ahead: when you open the carton and get your first look at the baby you helped birth. You can still mist up — and in that instant, no matter what difficulties have gone before, it was all worth it.
For some fascinating discussion on this post, including more by yours truly, go to Dean Wesley Smith’s wonderful blog.