Ask the Editor: Questions and Answers, Part IV

The editor I kidnapped is still in my basement, though I've moved a wine cellar and some fruitcake down there so  my sequestered editor has plenty to eat. And she's consented to answer more questions for you, in the fourth edition of “Ask the Editor.”

Taylor L. asked:

What tips a book from the maybe pile to the yes pile as far as acquisitions go? How much more scrutiny do you give a first time author than an author you’ve worked with for a while?


Ask the Editor:

Voice, honestly. And how much more scrutiny? I hope I’m being equally hard, but I know in some cases I haven’t been. (Because there’s the ‘trust me, you know I can deliver’ factor.)

Kim asked:

There’s a big name author that signed a 3 book contract in 2004. She published book 1 under the contract in 2005, but the second one has been repeatedly delayed. How much time does a publisher give an author to complete the terms of the contract before they ask for part of the advance back?


Ask the Editor:

Depends—depends on how much good will the author has built up. How much his/her editor likes her. If she’s delaying it to work on books she’s going to sell elsewhere, perhaps that sales bump will help the first publisher. And perhaps the first publisher will hear about what she’s doing through an indiscreet Tweet and cancel her contract. I just did that, so I’m not kidding.

But a Thomas Harris is rare (a person who takes a long time between books)—we like momentum. Harper did a huge purge in 1996 or 97, I think—contracts 10s of years in breach that they hadn’t ever tracked.

S.A. asked:

What do editors think when their authors get into a “flaming war” with readers or reviewers online? Do you step in because it reflects on the publisher or do nothing?

Ask the Editor:

In most cases, I’ve seen the editor intervene to ask the author to stop. I haven’t had an author do that, but I do know a good friend who has. We felt bad for the author and were incredibly angry at both parties for participating. Also, time spent on a flame war is time not spent writing. Or eating or tending to family, but that’s another story.

Marleen G. asked:

I received a good rejection from an editor at a mid-size publisher. I recently noticed another editor at the same publisher was looking for my genre. Is it alright to send the second editor a different manuscript? (Not the same book rewritten, but another book.)

Ask the Editor:

Yep, just let us know in the pitch letter you’d sent something to another editor at the same house.

A. asked:

How much do a writer's past sales really matter when considering acquiring a new book? I've heard that if your sell through is bad on previous books, you might as well change your name because no editor will touch your new stuff, no matter how much they like it, is that just a horrible exaggeration or the sad truth?

Ask the Editor:

It depends—boy, I seem to write that a lot. But it’s true. If your sales have been in decline, and the submission you’re sending to this new house is the same kind of book, you’re going to have a tough time selling it absent some clear reason—the marketing staff all were fired when the first books came out, the author changed editors 5 times, etc. Let me say, on a personal note—we’ve all heard these many times over, and have lived through book-failure-instances ourselves, so we both believe you and take it with a grain of salt.

But if you’re changing genres or types of story (from contemporary to historical, 3rd person to 1st person) then the case can be made that this is a STRONG fresh start. It’s also a sign that the author is paying attention to their career.

B. asked:

I'm a nonfiction writer/closet aspiring romance novelist, and I have a question that has bothered me for a long time. The romance genre gets a lot of flack for its purple prose and stock characters, which is not always undeserved (IMHO). Now, I love a good romance novel, and there are some brilliant people working in the genre. So I am ASTONISHED by how much weak writing still makes it to the romance shelves. And judging by the reviews on the Bitches website, I'm not the only one. (Lora Leigh, anyone?)

So my question. I have been working on my book for years, and I know there are some plot points that are plausible, but perhaps unlikely, and require a wee stretch on the part of the reader. There are also a few passages where the writing doesn't sparkle, and maybe I need to cut some dialogue to keep things moving forward. But it seems to me, based on some of the books that make it to publication, that a publisher must be buying a book for its concept and marketability, not necessarily the writing or the execution of that concept (Yes? No?)

So how polished does my book need to be before I shop it around? And if I decide to unleash it on poor unsuspecting editors before it is sparkly and shining, what sort of things should I look for to ensure I don't end up with a publisher who puts out work of the Lora Leigh variety?

In my industry, I'm used to working with editors who have my back – meaning, they'll tell me when my stuff is crap, and they'll also tell me when it's so good that I need to leave it alone. But perhaps this is expecting too much hand-holding in the book industry. Thoughts? Comments??

Ask the Editor:

[begin rant] I know it’s hard to get inflection across in writing, so I went back and re-read your question several times, because the first time I read it a red sea of rage floated across my eyes. What I’m hearing is—why should I bother to polish my work if publisher X doesn’t seem to polish theirs? Setting aside for the moment the fact that you do not work at publisher X and have no idea what shape the manuscript was in when it arrived, why should we not all seek the bottom? That’s certainly why I get up in the morning to come to work—to ruin books and careers.

