Archive for November, 2013

Do Editors [and Agents] Edit

November 18, 2013

When I first decided to become an agent, I had an image of my job as being something between  a  real estate broker and a judge on American Idol.  It hasn’t  turned out that way at all. I find  most of my time is devoted to shaping and editing book proposals and manuscripts. In other words, I’m an editor.

The conventional wisdom you hear at literary cocktail parties is that editors no longer edit. It’s not true, and we’ll get to that in a minute. But what is true is  your book better be perfect when it goes to the publisher, because the acquisition editor is not likely to spend a lot of time visualizing how to reshape a flawed project. Well, ok. I’m sure when Sarah Palin presented her editor with a real stinker of a manuscript, HarperCollins did some significant editorial work; although, as they say, “you  can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.”

I just read a fascinating essay in Publishers Weekly by Marjorie Braman, who was an editor at several of the large publishing houses for 26 years. Recently she left publishing to devote herself to freelance editing.  The title of her piece is: “What Ever Happened to Book Editors?”  She says some pretty damning things about the role of editors (and of agents)  in commercial publishing today.  Listen to this:

 “A publisher once said to me, almost in passing, ‘We don’t pay you to edit.’ The real message was: ‘Editing is not crucial. If you’re an editor, what matters is acquiring.’ After I’d left in-house editing and was being courted by an agency, the owner/agent said to me, ‘Remember, you can’t sit in your office and edit.’ In other words, ‘If you’re an agent, what matters is selling.’ One thing these comments imply is that editing is no longer the editor’s main function; editing is done on your own time….

“I’d been through a lot of upheavals in the business, and one of the more insidious, but telling, things I’d seen happen as publishers cut back on staff was the expansion of the role of editors. Need a copywriter? No, we’ll get the editor to write the flap copy. Is the art department understaffed and overloaded? No problem, the editor will come into the art meeting cheerfully armed with ideas.

“Need a blurb for the book to get the sales department excited? The editor…  will get just the right quote from just the right author (whom she’s never met, but for whom she somehow has a home address). It’s a snap. Oh, and bring some publicity and marketing ideas to the launch meeting, too, while you’re at it. And that’s what editors get paid for. It’s fun, but it’s not editing. Working with the authors—which most editors love to do—has become something the editor must do ‘on the side.”

This is not what I expected when I first became an agent. As a bookseller on the outside, I imagined the structure of publishing as a kind of a dualism: the creative side (writers and editors) and the business side (sales, financial, and executive). Or to cite the old cliché, “publishing is the marriage of art and commerce.” Well, according to Marjorie Braman, it’s become kind of an S&M relationship with commerce holding the whip.

Maxwell Perkins

Maxwell Perkins

When we think of the editor as literary hero, we always come back to Maxwell PerkinsA. Scott Berg wrote a brilliant biography of him in 1977, Max Perkins: Editor of Geniusthat helped cement his iconic status.   Perkins was an editor at Charles Scribner from 1910 until his death in 1947. He worked with some of the greatest writers of the  century; but he will always be remembered as the man who edited F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, and Thomas Wolfe. It’s probably safe to say that Perkins’ role in the creative life of these three geniuses was fundamental to the masterpieces that each of them created.

There is the famous story of Perkins’ work with Thomas Wolfe, a great writer but one without discipline. In Wolfe’s first book, Look Homeward Angel, Perkins induced Wolfe to cut 90,000 words (about 300 pages) from that novel.

My experience with editors is a mixed bag. Although I haven’t worked with anyone like Perkins, there have been some who have done  brilliant and detailed editing and have made good books into great books. There have also been the other kind that Braman describes.

So that leaves me having to do a lot of editing. This is particularly true with fiction. Fiction is hard to sell, and there are many talented writers out there. So everything that I submit has to be perfect. And, yes, a good acquisition editor will then make it more perfect. Editing didn’t come easy for me. In my career as a bookseller, I spent much more time opening boxes than shaping imaginative works.

What I found astonishing when I started working in fiction was how little perspective the author has. But after all, why should she? The stories and the characters have been living in her mind sometimes for years. These characters have probably taken possession of the consciousness of the author. But what does the reader think? An author doesn’t have a clue. That’s where I come in.

