In What Editors Do, Peter Ginna gathers essays from twenty-seven leading figures in book publishing about their work. Representing both large houses and small, and encompassing trade, textbook, academic, and children’s publishing, the contributors make the case for why editing remains a vital function to writers—and readers—everywhere.
Ironically for an industry built on words, there has been a scarcity of written guidance on how to actually approach the work of editing. This book will serve as a compendium of professional advice and will be a resource both for those entering the profession (or already in it) and for those outside publishing who seek an understanding of it. It sheds light on how editors acquire books, what constitutes a strong author-editor relationship, and the editor’s vital role at each stage of the publishing process—a role that extends far beyond marking up the author’s text.
This collection treats editing as both art and craft, and also as a career. It explores how editors balance passion against the economic realities of publishing. What Editors Do shows why, in the face of a rapidly changing publishing landscape, editors are more important than ever.
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|Publisher:||University of Chicago Press|
|Series:||Chicago Guides to Writing, Editing, and Publishing|
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WHERE IT ALL BEGINS
Every acquiring editor knows the feeling: I call it the spark. You're reading a manuscript or book proposal, and something about it quickens your pulse, makes you turn the pages a little more eagerly: this is the real thing. Whether you're looking for picture books for children, self-help, scholarly monographs, or poetry, you've found a work that catches your attention. And when you turn the last page you think, I can't wait to tell someone about this.
The power of that feeling is something outsiders often don't understand. Critics of traditional publishing, who include, understandably, many rejected authors, focus much disapproving attention on the editor's function of "gatekeeping," with its image of turning authors away like a surly bouncer at a club. But editors don't live to turn books down. They live to find books they believe in and to bring them to readers. Simply put: it is acquisition, not rejection, that drives the engine of publishing.
Acquisitions is the primum mobile, the activity from which every other task in publishing springs. New books are the lifeblood of a publishing house, and finding new titles that the house can publish successfully is the most important task anyone in it can have. To be a brilliant manuscript editor or a genius at marketing — these skills are invaluable, without doubt. But in purely pragmatic terms, the ability to find books worth publishing — new voices, provocative arguments, captivating original stories or old ones freshly told — is prized above all, because without new projects to fill its pipeline, a publishing company withers away.
This was a lesson that I, for one, took far too long to learn as I made my way in my career. Like many eager new recruits, I imagined I would move up the career ladder as I demonstrated my ability with my editorial pencil. In fact, when it comes to advancement (and salary), nothing counts as much for the editor as an acquisitions track record. Just as law firms reward the "rainmaker" partners who bring in the biggest clients, publishers are quickest to hand promotions and raises to the editors who bring in successful authors.
Even in houses that are not primarily commercial, editors are measured on their acquisitions. University presses and other not-for-profit firms need new titles just as much as big trade houses. In many houses, editors will have explicit "signing goals" — sometimes a specific number of titles acquired per year, more often a minimum dollar value of projected sales for the titles signed. In others the target is left vague, but you can be sure someone in management is keeping track. When I worked at Crown Publishers, a division of Random House, I was never given a signing goal, but I remember the head of another division remarking, "A senior editor at this place has to bring in a million dollars a year to pay the rent." That was in the 1990s; the number may be higher now.
In the aggregate, acquisition is important because it determines the success of a publisher's list. No matter what magic its editors can work on manuscripts, they must first find books to publish that will fulfill the house's mission — and please an audience. Alas, no amount of brilliant editing can turn an unsalable book into a winner. My former boss and mentor, Tom McCormack of St. Martin's Press, liked to quote a line from the film Chariots of Fire, where a canny veteran track coach says to a would-be Olympic sprinter, "I can find you two steps in the hundred." Two steps in the hundred is often all that editing can add to a manuscript. The valuable editor is one who builds a stable of Olympic-caliber writers.
Acquisitions also determine the identity of a publisher's list — or in market terms, its brand. Some houses are known for bestselling commercial fiction (Putnam, for instance); some for high-quality literature (FSG, Knopf, and indies like Coffee House and Graywolf); some for elegantly produced lifestyle and cooking books (Clarkson Potter). University presses tend to have strengths in certain disciplines. Repeated success in a category has multiple benefits for a firm. It builds up the house's skill sets for publishing in that area — its knowledge of what works and doesn't, and its relationship with that community of readers. And this success burnishes the house's reputation for such books with media, booksellers, and consumers. Thus begins a virtuous cycle, attracting more submissions from authors and agents in the same field.
