The Business Rusch: Editorial Revisions
Recently, the Passive Voice blog pointed out a post on editing by Lynn Price of Behler Publications. Behler Publications is an independent traditional publisher which buys manuscripts and turns them into finished books, distributing them to various book outlets and sending authors royalty statements. Behler has a contractual relationship with its authors.
I state all of that because some of the comments in the PV blog seemed to confuse Behler with independent editors whom self-published authors pay to go over their manuscripts before publishing the book.
What I realized—well, actually remembered—as I read over the comments is that writers have no clue what an editor is and what their relationship to that editor should be.
Writers don’t even seem to be aware that there are many kinds of editors within traditional publishing houses, and even more kinds of editors outside of those houses.
So I’ve decided to give you a two-week short course on how to work with an editor in both traditional and self-publishing. I’m using the term “self-publishing” this week instead of “indie-publishing” primarily for clarity.
Even though I’ll be dealing with traditional book publishing this week, those of you who self publish need to read this to understand what professional editors do and how they can help you. When you self-published writers hire an editor, you become their boss. So you become the traditional publishing company who has contracted with an editor who will then edit a manuscript from some writer. Even though that writer is you, you need to think of the writer as someone else in this instance. If you know how editing works in the big leagues, then you can approximate it in your own small company.
If you are an editor at a traditional publishing company or one who now works for herself, please read this as well. Remember that most writers have no idea what you bring to the table. And some editors never seem to understand that they are not the last word on any manuscript, ever. Just because you editors think something is flawed doesn’t mean that it is. It simply might not work for you.
Traditional publishers have a variety of editorial types working for them. Once upon a time all of these people worked in-house. Now many of them work at home as contract employees, doing piecework, much like writers do.
I will be dealing with book publishing, not magazine publishing or anthology publishing. Editors in those fields have yet a different function which will only confuse matters here.
I’m going to deal in this piece with editors who actually work on manuscripts. There are editors who do not ever lift a red pen for any reason such as managing editors and assistant editors, just to name two. They have other, very important functions within a traditional publishing company. Remember that a traditional publishing company is most often a corporation, with all the redundancies and mistitled job descriptions that corporations have.
With that in mind, here are the various types of editors who can (not will) work on your manuscript.
1. The Acquiring Editor: Generally speaking, you will call this person your editor. This is the person who decided to buy the manuscript and shepherded this manuscript through the acquisition process. This might not be the editor who actually read the manuscript and liked it. The acquiring editor might be that editor’s boss.
The acquiring editor might never read your manuscript. She might approve the purchase through a summary submitted by the editor who actually read the manuscript.
Generally speaking, however, the acquiring editor is your manuscript’s first fan, someone who loves what you’ve done on the page enough to put her job on the line to purchase that manuscript. She’s someone who believes this manuscript will sell tens if not hundreds of thousands of copies. She’s willing to fight for the manuscript—sometimes for a year or more—to see that it will get into print.
Some acquiring editors will do content and line editing (see below). None of them will copyedit.
The acquiring editor is your manuscript’s advocate inside the publishing house. Unless something goes seriously wrong with your relationship, the acquiring editor is your best friend in-house. But—and this is an important caveat—the acquiring editor works for the publisher, not you or your manuscript. You might end up at odds with the acquiring editor. We’ll deal with that below.
2. Content editor: The content editor reads for story, plot, character, theme, structure, but not words. The content editor helps you make your manuscript the best manuscript it can be—in theory. Again, we’ll discuss some of that below.
If your acquiring editor does not do hands-on editing, you will get a content editor. This often happens to bestsellers, whose works are purchased by an editor-in-chief or a publisher (this is a position, not the business) or a vice-president of the company. That person then assigns a content editor for your book. Some bestsellers request a specific content editor. Sometimes that content editor works for another publisher and gets hired away from that publisher to the new publisher for the sole purpose of editing this particular bestseller’s books.
A good content editor will help the book. A great content editor will vastly improve the novel by offering suggestions that make the author hit herself on the forehead and wonder why she never thought of that in the first place. In all of my nearly thirty-plus years of working with book editors, I’ve only had one great content editor. She was and is brilliant.
