Ask the Editor: Questions and Answers, Part II

Ask the EditorShe’s still in my basement (which is dry, thank heaven) and I’ve still got a lot of wine for bribery purposes, so Editor X is happy to answer more questions. Here we go with installment two of “Ask the Editor.”

Anony Miss asked:
My question: why aren’t there more scratch-n-sniff contemporary novels? I think it’s a whole niche market being totally ignored.

Ask the Editor  Speaking as a person who had to research the embedding of a music box thingie in a book cover, I can say that it’s too expensive. We’d print in China/Singapore, which means it’ll take me a year to make that book, and scratch & sniff won’t store well on a shelf with all the anklebiters in Walmart scratching away at books they don’t buy. Lord, I’m grumpy today. I need more wine!

Silver James asked
I’m curious as to the pitching process. Do you (and any editors that might stand around the Keurig machine discussing the topic)  ask for a submission from everyone or do you only request certain projects? I ask because I’ve never had an editor or agent NOT ask for a submission at a pitch. I’m both published and agented now, but unpubbed writers in my RWA group ask this question every time a conference comes up and I’m wondering if my experience is somewhat unique or if editors feel that if a writer is brave enough to pitch, they’ll ask.

Ask the Editor To be honest, we’ll generally ask, because it comes down to the writing. I’ve worked with a number of writers who were awkward one on one, so we need to see what you can do before we can decide. We’re selling a book, not a pitch.


Chance asked:
What, if any, influence do editors have over writers that have become so formulaic that if you have read one of their books you have read them all? I’m not talking about a series but multiple standalone books by the same author.

Ask the Editor  Some writers write what they write and that’s it. And if it ain’t broke (by which I mean the sales are chugging along) why fix it? There’s a certain comfort for a set of readers in coming back to a story you know goes along the same way. It doesn’t mean these readers read only this person, but this person fulfills a particular need for them.


DreadPirateRachel asked:
As for my question, Kim in Hawaii said

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.

and my question is somewhat related. How resistant are publishing houses to change? The longevity of some of the more problematic tropes (e.g., rape is love; absence of heroines over 30; majorly skewed power dynamics; insistence upon the heroine’s virginity, etc.) leads me to believe that any attempt to make a major change would be speedily quashed.
In the Bitch Magazine article that Sarah posted, I found this quote:

This aspect of the romance novel is changing, but romance fans seem reluctant to give up the relationship between a woman’s sexual awakening and perfect, singular, monogamous, heterosexual love.

I don’t think that’s true; I think that romance fans would love to see more progressive heroines, so I’m left to imagine that the dearth of them must be due to editorial restrictions. Am I completely off-base?

Ask the Editor  This might be a good point to say—publishing houses are not PREVENTING progressive things from being published. Write it, for f’s sake, and send it in. If it’s not dreadful (and believe me, much of it is) we’ll consider it seriously. Part of the problem with paradigm shifters in romance writing is that the book becomes a mission rather than a good story. It’s dull for everyone—it becomes preachy.

Las asked:
Is there any kind of quality assurance happening? You put out a book, people read it and shit hits the fan because of how poorly written and edited it is…does anything happen? Is anyone pissed? Do heads roll? Are you even aware that there’s a problem?  I have nothing at all to do with publishing, but in my field we have monthly QA meetings where we discuss anything that’s gone wrong and how it happened, and make any changes if necessary. Is it even a concern if it’s an author who’s consistently a best seller?
I’m not being snarky with that last question, I’m genuinely curious. I’m not sure I’d make much of an effort to put out a quality product when the consumers have proven time and again that they don’t care about quality.

Ask the Editor  I worked in a house where the president would pull out the sales numbers every month and have a post-mortem—the editor had to stand up and be hazed as to why the cover was the way it was, why we didn’t sell to Italy, etc. It was awesome. But short lived. Anyway, there are houses where people are fired, and there are houses where people work away as if they are at some sort of editorial version of the DMV.  It is not hard to see which are which. As a reader, I actually learned what a colophon was when I stopped buying books at the store from 2 particular houses. Vote with your pocketbook.
Also, HR-wise, it’s cheaper to retrain than fire & rehire.


Faellie asked:
How do you deal with the latest in a long series of books, when you need to check for consistency with the earlier ones?  Do you keep cheat sheets on established facts?
Do you prefer to edit books in a long-running series, or would you rather work on an entirely new premise?

Ask the Editor  We try to keep the same copyeditor, and there’s generally a running character sheet, and maybe a timeline, or other kind of map if need be.
As to the second question, I tend to think editors enjoy both! Variety is the spice of life.


