At just about every other publishing blog you visit, you’ll hear writers talk about their editors. You can tell because they immediately break out and shake their biz pom poms: “My editor is great!” or “I’m so lucky to be working with him/her” or “My book is so much better because of the work my editor did.”
Not all of this gushing is false. There are great editors out there. We’re lucky so many of them are as talented as they are. And yes, most of them do make us better writers. To all of those editors, I will say a big Thank You in advance, and ask you to leave now, because I’m not going to talk about you today.
For this post, I’m going to talk about the other kind of editor. The one no one talks about openly. The editor who is not so great, who isn’t a blessing, and who many times makes us seriously consider switching our careers to something easier, like cancer research.
Once you get into the biz, you will understand how vulnerable writers are when it comes to dealing with editor problems. Because editors have so much power over our books, our advance and royalty checks and, ultimately, our careers, pro writers can’t complain openly about them. What we do is talk privately among ourselves, although even then we’re guarded, because you never know to whom that conversation may be repeated, or where that complaining e-mail might be forwarded. The end result is that very little practical, useful information is available about editors.
Not knowing who you’re working with can land you in a business relationship that makes it harder to do your job, so it pays to do a little research on an editor before you begin working with one. The best person from whom to gather reliable information is your agent, who probably already knows from dealing with other clients’ problems which editors to avoid. If you’re acquainted with other writers who work with the editor you’re researching, ask if you can give them a call or get together at a conference and talk (although inevitably most will do the obligatory pom pom shake, a few tend to be honest, as long as there will be no record of what they say.) Be wary of anything that sounds like gossip or sour grapes. Pay attention instead to real facts and tangible evidence.
See what you or your agent can find out about the editor’s track record in the industry. How much experience does the editor have in your genre? Has the editor been jumping from house to house every couple of years? Is the editor overloaded? (Finding out how many writers the editor is already editing is important, as an editor who is handling fifteen writers is going to have more time to work with you than one who is juggling thirty.)
After you receive “the call” and you have that follow-up conversation with a prospective editor about the offer and what the publisher expects of you, you can use that as an opportunity to ask how much the editor can do for you and your books. Be polite but direct – and if the editor isn’t enthusiastic, won’t offer any specifics, or becomes defensive, that’s a big red flag.
Once you’re in a working relationship with an editor who you will never cheer for, you basically have two choices: 1) request another editor be assigned to you (and it’s best to let your agent handle this) or 2) tough it out. What you choose to do really depends on how tolerant you are, and how willing your publisher is to accommodate you. It’s stressful enough trying to write and publish and promote without battling a difficult editor at the same time, so if you’re already struggling, you don’t need carry the additional weight of a strenuous business relationship. If you can do so without endangering your career, I recommend getting out of bad situations with an editor by asking for reassignment.
If for whatever reason you can’t get away from a problematic editor and must instead put up with him/her (and this is what I’ve done in the past) then you need to protect yourself. When your editor behaves in an unprofessional manner, it will likely be verbal (because editors are just as wary about records as writers) and over the phone. Keep a record of all things that are said to you (you may want to start an editor diary.) If the editor continues to be verbally abusive, you can defuse the situation by having verbal contact with your editor only when your agent can be present as part of a conference call.
Also, collect evidence in the event you need to prove the editor has been behaving inappropriately. If the editor is foolish enough to lie or be abusive to you in writing, make copies and forward them to your agent, as this may be all you need to make the switch to working with a new editor.
Two types of editors you should never tolerate:
Substance abusers – don’t work with editors you know to be alcoholics or drug users. These people are in the grip of addiction and cannot be relied upon to do their job. Substance abuse in the workplace is not romantic or understandable, nor should you tolerate it for one second.
Physical abusers – no one, and I mean no one, in this business has the right to lay a finger on you, ever. An editor who tries to have inappropriate physical contact with you or to threaten you with it through sexual harassment is a danger, and needs to be reported and removed from their job before they hurt you or someone else.
As scary as those two types of editors sound, thankfully there are very few of them in the industry. Based on my experiences and what I’ve heard from other writers, the most prevalent types of problematic editors are those who lie, and those who are indifferent. Writers have to rely on whatever their editors tell them as the truth, and an editor who you catch in a lie can never be trusted again. An indifferent editor is almost as bad as having no editor; instead of getting the help and feedback you need, you’re left out in the cold to fend for yourself.
An editor who is a liar may seem like the worst of the pair, but it’s very simple to deal with them. This is a person who you can’t ever trust, so don’t trust them with anything confidential or important. Also, it’s best to set up a system of verification — in other words, whatever the editor tells you has to remain meaningless to you until you verify it with another, more trustworthy source, like your agent.
I think the indifferent editor is tougher to handle because trying to work with them is like having a meaningful conversation with a brick wall. The classic hallmarks of an indifferent editor are 1) they don’t return your phone calls, 2) they don’t answer your e-mails and 3) they refuse to provide feedback, advice or any reasonable support.
Before you judge an editor as indifferent, be sure you’re not behaving like a pest — few editors have the time to return three or four phone calls or a half dozen e-mails per week, and you’re not the only writer they edit, so the time they can spend giving you feedback, advice and support is likely limited. But if you’re only making the most necessary contact and still get no response, chances are your editor is indifferent to you, and that’s probably not going to change. Rather than confront the editor and make a bad situation worse, first talk to your agent and get their advice on the best way to handle it.
Now let’s talk about the other ways you the writer may factor into the problem you have with an editor. That’s right, you may be the real problem, not the editor. It’s easy to blame someone else for our career woes, and why not the person who was so directly involved with our work? I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard a writer say, “My book would have done so much better if I’d gotten some support from my lousy editor.”
Here’s another slice of reality: editors are in the business to edit books. That’s their job description. They are not responsible for your personal success, financial situation or bestseller status. They can influence those things to a certain degree by helping you in other areas, such as getting you cover quotes, or asking for better marketing or higher print runs, but they can’t wave a magic wand and make you into a star. If they could I’m sure they would, and their jobs would be a hell of a lot easier.
Editors are also not required to be your friend, hold your hand, tell you everything is going to be all right, and listen to your latest list of problems or descriptions of your unhappy home life. Most of them do anyway, because they know only too well how much pressure we’re under and how tough it is for a writer to succeed in today’s publishing industry. Still, there are some who just cannot spare the time or the emotional room to listen to writer bullshit. This is not personal; this is how they handle working with us.
Before you decide your editor is the problem, take a good, long, hard look at yourself. Are your expectations of your writer-editor relationship realistic? Do you regard your editor as the enemy, or a co-worker? Are you cooperative or combative? Do you always blame your editor for your lack of success? Are you doing absolutely everything you can to make things work out between the two of you? Instead of always thinking “What has my editor done for me?” once in a while ask yourself “What have I done for my editor?”
I’ve worked with a lot of editors at different publishers; about a dozen total since I turned pro. Most of them have been great to work with and have made me a better writer. Some were just okay. Only two were problematic and one was a nightmare. Still, that’s a 75% success rate, which I think is pretty good considering how often and randomly I’ve been shifted around due to publisher personnel or imprint changes. For the record, I’ve never asked to be reassigned to another editor — in the beginning of my career I was too afraid to say anything, and now I just outlast them.
All writers want is a great editor who is a dream to work with and who will be our partner in success. So the next time you find yourself looking at a prospective editor, working with one who isn’t so great, or trying to decide if you should make a change, be sure you are or you’re willing to be a great writer who is a dream to work with and who can be a partner instead of an adversary. Because in reality, that’s all most editors want, too.