Ask the Editor: Lots of Questions, Lots of Answers

Ask the Editor Remember that editor I have tied up in my basement? She’s been fed and I shared my wine supply because I’m not TOTALLY evil, and she’s consented to answer some of your questions from our original entry. I’ve got quite a few answers – she’s really freaking wordy, my GOD – so I’ll break them up in to several posts.


Kim in Hawaii asked
Do you read bloggers’ reviews and readers’ comments?  If yes, does their feedback influence how you acquire and edit future books? 

I think readers do grow frustrated that they take the time to express their displeasure with a trope, plot, character, or even cover to the point that readers do not want to see “it” again. 
Yet “it” appears again in the following year’s crop of books as if readers’ opinions don’t count. 

Ask the Editor We do read some of the reviews—those our author forwards to us and those we find online—I’ve read the PW, Booklist, Library Journal,  Amazon ones and the B&N, etc. ones on the books I work on too.

However, a few things—#1, there are not enough hours in the day to read all of the reviews. There’s just not. There are also a few authors who couldn’t get a good PW review to save their lives, so I’m more interested the sales results. Also, you’re only seeing the comments from people who care to buy and then post a review. I’m seeing results from everyone who bought the book.

# 2—there’s a time lag. By the time we know you hated books 1 & 2, we’re generally at work or in contract on book 3 and book 4. So changing course can be like changing the course of a cruise ship. Slowly and carefully. Not as slowly as we used to change it, mind you, and digital first and category are much faster.

#3—real life example. In my own job, we had an established author publish a book consumers HATED. Not just a little, either, and they let us know with their purchasing decisions. So we were honest with her, and told her continuing that particular stream of story was in no one’s best interests and we changed course with a new contract. But she still sent us reviews from readers (all 2 1/2 of them) who wanted to see more of that same kind of book.  Should we have listened to them? I say no.

#3.5—often there’s a stream of books an author (& editor) loves, and they don’t want to change course. And unless you have an overwhelming piece of sales proof to help dissuade them, insisting they stop writing that miniseries that minute can damage a relationship you want to continue.  It can take time to get enough proof either way. 

Bonnie asked:
If you hear that an author has another offer for pub – well, first, do you want to hear that? Does it sway you one way or the other? Do you want a chance to “offer” or do you think – good riddance, one more off my plate?


If you make an offer and the author goes with the other offer, how would you like to be told?

Ask the Editor If you have another offer, tell all of the editors to whom the work is on submission. Phone is fastest in this case. Be succinct and polite. Most editors will tell you they’ll get right back to you. What we then do is look at it, if we haven’t already, and make a reasonable internal estimate as to how soon (if ever) we think we’ll be able to make an offer.

Then we get back to you. You can usually tell the first publisher (the offer-maker) that you have it out with other houses, and you want to give them the courtesy of getting back to you.

(NB—If you’re sending out a book on multiple submission MAKE THAT CLEAR IN THE PITCH LETTER.) Sometimes an editor will tell you that she’s not going to leave the offer on the table while you shop it around, and then you’ll have to make the decision there, but we’re generally fairly reasonable. Just don’t make us feel like we’re being used! (And we all know each other, and we do talk, so believe me, you will be found out.)

And if you go with that other offer, just say you’ve gone with the other offer and you appreciate the courtesy of the consideration. Just be polite and professional.


Joanne asked:
Does the editor have anything, anything at all, to say about purchasing something ‘different’ for their house? The sameness must be as frustrating for them as it is for other readers and I wonder how much they (the editors) influence what tropes are most published each year.

Ask the Editor That depends on what you mean by different. A Soho Crime editor might love Diane Mott Davidson, but the publishing house doesn’t publish mysteries set in the US. That’s the goal of the house. Is Thomas Nelson going to dip into erotica, just because an editor likes it? No. It can’t go against the mission of the house. But there are stories and editors that connect with real synergy and in those cases, it can make the house take a leap it otherwise wouldn’t. But it’s book by book. We’ll buy a book we like, even if we’re not making a huge—ALL HEROES MUST HAVE TENTACLES—imprint change.

