Wednesday, November 24, 2010


My Gf and I aren't big celebrators of the holiday. Neither of us has relatives close by, and it's not quite the same experience to tag along to friends' family events. Thanksgiving, for me, has been about being with your relatives, so since we're not doing that we like to do something different. This year we're going to have oysters, stone crab and a wicked cheese course. If it's nice out we'll go watch thousands of people try to find their proper bus after marching in the parade.

I think it's a nice day to be thankful for all that we have, but I think it's a mistake if you only do that once a year. Maybe it's my news sources, or my region of the world, but people seem so grouchy and petulant this year. I understand there's a recession and that things are hard for many people. But the poor in America would be relatively rich in most parts of the world.

We have been so blessed to be born at this time, in this place, through no efforts on our own. Just by the happenstance of birth we have it better than people a hundred years ago could have dreamed of. If nothing else we have antibiotics, for goodness' sake!

There is a lot one can't control, but one has a great deal of power over their world view. If you want to do it you can see the good that surrounds you. The inverse is also true. Give that a thought this Thanksgiving and see if you can summon up a dozen things you're thankful for. If you can't, maybe it's time to give your life a good, long assessment. The world is as beautiful as you'll let yourself see.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Election Fatigue

It seems a long time ago, but two years ago I was as happy as a voter could be. I'm still happy with the president, and I'm proud to have him represent our country on the international stage. I'm not happy about having lost Democratic control over the Congress, but part of the reason for the loss was self-inflicted.

I'm old enough to have seen voters move a little to the right, then a little to the left. So it has been, so shall it ever be. We're mostly in the middle, with very vocal minorities on either end. If the economy is bad, the ruling part gets kicked out. If we're at war, the ruling party generally stays in. Unless the economy is REALLY bad, then no one cares about war. I still don't understand how Al Gore lost, given we were at peace and the economy was cruising along. But don't get me started on that! It's water under the bridge that I'd like to push certain members of the Supreme Court off.

Having a divided Congress isn't usually a bad thing. The Republicans can't just say "no," since they're now in charge of getting the legislative ball rolling. I assume they'll spend time proposing bills Democrats will never, ever vote for and launching investigations into the president's malfeasances, but a girl can hope.

The good news is that we'll have almost a year with no political ads suffocating us. That alone is cause for celebration! So, congratulations if your man or woman won, and my condolences if he or she didn't.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

A longish post by a well-respected editor

The people who tend to the words are the most endangered contributors to the publishing process, Stephen Guise writes

At the end of March 2008 I left Little, Brown, where I had worked as an editor and then a commissioning editor for some six and a half years. There were a number of reasons for my leaving, but quite significant was Hachette’s decidedly cautious approach to serious non-fiction, in which I had come to specialise. That caution was, it is now clear, quite justified. This article, however, is not a contribution to the endlessly rehearsed literary-commercial debate (on which my views are relatively straightforward: yes, it’s always been like this; and, no, it’s never been as bad as this), but about some of the implications for the career prospects of editors.

Which is one thing to be said for freelance work - especially when you haven’t got any: it leaves time for reflection. And so, speaking to a prominent publisher-editor at a launch party towards the end of last year, I commented on the number of commissioning positions that were going to people with marketing or publicity backgrounds.

One recentish example is that of Colin Midson, a publicity director at Bloomsbury who is now a commissioning editor at Simon & Schuster. Another example: Matt Phillips, who is now editorial director at Yellow Jersey and was, says the Bookseller, a creative manager at CCV. (The names thing is invidious, and I hope it goes without saying that this isn’t ad hominem, and that it will become clear that this isn’t about the non-editors who are promoted into commissioning roles, but about the editors who aren’t.)
From the press release: "During his years spent working in marketing Matt has learnt the important skills of how to sell books." Not: how to edit books. But: how to sell books. So what do non-editors say when author and agent ask them about books they've previously edited and presumably improved in doing so? There must be a pregnant pause (note to author: avoid cliché), I suppose. Another glib-seeming question: if the commissioning editor is busy dreaming up angles, what are the marketing and publicity departments employed to do? The obvious implication - in fact, it’s rather more blatant than an implication - is that editorial nous is secondary to sales nous.

A side issue here, but not to be ignored, is the belief that anyone can edit. Well, yes, up to a point. In fact, precisely the point up to which "Anyone can write a book" is true. That is to say, not very true at all, as any editor who has ever had to wade through slush piles of unreadable prose and heart-rendingly bad poetry will be able to tell you. Editing and writing are linked in more significant ways too. Most obviously, good writing and good editing are rooted in the same two things: reading and doing. Leaving aside the question of how comparatively well read editors and non-editors are likely to be, we are on less contentious ground when we assert that it is only editors who, day in, day out, year after year, bring their full attention to bear on questions of style and structure, of what it is – however imprecisely it can be articulated – that makes a sentence, a paragraph, a chapter, a book work. Regardless of the greyness of these arguments, and while you would rather be in the hands of an eager but inexperienced editor than heart surgeon, let’s cling to the belief that a publishing house has a responsibility, which manifests itself in the person of a commissioning editor (no one else further down the line will have nearly as much influence on the text), to ensure that its authors’ books are as good as they possibly can be. Because, if not lives, authors’ careers are at stake here (while for the commissioning editor another exciting proposal will be along shortly). 

