What do editors do?

Every now and then at my speaking engagements, I get a literary question. Today’s question was, “What is the role of the editor in publishing a book?”

To answer that question, I will tell you the edited and abridged story of editors, me, and Look Me in the Eye.

In January of 2007, I had a manuscript about growing up as a misfit. It was complete, or so I thought. My agent said, “This is ready to show.”

Who to show it to? Editors, that’s who.

My agent has been in the business a good while, and he knows lots of editors. He asked himself, Which editors would like Robison’s book? He made a list, and started making phone calls. For you do not show a manuscript to Crown, or Putnam, or Harper Collins. You show it to a specific person, an editor. Who happens to work at a publisher.

The book business is very dependent upon personal relationships and connections. That said, you may ask, how does an unknown author get noticed? Much has to do with your agent. And what he says about you, or on your behalf. I won’t shock you with the shameless lies and exaggerations my own agent told to induce professionally skeptical editors to read my book. It’s enough to say, he succeeded. And that led to my first brush with editors.

Editors read new manuscripts. Then, if they like them, they pass them around the house. House being the publisher, not their residence. So that’s the first component of an editor’s job – reading and evaluating new work. If the other people in the house like the manuscript, they get together and formulate an offer. And it’s the editor’s job to convey that offer to the agent.

They call that job . . . Acquisitions.

Many of you know what an agent says to an offer. No matter what the number, he says, That’s all? I have twice that from your competition! I have a movie deal in the works! This is gonna be big! Ten million, minimum! This all happens in smoke filled rooms, out of the author’s sight. Authors are never supposed to see the back-room dealings between agents and editors. It’s too much for your gentle mind, they say.

I never saw any of that, but I know it’s true because I watch Entourage on HBO.

And that takes us to the editor’s next job. She bargains with agents, and acts as the publisher’s representative to acquire books they want. Note I say she, and not he. That’s because, as best I can tell, a majority of editors are female. I don’t know why, but there it is.

I have already related the story of meeting and selecting a publisher for Look Me in the Eye, so I won’t repeat it here. Instead, I’ll jump ahead to the editor’s next job – arranging the book.

Rachel – my new editor - took my manuscript, and laid it in a long imaginary line. Then she made a chronology, and shuffled pieces around to get them in proper order. In the original book, I had a story of wrecking the car on page 50, and learning to drive on page 75. Her rearrangement fixed sequence errors like that, but it also highlighted holes in the story.

My editor highlighted the holes with little notes, What happened here?

Those “What happened heres?” called for a lot of new writing on my part. Three words for her, three hundred or three thousand for me. Multiply that by a hundred such notes, and you get an idea of the work involved.

She also made hundreds of little changes. Some were obvious results of rearrangement. In other cases, she took out repetitions and duplicate material. Sometimes, she fixed things that “just sounded funny.”

And sometimes I disagreed and we’d go back and forth and reach agreement.

She’d say, Can you explain this a bit better? And sometimes she’d challenge me. . . Can that be right? All of that, of course, led to more and better writing on my part. For the editor does not write. She edits. The writer writes. It’s a dance, back and forth, three or four or five times to get every passage just so.

All of these things made a huge difference. When I read the result, I said, This reads like something I’d buy in a bookstore! She had turned my manuscript into something professional. It was becoming a book.

Throughout all this, there are some things my editor DID NOT do. When reading a passage, she never said, "Can you make this more exciting?" She never asked me to exaggerate or embellish anything in the book. She took things or left them, as I wrote them. Every now and then, I read comments on the web, allegations that nameless editors "made" authors sensationalize their stories to sell more copies. In my experience, nothing remotely like that ever occurred for me.

Editors of serious non fiction take their work seriously. I would not doubt that an editor of novels - thrillers or fantasy - might make suggestions to "spice up" the story, but it certainly did not happen with my work.

Meanwhile, my editor had a few other things going on, on the side.

She’d been working with the Sales and Marketing people, to develop the literature to sell the book. She’d overseen the writing of the copy for the catalog, and the words on the jacket flap. She’d even tested titles on strangers, people off the street, and finally settled on Look Me in the Eye, the name we’d started with.

And one really big thing . . . .

She carried a copy of my book downstairs to the Graphic Arts people. She induced Whitney, the VP, to take on the cover project. And she was there to see the results. Today, everyone sees the result, but it was her work that made it all happen.

And that takes us to the next step, and the next person. People, actually, several of them.

My book next went to a copy editor, who took the Random House Style Manual in her left hand, and my fledgling book in her right, and Styled away. She was the one who placed the punctuation in the right spots, and italicized the right words just so, and made the proper names Proper.

I thought I had done all those things, but when I saw her little red pencil marks it was clear I hadn’t. But now it was done, and my book headed off to the next step – Names and Trademarks.

That’s where another tireless editor, deep within the Random House Empire, made sure all my names for things, people, and places were right. So even though I was sure President Nickson spelled his name that way, she changed it to Nixon. And when I said coke, she changed it to Coke. Why? Because they have a guidebook that tells them what names are what and what to do with trademarks and other such stuff.

Each name had a little red mark next to it, to signify that it had been checked and verified. There was some pretty arcane stuff there . . . names like FP40, an Amtrak locomotive, and 365 GTS, and antique Ferrari.

And then it was off to legal review, where I answered such questions as, Did the hooker have a name that you recall? Or, How does Bob Parker feel about his portrayal in the story? All of this, of course, was in an effort to avoid multi-million dollar lawsuits. And if lawsuits cannot be avoided, their secondary purpose was to ensure we would win.

They say the legal people use voodoo dolls to better their odds. However they do it, it’s worked so far.

And then, my editor folded all the work of those other editors and commenters into the final manuscript to make the finished text, which was sent to typesetting. But it only went to typesetting after another round of re-reading and checking on my part. Every step of the way, I have to check the results. We authors are untimately responsible for what gets published.

But the editor’s job was not done. The Project Management part of her job was just getting going. The next step: Producing the galleys, the proofs, and showing the book to the book buyers, at Book Expo America.

However, at 1,000 words, I am tired, so for tonight at least, I am done. I will write more on the role of the editor in my next post.


Chumplet said…
That was wonderful, John. With all the talk about publishers who can't be bothered to edit, this is a refreshing reminder that we need editors of all kinds.
The Anti-Wife said…
This is very interesting. Thanks for posting it, John!
Polly Kahl said…
This is really great stuff John, more please!
TerryB said…
Thank you John! I'm experimenting with writing, have been for a while, and I always seemed to get bogged down with minutae, like: can I use the name of a TV show?, should I change everyone's name, should I just skip certain parts if I don't know they're copywrited? is there such a word as copywrited?? You get the idea.

Nothing I write will ever go that far but it's so annoying to go round and round and get discouraged. Now I know it won't be my problem in the long run--someone else does it! And now I am free to zoom, zoom, zoom.
Melanie Avila said…
John, I really enjoyed this post! As a writer still dreaming of having her memoir published, your insight into how it all works is really exciting for me. I love your writing style and you cracked me up a couple times. I can't wait to read more!
Jerry Waxler said…
Yes, I echo all these sentiments. You have a way of opening up your experience and sharing it which obviously works well for both memoir writing and blogging. Thanks! It may seem a bit over the top, but I liked your book so much I just posted my second essay about it on my blog.

Memory Writers Network
Kim Stagliano said…
Oh this is so good... More please!
Samuel Tinianow said…
Great overview of the pre-press process. I just now read this, but for what it's worth I posted a response on my blog that's more specific to copy editors working on mid-list or small press titles.

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