Kim asked:
Thanks for taking the time to answer our questions.
(1) An author recently blogged that if a writer releases more than 2 books in a year, she probably is paying a ghostwriter to help her. A few authors release up to 4 books a year, such as Nora Roberts, Maya Banks and Janet Evanovich. Any truth to this rumor about ghostwriters?
(2) Why are there so many typos and grammatical errors in books lately? A recent Harlequin said that the hero needed to remodel his home because the house was inhabitable instead of uninhabitable.
(3) When many readers write an editor saying they dislike the direction of a series, do you discuss it with the author and track sales or is the storyline totally up to the author?

Ask the Editor  HA! Awesome, and no. James Patterson needs one, but that’s not always the case. There are some writers who are talented, dedicated and focused, and can produce that frequently. There are other authors who are talented, dedicated and focused, and who do not. Do you run a mile at the same speed I do? It’s a very individual skill. Thomas Harris took 11 years between books.

(2) This same question has been asked every year since books have been published. I am not actually kidding. Look back at some of the gossip sheets from the 1800s. But in answer to your question, margins get tighter and publishers pay copyeditors/proofreaders/freelancers less. And then they might get a slightly lower quality. 

(3) I’ve answered this one above. But we do track sales, and do look at reviews (with a grain of salt!)


CopyEditor asked:
I’ve done some freelance copy editing for a smaller nonfiction publisher, but the books were on a topic that made my eyes cross. I know that larger publishing companies also use freelance copy editors, but I don’t know how to break into that market. Any tips or suggestions?

Ask the Editor  I’m on the editorial side, so this advice might be crackpot. But the person who does the hiring in any pub house for copyeditors is the managing editor. If you were to google the publisher’s name with the term, you might have more success in finding where to direct it.


Comments are Closed

  1. 1
    Maili says:

    Silhouette category romances from late 1980s had a brief


    interesting trend of putting a scratch ‘n’ sniff perfume card in the middle of each book, along with a subscription card. The scent was utterly repulsive. If I recall correctly, it was a cross between a great-aunt’s scented drawer sachet and a rotting roadkill.

  2. 2

    In the light of recent discussions here and elsewhere, is anyone asking about historical inaccuracies in books?

  3. 3
    jayhjay says:

    Thank you so much for this great series of posts. I have found your answers really interesting.  The thing that struck me throughout is the role of the big breadwinning authors.  Not just the fact that when you bring in big bucks/readers there is more leniency on what you put out, but what you discussed previously in terms of the house counting on that income for a given year.  It makes much more sense to me now how a big name author can put out a so so product and still get it published. 

    Thanks for taking the time to answer so many questions.

  4. 4

    Thank you editor! Once again it was an eye opener on how the other side of the team works.

    Lynne that is one of my biggest pet peeves. Not just in historicals though it really drives me nuts in contemporary “military” and “covert/diplomatic” stories. Nothing turns me off an author and a publishing house faster than a story where simple research on the author’s part would have fixed an error. If you don’t know how the CIA hires, how the foreign service works, ect. don’t write it wrong for god’s sakes do some research.

  5. 5
    Editor X says:

    Well, I may as well jump in! The burden of historical accuracy/research rests with the author. Part of the contract actually contains a line to the effect that the author stands behind the work they’ve sent in.

    But while we don’t have factcheckers (sadly), we can and do hire copyeditors with experience relevant to the topic. Sometimes, too, your editor will have been a history major. 

    Some authors (and not necessarily the NYT ones) do hire research assistants or get a history grad student to do a read.

  6. 6
    DreadPirateRachel says:

    I recently read a self-pubbed book that was set in medieval England and heavily featured fried potatoes. I’m not a history major—in fact, I can count on one hand the number of college history courses I’ve taken—but I do know that potatoes are a new world crop that were not imported to Europe until the 1500s. I was jarred out of the story, but upon further consideration, I decided to give the author a pass, since she had not had the benefit of an editor.

    My reasoning was thus: if I, a casual reader who simply wanted to enjoy the story, caught this, then certainly a copy editor who was actively looking for errors would also find it. Given Editor X’s comment that

    The burden of historical accuracy/research rests with the author. Part of the contract actually contains a line to the effect that the author stands behind the work they’ve sent in.

    I’m not sure any more. Had this book been traditionally published, do you think that the error would have been corrected and the potatoes replaced with something else—parsnips, for example?