I’m so angry at the thought that people are sending me stuff they don’t care about that my hands are shaking as I type. I didn’t apprentice my way up to this position so that I could work with people who are cynical about it—please care about this genre and this work as much as I do or find a different field.
[end rant]

In a good editor relationship, there’s honesty (and consideration) and a good give and take about revisions needed.  As far as submitting goes—you should be comfortable about your book. If you see places it needs tweaking, then tweak by all means. There’s no rush to submit the book—you have time to revise if you need to. And if you don’t like the work a house puts out, don’t send your submission there. It’s your career and your choice to make. 

As for what we look at in acquisition—voice, good storytelling, fresh concept and successful execution. Bad, sloppy writing can ruin all of that.

C. asked:

Why are most of the historical romance novels set in Regency England or Scotland? I'm bored and need some new settings.

Ask the Editor:

They sell well, but there’s quite a bit new coming out—Jeannie Lin’s are a new discovery for me and I’m loving them.

SAO asked:

What is the balance between finding gems and generating cash? Do you buy stuff you are personally less than thrilled with because you think it will sell? And when you have an author who wrote great stuff, became a bestseller and has lost all originality and spark, but still hits the bestseller list, are you thrilled because you’re making a ton on money or a bit disappointed because you know it’s dreck?
Are you paid a straight salary or get a commission?

Ask the Editor:

Let me say that no one buys a book they don’t think will sell. (Maybe poetry editors, but I don’t believe that’s the goal there, so don’t ask me!)
Buying a book you don’t care about is pretty much the recipe for having it fail. If the editor doesn’t like it, it’s never going to have an in-house champion, never get pitched strongly to the buyers, etc. There are not enough hours in the day to buy books we don’t care about when there are so many submissions we do love. We don’t love it, we don’t buy it.

In the case of bestselling authors, often they are bought by the publisher and assigned an editor—you’ve got to have the belief that you might make a difference in this person’s career. Some authors don’t care as much anymore and will politely decline editing, but then there are those who are ready to fight for it. So you’ve got to be optimistic.

We get paid a straight salary. Some higher level eds (think Exec Ed and above) have contracts, and those can include bestseller bonuses.

There's more from the captive editor, who believe me, is very comfortable. I think I hear her yelling for more wine and a pencil sharpener for her red pens. Have questions? Feel free to leave them in the comments or email me at with “Ask the Editor” in the subject line.  

Comments are Closed

  1. 1
    library addict says:

    Sarah, can you add the “editor x” tag to the original post with all the questions? I just paged through a bunch of posts to find it. Thanks.

  2. 2
    KBR says:

    “C” commented she is bored with Regency settings and “Editor” said more settings are coming…A big YAY!! And Yay for Jennie Lin if she is helping to make that happen (her latest is on my TBR pile for that very reason). I see so many blogs with readers and authors begging for more/different settings and I see that Connie Brockway (in her new Amazon home) said in an interview she was “starving to write something outside the British Isles” and used Egypt as her setting. Maybe there is a God after all.

  3. 3
    SB Sarah says:

    Absolutely. On it right now. Sorry about that.

  4. 4
    Diatryma says:

    Oh, thank you for your rage-filled answer to the polishing question, because I was filled not with fury but with disappointment.  Bad writing exists and is not an excuse for more bad writing, and you should not work in a genre you scorn.

  5. 5
    Ren says:

    Seriously. What happened to taking pride in your work? If being “just another shitty writer” is your career aspiration, perhaps it’s time to reevaluate your goals.

    Although Just Another Shitty Writer would make for a hilarious business card…

  6. 6
    Rosa E. says:

    Oooh! I didn’t even know this feature was here—I really need to check in more often—but now that I’ve discovered it, I would like to ask the captive editor a question, if I may.

    Dear Editor:

    I’m currently working on an urban fantasy romance, and have encountered a slight problem. In the past, I’ve been told my writing is more horror than urban fantasy, and though I’m trying to keep it to a minimum I’m still afraid of pushing the boundaries. Is there a limit of scary stuff acceptable in romance? How careful should I be of the visceral details?

  7. 7
    Susan says:

    I’m not an aspiring writer, and have nothing to do w/ the publishing industry. . . but I find these behind-the-scenes glimpses absolutely fascinating.  Thanks.

  8. 8
    Cynara says:

    I had a slightly different interpretation of that question – it was more of a “how much actual editing can I expect from my editor, and will some rough spots mean I’ll only get accepted by publishers with low expectations.”  I don’t think the author meant to suggest that he or she would be happy with an unedited book.

  9. 9

    Yeah, I got the impression the question wasn’t, “Can I send out shit I don’t care about?” but “Can I send out stuff I’m not sure about and rely on a partnership with an editor?”  Which seems fair because I _know_ published contracted authors who rely heavily on their revision letters.

