“What exactly is it that editors do?”
This is a question I’m often asked by debut authors and aspiring editors alike. A few months ago, I had the good fortune of coming across Peter Ginna’s What Editors Do. Nestled in the pages of Ginna’s book, readers will find the knowledge and expertise of twenty-seven leading figures from the book publishing industry. Representing both large houses and small, and encompassing trade, textbook, academic, and children’s publishing, the contributors make the case for why editing remains a vital function to writers—and readers—everywhere.
This collection treats editing as both art and craft, and also as a career. It explores how editors balance passion against the economic realities of publishing. If you’re a new editor looking for mentors, or if you’re a debut author trying to navigate the author-editor relationship; Ginna’s book is a must-read.
Dipa: In Where It All Begins you wrote, “Every acquiring editor knows the feeling: I call it the spark.” As an editor, I have felt that spark when I have laid my hands on a manuscript that’s fired my imagination. And yet, I know that that is only the beginning. Publication can be a slow, tedious and exhausting process. How can editors continue to keep that spark alive?
Peter: If I’m truly enthusiastic about a book I don’t find it difficult to keep the spark alive in the publication process—more often the problem is a feeling of disappointment if the public response or sales don’t measure up to your hopes for the book. But this is why several editors in my book (including me), say it’s really important to love a book when you acquire it. If you don’t have that kind of emotional commitment to something, you wind up second-guessing yourself in the months of working on it, and that can snuff out whatever spark you once felt.
Dipa: For fiction books in particular, the acquisitions process can be a highly subjective one. Authors seeking to traditionally publish will almost inevitably encounter rejection from literary agents as well as publishing houses. How can debut authors continue to keep that spark alive?
Peter: For any author, debut or not, rejection is hard. But you have to accept that it’s part of the landscape. Yes, it is subjective. As I was just saying, we’re talking about love. You want to find an editor who loves your work, not just one who thinks it’s pretty good. And as agents often say to authors, it only takes one. If several editors get excited and bid on your book, that may be good. But you just need to make a connection with one person who respond to what you’re doing. And it may take a while, several rounds of submissions, before that happens. Be patient, and persistent.
Publishing lore is full of examples of amazing books that got turned down a dozen or two dozen times before they were published—Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone being the most recent bestseller in that club.
Dipa: There are many books in the marketplace that receive a lukewarm initial response; only to later go on and become bestsellers. What do you believe happens in the interim that leads to a ‘failure’ turning into a success?
Peter: There are all sorts of scenarios that can create a late-blooming success. With nonfiction it may be a news event that suddenly creates demand for a book on that subject, maybe one that was ahead of its time when first published. Sometimes critical recognition comes late to a book, either because it has earned a cult word-of-mouth following or because one influential critic makes it their cause. Sometimes a really committed publisher just makes it happen.
When Harold Evans, the former chief of Random House died recently, I remembered a time when they published a terrific nonfiction book, A CIVIL ACTION by Jonathan Harr, that just didn’t take off they way he thought it deserved. Harry went back to the drawing board, put a new jacket on the book, and published it all over again. It hit the bestseller list and stayed there for quite a while.
Dipa: In your book, you write, “What makes publishing unusually challenging as a business is that every title is a unique product.” What do you think makes publishing particularly unique compared to other businesses? How can the acquisitions editor of a publishing house overcome these unique challenges?
Peter: What I mean by the line you quoted is that no book is exactly like any other book, even one by the same author, so selling books is not like selling shoes or toothpaste or cars. You can’t predict the audience for Joyce Carol Oates’s next novel by looking at the last one she wrote, so you can’t put the same jacket on it, or market it the same way—and you therefore can’t predict how many it’s going to sell.
Acquisition editors have to make an educated guess about the market, triangulating from a few data points such as what the author’s previous title sold, what other analogous titles (“comps” in industry jargon) sold, and maybe some other relevant facts—if you’re looking at a book by an Instagram celebrity, you think about how many followers they have; if you’re looking at a book on living with asthma, you find out how many asthma sufferers there are in your market area. But your and your colleagues’ intuition is always a much of a factor as data.
Dipa: For the creative industries—from music to art to writing—it is hard to truly know what will take off and when. You wrote, “Predicting the sales of a prospective new book is highly difficult. For every publisher, it amounts to an exercise in educated guesswork.” How can an acquisitions editor best manage the risks associated with trade publishing?
Peter: I think I answered most of this question in my reply to the one above. But I would just say one other thing about “the risks associated with trade publishing.” Trade publishing IS a risky business by its nature. If you’re not comfortable with some level of risk, you are not going to enjoy being an editor, and probably not be all that good at it.
It’s a truism that most books lose money for the publisher, but for successful houses, the small number of ones that succeed generate enough profit to outweigh the losses. One CEO I worked with said to me, “If all your books make money you’re probably not taking enough risks.” That doesn’t mean you should wantonly throw money at every project, but you have to be like a poker player: you’re going to lose some hands, the key is to win big when you really have the cards.
This takes us back to the spark we were talking about at the beginning: sometimes editors can be too timid, and talk themselves out of books even when they do feel “the spark,” because they’re not sure of the market, or maybe one of their colleagues doesn’t like the book and talks it down in an editorial meeting. It’s important to listen to your colleagues, but it’s also important to trust your own judgment.
And my belief is that when you have a book that’s really terrific, you should really throw yourself into the publishing of it and try—to continue the metaphor a little further—to make that title catch fire in the marketplace.