  7. 7

    Rachel, there is much, much worse in some published books. It’s probably why the books haven’t traveled outside the USA. The lack of historical accuracy limits the market.
    But the potatoes thing – happens a lot.
    I’m sad that the author has the total burden of ensuring the research is accurate, because surely some of it would be quality control, like checking grammar and spelling?
    Same goes for other subjects, too. I know my editors do a lot of fact-checking, but not all publishing houses take the same view. I’m still responsible for the errors, but my editors check them for me.

  8. 8
    AgTigress says:

    The writer must ultimately be responsible for her own words, and from my non-fiction-writer’s viewpoint, she is also responsible for getting her accuracy checked by friends, colleagues and sometimes independent experts even before the work reaches an editor.  That position is often summarised in the acknowledgements of non-fiction books, where the author will thank those who have helped her and then say something like, ‘any errors that remain in the text are my own’.  While an editor should certainly be on the alert for any mistakes, I feel that the ms. should be in good shape before it ever reaches that stage.
    Yes, I know that fiction is not bound by the same rules as non-fiction.  But I don’t understand why someone would set a story in the past if they are not fascinated by past cultures themselves.  And if they are fascinated, they will want to recreate that time and place vividly and accurately, to revel in the similarities to and the differences from contemporary life.

  9. 9
    Jennifer in GA says:

    You will never, ever convince me that Meg Cabot hasn’t been using a ghost writer for at *least* the past 5-6 years.

  10. 10
    DreadPirateRachel says:

    @Lynne Connolly

    Rachel, there is much, much worse in some published books.

    Oh, I know. In fact, I think it’s funny that I fixated on the potato thing so much, because it was a time travel romance. I have no trouble suspending my belief in something that defies the laws of physics, but mess with my potatoes and there’ll be hell to pay!

  11. 11
    Jill says:

    Ha! Rachel, I met your potatoes and raise you horses. See previous rant about Iris Johansen (on the books you hate but everyone else loved thread) and her godawful stupidity about horses in “On the Run.”

    I accept that not everyone lives and breathes and rides and owns and competes horses the way I always have. But still. You can’t tell me that **someone** at her publishing house didn’t know enough about horses to go, “Uh … they just ain’t built that way and don’t behave that way, no matter how much you’d like them to, Ms. Johansen. I’m just trying to stop you from looking dumb and being ridiculed by all the people out there who do know about horses. Even if it’s just the thimble-full more than you do.”


  12. 12
    Jill says:

    Double sigh … that’s “meet” your potatoes. Of course, if I met them, I’d probably eat them.

  13. 13
    Anony Miss says:

    You used my facetious scratch-n-sniff question (and Maili says there actually WERE such things!).

    I love this site.

  14. 14
    Hell Cat says:

    I must admit that I’m not overly pleased with the lack of quality control, and the explanations are exactly why. I know I champion Smashword-like books because, hello poor college student, but I do think that those that I’m paying 7-8 bucks for should at least have some semblance of coherency because there’s a heck of a lot more people that make sure the thing gets to print.

    I love history but by no means am I an expert. I appreciate writers like Jo Bev who give me the jump off point for the story, or some information, that I can use to really look into it and understand the setting better. It shows the research.

    This “you did well, so hey, you’re set” because they sold big at some point kind of makes me mad to be honest. It’s the same way I feel when Charter rips us off or a big chain of hotels decides to take my money and treat me like crap. Same idea by different execution. I’m more than the sum of my checkout payment.

    And I think an editor, if it’s not the main then a very lowly junior, should be at least be forced to notice a big glaring error. For instance, in a Georgian romance where the couple does a two-step. I know that’s an extreme example but it’s the same idea: if there’s something so basically modern in a book set well over a hundred years previous then it’s up to those proofing to notice these things beforehand. Of course the author should care, but as a reader, that sort of thing will pull me out of a story and inevitably end up in the DNF. If everyone’s hand is out getting paid, everyone out to be culpable for some of the problem.

  15. 15
    MissFifi says:

    Right there with you Hellcat. Sure I do research when I am writing about some things I do not know. My most recent research was on surfing and deaths caused during surfing, good times. And I also agree with AgTigress that authors are the ones responsible for making sure the ms is up to par before sending out. But then that sort of pisses me off.
    Too much crap by mainstream authors get by and what this inherently tells me is that my work has to be brilliant and without any mistakes if they are even willing to consider it. Who cares if Mr. or Mrs. Famous phones it in a lame plot or changes names halfway through a story? You are a nobody so you are on your own. That is how I took some of the answers from Editor X and this made me realize why self publishing and all the insane work that goes with it, will be where most up and comers turn. If I have to do everything anyway, I am amazed there are no fact checkers, but then again, why should I be surprised, what purpose do the editors and publishers serve then anymore? Sounds snarky as all hell, I know, but thanks to Editor X, we now know how the business works and the expectation levels of the unpublished and the published. It sucks, but it is what it is and at least I know where I stand.