Real life example—I was once asked why we refused to publish Indian American (Desi) romance. I told the person point blank it was because I’d never had any submitted to me. It wasn’t the stance of the house, it was that no one had ever sent it in! I would have loved to have bought some.

 

Joanne asked:
And yeah. I’ll go there. Do they (all or some editors) rave about stinker books even knowing that the author has written a not-so-great story?

Ask the Editor  If we don’t love the story, we rave about the author.

 

Lynnd asked:
My question(s) are:  how does an editor deal with an author who refuses to make suggested changes/corrections to his/her book when the editor knows that the book will be awful if the changes aren’t made?  Second part to this is:  does the editor ever have the option to say that the book won’t be published if the changes/corrections aren’t made (is there anyone at the publisher who has the clout to do this)?

Ask the Editor  We’ve all had that happen, and I feel for the author in this case, I really do, but some people can’t help themselves. We’re not asking you to make changes because we hate you, or because we want to destroy your book. Our goal is to get a publishable version onto the shelves. It is or should be a shared goal. I’ve had authors tell me that they ‘refused to sell [their former] house their next book.’ Or their previous editor ‘just didn’t understand their craaaaahhhhft’ And I rejected them. No one wants an author going into this long and arduous process with a chip on their shoulder.

In the case you mention above, we will negotiate and come to some sort of compromise, hopefully. As long as we both see a change needs to be made, how you get there is up to you for the most part.

And yes, we do have the right not to publish. The d&a payment is released upon delivery of an acceptable manuscript. It’s that adjective that makes this so much fun. There are those clear cut instances—I’ve contracted for a romance novel, and you deliver a cookbook. Or there are the less fun cases where the author sold on a proposal and the manuscript delivered is just…unspeakable. It’s hard to prove ‘unpublishable’ in court—it comes down to “we say this sucks” and the author takes the opposite position. I’ve seen it happen and made it happen myself, mostly with non-fiction. In fiction cases, there’s usually something else going on in the author’s life that’s making delivery hard, so occasionally both parties agree to let the project lie fallow for a bit until the author can regroup.

 

rebeccaj asked:
I’ve always seen these movies where the editor goes to the writer’s house and works with them on their book when they’re having problems. Does that EVER happen?

Ask the Editor  HA! SO rarely as to make it basically never. My old roommate went to Barbara Taylor Bradford’s house to pick up her ms. I’ve gone over to an author’s house only once for work, but he was very ill and really enjoyed arguing in person.  We do do editorial convos in person during conferences, or if you live nearby, though. We don’t generally love it because we are mole people, some days.

 

RaeRae asked
Do you find yourself editing more for style/content, or for grammar anymore?  Does a book with an extreme need for one or the other turn you off completely (i.e.: lots of spelling/grammar errors, or lots of continuity/style problems), or are you willing to put more time into a project that you feel has real potential.  And do you get to take those chances anymore?

Ask the Editor  Yep. We all do it. We don’t love it, and some houses have a zero tolerance for that. (Depends on how much you need the inventory.) But it does happen. A good storyteller and a good prose stylist are not always the same person. I’ve done books that were torn apart, but it’s rare, and in the instances where I’ve had to do it, if it’s not an established person, I’ve declined the option book.

 

Patricia M.
As an editor, could you explain/give insight on what happened to Lora Leigh’s last two books?  I only read

 

Navarro’s Promise

 

,  but I have read in the blogs that her newest is just as badly done. 

 

Navarro’s Promise

 

was a big fat mess (and I resent that I spent money on it), and even a casual read would have revealed that there were multiple mistakes that needed fixing and pages dropped.  How could a professional editing process miss so much?

Ask the Editor  I have reservations about this, because I am not her editor, have never met her, and I only think I might know who her agent is. It sounds like a very terrible situation to be in, as writer, editor or agent, and I want to send her hugs.

