• Bridge Ladies

    Bridge Ladies When I set out to learn about my mother's bridge club, the Jewish octogenarians behind the matching outfits and accessories, I never expected to fall in love with them. This is the story of the ladies, their game, their gen, and the ragged path that led me back to my mother.
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Only Your Hairdresser Knows For Sure — Survey #5

You know how you never really know what goes on in a marriage?  The same could be said for what goes on between writer and editor. The editorial process is still a private, mostly behind closed doors affair. The best editorial relationships can last a career; some don’t make it to first base. I asked five extraordinarily accomplished bigshot editors the following question: what percentage of your editing do your authors take, and how do you persuade them to take it?

Editor #1:  All of it. I wouldn’t make the suggestions if I didn’t think they were the right thing to do. Of course, some suggestions can be made in the conditional, what-do-you-think? mode. The Big Persuader is, of course, the check due on acceptance. My rough rule of thumb on acceptance is this: If the author elected to proceed with the book exactly  as submitted, would I publish it as is? If so, here’s your check and let’s work to get the book to its absolute peak of perfection from here.  If not, let have a serious talk. These things have to be done with maximum care and diplomacy, but it is in the nature of the power dynamics of the relationship that the prospect of that payment tends to make the editor look wiser and more all-knowing.

 The above goes out the window for authors with  consistent net hardcover sales above 100,000 copies a pop.


Editor #2: I generally think that if authors grasp 80% of what you are asking and do 50% of it, you are in clover. One author described me as an iron fist in a velvet glove — I found this touching. For me, the key is providing, as far as possible, a healthy balance of praise (sincere, of course) and criticism. Nobody works well when they feel they’re being nagged, treated unkindly, or found wanting. 

Did someone say Velvet?

Editor #3: I hate to sound smug, but I have a very high track record of acceptance – like 80-90% – so I have come to expect that. In my experience the best argument for acceptance is the editing itself – and I mean getting down to specifics. I think general advice doesn’t really help much – no one is going to disagree much over the principles that make for good writing, but when writers are struggling they generally can’t see where the problems are, or they have a general idea what they are but don’t know how to solve them. I usually tell writers that I don’t expect them to take every edit verbatim, but that in my experience just rolling up your sleeves and attempting a fix is often the best way of showing what the problem is – so I want them to look at the problem the edit points up, and if they want to solve it another way, that’s fine. In my experience the editing process is usually the most harmonious part of the publishing process – the time when the book is still a private thing, and its fate still largely under the control of author and editor. Later will come the fights (and disappointments) over jacket, publicity, sales … Once in a blue moon I have run into major editorial resistance. Once, early on, I got back a revised manuscript from the writer on a co-authored book. As I began to look through it, I noticed that he had disregarded almost every one of my comments. I called him up and asked him why. He said, “I didn’t think they were important.” I said, “If I wrote it, it was important.” On the other hand, the writers who make me most nervous aren’t the fighters, they’re the ones who have no idea – or have lost any idea – of what they are trying to do or say, and are looking desperately to me to save them. They’ll do anything you say, or try to – it’s like pushing on jello.

Zombie Brain Jello (not making this up)

Editor #4: None.  Zero. I do, however, expect my authors to listen to, reflect on, and think seriously about, 100% of my edits. There may be conversations about why I suggested one edit or another, but my goal is never to persuade for the sake of persuading.  If I’m doing my job right, I’m my author’s first, best reader.  Hopefully, they’ll find that my edits and feedback illuminate for them what they’ve written in ways that help them make it better.

 In practice, of course, if an author really doesn’t take many of my editorial notes, that’s a good sign that there’s something wrong with the editorial relationship.  It means that I’m not giving them useful feedback, or they’re not listening….or, both. This thing of ours only works when there’s real mutual respect. 

The password is: mutual.

Editor #5:  72.3% A claw wrench.

The End

8 Responses

  1. I worked with Phyllis Grann. She took a great deal of care to make very clear that the book was mine, and that I wasn’t to consider her editorial suggestions demands. Unless she found something completely unacceptable, in which case I had to face the fact that my editor, with the best interest of the book in mind, completely hated something. I always found that that motivated me.

    Bigshot Editor #3 sounds like a dream. I am in love.

  2. I want to work with Editor #3. 🙂

  3. Interesting that as soon as the author sells above 100,000 copies Editor #1 gets to push them around less. Perhaps that simply means that once authors get in touch with their own power they can be more proactive. (There’s a shorter version and a longer version of The Stand which is a perfect example of the maxim: What do you give a 500 pound gorilla? Anything King Kong wants.)

    When I was working the other side of the desk I remember edited manuscripts coming across my desk where authors pushed back with retorts like “Stet this chapter”, “This is intrusion, don’t do this!” and finally, “What? Are you an editor or a frustrated writer?”

    I admired the authors for that so much.

  4. SOME people, not me, of course, but SOME people might say that when it comes to EDITORS theirs might as well have been a UNICORN for all the face time she got from them or for all the notes they couldn’t write being hoofed and all. Or so I’ve heard, from some people. Some bitter, whiny, over-looked genius people who are NOT ME.

    For some reason, NOT being edited feels worse than being edited, is all I’m saying, or so I’ve heard.

    • That happened to me, too, with an early book. I didn’t realize that editors actually edited for a quite some time.

      One good tip I got was to make sure I actually met every editor in person, even if meant the long slog into NYC. (Of course, -you- actually enjoy traveling, which is wrong on many levels.)

  5. Several different people have to be allowed to do their jobs if a book is to be successful. Authors are not the only ones who get to work on their manuscript. Once the manuscript is turned over to an editor, the editor has to be allowed to do her/his job. Successful authors have great editors. Successful authors have a good relationship with their editors. Good relationships are created in trust and respect. If an author trusts and respects no one but themselves to work on their book, they are not “publishable”.

  6. Would love to read survey responses to the question: “What does the word publishable actually mean?”

  7. What made you think about such a topic. Its funny I am not the only one that feels that way about it. Keep it up!. What made you think about such a topic. Its funny I am not the only one that feels that way about it. Keep it up! tremendous outstanding awesome.

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