  16. 16
    joykenn says:

    Re historical accuracy. There are excellent readable books out there that historical novelists should have on their shelves or get from their public library.  Example: Mortimer’s excellent book The Time Traveler’s Guide to Medieval England.  It covers dress for various classes, farming, etc., indeed, everything a time traveler might want to know to fit in to the period. 

    And, need a research assistant but not independently wealthy enough to hire your own?  Try the public library by phone or via email/chat (if yours is too small try a larger town nearby).  A simple “I’m writing a novel and need the symptoms of typhus or similar fever” or “when were potatoes in common use in England or what other vegetables would common folk have available in 14th century England”.  Reference librarians generally LIKE to help people and the unusual question now and then gives them a chance to stretch their skills.

  17. 17
    AgTigress says:

    @Joyken:  museums and museum curators are also excellent sources of information on the material culture of the past.  When I was a curator, there were many occasions on which I was asked about Roman life and culture by writers of fiction, and it was fun to be able to help them — including sometimes saying, ‘Nobody knows.  So you can invent it’.
    And if one didn’t know the answer oneself, one could usually point the enquirer in the right direction to chase down the answer.
    (I would never dare write a novel set in Roman Britain, myself.  I have only studied the subject intensively for 52 years, so I don’t think I know enough about it yet…)

  18. 18
    Rebecca says:

    Interesting.  As someone who’s done a fair amount of research for her novels (and has made her fair share of goofs), I’d like to throw in that I think a good author SHOULD know more about her specific period than an editor.  (I’m speaking about fiction here, where editors are expected to be generalists.  Non-fiction manuscripts may be a different kettle of fish.)  Sometimes an editor will actually think something is an anachronism that isn’t, and if the author can show a reference, her word stands.  (Occasionally this works against a copy editor too.  I had one copy-edit change “rancid” to “redolent.”  I had to bring in a dictionary definition to prove that they were antonyms not synonyms.)

    The comments from HellCat and MissFifi made me realize why I don’t go the self-publishing route; dealing with the design and layout of the text doesn’t interest me, but I don’t mind at all being forced to be brilliant and without mistakes.  I WANT to be brilliant and without mistakes.  And since I’m not doing this for the money (thank goodness), I don’t really care that other authors are “unfairly” turning out crap.  I’m competing “against the clock” as it were, and I don’t mind being forced to keep myself honest.

  19. 19
    MissFifi says:

    I have to say that I have really appreciated this discussion and everyone’s views and opinions are incredibly helpful.
    Rebecca – Great response. Let me ask you though, why can’t you attempt to be brilliant and without mistakes and do it for the money and keep yourself honest? I would love to get paid for my books and I would work just as hard, if not harder, considering I would have an audience to deliver the goods to. I pretend I have an audience now and I am not sure if that makes me crazy or smart, but whatever works right?  have no desire to be responsible for every angle of selling a book hence why I have not attempted self publishing at all. For those of us who want to make a living writing, it can get frustrating to be told that we must be as close to perfect as we can. I assume a lot of writers try, I know I do. You work on your characters, plot, conjure up descriptions that help transport the reader. Plus Merriam-Webster’s thesaurus and I are best pals :) So naturally I get annoyed when I read a so-called bestseller and the same adjective is used five times in three sentences. It is the little things, but it seems the little things is what can prevent my book from being published. I enjoy the art of writing and would never stop, but I would like standards to apply to everyone, not just the author starting out.

  20. 20
    Rebecca says:

    @Miss Fifi – Good points.  About not doing it for the money – I just meant that I’m not under the pressure to produce a book a year, since I know I have an assured source of income from my day job.  I also have the luxury of walking away from a contract if I REALLY dislike an editor’s request, since I’m not living on the advance.  I’m not saying this excuses sloppiness in full time writers, but I think in some cases it partially explains it.

  21. 21
    awasky says:

    Not all authors are trying for historical accuracy and not all readers care about it. I’ve copyedited some historical romances, and it’s clear that some authors research the hell out of things—I’d go to look up the spelling of a gun and find the author had gotten the year of manufacture and physical description spot on. In those books, I keep an eye out for inaccuracies, but I’m not a historian, so I won’t catch everything.

