Write Byte

Editors & the Author’s Road to Success
(We’re talking $,$$$,$$$ & Best Seller Lists)


Pray You Don’t Get the “Editor From Hell” Cuz If You Do You Can
Slam Dunk Your Career in the Toilet. . . & Flush

(May 18, 2000)

In my 2001 contemp suspense novel, I open with:

“Fate was a bitch with a sick penchant for cold cocking men at the zenith of their careers. Brandon Carlyle didn’t think too highly of Fate. Or of Destiny either, for that matter. Neither was he inclined to believe the old adage when God slammed one door, He opened another. When God slam-dunked Brandon’s life and career in the toilet, He had not opened another door. He’d simply flushed. And kept flushing every chance He got.”

While Brandon Carlyle is a down on his luck movie star idol with a major hump on for Fate, the same could be true for any, and all, writers who are unfortunate enough to find their careers in the hands of what we in the business term the “editor from hell.” EFH.

The Making of the Best Seller Baby

Fate and/or luck plays a major role in any author’s career. It’s fate and/or luck that an aspiring writer’s manuscript falls into the right editorial hands at the right time. It’s fate and or luck that determines whether that editor is still wet behind the ears (and therefore virtually powerless as far as assuring that the author will manage to claw her/his way out of the mid-list mire before she/he succumbs to old age) or whether that editor is a mover and shaker with a history of producing Best Seller Babies (BSBs) (usually a Senior/Executive Editor).

To fully comprehend the import of a good editor one must understand exactly what an editor does and why she/he is so important to the author’s career.

1) Editor buys manuscript. Make no mistake. Editors buy manuscripts for one reason. Because they believe there is potential there – potential for what? Potential to make money for the publisher. The more money the book makes for the publisher, the better the editor’s chance of moving up the ladder. (From associate editor, Editor, Senior Editor, Executive Editor, then finally to an office bigger than a bread box and if she/he is very lucky it might even have a window.)

2) A good editor recognizes the story’s potential and will enthusiastically, and gently, help author to mold the story into a product worth publishing. (Also called revisions.) Editor’s and author’s best friend is the red pencil. Line editing is very important to smooth off the rough edges. Any author who brags that the editor didn’t touch her work or ask for revisions is an arrogant fool. No one is perfect!

If there are holes in the plot, inconsistent characterization, weak dialogue etc it is the editor’s job to ask the author to correct or improve it.

Copy editors should be ruthless about double checking editor’s and author’s work else readers/reviewers will brutalize poor author and she will consider jumping off a bridge.

3) Editor enthusiastically represents the book in cover meetings- suggesting ideas that (hopefully) reflect the general idea of the book. With luck, the editor will have a vague idea of marketing: what’s hot, what’s not. This will also help her in guiding the author’s next works – having foresight into the market trends.

4) Editor will hype your book in-house like it is the next Gone With the Wind. She will convince the sales force that readers are going to pack the book stores to grab a copy of the book as eagerly as teeny boppers trying to cop a feel of the ‘N Sync boys.

5) Editor should have a vague idea of how the sales force wheels and deals with discounts and incentives. On this most editors plead ignorant. Don’t know if they really are or they just don’t want to own up to the massacre which usually takes place when the reps go head to head with the buyers. Anyone who has been on the inside of those dealings, which I have, knows that when a pub wants to move a book there ain’t nothin’ they won’t do to accomplish it. Well. . . almost nothin’.

Haven’t seen too many Execs sell their first born for a best seller. . . yet. Not that it’s outside the scope of probability.

6) Editor should send out advance copies of work. Editor should collect all reviews of work and thoughtfully cull the bad ones and send only the good ones to nervous author, else author will consider jumping off a bridge – again. (A good editor will assume some responsibility for bad ones cuz she/he had the opportunity to correct the problem–if there truly is a problem. Editor should also pat him/herself on the back over the good ones cuz she/he had a hand in that as well.) Editor should follow progress of book and in a timely fashion inform the author/agent how the book is doing.

It is as much in the editor’s best interest as the author’s best interest for a book to hit the New York Times Best Seller List. Editors get nice bonuses and promotions for the author’s good fortune – which also explains why an editor’s interest in an author will become derailed fast if the books fall short of expectations. Editors are going to focus most of their positive energy on the books/authors with the most potential to win them prestige in the business.

Authors rarely have any say whatsoever about what editor they work with, unless, of course, they’ve hit the upper stratosphere of fame and fortune.

When author is bought by a particular editor, author should not get overly enthused if editor happens to be known for developing the BSBs. Author should not get big headed because the BSB editor declares she is going to move heaven and earth to make author a superstar. Why? Because author might go to bed one night with the promises of the adoring BSBer dancing in her head, but she might wake up to the news that the BSB darling has just turned in her resignation and has moved to greener pastures. . .probably the publisher that author has just left in order to work with the darling BSBer.

Enter the Editor From Hell

Author now finds herself orphaned. Either she is shuffled in-house to another editor who is already over worked, over booked, and over wrought, or a new editor from another pub takes the BSBer’s place. If author is lucky it’s not an editor over which author has already brutalized voodoo dolls. Regardless, either way, author is not a “chosen one” by that particular editor. And if author is not already a BSB, watch out. Times is agonna change real quick!

Now let me go on record here to say that I’ve been fortunate to work with some of the finest editors in the genre. Carin Cohen bought me initially. (Avon) Ellen Edwards whipped me into shape; excellent editor.

