Author-Editor Relationships: An Endangered Species?


Doubling Down On Writing For 2016

One of the things that makes the 2015-2016 transition interesting in the creative corps is a subdued, reflective, sometimes exhausted, and often pensive mood.

A lot of it revolves around marketplace fatigue. And it might not be helping that one time-honored relationship—that of writer and editor—seems to be changing, for both parties, to what is sometimes a lighter-weight, less engaged partnership.

For all that the digital dynamic has brought to publishing, it has demanded at the very least attention—attention to how things work, how they’re run, how they’re changing.

Assertions that publishers do “no marketing!” are no more accurate than claims that authors “have to do everything themselves!” But there’s no question that the contemporary professional writer today, both in the trade and in the independent ranks, is pressured to be a market player, an industry-aware operative, a business person, moving, shaking…and when was the writing happening?

Business demands on an author’s time today simply are mounting. Branding, its maintenance and promotion, everything is expanding except the number of hours in a day.

Author Joe Konrath, writing about 2016, tells us:

This year, I’m boiling my resolutions down to the essence: WRITE. It’s so easy to get caught up in different aspects of a writing career. I’ve had phases where I tried to help other writers, started my own company, blogged, collaborated, fought the publishing world, evangelized, experimented, promoted, tried to figure things out, and spent a whole lot of time doing stuff other than writing. I’m happy I did all that. But it has taken me away from the thing I like most.

Echoing something that my colleague Jane Friedman and I have mentioned in our Hot Sheet trends overview for 2016, author Elizabeth Hunter sees attrition accelerating ahead:

It’s still about writing a good book. It’s not about a gimmick or a trend. It’s not about hitting that list or getting that review and getting in with that advertising site. All those things are helpful on the business side, but they’re not going to mean anything if you’re not focusing on telling the best story you can.

Ron Vitale, a technologist and author whose fiction often turns on the classic hero’s journey axis, is powerfully clear on what he learned the hard way in 2014 by trying to write and prepare a book too fast:

To everyone who is new to publishing and living the indie writing lifestyle: It’s not possible to do it all. I will say it again for myself so that I can remember this and not get myself in the mess I was in. I cannot do everything. I need to rest, eat, relax and connect with those around me. I can’t be plugged in all the time writing and then working at my day job. I learned a hard lesson this year. Yes, I love writing and want to write more books, but they can’t happen as fast as I would like and that’s okay. In fact, that’s better than okay. It’s normal and I’m perfectly fine with that.

From outside the industry, some of these comments might seem evident. “How could they expect to be creative when they’re running themselves ragged on the sales-and-PR front all the time?” anyone looking in at publishing might ask. Looking back, in fact, Vitale certainly seems to agree:

The reason why publishing two books didn’t work for me is that I had no time to market these novels. Writing, re-writing, editing, learning online marketing, building funnels, figuring out Google Tag Manager, well, all of that takes time and I did achieve my goal, but now need to regroup and focus on the marketing of this new series. Yes, the books are out there, but discoverability is still an issue and I’ve not solved this yet.

But such has been the requirement, at least as it’s been perceived and experienced by many authors. Punctuated by the annual NaNoWriMo one-month writing-binge program, the genre-author blog-bubble has been noisy with calls to “write more books…faster…get your title count up…promote them all.”

Are we now seeing some writers burn out? Sure we are. Kristine Kathryn Rusch, a faithful guide to many authors, talks openly of it:

Most of us became what I call outer-directed. We focused on things outside of our writing and, for some folks, to the detriment of their writing…The burnout I recognize. It happened a lot in traditional publishing, but for different reasons. Usually writers were driven so crazy by publisher-agent-editor demands that the writers had to leave to maintain sanity…The writing to order happens in indie as well, but writers impose that on themselves…I never expected, though, writers to burn out because they were learning and trying so many things. It makes sense. That outer-directed thing, for creative types, is utterly exhausting. Necessary, especially when you’re learning and building, but tiring just the same.

If anything, one reason that Friedman and I have created The Hot Sheet newsletter for authors is because we can tell they need one comprehensive source for specifically parsed information that tells them what they need to know (twice a month), and then leaves them alone: no community, no comments (unless they’d like to drop us a line), no engagement. We want them to learn what they need to know about the industry efficiently, without having to hunt for it.

Still, there’s no easy fix to this double bind writers feel themselves in at this stage in the career’s evolution.

  • There are calls for more writing on all sides.
  • There are calls for more marketing, promotion, brand-building and reader-outreach, also on all sides.

And you know who seems to be fading from the scene at the most alarming rate of all? The editor who once held a close relationship with the author, one that nurtured (and helped carry) both the business elements and the creative quality.

‘I wanted to remain a creator of worlds’

An influential article and interview have come to light just this week, helping to define what once was a deeper, more complex and symbiotic relationship than it is today for many.

In some cases, the pivotal editor and agent are the same. Years ago, Bob Strane, the late artistic director of the Asolo State Theater asked me, “Which would you rather be? Tennessee Williams or Audrey Wood?” Tougher question than you might think. Wood had nurtured the careers—as a most-trusted reader, as well as in business—of Williams, Arthur Kopit, Robert Anderson, Preston Jones, and others in the theatrical field.

But today, as many editors leave publishing-house berths (of their own volition or otherwise) for freelance careers, the contract-integrated relationship of author and editor is being tested and the reality, it seems is shallowing out.