At the other end of the scale, one single title can change the fortunes of a company. Bloomsbury was a respected but small house in London when it bought J. K. Rowling's first Harry Potter novel; before the Potter series ended, Bloomsbury's annual sales had risen 500 percent and it had become one of the five largest publishers in Britain. The not-for-profit New Press, which publishes a cutting-edge list of progressive books and struggled for years to do better than break even, found a long-running New York Times bestseller in The New Jim Crow, which put the company solidly in the black and allowed it to plan for the future.
When publishers speak of "the acquisition process," they usually mean the specific procedures within a house for making a contract offer on a given work. In truth, the process of acquiring books begins long before an editor brings a project to an editorial meeting. The dynamics and techniques of acquisition vary somewhat from one category of publishing to another, and the chapters that follow will discuss some of those differences. But broadly speaking, most acquiring editors do similar things, beginning with the hunt for exciting books and for authors who show the promise of writing them.
Step 1 might be called "Schmoozing and Scouting." An editor spends a lot of time networking with writers and people who can connect him to writers — especially, in the case of trade editors, with literary agents. It is, I must report, untrue that Manhattan editors spend most of their time having three-martini lunches in elegant restaurants, but breaking bread (and hoisting a glass) with agents is in fact part of the job, because having good relationships with your key source of projects is vitally important.
Academic editors, of both monographs and textbooks, will deal with agents occasionally, but more often they get out among academics themselves, visiting campuses and attending scholarly conferences. They are hoping professors will tell them about their own works in progress and also provide leads to other books and authors (their graduate students, for instance).
No matter how many agents they know, the best editors don't sit at their desks waiting for the next bestseller to arrive in their email; they go scouting for it. Scouting takes many forms. It may be attending writers' conferences or visiting MFA writing programs. It may be reading literary magazines or surfing the web, looking for a story or essay that catches your eye, then contacting the author. (Since the advent of social media, many books have originated when an editor or agent queried the writer of a blog or even a Twitter feed.) It might be pursuing a public figure or celebrity and persuading her to write a book. In the early 1990s an editorial assistant at Bantam, Rob Weisbach, reached out to a hot young comedian/actress, Whoopi Goldberg. She had turned down more established editors' invitations to write a memoir, but Weisbach found she was interested in doing a children's book. Weisbach signed Goldberg's Alice; his initiative soon led him to acquiring a string of bestselling titles by TV stars like Jerry Seinfeld, Ellen DeGeneres, and Paul Reiser and propelled him from an assistant's desk to the helm of his own imprint.
The most satisfying form of scouting may be coming up with your own idea for a book, then seeking out someone to write it. An enterprising editor can usually find at least two or three potential book ideas in one day's edition of the newspaper. During the intense public debate around the 2007 surge of American troops in Iraq, I was surprised to find that there was no current book for a general audience that offered a historical perspective on counterinsurgency warfare. I contacted an experienced military historian, James R. Arnold, who swiftly delivered an excellent proposal for just such a book. It was published in 2009 as Jungle of Snakes: A Century of Counterinsurgency Warfare from the Philippines to Iraq. Creating a project from scratch this way has other advantages: the editor can tailor it with the author more directly than is possible otherwise, and by originating the idea, the editor can usually avoid the sort of competitive bidding situation that drives up the cost of acquisitions.
THE PUBLISHING DECISION
Once you have succeeded — whether by networking, prospecting, or dumb luck — in attracting a submission, the trickiest part of the process begins: making the publication decision. This begins with the editor's gut response: the spark I spoke of earlier. The editor must ask, Do I want to invest my time and energy in this project? As many of the contributors to this book point out, unless you're passionate about a book, publishing it is a mistake. To champion a book effectively among one's colleagues and in the world demands a high level of enthusiasm and commitment. It's readily apparent in an editorial or sales meeting when an editor is presenting a title without conviction. Furthermore, an author wants, and deserves, to have a publishing partner who's thrilled to bring her work to readers. And finally, publishing any book is a long, intensive, sometimes exhausting process. To undertake it on behalf of a book you're not passionate about is a recipe for burnout. All this is why trade publisher Jonathan Karp of Simon & Schuster lists as his Rule #1 simply "Love it."
