Being an Editor

Michael Kandel

Michael Kandel edited my books Tales from Earthsea and The Other Wind, and read and copy-edited the young adult books Gifts, Voices, and Powers, all for Harcourt. He is a marvelous editor, demanding, insightful, a joy to work with. He and I were discussing editing, recently, and he said he'd written a short piece about it. I asked if I could run it on my web site, and he graciously agreed. There's a good deal of misunderstanding, these days, about what editors actually do, where they stand in the publishing hierarchy, and so on. I found Michael's assessment illuminating and useful.


You like a book; I don't. We argue for an hour but fail to convince each other. We could just as easily be arguing about which politician deserves our vote, which basketball team will win in the playoffs, which film actress is more beautiful. We are civilians, not professionals, in our holding of these opinions. Nothing important comes of what we think about a book — beyond the extremely local phenomenon of our buying or not buying a copy of it (and the slightly less local phenomenon of our telling our friends and family to buy or not to buy a copy of it).

Editors, we believe, are different from us in this respect: their opinions matter. As literary experts, they can find better than anyone else can the gems among the junk. As publishing experts, they can tell which book out of a hundred will get on the best-seller lists, become a Spielberg movie, and make a ton of money for the publisher (and for the author). Experience and talent must lie behind an editor's opinions. Otherwise why would the man be paid to have those opinions? If a man is paid to do something, we think, then of course he is good at it.

Editors' opinions matter, no question, to writers who have manuscripts they would like published. If a bus driver, waiter, insurance salesman, or plumber approves of your manuscript, you may be pleased, but you probably won't go out and celebrate with a bottle of champagne.

When I began working in publishing, I learned, to my surprise, that editors' opinions often possess no more wisdom than those held by bus drivers, waiters, insurance salesmen, or plumbers. Editors can argue among themselves for an hour and fail to convince one another. They make predictions about the success or failure of a book — with no more success than you and I would have. They are constantly disappointed, surprised, perplexed by what happens or doesn't happen after a book enters the world with its glossy, colorful cover.

I once asked a veteran editor (he had been in the field for about thirty years and had worked with some world-famous authors) how editors kept their jobs even though many of their books didn't do well in the marketplace. His answer was that in the long run one had to have a good batting average (since he was a baseball fan, he used baseball metaphors). Note that he didn't say whether such statistical success was the result of innate ability or dumb luck.

Editors serve publishers as filters. In a month, a hundred manuscripts are submitted; the editor selects, from among them, two or three to be considered at the weekly or monthly editorial meeting. While it is unquestionably desirable to have a filter able to pick out hidden gems from junk, it is also necessary, for publishers to function on a daily basis, simply to have a filter.

Often there will be no gems at all, not one, hidden in this or that pile of a hundred (or a thousand) manuscripts. Publishers must publish; they can't sit around and wait for a gem to be found. There must be a reasonably steady flow in the production of the company product. So in a very practical way it doesn't matter whether the filter is a good one.

In my limited experience as an editor (ten years part-time, not thirty years full-time), I have observed no clear cause-and-effect relation between job performance in publishing and job security in publishing. I have seen little that conforms to a rational and understandable (if heartless) Darwinian-capitalistic system of reward and punishment.

One anecdote will serve to illustrate; it's a play in three acts, with a twist. Act 1: A young editor acquires an unknown author: it's a first novel. Act 2: Quite unexpectedly, there is great excitement in the publishing house, and then among the public, about this book, and suddenly, behold, it is on the best-seller list and there will be a Spielberg movie. Act 3: The young editor is fired in order that an older and more established editor can take over the book and put the author in his "stable" of big authors.

Defining success for a book is tricky. Here's an interesting example, among many. My former boss, an editor who specializes in translations of foreign books, acquired a Portuguese author much admired in Europe. We published one novel after another. They tended to get very good reviews, but they didn't sell well, neither the hardcovers nor the paperbacks. Were these books successes? The publisher was definitely losing money on them. Nowadays, in an increasingly tough time for book publishing, many publishers would say, "We are not doing this kind of book anymore." And then cancel the imprint and dismiss the editor.

Last year, this author, whose name is still unknown to most Americans (Jose Saramago) won the Nobel Prize in Literature, and right before this big event there was some excitement about his then most recent novel, _Blindness_. Overnight there was a demand for the several novels that had been translated and published through the years; the books went back to press; the publisher began to make money on Jose Saramago.

