Early last year I was the fortunate recipient of the tenth Beatrice Davis Editorial Fellowship, an award that gives a senior editor in Australia the chance to go to the United States to learn more about their craft and the publishing industry. I spent three months in New York examining the relationship between authors and their editors/publishers and literary agents.
My focus was on literary fiction and one of the starting points for my research was the assumption that the relationship between an author and their editor/publisher is a close one. Many editors go to great lengths to look after writers they work with. Beatrice Davis, the most famous of Australian editors past, who worked with the likes of Ruth Park and Miles Franklin, was renowned for her very personal relationships with those she edited. Jacqueline Kent, in her biography of Davis, A Certain Style, paints the picture of an editor who had authors around to her house for soirées.
Presuming that authors are just as important as they ever were to publishing houses, how far beyond a strict business arrangement should the editor–author relationship go? Should editors foster the author’s creativity, help to create the right conditions for an author to produce writing, bolster the author’s self-esteem, act as the author’s advocate in the company, get the author through tough times, calm their nerves, ease their angst? Or are editors so pushed, is their work so tightly scheduled and commercially focused that there is no longer the time for this type of support? Has the nurturing process been sacrificed in the search for efficiency and, as a result, do manuscripts now need to be polished up elsewhere before they are contracted to a publishing house?
The other focus for my research was the knowledge that agents are a much greater force in the United States than in Australia. Numbers alone tell the story: there are 410 members of the US Association of Authors’ Representatives, as compared to the equivalent association in Australia, the Australian Literary Agents’ Association, which lists a mere sixteen members. Another difference is that the vast majority of published authors in the United States have agent representation—I don’t have reliable statistics for Australia, but in my experience not even close to 50 per cent of authors have an agent although this number may increase if Australian publishing follows the US example. In this world of more agents—and of the resultant auctions and bidding wars, of the author and the publishing house not necessarily sticking together—has the agent now replaced the editor as the author’s ‘best friend’?
Everyone I spoke to on the subject in New York acknowledged that writers generally have closer, longer term relationships with their agents than with their editors, primarily because agents now are much more of a constant in writers’ lives. These days publishing no longer comprises family businesses, and editors move around from house to house. As agent Simon Lipskar of the Writers House put it, ‘Publishing houses make tough budgetary decisions every day and an editor can be dropped at the flick of a pen. Houses have no loyalty to their editors.’
It seems that only the superstar editors have the power to take their authors with them when they leave a publishing house. Even Julie Grau and Cindy Spiegel, now renowned New York publishers at Spiegel & Grau, had to leave nearly all of their authors behind when they left Riverhead Books. The only author they took with them was Suze Orman, author of the bestselling Women and Money. (That book was a New York Times bestseller last year, but it was propelled back into the number two position in the charts in the week I arrived in New York by an Oprah Winfrey offer that allowed a free copy of the book to be downloaded from her site for a period of thirty hours—reportedly, 1.1 million copies were moved!)
Julie Grau admitted that leaving behind their authors when they changed companies was heartbreaking for them, but two had subsequently defected. ‘We’re hoping that one day more of them will come across,’ she said.
If authors are closer to their agents, how does this affect the workings between editor, agent and author? Most editors I spoke with had good relationships with most agents, and they particularly appreciated having an agent around in times of dispute—as a mediator between themselves and the author. Rachel Kahan, senior editor at GP Putnam’s Sons, said, ‘Most agents are pretty good at coming to your aid when you have someone unreasonable.’ Julie Grau told of the time when she had developed such a close relationship with Irish writer Nuala O’Faolain that the author fired her agent. ‘What do I need an agent for?’ O’Faolain had said. Grau told me it was the worst thing that could have happened. ‘The agent was a buffer, she allowed the boundaries to be kept.’ None the less it’s worth nothing that the editor-author relationship continued between Grau and O’Faolain until the writer’s death last year.
Editors appreciated agents who knew their tastes and targeted submissions accordingly. Stéphanie Abou, agent at Foundry Literary + Media, told me that her agency prides itself on its submissions lists and on making sure they know each editor’s interests and strengths. Kathleen Anderson, of Anderson Literary Management, agreed that it’s important to match authors with the right editors. ‘That can be the whole ballgame,’ she said. ‘So many authors come to me who haven’t had success with another agent, and I’ve been able to place their work with the right editor, someone who hasn’t seen it before but who I know should have been on the original mailing list.’
Editors argued that the bad agents were the ones who created an ‘us and them’ situation between the author and the publishing house. In such cases, the editors believed, the agents were gratifying their ego, to serve their own needs and to justify their existence. As Julie Grau put it, ‘It takes a “big” agent not to be threatened by the editor–author relationship.’
