Three Things I’d Like to See #3


I think the saddest thing that ever happened in the book industry was the gradual devaluing of editors and all they stand for – their high standards, their belief in readers, their ability to nurture authors, their love of language, their patience, their dedication, their eye.

And most of all, their power.

Today we hear it like this: An editor will tell the agent that the house is prepared to make a bid. The agent conveys this to the author, who is overjoyed. The day of the auction rolls around, but the editor tearfully tells the agent that the marketing department has decided the house cannot make a bid, and that’s the end of that.

Or this: The manuscript has been copyedited, the jacket design approved, a good-sized marketing package underway until somebody shows the ms. to a Barnes & Noble buyer, who doesn’t like it for the standard reason (too depressing), and suddenly the wheels go in reverse: The marketing budget is cut, the jacket goes on hold, the author is asked to do a rewrite, and the editor looks like an idiot. But hey, the difference may be tens of thousands of copies, so who’s complaining? This question has so easily undermines the editorial process that eventually no one considered the long-term consequences.

Or this: Neither the agent nor the author can believe it, but every single rejection from editors who’ve seen the manuscript has praised the writing and the content with such excitement you can almost see the tears on the page. “We all love this book,” say the decline letters. “But nobody can figure out how to sell it.”

Why Editors Crossed the Line (1)

As I recall, the ganging up against editors started in the 1970s, when Michael Korda of Simon & Schuster said that editorial workers should acquire marketing savvy so they’d get out of their ivory towers and stop mumbling about literary values at sales conference.

Until then there was at least an attempt to separate Editorial from Sales & Marketing so that acquisition decisions wouldn’t be tainted by commercial concerns. The editors acquired the books independently; they told the marketing people what to sell. Sales and Marketing got to decide how to sell them, but there was no backing-and-forthing, no suggestions made to editors, no intrusion into the editorial process.

The system had its drawbacks – too many obscure British imports that wouldn’t sell a thousand copies, for one – and the benefits were locked into the old Gentlemen’s Profession era in which authors rarely if ever bolted from one house to another, agents rarely pushed for huge advances and an editor’s relationship to an author was much more avuncular than collegial.

Going back even further, one could say the pre-World War II publishing world (not industry then) was destined to explode when Random House sold itself to RCA and decisions about profit margins changed drastically as every other mainstream domino dropped like a stone (excuse mixed metaphor – if I had an editor, I would have changed it).

So by the time Korda made his cruelly short-sighted statement, editors who had never seen a profit-and-loss statement were told to make sales projections before acquiring a manuscript and ended up lying to make the numbers work. Not a problem for marketing people like me, but these were editors. They never lied about literary matters.

Nobody wanted editors to live in a bubble without knowing about P&L statements, but waking up to commercial reality happened too quickly, and terms emerged that made veteran editors cringe: Don’t take a chance on an unproven concept, they were told. Wait until other editors lose their shirts risking The Next New Thing. Then acquire something safe – i.e., the exact duplicate, but cheaper. With our marketing muscle, we’ll elbow the competition out of the running.

It was painful to watch editors trying keep their jobs, which by now were loosely and later tightly monitored for the income produced by the books they acquired. But as chain bookstores grew and publishers became dependant on bigger for fewer titles, editorial standards got a little blurry.

An Example

Take the period in the early ’80s when romance novels hit big-time. A handful of romance writers like Barbara Cartland and Danielle Steel were said to have their finger on the pulse of American readers who bought romantic fiction, so editors with respected reputations were sent out looking for every up-and-coming romance novelist they could find.

But here was the problem: Most of the prospective romance writers wrote and sounded exactly like the Cartlands and the Steels, who weren’t very good writers anyway. So if you were an editor with taste and an eye for good writing, how could you tell which writer was going to be the next one with her finger on the pulse of America? You couldn’t. But you acquired two or three that appeared to be similar, threw them on the ceiling to see if anything stuck, and if one of them did, you’d have a job next year. If they all fell back in your face, you’d be fired and go on to another house, where you’d do the same thing.

This pattern occurred after Tom Clancy in the military-techno field. It happened after John Grisham in the courtroom thriller genre. We saw it again after J.K. Rowling in teen fantasy fiction and with Dan Brown in secret/medieval/Christian/baloney quest novels: Since it felt like the audience knew — better than the editors — which authors would become favorites, publishers caved in to the Hollywood mantra to “give /em what they want,” not what was editorially best. Not what was original or creative or adventurous or, god knows, a challenge.

How Editors Crossed the Line (2)

I think the second saddest thing that happened in publishing occurred in the 1990s with the exodus of some of the finest editors in the business. In just about every mainstream house, Sales & Marketing had sufficiently gutted the domain of Editorial to make it impossible for many editors to stay. Some went on to be literary agents and some went on to be consulting editors, much to the delight or horror of authors (depending on who was destined to be what), but leaving many holes behind.

As a result I can’t think of anything harder today than being an editor for a mainstream publishing house in New York. Now the horror stories are even worse, coming from the authors’ point of view. Acquisitions editors are pushed so hard to get out there and compete that they often leave the actual reading and editing to assistants who don’t know enough yet to bring the manuscript to its highest level. There is still that New York bias to contend with because editors can’t get out enough to participate in writers workshops or discussion panels or classroom discussions. (I’m sure some houses pay for editors’ journeys but clearly not enough. If editors have to wait for an all-expenses-paid invitation, especially in this economy, the world of writers is going to dry up.)

Restoring Editorial Power

One of the more intriguing by-products of the Internet is the direct relationship authors have been exploring with readers. Everywhere online you see writers discussing their books with book bloggers, accepting invitations and evites to book groups, going on “virtual tours,” compiling customer reviews, meeting librarians and booksellers online — and many editors have followed suit in their way. A new industry is emerging with conferences like Book Group Expo, services like M.J. Rose’s AuthorBuzz industry watchdogs like Three Percent (works in translation).

I don’t agree with the notion that editors should even be in communication with readers – the same taint of commercialism exists – but it’s happening all by itself and promises a huge shift in power. For one thing, editors are revered in this domain. Their work is respected, their choices honored and their creative intentions given a huge berth. Editors working independently of marketing people in this arena are already discovering new writing talent that was inaccessible otherwise.

For another, the treasure at the end of this rainbow is the insatiable hunger of book groups for titles that are more challenging and controversial and literary than commercial fare. Despite the snide and dismissive kiss-off of book groups in a recent New York Times article (so typical of today’s superficial and catty write-ups about women who read, but more about that later), most successful book groups seek dense and serious books because opinions will be heady and diverse, leading to volatile, memorable discussions.

If it’s true there are some 4 to 5 million book groups now talking up a storm about the more literary books – and, of course, buying them in the tens, 20s and 30s – what better way for a mainstream house to keep its ear to the ground than to encourage editors to explore this new gold mine. I know that many editors do this on their own (and of course, not all should). The trick is to keep Sales & Marketing out of the process because the percolating and the roiling and the stirring up of all those author-reader relationships generates a thirst for more books, i.e., more editors out there looking for authors.

And the biggest and best home for these book groups turns out to be – ta da! – independent bookstores and libraries where trained staff know how initiate, facilitate, expand or contract book groups, as well as, of course, offer comfortable discounts on the titles selected.

That circle of relationships – editors, readers, booksellers/librarians, authors, editors – is one of the few areas of excitement and profit that continues to grow in this era of flat-to-declining sales. It might be a pipe dream (so what else have we got?), but it seems to me there is potential here for editors to pull the whole house back on track, if marketing people leave them alone to do it.