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Richard Curtis on
Publishing in the 21st Century
Mastering the Business of Publishing
by Richard Curtis
Originally published by E-Reads
Are Editors Necessary?
THERE'S BEEN A lot of talk lately about the decline of editing. These are fighting words.
"Where are today's Maxwell Perkinses?" is the plaintive cry of authors who discover horrifying grammatical, syntactical, factual, and typographical errors in their freshly minted books, or, worse, have them gleefully pointed out by friends and critics. Every such erratum is a rebuke to the hallowed memory of that figure who has been depicted as gracious, patient, erudite, nurturing, precise, demanding, polite, and modest, a man whose love of authors was exceeded only by his love of good and well-made books. Let's assume that he truly did possess all of the virtues ascribed to him, and more if you wish. I have no desire to desecrate either his memory or his achievements.
I just don't happen to think that "Where are today's Maxwell Perkinses?" is a very good question. It oversimplifies editing both then and now, and fails to take into account the fact that today's editors simply don't perform the same tasks that their forebears did. I know a number of great editors working today, but they're great in many significantly different ways from the great editors of yesteryear. Just about every aspect of publishing has changed since Perkins's era. The types of books published are different. Agents exert far more influence. The paperback industry has revolutionized the marketing of books. Computers and word processors have been created and refined. Bookstore chains have swept most independent bookshops out of business. Printing technology has improved immensely. Books today are not acquired, edited, produced, printed, or distributed the same way they were earlier in the twentieth century. They are not even written the same way.
We must also define "editors" before we apply the word irresponsibly. Editing is a highly complex set of functions, and no single individual is capable of exercising them with equal aplomb. The editor who wines and dines agents and charms authors may be a clumsy negotiator; the dynamic deal-maker may have no patience for the tedious and demanding word-by-word task of copyediting; the copyeditor who brilliantly brings a book to life word by word, line by line, may be completely at sixes and sevens when it comes to handling authors.
It is certainly easy to wax nostalgic about editing in the Good Old Days (which really ended only about twenty-five or thirty years ago). If accounts and memoirs of that era can be trusted, editors then were steeped in fine arts, philosophy, languages, and the classics. They were a breed of compulsively orderly and fanatically precise individuals who ruthlessly stalked and destroyed typos, solecisms, and factual inaccuracies, and who conducted prodigious debates with authors about linguistic nuances. Their pride in their labors matched—and sometimes exceeded—that of the authors themselves. And when it came to money, they placed literature high above crass commerce, and discussed author compensation with the same delicacy they reserved for childbearing.
Today's editor, industry critics claim, no longer has that pride and painstaking compulsiveness. Indeed, it has been contended, editors today do everything but edit. The nurturing of authors has given way to the acquisition of properties. Editorial taste and judgment have been replaced by the application of success formulas devised by editorial committees. Risk-taking, hunches, and commercial instincts have yielded to the conservative application of bottom-line buying policies dictated by bookstore chain managers and implemented by rigid computer programs. The new breed of editorial animal, it is asserted, looks down his or her nose at line editing and production details. The time and money pressures of today's monolithic and highly competitive publishing business have devalued good book-making. The result is books that fall apart, prematurely yellow with age, and are scandalously rife with typos.
Unquestionably, a shift has taken place in the role of trade book editors from what is generally characterized as line functions to that of acquisitions. The earlier role, the one that we most sentimentalize, combined nurturing parent and stern taskmaster, a person who could get a great book out of an author, then groom and curry the text until it virtually sparkled. Although editors then, as now, worked for publishers whose profit agenda seldom coincided with that of their authors, the editor was thought of as the author's friend, protector, and advocate.
The emphasis today on the acquisition role of editors places them in a more adversarial role with authors. Negotiation often pits them against each other, and the residue of resentment and distrust that remains after the bargain is sealed makes it difficult for authors to feel completely comfortable with their editors.
The paternalistic treatment of authors by editors in earlier times, however, produced its own set of inequities, for publishers took advantage of many authors who were too ignorant, shy, or well-bred to demand good terms of their editors. Knowing that most authors write for love, publishers tended to assume that they didn't need to write for money.
Resentment toward publishers over their exploitation of authors created the conditions for the rise to power of literary agents, and though new authors today are still at a disadvantage, the balance eventually shifts when they engage agents and become more successful. Good agents often insist on a large measure of control over the author-editor relationship, holding authors at arm's length from their editors to protect them from being taken advantage of. And what has happened in the four or five decades since this transformation occurred is that the agents have begun to take over the role formerly played by editors. Today's agents nurture authors, work closely with them in the development of their work, perform a great many editorial tasks, and lend strong emotional and psychological support. And, perhaps most important of all, in a turbulent world of publishing mergers and takeovers and editorial musical chairs, agents have become the islands of stability and reliability that were once the province of editors. So, if the importance of editors in this respect has diminished, the loss has not necessarily affected authors for the worse.
