Ask Nick: Publishing 201 — What Do Editors Do All Day?

Hello, and welcome to Publishing 201—an occasional column in which I'll answer your questions about writing and publishing, so long as they haven't been asked and answered a million times already. There is plenty of 101-level advice out there, and thousands of writers who can repeat it, but very little has been written for writers further along in their careers or aesthetic development. If you have a 201-level question you'd like me to answer, reach out!


This week, we have a question from a newly successful author:

What if your editor won't edit?

—Rewriting Rhonda

Oh dear, you didn't think editors actually edit the books they acquire and prepare for publication, do you? Editors are very busy people—they have agent submissions to ignore, shoes to buy on Zappos.com, meetings to attend about the one book per season that actually makes money, designers and copy editors to badger, and of course those long commutes to and from the gleaming office towers of Manhattan to the pathetic one-bedroom apartment they share with three roommates out in the Gull's Crest Municipal Landfill neighborhood of Near-Queens. Plus those daily emails to their parents asking for money so they won't have to eat out of the garbage! Whew!

[Publishing] is not service-oriented or customer-oriented, but production-oriented. That means it needs to produce many many products for large audiences...

Now, of course, editors do edit some books. These tend to fall into two camps: books that are an absolute wreck because the author is new but writing in a genre or form that is otherwise commercial, and books that are an absolute wreck because the author is brilliant but unbalanced and also not very successful. (Successful authors, whether brilliant or just mediocre, also don't get edited very much.) So, congrats "Rhonda", if that is your real name—it's not!—your book wasn't an absolute wreck. So, no need to edit. Just plop it into the pipeline and a few months later, there's a book.

Publishing is a 19th-century manufacturing industry. It is not service-oriented or customer-oriented, but production-oriented. That means it needs to produce many many products for large audiences...not that most individual books have large audiences. Only in the aggregate are books a form of mass production. The goal of a publishing company is to come out with, say, 50-100 books a year in this or that genre. In the same way not every Pop-Tart has a bite taken out of it to ensure quality, not every book is read closely to make sure it's the best book it could be. The editorial process, such as it is, serves to satisfice—to satisfy some level of quantity at a certain price points, and to suffice by making sure the products are readable. 

Readable doesn't mean good; it means that people might buy a book because it is the type of book they like to read. So if your Victorian-era mystery has its protagonist sending a four-page letter via telegram, it suffices just as well as one written by an author who spent three seconds thinking about what a telegram is. Thus, the editor doesn't need to do that three seconds of thinking either!

Much of the editorial function has been offloaded onto literary agents, but agents have a different audience than publishers—they edit with editors in mind, as opposed to editing with an eye toward sufficing for a large audience. The end result is that trends are more pronounced and more obvious, and then fade away more quickly. (As of this writing, in literary fiction the trend is to combine literary realism with elements of thriller or fantasy. In genre fiction the trend is to focus on cultivating fan-fiction ready characters within high-concept settings.) Within publishing, editors are basically project managers, bringing the manuscript, cover, layout, marketing materials, and the like together according to a schedule and in line with the profit and loss sheets. Sitting with a book and working to improve it as a work of art has largely gone out the window.

Copy editors have also taken up the slack, especially with trend books. Last decade, I had a copy editor roommate who worked across all genres. Some books by well-known writers needed only marginal correction; others were copy edited more rigorously. Others, usually by new writers or non-writers producing work in a then-trendy and now-forgotten niche, needed and received sentence-by-sentence rewriting at copy editor rates. My roommate essentially worked as a ghost writer after an editor acquired and supposedly edited the titles in this niche. The editor's job was to fill a bay of shelves at a bookstore with books of this type, not to edit them so they were good. The niche was new enough that there was no time to wait for a generation of writers to get good at writing either.

Your editor didn't edit your book because it didn't need editing to satisfice the conditions under which it was published, Rhonda. Your agent may or may not have edited the book, or may have realized that it was sufficiently readable that an editor wouldn't need to edit it and thus would acquire it.

If you want to make your book better, you'll need to figure out a way to do it yourself. Beware, however: the goal of publishing is to satisfice, not to optimize. If your book is so good that only people who like good books will like it, then you're likely to end up publishing with small presses, and those editors don't edit either. Why should they? They only get sent books that are already brilliant!

Nick Mamatas

Column by Nick Mamatas

Nick Mamatas is the author of several novels, including I Am Providence and Sabbath. He's also published over 150 pieces of short fiction; his work has appeared in Best American Mystery Stories, Year's Best Science Fiction & Fantasy, and dozens of genre publications and literary journals. Much of his recent fiction was collected in The People's Republic of Everything.

Nick is also an anthologist: he co-edited the Bram Stoker Award-winning Haunted Legends with Ellen Datlow, the Locus Award nominees The Future is Japanese and Hanzai Japan with Masumi Washington, and the hybrid cocktail recipe/flash fiction title Mixed Up with Molly Tanzer. He recently adapted Junji Ito's manga Frankenstein into English, leading it to an Eisner award.

Nick has written extensively about digital culture, radical politics, publishing, and the book trade for Poets & Writers, The Smart Set, Village Voice, Fine Books & Collections, In These Times, and many other periodicals.

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