“What’s it like to work with an editor?”is a question I often get from teachers, students, and aspiring authors and it’s one that takes some time to fully answer. In the best situations, an editor’s relationship to her author is like a coach’s relationship to an athlete: knowing her author’s personality, talent, and potential, she encourages her strengths, while tactfully pushing her toward improving on her weaknesses. When the relationship is working well, the writer feels supported, yet independent, and the editor trusts that the writer is carrying out her suggestions, moving the book toward their common goal of making it the very best it can possibly be.
When I began my writing career in 1989, things were a lot different in our industry. Submissions were made through the regular mail. I wrote my drafts long-hand on legal pads and then typed them into a huge, monochrome-screened computer using MS-DOS. I spoke with editors in person and by phone about current and future projects. Publishers did all of the promotion for my books (self-promotion? author marketing? What was that?) and I reviewed and approved every book contract myself.
Those times are long gone … and with them, some of the pre-digital age advantages of really knowing your editor as an individual (and vice versa) and being able to concentrate almost exclusively on writing. But some things about the author-editor experience have not changed at all: editors are still, at least the ones that I have worked with, very dedicated to making good literature, extremely hard-working, and serve as an author’s #1 collaborator through the production process.
But they are also individuals. Although their roles at the various publishing houses (acquiring manuscripts, offering guidance to the author as he/she shapes the story, working with the art director to choose an illustrator or cover artist, shepherding the book through the production process, helping to plan marketing strategies) may be similar, their execution of that role can be very different. Even so, the most important aspect of a successful author-editor relationship is communication. Let’s say an editor (we’ll call her Susan) has acquired a picture book biography manuscript I’ve written. It’s 75% done — which is to say, it’s a full story that shows good potential, but it needs some reworking and some additional back matter material. Susan will go over the draft several times, marking it up and making suggestions that she feels will improve the final text. She will send it back to me (email these days) and I will read her comments and do my best to address the issues she has highlighted. Some of these issues might be large ones (“Can we make the little brother more of an active character in the narrative?”) and some are small ones (“I think we can delete this whole line — the art will show this.”)
The manuscript bounces back and forth between us a few, several, many times — depending on how much work it needs. The clarity of communication between editor and author is paramount: I cannot make the necessary changes to the story if I have no idea what the editor is suggesting. Most editors are very, very good at this; it’s the focus of their training and they take this part seriously. Once the manuscript has been “accepted and delivered” (i.e., it’s a final draft that’s ready to go into production, where it will increasingly look like a book …), there is usually a period wherein there is less communication as the text is being illustrated. Normally, there is little, if any, communication between the author and the illustrator (a fact that never fails to astound at school visits) unless the illustrator needs help finding an original source, photograph, or has an accuracy-related question.
At this point, a good editor will keep in touch periodically to update an author about his/her book’s progress and to reinforce the rhythm of their relationship. Even if it’s just a quick email every few weeks to check in, share any questions from the illustrator, or just to say “everything’s on track for our publication date.” Remember: a good author and a good editor usually make an excellent book — and like all relationships, personal and professional — both partners need to invest time and attention to it. If they don’t, then you can bet that author will be more than happy to look elsewhere with her next manuscript. This is not rocket science, obviously, but in my own experience — and especially now that digital communication has largely displaced in-person and phone communication — it’s the editor who lets his/her author know that “I have your back”; “I am taking good care of your manuscript here as we search for just the right artist”; “I’m spending time thinking about how we can best position this book for some extra sales”; “I’m in touch with illustrator John Smith, and all is going really well”; “I saw this new book XYZ and I think we may want to do something similar in yours regarding sidebars and author’s note”…it’s that kind of editor with whom the author will want to keep working.
Being an editor is a tough job — always has been and always will be. They work long hours, wear many hats, juggle more deadlines and projects than we can imagine. Yet all the good ones know that it’s clear and consistent communication that keeps the good authors coming back.