Let me give you a few insights from my own background, which might have similarities.

#1—Big 6 house has a big author on the list. A mainstay, this person generally delivers every year, which means the house has a hardcover and a mass market in the same year. $$$$$$$. This year, so and so has trouble at home, which means she’s late. The house NEEDS this book to make their numbers, and they tell the editor to take a few work at home days to bring the ms up to scratch. Book comes in, goes home with editor to Brooklyn, likely, and gets reworked as much as it can before it’s due to production. Fast copyedit, fast proofread, 3 proofreads later, blues, BOOM, book on the shelves.

#2—Author has worked with same editor since she started. Author is an amazing storyteller, but a terrible grammarian. Editor has gone on vacation, and junior editor B has to get the book ready. Junior editor B nearly has a heart attack but does the best she can.

#3—and I’m butchering a Robert Gottlieb quote here—the ms that came in was so much worse than you can ever imagine. It’s those that get the “why wasn’t this edited” comments, when a backbreaking amount went in. And no, not that Robert Gottlieb. The editor & ballet critic. 


Amanda asked:
I recently read a romance novel that was witty, had great elements, and well, needed someone to tell the author that she needed a rewrite because in the end, it fell very flat.  My questions is, why do editors let stinkers of novels go to print from established authors?  I can understand taking a chance on someone new and letting them develop the craft, but letting an established author get away with witty dialogue and a lack of structure seems like a waste of everyone’s talents.

Ask the Editor I’m going to pull from my previous response and say the books that people think need editing are often the ones that got the most, because they were in such terrible shape.


Rachel Savage asked
Going off Patricia slightly—why aren’t “best selling” names held to the same crazy high standards as someone new trying their hardest to get in?

I’ve seen it stated time and time again that a new author has to be better—above and beyond anything else out there—while someone can sit back, let forth a load of crap disguised as a manuscript and coast on their name because they had a good one or two at some point.

Why are they not held accountable and rousted from their little chair of victory if they can’t keep producing at a similar level of quality that those of us on the outside are supposed to achieve?

Just asking, because if I don’t turn out quality work in a timely manner at my current day job, they could very well show me the door and hire someone who will. That’s been true of every job I’ve ever had—why are authors treated any differently?

Ask the Editor My answer to Patricia M has the answer to this one.

cecilia asked:
My question is, how much choice does an average editor have over what books he/she edits? (Average in terms of rank/power/influence/experience, not in terms of skill).

Ask the Editor  We generally edit that which we buy. If I don’t buy you, I don’t edit you. However, in the delightful land of apprenticeship that is publishing, often a book is bought by a publisher and given to a favored junior or senior staffer to edit. The more junior a person, the more likely they are to have been given the project they’re working on. It’s how you prove yourself. I was in that spot myself, and you should see the names on my resume. Do they know that I was editing them? Not in most cases.

 

Romy Sommer asked
What is the first thing that catches your eye and makes you excited about a manuscript? Voice, a refreshingly different story, a well-loved theme, or none of the above?

Ask the Editor I hate to give a one word answer, but VOICE. I couldn’t give a shit if your heroine is a paleontologist.


If you’ve got questions for the editor tied up in my basement, feel free to email me at sarahATsmartbitchestrashybooksDOTcom with “Ask the Editor” in the subject line, and I’ll read them to her in my very best Sean Connery impression. Or, you can leave a comment, too – that always works!

 

 

 

Comments are Closed

  1. 1
    quichepup says:

    Thank you Sarah and thanks to Editor X. Straight answers to some tough questions, I hope Editor X enjoyed the wine.

  2. 2
    Erica Anderson says:

    Thanks for the great insights into the editorial and publishing process!

  3. 3

    Give that editor another couple of sips. She’s earned it. Thank you Sarah and Editor X!

  4. 4
    Lynnd says:

    Thank you so much for answering my questions.  I understand about the difficulties with “acceptable” – it’s almost as bad as “reasonable” and “fair” :-).