I have, however, had dozens of good content editors, and I’m grateful to them.
More on this below as well.
3. Line editor: the line editor looks for consistency in the actual words and structure of the book. Sometimes this job gets folded into content editing. In fact, I’ve had content editors who think that line editing is their only job and never saw the forest for the trees. (I hated working with these people; they had no idea there was a story as well as the words. Generally speaking, these editors were failed writers.)
Many companies require copy editors to act as line editors. On one level, I think that’s a better pairing than line editing and content editing. Line editing requires the editor to look at the tiniest thing and to make queries like: She put on her hat on page 24. She put on her hat again on page 31. I didn’t see her take the hat off. Do you want to add that?
The reason that most companies separate line editing and copy editing, however, is that copy editing should take place when the manuscript is completed. Both line editors and content editors will send their work back to the author for a revision. That revision will move sentences and words around, so a copy edit at this stage is both costly and ineffective.
4. Copy Editor: The copy editor edits the finished copy. She will go over the copy for misspellings, missing words, grammar, and other nit-picky but oh so important details. Every writer needs a copy editor. Writers never ever ever see what they leave out. Nor do they realize that their spellings might be idiosyncratic or just plain wrong.
The copy edit will come back to the author for approval. The author’s word is final here. If you meant to use the British spelling for “color” (with its lovely and unnecessary “u”) in an American book, then you reject the copy editor’s change. But make sure you do so consistently, because otherwise your book will have many colorful colours.
Copy editors are no longer an in-house position in any traditional publishing company that I’m familiar with. It’s all done by contract now.
Sometimes the copy editors are marvelous. I always note that when I’m sending the copy edit back and then I ask for that copy editor again. Sometimes the copy edit is atrocious. I had one copy editor who rewrote every single sentence in my 100K novel. The acquiring editor apologized and told me to do my best. I took one look at that mess, and realized the novel would be unreadable if we tried to keep anything this copy editor did, so I contacted the editor and asked if we could either have the manuscript copy edited again.
The editor said my work is so clean that he was happier going back to the original manuscript and letting the poor proofreader deal with the changes in the galleys. The editor made a note to production that I would not get charged for any excessive changes made in the galleys. (Writers often get charged if the changes are over 10% of the book). The book was a true mess. If I had been paid a bestseller’s advance, by the way, I would have received that second copy edit, but it wasn’t in the budget, so we did the best we could.
Good copy editors are worth their weight in gold. If you get one at your traditional publishing company, make note of his name and then request him for future projects. If you move companies, suggest that he be the one to copy edit your books. Since copy editors are contract employees, they can work for more than one company at a time.
5. Proofreader: The proofreader is not an editor, but I’m putting them here because so many writers think the proofreader is an editor. The proofreader’s job is to compare your final manuscript to the finished product and to make sure that the manuscript and book match. It’s difficult, anal work, and not many people are good at it. But it has little to do with actual editing.
There are a dozen other different kinds of editors in traditional houses and a dozen different names for the jobs above. I’m just using the common ones.
But now, let’s return to Lynn Price’s essay. I suggest you read it, not just for the editor’s perspective, which this is, but also for the terrible awful unprofessional ways that writers have reacted to editing.
What Price describes in her essay is a typical content/line edit. Sometimes a writer will get a dozen comments in a 100K manuscript, and sometimes she’ll get hundreds. It all depends on the editor, the writer, and the manuscript.
It also depends on whether the manuscript sold as a full or a partial or on a proposal only. You’ll get a more in-depth editorial response on a proposal only because the editor has created her own vision of what the manuscript should be based on your description. She’ll try to mold your work in that direction, so that it’s closer to the book she imagined she bought before the book was written.
Even if you sold a full, you will get a line/content edit. Some of this is for budgetary reasons—almost all contracts call for payment on signing (when the contract is signed) and on acceptance (when the manuscript is approved). You’d think that a full manuscript is approved when it’s purchased, but the bean counters don’t want that to happen. So the editor must make a light pass over the manuscript, and you’ll have to approve it, just so that your payments can come in two separate chunks.
I’ve actually had acquiring editors who know that I’m an editor tell me that my manuscript is just fine and they don’t want to go through that crap with me. They would put in the approval three months after the signing, and tell me that’s what they were doing. I understood it. I’ve been there.
