Dealing with Editors

by Marg McAlister


The first thing you need to understand about dealing with editors is that they are people just like you. They are not to be feared. They are not to be idolized. They are simply employed by a publisher to (a) find new talent and (b) to work with authors so their book has the best possible chance of making a profit.

Writers tend to lose sight of the fact that publishing is a business. Why do people go into business? To make money. If they don't, they have to close their doors. Publishers must always keep an eye on the bottom line, and this means that editors are caught in the middle. Their job is to try to guess which books will appeal to the public. What kind of characters do people want? What kind of plots? What's hot, and what's not? Will what was selling like hot cakes a year ago still sell today?

It's not easy to predict what readers want. (A famous example: the editor who rejected the first Harry Potter book obviously didn't think it would sell. The editor who accepted it thought differently - and that publisher (as well as the author) is smiling all the way to the bank. Keep this in mind if your story is rejected: editors don't always get it right.)

As you can see, the kinds of questions that editors are asking themselves are very similar to the questions in an author's mind. You and your editor want the same thing - a book that will capture the imagination of readers and sell well. Given this common goal, you would think that the process would be plain sailing: the author sends in a manuscript, the editor reads it, says 'yes' or 'no', then both parties move on. Unfortunately, this is rarely the case. The problems that writers experience when dealing with editors mostly tend to arise from a lack of communication. This is true for multi-published authors as well as new writers who are hoping to break in.

Let's take a look at some of the issues.

1. Your Manuscript is Held for Months or Years

This is the most common complaint from authors. You send in a manuscript, then wait. And wait. And wait. Four months later, you're feeling frustrated and irritated. How can it take four months to read a manuscript? (Especially if you write for children and the story is very short.) The reasons for such a delay can range from overburdened staff to the resignation of an editor. It's common for editors to move around in the publishing industry. Your manuscript could be a casualty of such a move - the first editor might have been interested; the second might not.

Keep in mind that editors don't arrive at work in the morning ready to sit down and wade through the submission pile. (And it IS a large and never-ending pile.) They have to attend meetings; work on manuscripts that have been accepted; monitor the progress of books that are with the printer; contact authors; attend industry-related events; return phone calls; work through their e-mail; keep up with what other publishers are doing... and so the list goes on. Very often, the only way they can make time to read new manuscripts is to take them home and read them after hours.

On the flip side, you, as an author, are also running a business. No matter how much you enjoy writing, you still want to be paid for your efforts. You also want to be treated with a little respect - if they don't want your book; fine: but you want to know the verdict so you can send it elsewhere! You have a product to market, and you need to keep it moving.

The harsh truth is that you are the supplicant in this situation. We all know that without writers there would not be anything for publishers to sell and they would not make any money. However, it's a case of supply and demand. When publishers are receiving more manuscripts than they have time tor read, they have the luxury of choice. If you were the only writer submitting, then undoubtedly you'd get more attention - but when you're one of thousands, the situation changes. So what do you do?

The first step is to try to find out the publisher's estimated response time. Writers' Marketplace guides often have this information. (For example, when I check Harlequin Enterprises (publishers of romance fiction) I see that they state their average response time as 4-6 months. Harper Collins Children's Publishing is 12 weeks. Harcourt Education say 6-8 weeks. Harper Collins Publishers say 3 weeks to 3 months.) Once you know the 'average response time' then you have a basis for action.

Send in your manuscript, and if you haven't heard by four weeks after the end of the maximum response time, send a query asking about the status of your manuscript. If that doesn't get a response within a couple of weeks, send another query. If you fail to get a response to that either, send a letter advising that you are also submitting your manuscript elsewhere. (It's up to you whether you want to withdraw it from the first publisher completely.)

NOTE: Many writers are now moving to simultaneous submission - that is, they send out their manuscript to several publishers at the same time. If an offer is made, they notify the other publishers that the manuscript is now withdrawn. Most see this as being vastly preferable to waiting up to six months to get a 'no thanks' from Publisher #1 before being able to re-submit it to Publisher #2, then another four months to get a 'no' from Publisher #2, etc etc.