  5. 5

    Mahalo for answering my question!  I hope Sarah was a great hostess … you are always welcome in Hawaii!

  6. 6
    Carahe says:

    I’m fascinated by the answer to the last question. When I am looking for a book, the search terms I enter to find something I think I’ll like usually do include “paleontologist” (both for example and literally) and never include “third omniscient” or “first person roundabout” or “declarative active sentences”. Which I think is unfortunate on both my own part and on the part of editors. If an editor is buying a book based on authorial voice, I should be able to use search terms to find the kind of voice I like to read. And if I am buying books based on the appearance of a paleontologist (I totally am), maybe it behooves editors to take another look at ms that come in that might need more work, but which will fill out that (sadly VERY sparse) “heroine is a paleontologist” niche market to which I actively belong.

    test word is “and69”, and as a reader of erotica, perhaps editors could mark descriptions of their ms with things like “vanilla” “anal” “and 69”?

  7. 7
    Kerry Allen says:

    @Carahe, I read an interview with an editor a while ago in which the editor said story doesn’t matter, only voice.

    That’s right, folks. STORY DOESN’T MATTER. Sucks for you if you’re not wowed by the voice tied around that incomprehensible plot full of holes you could float a blue whale through.

    I, in the parlance of my people, “lost my shit.”

  8. 8
    Joanne says:

    I read an interview with an editor a while ago in which the editor said story doesn’t matter, only voice.

    For that editor. Who knows what he/she is doing now? Maybe saying “fries with that?”.  We can only hope.

    Thank you Sarah & Editor!  I have to say I never considered the amount of time between a ms submission and it’s publishing.  That answers an awful lot of ‘whys’.

    Right now I’d say a story by anyone titled
    EDITOR X IN THE ATTIC WITH WINE
    just might be a bestseller.

  9. 9
    P. J. DEAN says:

    Whoa! That just made my day. Or killed it. Voice. Voice. Voice. Just wrap something in great voice and you’ve got a sale. Gotta remember that.

  10. 10

    Thank you, Sarah and editor in question, for this in depth interview. It’s always interesting to hear opinions and thoughts from folks “in the biz”, even more so when it’s honest and direct such as this piece! Your time and knowledge is appreciated xx

  11. 11

    @Carahe – I think that ‘voice’ in this case encompasses the technical issues like POV, etc, but it’s much, much bigger than that. It’s HOW the author is using language to tell their story. The particular way they use description, punctuation, dialogue—everything on the page, really.

    One way to think of ‘voice’ is to look at poets, who distill down to the essence of how they choose and place their words. Both e e cummings and Emily Dickinson wrote about spring—but in enormously differing voices. Fiction writers do the same, although more subtly. But take ten authors and ask them to write a 200 word description of the sky, and you’ll get ten very different perspectives. The book Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, by Browne and King, has some good chapters that deal with these kinds of choices authors make. Worth a read!  :)

  12. 12
    Carahe says:

    @Anthea Lawson

    I was afraid of that. I should say that I pretty much abhor poetry, and I read novels for the simple reason that they are likely to have a proper plot. Good dialogue is a bonus, good writing even more of a bonus, but I would rather read a well plotted book of topical interest with a completely unsophisticated “voice” than all the descriptive shit in the world.

    Too bad editors don’t take readers like me more into account.

  13. 13
    Lily LeFevre says:

    I’m fascinated by the answer to the last question. When I am looking for a book, the search terms I enter to find something I think I’ll like usually do include “paleontologist” (both for example and literally) and never include “third omniscient” or “first person roundabout” or “declarative active sentences”. Which I think is unfortunate on both my own part and on the part of editors. If an editor is buying a book based on authorial voice, I should be able to use search terms to find the kind of voice I like to read. And if I am buying books based on the appearance of a paleontologist (I totally am), maybe it behooves editors to take another look at ms that come in that might need more work, but which will fill out that (sadly VERY sparse) “heroine is a paleontologist” niche market to which I actively belong.