There is  a concept in Zen Buddhism called “beginner’s mind”.  It means one should approach a subject with no preconceptions, techniques, or methods. In his book: Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, Shuryu Suzuki describes it perfectly.  “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few”.  So when I start to edit a manuscript, I try to put myself in the role of  the simple reader who is, after all, the only person who really matters. I read the manuscript out loud and listen to my voice and try to think what the reader thinks. Am I bored? Do I believe this character? Do I care? Can I visualize this scene? Does the dialogue sound natural? Is the language powerful or clunky? Readers are unforgiving. If they get bored, hate the character, find the story improbable, anything where they fall out of that trance-like state that we call “willful suspension of disbelief”, the reader will throw the book down and never pick it up again. (And probably tell all her friends not to bother to buy it.)

As I’ve gotten more experience working with fiction, I find that I’m losing that ineffable quality of the beginner’s mind. I’m becoming more mindful of things like, point of view, how back story is managed, voice, overuse of literary clichés,  the kinds of things people learn about at writers workshops and conferences. Craft.  And those are important too. But I  still always want to put myself in the role of the reader. That’s what’s crucial.

Editing has been fulfilling for me. Sometimes I feel like I have made an important contribution to the creative process. Maybe I’m not Maxwell Perkins. But when an editor calls me up and says, “I want to make an offer on this book. It’s brilliant!”, it makes me feel pretty good.

Bill Petrocelli -Bookseller and Novelist

November 11, 2013

circle of thirteenpetrocelliToday we are going to interview Bill Petrocelli, co-owner of the legendary Book Passage in Marin County. Bill has recently written a novel, The Circle of Thirteen that has just been released by Turner Publishing to rave reviews. Lisa See said of it: “In The Circle of Thirteen, Bill Petrocelli has created a story that flashes forward and backward through time, creating a futuristic world that bears some striking similarities to today. The Circle of Thirteen is a true celebration of the power of women in the face of great odds.”

 Andy: Bill, thanks for letting me interview you on “Ask the Agent.” We’ve been friends for a long time as booksellers. Probably more than 30 years. And we fought all the great fights together defending independent bookstores against the corporations. But you never told me that you wanted to write a book. When and why did you decide to write The Circle of Thirteen?

Bill: I guess I’ve always thought of myself as a writer, more than anything else. Although I’ve been heavily involved in bookselling for many years, during that time I managed to write two non-fiction books as well as a lot of articles.  As to The Circle of Thirteen, I began thinking about that story six years ago. And once the idea formed in my head, I couldn’t let it go.

Andy: The novel is bold and unique in structure. It’s sort of a science fiction novel, but not really (even though it takes place in the future). You structure it with flashbacks, but both the “then” and the “now” take place in the future as well. I don’t see that very often.  It’s a political novel with a strong feminist message that addresses real issues of today. Weren’t you trying to keep a lot of balls in the air? It must have been pretty hard to shape the story.

Bill: It takes place in the future, but I don’t really consider it science fiction. Probably it should be called “future fiction” – or maybe even “speculative fiction.” The idea for the book was to look at the expanding role of women and the potential backlash against them. I decided to set the story a couple of decades into the future, because I thought that would give me the best setting – really, a better perspective on things.

The challenge was to find a time that was far enough removed from the present to get away from day to day politics but still be close enough to seem relevant to the present moment. I decided that I couldn’t write the story in the form of a saga – a story with just one event after another – because I needed to maintain the tension and keep the important elements of the story at the center of things. That’s why I decided on one main narrative line that occurs over a period of two weeks with a series of flashbacks that feed into that story.

Andy: And that  raises the question of how to write flashbacks in a future setting.

Bill: You’re right – that’s a big challenge. And you’re the one who first pointed that out to me several  years ago. After we talked, I went back and reworked the story to try to do two things. First, I wanted to make sure that all of the transition signals were clear – dates, places, and all that. Readers needed to know where they were at any given moment.

The second thing, I believe, was even more important. I had to be relentless in maintaining the point of view of the narrator at key points in the story. I re-wrote most of the book so that it was the first-person voice of my principal character, Julia Moro, who is the Security Director for the United Nations. So when the flashbacks occur, they are  mostly told through her recollection. That allowed the reader to listen to her re-counting of earlier parts of the story with just enough information to get the feel and texture of what happened.