However - and here side issue becomes main issue - this tendency for non-editors to move across into commissioning roles (just you, editor, try going the other way) cannot be attacked on commercial grounds. Not anecdotally, because it has been done successfully in the past, and not least because a former colleague of mine, who came from TV, scored a great success with almost the first book he commissioned. Not in principle either, because the buying ("shopping") and editing ("cooking") of books are two different things entirely.
And so we turn to Ebury’s advertisement of what is now last year for a commissioning editor. It began, "Amy, Lily or Cheryl – who would you choose?" To quote selectively (but not unrepresentatively): "Whilst experience within a book publishing environment would be an advantage, it is not essential as full support will be given." And "[Answer] the following questions in less than 100 words each: 1) Why are you the right person for this job? 2) Who you believe is the most influential pop culture figure of 2009? and 3) What do you think is the next big thing?" To the uninitiated, this may well seem to be an advertisement for an internship at Teen magazine. (For another time: are there really so few people already in publishing, who know how the business works, who can answer these questions?)

But at least the advertisement offers some insight into the point of editors. To begin with, the question should be, "whom [not "who"] would you choose?" As for "whilst" - why not just "while"? It’s like saying "dost thou" when you could say "do you". And of course it should be "fewer than 100 words". Question 2) is in fact, and quite obviously, not a question at all, but do away with the redundant "you believe" and it becomes one. And that should probably be "pop-culture figure", shouldn’t it, though the intention is clear enough that the omission of the hyphen is venial. And don’t kid yourself that the majority of authors don’t need saving from themselves just as much as the writer of this advertisement did; need saving, that is, from being wrong. As for the mistakes in this piece ...

No doubt this all seems somewhat, well, trivial - who (or is it "whom"?) cares? Of course it is trivial, in commercial terms at least: it doesn’t matter to the people who matter. Proposals are rarely argued through acquisitions meetings on the grounds of quality alone (far less punctilious grammar): track records are adduced, and angles, and the likelihood of TV and radio interest, of contacts, of precedents, and so on. If a book "needs work" (real work, not justi-dotting), all well and good, let the editor go off and do it; it is unlikely to be much remembered, a sentence in the acknowledgements perhaps if the author sees fit. And even if how well a book is edited affects how well that book goes on to sell - and let’s assume that it does - it isn't likely to be decisive (how could we possibly know? A problem, for editors, in itself), and, more significantly here, it will never make a book more saleable: it will not be mentioned on the AI or in the jacket copy, and "The New Martina Cole: Brilliantly Edited" is not coming soon to a Tube platform near you. Hidden work, lonely, dull at times, fraught with uncertainty, and undervalued - oh, poor editor, boo hoo. But even if this trend can’t be attacked on the grounds that it makes no commercial sense (though I’d like to see someone lay out the reasons exactly why a non-editor is more likely to buy books that will sell), here’s what it says to anyone embarking on an editorial career…
Appointment as a commissioning editor will typically represent the third or fourth promotion in an editor’s career: editorial assistant; assistant editor; editor; commissioning editor - something like that, give or take the nomenclature. The promotion to commissioning editor is by far the most significant, because now you’re buying books, or trying to. It might take an editor three years to make the leap, it might take 10 years, it might take for ever - most editors won’t commission, though it’s what brought them into publishing in the first place. Today, it’s more likely to take an editor for ever, because today editors compete against not only their editorial colleagues, but also their colleagues in other departments, and, increasingly, against people who wouldn’t know their arse from a verso. It would take a certain masochism for an editor to want to slog away for a decade on poor pay (some perspective please: people get paid far less to get killed in Afghanistan, and with far fewer opportunities for lunch at Joe Allen) to find that, in their early 30s, say, they’ve been leap-frogged by an 18-year-old with a subscription to Heat. (If you think this is only a joke, however unfunny, please see if you can find the Ebury advertisement - and, no, Ebury aren’t the first and they won’t be the last - and tell me why the job couldn’t go to an 18-year-old with a subscription to Heat.)

Let’s say this applies only to commercial publishing. And let’s not get sniffy either, because it’s commercial publishing that paid for much of my Xmas bonuses while I was at Little, Brown. Surely literary publishing is different? Yes and no. The commissioning on serious imprints will almost certainly continue to be undertaken by people who have done the reading and the editing. But how many of these people do we think there are going to be in five years' time? Is there a corporate publisher that has done anything other than lay off serious (and, for the most part, senior, presumably high-salaried) commissioning editors over the last 12 remarkable months? And you can get short odds about there not being many corporate publishers who take on serious commissioning editors after the recession either.

