What Is Your Editor Doing?

… when she’s not editing your book?

Like every writer I’ve ever known or heard tell of, I’m a fretful ball of nerves every time I send in a manuscript. Back in days of yore when I was writing my first books on stone tablets and had never edited anyone else in my life, I would start bitching as soon as the trader’s mule train crested the closest hill that it was taking too damned long for my edits to come back. “It’s taking her longer to edit the thing than it took me to write it!” I would rant to my nearest and dearest. “What the hell is she doing?”

Now that I’m an editor, too, I know. Sadly, unfortunately, tragically, boy howdy, do I ever know.

1.         Her day job: I used to think that editors had offices or cubicles or at least dedicated desk space somewhere at which they planted themselves every morning with nothing to do ‘til quitting time but edit books. If you still think that, bless your heart. These days, even the Big 5 NYC publishers (five . . . four . . . three . . . two . . . ) employ very few full-time fiction editors. And the ones they do employ spend at least as much time on stuff like marketing, statistical analysis, and helping their boomer boss download their email as they do actually editing.

            In my case, I have a full-time, nine-to-five, five days a week day job as a domestic court paralegal. My dedicated desk is here to help people get divorced, not edit books. Do I cheat? Most certainly—don’t tell my boss. But that cheating time is strictly limited by the need to keep up with my paralegal tasks so I don’t get fired. Editing your book fulfills my soul, and I love it. But it doesn’t pay my light bill.

2.         Writing her own book: In the wonderful, madcap world of small press publishing, virtually every editor is also a writer. And for most of us, no matter how much we love you and your book, our own writing comes first. By the time we get to the point in our writing career that we’re qualified to edit, we’ve learned how necessary it is to make our work a priority. As a writer who probably also has a day job and almost certainly has a life outside the stories you make up, you know how hard it is to find the time, energy and inspiration to write a book. So when that opportunity arises, by scheduled design or divine intervention, you’re going to grab it, and so am I. Put another way, if I’m letting my husband walk the dogs alone and letting the dishes pile up in the sink to get this chapter finished, I’m letting your manuscript wait for me, too.

3.         Editing somebody else’s book: When I started editing, I made it a solid policy to never work on more than one book at a time. I thought that was the only way I’d be able to edit and still write my own stuff. But yeah, that went out the window a while back and doesn’t seem likely to return.

4.         Doing promotion, packaging, physical sales, and everything else that goes into fiction as a business in the year 2022: Again, at a small press, the same people who are editing the books are doing everything else, too, from creating social media content to working the sales booth at conventions. In addition to the marketing and promotion work I do for my own work (a full-time job all by its itty-bitty self, I assure you), I try to be an advocate and resource for the authors I edit. I do what I can to help them create their own marketing plans and make sure their voice is heard in the packaging and promotion of their work within the publishing house. As your editor, the person who works for your publisher and has been where you are many times before, that’s part of my job, and I’m more than happy to do it. But like everything else, it takes time.

5.         Reading, watching TV, eating tacos: The TV and tacos are pretty self-explanatory, but the reading is more than just a fun release. To be a decent editor (and writer), I have to read other books in my genre—NEW books. Books that are selling. Books that were created for and are being marketed to the audience my authors and I are trying to reach. It’s fun, and I love it. But it’s also necessary—and time-consuming.

6.         Answering your emails: I hesitate to even mention this because I never want any author to feel weird about getting in touch with me for any reason at all. And if you have a problem or a question; if you’re stuck trying to transition into your third act or you hate the first mock-up of your new cover or whatever, please, by all means, speak up; I’m keen to help. But if you’re just “touching base,” or “checking in” or “seeing where we are,” I will be very nice to you. I love talking to my authors; they are some of my favorite people in the whole wide world. But inside my head, I’ll be thinking, “I’m here; I remember I owe you an edit; I care about that a whole bunch; and I’m doing my fucking job, I promise.”

            And I know that sounds harsh and pissy. I mean, all you’re asking for is a three-line email, right? Five minutes of my attention, tops—hardly too much to ask. Except you need five minutes. And she needs five minutes. And he needs five minutes. And they need five minutes. It adds up fast, particularly when you consider everything else on this list. An editor with a much longer list of clients than mine (and a much more successful sales record with their own work) recently told me, “I could fill my entire week doing nothing but reassuring authors I haven’t forgotten about them.”

And that makes sense. Being a writer is hard; waiting to hear your editor’s reaction to the story you’ve worked on so hard for so long is torture; I know that. Waiting with your hands folded for your book to be published is like dying; you wrote it to be read. The process of getting it from your pen to the bookstore shelf (or your keyboard to Amazon) does take fucking forever; I know that, too, and I’m so, soooo very sorry.

But here are three things your editor is absolutely NOT doing while she’s not sending you your edits:

1.         Kicking back in some dark, seedy basement club for editors, swilling gin and laughing as I read your latest email aloud to my equally vicious colleagues so we can mock your pain together: Honest. I swear.  

2.         Ignoring, forgetting, or ghosting you: I keep a list of my pending editing projects on my computer and physically written down on a piece of paper stuck inside the notebook where I’m writing my own stuff. I see it a hundred times a day. I feel guilty every time I see it. I hate that it takes me so long to get your edits back to you, and all this other stuff notwithstanding, I do carve out hours and hours every week to edit. It’s an important priority for me, not a sideline. And when I’m working on your book, you have my undivided and entirely enraptured attention, I promise. Because here’s the thing; you write great books. Which leads me directly to …

3.         Avoiding the discomfort of telling you your writing sucks: This is the one I hear most often from writers and the one that’s the most ridiculous. First of all, if your writing really did suck, I would want to tell you as quickly as possible to get you out of my editing life, and I probably wouldn’t feel all that uncomfortable doing it. There’s too much good writing in the world to waste time polishing turds. Secondly, if your writing sucked, you wouldn’t be working with me in the first place. My publisher wouldn’t have acquired your book. We wouldn’t be looking forward to making money off your gift—because ultimately that’s what publishing is. My boss buys the books he thinks will sell. He assigns them to me for editing not because he wants me to fix them but because he wants me to help you make them even better. So they will sell more. And make even more money.

Okay, this is already way too long, so I’ll stop. But next week, I’ll be back with some suggestions for writers to make this hideously drawn-out process go a little more smoothly and maybe even a little faster.

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