Observations About the Editorial Process in Publishing

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For the past two years, or so, I’ve been doing a lot of early reading for authors. The first wave of these novels will be out at some point in 2014 (and a few are already out). Participating in this process has been enlightening as manuscripts developed from outlines, to partials, to alpha drafts, to beta drafts, to finished products. In cases where an author brought me in at the beginning, the process has resulted in me reading a novel as many as four times or five times. There have been times my input has resulted in major changes to a novel. There are times the author has ignored my advice entirely. In the course of this process, I’ve learned some things about editing and how it works in publishing. Obviously, my experience on this issue is anecdotal and cannot begin to describe a pervasive picture of the state of editing in genre publishing. So, take this article with a grain of salt, but, please, don’t ignore it either.

One of the reasons I believe authors have approached me in such large numbers is because it becomes increasingly difficult to get feedback as a writer progresses in their career. One of the not-so-secrets in publishing is that a lot of second, third, fourth, et. al. novels are given only a very cursory editorial review (debuts are given more attention, but still not always at a level you might expect). I’ve even seen editorial letters from publishers that demonstrate a command of the novel without offering any critique beyond continuity and tensing errors. Of course, all books are copy edited, but an editor with a large list simply does not have the time to give a complete editorial review, or even sometimes a full read through, of a manuscript from an experienced mid-series author. Instead, more rigorous content edits are conducted at the literary agent level. Authors aren’t alone in putting their reputations behind their book. Agents do the same when they represent a novel to a publishing house. As a result, they are often much more inclined to dig into a novel and tear its heart out to get something they’re proud of and can sell. Of course, not all agents do this, positioning themselves more as negotiators and contract mavens than turd polishers (not that your manuscript is a turd).

All of that goes to say that true collaborative editorial relationships are becoming rarer. Editors, despite their titles, are becoming more about editorial direction–acquiring books–than working with an author from the beginning to put the best product on the shelves. That’s overly simplified, and should not diminish the work editors do, but it’s trending. Editors as gatekeepers more than collaborators, a hurdle to overcome not a trampoline to launch you over it, may soon be the reality not the myth. Some of the old timers will say that’s not how it always was, but declining staffs and an increased demand for books (read: cash flow) has led to rapidly expanding catalogs and stagnant budgets for staff with which to produce them. The author is more an island today than ever before.

new science fictionEven an editorially inclined agent can only maintain that kind of tempo for so long with an author as more clients are added. Once a certain level of quality is attained, where’s the return on investment? And to a large degree, why should an editor or an agent invest precious resources (read: time) in something that probably won’t drastically impact a writer’s sales? After all, we all know how difficult it is for a mid-lister to become a best seller regardless of how good the books are. If the author has a proven track record and a consistent baseline of sales (even when those numbers are piss-poor, or especially when), those resources have to go elsewhere or may not be needed at all. This is certainly the case when an author disappoints with a first novel and the second novel finds itself with a much smaller print run merely to meet the contractual obligations before getting cut loose.

Authors I’ve become close with, through conventions or online, describe how challenging it can be to get (constructive) feedback. Many rely on their significant other as a primary critique, occasionally a best-writer-friend, their agent, or some combination thereof. Some have writing groups, but those are often focused on pieces of manuscripts and rarely an entire project. Some have no concept of the beta reader, particularly newer writers who don’t have a cadre of readers in their personal lives to draw from. Those who do have/use alpha/beta readers struggle to keep them. Reading a novel critically can be an arduous process that life often impedes. Not to mention many readers are incapable of a true critique for a wide range of reasons.

In other words, editorial feedback is a real commodity. Much harder to find in the publishing process than many imagine, it’s rare and sought after by authors, so much so that folks like Saladin Ahmed and Rose Fox have created a side business out of it, filling the gaps for authors who lack their own critical partners. I mention this because it seems odd that publishers out source some tasks they don’t have the resources to do themselves–copy editing, book design, distribution–but not (seemingly) the process of actually producing a better piece of fiction. I’ve even seen instances where a writer is discouraged from trying to grow, preferring instead that the author continue to produce exactly the same kind of novel as the previous.

I believe this is one of the reasons we’re seeing more authors interested in self publishing–the freedom to explore and grow. If a publisher isn’t invested in your growth as a writer, and by invested I mean actively helping you get better, is their value reduced? Listen to the discussion of why traditional-publishing and not-self-publishing, what are the reason you hear? Marketing and sales teams, distribution, and the occasional benefit of a gatekeeper to make sure the book doesn’t suck. I don’t think I’ve ever heard, because you’ll have an editor to take you to the next level. That isn’t something that gets talked about because it’s so hard to find that kind of situation. And I think that’s a problem.

Before I bring the holy wrath of publishing down on myself, let me be clear, there are absolutely editors at major presses who do provide crunchy editorial feedback. This isn’t a shot across the bow at them, but a pat on the back. I believe there’s a reason some houses are acquiring better talent than others and money is only part of it. However, it’s a trend I see heading in the wrong direction. Consider this a warning, a robot from the 1960′s waving his arms shouting, “Danger! Danger!”

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If I were running a publishing house today, fully aware that my editors may not have the resources to dig into all the books they on their list, I would start looking to change. Not for more editors necessarily, because the financial realities of growing a full-time staff are legion, but for independent contractors. I would make damn sure that I’m not relying on agents, authors, and the nebulous beta reader to grow my list. I’d try to grow it myself. I would free my very capable editors to give attention to fewer titles, improving the level of discourse across the board. Right now you have publishing houses with two editors putting out nearly a book a week. Imagine the workload if there was major editorial work on every title? It’s an impossible task. So what happens?

The result, I hypothesize, is that polished work is more important than brilliant work. It’s why we see so many of the same things published again and again. While the desirability of proven commodities (i.e. — assassins! vampires! angry trousers!) is sales driven, I believe it’s  a symptom of an ever shrinking supply of editorial hours. And the only way to improve the landscape is bring back the kinds of collaborative relationships between editor and author. This kind of relationship seems more prevalent in the short fiction markets where the length of work makes the relationship more feasible. Shouldn’t that be the norm at novel length too?

Because leaving an author flailing in the wind, hoping their sails catch without a lesson on on how to work the jib, seems counterproductive and only diminishes the quality of the product. If we want the next generation to read more than the previous one, it will require that we continue to grow new writers and new perspectives and not simply rely on what’s worked before. If that’s something publishing wants too, then they need to invest in it.

Written by Justin Landon

Justin Landon

Justin Landon is the Overlord of Staffer’s Book Review. When he’s not writing things of dubious value to the world, he’s at the gym or being a dad. You can follow him on a multitude of social media, which is strongly suggested lest you miss out on vital information that could someday save your life.