Or, take the tasks of copyediting manuscripts and proofreading galleys. Although these still fall upon the employees of publishing companies, the high costs of running businesses have caused a shift from in-house line editing to freelance work done at home. Many copyeditors are former employees of publishers who have managed to adapt their responsibilities to their domestic schedules. But the pressures of producing large numbers of books annually have forced publishers to overload editors with work or to seek less experienced people to do these highly demanding jobs. Some publishers just can't afford the time or expense to train copyeditors, supervise them closely, review their work, and instill in them a grasp of house style, a knowledge of company tradition, and a sense of pride. English is not even the first language for many copyeditors. And those who are fluent in English may not have the patience, precision, and skill to be good editors.
Whether we like it or not, the responsibility for well-edited books is shifting to authors. Actually, they have always borne much of that burden. In hardcover publishing particularly, most authors are given the opportunity (if not the contractual right) to review copyedited manuscripts and to proofread galleys, and if an author doesn't care enough to double-check every fact, every dubious grammatical construction and spelling, indeed every word of his manuscript and galleys, he has no one to blame but himself for a flawed product.
It is harder for authors to control errors in paperback originals and reprints, however, because tight publication schedules often make it prohibitive for publishers to furnish galleys for review by authors. Also, authors rarely get to see galleys of paperback reprints of their hardcover books. But authors and their agents can and often do demand the right to examine galleys in exchange for a promise to turn them around promptly. Thus, even paperback authors have a chance to bring out unblemished books.
The development of computerized editing and word processing hardware and software promises to eliminate many problems for authors and editors. Although numerous technical, financial, labor, and other obstacles have impeded the automation of some important editorial functions, I'm reasonably certain that these will be overcome in the foreseeable future, making clean copy in both manuscript and galley an everyday occurrence. The same is true for style, design, composition, and other aspects of the publishing process that are now in the hands of a diminishing number of expert craftspeople. In short, emerging technology will replace a good deal of the mental and manual labor involved in producing books.
What do all these changes leave for editors to do? The answer is, just about everything. Unlike those of the older generation, today's editors must master an entire gamut of disciplines including production, marketing, negotiation, promotion, advertising, publicity, accounting, salesmanship, psychology, politics, diplomacy, and—well, editing. But into that last designation goes a bewildering variety of activities, many only remotely connected with the stereotyped one of sitting in a monastic office hunting for typos.
The dizzying pace and complexity of modern publishing makes it neither possible nor desirable for editors to sit all day reading or conversing with authors. They must be worldly and sophisticated, capable of shepherding the projects they sponsor through a gauntlet of technical, financial, political, and other hazards. Though editors are often criticized for being corporate animals, in this respect at least we should thank our stars that they are. For they and they alone understand how to work their systems, to maneuver, coax, and sometimes ram their beloved books—our beloved books!—through the corporate obstacle course. Today's editors are professional company men and women, and if they don't have a problem with that characterization, I don't see why we should.
There are many editorial qualities that are irreplaceable. Among them are taste, discrimination, personal emotional response, a sense of order and organization, determination, devotion, pride, and tender loving care. In these respects, no one has discovered anyone or anything that can remotely take the place of an editor. Agents can't do it because they're outsiders. Computers can't do it because they're heartless.
But none of those virtues means anything if editors are lacking in courage. The biggest threat to the health of our industry is not mergers and acquisitions. It is failure of nerve on the part of its editors. The evolution of publishing from a profession run by individuals to a business managed by committees has created a population of editors preoccupied with holding their jobs. The pressures they live under are constantly forcing them to lower the common denominator when selecting the projects they wish to sponsor. This means that it is easier to say no than yes.
The way that this attitude manifests itself for me is editors' resistance to acquiring books that are even slightly flawed. It was not long ago that the prevailing attitude among editors was, "This book has some problems, but the author is so talented that I'd like to buy it and work with him." Today such words are rarely heard. A book with problems is a book rejected, and more and more one hears editors say, "Let the author revise it, then we'll decide if we want to buy it." Many of them have confided in me that they would love to buy the book, but the prospect of bucking the system is simply too daunting.
When I asked an agent colleague of mine whether she thought editors were necessary, she quipped, "Of course they are. Who else can take agents to lunch?" If editors are to remain more than entertaining luncheon hosts, if they are to be not merely necessary but indispensable, they will have to continue resisting the pressures toward homogeneity and mediocrity that are arrayed against them by the monolith of Big Publishing.
