Peter Ginna on the Work of the Book Editor

editorsToday we are going to interview book editor Peter Ginna and discuss the role of the editor in the book publication process. Peter is editor and contributor to What Editors Do: The Art, Craft, and Business of Book Editing, just published by The University of Chicago Press. The book is an anthology of essays by 27 of the most respected editors in publishing talking about their work from acquisition to publication. Any writer considering publishing with a major press should read this book. Peter has been a book editor for over 30 years. He has worked at Bloomsbury USA, Oxford University Press, Crown Publishers, and Ste. Martin’s Press. Authors he has worked with include James McPherson, David Hackett Fischer, David Oshinsky, Daniel Ellsberg, and Suze Orman. Check out Peter’s blog on writing and publishing: Doctor Syntax.

Andy:  Peter, what I hear from almost every writer who has not yet been published is “editors don’t edit any more”. I’m sure you’ve heard it too.  Is this true? If not, can you speculate on why this attitude is so prevalent?

Peter: Sigh…I’ve been hearing this complaint since I got into publishing in the 1980s. All I can say is that every editor I know spends many, many hours of their nights and wPeter Ginna copyeekends editing—it’s almost impossible to find time do it in the office. As I say in my book, working on manuscripts is still the core and defining function for most of us. I have edited almost every title I’ve published, usually line by line. And if I haven’t, somebody else has. That said, there have always been some editors who didn’t edit much, or even edited badly. And the economic pressures today to get more titles out of fewer editors sometimes means some books don’t get as much attention as they deserve. But it’s pretty frustrating for those of us who wear our #2 pencils down to little stubs on people’s manuscripts when we hear this comment tossed off so casually.

Andy:  I have to tell you that my life as an agent can be frustrating. I get so many rejections from editors. Sometimes my job seems  like my social life in high school.  Lately, I’ve been doing a lot of literary fiction and some literary memoir. Tough genres, I know. But everything I take on is special. And I still get a massive amount of rejections. At the same time, I see things getting published that just aren’t that good. In literary fiction, I see books that are well written and well crafted, but they seem kind of the same. What should I tell my heartbroken and talented client after he gets his 30th rejection?

Peter: “Thirty-first time’s the charm!” Seriously, publishing has always been a subjective, hit-or-miss business. No book is to everybody’s taste, or every editor’s, and sometimes unexceptional work finds its way into print. And anyone who knows publishing history knows that some wonderful and even bestselling books were rejected many times before publication. I would tell authors what I bet you already say: “It only takes one.” One editor who loves what you’re doing and can communicate his passion to the publishing house.

Andy:  Whenever I give presentations before authors’ groups, I try to be brutally honest about the realistic chances of getting published. Let’s talk about your batting averages. When you were an editor at Bloomsbury, how many book proposals did you typically get a week? How many were agented (heavily vetted)? How many were good enough to get published? How many did you publish in a year?

Peter: Whew, that’s a lot of questions. I would guess I got between 15-30 submissions a week; probably 80 percent of those were agented, because I wasn’t fielding total slush submissions (meaning those addressed to “Dear Bloomsbury”). I acquired 15 to 20 new titles a year, out of all of those.

Andy: Hmm. Let’s see. That’s about 1000 proposals a year and you published maybe 15. I’ll try not to take it so personally next time I get a rejection from an editor. And of those titles you published, how many ended up making money?

Peter: Probably around a third or fewer turned a profit for the house in the first few years, though my list was generally oriented toward books that, with luck, would backlist and generate money over the long term.

Andy: Most of the people reading this interview are thinking about how to go about finding an agent. Can you give them some advice? What should they be looking for?

Peter: My feeling is there are two key things a writer should look for in an agent. First, do they truly get my work—do they understand what I’m trying to do and know how to help me realize it? (Some agents, and some editors I’m afraid, try to squeeze a writer or a book into a form or category that they think will be saleable, but that is at odds with what the author is really trying to accomplish.) Second and equally important, do I have the right relationship, the right chemistry, with this agent? Not only do I trust them, which is critical, but is their style of doing business going to mesh with mine? Agents come in all shapes and sizes and personalities—some are very warm and fuzzy, some are cool and clinical. Either one can be highly effective but if you are not comfortable with it, it’s a bad match.

Andy: The one thing I hear that makes me see red is a writer who only wants to have a New York agent. Do they really have an edge? Is there  some kind of alchemical magic that happens at the Publisher’s Lunch?

Peter: I don’t think the agent’s location is important. If you were in New York, I’d enjoy having lunch with you more often, but as an editor it is much more important to me that you a) always had high-quality submissions and never wasted my time and b) were always professional and a straight shooter. Those are the qualities that get an agent’s clients favorable attention from a publisher, not whether the agent is in Manhattan.

Andy: In your book, Jon Karp says the first rule for an editor is “Love it.”  This seems a little squishy soft for all you tough minded guys working for multi-media conglomerates. Is Jon maybe romanticizing his job a little bit?

Peter: Absolutely not, and I was struck by how many of the contributors to What Editors Do make that same point (including me). Publishing any book requires an enormous investment of time and psychic energy by an editor. The process takes months and sometimes years. If you make that kind of commitment to a book you’re not really passionate about, it becomes a total grind and you often end up hating yourself for it. You don’t have to “love” every book the same way—a book on how to restore furniture isn’t the same as a lyrical literary novel. But you have to feel something in your heart or your gut that says this book is a special one of its kind. My own name for that feeling is “the spark. As an editor it’s your job to pass that spark on to others in house, and then out to readers in the outside world.

