Do you think editors have a glamorous job? Picture them reading a manuscript and sipping Veuve Clicquot on a Lear jet cruising at 40,000 feet after a day of shopping in Paris?
Theresa Stevens (quite possibly poolside at her estate in Montecito) exposes myths about editors and gives us a glimpse of what an editor’s job is really like.
Ten Myths About Editors
1. Myth: An editor’s job is to edit manuscripts.
Truth: These days, editing manuscripts is only part of an editor’s job.
Editors are functional project managers with responsibilities extending through all areas of the book’s life cycle. A simplified sketch of a book’s life cycle includes the following steps:
- Full Manuscript
- Contract Negotiations
- Line Edits
- Copy Edits
- Cover Art
- Jacket/PR Copy
- Advance Distribution
- Advance PR
- Distribution for Release
- Release PR
- Subrights Sales
Even though this is a very rough and simplified outline, it still contains eighteen steps. Only six of the eighteen steps (Query/Pitch, Proposal/Partial, Manuscript, Revisions, Line Edits, Copy edits) can be said to be related to the editing side of the editor’s job. One of those, Proposal/Partial, is frequently combined with the query or pitch, especially with proven authors. And another, Copyedits, is generally delegated to another editor who specializes in this task.
Each item on this list can take weeks or months to complete. Multiple people touch the project, but the editor is the shepherd. The editor is usually the only one involved in every single step of this process, even though the level of involvement will vary from house to house and maybe from project to project. For example, in some houses, editors write jacket copy. At other houses, the marketing staff drafts the jacket copy based on a memo prepared by the editor or a tip sheet completed by the author.
2. Myth: Pitching work at a conference makes an editor more interested in your manuscript.
Truth: Oh, boy. Dare I tell the truth here?
Formal pitch meetings are an essential part of the conference experience for editors because pitches are one way we connect with new writers. We also connect in hallways, elevators, banquet rooms, cocktail parties, public bathrooms, and any other place that writers can get close enough to read our name badges.
I found my success rate for finding new authors was roughly the same in elevators, bars and taxis as in formal pitch sessions. To be honest, I think pitches are about the worst way to connect with an editor. It’s a high-stress environment for the author and, well, let’s just say that it can feel a bit claustrophobic for the editor. Not exactly a good setting for a love connection.
I took pitches because it was a quick and dirty way to get through a lot of networking in a short time, and I usually remembered the pitchers when I saw their submissions. But pitches didn’t tell me whether the writer can deliver a publishable manuscript. Only pages can tell me that. Even the most memorable pitch won’t amount to anything if the manuscript doesn’t work, so I generally withheld judgments until I had actual pages to evaluate.
Truth: Editors are the most educated, experienced and adept readers of raw work anywhere. Period. So then why do we hear all these stories of major bestsellers being rejected seventy-seven times before finally finding a publisher?
Publishers offer a certain number of a certain type of titles in a certain interval: four cozy mysteries per month, two literary anthologies every six months, eight short romance stories on alternating Wednesdays. Editors are allowed to buy ahead, but only so far.
Keep in mind that editors already have writers under contract for many of these slots. And we have a full roster of writers who get first crack at openings even if they’re not currently under contract. So even though we might need, say, forty-eight stories in a given calendar year, perhaps forty or more of those slots will be out of reach to new writers before they’ve penned a single word.
For the few slots available to newcomers, the competition will be fierce. The slightest shades of difference between equally good manuscripts can often determine which book gets published and which gets rejected. In such cases, the rejection really isn’t about the quality of a project. I have had to pass on great manuscripts because they didn’t fit our line-up, or because we didn’t have room for them, or because they duplicated something under contract, or for a thousand other reasons that didn’t have anything to do with the writer’s genius. Or with ours.
4. Myth: Crushing the hopes of aspiring writers makes an editor feel powerful.
Truth: Most of the time, we’re too busy and too worried about our failing eyesight to think about things like power trips.
We don’t want to crush you. We want to help almost-there writers elevate their games. My biggest complaint about my acquisitions job, first, last, and always, was that I didn’t have enough time to groom new authors. Remember the rough task outline with eighteen items on it? Remember that each of these items can take weeks or months to complete? I didn’t have a lot of time left over to educate new writers, even though we all recognize that this lack of training can hurt the bottom line in the long run.
Another editor and I started the edittorrent blog (edittorrent.blogspot.com) as a way of trying to spread technical information about the craft of fiction. We knew we couldn’t spend a lot of time one on one with writers who weren’t under contract. But the blog lets us reach a lot of writers in relatively little time.
5. Myth: Authors don’t need to worry about grammar because it’s the editor’s job to fix it.
Truth: A thousand times, no.
This is one of the most puzzling rumors out there. Yes, of course, editors and copyeditors fix grammar errors in manuscripts. Does that mean an author shares no responsibility for grammar and usage?
Here’s a sad truth. When I evaluated a submission, the first question in my mind was not, Is this story good enough to publish? My first question was, How many hours of my life will it take to get this manuscript ready? If every other paragraph contains a grammar or usage error, that translates into time that I could be spending on other tasks.
This is why it’s easy for an editor to equate bad grammar with other flaws: arrogance, lack of self-respect, lack of respect for us, disdain for the product you’re creating. If you don’t care enough to distinguish possessives from plurals, then we’re not going to care enough to give you anything more than a form rejection.
In other words, if you don’t worry about your grammar, neither will I.
6. Myth: Editors play favorites with their authors.
Truth: We love you all the same, but some of you more than others.
It’s true that some authors receive more house support than others. There are many factors that come into play here: sales records, marketing decisions, Jupiter’s alignment, and whether we’ve run through the week’s chocolate ration before noon on Tuesday.