Does this mean that all editing is crap? Unimportant? Unnecessary?
No. As I said above, a good content editor will help your book and a great one will make you seem brilliant.
Here’s the problem. Editing, like writing, is a subjective job. So an editor whom I consider great might be—in your opinion—a total idiot. That editor’s suggestions on your work might have missed the mark so badly that you wonder if you’re speaking the same language.
And here’s a clue: you probably aren’t speaking the same language. A romance to her might be a happily-ever-after story only; to you, a romance might include Romeo & Juliet (who die at the end, for those of you who’ve forgotten). She might try to shoehorn your 1950s Romeo & Juliet story (wait! Isn’t that West Side Story?) into an HEA ending, and you’ll have none of it, claiming she doesn’t understand you.
She might not. She’s talking marketing categories. You’re talking art.
This happens all the time. Generally, you and your editor can come to some sort of understanding. As Price says in her piece:
Editing isn’t about give and take, or winning and losing; it’s about making your book fabulous. There are some edits that can be negotiated and others where there is zero wiggle room.
Exactly. Figure out which edits have zero wiggle room for you. Because if the editor wants to take the death scene out of your 1950s Romeo & Juliet homage, you might not be willing to do so. If you explain why, she might say to you that she can’t market the book as a romance without an HEA ending.
And then you’ve come to an impasse.
Here’s where it gets dicey. In her blog, Price said:
[The editor’s] word is final, so if you have a compelling reason for keeping something in, you gotta make sense. If you can’t, then your editor will probably rule against you and toss it. If so, let it go.
Okay. She’s right and wrong. First, this paragraph tells you something about the contracts that Behler Publications has with its authors. Behler determines how the final manuscript looks, not the author. So, that makes Price right within the context of her company. If you have signed with Behler or with any company that gives them complete control over the final manuscript, then what you (the writer) wants doesn’t matter. You have already—contractually—given them the final say.
The only way out of such a contract is to avoid signing it in the first place. You’ll see all kinds of language in these contracts that should be a warning to you. The contract will state that you have given up your moral rights. It’ll state that you may look at edits, but the editor’s word is final. It won’t limit rewrites. It’ll state that they can hire someone else to rewrite you if need be.
Those terms are all becoming standard in nonfiction contracts these days, and I won’t sign any of those clauses. Not a one. The final word on my manuscript remains with me.
Still, even if you sign a contract that gives you (the writer) the final word, that doesn’t mean that your editor won’t give you an ultimatum if she hates the final manuscript. The ultimatum will be nicely put, but it’ll go something like this:
If we don’t have a happy ending on this book, we can’t publish it. I won’t accept the manuscript, and you’ll have to repay the advance.
Then, your decision to change your Romeo & Juliet story’s ending becomes a business decision. Do you want to break the contract? Can you afford to repay the advance? Can you make the revision work and still keep your novel’s integrity, while covering your financial ass?
The revision isn’t about winning or losing here. It’s about effectively publishing the book. It’s not about art any more. It’s about business and art.
The other thing you’ll need to ask yourself is this: Even if I make the changes, will the editor support my work within the publishing house to the best of her ability?
Let’s go with what Price says:
The one thing you want to avoid at all costs is arguing to the point where there’s no returning to the happy happy joy joy relationship. I guarantee that if you verbally abuse your editor (been there, done that), then you’re dead to her. Sure, she’ll edit your book to the very best of her abilities, but she will groan every time she sees your email address pop into her inbox. She won’t lift a finger to go above and beyond her regular duties…and you DON’T want that.
Editors are human too. And if you fight horribly about a book, then that book probably won’t get the support it deserves. Price only talks about writers being awful to her, but I’ve had editors be awful to me as well. Usually, these were editors who inherited me after the acquiring editor moved to a new publishing house. More than one of those editors tried actively to kill the projects their predecessor had purchased, to play assassin as only corporate employees can. Those editors didn’t care about the manuscript. They cared only about showing they were smarter than their predecessor.
None of those editors works in book editing, any more, by the way. Not a one.
