Posts Tagged ‘book editor’

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.


Think Like an Editor – Nine Tips on Writing Book Proposals

July 12, 2011

 Book publishing is run like real business now. The six largest publishers are all owned by multimedia conglomerates. The corporate bosses have very high expectations for return on investment, far higher than in the old days when book publishing was a cottage industry. Accordingly editors are under intense pressure to acquire books that will make money, a lot of money. In those old days, deals were made informally over the famous three martini lunch. Personal relationships were key to getting a book published. At least that’s the conventional wisdom on the way things were back then. I’m not sure if it was ever true. Now the acquisition decision is primarily based on the material contained in the book proposal. A bad book proposal can kill a good book idea. Well, maybe if you are Kim Kardashian, you can get away with a lousy proposal or none at all. But gentle reader, don’t fool yourself. You are not Kim Kardashian. A good book proposal is an honest book proposal and one that will address the concerns of the editor and give her confidence that the book will meet her expectations and requirements. Put yourself in her shoes for a minute and it will help you write a better proposal.

 1. A book proposal is a business plan. You have probably heard the old saying that publishing is the marriage of art and commerce. At the moment the relationship is sort of S/M with commerce holding the whip. Never forget that an editor’s acquisition is a business decision and your proposal must convince the editor that your book is not just great writing. It is good business as well.

 2. Get the editor hooked right out of the gate. An editor’s life isn’t all that glamorous. She works in a 10′ x 10′ office all day, every day. She has to attend boring acquisition meetings with a bunch of other fatuous editors who are pitching their pet projects for the same slot as hers. The publisher, the sales director, and the marketing manager are all there too. Maybe they have read your proposal. Maybe they have only read the first page. Maybe just your agent’s pitch letter. Everyone in the room including your acquisition editor has a busy life leading to attention deficit disorder. If you can’t get them excited in the first two paragraphs, I’m sorry, but you are probably sunk. Make sure your writing in the first paragraph is sparkling. Make sure you can say what the book is about in one or two sentences. If you can’t, you probably haven’t figured that out yourself. And remember, you have a lot of competition. Every acquisition editor gets 20 proposals a week. Every one of those proposals has been heavily vetted by agents. Every one of them will have a very compelling reason to get published. What will make yours pop out?

 3. Don’t play the editor for a fool. Editors have seen every kind of hype that you can think of many times over. Just remember this. Don’t mention Eat, Pray, Love. Don’t mention Oprah and while you are at it, don’t mention Terry Gross. Don’t mention The New Yorker. Don’t mention Spielberg either. When you talk about your promotion opportunities, don’t use the word “might” ( as in “I might get on Oprah.”) Editors will read this as “might not” or more likely “doesn’t have a chance in hell.” This kind of hype sends a message that you are either dishonest or deluded. Neither of these are good messages to send.

 4. Focus on your competitive analysis. A lot of writers gloss over the competitive analysis and treat it as if it were an unpleasant exercise that one must get through in order to please her agent. Don’t fool yourself. Editors look very carefully at this, because it gives them important information about the potential audience for the book. The editor is looking to see if there are other books on the subject that have had impressive sales. But they also want to know that you have something new and important to say on the subject. Make sure you use comp titles that will be useful to the editor in evaluating whether there is an audience. Use books from major publishers that were successful. Don’t use books that flopped. Don’t use books that are so old that they are irrelevant to the editor’s analysis. Don’t use books that aren’t truly comparable. And, for God’s sake, don’t use self-published books. And, one last thing, remember: never say that your book is totally unique and the only book on the subject. That means to the editor that there’s probably no audience for it.

 5. Make sure your audience analysis is realistic and robust. The audience analysis section of the proposal is also an area that authors give short shrift to. When an editor looks at a proposal, the first question she will ask herself is, “Is there an audience for this book?” In the audience analysis section, you need to answer this in a compelling manner that shows you mean business and are not acting under your own illusions or just blowing smoke. I get a lot of proposals about health related topics. Frequently the author will define the audience as “everyone between 20 and 70 years old interested in health.” This is not an audience. This is a demographic. The editor doesn’t want to know how many billions of people in the world might think about your subject area from time to time. She wants to know what specific and discrete groups of people will be motivated to pay $25 to buy your book. The editor wants you to get real or get lost.

 6. When writing your bio, think like an editor. The editor will read your bio and be looking for these things. 1) Does the author have the authority to be writing about this subject? and 2)What kind of platform does the author have that will allow her to drive sales? This should not be a curriculum vitae (although if you have one, you may include it in an appendix). You will have to describe the work that you do in the real world. You will have to include a modest list of important books and articles –if such a list exists — that you have written and published. You should include media connections past and present. You must mention major venues where you have spoken and will be speaking, and any significant awards you have received. Don’t put in filler material that will not impress anyone. Don’t say that you will teach a class on the subject at your local junior college. Don’t say you came in 3rd in an unknown literary award. Don’t pretend you have a platform when you don’t. [See #3 above]

7. Impress the editor with a solid, realistic, effective and honest marketing and promotion plan. The marketing and promotion section of the proposal is another area where authors have difficulty and sometimes try to wing it. Don’t. Editors will be able to see whether you have a sophisticated understanding of marketing and promotion, whether you will do an effective job flogging your product, or whether you are callow and naïve. Show the editor that you have a good plan. Go into some detail. Don’t say “I will do Internet marketing.” Say exactly what you will do. Don’t say, “I will try to get interviews on my local radio station.” Tell them exactly what media events you will realistically be able to line up – and don’t lie about it. Don’t mention that you will have book signings at local bookstores. They know that already. Don’t say your mom will host a publication party.

8. Don’t suffer delusions of grandeur. This is primarily for those of you out there who are writing memoirs, but it applies to everyone. Don’t get me wrong. Memoirs are a very popular genre but they are hard to get published. I usually advise memoirists that it is best to look outside themselves. I have no doubt that your life has been dramatic, even the stuff of legend. Everyone’s life is a hero’s journey. But this doesn’t mean that there is an audience who will want to read about it or a publisher who will see it as a marketable commodity. By all means, write your memoir. It will give you a deeper understanding of your life and your place in the world. But try to be realistic about the chances of getting published. Again, think like an editor.

 9. I want to say one word to you, just one word: “transparency”. This is my golden rule of proposal writing. The editor must know when he has finished the proposal that everything in it is true and deliverable before and after publication and that the author is who he says he is and has the authority, connections, and savvy to make this book sell. I need to trust my author just as she needs to trust me. And the editor needs to trust both of us. There is probably an agent out there who will be able to get you a contract based on some fancy footwork. But that isn’t the way I do business, and it isn’t the way the agents I respect do business either.