Recently I started contract work with a small press taking on any extra editing work with which they found themselves (don’t worry, people who have contacted me previously about editing work, I am still taking private projects as well with the same rates as always). What once again working with a press has made me think about, however, is the difference between working with a private editor (whether you intend to self-publish or then move on to submissions) and working with an editor your publisher assigns.
After introducing myself to one of the authors I’m working with for the press, I found myself a little taken aback by the email I received back. Now, nothing about it was rude or combative (I haven’t even started on the manuscript, so I wouldn’t imagine there’s much to argue about at this point–and for the most part authors I know are pretty congenial with their editors) but I didn’t contain a lot of “I” language (“I’d like you to…” “I want help on…” “I think you should…”) which was a little jarring.
Now, before I continue, when you as an author contract me (or any other private editor for that matter), “I” language is the norm. I, as a private editor, am here to help you make your manuscript everything you want it to be. If you want me to focus on X and X alone, that is all I will touch. If you want suggestions on how to substantially alter the manuscript/story, I can do that as well. I am working for you, the author. I am completely honest with my suggestions/changes I believe should be made, but if you just want one thing (or even don’t want to follow a single suggestion I give you) that is up to you. It’s your novel/short story/memoir. You can do absolutely anything you wish to do with it (just try to stay away from things that might get you sued if you’re planning on publishing).
When you have an editor through your publisher, however, the entire dynamic changes. If I am your editor through a press, I am now working for your publisher, not you (just look at who’s paying the bill). While I have never met a press that wishes to entirely railroad an author by unilaterally making changes, by signing that contract, you generally give final editing approval to the press. If you refuse to make those changes, they can either choose to drop your book entirely, or send it to print as they want it, depending on your contract (I know even from reading my own published books I have found one or two instances where a sentence was entirely reworked after I saw the “final” edit. None of them have really mattered all that much as far as the “integrity” of the story, though, so I’ve never really cared. Just something I’ve noted). As your editor in this instance, I am here to make your story the best it can be–but also to make it into what your publisher wants it to be.
For this reason, I’m not used to the “I”s quite so much in this kind of editing. Especially when it comes to big things. You might actually “want suggestions as to adding X subplot” it doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re going to get them. Not without the okay of your publisher. The reason you should do any substantive edits before you submit to a publisher is, once you’re contracted, you’re not really supposed to change your story that much. If you talked with your publisher ahead of time/have discussed changing X, Y, and Z, I’m more than happy to help you with that. If you have just suddenly decided you don’t like your ending anymore–you better believe I’m not touching that without an okay from the editor-in-chief. A publisher has contracted your book as they have read it. Acquisitions has read both a synopsis (probably) and the full manuscript (I would hope, if it’s any sort of good press), and decided this is something they have wanted to put into print. Your manuscript as you have currently presented it to them. They didn’t, however, agree to publish this general story with other major changes you have now decided you’ve wanted to make. Perhaps they don’t like the idea of the new subplot, maybe they think the current ending will sell better, maybe they don’t want the story to be any longer purely for space reasons. Whatever they think, it is their decision to make (and my job to help execute) not the author’s.
And so, some tips if you are going through editing with your publisher (after you celebrate that you’ve found a publisher, of course):
1. Acknowledge there will be edits. You’ve (hopefully) already edited your novel within an inch of its life by the time you’ve started submitting to agents/publishers, but that doesn’t mean that it won’t go into more edits once it’s contracted. If your publisher “doesn’t do” edits or suggests you hire an editor yourself, consider finding another publisher. It’s your publisher’s job to make sure your book is the best it can be before it hits the shelves, and while that might be subjective, it means more edits before it hits the presses. Even the best-written, magnificent, certain-next-best-seller out there is going to come back to you with red lines in it. Whether it’s just them tweaking things to fit their house style guides or wanting massive changes, there will be edits. Embrace it. There is always room for improvement when it comes to writing.
