Business Musings: Editorial Encroachment
Before I get into the rant that I know this post will become, let me state my credentials. In addition to my work as a writer, I am a multiple-award-winning editor. I have edited short fiction and novels since 1986.
I have trained copy editors, not just for the magazines I edited, but also for major publishing companies. I have saved books destroyed by line editors, as well as those creatures the indie world now calls “developmental” editors. I have worked with proof readers and book doctors. I have owned two separate publishing companies, and worked for many more.
I’m so good at editing that I get contacts every year from head hunters, seeing if I want to move and edit for this traditional publishing company or that content company.
I know what good editors do, and I know how destructive bad editors can be. I also know how mediocre editors dumb down a writer’s work. I’m so good at editing, I can even see when a major New York publisher has hired a bad copy editor for a New York Times bestseller. I can also tell you which major writers review their copy edits and which ones don’t just by reading a few pages of their latest work.
You got that? I have credentials for this rant that most of you reading this rant will never have.
So…ready? Here we go…
Last week, as I was searching for a friend’s book on Amazon, I made a loathsome discovery. My friend’s book, which is up for preorder, lists her name and the name of someone else on the byline.
I had never heard of that someone else. So I clicked on the preorder, and what did I see? A cover, with just my friend’s name on it.
So I glanced up at the title. Beneath it was this byline:
My Friend (Author), Annoying Person (Editor)
I went through the roof. My friend wrote that book. She hired Annoying Person to edit the book.
I looked up Annoying Person and found her terms and conditions. She sounds like a fairly knowledgeable editor. She only handles copy editing and line editing (although it sounds like she would have a pretty heavy hand). She explicitly says she does not do developmental editing.
Which means she has done exactly nothing on this book. She didn’t come up with the concept. She didn’t brainstorm the characters. She didn’t improve the plot. She didn’t imagine the setting.
All she did was tweak the words.
So why the hell is she getting credit for this book?
When I searched her name on Amazon, I found her listed on the byline of dozens of novels by many different writers—too many for this to be simple ignorance on the part of the writers themselves.
Annoying Person asks to be credited as editor on the book as part of her agreement with the writers. If they hire her, they have to list her as editor.
This is a great ploy by Annoying Person. It got me to look up her name. I’m sure it brings her a lot of business.
And it decreases the sales of every single writer whose byline she leaches onto.
Got that? Having her name as editor on that byline hurts sales of the books dramatically.
How do I know this?
See my preface above.
But let me explain it to you, using some established major names.
For years, traditional publishing has needed brand names to sell its books. Because traditional publishing has to go from bestselling book to bestselling book to meet its monthly quota, traditional publishing’s beleaguered editorial departments do what they can to manufacture bestsellers.
Some of those are movie tie-ins. Others are books that are “just like” the books by a big name. Mostly, though, the manufactured books piggyback off an established name.
Right now, James Patterson is running a regular fiction factory. By my count, he will have 25 new books with his byline on them in 2018. That doesn’t count the “James Patterson Presents” line where he introduces a book.
The dual byline thing is very generous of Patterson. A couple of friends of mine have worked with him on collaborative projects. He’s hands-on (unlike some writers who’ve done this), and he teaches his collaborators a lot about writing and plotting, even if they’ve been in the business a long time.
The dual byline usually boosts the sales of the secondary writer. I was familiar with almost every writer he worked with. All of his collaborators were established writers before they signed on to work with him. But as I scrolled through the list, I found a couple of names I didn’t recognize. I looked them up as well, and discovered they were established, but they were new to me.
That system works well for the secondary writer. It also works well for the publisher, because they’re minting money. And it works well for Patterson, because as he’s said in more than one interview, he has more ideas than he can get to in his lifetime.
He’s happy with this arrangement. And he’s not the only one who does this. Clive Cussler does the same thing, and has done so for decades.
This is actually a 1990s trick that publishers used to use a lot more than they do now. Now, most writers who want to let someone play in their worlds either do it with Kindle Worlds or something similar.
Or they do it the way that Meredith Wild and Waterhouse are. Those books have a theme and a specific subgenre, with plot beats, and the writers either collaborate with Meredith Wild or they write within the series itself.
