Columns > Published on September 12th, 2013

How Not To Treat Your Editor

This is the second section of a two-part miniseries about proper behavior for writers – a micro-Emily Post’s Etiquette. (Last month's column was about the things writers should never do when trying to land an agent.) Manners columns tend to have a prissy, goody-two-shoes tone (“Critiquing the dress worn by the decedent in an open casket is generally considered to be in poor taste…”), but etiquette hang-ups are not such bad traits to have in the writing business. Why? Because it’s better to act a little overly refined when making business deals – getting an agent - and carrying them through in practice - writing the book or magazine article under an editor’s guidance – than to be thought boorish and troublesome. Which would you rather have: an editor who thinks s/he’s working with a starchy priss but getting a good book out of it in the end or one who isn’t working with you because of your “Hey, that’s just who I am” gonzo attitude?

The editors I spoke with about their worst experiences with writers did not struggle to find examples. To say the least. They responded with terrifying alacrity. I was ashamed for us all. Here are a few examples:

Sending in a manuscript ten years late and then insisting that the publisher put the book on a rush schedule.

Give your editor room to breathe! Call or email once! And only once!

There is a wide misconception, even among writers (particularly unpublished ones), that book deadlines are somehow infinitely malleable – that you, the writer, joyously liberated from the drudgery of having to work for a living, aren’t bound by anything as nasty as a due date. I can’t tell you how many people – I call them civilians – have assumed over the years that my book deadlines weren’t real – that I could blithely dismiss my obligations because, you know, writing isn’t really work, and as many of them have informed me, “Nobody in publishing takes deadlines seriously anyway.”

The hell they don’t. Each book has a production schedule; each has a publication date. Yes, I’ve been late in delivering a manuscript, but I have never blown a deadline. How is that possible? Simple: I realized some months earlier – well in advance of the deadline specified in the contract – that I’d need a few more months to complete the manuscript. So the editor changed the deadline.

Imagine how incensed an author would be if the design department didn’t get around to meeting its deadline for his or her book, thereby delaying the book’s publication. (Hey, they were busy with other stuff, and nobody takes deadlines seriously in publishing, right?)

Look, editors understand delays in delivering a final draft – reasonable delays. Delays that they are prepared to accept because the writer has forewarned them and specified the reasons for each delay. What they should not be asked to accept are delays of ten years caused by laziness or incompetence. You sign a contract; you live up to the contract’s terms.

Sending in a manuscript that is twice as long as the length specified in the contract and then claiming not to understand what a word count is.

I find this one to be particularly appalling. What kind of cretin doesn’t know the meaning of the words word count? This behavior is the publishing world’s answer to The Dog Ate My Homework. Disregarding a contractual obligation is at best counterproductive. You have signed a legal document that obliges you to turn in a book of a specific length. To ignore a clause you don’t like, or one you think you can flout, is not only stupid but shortsighted. One’s behavior has consequences, as the parable at the end of this article goes to prove.


On the “Life In Academic Publishing” blog I found this jewel:

Above a video of a frightened looking guy holding his arms out and waving his hands in a gesture of terrified defense was the dedication: “To the author who sent me a proposal yesterday and has sent over a dozen emails since then.”

I covered the phonomania phenomenon in last month’s column about agents, but I want to reiterate the point here: Give your editor room to breathe! Call or email once! And only once! Wait a week before sending another message or placing another call. Making a nuisance of yourself is a terrible way to start a literary relationship. What’s especially frightening about this editor/blogger’s example of bad author behavior is the fact that it wasn’t even a done deal yet; the crank writer had only submitted a proposal.

Insisting on an incomprehensible, jargon-filled title.

Another academic press editor told me this one, and I can see how it could be a particular problem in that world. What sort of writer would defile his or her own book with a title nobody can understand? Answer: the average academic.

The Hegemony of Desire: Jane Austen and the Heteronormative Paradigm.

Agency/Praxis/Power: The Geopolitics of Third World Microbreweries.

Problematizing Valorization: Contextualizing Judith Butler Within the Parameters of Gender Dysphoria.

It’s a parlor game, really: Who can come up with the worst academic title? You could play through the night and well into the morning.

Demanding to meet with the designer and editor at every step in the process, and insisting on an inappropriate cover image that the sales and marketing department doesn’t think will sell the book.

Friends, I have news for you: your job is to write the book, not design it. You do not pick the cover. Many people are amazed to learn this brutal fact. Um, they have graphic artists to do that. You have the right to suggest something, and you have the right to register a negative opinion of the book’s design, but chances are you’ll be ignored. Think of it as a mutual arrangement: The designer agrees not to write your book, and you agree not to design it.

Not accepting any editing.

Authors are under no obligation to accept all of an editor’s suggestions. But in general, writers are better off accepting most of them.

This is the toughest one. Your contract obliges you to turn in a certain book on a topic of a certain length by a certain date. Your editor will almost certainly know what approach you are taking to the book’s subject. There should be few surprises.