Editors did not appreciate agents who became overly involved in the editing and production process; however, the agents I spoke to reserved the right to do this, especially with regard to book jackets. At the time I interviewed agent Simon Lipskar of the Writers House, he was mid-wrangle with an editor at Spiegel & Grau over the jacket for Captives by Todd Hasak-Lowy. The publisher’s cover was elegant and featured a ‘masked-out’ face, but despite the author and everyone at the publishing house liking it, Lipskar felt that it made the book look too quirky, that it was a ‘bigger’ book with a wide audience. I wasn’t privy to how this argument panned out, but the cover on Spiegel & Grau’s website now is totally revised, and has larger type with a more commercial image.
Bloomsbury’s marketing director, Sabrina Farber, and senior editor, Kathy Belden, often felt frustrated by agents. ‘They have enormous power,’ said Farber. ‘Editors are constantly genuflecting to them. You want to keep doing business with them. But the margins are so low and agents are an unnecessary expense.’ Belden agreed: ‘Agents don’t encourage loyalty and their memories are short,’ she said. ‘They don’t remember how much we’ve put behind a book, just the sales figures.’
The agents I spoke with agreed that it was important to establish good relationships with editors, but they said that editors tended to be at the mercy of their publishing houses. Many lacked the authority to make decisions. ‘I don’t have trouble finding editors who like the work I send them,’ said Kathleen Anderson, ‘just finding editors whose house will allow the book to be acquired. They don’t let editors follow their gut instincts and that’s what they’re hired to do. Gut instinct gets watered down in the group process.’ Stéphanie Abou confirmed that ‘A lot of editors don’t have the power to make decisions—they are at the mercy of an acquisitions committee. And a lot of editors don’t trust their own taste and the whole job is about taste.’ Simon Lipskar considers himself the editor’s advocate: ‘We scheme together to get more weight in their company. Our relationship is collaborative, conspiratorial. Editors are in a funny position—their loyalties are divided between the author and the publishing house.’
Scott Hoffman, of the Folio Literary Agency, said there were some editors he didn’t work with. ‘I want my book with someone who is able to marshal the in-house resources,’ he said. ‘Expressing their tastes in-house, getting sales people to focus on books is something that good editors know how to do. There is less artistry involved in editors’ jobs these days. “Editing” is not the top skill of editors any more.’ Similarly, agent Joe Regal of Regal Literary Agency said: ‘Editors are cheerleaders. That’s what I look for. I don’t care if they’re good [text]editors.’ Richard Nash, publisher at the independent house Soft Skull says: ‘There aren’t any smart editors out there who think they’re just editors—unless they have emeritus status within their company. But even these guys figure out how to navigate their corporations—whose brain they need to engage.’
Sally Kim, senior editor at HarperCollins, commented: ‘Editors have to be a curious mix of qualities that are hard to find in the one person. They have to be both introverted and extroverted—introverted enough to want to engage deeply with a text, extroverted enough to be able to be the book’s advocate within their publishing house.’ She pointed to renowned Knopf editor Gary Fisketjon—who has worked with the likes of Cormac McCarthy, Raymond Carver, Haruki Murakami and Peter Carey—as one of the last of the old-school editors, for being famous as a ‘writer’s editor’. ‘If he were to come along now he wouldn’t necessarily be successful,’ Sally remarked. She believed it was evident that these days the successful editors—the ones who get ahead, the ones who are sought after—were of the extroverted variety.
This is one of the most significant shifts in the editorial profession over the last two decades—the changes in what it traditionally means to be an editor. Time and time again agents told me that in-house editors don’t do close work on any more. Australian author and New York resident Lily Brett agreed: it’s the reason she employs her own freelance editor, Virginia Lloyd, to edit her work before submitting it to her agent and publishing house. She did not feel it was the agent’s responsibility to do this.
Reassuringly, this was not true of the editors to whom I spoke—they still work closely with a writer’s prose. What is true, though, is that an agent will often do a first ‘edit’ of a manuscript before they send a manuscript out to publishing houses.
I spent a month working at Spiegel & Grau, reading submissions, editing manuscripts, attending meetings and generally observing how the company operated. In my time there I was surprised to read manuscripts from agents that were in very good shape—much better shape than I was used to seeing in my fourteen years as an editor for the likes of HarperCollins Australia, Allen & Unwin and, now, a publisher at Pier 9/Murdoch Books. The submissions I received at Spiegel & Grau had obviously benefited from some work before they landed on my desk.
I subsequently worked for three weeks at the agency Foundry Literary + Media, and interviewed several agents at other firms I found out that, yes, many agents edit to some degree before they send out a manuscript. And, if they don’t edit themselves, they have freelance editors and ghost writers at their disposal. Stéphanie Abou said that ‘rather than leaving a writer to go back to the drawing board alone, if I believe in the idea, then I work with the writer to develop the manuscript … the agency wants to show it in the best possible light.’