For example, last October, Waterhouse bought the entire front cover and front cover flap ads on Publishers Weekly, advertising Meredith Wild’s Misadventures of a Virgin, her collaboration with Mia Michelle called Misadventures of the First Daughter, and two other books without Wild’s name on them at all, one by Shayla Black (Misadventures of a Backup Bride), and the other by Lauren Rowe (Misadventures on the Night Shift). [link http://misadventures.com/about]
There are a million ways that writers can collaborate like that. BundleRabbit.com, the bundling site, has even built a collaboration feature to make things easier for writers who want to collaborate.
So this is a Thing.
But remember that I called this a 1990s trick? It happened a lot in the 1980s and 1990s, so much that writers who are notoriously tight-fisted about their prose were approached to do the byline sharing. Those authors tried it, and one at least, took the books back from his collaborators, rewrote them to his satisfaction, and reissued them, never to try this kind of writing again.
(And before someone reminds me, yes, I know. This has not only been a part of writing in the 20th and 21st centuries, but also in 19th. Some believe that Alexandre Dumas (pere) built the first fiction factory. If you read about what he actually did, he sounds a lot like Patterson—a man with too many ideas to write them all himself without help.)
How is any of this relevant to my rant?
Well, you see, I got to see lots and lots and lots of sales figures from these joint byline books. I know young writers who were brought in to work with the established writers, and I know established writers who mentored young writers.
I also was in the thick of publishing when this Thing was important in traditional publishing. Dean and I, as Pulphouse Publishing, were in a co-publishing deal with Bantam Books, and as such, were privy to a lot of their business decisions back in the day.
To a person, everyone involved in these co-writing ventures acknowledged that books with a joint byline did not sell as well as books with the author’s single byline.
These books did not have a negative impact on the brand of the single author name, however, because the joint byline was considered a different author by bookstores and distributor computer systems. So these joint bylined books had a different accounting structure.
You see, readers are pretty savvy folk. Readers know that a book by James Patterson And This Other Writer You Should Be Reading will have a different flavor than books by James Patterson alone. Readers will segment their reading down further.
First, they’ll buy everything by James Patterson Alone. Then they’ll buy something with James Patterson And The Most Recent New Byline. But if they don’t like Patterson And The Most Recent, they won’t by anything else with that joint byline.
Readers will weed down the plethora of choices—with some readers reading everything that Patterson touches, some readers reading half of the bylined books as well as the single books, and the remaining readers only buying the four (or so) books with Patterson’s solo byline.
Why am I harping on this in a rant about editing?
Because, my friends, readers make their decisions in a blink.
The book I saw by my friend was a Kindle pre-order. When I saw the byline My Friend and Annoying Person, I thought, like any reader would, that Annoying Person was a collaborator the way that Patterson’s collaborators work.
Which changes the very nature of the prose or plot of the book.
I did not realize, until I dug deep, that my friend wrote the entire book alone. The book I saw is her work 100%. And yet, by letting Annoying Person share credit, my friend is losing sales, maybe in droves.
The thing is, her readers won’t tell her that they’ve run away from her book. They’ll ignore the books she “co-wrote” with Annoying Person. Her sales will either go down or they won’t grow as much as they would have if Annoying Person’s name wasn’t listed as part of the byline on Amazon’s website.
I looked up my friend’s book on other sites. There, Annoying Person isn’t listed. Which is good. But, in the States at least, Amazon is where the bulk of ebook sales occur.
And Annoying Person is credited with my friend’s book on Amazon. And with a dozen other books by a dozen other writers besides.
Why is Annoying Person on Amazon? Why is she all over Amazon?
Because writers don’t understand the “editor” field in KDP. That field is for anthology editors, like Fiction River. When we do a Fiction River, and I edit it, we list Kristine Kathryn Rusch as the editor. Because I compiled the damn book. I chose the stories. I put them in order. I line edited them. I worked on the theme with the writers. I wrote the introductions to the stories.
The volume has my fingerprints all over it, and not because I changed someone’s words or added a semi-colon here and there.
