Does that sound like an odd question? With so many editors out there these days, writers think of this process as a buyer’s market. And so many tell me that other editors work with anyone who will pay them. But what if I told you that good book editors choose their writers and are actually quite selective about which writers they work with? And that this is especially true for successful book editors, and those who’ve been in these trenches for a while.
A bit of digression first, as it helps to define what successful means in this context. Simply, it’s those who’ve edited books that have been traditionally published. In other words, vetted by the publishing industry.
So, how does a successful editor decide with whom to work?
Like everything, it’s a process.
Just as literary agents specialize in a few genres, and they sell to specific editors at specific houses who buy the rights to publish books in those genres, freelance editors do so as well.
We all have our preferences, no? But it goes deeper than that. All genres have specs. And editors naturally fall into the ones they love. They’ve read those books for pleasure. They know the specs—internally and with precision.
That’s not to say a great editor can’t edit anything. It just says that she’s more likely to take you on if it’s something she loves in the first place.
Hint: you can tell my preferences by what I’ve written and the traditionally published books I’ve edited.
If someone tells you he edits anything—beware.
This isn’t to say that every manuscript edited must have the potential to be a bestseller. Not all genres lend themselves to that list. Yes, I know, Amazon has about 400 different ‘bestseller’s’ lists. But I’m talking about the one that comes out from the Times, which is what the industry uses.
And yes, potential speaks of high book sales, within a specific category.
But again, I’m talking about something more.
Long ago, in the days of yore, an editor at a publishing house might take on a writer who’s rough but has talent. Now, they can’t afford to do that—a book has to be pretty much camera-ready when landing on his desk. The same holds true for literary agents.
And, the same also holds true for great freelance editors. Someone who’s been around long enough, at the top of her game, can see the potential in even the roughest writing; can see the pearl of talent hidden in the oyster.
Give me that writer. Those are the pearls I love to polish.
By the Seriousness of the Writer.
How, you say, can someone discern this from an email?
It’s easier than you think:
Which draft is the one the writer wants to send?
If a new writer has a first draft down and is ready to become the next bestseller, I send him to a writer’s workshop.
If he says this is the most revolutionary idea to ever hit the page, I send him to a writer’s conference.
If, on the other hand, he tells me this is his third draft, that he’s written, studied, been involved in a workshop, rewritten, lists the books out there like his, my ears perk up.
Because that’s someone who’s paid his dues, learned his craft, and is ready to soar to the next level.
Those are the writers book editors choose. And so do literary agents and publishers.
The Personality of the Writer.
That sounds odd too, doesn’t it? And how can you even tell that on the email page?
Funny thing—literary agents don’t want to be “wowed” so much with a query (although being unique pays off in spades) as they want to know if this is something they can sell. The same holds true for successful book editors.
And part of this is the voice and tone of the person querying. Does he think he already is Hemingway? Does she say this book is the best thing since Gone Girl? Is the query downright rude (and yes, I get these more than I’d like to say)?
One of the industry “secrets” is that literary agents and publishing-house editors don’t like to work with pain-in-the-butt writers. In fact, unless one is already making them a boatload of money, they won’t do it. Period.
I had an agent tell me this week that she turned down a manuscript after giving constructive criticism, and with an addendum that she’d be open to reading the revision, and got a nasty letter in return from the writer. Now, here was an agent, who’d actually read and critiqued (which doesn’t happen much). How likely do you think she’ll be to give this writer the time of day next time around?
Don’t be the pain in the butt.
Finally, by Gut Feel.
You know all of those boilerplate rejections from agents that say, “This is a subjective business . . .”?
Funny thing—it actually is. We all have our preferences—in life, with food, in books, and with people. One of the quirky things that make us human.
There are few closer relationships, at least for a period of time than between a writer and his editor. Because we’re working at a depth not experienced in normal life. As I often say while speaking at literary conferences, “We’re not selling bread dough here, but parts of your very heart and soul.”
This is your baby. The one you’ve birthed and nurtured so far, and dream of raising into a full-fledged published book.
Your editor needs to have the same hopes and dreams, both for you and your manuscript.
And to do that, she must believe in you and your work.
I often say as well that the relationship between a writer and his agent is much like a marriage, and my role is as a marriage counselor. Because I’ve already taken the writer through depth therapy, so now I’m there for the couple that goes forward.
So, how do book editors choose their writers? Quite carefully, in the end. And you need to choose your editor using similar criteria listed here. Because whomever you work with will have a huge impact on your career—and we want that to be positive!
Now, go back to writing, and choose your editor carefully!