On Publishing: Treat Your Editor Well

I was a writer before I was an editor. I was an editor before I was a publisher. Now, as a publisher of young adult books, I have experienced the pleasures and pain of all aspects of the publishing arena. I love–and hate–each role equally.

In a recent interview I was asked if being both a writer and editor gave me insights into publishing that other publishers might not have.

Yes. Yes. Yes.

As a writer, I have always tried to be accommodating to editors. For the majority of my writing life (my first book was published when I was 17, my most recent last year) my editors have been older, male and straight–quintessential authority figures. A few have been women, a few have been queer, but with all of them–no matter how friendly we have become–I have always known that the editor is the boss and that as a writer, I am a commodity first and anything else second.

Remember that.

I realized early on that the emerging writer must listen and learn, to move forward in this business. As a consequence, I’ve rarely argued with editors. I’ve asked questions and pleaded my case when I thought something shouldn’t be changed, but 99 times out of 100, I realized later that the editor was right.

I value a good editor. As writers, we all need editors. It’s great if your editor is also your friend, but as writers know (or should) one’s friends are not the best editors. Writers need no-nonsense/no-holds-barred criticism from someone who has been trained to have the ear and eye to perfect a piece of writing.

Editors don’t just catch the minor errors–like that you forgot to delete that whole line or that you changed the name of a character mid-way through the book. They aren’t just your best defense against the stupid little mistakes we all make. They also are able to point out what does and does not work in a novel or story.

Have you answered all the questions you’ve posed for the reader? If not, why not? Is your narrative well-paced? Have you chosen the right voice? Is it consistent, believable and engaging? Does your plot hold together or does it have gaps or down-time or elements where the reader must suspend disbelief for too long a stretch? Are the characters realistic and compelling? Have you avoided stereotyping any groups–racial, ethnic, gender, etc.? Finally, did you accomplish what you set out to do?

You can certainly ask yourself these questions as self-editing techniques, but another, educated eye is always best. An editor can give you what a friend or partner cannot: cold, clear, crisp criticism independent of you liking/loving him/her.

Having a good relationship with your editor is the first step toward being published again. No one wants their work critiqued and no one enjoys it. Most writers are sure their work is perfect the first time out, but every piece of writing can be made better and tighter.

Writers who want to be published–and stay published–must find a comfort zone between themselves and their editors. Publishing may seem to be getting bigger and broader, but it’s still a very small town. Editors know each other; behave like a diva and the word will spread faster than the latest celebrity gossip.

Soon you’ll be self-publishing not because you want to, but because no one else wants to work with you.

As an editor, I have dealt with dozens of writers over the years. Some have been emerging writers, some have been celebrated, but almost all have known that the editor is their door to getting their books out there, promoted and praised. Relationships with these writers have been rewarding and fulfilling for both of us. There is nothing more gratifying for an editor than seeing a book get better and a writer get stronger.

I love that.

What I don’t love as an editor is writers who argue and whine about revisions. It’s both childish and churlish. Revising is part of writing, which is why writing is work. With her inimitable wit, Dorothy Parker noted wrily, “I hate writing, but I love having written.”

Writing is arduous, even if you love it. But then you have a book. One editor told me 25 years ago that finishing a book was like labor and delivery. She was right.

It’s easy to forget that being published is a privilege. We’ve all heard the tragic stories of writers unable to get published who killed themselves in despair. “Confederacy of Dunces” became a best-seller once it was published. But John Kennedy Toole had killed himself 11 years earlier. His mother fought to publish his book posthumously.

Steig Larsson–who had the most published book in the world last year with 27 million copies of “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”–died before his books were ever published. An editor friend got his trilogy published posthumously as well.

We’ve also heard the stories of the celebrated writers who were turned down repeatedly by publishers before they got their big break. Stephen King and J. K. Rowling, two of the best-published writers in the world, struggled to get published. The first in the Harry Potter series was published by Bloomsbury with a 1,500 print run. Rowling has since published 400 million copies of her books.

Editors are gatekeepers, housekeepers, keepers of the literary flame. Some get so good they acquire their own imprints in major houses. Others just do the solid work that readers never see–except that the C+ manuscript has become an A book and the writer gets great reviews instead of mediocre ones.

As publishing becomes more fluid, writers may come to believe they don’t need editors. But we do. We need the structure an editor provides–as well as the safety net. None of us can write in a vacuum and posting on your blog is not the same as publishing a book. Just because your fan base, reading your work online for free, thinks that it rocks does not mean that someone in the non-virtual world will plunk down $15, $20 or $25 for your writing.

Editors rarely take on books they think won’t sell. Once you’re in the hands of an editor, you are in a safety zone that you’ll never be in working solo. Editors are essential co-pilots on your publishing journey.

That said, treat your editor with respect. No one needs to grovel, but treating your editor like a lackey will always come back to bite you. That tired adage, “Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach” was said by someone who didn’t know the importance of being taught, which by extension means not knowing the importance of learning, either. In short, it was said by an idiot.

Publishers can always find another writer, but writers can’t always find another publisher. So when you are grumbling about making those revisions, remember that the person who asked you to do so was thinking of you and your book first and foremost. A good editor is your savior in the shark-infested waters of publishing. A good editor will stand up for you and support you and your work in ways no one else can. Treating your editor well will serve you well and, if you keep working, will strengthen your position as a writer in a world where everyone and their cousin thinks they can write a book.