    My question is (and maybe somebody in the peanut gallery can explain): what the heck is ‘voice’? It gets mentioned so much by editorial types. I have always rather had the impression that the very best writers will have a transparent personal voice but their individual characters will have strong voices. But apparently something else is meant?

  10. 10
    Rei says:

    Is it really wise to sharpen a pen with a pencil sharpener?

  11. 11
    Rachel says:

    If I turned in a project to my business partner and said, “I know this is all kinds of jacked up, but I also know you’ll clean up my mess so you don’t look bad, so it’s cool, right?”, it would most certainly not be cool.

    The writer knows the work is weak. She knows what the weaknesses are. She doesn’t think she should have to do the work involved in fixing them because a popular writer she resents enough to mention by name gets away with publishing slop while she can’t even get a foot in the door.

    When you’re making a publisher boatloads of money, you can get away with slop. When you’re nobody, slop gets you a form rejection right along with the hundred thousand other people who sent slop because “it’s the editor’s job to fix it.”

    Best work. All the time. Every time. Not only will it make the best possible first impression on the person you need to impress, but if you adhere to the principle in everything you do, you won’t find yourself ten years into your career being used as an example of a writer whose books are train wrecks but get published anyway.

  12. 12
    Paige Turner says:

    I also got the impression the “editing effort” question was aimed at deciding when to send a submission. An author may not always know exactly how to perfectly polish a book to be in publishable condition, that is part of the editors job. I feel that was a legitimate question about the give-and-take relationship of an editor and author, using an obvious and egregious example (Lora Leigh) to point out what is *not* okay. Maybe the editor should take a step back and look at what people are saying instead of just reacting.

  13. 13
    Katie says:

    I agree with your interpretation but think we should cut the editor some slack—she’s been in that basement an awfully long time!

  14. 14
    Can'tremembermyname says:

    I also read the question as “when should I send the manuscript in for tweaking.”  She was upfront about the flaws as she saw them, and was merely asking if an editor might see it the same way.  She wants to know about the process—is she going to have to make endless revisions anyway?  Should she not get too attached to some plot points because an editor might want the story to go a different way?  When, exactly, do you stop revising your manuscript and send it in to see if you’ve got something?  These are all questions I think most aspiring writers have.

    The editors little fit was supremely distasteful to me.  If she can’t see that these are valid and sensible questions and answer them in a mature and tasteful manner, she is perhaps in the wrong job.

  15. 15
    Anon76 says:

    I went back and reread the question that referenced a certain author’s works. In honesty, I disliked the question more on the second read. I can see why the editor became a little snaggly-toothed. It’s a long standing theme—I consider this stuff dreck, so why not my dreck?

    However, it is still a good question even if perhaps not worded in a digestable manner for some.

    Truth is each editor at each house has his/her own personal tastes. Think on them as readers on steroids because they must not only please their own palates, but those of their house and the general reading public. It’s still a business and the bottom line needs to be in the black.

    Longstanding editors also know when to pass up a manuscript or ask for a revise/resubmit even if the author has an incredible concept or a wonderful voice. A manuscript riddled with errors takes more labor hours than the editor has time to give. Signed authors have deadlines, but so do editors and they are juggling more than just that one book.

    So I guess my answer to the question would be: Polish the manuscript until you are happy and feel you’ve done your best work. Query it out to houses you feel publish what you like to read (even if you don’t like the works of a specific author in the stable.) Take all rejections with a grain of salt as well as any revise/resubmit requests. Do not EVER immediately revise your manuscript based on one editor’s input unless you are signed to that house. If you see a common theme in the rejections, then deal with the input.

    Also, a good place to test the waters are writing contests. Now I don’t mean become a contest ho, but entering one or two will give you an idea how tastes vary. What one person loves…another hates. Such is the bane of writing. LOL

  16. 16

    There’s a huge difference between ‘slop’ and ‘something I’m not sure about’, just like there’s a huge difference between ‘cleaning up my mess’ and ‘helping me figure out how it can be improved’. And the rationale behind relying on a revision letter doesn’t seem to be ‘I can write slop and get published!’ but ‘publishers often want changes based on what they think will sell’ and ‘I trust this external pair of eyes’.

    Here’s the thing: apparently some writers are capable of thinking everything they publish is 5-stars-perfect, every time? They’re at the top of their form, unable to improve? And others, if left to their own devices, spend their lives agonizing over how to make a single book perfect? And yet others fall somewhere in between in their ability to judge their own work. It isn’t uncommon for some artists who create award-winning work to never quite be satisfied.

    That is: it’s possible to do your best and still be uncertain the final result is worth anything beyond a bonfire.

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