Agents put effort into polishing a manuscript because they want the best chance of getting an editor’s attention in a competitive and crowded publishing world. They want to make it easy for the editor to notice the manuscript, and also want to ensure that that editor can quickly convince their acquisitions committee of the merits of the work. In a world where more and more auctions are being held for manuscripts, speed is of the essence.
According to WW Norton senior editor Jill Bialosky, ‘Competition is much steeper. Books have to be more fully formed.’ Julie Grau agreed that it is a more competitive acquisitions market than it was fourteen years ago, when she first started in the business. Kathy Belden was worried by this trend. ‘The editing of proposals by agents to present them in their best light is an understandable thing,’ she said. ‘But if something has been so worked up and in the end the author is not capable of writing, then that’s a problem. And you don’t know when you acquire a manuscript how much work an agent has put in.’
But even if agents do some editing, all editors in New York with whom I spoke clarified that they also edited text, though inevitably this activity was performed at night or on weekends—or, in the case of Cindy Spiegel, who has two children, for an hour or two each morning before work, at a secret location. Many pined for a ‘golden age’ when an editor was allowed months and months to work on a manuscript.
Kathleen Anderson started as an editor in 1979 at WW Norton and then became a senior editor at Poseidon, a division of Simon & Schuster. She established herself as an agent in the late 1980s.‘When I became an editor, I’d spend months editing a book,’ she explained, ‘but by the time I left I wasn’t supposed to edit for more than a weekend.’ She offers a line editing service as part of her agency, though for an extra fee. She admits it’s very time consuming but believes there is nowhere an author can go for that level of work. In-house editors, she feels, mainly concentrate on the conceptual level of a manuscript and not on the detail.
Certainly, the definitions of ‘editing’ varied from one editor to the next. Jonathan Karp, editor-in-chief at TWELVE, an imprint of Grand Central Publishing, made sweeping overall suggestions on a manuscript and resented work that required going through line by line. Frances Coady, by contrast, loved line editing, but would never deign to put a mark on the manuscript—instead she typed up her notes in a separate report. Reagan Arthur, senior editor at Little, Brown, said that her editing style is to follow the author’s lead, that she worked with good and literary writers who didn’t need heavy editing—she relished the craft of line editing.
So, editors still edit—whatever editing means. As well, not all agents thought that editing manuscripts was a part of their job. Simon Lipskar had a different perspective on his role. ‘It’s our job as agents to garner the largest advance, to get the right publisher, not to get the book ready for publication,’ he said. ‘I polish up a manuscript, but I don’t have to dot every “i”. It’s ridiculous for me to slave over a manuscript.’
There is no doubt that post-contract manuscript development is a very time-consuming process for editors at a publishing house, especially when an editor also has to work as the book’s cheerleader. Smaller publishing houses have found ways to turn this to their advantage by taking on manuscripts that require a little bit more work. For example, the team at Bloomsbury do not have the same ‘deep pockets’ as a firm like Spiegel & Grau (who, early in 2008, were rumoured to have spent up to $8 million for US rights only on Sarah Gruen’s new novel), so they had to be more inventive about publishing. As publisher Colin Dickerman said: ‘The editors need to need to read things with a sense of the possibility of what they can be. They can buy books that need editorial help, ones that are flawed but have got potential.’ It’s one way of acquiring manuscripts relatively cheaply.
Willingness to delegate is key. While working at Spiegel & Grau, I spoke to Cindy Spiegel about finding the time to edit. She said, ‘If I’m editing something, I can only work on that and nothing else.’ If she hasn’t got the time, does she pass it on? I asked. ‘No,’ was her guilty reply. ‘I want to be able to do it myself. It’s the creative part of the job that I love.’ She went on to say, with a cheeky smile, ‘Frankly, nobody line edits as well as I do.’ It’s also about expectations—if an editor in the United States buys a book it is expected that they will edit it. There is cachet associated with Cindy Spiegel being the editor of a book and it’s part of the lure of the deal.
One advantage of having the agent do a first edit on a manuscript is that it frees up the house’s editor to do other aspects of their job. But in Australia we have a better solution to this: commissioning editors and publishers here have at their disposal experienced non-commissioning editors and a pool of talented freelance editors to whom they are willing to delegate manuscript development and structural editing work. (Non-commissioning editors in the United States tend to act strictly as production editors or copyeditors with limited influence.) Australia’s system means that the editorial vision, and indeed the broader vision for the book, remains under the direction of house editors, better ensuring the integrity of the work. Arguably, editors also have ‘purer’, less commercial motives than agents, if indeed Sarah Crichton, publisher at Farrar, Straus and Giroux, was right to say that editors represent the reader. ‘My loyalty is to the person buying the book,’ she emphasised. ‘I’m a stand-in for the person who’s putting their trust in us.’ Or as Frances Coady, publisher at Picador put it: ‘Editors haven’t got an agenda except to get the book to be the best possible version of itself. Editors are the most honest.’
