An Editor Responds


A veteran editor and publisher from a mainstream publishing house has taken issue with my claim that marketing departments have robbed editors of their power.

Here’s one of two challenges in his letter:

“…You leave out what to me is the key element in weakening the position of editors: (literary) agents. Agents need to prove their worth to a client, especially now at 15%, and one way they do it is by moving authors from house to house, editor to editor. That weakens the ties of editors to their authors, which I think is tremendously important to strengthening an editor’s ability to help a writer through the publication process.

“Ironically you often hear agents say they are closer to the authors than their editors, which of course would be natural if you move an author to a different editor every other book. Then agents often claim that they provide an editorial function. Again, I think this is an effort for them to protect and justify their percentage. In most cases they’ve never worked as professional editors themselves.

“But, in sum, it is the instability of editor’s relationships with authors that have made them less powerful. It is not the case that editors are capable of steering the ship but are under the spell of the marketing or sales department. They would if they could.

“Perhaps you could explore the role of agents in strengthening or weakening editors in a future column!”

Literary Agents React

Done! Here are a few comments from literary agents who saw the editor’s comments and threw the hot potato back:

“It’s true that some agents do move authors from one publisher to next, but that happens when the author-editor relationship isn’t working. In too many cases, the editor leaves the house and can’t take the author to with him. If my client is orphaned in this way, of course I’m going to find a better home with the next book.”

“As an agent, I’ve always felt that I’m the first editor for the book, but only until we sign. Then the author-editor collaboration takes over, and I step out. If the author feels the editor is fading or distracted, you bet I’m going to step back in.”

“In the ten years I’ve been an agent, no editor has stayed in New York has stayed in the same house. Editors move so often because they’re under enormous pressure to acquire books that do well, and very often that depends on the size of the advance, and the support they get from Marketing. So you see editors spending more time as champions of their books than as editors.”

” ‘Justify my percentage?’ It’s editors who fear for their jobs, not agents like me. Editors aren’t being measured by how much they’ve helped the author improve the book. They’re measured by the numbers of copies sold; the author’s track record; the splash and flash. It’s an untenable position, and I won’t let my author get pulled down by it.”

“The thing people don’t understand is how much agents don’t go after the money – we go after the right fit of editor and author. That is absolutely sacred. But the mess publishing is in right now? Editors disappear so fast that you end up going for the money.”

“Since Black Wednesday [a day of many layoffs, department cuts], all bets are off. I’d love to place my author with an editor who’ll be there long-term, but that’s very unlikely in this climate.”

Friday: The editor’s second challenge, a defense of Simon & Schuster’s Michael Korda.