Maxwell Perkins would understand that.
TWICE EVERY YEAR, around mid-May and mid-December, a curious lull befalls the frenzied lives of literary agents, like those abrupt silences that occasionally muffle a party when everybody, inexplicably, stops talking at exactly the same time. I've experienced enough of these semiannual brownouts that I ought to expect them by now. Yet they always take me by surprise, and I can predictably be heard at these times barking to my staff, "Isthere something wrong with our phones? Is this a mail holiday or what?" At length it occurs to me: it's sales conference season. I then take advantage of this hiatus to catch up on paperwork.
Sales conference is the time when a publisher's list of forthcoming books is introduced to the company's commissioned sales representatives, who then go forth to the stores in their territories and line up orders. Since this is the point where the editorial process interfaces with marketing and distribution processes, it may literally be said that the fate of your book, and possibly your career, is cast at sales conference.
For the people who work at publishing houses, these convocations are red-letter days, major events in their corporate lives. For the past six months they have been sweating, suffering, beating their breasts, and rending their garments over the books they have acquired. Now they are going to pitch them to the folks who actually get them into the stores. This is a time of intense anxiety, for the presentation of the list is by no means a matter of handing the sales reps a set of proofs and saying, "Read it, it's terrific." Indeed, it's uncommon for the reps to read any but the most important books on their publishers' lists. Nor is it necessary.
If they don't need the book itself, however, they do need information about it, and in the weeks leading up to the conference editors scurry frantically about the halls of their companies, rounding up cover proofs, advertising copy, promotional notes, author-tour itineraries, and anything else that will make their books look and sound irresistibly tempting to sales people, store buyers and distributors, and ultimately to consumers.
The conferences are held in different locations around the country. Many companies hold their winter conferences in Florida, Puerto Rico, and other tropical climes, giving participants a chance to relax in the sun after work sessions and making the event in part a paid vacation. Other publishers hold conferences closer to home, in resort hotels within easy driving radius of New York City. Some publishers conduct them in the city itself. The more distant the conference, the fewer employees may be permitted to attend due to the costs of airfare and accommodations, and therefore the privilege of attendance is one of the ways an editor's status at a publishing company is determined. Conferences held in New York City enable all staff members to participate. From the viewpoint of sales reps these may be great fun, entitling them to a week in the Big Apple with a publisher picking up the tab. But for the publishers themselves, New York City-held conferences are harder work, as there is little letup from the grueling labors of conferring and ingratiating themselves with the sales representatives.
Each publisher has its own style, format, and strategy for sales conferences, but typically the days are divided into morning and afternoon sessions. At these, the editors sponsoring the books, or perhaps the heads of editorial divisions, present each title with a brief description of the contents and salient sales features. What successes have the author's previous books enjoyed? Is the book tied into some trend or fad, some event such as an election, opening of the baseball season, a disaster, a war, a trial, a scandal? Is there a movie or television adaptation in the works? Are author appearances planned? Is the author engaging, promotable, famous?
The editor's spiel is fortified by a variety of supplementary material: cover proofs, bound proofs of the book itself or excerpts or condensed portions, inside illustrations, an agenda of the author's tour, posters or mock-ups of advertising copy, plugs by famous authors or other celebrities, trailers from movie or television tie-ins, slide shows, audiocassettes, and all manner of gimmicks such as buttons, pens, and bookmarks. Sometimes the publisher will stage a real dog-and-pony show, with professional entertainment, elaborate skits written and performed by the publishing staff, and even cameo appearances by star authors.
If the publisher's list is a big and multifarious one, the work sessions may be broken down into specialized seminars in which the sales reps, distributors, or chain store buyers may educate themselves as to the nature of such categories as science fiction, westerns, or romances, or focus on strategies for one or two blockbuster lead titles.
All of this activity is designed to impress and enlighten the sales reps, help them to understand the publisher's aims and problems, give them an opportunity to offer feedback garnered from experiences in their territories, and inspire them to get behind the publisher's list with every fiber of their being.
What makes these sessions so critical to the success or failure of your book is that they bear directly on the number of copies that will be printed and distributed, and on the energy that will be expended on the marketing. Thus, sales conference is the week of reckoning for the list, during which time it is inscribed which books shall fly and which shall bomb, which shall be raised up to the best-seller list and which cast down to the remainder bins, which shall be stacked near the cash registers in pyramids of pharaonic magnitude, and which secreted spine-out in quantities of two or three in the wrong department of a bookstore.