That’s only partly in jest. Sales and marketing decisions factor strongly into how much “love” you’ll get from your publisher. Publishing is a business, but it’s a business driven by the unpredictable tastes and whims of the masses. Luck is that great intangible that controls the fate of many titles, despite the best efforts of fleets of salespeople and PR experts.
And, let’s face it, editors are people, too. If we’re having a bad week and you call to whinge about the facts that your jacket copy never mentions the hero’s peculiar aversion to ramen noodles and that the cover artist drew a castle with sixty-four windows when the castle in your book clearly has sixty-six–well, we might not have the energy to care quite as much as you’d like. Especially because we’ve already had to listen to a rant from the cover artist about the impossibility of compositing sixty-six windows onto a two-square-inch castle, and even we don’t remember the ramen noodle thing despite having read your manuscript a dozen times.
Now imagine that the ramen-ranter is on a two-book contract, and I had to go through all this on her first title. Human nature being what it is, do you think I’ll be excited to show her the cover for book two? No. I’ll be bracing myself for a bad experience. I’ll still show her the cover. I’ll still hope for huge sales. I’ll still do everything I’m supposed to do, because, remember, we “love” you all the same. But I’ll be thinking about damage control before picking up the phone or composing the e-mail. Wouldn’t you be?
If you’re not getting the attention and support you’d like from your house, the best solution is to stop playing the blame game. Go back to basics. Write the best darn manuscript you can write. Turn it in on time — better yet, turn it in early. Be polite and professional even during disagreements. Don’t quibble over details unless they’re important details, and by important we mean, “The woman on my cover has three arms.” Make yourself a deal: for every time you stet the proofs, you’ll do one extra thing to promote your book. Or for every phone call to your editor to challenge your revision letter, you’ll take an online writing course. Or for every day that you miss your deadline, you’ll take out an ad in a relevant journal.
In other words, pay attention to your bottom line. It’s about sales, yes, but it’s also about what it’s like to work with you. If you do something that creates a “love” deficit, restore the balance by doing something positive for yourself and your career.
We want you to succeed. We want every book we publish to be a smash success. Be a partner in that process instead of an obstacle, and you’ll feel plenty of love from everyone at your house.
7. Myth: Contest wins really impress editors.
Truth: It depends.
I’m a big supporter of writing contests. Writers labor in isolation and deal with constant uncertainty. Contests can address both concerns by giving you clear, honest, sometimes even anonymous feedback from someone outside your normal circle. I love contests enough to act as final judge whenever asked (and whenever my schedule permits it).
That said, I’m rarely impressed by mentions of contest placements in query letters. I know that contest pools are like slush piles. On any given day, you can have a pile of good manuscripts or a pile of really bad ones. Placing in a contest doesn’t tell me much unless I know something about the level of competition in that pool.
Some contests have great reputations. A final in one of these is more likely to carry weight because we all recognize that the competition is strong. Other than that, they probably won’t count for much.
8. Myth: No news is good news.
Truth: No news is no news.
I remember fondly the days when I could respond to queries within a week. Requested fulls never lingered for more than thirty days in my in tray. I was an editing machine, churning through thousands of pages each month.
And then something happened.
First it was the cold queries. They started to mount until before I knew it, there were some several weeks old. Where had they all come from? I wasn’t ignoring them. I spent just as many hours on them each week as before, but the pile got bigger instead of smaller.
Then the requested manuscripts from new-to-us writers started to mount. I wanted to read them all right away. I intended to read each one the second it appeared in my inbox. But–but–there were page proofs due to the typesetter, and then someone turned in a manuscript late, and a piece of the website stopped functioning, and the art director wanted feedback on a new font, and–and–
It never ends. Editors talk a lot about being busy. That part is not a myth. If we could evaluate your work faster, we would. So usually, “no news” is just that, no news. We’ll get to your submission as soon as possible. Really.
9. Myth: If an editor loves your book, you’ll sell well.
Truth: Nobody can predict sales.
But that doesn’t stop us from trying. We do P&Ls–profit and loss statements–and scrutinize sales data like neurosurgeons slicing into brains. Why does this futuristic sell better than that one? Why did that historical not sell at all? Was it the promo, the product, the dip in the stock market, the fact that everyone spent their book dollars on the new Harry Potter that week? Sometimes it’s impossible to tell.
Armed with conflicting data, we peer into our crystal balls and try to make sense of the future before it arrives. Sometimes we even guess right. These are educated guesses, after all.
With the advent of direct publishing, I’ve been fascinated with watching authors track their own sales records and try to make sense of it all. You get it now, don’t you? You can sort of guess where things will go, but that’s about it. The best advice I can give you is to look for general trends and try not to let the sales figures make you crazy.
10. Myth: Editors lead glamorous, exciting, celebrity-filled lives.
Truth: True! Absolutely true! And now if you’ll excuse me, I have to climb aboard my private jet to zip down to a gazillionaire author’s private island for a fabulous weekend party. Everyone who is anyone will be there! Ta-ta, darlings!
Has Theresa banished your myths about editors or the editorial process? Any questions about an editor’s life or function?
Author Avery Flynn joins us on Monday, February 20th.
Bio: Theresa Stevens is the Publisher of STAR Guides Publishing, a nonfiction publishing company with the mission to help writers write better books. After earning degrees in creative writing and law, she worked as a literary attorney agent for a boutique firm in Indianapolis where she represented a range of fiction and nonfiction authors. After a nine-year hiatus from the publishing industry to practice law, Theresa worked as chief executive editor for a highly acclaimed small romance press, and her articles on writing and editing have appeared in numerous publications for writers. Visit her blog at http://edittorrent.blogspot.com/ where she and her co-blogger share their knowledge and hardly ever argue about punctuation.
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