Stop, stop, stop acknowledging this new breed of “editor” in the sales material of your novels. You’re hurting your own sales and doing free advertising for those “editors.” (And yes, dammit, I’m using the quotes on purpose.)
If you need to acknowledge the “editor” as a term of your contract with her, then do so inside the book in the acknowledgements. Write: Thanks to Annoying Person, who copy edited my manuscript. She knows more about the Chicago Manual of Style than I do.
That’s it. And if Annoying Person doesn’t like it, if that doesn’t fulfill the terms of your agreement with her, then don’t work with her again.
This isn’t just a problem with one editor. It’s showing up everywhere. Inside some traditionally published books on the copyright page, it now says, “edited by Really Big Ego-Driven Editor.” (Okay, I have a specific editor in mind as I write that, because she’s the person I’ve identified before as the worst editor I ever worked with [that’s saying something!] and of course, she wants credit for work she didn’t do.)
(Wait! I have two editors in mind, because the person who started this annoying trend, who is now [mercifully for literature] dead, did so because he had an ego so big that it filled all of Manhattan and then some, despite his incredible incompetence. [He killed two different book lines through mismanagement—and that was before I met him.])
Editors do not write your book. You write your book. The idea is yours, the characters are yours, the setting is yours, the plot is yours, the voice is yours—unless you paid one of these “editors” to “fix” your manuscript, which considering how inexperienced most of these idiots are, consists of removing every trace of originality from your prose.
Even then, shades of your voice and your perspective remain.
Your book is yours, not theirs. Readers aren’t reading your book because Annoying Person took a red pencil to your prose. Readers are reading your book because you’re a hell of a storyteller, and they like the stories you’re telling.
Have some confidence, folks. Stop giving these egotistical editors so much credit. They’re people you hire, people whose advice you can (and should) ignore if they don’t understand your work or your voice.
You should never ever ever ever ever make a deal with an editor in which you must give her credit for your work. If you hate the job she did, then you shouldn’t have to acknowledge her, even in the acknowledgements page.
You should be free to hire someone else to copy edit your work, preferably someone without the ego. Someone who knows that they’re working for you.
You’re right if you sense just how peeved I am about this. There’s a lot of editorial encroachment going on right now, because the old traditional publishing system is breaking down. For some reason, writers need to be validated. Or they need approval of someone with the word “editor” near their name.
And so writers are giving up the heart and soul of their work to “developmental” editors who have never written a book, don’t have a creative bone in their bodies, and have no idea how to fix anything. Yes, some of these “developmental” editors worked for big traditional publishing companies.
And guess what? Those companies still exist, but the editor doesn’t have a job with them any more. Most publishers do not work on the last-hired first-fired system. Your editor isn’t working there any more because, by the metrics of those big publishers, she was (to use a lovely British term) redundant. Someone else did the same job as well or better than she did.
Got that? Your fancy New York editor ain’t as fancy as you think.
And mostly, even when she was working in New York, she wasn’t trained on how to “improve” a manuscript. She was writing sales copy, acquiring books, working with the sales force, producing profit-and-loss statements, and…scheming about how to find the next James Patterson.
The skills she’s marketing now aren’t the skills she learned in her traditional publishing job. At all.
So have confidence in your work, writers, and for God’s sake, take your damn copy editor’s name off your sales material. You’re costing yourself a shit-ton of money, and alienating your readers.
Now, I’m going off to do the real work of editing. I’m going to read some manuscripts by very good writers and see if those manuscripts are a good fit for the anthology I’m editing. My name will be on that anthology as editor.
Oh, and then I’ll line edit another anthology—and my name will not be on that anthology, because all I did was flag unclear antecedents and the occasional confusing paragraph. That kind of work, while important, is not worth a byline. Or even any credit.
And besides, we give the writers a chance to say, “Hell, no. I meant for that paragraph to be confusing. Because it hides information about the murderer/puppy/alien on a stick.” And when the writer says something like that, often with a simple stet, we respect it.
The work belongs to the author after all. We don’t take credit for it…because we shouldn’t.
Grrrumphf. Grump. Grrrrrrr.
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“Business Musings: Editorial Encroachment,” copyright © 2018 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Image at the top of the blog copyright © Can Stock Photo / bonairina.