Broadly speaking, there are two ways in which printings are determined by the activities at a sales conference. At the one extreme are those books for which printings and sales goals are somewhat nebulous in the publisher's mind. These books are presented as vigorously as possible in the hopes the sales reps will get turned on and bring in a surprisingly large number of orders. At the other end of the spectrum are those titles for which the publisher has set specific sales goals and the sales are expected to fill their quotas.
Most of the books on any given list fall somewhere between these two approaches, and not all the books get fair shrift. This is particularly true of first novels, midlist books, experimental works, and books that are part of a series. There is only so much you can say about a first novel, or about the latest Regency romance, or a book about costumes of Colonial Virginia, and there's no sense in trying to tell these highly sophisticated sales people that such books are going to leap off the shelves by the score. On the other hand, as there is a steady market for such books, it can be expected that a minimum number of copies will sell without undue effort on the publisher's part. Still, it's easy to see how the best-seller mentality can affect your book in a sales conference situation as it does in the editorial boardroom, the review media, and in the bookstores.
Armed with all this information, with press kits, cover proofs, promotional gimmicks, and inspiration, the sales reps go forth to the stores and sell, sell, sell. Although the publisher may have outlined a sales strategy for the list, the handling of sales is largely left to the discretion of the reps. Conditions in each territory vary widely: Consumers may buy westerns by the truckload in the southwestern region, but the same books will lie in great untouched stacks like dead fish in the bookstores of the Northeast. They may adore Ludlum in Cleveland and ignore him in Topeka. A book on the hottest new rock group may march out of California stores in regiment strength, but in Bible Belt bookstores, will molder in unopened cartons.
The sales reps servicing these territories understand the tastes of the readers there, and know how to "play" the books in their sales kits like so many cards in a rummy game. Like authors, agents, and publishers, the salesman or woman makes the most profit on best-sellers, and so these titles may be expected to muscle out the rest of the list. The salesperson may make all sorts of bargains to induce store buyers to take that quota of the big book: special discounts, relaxation of strict return policies, a little coaxing here, a little coercing there, and some trading off of little books for big ones elsewhere. Among the little ones may be your book. Or maybe it's the other way around, and you're the lucky author whose big book will push the little ones off the boards. This is, you must realize, a jungle, however civilized the product being sold. Someone once said that the wise man never looks too closely at what goes into his laws or his sausages; perhaps best-selling books should be added to that list.
Although business is not conducted around the clock at sales conference, it is never far away at breakfast, lunch, or dinner, at cocktail time, out on the beach or the golf links, or in the evening at the theater or floor show. Sales conference is a time for everybody to get to know everybody else a little better, creating a sense of teamwork and harmony. Many editors tell me they come away from these occasions with an enhanced sense of "family" about the people they work and deal with. You may know next to nothing about someone in an office down the hall from you, but in the relaxed informality of a resort setting, that person may tell you something about himself or reveal aspects of his character that have been held in tight check by the requirements of office decorum and the hurly-burly of the business day.
Sales conference is the place where an editor can bestow a personal touch on a sales campaign, and that can make the difference to a book's success. "I know books like this don't ordinarily work in your region," an editor might say to a sales rep he or she has buttonholed at the bar, "but this particular novel has some aspects that will appeal to the stores you service." It works the other way around, too. Sales reps, knowing their particular market a lot better than the publishers do, will pull an editor or sales manager aside and say, "Mycustomers can't keep science fiction in their stores; are you going to increase the number you publish?" Or, "Everybody in my territory wants to know when the next book in the Hieronymus Bosch detective series is coming out." Or, "Dell and Berkley are doing really well with a certain kind of romance, so how about our starting a similar line?" In short, sales conference is the time and place for important dialogues among staff members of publishing houses, among sales people, and between publishers and sales reps, distributors, or bookstore and chain store personnel.
Is there any place for authors at sales conference? Except for the very biggest names, authors are seldom invited to the ones held outside New York City, and because of the expense of bringing authors to New York, any that are invited to the conferences held in the city are usually people who live in or near the city to begin with. Invitations are not automatic, however, as few authors are dynamic, attractive, and promotable enough to make a strong positive impression on the sales reps. There is still much you can do, though, to cooperate with your editor in furnishing him or her with information and sales features about your book, anything and everything that will enable your editor to highlight your book when the presentation is made.
Maybe, then, you too should become aware of the onset of sales conference season, and instead of writing it off as a period of downtime in your calendar, get yourself involved in the preparations. It need not cost you a lot of money. One of my clients, the author of a tragic romance novel, bought a small carton of tissue packets for her editor and urged her to hand them to the sales reps with the other material in the promo kit for her book. "Tell them to have a good cry," the author said. It proved quite effective.
Perhaps you can think of something equally creative. After all, why on earth would you want to go to a tropical resort, all expenses paid by your publisher, anyway?
All the best,