    But other authors don’t care about it. I have been told, when given a freelance copyediting job, not to check it for historical accuracy, since that takes time and therefore money, and the author won’t change things anyway. I’ve also seen copyedits come in where the copyeditor has flagged a bunch of things for historical or real world accuracy and the author has written back, “This is FICTION,” or “Come on.”

    Books are a collaboration between a lot of different people, but ultimately the name on the cover is the author’s. If that’s not something they want to fuss with, then we don’t fuss with it.

    That being said, I have a kneejerk need to flag anachronistic words in historicals. My dream is that someday there will be a spellchecker where you can give it a year and it will flag all the words that weren’t in the dictionary yet. That has to be possible, right? The dates are all in the dictionary already. Someone should be able to program it. Webster—get on that! It’ll make a mint, I’m telling you! (Well, maybe not, but it will make some authors and copyeditors very, very geekily happy.)

  22. 22
    MissFiFi says:

    awasky: Love the idea of a spellchecker where it can check when words were entered into a dictionary. Plus anything to help my boggle or scrabble games are key :)

  23. 23

    Miss Fifi, you can check Etymology Online, that’s the dictionary most editors use. You can get lost in it for hours!

    That “this is fiction” argument really annoys me. No, it doesn’t, it upsets me. It’s my history, have the courtesy to get it right.

  24. 24
    awasky says:

    @Lynne Connolly
    Hey, you and me both. Course, I’ve also seen copyeditors point out things like, this book has a higher percentage of blondes than is found in the general population of [setting], please change some to brunettes, to which the author just wrote, “Seriously?”

    It’s frustrating as a copyeditor because you are trying to mark all the things that you think are wrong with the book (which includes factual inaccuracies and plot holes—I have spent more time with medical books trying to show that characters would be dead by now, I’m telling you), but ultimately you can’t make the author change anything. You don’t even have a dialog with the author. You send in your copyedit and you’re done. You don’t get a chance to back up your view of why X needs to be changed when the author stets it.

    It must be frustrating as an author to have someone changing your prose and questioning things you need for your plot to work when you, again, can’t have a conversation with them about it, and have already spent so long on this book.

    And it’s frustrating for the editor in-house, because you’re arbitrating this proxy fight between what the author wants and what the copyeditor wants and, again, you don’t have any power to make the author make changes, even if you think it will make the book vastly better.

    When it comes down to a disagreement about something (like serial commas or fried potatoes), the author ultimately wins, cause it’s their book. And as much as the readers are our customers, the authors are too. You don’t stay in business unless you keep your authors happy.

    I know it feels entirely different from the outside of the industry, and I totally believe all the horror stories about editors just deleting things without asking. But in all the places I’ve worked, authors always had veto.

  25. 25
    AgTigress says:

    You don’t even have a dialog with the author. You send in your copyedit and you’re done.

    Wow.  The world of fiction is SO different!  With certain academic books, containing complex hierarchies of headings, catalogue entries, endnotes, appendices, concordances, indexes and so forth, the copy-editing can be quite an intricate task, so personal contact between the author and the copy-editor is essential.  Consequently, I have got to know my copy-editors over the years really well, and have always been immensely grateful for their professionalism and attention to detail.  On the other hand, for my ‘popular’ books, my general editor has usually done the basic copy-edit herself (assiduously changing all my ‘—ise’ endings into the ugly ‘—ize’ of my publisher’s house-style, and even sometimes inserting Oxford (serial) commas, though I take those out again). 

    The chronological spell-checker is a fun idea, but to be really useful it would have to track not only the introduction of words, but their changing definitions.  It wouldn’t be enough just to know that a word already existed in 1740; you need to be sure that it meant what it means now, rather than something quite different, or it is still a howler.

  26. 26
    Abby says:

    Totally unrelated to romance novels:

    Thank you for mentioning Thomas Harris.  I love his books, but I think popularity really destroyed his street credibility.  Black Sunday, Red Dragon, and Silence of the Lambs were wonderfully well-written books, but the slippage on Hannibal was clear (you could tell he hadn’t spent as much time on it.  Hannibal Rising was even worse, and it just made me wish that they had never offered him whatever they offered him to get him to speed through those last two.  I think about how wonderful his first three books were, and it’s so deeply disappointing that the last two weren’t as good… and it made me appreciate the time it takes other authors to put out books, even if they’re doing two a year.  As much as I love Lisa Kleypas, for example, I would rather see her take her time and keep putting out books I love than barrel through them.

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