2. You Aren't Told Why Your Manuscript Is Rejected

A pet peeve of writers is that quite often, they just get a "no" without any explanation of why the story was rejected. A rejection can take many forms - from a scribbled 'no thanks' or 'not this time' scribbled in pencil on the manuscript itself, to a form letter saying something like "...regrettably, we are unable to place your story at this time...". If your story was good enough to receive serious consideration, an editor may take the time to suggest changes or to suggest another publisher. This, however, is rare. Why don't editors bother to tell you what's wrong with your story?

The main reason is simple: they don't have time - they still have many, many other manuscripts to assess. Another reason is that your writing isn't yet of a publishable standard, but to explain why would take too long. The editor's job is to sift through manuscripts to find those that look promising and take them to the next step (further reading, discussion with colleagues, an acquisition meeting etc). Her job is NOT to explain to aspiring writers what they need to do to improve their style/plotting/grammar. Furthermore, even if you're lucky enough to get some feedback, editors don't necessarily agree on what is wrong with your story.

Talk to any group of seasoned writers who have sent a story to several publishers and you'll hear the same thing - one editor might comment that she loved the characters but the plot was far-fetched; another will say that she enjoyed the originality of the plot but the characters were two-dimensional. You can get feedback from other informed sources as well, and you probably should. Find a writing group with experienced writers (online or offline); do a writing course, and/or think about getting a critique done. If more than one person points out the same problem, you should work on that aspect of your story.

3. The Editor Wants/Has Made Changes

Sometimes editors will request a change that you don't want to make. Stay calm and discuss this with him/her. If you really don't think the change is justified, stick to your guns. It's unlikely to get to the stage where it's 'make the changes or there's no deal'. It's very common for editors to request a change in the title - what seems humorous or quirky to you may not be a title that will sell books.

All too often writers are surprised by changes to their story when they get the proofs. At this stage the request is usually that any changes be minimal, because it gets more costly to change things. If the altered story hasn't changed a great deal, let it go. If it has - state your case.

One friend of mine found that her story had been cut by hundreds of words. Unfortunately, the editor had done a terrible job - she'd just cut out chunks without checking to see if the story still made sense. It didn't. My friend pointed this out and told the editor that while she was amenable to having it cut by the required number of words, she'd prefer to do it herself.

I've experienced the heavy hand of an editor myself. She didn't make many changes - but one change was really 'ouch' territory. I got the brand-new copies of my book, sat down to read one through - and there it was, staring at me from the last sentence in Chapter 3: a spelling error! The sentence in question read: "This play was definately jinxed." Aaargghh! Now, spelling was always one of my best subjects in school. I correct OTHER people's spelling. How could I have made a mistake like this? I dug out the proofs to see if I'd missed it there. What did I discover? In the proofs, the line was written exactly as I had first created it: "This play was jinxed.". Apparently the editor had decided at the last minute that she preferred the sentence with the word 'definitely' in it - except she couldn't spell. That's a relatively small matter, I know. Other writers have been reduced to tears over extensive, unauthorized changes to their work.

Luckily, editors like this are few and far between. If you come across one, it's up to you whether you want to really dig your heels in. Sometimes the editor requests changes because of political correctness. You may not agree, but in most cases the editor has her hands tied - she has rules and standards imposed on her from above, and has to apply them. Your task is to adhere to such standards as closely as you can without spoiling the tone or meaning of your story. Think of it as a challenge for your writing ability, but don't blame the editor.

In summary, use these points as a guideline to your dealings with editors:

  • Be professional at all times and keep your temper.
  • Be conversant with that publisher's general guidelines and time frame (often on their website)
  • Consider simultaneous submissions so you don't have to wait for months to hear from one publisher at a time
  • Send a follow-up letter (or email, if these are accepted) soon after the end of stated response time
  • If you don't get an answer to a second letter or email, phone to ask the status of your submission
  • If you don't get a response to your third contact, let them know that you are now also submitting your story elsewhere.

© Marg McAlister


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