We ALL love secrets, right? Well here is our chance to get inside the mind of an editor. Welcome Christine Pride!
Shhhhh! Seven Dirty Little Secrets Your Editor Doesn’t Want You To Know
Everyone loves a secret, right? Well, these might not be as sexy and steamy as the ones in y’all’s books, but hopefully they help you understand how editors think a little more—it’s always an advantage for writers to better understand the publishing industry, especially from an insider’s perspective. It can seem like a gated, rarefied world of expensive lunches, glamorous cocktail parties, and afternoons spent reading with your feet on the desk. At least that’s what I imagined when I walked into Random House my first day. The truth is, editors these days face the same tough realities as writers, since our careers are so symbiotic. We want you to think of us as brilliant and fashionable, wearing trendy glasses, and having erudite conversations in cozy rooms lined with bookshelves, with our various National Book Awards lined up on the mantle (okay, maybe that’s my personal fantasy, ahem) but here are a few less flattering truths:
1. We’re stretched thin and worried about losing our jobs. With the tumultuous changes affecting the business, (primarily fueled by the rise in lower priced ebooks, the comitant decline in the hardcover market and the shuttering of retailers like Borders) publishing houses are shrinking and publishing fewer and fewer books. For authors that’s tough because it’s harder and harder to get published by a Big Six house (the good news is that self-publishing opportunities are more plentiful and potentially lucrative than ever). But for editors shrinking staff and budgets mean layoffs and more pressure from the higher ups to acquire “big” books that will sell well, even as the money available for advances and marketing becomes scarce. Talk about doing more with less. If you don’t have enough hits, or too many failures, you’re out. I’ve witnessed more than 20 talented colleagues, laid off over the last five years. Fortunately, people usually land at another house and the musical chairs (and anxiety) goes on, but the truth is few editors feel any sort of true job security.
2. We channel our inner Simon Cowell. If editors subscribed to the adage, if you don’t have anything nice to say… well, editorial meetings would be very quiet places. Thank goodness there is no version of American Idol for aspiring writers (can you imagine reading the first page of your work to a panel of judges on live TV?), but the same Simon Cowell-esque critiques happen in offices and conferences at publishing houses, every hour of every day. We sometimes pick apart projects in a way that would leave the most confident of writers shaken. And then we write a very polite rejection letter. But it’s all because we love the craft and we take what we do very seriously, so we can’t help being very critical of books and ideas that are lazy, specious, or boring. It’s also because of the sheer volume of submissions we review. When have such supply, your demands (expectations) naturally become greater. The flip side is that when we love a project, oh we swoon! I can remember rhapsodizing about the brilliance of one particular submission (a book I am still bitter that I lost in auction), to the point that I am a little embarrassed about my zeal when I think about it now.
3. We’re terrified of missing the next big thing. The volcano of pop culture constantly spewing out blogs, memes, tweets, pins, not to mention the thousands of newspapers and magazines, is dizzying. An editor’s job is to make sure he or she is on top of the latest and most interesting thinkers, ideas, trends, celebrities, comedians, etc. that might make for the next bestseller, but it often feels like an overwhelming task. And when you do come across the next big thing, the discovery is often a fluke or a lucky break. As was the case when a friend of a former colleague mentioned to her that her book club was reading this little book that hadn’t been published in the states yet, Fifty Shades of Grey. In many ways, it feels that you are always “on alert”, and on the job because there is always another obscure literary journal to read or a new blog to follow, or an as yet undiscovered twitter hashtag (think Shit My Dad Says), that might be ripe for the picking. Who needs sleep?
4. We’re as gossipy as a gaggle of eighth grade girls. Maybe it’s because we deal in storytelling by trade, but editors love to swap stories; who paid what for what book? Who had a few too many cocktails at such and such writer’s conference? Who sent the accidental reply all email with a nasty rant? We all love to dish about our colleagues, the more salacious the better. The really juicy stories come from mythical sales conferences past; the “good ole days” when publishers could afford open bar events and three martini lunches. I suppose it’s similar in a lot of offices, but since publishing is a fairly small and insular world, everyone knows, or knows of, most of the players, making it that much more tempting to trade tales. Everything is fodder for the fishbowl. Which is also why a good reputation is good to have.
5. We’re competitive. Not that were keeping a tally of total book sales in a notebook somewhere, although I did once hear of an editor who does that (see what I mean about the gossip?), but we do measure ourselves against our colleagues. We do want agents to think of us before anyone else for their projects; we do want our books (as opposed to our colleagues) to get their fair share of the finite attention and resources in house. And when we’re in an auction, or even more so, a beauty contest (this is when, the advance being equal, authors meet with editors so they can choose who they want to work with), of course, you want to win. And naturally, the publishing houses are competing against each other for talent, awards, and the number of tiles atop the bestseller lists. We’re very diplomatic about all of this, of course, and a healthy layer of competition between colleagues and between publishing houses helps elevate everyone’s game.
6. We’re just a little self-righteous. Most editors will tell you that they love their jobs. For as hard work as it is (okay, it’s not coal mining, but if does require long hours and huge commitment), and as little as it pays (at least in the beginning), you have to love what you do. But I think anytime you’re in a position to be a gatekeeper, to decide what is worthy and what is not, to be a tastemaker, that can’t help but to go to your head a little. Helping writers realize their potential (and their dreams) and offering readers books that will touch or entertain them, or even change their lives, is a lofty pursuit. Mostly, we’re humbled by the opportunity, but we also feel just a teensy bit smug to have gotten where we are in an incredibly competitive field, and to get to do what we do.
7. We skim. We rarely read every word of the book. We’ve decided after the first 10-40 pages if we want to acquire something or not. Once you’ve read 100 plus submissions, you develop an instinct, a gut reaction to quickly ascertain the viability of a project. If we love it, we skim the rest to make sure it holds up and to gather enough information to bolster our claims for its brilliance to our superiors. If we don’t like it, we skim to make sure that if and when we see or speak to the agent, we’ve read enough to credibly talk about the project. It’s a simple math problem. Projects stacked on desk plus available reading hours equals skimming. That leads me to a bonus secret: Most of us are pretty terrible at math.
So next time you’re sending that query or reading that rejection or editorial letter, I hope you see the man or the woman at the other end as more human, less omniscient. Editors are just trying to build a career the same way you are and have the same pressures and weaknesses when it comes to this business of writing and publishing. We’re not that special. The joy in finding amazing stories, though? It’s no secret, that’s special.
So . . . what other secrets do you want to know?
Nancy Fraser discusses genre jumping on Friday!
Bio: Christine Pride is a ten year publishing veteran, holding positions at Random House, and most recently, at Hyperion Books, where she was a Senior Editor. In fall of 2012, she decided to leave the corporate side to become an editorial consultant, working with publishers, agents and aspiring writers. In her career she has published a diverse range of critically acclaimed and bestselling projects, including nine New York Timesbestsellers. Please visit her website www.christinepride.com to learn more.
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