Andy: When I left bookselling, I became an agent, and   started working at the other end of the publishing food chain. It was pretty eye opening for me. What have you learned from this experience? How has it made you view the process of publishing differently?

 Bill: I’ve learned all kinds of things that I hadn’t really focused on before. A lot of it has to do with timing. How much lead time do you need for submission? For editorial feedback? For book promotion? Each of these things operates on its own calendar, and they’re quite different than the calendar that booksellers follow.

Andy: Book Passage is probably the most marketing driven bookstore in America. You have events practically every night. You have classes being taught by famous writers, book fairs, writers conferences. It’s a real three ring circus (in the best sense). Now you have to market your own  book to bookstores. How has your own bookselling experience helped you do this?

Bill: My experience in the book business has helped a lot – there’s no way to deny that. Mainly, my years as a bookseller have given me an entrée into bookstores. It’s also made it easier for me to talk with the people who report on books and bookselling. The people at the blog: “Shelf Awareness”, for example, have been incredibly helpful.

But even with all that, I’ve had to do a lot of the same things that other authors have to do. I have a wonderful agent, Lisa Gallagher, who helped open a few doors at key moments. But I’ve had to create my own website, hire a publicist – and even work with a publicist who specializes in book blogs.

Andy: You’re also a legendary figure in retail bookselling. Is that helping you get the book into the stores? What are other booksellers saying about it?

Bill: Legendary? I don’t know about that. If anyone is legendary, it’s my wife, Elaine, who really understands bookselling as well as anyone in the country. But I do know other booksellers, and I’ve gotten a lot of nice support for the book from many of them.

Andy: When I first became an agent, I avoided representing fiction. Now I have dipped my toes in it. It’s really tough to sell. There are a lot of good writers out there who can’t find publishers. Publishers are making their acquisition decisions based on marketing, not aesthetics. And they will tell you that most of their fiction titles aren’t selling. Any thoughts why?

Bill: Now that I’ve been promoting my own novel, I have a better idea why it’s  so difficult. It’s different than promoting a non-fiction book. With  non-fiction  you can talk about your credentials on the subject, you can stress how important the book is, and you can focus your message to specialized audiences. But none of that is true with fiction. You can talk all you want about your book, but until someone reads it they don’t know how good it is. The real test is the quality of the writing.

Andy: Any thoughts about how to get these books to readers better?

Bill: I have no secret formula for making it easier. I think the only answer is to get as many advance reading copies in the hands of booksellers, other authors, and prominent people – anyone who can read it and give a positive blurb that can then be used in marketing.

Andy: Ok, Bill. Here’s the $64,000 question. I couldn’t help notice that your book is for sale at Big Bad Amazon and almost as Big and Bad Barnes and Noble. Want to share your discomfort with us?

Bill: I have no discomfort with that. I want the book sold through as many places as possible, but I haven’t done anything to encourage sales through Amazon or through the chains. I’m trying as hard as I can to get people to buy it through their local independent stores, In fact, if you go to my website at http://www.williampetrocelli.com, you will see that my buy-link goes directly to the websites of about forty independent bookstores. I’m hoping that more authors will pick up on this idea and link to the independent stores whose support for their books is so important.

Andy: Are you working on your next novel?

Bill: I am, but I put it aside while I’m been trying to promote The Circle of Thirteen. Every now and then I find those characters talking to me, though, asking me where I’ve been. I need to get back to it. It’s a different kind of story, but hopefully it will be just as provocative. One of the characters is a bookseller, so that should give us something to talk about next time.

Bill will be speaking and reading from The Circle of Thirteen at the following venues:

Tues. Nov. 12, 7 PM. Powell’s Books, Portland, Or.

Thurs. Nov. 14,  7 PM. Bookshop Santa Cruz, Santa Cruz, Ca.

Sat. Nov. 19, 7 PM. R. J. Julia Books, Madison, Cn.

Wed. Nov. 20, 7 PM. McNally Jackson, New York, NY.

Sun. Nov. 24, 11 AM. Miami Book Fair, Miami, Fl.