But if neither commercial nor literary publishing looks very promising for editors who want to advance, there is, for the sake of balance, another way forward: the managing editor route. It’s not for everyone though, and second best by some way if what you hoped to do was commission; more practically, there aren’t that many managing editors, and it’s a career path with a shallow upward curve. Failing that, well, it’s not as though editors are owed a career any more than midlist authors are - go freelance, young man. This, it seems to me, is what will happen in the future, one way or another. How many, for example, of those editors recently made redundant from Penguin’s Ed2 department are now freelancers? Again, Penguin’s decision cannot be attacked on commercial grounds. Many of the editors made redundant at Penguin and elsewhere - if they have not been fortunate enough to be welcomed by other publishers - will go back to their previous employers for freelance work. These editors’ skills and experience are at publishers’ disposal sans pension contributions, sans holiday pay, sans overheads, sans just about everything. In the short term at least.

What about the long term? If this piece is not too disconnected from reality, in the future there’ll be fewer editors in-house, and less editorial experience further up the greasy pole. Not only must this have an effect on the quality of books published today (disagree as you see fit, but don’t argue that fewer and less-experienced editors is likely to mean better books), it also suggests the question: to whom will the editors of the future turn for advice? I know how fortunate I was to be prodded in the right direction by Liz Faber, Anthea Snow and Alison Starling when I started at Mitchell Beazley some 12 years ago. You can go on as many editorial courses at the Publishing Training Centre as your HR department is willing to pay for, it isn’t the same as working alongside fellow editors who know what they are doing, and know because they care about knowing. There is some irony in the fact that Trevor Dolby wrote, laudably, to advocate the development of editorial talent in the same week that the Ebury advertisement appeared (although he might have been talking about shoppers rather than cooks).

My "solution" earns its quote marks by being so fantastical that I won’t waste much time on it. But here goes: the next time you parachute a non-editor into a commissioning role, take your best real editor and promote them to - let’s call it - Structural Editor and pay them most of what you are going to pay the commissioning editor in lieu of the kudos (and the rest of the salary); let them work hand in hand with the commissioning editor and take care of the editorial work that the commissioning editor isn’t really qualified to do. That is, open up a new way forward for editors who aren’t going to be able to commission and don’t want to manage. If you’re going to reward someone fornot bringing editorial skills to the commissioning role, at least try to find some way of recognising those who do have these skills. God knows, many commissioning editors, whatever their provenance, will be grateful for a more legitimate way of sharing the heavy editorial work that they barely have the time to do between meetings.

No? I didn’t think so.

Anyway, to end, another quiz. 1) Can you imagine a large corporate publisher without a sales department? 2) Without a marketing department? 3) Without a publicity department? 4) Without an editorial department (other than a few editors to check catalogue copy and that sort of thing and send typescripts out to freelancers)? No. No. No. Yes. It seems, inescapably, a paradox that while - with apologies to illustrated publishing - books are words, the people who tend to those words are in danger of becoming the most disposable part of the process. It will get worse for editors before it gets better. And don’t hold your breath.

What editors and spouses do

I snipped this from Bookhugger in the U.K.

"Sometimes, when people talk to me, and they find out I’ve written a couple of books, they ask me what editors do.

Also, I just read Stephen Guise’s interesting article about the problems facing editors. The gist of the piece is that skilled editors are being overlooked for commissioning editor positions (commissioning editors choose which books to publish as well as editing them) in favour of applicants with sales and marketing skills who might bring in a big celebrity book, but don’t have experience of actual editing. My editor at Simon and Schuster, Francesca Main, is very much a commissioning ed. who works with words, and I just wanted to talk about the editing process, in order to shed some light on the value of this work.
I submitted the ‘first’ draft (actually the ninth) of my second novel, The Hunger Trace, to Francesca in December 2009. We’re in the final stages of editing now. I hope. So, for a start, that’s nine months of graft. Back in December, I’d got as far as I could. I couldn’t really see the novel any more, and it was giving me gastric flu. It was the best I could make it at that moment. I needed new input.
In March, Francesca sent me a thoroughly marked-up manuscript (I’d say 4 or 5 comments per page) dealing with sentence level things, and an in-depth report on the major issues with the novel. This report broke down into sections including: Plot, Structure, Character, etc. So, fairly big stuff. We’re not talking about shifting commas.
Some writers might balk at this. Some don’t want that kind of comment, and I understand. I met a writer once who said they made sure their work was perfect before it went to an editor, and so there were few changes. This was an experienced writer, and a far superior craftsperson to me. I’m very much into collaborating with a small group of readers I trust (starting with the missus). I want people to like the book (at the root of it, I want people to like me) and so I value reader input. I’m okay at creating characters, writing decent sentences about the sky, and doing dialogue, but I’m still learning about what works in terms of plot and structure – getting folk to turn the page. I’m interested in it, I study it, and I hope to get better."

His article resonated with me, perhaps because I write in the same way. I like a small group of readers I trust (starting with the missus) to read my work before I send it to my editor. But you have to be careful of what you wish for! Last night the missus told me she wasn't loving the first draft of my latest. She had a surprisingly long list of things she thought it lacked, and I felt thoroughly defeated. It takes me a day or even two to step back and really hear criticism about something I work on so hard, but I eventually come around.
I'm thinking about her comments this morning and realizing she's completely right. I've got a lot of work to do to get a second draft up to snuff but I'd rather hear complaints from her than hear them after the book's in print. It's too late at that point! Way too late.