One of the finest in the business. I might have felt like I’d been run through the shredder during revisions but by golly I was confident that when my book hit the shelves it was going to be the very best it COULD be. Jackie Cantor came next. (NAL) She encouraged my growth as a writer and cheered my individuality. I believe she’s now John Grisham’s paperback editor. Next came Carrie Feron. (Jove) One of the most brilliant marketing editors in this business. Recognizes trends, has her finger on the pulse of the readership. Alas, she wasn’t there for me but two books before she moved to Avon. Orphan time!

Of course I had heard of the Editor From Hell long before I ever experienced one for myself. (Editor shall and always will remain nameless except to those of us who suffered through it.) But I don’t think anyone is ever really prepared, until you’re staring it straight in the eye and feeling like you’ve just been sucked deep into a Stephen King novel. (Protagonist tries to convince herself this is a nightmare but upon pinching herself realizes she really is up poop creek without a paddle.) Imagine enduring this hell for five years. The only help coming was the realization that it was nothing personal. I learned that several other authors were caught in her Editor from Hell web. We are all very proud that she has recently quit the publishing business and (can you believe it?) actually moved with her husband to the town I’m living in outside of Dallas. Yes! Friends, she is here. Somewhere. Occasionally when I look off into the horizon I think I see radioactivity glowing in the distance.

Before I share with you the Commandments of the Editor From Hell, I will say that I’m most fortunate that the editor who took EFH’s place is a brilliant old friend from Avon, Christine Zika. Her career has quickly skyrocketed. Early in her career she worked closely with Ellen Edwards and is therefore thorough, insightful, and encouraging, with a positive energy and an enthusiasm for her authors that has breathed life into more than a few burned out and fed up writers. She will go far in this business, I’m sure, and no matter who I ultimately end up writing for in the future, I will always be grateful to her for her kindness and caring – but mostly for her enthusiasm for my work.

The following is a compilation of EFH issues that were kindly and eagerly provided to me from several surviving shell-shocked authors.

Commandments of the Editor From Hell

Thou Shalt Not Communicate with Author (She might start to feel special)

    a. Do not return author/agent phone calls, faxes, emails.
    b. Do not respond to letters.
    c. Remind author/agent when EFH finally does reply that author isn’t the only author in her stable – there are far more important matters in which to attend and never mind that she and author haven’t spoken on the phone for a year and a half. d. Tell author EFH will read manuscript by 10th of March and will release money no later than the 15th of March.
    d. Finally release author’s money in August, or better yet, November.

Thou Shalt Not Encourage Author (She might believe the pub plans to promote her work)

    a. When author asks how her books are doing answer: Don’t have a clue.
    b. When author voices concern about obvious distribution problems semi-scream into phone: So what do you expect me to do about it? That’s got nothing to do with me!
    c. When author asks about her cover, respond:

      1. I think it’s got a flower on it.
      2. I think it’s got a flower on it.
      3. I think it’s got a flower on it.
      4. I think it’s got a feather on it.

Thou Shalt Convince Author by Malaise that She is Insignificant (Editor must do everything she can to make certain of it)

    a. Do not read manuscript – send it directly to the copy editor.
    b. Do not edit manuscript.
    c. Do not request revisions although the book desperately needs it.
    d. Offer author no guidance on what to write next.
    e. Lose every manuscript author sends in, requesting author to reprint entire manuscript and send it to her FedEx over night.
    f. Send copy editor manuscript with the last 100 pages missing.
    g. Forget author has manuscript coming in so because it’s not in the schedule author must wait another 8 months for publication.
    h. Forget to submit manuscript to Book Club and excuse herself with “Oh my goof. Too late now.”

Thou Shalt Squash Self Esteem and Self Confidence (Keep the author in her place)

    a. Do not send author good reviews
    b. Send author negative reviews with funny notes attached:

      1. Oops!
      2. Oh well.
      3. Too bad

    c. Remind author at every opportunity that she is not Nora Roberts.

If author hits a best seller list, editor must remind her that it’s of no significance – sell through is the most important thing (Can’t let author get a big head, she’ll want more money)

If author does not hit a best seller list but sell through is good, editor must remind author that best seller lists are the key to longevity (And the path by which the editor will get promoted.)

Thou shalt encourage self promotion (Saves publisher money)

Thou shalt discourage self promotion (Especially when it screws up pub’s marketing plans for other authors coming out that month.)

I’ll sum up here by saying that generally, I’ve never met an editor I haven’t liked (with the exception of the EFH). Most are enthusiastic, dedicated, and driven. They’re always over worked and under paid. (I sure as heck wouldn’t want to deal with fifty or more paranoid authors who feel they are the next Coming and should be #1 on the NYT.) They put their neck on the line with every book and every new author they pluck out of the slush pile. In short, to pardon the old cliche, one bad apple doesn’t spoil the whole bunch…but it can certainly make you want to jump off a bridge. . .again.

— Katherine Sutcliffe

I’m thrilled to announce that I have sold two big historicals to Pocket Books! It’s been my dream to write for Pocket, and while they’ve been banging on my door for a couple of years, my contract commitment to Jove didn’t allow me to make a move. Now that Jove is focusing more my contemps, I was given the opportunity to work with Pocket, so I jumped. Their plans for me sound very exciting, and I think they’ll be a very positive change for my career climb. My first book for them will be out August 2001.

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