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In an interview with NPR’s Lynn Neary, author A. Scott Berg talks about Max Perkins, editor to Thomas Wolfe, Hemingway, Fitzgerald and others. Scott tells Neary:

Not only did [Perkins] change the course of the American literary river, but he changed what editors do by becoming their best friends, their money lenders, their marriage counselors, their psychoanalysts. And along the way he began offering them titles. He often provided structure for what their novels ought to be. He often gave them whole ideas for what their next book should be.

Today, Berg says, the commercial imperatives are changing that relationship.

That editor-author relationship is still fundamental to good books. But it’s not necessarily cost-effective for book editors to invest as much of their time into any single manuscript or any single author and that’s simply because the publishing houses have not encouraged their editors to edit.

And you hear this echoed in the lively exit-aria from editor Sarah Knight, Why I Quit My Job As A Corporate Editor at Literary Hub:

I know “meetings” are a go-to scapegoat, like TPS reports in Office Space, but in my last job I had a key title meeting, an editorial board meeting, a Team 3 meeting, a jacket meeting, and a marketing meeting every week, with plenty of biweekly and monthly meetings on top of those. Conservatively, that’s 20 percent of a 40-hour work week taken up by meetings alone. It’s no wonder all the actual editing had to get done on nights and weekends!

Knight, who has worked in the past with Scribner, Holt, Crown, and Simon & Schuster, has taken the freelance route that many editors are choosing or being shoved into. She writes:

It was a terrific run, but six months ago I left corporate publishing because I no longer wanted to spend my day in a high rise office building, because I wanted to work from anywhere (preferably the beach), and because I wanted to remain a creator of worlds—not be a destroyer of them.

And she gets at a subtle moral dilemma inherent in the author-editor relationship in major publishing settings:

An editor is at once an author’s best friend, occasional mortal enemy, and greatest advocate. The relationship can be prickly at times, but for me it almost always resulted in a special, lasting bond. The thing is though, an editor gets paid by the publishing house—which means her duties and loyalties are often necessarily and uncomfortably split.

Riverhead Books editorial director Rebecca Saletan is interviewed by Neary in her NPR piece, and she’s talking the same overwhelm of multifaceted business demands that the authors are:

I think what’s changed is actually there’s a lot more to do because in the old days you could tell your colleagues at the beginning of the process essentially what the book was like. And you could do your best to introduce the book to booksellers and so on, but there wasn’t a ton to do. Now, with online media and other aspects of modern life there’s a ton to do and it takes a lot of time and we have to work very, very hard to get our books above the tree line.

Saletan echoes Knight in talking about when the editing ends up happening: nights and weekends.

This, of course, is what many if not most agents are doing, too. As publishing has over time abdicated the role of new-work finder to the agenting community, agents have had to become adept at at least a form of editing—something that gets the material ready for the publishing editor’s consideration.

And what many authors may need to look for in 2016—in all that free time, right?—is the ability to form a deep relationship with a supportive editor who may be hired by that author as a freelancer. At least in the author-hired mode, the editor’s client is the author. But even that fact may set up new questions: if not speaking for “the house,” can an editor be as critical or demanding of the author as she needs to be for the good of the work?

The types and functions of editors vary widely. Copy editors and developmental editors (or “structural” editors, as they’re known in the UK) are the two major forms of book editors, in the pure sense, but in the context of a publishing house, the editor becomes (or has been in the past) an acquisitions editor who found an author and cultivated his work.

Knight writes compellingly of just how negative that acquisitions role can become at times, in terms of what the editor is saying to the author:

We’re the ones who go to the meetings and find out there’s no ad budget, and we have to tell the author. We hear that the Barnes & Noble buy wasn’t enough to juice the coop spend, and we have to tell the author. We discover that next Sunday’s TBR is running a not-so-nice review and who gets to tell the author? We do! It’s a cycle punctuated occasionally by excitement and good news—calling an author to tell her she’s hit the New York Times bestseller list remains one of the great joys of my life—but ultimately there wasn’t enough good news for me to grab hold of at the end of each day. Not when I’d poured so much time and energy into these books, and not when, like a literary midwife, I had coached authors through years of labor and then had to watch them leave their book babies to the mercy of the general public. As you may know, the general public can be total assholes.

So as we move into 2016, keep an eye on the editor class in books.

Certainly, some authors have good editorial relationships in place. Hunter, for example, mentions both her developmental editor, Lora Gasway, and her copyeditor, Anne Victory. And she writes well to the importance of a strong support team.

Surely it’s possible in freelance arrangements—either for trade or self-publishing authors—to establish a nourishing, meaningful, contributing relationship with an editor. Can such a bond help in the overload of marketplace fatigue? Or could deeper editorial relationships end up adding yet another layer of demand and frustration for authors already nearing the breaking point?

In 2016, we’ll learn a lot more—and maybe not always what we’d like to know—about what are the mandatory marketing-and-creative requirements for authors. If we’re alert, we might also learn more about what’s happening to editors’ work lives. Whether more enriching relationships with each other could help writers and/or editors remains to be seen.

But it’s too early to sign off on the potential of this relationship, once such a central factor for many major talents.

Knight, from her seat as a freelance author now, is talking her version of the authors’ pledges to refocus on the writing: “I just wanted to work with and for the authors.”

The Hot Sheet is a new biweekly newsletter for professional career authors from Porter Anderson and Jane Friedman. It is available by subscription.