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.
When we think of the editor as literary hero, we always come back to Maxwell Perkins. A. Scott Berg wrote a brilliant biography of him in 1977, Max Perkins: Editor of Genius, that 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.