Editors: the good, the bad, and the ugly
Doubtless you’ve seen this bit of news over the past week. When I read it, I was shaking my head — in that knowing way. Because a disproportionate number of fiction editors not only live and work in New York City, they also come out of various university literary programs. And if you know anything about university lit departments, or New York City, you know that these cauldrons of Western Civilization (at its finest!) tend to be ear-marked by, ummm, a certain point of view let’s say. It’s not the point of view commonly held in, oh, Montana, or Texas, or small-town South Dakota. And it’s certainly not wholly homogeneous — for those specific places. No. But there is a predictability to Nick Cole’s adventure with traditional publishing. A predictability that only makes sense if you consider the overarching cultural context of the thing. Who Nick is. Who his editor was. The experiences that shaped both of them. And why, at the end of the day, Nick’s editor decided to trash-can his book; because Nick’s book contained a chapter that deeply offended said editor.
Now, any editor can trash-can a book for almost any reason. Most traditional publishing contracts are written such that the book can be stopped dead in its tracks at any number of stages. The author might turn in a hasty, poorly-done piece. The author might turn in a brilliant piece, but which is entirely changed and different from what was agreed upon at signing. Or the author and editor might haggle endlessly over plot points, scene shifts, the cutting and flensing of prose the author deems vital to the story, but which the editor believes to be superfluous. Ultimately, for any book to move into the production phase, an editor has to stamp the word APPROVED on the title page. (One imagines a huge rubber stamp slapping the word down on a marked-up, coffee-stained, dog-eared paper manuscript.) This is the point at which you, the author, have made all the suggested editorial changes — or not — and the editor has deemed the manuscript ready to be dumped into the sausage hopper: for copy edits (different thing from prose editing) and proofing (again, different) and galleys and ARCs, etc.
What’s disquieting about Nick’s experience is that his editor wasn’t concerned with the quality of the prose, or the quality of the story — the two things an acquiring editor needs to be most concerned with. No. Nick’s editor was unhappy with the manuscript because a single chapter in Nick’s book made the editor feel like she’d been punched in her ideological feels. She was “deeply offended” by that chapter. And it wasn’t even a chapter that baldly slapped at the hot-button topic. Rather, said hot-button topic was utilized — in true scientifictional fashion — in extrapolative form. Ergo, what could happen, might happen, maybe happens, if a given conventional wisdom of modernity is enlarged (by time and technology) to the point it’s very dangerous?
Now, I am 110% certain Nick’s editor would not have been offended if, say, Nick’s single chapter had tackled a different hot-button topic in a different way. Or had tackled the same hot-button topic, but in a way that was comfortable for Nick’s editor; something familiar to her, and which would leave her thinking, “Ah yes, of course, and so it ought to be.” She probably would not have been bothered if that chapter might offend people in Montana, or Texas, or small town South Dakota. She doesn’t live in those places, doesn’t know people from those places, and isn’t concerned with the same things those people are concerned with. She’s concerned about the fact that Nick’s chapter made her uncomfortable with a conventional wisdom she’s probably taken for granted her whole life — surely, a hallmark of scientifictional tales told for the past 50 years, yes?
But the editor wasn’t having any of that. So Nick experienced a falling out with his publisher.
I would classify that as decidedly bad editing, because the editor wasn’t asking herself questions about prose or story quality, she was evaluating the book on political terms. And while many people in New York — and from lit departments on campuses across the nation — wouldn’t blink twice at the idea that all art is political to some degree, I’d say evaluating a book on political grounds is a poor way to approach the business of buying, promoting, and selling stories.
Now, Nick could have knuckled under. That would have been the expected reaction. You go with your (rhetorical) hat in hand, making mea culpas, and the offending chapter is swiftly ditched, or re-written to suit the editor’s desires. For those of us who work in the traditional publishing realm (and who are not A-list million-dollar commodity men) it pays to be flexible. And I am not trying to knock anyone for being flexible. I myself consider flexibility to be a good trait for any author. I’ve had to be more flexible with some editors, than with others. I try not to be so married to my books and stories, that I believe they cannot be improved. But then again, I’ve not had any of my editors experience “deep offense” at anything I’ve written. And my editors tend to span a political spectrum that is substantially wide. If one of them had said to me, “The story is good, but you have deeply offended me with this passage, so it’s a no-go,” I’d probably tip my hat, politely withdraw the work — and leave myself a big mental sticky note to be careful about that editor in the future.
Thankfully, Nick’s scenario has a happy ending, because traditional publishing is no longer the only route. Sixteen years ago, Nick would have been staring at the end of his career. Because — short of going to a vanity publisher — there wasn’t going to be a way for him to win. Traditional publishing would have closed its door. And prying that door open again, has typically been even more difficult than getting it to open in the first place. But this is the era of explosive self publication. Amazon-dot-com, baby. Where guys like Andy Weir can skip traditional publishing entirely, go viral with a hot book, and wind up inking big money deals with hollywood and traditional publishing alike. In fact, one might argue that indie publishing is the new farm system for the traditional big leagues. They’re forever looking to see what’s hot, coming up through the indie system, and are prepared to lob substantial cash at rising stars.