In fairness, "love" may be too much to ask from someone in a textbook house or a university press weighing, say, a monograph on population genetics. Yet even in these specialized fields, there some projects that strike a spark — books that are intellectually exciting, that are written with special verve, or that deliver something of particular value to their readers.
Beyond the editor's personal enthusiasm, there are larger issues to consider. How does this title fit into the house's mission and strategy? In scholarly publishing, titles are expected, in the traditional phrase, to be a "contribution to knowledge." This is part of the mission of any academic publisher, and a major purpose of the peer review process is to ensure that each book published meets the standards of its discipline and has something new to offer. But even those titles that pass muster academically may or may not fit well within the area where the publisher wants to concentrate. As noted above, most presses have areas of strength, or they may wish to develop others. Greg Britton of Johns Hopkins University Press, in his essay here, explains this in more depth.
At an independent literary publisher, the sense of mission may be defined in terms of "the ways these literary works might contribute to important cultural conversations" and with a "vision for social impact," as Jeff Shotts writes of his own house, Graywolf. But even large commercial houses have (in degrees varying by size and corporate culture) some guiding notion of what they seek to publish and what they're most effective at. A celebrity memoir, no matter how titillating, is unlikely to be a good fit on the upmarket literary list of FSG.
But let's assume the potential acquisition is right for the house and the editor is ablaze with passion. Now comes the nitty-gritty question: what is it worth? Every acquisition is a financial investment. The house must decide what advance against royalties to offer the author. In theory this would equal a sum the publisher is confident will be earned out over time, but in practice he may be competing with several other houses, and the winning bidder may need to offer more, even much more, than the book's projected royalty earnings.
Royalty schedules are complicated and vary among categories of publishing, but typical royalties range from about 10 percent of total sales to 25 or 30 percent; in trade books these are, confusingly, often computed on the stated (list) price of a book rather than the publisher's actual (net) receipts after accounting for discounts to the retailers or wholesalers who sell the book. It is quite possible for the publisher to earn a profit even if the author's advance goes unearned — the million-dollar advances that are often reported in the media are seldom earned out. It is also true that overpaying on the advance is the commonest reason for a book's losing money.
In small press or academic publishing, advances may be small or even zero, for publication itself may be the most valuable currency for a scholar. But even with no advance, the publisher must be sure that a title's sales revenues will exceed the costs of bringing it to market (which include some share of overhead — staff salaries, rent, and the like — as well as title-specific expenses such as advertising). So every publisher, for every potential acquisition, must ask, How many copies of this can we sell, and at what price?
Editors use a fairly simple spreadsheet tool called a profit-and-loss worksheet, or P&L, to make this calculation. Editors often run several variations on the P&L to arrive at one where the numbers (a) are plausible enough to persuade the management and (b) at the same time project enough royalties to justify a competitive advance.
What makes publishing unusually challenging as a business is that every new title is a unique product. One book is not the same as the next, even within categories. This cozy mystery novel may be completely unlike the hardboiled one beside it on the shelf; a gluten-free cookbook sits next to a German one. The marketing or publicity campaign for one title on a publisher's list cannot be replicated to sell another one (with some important exceptions, discussed below). Thus each new publication is, in a sense, reinventing the wheel. For the same reason, predicting the sales of a prospective new book is highly difficult. For every publisher, it amounts to an exercise in educated guesswork.
This is not to say it's a matter of picking numbers out of a hat. There are several sources of information that can help an editor assess a project's sales potential. The first is the author's track record. This is by no means an infallible guide, especially if his new book is unlike its predecessors. But today editors as well as buyers at every book retailer have ready access to each writer's sales history via industry sales databases such as Bookscan, and the buyers use them to make their sales estimates, so these numbers tend to set the range of expectations.
