So, continuing from my last post, what exactly is my job? What do I do each day? These are the hats I wear.
1. INVESTMENT COUNSELOR. (See previous post.) At the core, my job is to find and publish books that make money for the company.
2. TREND WATCHER. I believe that to be a good editor, you have to be a good trend watcher. This means not only being aware of what's going on in the news, but also trying to keep a watch on they way people are thinking, behaving, and reacting. Some wag (perhaps it was me) once said that the publishing industry is always a year behind everything else, but that doesn't have to be the case. The best editors understand what people are responding to and get books in the pipeline that people will want to read. And REALLY superb editors look for, or commission, books that even those who don't usually BUY books will want to read.
An example I can give is the well-known, and sometimes over the top, Judith Regan. She looked around and saw the massive following that Harold Stern has/had among the young. So she got him to write his autobiography and watched as it sold like hotcakes. She's pulled off this trick time and time again, and I have great respect for her in this regard.
So, what are today's trends? Well, certainly the desire of young men and women for celebrity and fame seems to have become a staple of today's young people in America. Look at American Idol and all those reality shows. Other industries have made a mint off this desire--look at the technology industry, which sells cell phones with text messagers to people who receive social validation from the incessant beeping of their phones--but publishing hasn't yet. While I personally loathe Paris Hilton (who doesn't?), I wouldn't mind AT ALL getting a manuscript about a young jet-setter from a wealthy family who goes to all the best parties, sleeps with all the sexiest stars, and solves crimes between bringing her teacup chihuahuas for grooming.
3. CHATTER WITH AGENTS. In the big houses, the editors spend a good deal of time communicating with agents, who pitch work to us on a regular basis. In the past there was a lot of in-phone and in-person bonding; now it's mostly email, except of course for the really hot properties by people who are already known in other areas. Agents have the role of serving as the very first line of defense--they are the people who winnow through millions of queries and manuscripts to send us what they think are the best, most saleable manuscripts. In that regard, they perform a valuable service. On the negative side, the role of them as an intermediary has driven up prices paid for books, and made it tougher for all of us to make a profit. Now that I work at a smaller house, I don't have as much contact with agents, because I'm not able to offer big advances. And, truth be told, I don't miss agents much. This is not to say they are bad people--in fact, many of them were once editors. But I don't need an agent to do the part of my job that I like best. And that job is....
4. READER OF MANUSCRIPTS. I usually set aside a day or two each week to read manuscripts, sample materials, and query letters. I've been doing this job quite a while, and this is the area that still gets me the most excited. I open every envelope and manuscript with a sense of anticipation, wondering if it'll be something fabulous. Sometimes I know right away; sometimes I pass the materials to a colleague to ask for his or her opinion. What I do like to do is always give every query a fair shake. Even if I'm not grabbed in the first five pages, I'll soldier through another 20 or so pages, looking for the potential. (After all, some very good writers are s-l-o-w starters.) If I've promised to read a manuscript, I read the whole thing, even if I lose interest halfway through. Writers do put themselves--their souls--on the line when they submit these materials, and I try to respect that. But at the very core, this is the part of my job that is the most fun.
5. REJECTER OF MANY. Yes, I am in the position of having to turn away (I think the more commonly used verb is "reject") more than 99% of the projects that come my way. What I do find amazing among the rejections, though, is how many good kernels I can find. Sometimes poorly written manuscripts have a good story underneath. Even if the book isn't right for me, often I see a well-drawn character, a funny line, an interesting plot twist, and so forth. So, when I reject, I do try to emphasize the positive. I have found that many writers are grateful for this, and I do get satisfaction out of treating writers respectfully, as this is an industry that does beat them up a great deal. Besides, it's just good karma to give a compliment when it is due.
6. COMMENTER UPON WRITING. At the larger houses, most editors will write letters to the author, outlining their macro-level suggestions for revision or refinement. I do that, too, but I also line edit the authors I work with. I actually enjoy this process quite a bit, for I have a good eye--and I am really good at hacking away nonessential prose or boring scenes with a machete. I just feel that I can have the best effect on a manuscript if I work on it at both a micro and a macro level, and most authors do appreciate this approach. Based on our relationship, I understand better what is going on in the manuscript and can put myself in the author's chair as I make my suggestions. The copy editors at some of the bigger houses can be terrific (Simon & Schuster's head copy editor is the stuff of legend), but many are freelancers, and some of them just don't get it. I like to think I "get it" as I edit.
7. WRITER OF COPY. I write the back-cover or flap copy, along with the materials that our publicist sends to reviewers or other interested parties. It makes sense for me (and, indeed, for all editors) to do this, because nobody knows the manuscript better than we do. In a sense, we give the publicists the language they need to talk about the book and the author. This isn't to diminish the role of publicists, who are amazingly hard working and creative. It's more to say that editorial and publicity work hand in hand, as they must in order to sign and publish successful books. The best editors understand what a publicist needs to get traction on a book, and the best publicists know why editors feel so strongly about their books.
8. GOSSIP MONGER. We do love our gossip in this industry, but more than that we know how word of mouth sells books. So I'm forever dropping the name of this new writer or that new book, hoping to start a sort of viral word-of-mouth campaign that will soon land my books at the top of the best seller list. I also keep my ears open on listservs and at the occasional convention to see which writer might be doing something interesting and which writer I would not want to touch with a ten-foot pole. I always like to hear about which editors have signed books that I have rejected, and which books I have signed that others have rejected. For example, I believe that there is an editor at St. Martin's who is me in the world of antimatter. In the last two years, I have rejected three books that have been signed there, all by the same person. I wonder if he or she thinks I am a complete idiot, having let so many good books slip through my fingers....
9. THERAPIST. There's an old joke about editors being 10% editorial and 90% therapeutical. Fiction has had great fun with crazy authors who drive their editors insane with their emotional uproars and drama. That really isn't the case any longer. Writers are so much more professional now than in the past, and most of them take their work very seriously, working long hours and weekends (and not spending time with friends or family) to make their deadlines. So the therapeutic side of the editor's job has morphed into being an all-around supporter of the writer, a sort of gentle-but-firm parent who knows when to push harder and when to back off. The books mean so much to their writers, and that level of devotion must be respected and appreciated. After all, we are in this together.
10. BLOGGER. Well, all right, this isn't an official part of the job for most of us, but I've been having fun with Mysterious Matters. I started the blog as a way of blowing off some steam, of educating writers and the general public regarding what goes on behind the scenes. I think it's very valuable for people to understand our business models and why we as an industry are struggling so much. I like doing the blog, too, because it forces me to write--and a good editor really has to be a good writer too, I believe. For those who have written or commented, my thanks; and for those who have criticized or complained, have no worries--I can handle the debate. In fact, as one who's in the business of dishing out criticism (sometimes quite harsh) on a daily basis, I'd be a hypocrite indeed if I couldn't handle a little of it myself.