But Nick’s predicament does take me back to the question almost all of us have to ask ourselves: what is an editor really for, and how do I know the good editing, from the bad editing?
In my experience, a good editor is not trying to evaluate your story on ideological grounds, nor is a good editor trying to get you to write the story their way. A good editor spots how you yourself are already trying to tell the story, and (s)he will simply make suggestions about how to do that job even more effectively than you’re already doing it. That’s the difference between, “You’re doing it wrong,” and, “You’re doing it right, but here are a few suggestions that should help you do it even better.” Most of the editors I’ve worked with (so far) have edited in this manner. And while some of them have barely touched my manuscripts, others have been so heavily involved in revision, they’re practically co-authors at the end of it. But again, their focus has always been: this story is hitting singles and doubles, let’s change a few things, and get this story hitting triples, or even a home run.
Ugly editing . . . well, I can only think of one or two instances where I’d call something I went through, ugly. In one case, I devoted a significant amount of effort to a series of revisions, with a duo of co-editors, and each step of the way I believed I was following their carrot — but in the end, I got the stick of rejection. That smarted, if only because I’d invested a great deal of time and effort — flexibility! — in meeting editorial expectation, only to have the door slammed on my rhetorical fingers. It seemed (to me) to be a bit of a bait-and-switch. Which is not, I am sure, how the editors saw it. And we did not experienced any terrific rancor over the matter. And the story eventually sold to a different anthology, and got me some nice comments from readers to boot. But I wasn’t thrilled with the fact that I’d thrown good money after bad, only to have the deal drop out on me. And I’ve talked to other authors who’ve had the same experience in different situations, with different people. Nobody likes to be doing the song-and-dance, with Simon down there behind his little desk, saying, “Yeah, good, okay, now do this, okay, yeah, getting there, a little more, no, how about this, or maybe this?” and at the height of your strain, Simon slaps the buzzer. That’s a kick to the shin.
I think each of us has to decide when and where we’re willing to compromise, and over what. Absolute inflexibility is as problematic as absolute flexibility. If your spine is a concrete column, or a wet noodle, I suspect you’re dealing with issues that actually go way beyond an article about writing.
Me? There are things on which I’ve been perfectly willing to compromise, but I know other authors who’d draw the line at same. And vice-versa. In the specific example of Nick, I think he made the right call, because in the era of Political Correctness run amok, there is definitely a bipartisan need for all artists to insist that freedom of ideological expression be treated with respect. Especially in those instances where an editor or a publisher is stepping far away from her role as prose-improver, and putting on a political hat that says, “My way, or the highway.” Again, sixteen years ago, that hat would have had almost all of us dead to rights. Now? We can re-button our collars, slip our jackets back on, thank them for their time, and go directly to the digital marketplace. It’s a less sure path (for money) but it’s an open road that doesn’t impose very many constraints.
You will know, from situation to situation, what’s best for you.
I’ve had a major agent turn down a book, only for me to sell that book to a major house by my own hand, and have the book earn out in nine months. If I’d gone with the major agent’s word — as the final call — I might still be sitting on a pedigree of short fiction credits, and no novel sales at all. Much less successive novel deals with the same editor — who, by the way, I think, saw much more of what I was trying to do with that book, and helped me do it, than the agent. But again, it wasn’t something worth getting sideways about. The agent and I simply seemed to have different thoughts: about what I wanted to do, and what he’d prefer I do. I wanted a mere deal-cutter. He wanted to be a career manager. Being able to cut ties peacefully, in such situations, is where diplomacy comes in. And in our era of caterwauling authors, it’s important to be diplomatic. More than ever!
And then there are times you just have to say, “These people are full of shit,” and speak your truth. Which is what Nick did. And I hope he’s making a lot of hay in the indie marketplace as a result. His Amazon numbers seem to say he is, to which I raise my glass high. That’s chutzpah, raht thar. And it was in the service of a noble sentiment to boot.
Meanwhile, I remain glad to be working with the traditional editors. I have good ones. Or at least, I think they’re good. They’ve done right by me in almost every instance, and I like to think my books and stories have done right by their house(s), and magazines, and anthologies. I am an entertainer, after all. And I proudly wear that badge on my lapel. I am not a provocoteur. I am not here to educate you, nor am I here to (God help us) raise awareness. I am here to give you a good time, with perhaps a bit of grist for the contemplation mill. Notice the order of that sentence. It’s very, very important. I see a lot of people (authors, cough) who approach it the other way around: grist first, entertainment last. I think that’s bass-ackwards. And I shake my head at the way authors — who take this approach — react, if the audience calls the author out on it (cough, a certain recent Star Wars book, cough).
In summary: be flexible, but know your limits — and don’t be afraid to say no. Really, the word “No” is an immensely powerful word in this business. It’s also the hardest one to use, because you’re potentially closing doors with it. But at the same time, knowing when and where and how to say no, can keep both you and your readers happy. And that’s the true bottom line. I suspect the best editors understand this, and don’t try to inject themselves into the equation beyond simply helping you, the author, do better, what it is you’re already doing. And if ever an editor seems to be straying too far from helping you, there are other options. Be polite. Be courteous. Be professional. Keep your powder dry. And keep your own counsel, where this seems appropriate.