At the risk of turning this into a music blog rather than a crime fiction blog... bear with me, as the link to mystery will become apparent.
In my last posting I ruminated about the difficult path many artists face in bringing their work to the public's attention, trying to stay "on top," and finding that tricky balance between something comercially viable and artistically intact. As an editor I try to respect the writer's craft and vision while also trying to steer the project onto a path that will achieve some sort of commercial success. Commercial publishers aren't nonprofit organizations; we need successful books to survive. Some day it might be interesting for some philanthropist to begin a publisher dedicated to publishing works of crime fiction that deserve to be published, without profit motive - as many university presses do in such areas as poetry and philosophy. (Admittedly, I think fewer and fewer university presses are able to pursue this type of publishing, due to the demands of the parent organization and the 21st-century demand for Profit At All Costs.)
This week, my oldest daughter brought to my attention the 30th anniversary release of a classic 1980s album, "Beauty and the Beat" by the all-girl group the Go-Go's. This daughter was the first to hear of them, and her enthusiasm spread to the rest of the family (all the kids were teenagers in those days). She brought the CD over and we had a nice trip down memory lane, remembering a lot of the lyrics and singing along, albeit in a mangled way. There were so many things about that album that seemed fresh and fun at the time, and I think it's held up well. And, interestingly, I like the music a lot even though I don't really like Belinda Carlisle's voice (lead singer). Which is sort of like saying there are books I really like, even though I don't care for the author, at least based on impressions made in bookstores, in interviews, on listservs, and the like.
But, back to the Go-Go's. How does this all relate to mystery fiction? Well, as a 30th anniversary edition, the CD had a booklet of liner notes that included reminiscences of the band's early days - and the recording of the album - from each of the five group members. I've always enjoyed seeing stories told from different points of view (think AN INSTANCE OF THE FINGERPOST), and that's what these reminiscences were.
What I found most interesting was the band members' memories of their producer, a man who had produced some of the great commercially successful acts of the 1970s and 1980s. All of them remember not liking the direction he was providing, the decisions he was forcing onto the music, like slowing it down and teaching the bass player how to play bass. When the record came out, they felt that it wasn't really "them," but they felt they'd reached a milestone just being have a record released. And then something strange happened - the album was a huge hit, the group was launched, and the reason was clear: the producer had taken the strong core material written by the band and helped polish it into a form that people wanted to hear.
Sound familiar? I think many writers, especially those who've had their first work accepted/bought, encounter similar feelings. Their baby is no longer theirs alone - it now has a "rich uncle" who is trying to craft it into something that will break through into the public consciousness. The excitement of the contract can be tempered by what seem strange, odd, or subjective editorial requests (these following, of course, strange, odd, or objective agent requests). The line is a tough one to negotiate and requires many leaps of faith, many internal battles as well as some external ones. When success happens, there's a sort of acknowledgment that others have helped them on the road to success, but never a full forgetting of the ways in which these "outsiders" have forced their opinions onto a book.
Don't get me wrong. The Go-Go's liner notes showed nothing but respect for their producer and what he did for them. And I have felt the same sort of appreciation, for most of my career, from writers - from the delightfully easy to the frightfully difficult. In my career, there has been only one writer who has not acknowledged me in her acknowledgments - and I'm human enough to admit that I bear her a bit of ill will about that; she'll never understand how I went to the wall for that book, which did fine; she never wrote another book after that, though, because she just couldn't handle the process.
One of my mentors,early in my career, told me that if I ever got along with my authors too well, I was not doing my job correctly. He said that a condition of "low heat" brings about the best books. And I do think he's right about that. In my editorial comments I don't mince words; I say exactly what I think, though I try do to so in a way that is respectful and polite. I have found that almost all writers appreciate this while simultaneously working hard not to have their feelings hurt. I don't mind at all when a writer pushes back; editorial work is a conversation, and I sometimes need to be educated on what the author is trying to accomplish. Case in point: In a recent manuscript, I cut an entire swath, finding it extraneous - the author came back to me explaining why it needed to be there. I saw her point and the debate was concluded to everyone's satisfaction.
I think the point I'm trying to make, in a sort of roundabout way, is that while writers see the challenges of trying to please an editor and agent, they don't necessarily see how editors also have a constitutency they have to please: Publishers. Owners. Accountants. Editorial boards. Publicists. (If they're not excited about selling the book, we're up the creek.) Readers. Librarians. Reviewers. Bookstore owners. Opinion leaders. We are out there fighting these battles so you don't have to. It's all part of the extremely complicated process of getting a creative work accepted by an overwhelmed and easily distracted public.