But then the editor starts to edit, and normally placid writers turn into vicious lionesses protecting their young. Every punctuation correction becomes a little stab, every substantive concern an assassination. Writers get defensive and respond as though their works were as consequential as the Ten Commandments and as worth preserving as life itself, and the relationship between the editor and the author rips apart.

Authors are under no obligation to accept all of an editor’s suggestions. But in general, writers are better off accepting most of them. Editors are our first and most sympathetic readers – the only ones except for members of our immediate families who will give our books the benefit of the doubt. Sure, it’s worth fighting for certain things you think are worth fighting for, but they are far outnumbered by edits that really do improve the work. I sheepishly told one of my editors that I hadn’t accepted all of her edits, and she said, “You took two-thirds of them – that’s more than I often get.”

Silly Petty

One editor told me about one of her current authors who wants to retain British spellings and archaisms and refuses to allow the editor to change them. Oh, come on! Whilest is worth fighting for? Colour instead of color? I know of a fairly well-known writer who was so infuriated by the (correct) copyediting of one of his books that he demanded that the contract for his subsequent book specify that theater would be spelled theatre in the book as published. There must be a clinical diagnosis for this condition.

Heaping abuse on your editor

The editor of a community newspaper in New York City told me the jaw-dropping story of a drama critic wannabe who – get this - “called to tell me that he thought I was an asshole.” The mouthy little thing then informed the dumbstruck editor that he, the editor, obviously didn’t know what he was doing. Aghast, the editor asked the writer whether he realized who he was talking to, and didn't he worry that perhaps the editor might decide that the paper didn't need this particular writer’s further contributions? “He seemed not to understand the question but merely continued spewing invectives at me,” the editor told me. The critic’s tenure at the paper was brief.

Pulling rank

This one’s a bit rare: A well-known book editor at a major publisher in New York objected to a magazine editor’s having changed the way he’d used an apostrophe after an s to indicate the possessive. The magazine editor responded that he followed the rule that if the word in singular form ends with s, then the possessive took another s after the apostrophe [Howard Hawks's]; if the word ending in s was in plural form, it simply took an apostrophe after the s [the horses’ stable]. The book editor complained bitterly; the magazine editor responded that this treatment of the possessive conformed to the magazine's house style. The book editor claimed he'd never heard the term house style, which is ridiculous because it’s a standard term. The pig-headed book editor then went over the magazine editor’s head and called the publisher, who took the book editor's side and that told his employee to accede to the writer’s demand. He did – grudgingly.

The same magazine editor also faced resistance from a famous composer, who refused to deal with the editor at all and insisted that his only contact at the paper be the publisher. “He refused to even talk to me,” the editor told me. Well aren’t we special?                        

Not abiding by your agreement.

This goes in the same category as The Dog Ate My Homework. A problem more for journalism than for book publishing, some would-be clever writers agree to write on one subject and then deliver a manuscript on an entirely different topic. Even if the writer had pitched the original idea him- or herself (rather than having it assigned), this is lunacy. Apparently these writers assume that the editors are so desperate for copy that they’d simply accept what the writer turns in without question. Always keep this in mind, particularly if you’re a journalist: more often than not, you are more expendable than your editor.

It's just shit

The touchiest scenario of all stems from the sad fact that writers sometimes deliver inferior work, and when their editors challenge them, they justify their shoddy workmanship on the basis of the paltry money they’re being paid. That’s clearly bullshit. You know what you’ll be paid before signing a contract or accepting a newspaper or magazine assignment, and you agree to do the work for the agreed-upon price. There is no excuse for turning in crappy work. In all but the most drastic cases, a bad manuscript can be improved enough to be publishable, but for that to happen, the writer has to put his or her personal hurt aside and agree to the editor’s changes. And if you don’t agree to them, fine. Pay back the advance.

A Cautionary Tale

A friend of mine put the final touches on his massive and much-discussed nonfiction manuscript and turned it in. Soon thereafter, he was plunged into a despairing rage: the bastard editor was chopping his book to pieces, maiming entire chapters, wrecking the very core of his literary style. But my friend made it abundantly clear that he wasn’t taking any of this sitting down. No, he was fighting tooth and nail for his manuscript, and weren’t editors morons? I said I was sorry to hear it and went on my way.

Not more than a week later, I found myself eavesdropping on a conversation between two women. (Eavesdropping is New York City's greatest sport. You hear the most amazing things! My best is the guy on his cell phone, saying: “Yeah! Right! But how was I supposed to know he broke out of prison? That’s the way my new year started.” But I digress.)

The women were discussing books. One of them said something on the order of, “I’ve got one now who’s really over the top. He fights me on  everything. I’m sick of it. We’re not going to push his book at all. He’s just alienated everybody, and nobody wants to do anything to help the book. So we’re just going to dump it.” They got to discussing the book’s topic, and, well, you get the picture.

Got any editors’ horror stories to share? Think this is a bunch of baloney? Tell us what your response is to these True Tales of Terror.

About the author

Ed Sikov is the author of 7 books about films and filmmakers, including On Sunset Boulevard:; The Life and Times of Billy Wilder; Mr. Strangelove: A Biography of Peter Sellers; and Dark Victory: The Life of Bette Davis.

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