This kind of delayed-reaction success is not so rare. In science fiction, for example, it occurred with the work of Philip K. Dick. In the literary mainstream, Heller's Catch 22 was a total loser before it became a total winner.

An editor is a gatekeeper. Many editors delight in this exalted position; they puff themselves up, they strut. The reason: People of wealth, fame, and power, people at the top of their profession (actors, politicians, surgeons, astronauts, CEOs), decide they want to write a book — their memoirs or perhaps even a novel. Being the author of a book is still considered, in our culture, something wonderful. (Particularly by people who have never been an author.) It's a personal dream: perhaps you see yourself signing copies of your book at a bookstore, the line of fans going out the door and around the block.

So these people of wealth, fame, and power have a manuscript to sell — or at least a proposal for a book — and where do they take it? They take it to the editor.

If the editor, having read it, says, "Thank you, but no," the manuscript or proposal never reaches the publisher behind that editor. Only a yes from the editor starts the process of the company's deliberating over whether or not to acquire the book. Many people think that editors acquire books. Actually it's the publisher who acquires. It's the publisher, not the editor, who enters into a contract with the author. To say that the editor acquires is shorthand: the editor is the pointing dog, the publisher the hunter with the gun.

Naturally this role of gatekeeper is very important from the point of view of the would-be author. The editor is an obstacle that must be overcome. In the United States nowadays, because of mergers and the economics of bookselling (forcing small presses out of business, for example), there are fewer and fewer publishers, which means that there are fewer and fewer gatekeepers. In other words, there are not as many doors for you to knock on if you happen to be an author or an agent representing an author. So the role of gatekeeper, as more and more supplicants line up at the gate, becomes more and more exalted.

It is only human nature to puff and strut when people persistently bow before you. Editors in this respect are similar to professors: arrogance is an occupational hazard, a threat to one's character in both fields. The professor speaks in the classroom; the students all take obedient, careful notes. After a few semesters of this gratifying experience, the professor begins to think that nothing but wisdom emanates from his mouth. (I speak from firsthand experience: I have been a professor.)

Editors tend to forget how precarious their position is, and that it is their position — not they — that is exalted. I have seen this drama unfold several times: An editor, full of himself, is surrounded and followed by a crowd of adorers — at a convention, say, or a cocktail party. The editor's name is on everyone's lips. People hang on his every word. The next day, he is fired and replaced by someone never heard of before. The day after that — day 3 (or act 3, with a twist) — this new person is surrounded and followed by a crowd of adorers at the convention or the cocktail party, and his name is on everyone's lips. People hang on his every word. "For how long?" you begin to ask after seeing this morality play repeat itself a few times.

Editors come and go with great frequency. I observed this principle several years before I became an editor myself, when I was translating Stanislaw Lem (for McGraw-Hill, then Continuum Books, then Harcourt Brace Jovanovich). Question: Why do editors come and go with such great frequency if they are so important, if they are possessors of a valuable talent? Answer: In the eyes of the publisher, an editor is unskilled labor. Anyone can be an editor.

Think about it. You look at a manuscript, you say you like it or don't like it, and you have two-hour lunches at expensive restaurants with agents and authors. At many publishing houses you don't need to write flap copy (the description of the book that goes on the jacket); there's a copywriter who does that for you. Most editors do not even make marks in colored pencil on the manuscript; there's a copyeditor who does that for them. The publisher is right: the practice of this profession does not require a skill. Bus drivers, waiters, insurance salesmen, or plumbers, those people have skills that must be learned — because they are doing work. What work, exactly, is an editor doing?

If there is work done, it is hard to describe or assess. It varies tremendously from book to book, from author to author. An example: I had an author who was nervous about Hindu readers being offended by his description of Hinduism. I had to find an expert on the religion who was willing to read the book in galleys and give an opinion — for a certain fee from the publisher. Then I had to convey this opinion to the author. What work did my task involve? Secretarial work (phoning, writing letters, mailing packages, filing away memos), diplomatic work (with the expert, with the author, and with the publisher too), and communication work (keeping everyone informed, avoiding misunderstandings). It sounds unimpressive, miscellaneous, boring. Yet this problem that needed solving was considerable, because the possibility of a lawsuit for defamation of a religion could have made it impossible to publish the book — after the contract had been signed and the book was already in galleys. Who wants a repeat of Salman Rushdie's drama, what author wants to be under a fatwa by an ayatollah?