It could be said that another advantage of having the agent as first editor is that it keeps the publishing process more streamlined and business-like. But I would argue that publishing must always remain more than a business, that publishing must always contain an element of artistry and passion. As Rachel Kahan said, ‘I can’t imagine anything worse than unplugging ourselves from the source of all that creative energy.’
Another ramification of books being sold by agents, both here and in the United States, is the increase in the number of auctions. Agents see auctions as a way of getting more money, and in the heat of the moment editors definitely overpay for books. ‘I often regret the amount I pay,’ Rachel Kahan lamented. ‘The fact that someone else wants the book is proof that you’re not spending enough, but … you wind up overpaying, you get buyer’s remorse. It’s like waking up next to someone and thinking: hmmm, not as pretty as I thought’.
Yet manuscripts don’t necessarily go to the highest bidder. The editorial direction being suggested can play a part in the mix; other crucial factors can be the marketing plan and a meet and greet of the team to see how the author likes the house. Colin Dickerman cited two books that he acquired early in 2008 as the significant underbidder, although he admitted that marketing plans and the like only go so far to make up for a substantial difference in advance offers. Simon Lipskar again: ‘With the big publishers, the advance is significantly more important. The advance is based on what they think they can sell. I want the publisher who has the biggest vision. I use the advance they’re willing to pay as a metric to judge this vision. But I will go with less dollars if there are major editorial concerns and the editor says so and I agree … that’s better than going for the larger dollars when no-one is actually going to fix the book.’
Elisabeth Scharlatt, publisher at independent house Algonquin, said that authors want love and money. She believed that some writers’ careers had been harmed by too much money up front, what she called ‘The Charles Frazier syndrome’, referring to the author of Cold Mountain who was given an $8 million advance for his second book but is widely recognised as having floundered under the pressure.
Publisher Richard Nash had a unique approach. ‘I don’t get involved in competitive bidding situations,’ he said. ‘I don’t read manuscripts in three weeks. I’m there to catch the stuff that falls between the cracks. My most successful books were rejected by twenty publishers first.’
It is the fear of many editors that they will reject a book that turns out to be successful—Harry Potter and the Philospher’s Stone was knocked back by eight (now very sorry) publishers before it landed on an editor’s desk at Bloomsbury UK. I suspect that most editors would have a horror story to tell about ‘the one that got away’. But, as I’ve already argued, today’s competitive publishing environment, one crowded with manuscripts, means that editors and agents need to assess submissions quickly. In the haste to get to the next manuscript in the pile lest it be grabbed by someone else—or, indeed, in order to have time to do the rest of one’s job—many said that if they’re not hooked by, say, page 50, then the manuscript will probably be shelved. Add to this that many agents and publishing houses employ relatively inexperienced interns or juniors to act as the first set of gatekeepers for submissions, and it is easy to see how gems are overlooked.
Most heartening is the fact that authors still take pride of place in the publishing process in the United States. Keeping a writer, working with them, growing them, fostering loyalty: these things are still important.
Agents were keen to keep an author with the same publishing house if possible, and often gave that house the option on the author’s next work. Of course, some smaller companies suffered when they made the author a success and could not match market advance expectations for their next book—Algonquin lost Sara Gruen to Spiegel & Grau, and Bloomsbury lost Jim Lynch, an author in whom they had invested much time and money, to Vintage.
Julie Grau described the betrayal she felt when an author left her to go to a publishing company that was offering more money. ‘When you work on someone’s writing, it’s very personal and you inevitably develop quite an intimate relationship.’ She had invested time, passion, emotion into that author’s work. ‘It was like breaking up with a boyfriend,’ she said. Similarly, Rachel Kahan told of the disappointment she felt early in her career when an author she had worked with for six years left her for another company. In an article entitled ‘The Editor who Loved too Much’, published in Publishers Weekly on 9 December 2005, she wrote:
My beloved author got new representation, and while she claimed she still loved me, her new agent did not. I’d been dumped. It was clear that I couldn't be both an editor and a close friend—at least, not for this writer … Perhaps I should have stayed cool: negotiated the deals, written the flap copy, and kept a polite, but dispassionate distance from the author. But is that really why I became an editor?
It’s certainly not why I became an editor. This trip to New York reaffirmed for me the fact that publishing is more than just a business – it exists to satisfy readers and to support the art form that is writing. And that art form, like all others, is invested with creativity and emotion.