    I’m waiting for the algorithm that will make this kind of recommendation the way Genius/Pandora do for music. Instead of the “down tempo electronica with organ accents” it will be “19th-century diction, repeated complex sentences, omniscient and self-referential author.” or whatever your cup of tea is…

  14. 14

    @Carahe and @Kerry Allen – The legendary St. Martin’s editor Ruth Cavin used to tell me, “I can fix anything except voice.” It’s not that story isn’t important (although I can think of some snoozy literary fiction that read as if the author had been shock-conditioned to avoid any appearance of plot) it’s that story problems – pacing, plot holes, inconsistent characters – can be fixed by a good editor and an author willing to put the work in. “Voice” as Anthea Lawson so aptly illustrates, is the idiosyncratic way the writer conveys his or her view of the world. That encompasses much more than just vocabulary choices and points of view.

  15. 15
    SB Sarah says:

    There’s more from Editor X coming soon – more questions and more answers. I’m glad you liked today’s installment.

  16. 16
    MissFiFi says:

    Kerry Allen: And that explains why many things I hate are in the bestsellers list.
    I was kind of annoyed by the answer to Patricia M about letting a well known author coasting with a few bad books under their belt, because of prior bestsellers. Sure authors are not always going to hit it out of the park, but a constant pass? That is bull. For those of us trying to break into the market, it is frustrating as all holy hell to see phoned in work getting pushed just so a publisher can make their numbers. I get it, it is a business and I have to respect the various opinions and tastes out there, but it is difficult when new writers have pressure to present an almost perfect manuscript. Thanks for letting me be a brat for a brief period here. Carry on.

  17. 17
    Maya M. says:

    “all heros must have tentacles” 

    HAHAAHAHA!!!!

    educational yet amusing post – I love when that balance is struck

  18. 18
    Minime says:

    @MissFiFi it’s not only crap from the direction of a would-be author either. Reference the original question re Lora Leigh. The poster says she resents having bought the book. As far as I can see, there are an awful lot of others who feel the same. I, for one, will never buy another of her books again, because I feel like I’ve been ripped off. So yes, the house really needed the $$$ from that book, and yes, it’s been extensively edited, but it still stinks. The house has won the short term battle, but lost the war by putting out crap that has permanently alienated the readers, also known as their source of income. That’s short-sighted stupidity in my book.

  19. 19

    The house has won the short term battle, but lost the war by putting out crap that has permanently alienated the readers, also known as their source of income. That’s short-sighted stupidity in my book.

    I rather suspect that in her heart of hearts, Editor X agrees with you.  The catch is that in a Big 6 publishing house*, the decisions about major authors’ contracts (and in many cases, about what books an editor can buy from new or less-proved authors) are being made by sales and marketing executives who are looking at just these short-term numbers with $$$ signs in their eyes.**

    *“Big 6” here—pending any clarification from Editor X—refers to the handful of corporations that own most of the major New York publishing imprints nowadays.

    **Actually, this may itself be a good question for Editor X: You’ve said that you buy books you like—but for what percentage of the titles you buy do you need approval from farther up in the corporate food chain (and if so, from whom)?  Alternately, how much discretion do you have to buy manuscripts without senior management’s sign-off on any given deal?

  20. 20
    MissFiFi says:

    Minime: I agree that it is short sighted stupidity. I bought an erotica novella with a Lora Leigh story in it and I guess it was part of her “breeds” series. I hated it. Actually, of the five stories in said novella, only the Emma Hope one was decent. The others were so poorly written I was pissed that I paid $7 on my Kindle for it and in truth should have asked for my money back. That taught me to now always trust reviews because when some people love an author they wear blinders when they pen crap. But yes, it also alienated me from those authors because I would buy anything from them again.
    What also gets my goat is we all know certain series have lost their quality and spark, going on far too long, but like John C Bunnell said, it is sales & marketing looking at it with dollar signs only. NY Times Bestseller means nothing anymore. Thank God though, none of this has ever stopped me from wanting to read like a fiend. :)

