Novel Editing Part 1: Working with a Traditional House

Today’s installment of “publishing as business” will take a closer look at working with an editor at a traditional publishing house – and then next week we’ll flip the coin over and talk about working with independent editors (something both traditionally published and independent authors often choose to do).

For the traditionally-published author, the writer-editor relationship is critically important. Many houses assign an author to an editor “for all purposes,” particularly when the author is writing a series. That editor will work on every book that author publishes through the publishing house (unless the editor retires or resigns – but we’ll discuss that later).

After a publishing deal is made (and sometimes before the contract is signed) the editor will often contact the author to introduce himself or herself. This initial conversation may take place by telephone or by email, and it may involve only introductions or may also include some conversation about the book or series the publisher just acquired. Although this is a business conversation, and should be handled as such, the initial editor contact is also a great time for the author and editor to “meet” one another as people – after all, if you’re going to be working with someone for months (or, more likely, years) it’s important to start out on a friendly foot! Just remember: friendly + professional = success!

Step 2 in the editor-author relationship usually involves the initial round of edits. The editor will review the author’s manuscript and send either hard-copy edits (which I received) or edits in electronic form (more rare, but likely to increase in frequency). The editor will usually make line-edits (corrections to grammar or missing words) and also suggestions for substantive changes, like scene revisions and alterations to plot. It’s the author’s job to integrate the changes into the manuscript, though not all suggested changes are mandatory.

It’s normal for authors to experience an emotional reaction to editors’ comments. In some cases, the author may feel delight at the editor’s minimal and/or on-point comments. (I was lucky enough to fall into this camp with my first published manuscript, CLAWS OF THE CAT.) In others, the author may feel frustration or want to refuse to make the requested changes. Regardless of the reaction, all authors should take at least 24 hours to let the comments settle BEFORE responding or changing the manuscript.

Never, ever respond to your editor in anger. If you cannot compose a polite, businesslike response, communicate displeasure through the filter of your literary agent. Harsh words and unpleasant discourse can sour an author-editor relationship faster than almost anything else – and when it comes time to negotiate follow-up contracts, the editor will remember your attitude.

Once primary edits are completed, the editor will either accept the edits or send additional rounds of editorial comments. Later rounds of comments should be treated exactly like the first – the author should read them, take a cooling-off period if necessary, ask questions about comments that seem unclear, and then integrate the changes (or discuss objectionable ones until the author and editor reach a mutually satisfactory resolution).

The completed manuscript is then sent for blurbs (positive comments from other published authors willing to read and support the book) and cover art design. The editor remains the author’s point of contact for everything from obtaining blurbs (some are obtained by the editor, and others by the author, usually by mutual arrangement) to interfacing with the art and publicity departments. In many ways, the editor is the author’s business partner for the duration of the author’s relationship with the publishing house – making the author-editor relationship one of the most important in an author’s career.

Sometimes an editor leaves the publishing house before the author’s series (or contract) is concluded. This leaves the author “orphaned.” In some cases, the publisher will assign the author to another editor. In other cases, the author’s series is discontinued and the contract terminated or “bought out” (a term which refers to a payment in lieu of contract completion). Orphaned authors may find success with reassignment, or may need to seek another publisher entirely.

A fortunate author will find himself or herself matched with an editor who loves and understands the author’s work, and also conducts himself or herself with professionalism and skill. In the best of cases, the editor becomes not only a business partner but a friend. Regardless of the personal relationship, the author should always treat the editor with the same polite respect that a person should use with important business contacts.

The editor is not a “gatekeeper” blocking the author’s way. In reality, the editor works alongside the writer to help both the manuscript and the author become the best that each of them can be. If authors remember this, and help the editor along the way, the editor-author relationship can be not only mutually beneficial, but fun for everyone involved.

Have questions? Feel free to ask them in the comments or via Twitter (@SusanSpann) using the #PubLaw hashtag!