Guest Post: What Editors Wish You Knew

Guys, we have a very special guest blogger today–the woman who corrected my grammar and comma splices in Pearl, acquiring editor and freelance editor extraordinaire, Jess d’Arbonne! Jess agreed to write a post explaining those mysterious creatures of the publishing world: editors.
What Editors Wish You Knew
When my author friend asked me to write a post for her blog, my initial reaction was giddy excitement. At last! An opportunity to reach out to writers in one small corner of the Interwebz and dispel all their misconceptions about editors and our nefarious ways! I could bridge the divide between creative types and the heartless overlords who alternately crush their dreams and dangle the carrot of literary immortality before them! I could be the Jimmy Carter of the publishing world.
Or I could make things much worse. Probably that. But hey, points for good intentions, right?
By day I’m an acquiring editor for a university press. By night I do freelance developmental editing and copyediting for whichever authors will have me. This means I spend my days helping authors make their books the best they can possibly be. It does not mean I spend all day reading and sipping tea whilst propping my immaculate Manolo heels on my desk and sighing contentedly in a haze of self-satisfaction and superiority. 

There are a lot of pre-conceived notions about editors that are downright false, and the perpetuation of these misconceptions leads to strained author/editor relations. What better way to bridge the divide between authors and editors than by dispelling some of those misconceptions and putting an all-too-human face on the editors of the world?

1.    All editors are failed authors. When you were a kid, you loved books. This love of books inspired you to think the best way to pay homage to reading was to write books yourself. So you started writing. When editors were kids, we too loved books. But our love of books translated into a desire to read more, to have more books in our lives, to get them sooner and make them better. Two distinct and reasonable reactions to the same inspiration. I enjoy editing much more than I enjoy writing. I have no desire to write a book. I much prefer to read them. You’ll find that’s true of most editors.

2.    All editors do is read books. Would that this were true. The majority of my time is spent communicating with authors. So get the image of the introverted, soft-spoken editor out of your head. We are a verbose people and most of us wish we had more time for reading on the job.

3.    Editors are dying to hear about your work in progress. When people ask me what I do, I change the subject or talk about their work instead. In truly dire circumstances I’ll spill a drink on my lap, excuse myself to clean up, then leave the state. When I used to admit to being an editor in public, aspiring authors would home in on me like predator drones. Did they want me to bestow my professional endorsement upon them? Validate their genius? Offer them a book contact? Give them the card of my friend who works at Simon&Schuster? It was always uncomfortable and I could never help them. There are exceptions: authors who are honestly interested in engaging in conversation about publishing, or people who want to hire a copyeditor. Those authors are always a pleasure to meet. But for every well-informed author who has done their homework and understands social interaction there are nine who think the only thing standing between them and the NYT bestseller list is a beleaguered editor at a party who just needs to be convinced of their genius. Think of it like this: few people enjoy doing their job when they’re not getting paid to do it.

4.    Editors are all evil, money-grubbing creativity-killers. Wait no. This one is true.

5.    Just kidding. None of us are in this for the money, nor do we try to destroy creativity in favor of commercial success (most of us, anyway). One look at my paycheck will disabuse you of this notion . . . and inspire a little pity. We got into this business because we love books, remember? I usually find the Evil Editor stereotype perpetuated by disgruntled rejected authors in the comments section of publishing blogs: “An editor rejected my staggering work of genius therefore they must be a clueless moron who wouldn’t recognize true literary craft if it held a gun to their head and I know this because Snookie got a book published while I got a rejection letter and something about the commercialization of YA fiction.” To them I say: if you’ve been rejected, look within before placing blame without.

6.    Editors hate self-publishing. While I have a complex relationship with self-publishing, it could in no way be characterized as hateful. Far from it! Many of my freelance clients go on to self-publish, and I think the self-publishing industry is very useful on a number of levels. For one, it provides an outlet for unique, niche work that would otherwise be hard to house at a traditional publisher. For another, it gives novice authors an eye-opening lesson on all the hard work involved in writing, producing, and selling a book. Some authors even decide they prefer the entrepreneurial model of self-publishing and embrace it with skill and enthusiasm, and then we all get more awesome books to read. What’s not to love? Lastly (put down the pitchforks), self-publishing can serve as a dump for all the books that should never be published in the first place. There are terrible things in my slush pile that I mark “KILL IT WITH FIRE” that eventually end up self-published simply because the author’s relationship with reality is Complicated on Facebook and they see a “no” from a publisher as a challenge. I envision these terrible authors rubbing their hands together and cackling, “I’ll show them. I’LL SHOW THEM ALL.” But in the end, self-publishing allows these “authors” to publish a book while I don’t actually have to work on said book, so we all leave happy.

7.    Editors don’t even read your query letters. This one is partially true. We depend on interns and editorial assistants to comb through the slush pile to bring us the cream of the crop. So while someone at the publishing house undoubtedly reads most of your query letter, it might not actually be the editor. I wish I could show you just how many submissions editors receive on an annual basis. It’s a deluge of Biblical proportions. If I read every word of every unsolicited submission we received and then responded with personalized letters, I wouldn’t have time to work on the books we have under contract, let alone acquire new ones.

8.    Editors sit around waiting for the next big thing to land on their desks. You know those videos of grizzly bears standing in rushing water with their mouths open during salmon spawning season? Yeah, that’s not us. We don’t wait for the big juicy fish to leap directly into our open maws. Publishing is a competitive business. As an acquiring editor, it’s up to me to snag the next big fish before my competitor at another press does. We do this by actively seeking out new talent, establishing relationships with authors we love, and commissioning new work. In trade publishing, literary agents are very involved in this process. It’s a lot of pounding the pavement and research, but in the end more than half of the books I publish every year are projects I actively sought out.

9.    If you can write, you can edit. I studied for years—years!—to become an editor. When I’m copyediting, I have at least one style guide open on my desk and several Internet browser tabs. I force myself to take frequent breaks because it’s hard to keep up the level of concentration required without making mistakes. I constantly double-check long-standing grammatical rules I’m pretty sure I know by heart because they might have changed since the last edition of The Chicago Manual of Style was released. You think good grammar is all you need to edit? You know nothing, Jon Snow.

10. Your editor will wrest creative control from your cold, dead hands and literarily neuter your work till it’s but a shadow of its former self. This can be true, depending on your editor. Let me reinforce one of the most important tenets of authoring: do your homework. Not every publishing house is equal, and we’re certainly not all the same. It’s up to you as an author to research the publishers you’re querying to choose the ones who are right for you and will treat you and your work with respect. There are tons of excellent resources on the web to help you. You’re starting off strong by visiting publishing blogs and engaging in a community of aspiring authors. Don’t take shortcuts. Ask questions. Proofread. It’s important that you don’t tie the knot with a publisher you’re not compatible with.

7 thoughts on “Guest Post: What Editors Wish You Knew

  1. Awesome, awesome!! Grammar rules are for real so hard to remember. I find myself running all over the internet sometimes trying to find an answer to some random grammar problem I would have sworn up and down that I knew by heart just a few minutes before. This is a great interview!


  2. Oh, God, I know! I had, like, two units of grammar in English class in high school. Plus, we speak…uniquely…here in New York. So grammar is not my strongest suit. Jess has a lot of personality. So glad she agreed to do this post!


  3. What an awesome post! I love writing, but I am so horrible at grammar. I always have 'The Elements of Style' beside me plus google open at all times. And yet, it still doesn't click (as you know from my whorish use of commas :P)!


  4. Oh, I abuse the comma, too—but then, I remember reading submissions when I was a literary agency intern and…well, let's just say that I feel better about my writing when I think of some of those submissions.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.