The greatest quality in an editor, I have concluded, is common sense. To give an example (something very similar happened to me recently): The art director shows the editor possible jackets for a new book. The editor looks at the jackets and says, "These are really very pretty, but they're fantasy, aren't they, and the book is science fiction, isn't it. We should have, don't you think, not unicorns and fairies but maybe, what do you say, rockets or robots on the cover." Now, isn't that brilliant of the editor? Duh.

Anyone in possession of common sense — be that person a bus driver, waiter, insurance salesman, or plumber — can be an editor. The publisher is right: common sense is not a skill. Editors are interchangeable, dispensable.

A lot of publishers, maybe most, wish there was a way they could do without editors altogether. Some publishers attempt this — by turning the editors into corporate cogs in the corporate wheel. Into yesmen bureaucrats.

For some reason (it's probably one of the great mysteries of existence, like Love and Death and the Stock Market), common sense is not common in the world of business, where you would think it is most necessary. You will certainly find little common sense among corporate cog yesmen bureaucrats.

Editors are needed because (1) someone in the publishing company has to say that robots and not fairies should go on the jacket of a book (in other words, someone has to function with a modicum of independence); (2) someone in the publishing company actually has to read (or read with one eye, or at least skim, or at least skim with one eye) the book that's being published, to avoid tremendous embarrassment and perhaps an outraged author; and (3) someone has to seek, or pretend to seek, the fabulous gems hidden somewhere in the usual junk (publishers still nurture the hope of finding treasure and making a killing).

Editors are needed, but they are not respected. They wield no power — other than the ability to say no at the beginning of the submission process. Once a contract is signed, they are advisers only, not decision makers. They make suggestions, and everyone and anyone — the author included — can ignore those suggestions. We tend not to respect people who carry no weapon.

Editors are an annoyance, and costly, because they complicate life, they drag out the process of producing a book, and they cause friction. Many British publishers have no functioning editors: the manuscript goes to the publisher in electronic form (a diskette), is forwarded directly to the typesetter (the printer), and a freelance proofreader checks the galleys for typos. In no time at all, the physical book is produced, with a minimum of human intervention. Americans tend to do more editing than the British, which means that the author might be resentful or even throw a temper tantrum, or that the author, receiving the editor's suggestions, might be inspired to rewrite parts or all of the book. The production schedule might be affected. The publisher might therefore have to wait longer for a return on the advance that was paid.

The designer of the book, the artist of the jacket, the publicist, the marketing person — all these members of the publishing team should have the editor's input in their decision making (the editor, after all, knows the book better than anyone in the publishing house). But that input means trouble: the extra time of consulting another person, the increased possibility of disagreement. The editor is likely to talk about literary, noncommercial matters.

The antagonism between publishers and editors, I understand, is very similar to the antagonism between film producers and film directors in Hollywood. Eternal and mutual contempt between the businessman and the artist.

But if the editor is an artist, he is an anonymous one. He is invisible. The whole point of editing well is to have the reader exclaim not, "What a wonderfully edited book!" but, rather, "What a wonderful writer!" The editor is even more invisible than the translator, if there is a translator, because his name does not appear on the title page. Or anywhere else. (Lately some publishers include the editor's name on the copyright page. But it's in very small print.)

Editors aren't even known that much to one another. Literary agents are the people who have the best grasp of which editors are good and which are not.

There are rewards, of course. The satisfaction of seeing a good book become better, and of seeing that betterness be rewarded with best-sellerdom and a Spielberg movie. (I'm kidding. This hardly ever happens.) And, as the above-mentioned veteran editor once told me, "You make friends." A few writers will appreciate your work. You get a warm handshake, maybe even a hug.

Publishing is undergoing great change right now, particularly with the Internet and the creation of hand-held electronic book readers. I'm pretty sure that ten years from now, maybe five years from now, the business will be so different, that what we are doing today will seem, then, ridiculously quaint, like mechanical typewriters and slide rules. But I also think that editors will be needed.

An editor is a verbal janitor, the janitor of the book. We can ignore a mess only so long; eventually, to function, we must pick up the trash, straighten the room. We need someone who has the patience and willingness to attend to the many details of this cleaning and straightening. And who does not mind being an invisible servant.

I think of the janitor working at night, alone in the office. Maybe the radio is playing while he cleans. People will come in, in the morning, when the sun rises. They will take for granted that everything is in place; they will give no thought to the hours of effort that put everything in place. The janitor will be gone, to return only after they go home.

Unskilled labor.

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Updated Sunday, 26-Feb-2017 17:28:50 PST