2. Acknowledge your publisher has different goals than you. You are the author. Your job up until this point has been to tell an interesting story that you love the best way you know how. You are the creative brain behind the project. Your publisher is the business side of things. It is your publisher’s job to print and market your book in a way that will make both of you money. Publishers don’t stay in business by slapping a cover on something and sending it out to bookstores. They do their best to keep an eye on what is selling, figure out why, and then try to make your book do that. If they think they can make your book do that more easily by deciding on some changes, they are going to do that. That is their job/what enables them to sign those paychecks.
3. Make all the changes you want before starting to submit. I’m well aware at some point you just sort of have to set your pen down/close your laptop/sign off Google Drive and say DONE when it comes to edits. I don’t know if I’ve ever had a book that I felt there weren’t other possible edits if I just looked at it again. Perhaps this line would sound a little better if I X. Perhaps I shouldn’t have included that other love interest. Perhaps I should have thought to tweak…If you’re anything like me, you’re never 100 percent satisfied when you go back and look at (even published) works a year later. The trick is bringing it up to a point where you are satisfied with it, when it is the best it can possibly be at that exact second, and then casting it off into the world. Otherwise everything would remain a perpetual work in progress. Once you have made that choice (to send it off) accept that it is done. Sure you can make tweaks here and there, but if you think you might want to entirely rewrite the ending you aren’t done. Self-motivated major changes should have no place in your manuscript once you have an agent/publisher interested in it.
4. Listen to what major changes a publisher/agent might want before signing anything. In interest of not getting into fights with authors/ending up having to pull a book after they’ve put a ton of work/money/effort into getting it ready for publication, most publisher will let you know any major changes they’ll want before contracting you (“major” meaning completely writing out a character, changing the ending, or chopping an entire subplot. That sort of thing). If you say “okay” mean it. If it’s something you can’t deal with, turn the contract down. As hard as that might be some times.
5. Don’t try to go behind your publisher’s back. Especially not with your assigned editor. As I stated above, when working for a press, we editors have to primarily be concerned with keeping the publisher happy. If you want a major change, we are most likely going to go to the publisher anyway to get an “okay” it’s not going to happen, have us pass it up and go “Oh well, that’s what the author wants. Too late to change it.” That’s a pretty good way for us to end up not getting paid until we put it back. If you happen to decide at the last minute you need something changed, discuss it with the higher ups. If they say go for it, your editor will likely be more than willing to help you make them.
6. Remember your editor is not the enemy. All that said, your editor does (or at least should) want to work with you and help make your book the best it can be. We didn’t get into the business by hating good books, after all. Yes, we will tell you “no” about your own book if our bosses say “no” to us and sometimes suggest changes you don’t like that lo and behold the publisher decides to go with, but we aren’t doing it because we’re out to get you. We make suggestions we truly believe will make your book better and/or are required by the publisher’s style guide. Please try to be understanding (or at the very least not send us angry emails).
7. If you don’t want anyone touching anything without you having the final say, consider self-publishing. Now, I really don’t intend this tip to sound flippant, but it’s the truth. As soon as your signature is down on a publishing contract you are generally signing away the right to final say over just about anything (check your contract, final say on cover art/edits are generally explicitly given to the publisher). At that point your recourse to keep something you’ll put your foot down over from happening to your story is to try to pull the project all together. As I’ve said before a publisher is more than likely not going to railroad you and turn your heartbreaking tale of two lesbian lovers into a feel-good novel about two best friends out on the prowl for guys. If your publisher were interested in a story completely different from the one you wrote, they would have said no to you and looked for that story instead. Many publishers get hundreds or thousands of submissions a day/week/month. There’s no reason to try to rewrite an entire novel to be something you might find elsewhere. You do, however, have to accept that you might not get the exact cover you want or have that one sentence back the way you think is perfect. If you are worried about those things, you do have a way of publishing while maintaining complete control over your work. Self publishing. Self publishing of course has its own ups and downs, but working with an editor answering to someone other than you is not one of them.