More broadly, editors refer to "comp titles" (short for comparable or competitive) — other works that are similar to the new book in terms of their content, likely readership, or expected sales history. Selecting the right comps is a key task for an editor lobbying for an acquisition, and editors spend a surprising amount of time mulling these choices — chewing them over with colleagues, scanning the shelves of bookshops, and looking up online to see "customers who bought this title also bought ______."
There are also data points external to the book itself — for instance, the author's "platform." This term has become an industry cliché and mocked as such, but publishers, quite reasonably, have always been attuned to the prominence of an author. Platform simply means an author's ability to command the attention of readers, or in some cases of intermediaries, such as the media, that can do so. Today this may be easier to measure, at least in terms of social media followers, which is why popular bloggers or YouTube sensations get book deals. But an author's platform includes intangibles such as his credentials. If the author is a doctor at a leading medical school who has pioneered a new treatment for obesity, that's a significant element of his platform; if the same doctor has appeared frequently on television to discuss it, that adds another dimension. For a chef writing a cookbook, a really hot new restaurant may be enough of a platform to sell a book — but a hugely popular Instagram account would enhance it.
Such credentials may not be directly translatable into sales figures, but they help give the publisher confidence that the book will earn favorable media exposure, which is a crucial part of attracting readers. Platform tends to be most relevant, and easiest to understand, with well-defined nonfiction subjects, but a memoirist or a crime novelist may have a platform too — a lively fan following on Facebook or a network of influential supporters in his field. (In part IV, Diana Gill discusses how this may be valuable for genre fiction authors.)
Excerpted from "What Editors Do"
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Table of ContentsIntroduction. The Three Phases of Editing
Part I. Acquisition: Finding the Book
1 Where It All Begins by Peter Ginna
2 The Alchemy of Acquisitions: Twelve Rules for Trade Editors by Jonathan Karp
3 Thinking Like A Scholarly Editor: The How and Why of Academic Publishing by Gregory M. Britton
4 The Lords of Disciplines: Acquiring College Textbooks by Peter Coveney
Part II. The Editing Process: From Proposal to Book
5 The Book’s Journey by Nancy S. Miller
6 What Love’s Got to Do With It: The Author– Editor Relationship by Betsy Lerner
7 The Other Side of the Desk: What I Learned about Editing When I Became a Literary Agent by Susan Rabiner
8 Open-Heart Surgery or Just a Nip and Tuck? Developmental Editing by Scott Norton
9 This Just Needs a Little Work: On Line Editing by George Witte
10 toward Accuracy, Clarity, and Consistency: What Copyeditors Do by Carol Fisher Saller
Part III. Publication: Bringing the Book to the Reader
11 The Flip Side of the Pizza: The Editor as Manager by Michael Pietsch
12 Start Spreading the News: The Editor as Evangelist by Calvert D. Morgan Jr.
13 The Half-Open Door: Independent Publishing and Community by Jeff Shotts
Part IV. From Mystery to Memoir: Categories and Case Studies
14 Listening to the Music: Editing Literary Fiction by Erika Goldman
15 Dukes, Deaths, and Dragons: Editing Genre Fiction by Diana Gill
16 Marginalia: On Editing General Nonfiction by Matt Weiland
17 Once Upon a Time Lasts Forever: Editing Books for Children by Nancy Siscoe
18 Lives That Matter: Editing Biography, Autobiography, and Memoir by Wendy Wolf
19 Of Monographs and Magnum Opuses: Editing Works of Scholarship by Susan Ferber
20 Reliable Sources: Reference Editing and Publishing by Anne Savarese
21 The Pink Should be a Surprise: Creating Illustrated Books by Deb Aaronson
Part V. Pursuing a Publishing Career: Varieties of Editorial Experience
22 Widening the Gates: Why Publishing Needs Diversity by Chris Jackson
23 The Apprentice: On Being an Editorial Assistant by Katie Henderson Adams
24 This Pencil for Hire: Making a Career as a Freelance Editor by Katharine O’Moore-Klopf
25 The Self-Publisher as Self-Editor by Arielle Eckstut and David Henry Sterry
26 A New Age of Discovery: The Editor’s Role in a Changing Publishing Industry by Jane Friedman
Conclusion. As Time Goes By: The Past and Future of Editing
About the Editor