Only once did I have problems with an editor who actually bought the work, and she was so unprofessional (and verbally abusive) that I went straight to the company’s vice president in an attempt to get out of my contract.
He managed to talk me into staying, but we both had to concede a lot of points. At that point for both of us, we worked only on the business relationship and measured progress daily. I did my best to be an author who didn’t rock the boat, and he found me an editor I could work with, who was extremely professional—the opposite of the editor who nearly drove me out of that company.
The biggest conflicts between writer and editor usually happen with the content editor. The content editor has to approve your book before you get paid, and before the book goes into production. If you do revisions and the book does not get approved, then you’ll have to figure out how to proceed next.
Generally speaking, do your best to revise, let the editor know when the revisions just don’t work for you, and see if you can come to an agreement. Usually, when I get a content edit, I don’t report what I’ve done to the editor line by line. I do tell her what I’ve fixed and how I’ve improved it. If she wants my character to be happier, I’ll tell her that I added a lighter mood in chapter seven, even if she had initially asked for it in chapter eight. No editor complains about that sort of thing—especially if you’re professional about it all.
Most editors have no time and generally don’t read a revision. They might glance at one troublesome section, but usually they trust their authors.
A few editors are anal and will reread everything, demanding to know why things haven’t changed. I’ve known of editors who’ve asked for as many as ten revisions of a manuscript. I know of one poor writer who revised her textbook every year for ten years before a new editor just gave up on her and refused to accept the manuscript. (I was working for the textbook publishing company at the time.) The writer’s contract required her to repay her advance—after ten years of revisions.
The simplest solutions are always in your contract. Limit your revisions to no more than three. Make sure you get the final word on the manuscript. Add language, if you can, that allows you to keep the front part of the advance if you’ve revised more than once. Call it a kill fee if you want, but see if you can get it in there.
Remember, that in traditional publishing, Price is right about one thing: The editor does have a final word. That word is whether or not that company publishes your manuscript. If the editor hates what you’ve done, if you can’t come to an agreement on how to make your manuscript publishable for that company, then one of you will back away from publication. You might do it first by withdrawing the manuscript, asking that the contract get canceled, and repaying your advance (plus incidental expenses, if your contract calls for that). Or the editor might say the manuscript is “unacceptable” and ask for the front part of the advance back. Make sure, in that instance, that the contract is cancelled at the same time, so you can resell the book.
Does this mean that your manuscript is awful? Hell, no. It just means you had the wrong editor/publishing company. You weren’t a good fit.
However, if this happens to you with every publishing company you’re with, the problem probably isn’t the publishing companies. You might want to consider self-publishing, because it sounds like you might not get along well with others.
What always determines your relationship with your editor and publishing house is your contract. If you sign a contract that gives the publishing company complete control over the final product, then their word is final. Don’t ever sign one of those contracts.
Make sure you always control your own work. Make sure you have the final say.
The only way to do that is through the contract. The only way to make sure that your contractual control happens is to defend that control if you run into a big problem.
Revisions are not a big problem, generally speaking. Usually, they improve a manuscript. But if they want to change your tall, dark, handsome human hero into a weremouse because they have great cover art for that, then you need to defend your hero as is. If that doesn’t work, then pull the manuscript.
But remember that pulling the manuscript is a last resort. Take a deep breath before tackling those revisions and see if they’re going to improve your manuscript.
Very few content editors have the time to help you change a manuscript from a mystery into an HEA romance. Very few will try. They’re only out to improve what they already have.
Have the same attitude, and you’ll survive the revision process just fine.
Next week: How to handle revision suggestions from an editor you hire.
Every week, I write a blog on the business of publishing. Even though I’ve worked in various traditional publishing jobs and written in almost every genre known to humankind, I call myself a fiction writer. I make the bulk of my living on my fiction, not my nonfiction. So, when I take 2-4,000 words out of my writing week to write this blog, I’m reducing my income.
The only way I can counter that is to put up a donate button and hope you folks come through if you’ve gotten something valuable out of this week’s blog. If so, leave a tip on the way out.
I also appreciate comments and forwards, e-mail tips and general discussion. Thanks for participating, everyone.
“The Business Rusch: Editorial Revisions” copyright 2013 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.