Gift Guide

Thinking Like Your Editor

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Distilled wisdom from two publishing pros for every serious nonfiction author in search of big commercial success.Over 50,000 books are published in America each year, the vast majority nonfiction. Even so, many writers are stymied in getting their books published, never mind gaining significant attention for their ideas—and substantial sales. This is the book editors have been recommending to would-be authors. Filled with trade secrets, Thinking Like Your Editor explains:• why every proposal should ask and ...

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Distilled wisdom from two publishing pros for every serious nonfiction author in search of big commercial success.Over 50,000 books are published in America each year, the vast majority nonfiction. Even so, many writers are stymied in getting their books published, never mind gaining significant attention for their ideas—and substantial sales. This is the book editors have been recommending to would-be authors. Filled with trade secrets, Thinking Like Your Editor explains:• why every proposal should ask and answer five key questions;• how to tailor academic writing to a general reader, without losing ideas or dumbing down your work;• how to write a proposal that editors cannot ignore;• why the most important chapter is your introduction;• why "simple structure, complex ideas" is the mantra for creating serious nonfiction;• why smart nonfiction editors regularly reject great writing but find new arguments irresistible.Whatever the topic, from history to business, science to philosophy, law, or gender studies, this book is vital to every serious nonfiction writer.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
From a highly respected editor turned agent and her husband, a freelance writer, comes one of the most forthright books you will find on the publishing industry. Though concentrating on serious nonfiction, this book should be of interest to anyone who wonders how the publishing industry really works. For example, along with guidelines on how to write a proposal, the authors explain why proposals are so important, even beyond getting an editor's interest. It could be shown to a foreign rights person for projected income, for example, and later to a copywriter for the publisher's catalogue. What do agents do, anyway? How to superstore buyers decide which titles to stock? Should you be upset if your book gets only minimal editing?
“Many how-to's have been written by the dubiously credentialed. This one, with inside knowledge, has a clear and positive effect and is eminently readable.”
Hugh Van Dusen
“In 45 years in publishing I have never read better advice than this book offers. Bravo!”
Gerald Howard
“What a smart and useful book Thinking Like Your Editor is.”
Iris Chang
“[A]n excellent book, one of the best I've ever read on the art of serious nonfiction.”
Laura N. Brown
“[S]hould be required reading for any writer of serious nonfiction.”
Sara Bershtel
“This smart, straight-talking, profoundly encouraging book is an invaluable guide for authors and editors alike.”
George L. Gibson
“[Rabiner's] guide to succeeding with nonfiction is every bit as good as her submission letters: the best in the business.”
Juliet B. Schor
“Likely to become the gold standard for anyone hoping to be successful in trade publishing.”
John Paulos
“The path from good idea to great book is anything but a straight line, Rabiner and Fortunato know every precipice and crevice.”
Herbert P. Bix
“[W]ill be the standard text for non-fiction authors.”
Dale Maharidge
“Rabiner and Fortunato take you through the corporate Oz of the publishing world, behind the smoke and mirrors.”
From The Critics
[A]n excellent book, one of the best I've ever read on the art of serious nonfiction.
Iris Chang
[A]n excellent book, one of the best I've ever read on the art of serious nonfiction.
Hugh Van Dusen
In 45 years in publishing I have never read better advice than this book offers. Bravo!
Herbert P. Bix
[W]ill be the standard text for non-fiction authors.
Publishers Weekly
Two years ago, Betsy Lerner's The Forest for the Trees: An Editor's Advice to Writers offered an editor's-eye guide to aspiring writers of nonfiction. Now come Rabiner, former Basic Books editorial director turned agent, and her husband, Fortunato, a freelance book editor and writer, covering some of the same territory, but also breaking new ground. Wannabe authors might be shocked to hear that a fine writing style usually plays only a tiny role in whether a proposal becomes a book. Instead, according to the authors, the freshness of ideas and the size of the potential audience drive the process the first three rules of book publishing, as stated here, are "audience, audience, audience." In part one, on submissions, the authors discuss how to put together a book proposal and, without sounding self-serving, whether to work through an agent or go solo. In part two, they move to the writing process. Especially welcome here is their discussion of research undergirding all writing: authors and publishers, they note, sometimes become too lax about accuracy in nonfiction. Part three discusses how authors and editors (both in-house and freelance) can work together well. They offer a necessary tonic in advice about the importance of establishing a good relationship with the editor from day one that includes an author understanding that the editor's world doesn't revolve around one book. A sample proposal accompanied by a sample chapter round out the book nicely. Hopeful writers will be the primary audience for this title, and they will find useful advice on every page, but a secondary audience could include avid consumers of nonfiction who want to understand why some ideas reach book form while others do not. (Feb.) Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Rabiner, a former editorial director at Basic Books, and freelance editor Fortunato are now partners in the Susan Rabiner Literary Agency. Their book (like their agency) targets those who write serious or scholarly nonfiction but hope to reach a wide audience. They begin with the usual fantasy sequence, leading readers through a discussion about which publisher they should select for their work university press or other. The book then explains in detail why authors must do research and present balanced arguments in their writing and why they must also have tangible credibility but write with a sense of narrative to appeal to a wider audience. These are basics, stress the authors, that must be mastered before an aspiring writer can hope to start speculating about how to spend the advance. The authors advise writers to approach editors first and give tips on how to do so; agents, they explain, are readily acquired in the wake of success. Better than average, this title mostly avoids feeding fantasies in favor of detailing necessities. Robert Moore, Parexel Intl., Waltham, MA Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780393038927
  • Publisher: Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
  • Publication date: 2/1/2002
  • Edition description: 1 ED
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 286
  • Sales rank: 1,465,615
  • Product dimensions: 6.50 (w) x 9.60 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author