Andy:  But still, as the cliche goes, book publishing is the marriage of art and commerce. So once you “love it”, you have to take it through the meat grinder. Can you tell us the next steps you go through before the publisher makes the acquisition decision?

Peter: Here’s where I plug my product and note that I go through the whole process in detail in my chapter on acquisitions. The procedures vary considerably from house to house—at a small indie publisher, unsurprisingly, it’s less bureaucratic than at a Big Five corporation. But essentially, you share the material with your colleagues and try to get support for the project, especially from departments like publicity, marketing, sales, and sub rights who will be tasked with selling the thing if you sign it up. And you have to figure out how much money the house should invest in the project, which involves doing a projected profit and loss statement—the infamous P&L.

Andy:  Ok. So let’s talk about the  P&L.  It’s always been a puzzlement to me. Can you describe this? How on earth can you make realistic sales projections on a product that is unique?  Sure, you can do it for a test guide, or Lee Child’s next Reacher novel. But what about a book like, say, Daniel  Ellsberg’s The Doomsday Machine (my client’s book due out this December, and which was acquired for Bloomsbury by you, Peter)?

Peter: Aha, this is the $64,000 question! In some sense what publishers do is reinvent the wheel a hundred times a year, because just as you say, every product is unique. That makes it really hard to project sales figures with any sense of certainty. The best you can do is make educated guesses about what a new title is likely to sell, based on the author’s track record, sales of comparable titles, likely media interest, and possibly the casting of horoscopes or Tarot cards. Plus, of course, people’s response to the manuscript or proposal itself.  Once you have made a sales projection, the P&L is—in theory– simply a straightforward calculation of the revenue generated by those sales, less the costs of royalties, printing, distribution and so on. Each house will have some target for what percentage of profit must be left at the end of the day.

Andy:  It’s always mystified me how you come up with the final number for an advance. The only  thing consistent is that it is usually too low.  Can you describe what goes into the calculation?

Peter:  Well, what the editor wants to offer as an advance is the author’s royalty earnings as generated on the P&L just mentioned—or preferably a lower number that allows the author to earn out even if sales fall short of the projection—as they often do. But note that in referring to the P&L numbers I said “in theory.” Your P&L needs to show X percent profit, whatever advance you are offering. But suppose you are in a competitive situation, bidding against other publishers for a hot book. Very often, you wind up re-projecting your sales figures so that you can still show a profit on the P&L when the advance goes from $50,000 to $250,000 or whatever.

Andy:  And then there is the word that is on everyone’s lips in book publishing: “Platform”. I tell people that platform means one of two things: Either you have an endowed chair at Harvard or you are sleeping with Oprah’s hairdresser. I think you made the same point, possibly with less colorful language.  What  is easier to get published: a pretty good book by a guy with great platform or a really good book by a guy without it?

Peter: I’m afraid it will almost always be easier to get the pretty good book published by the guy with a great platform. (However, the really good book may well outsell it in the end.) People love to hate the word “platform,” but it’s just shorthand for an author’s ability to command attention in the marketplace, which publishers have always been keenly aware of, and rightly so. This could mean either the attention of readers who already know the author, or the attention of intermediaries (media, celebrities, scholars, peers in their field, etc) who will in turn alert those readers. So “platform” could be access to Oprah, as you suggest, or a ton of Twitter or Instagram followers, or a syndicated column.

Andy: So what’s your advice to my platform challenged authors?

Peter: I’d say rather than getting hung up on this idea of platform, think of it this way: How do you mobilize the community of interest around you and your subject? What’s going to get people who care about this to spread the word about the book? You should start this mobilizing from the moment you begin work on the book—don’t wait until your book is in galleys to start building relationships and raising your profile. I remember reading a proposal for a biography of Jesse James by a first-time author. He had no major public credentials, but he had managed to get a very strong endorsement of his work from James M. McPherson, a Pulitzer-winning and bestselling historian. I instantly took his proposal seriously. Alas for me, it was bought by Knopf. That author, T.J. Stiles, has now won the Pulitzer Prize himself, twice!

Andy:  I wrote a book on book proposals. (plug) It’s called The Literary Agent’s Guide to Writing a Non-fiction Book Proposal. I tell the reader that a great book proposal is one that anticipates the questions the acquisition editor will be asking. Am I right? How important are book proposals in your acquisition decision?

Peter: Especially in nonfiction, book proposals are critical. No matter how good your platform is, you need a strong proposal that makes clear why your subject will be compelling to readers and what you have to say about it that’s not available elsewhere. You are exactly right that the author should answer the questions the editor is going to ask. And the first question is generally, if crudely, expressed as, “So what?” What am I, the reader, going to come away with if I invest twenty-five or so dollars, and more important, several hours of my time, in reading this book? If you’ve answered that, you’re well on the way to having a good proposal.

Peter, I think those two words “So what?” summarize everything we have been talking about today.  I’m going to tell all my clients that they need to read What Editors Do, before they make the big decision to seek publication.



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