  21. 21
    MissFiFi says:

    Meant to say *NOT always trust reviews

  22. 22
    MissFiFi says:

    Okay I have mommy brain tonight, I meant Emma Holly. Good Lord, I need a serious edit button! LOL

  23. 23
    Allie P says:

    When the editor says “story doesn’t matter” she doesn’t mean “it can be a sucky story.” She means that she doesn’t care if the heroine is a paleontologist or a plumber as long as the author can make us love her. Because “story” changes from book to book—the paleontologist heroine that she buys today and that readers who are looking for a brand new paleontologist heroine to read will hopefully be bowled over by the voice and buy the author’s next three books, even though they are not about paleontologists, but about plumbers, pastry chefs, and parking attendants.

    And the reason established bestsellers are given a free pass is because no matter how loud the arguments on the blogosphere can be, there are thousands upon thousands of readers who have never heard of SBTB or etc. who are still buying, but who might not buy the unknown paleontologist book. And if the house doesn’t have the guranteed money from established bestseller, they won’t be risking any dough on paleontologists.

  24. 24
    Danielle D says:

    Sarah switch from wine to Grappa for the editor but be sure to feed her.  Love the replies.

  25. 25
    DreadPirateRachel says:

    @Lily Lefevre

    I’m waiting for the algorithm that will make this kind of recommendation the way Genius/Pandora do for music. Instead of the “down tempo electronica with organ accents” it will be “19th-century diction, repeated complex sentences, omniscient and self-referential author.” or whatever your cup of tea is…

    Your cup of tea is the same as mine. Shall we have tea together?

  26. 26
    KKJ says:

    @Lily Lefevre and @DreadPirateRachel:

    I’m waiting for the algorithm that will make this kind of recommendation the way Genius/Pandora do for music.

    I haven’t tried this yet because my TBR pile is already toppling over, but I hope it really works::

    Booklamp.org
    “…is the result of an exploratory project intended to help you find new books by comparing the content of the books themselves, similar to the way that Pandora.com matches music lovers to new music. We’re attempting to help you find books with similar themes and writing style to books you’ve enjoyed in the past – comparing elements like Description, Pacing, Density, Perspective, and Dialog – while at the same time allowing you to specify details like… more Medieval Weapons.”

    So…if that means specifying details like “More Man-Titty,” this could be the Smart Bitches’ killer app.

  27. 27
    Kilian says:

    Lily LeFevre wrote:

    Instead of the “down tempo electronica with organ accents” it will be “19th-century diction, repeated complex sentences, omniscient and self-referential author.”

    I love me some Anthony Trollope, too.

    hear62: I hear he wrote ~62 books. Makes me happy to think so.

  28. 28
    L says:

    A question for Editor X: how prevalent is ghostwriting on big-name books? Often, readers begin to notice a decline in quality from the big-ticket, yearly-bestseller authors as time goes by, and a suspicion of ghostwriting emerges. I won’t lie; I’ve been wondering how much Janet Evanovich is really contributing to the Stephanie Plum series anymore. I get why this practice would be used; to crank out product more quickly and on schedule, to generate reliable sums of cash for the house. But as with previous commenters’ sentiments regarding Lora Leigh, the decline in quality can leave a sour taste in readers’ mouths and ultimately erode the value of the brand. Then again, maybe there isn’t any ghostwriting at all and the author is really just running out of steam. (Understandably). So I’m curious as to which is the more prevalent explanation.

  29. 29

    Thank you, Editor X!  May I call you “Editrix”?[g]  These were great answers, and I especially like the last one about the need to have the right “voice” to resonate with the editor, publisher, and ideally, the reader.

    Enjoy your wine, you’ve earned it.

  30. 30
    Kwana says:

    Wow. Excellent post. Thank you both so much.

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