Susan Rabiner is the former editorial director of Basic Books. She was a senior editor at Oxford University Press and Pantheon Books.

Alfred Fortunato is a freelance editor and writer.

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Table of Contents

A Note to the Reader 11
Prologue: First, a little story ... 15
Introduction 27
Ch. 1 Thinking Like an Editor: Audience, Audience, Audience 39
Pt. 1 The Submission Package
Ch. 2 How to Write a Proposal 61
Ch. 3 Wrapping Up the Submission Package: The Table of Contents, the Sample Chapter, and Supporting Materials 97
Ch. 4 Placing Your Manuscript with a Publisher: To Agent or Not to Agent, and Other Questions about the Publishing Acquisition Process 120
Pt. 2 The Writing Process
Ch. 5 A Question of Fairness and Other Limits of Argument in Serious Nonfiction 141
Ch. 6 Using Narrative Tension 177
Ch. 7 From Introduction to Epilogue: Writing Your Book Chapter by Chapter - and What to Do When You Get into Trouble 196
Pt. 3 From Edition to Marketing to Publication
Ch. 8 How to Be Published Well 223
App. A Sample Proposal and Writing Sample 239
Acknowledgments 269
Index 271
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Interviews & Essays

An Exclusive Interview with Susan Rabiner and Alfred Fortunato

Barnes & Reference Editor Laura Wood met with coauthor Susan Rabiner over lunch to discuss her book. Susan later answered these questions with Alfred Fortunato.

Barnes & Having worked in various parts of the publishing industry for years, I found your book to be refreshingly honest about the realities of book publishing. I especially enjoyed the story about your lunch with a Barnes & Noble Inc. science buyer that got into where a certain new title would be shelved in the stores. Do you find that most novice authors are unaware of the number of people in the book business -- such as store buyers -- who play a role in the success of published books?

Susan Rabiner and Alfred Fortunato: Yes. Most novice authors, and even many previously published authors, work on the assumption that the publishing relationship is between author and editor, and that everyone else in publishing -- from marketing to sales, from subsidiary rights to you folks at the bookstores -- sort of pass along a book but do not really influence its fate. But you can't blame authors for believing that. Who speaks at writers' conferences? Editors. And what do they talk about? What they know best -- either the acquisition or the editing process.

Once authors are put under contract they will hear about these other people, but generally most will never deal directly with anyone but their editor and possibly a publicist. Yet, a person in the rights department may have taken an interest in a book that no one else really believed in and sold an excerpt to a major magazine, which then propelled that book to the bestseller list. Or an art director, by coming up with a very creative jacket, jump-started the creative juices of marketing and sales. I think most authors would be surprised to learn that some of the people at Barnes & worked inside publishing houses for years, and that the opinions of booksellers are sought out and highly regarded by publishers. For instance, in my own personal experience several jackets were redone because booksellers we consulted thought them ineffective. One of the reasons we wrote this book was to give authors a much better sense of the publishing process in general and the many people who make books happen.

B& I liked the way you give detailed instructions on the proposal and stress its importance. Authors need to know that before a contract is offered the proposal will be shown to many people in house, marketing and sales people as well as editorial, then be used after the project is signed up, for writing catalogue copy, etc.

SR/AF: Yes, as you correctly note, we discuss the fact that a good proposal will better your chances of being published well. And we also say that putting time and effort into a proposal will help you write a better book. Here's what would-be authors need to better understand about the relationship between a well-thought-out proposal and successful publication of your work.

Quite a few people in a publishing house will read your proposal besides your editor, including the publisher, the associate publisher, other editors, sales and marketing people, and subsidiary rights people -- that is, the folks who will try to place your book with a book club, place an excerpt from your book in a magazine, and possibly sell the rights to publish your book to publishers in other countries. Most of these people will never read your finished manuscript. They will be motivated by and work off the initial impression created by your proposal, supported by follow-up discussions with your editor.

Out of these discussions many important decisions will likely be made, including the size of your first print run, how much money to set aside for marketing the book, even at times the title and jacket of your book. Why the rush to get all these things settled? Because publishers need to talk to bookstores about your book many months ahead of publication, often before you turn in your manuscript, which means they need a title, a jacket design, an estimate of how much money the publisher is willing to spend promoting the book, so that booksellers can get a better idea of how important this book is to the publisher. There is a saying among publishing people that "lost sales are never found." Because it will have been undervalued, underprinted, and undermarketed, a book that comes in better than the proposal promised may spend its life playing catch-up.

B& You, Susan, have been an editor, an editorial director, and are now a literary agent. You bring up the issue of agents in the book. Aren't agents even more important to authors now than in years past?

SR: Editors are still the most important advocates in-house for the books on their own lists, but they do have less power these days than they had many years ago. As an editor, I could make the most reasonable suggestion for change, and I would have to diplomatically fight my way up the chain of command to bring it about. Most publishers, on the other hand, will tell their people to accommodate all but the most unreasonable requests of an important agent -- that is, an agent who regularly sends them good projects.

But agents are also becoming more and more important because the industry is more volatile. As imprints are bought, sold, and merged, editors are frequently switching houses, or losing their jobs, or in other ways losing power. Inevitably, when an editor loses power, his or her authors suffer as well. For instance, an orphaned author may be reassigned to an inappropriate editor. Few authors have the clout on their own, or the know-how, to handle this type of problem, but agents can quietly make some phone calls and straighten things out. In this new bottom-line environment, the agent's fiduciary and moral responsibility is to the author. The editor's is to the publishing house.

But the single most important reason agents are becoming more important to authors may be that more and more of them are ex-editors. They can steer authors away from problem projects by telling them stories about other books with similar flaws that could not be published successfully. They can step in and rewrite bad catalogue or flap copy and can advise an author about what makes a good jacket. They can also tell authors when to back off and let the editor do his or her job.

B& Although this book focuses on serious trade nonfiction, there seems to be a lot of information here for many kinds of authors.

SR/AF: You are very right. We now use many of the same techniques to place works of narrative nonfiction, self-help, sports, and even memoir. And if we were ever to start to take on fiction, we would rely on the very same general questions to guide us in determining which projects to take on and then how to present them to publishers. Because in virtually every instance, the most important two questions are: Who is the core audience for this book? And, What is new here that will appeal to that audience? Those questions do not change no matter what genre of project you are proposing to a publishing house.

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4.5
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Sort by: Showing all of 3 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted August 18, 2003

    You CAN Get Published - if you know the ropes

    Writers of serious non-fiction could stop papering their walls with rejection slips if they'd just read this one publication before writing another word! Being successful editors themselves, Susan Rabiner and Al Fortunato reveal secrets previously known only to the leaders within the trade, and offering expert advice, they spill the beans about why some get publishing contracts seemingly easy while others with equally well written manuscripts get rejected. This book is a MUST for writers of non fiction who seriously expect to be published.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 1, 2004

    Wonderful, Just wonderful !

    Al and Susan are two great writers,as well as teachers.This is one of the most helpful books I have found on this subject... from Marea, a former student of their course.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 30, 2004


    It's not a suprise to me that my instructor Susan is the author of such highly rated easy guide book. because I know that B&N UNI. will bring the best for there stundent. This book and other recommended ones must be in my library. more gease to your elbow.

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