Choosing Your Editor

Have you ever thought about the fact that when you submit your lovingly written novel to a major publisher, you get to choose your editor?

You choose your potential editor by submitting to that person. You write a letter of introduction, a synopsis of your novel, and send in a sample of your work—all in an effort to learn if the editor is interested in opening a relationship with you.

Yet most authors select their potential editors in a rather haphazard fashion. They might not even research the editor’s tastes by seeing what they have purchased, or they might leave the selection of the editor to an agent, who might not find the optimum editor for you.

So here is what I would look for in an editor:

1) I want an editor who works for a major publisher, not some small house. An editor might love your work, but if she doesn’t have the clout to market your book properly, you’re pretty much doomed to low sales before you are ever published.

2) I want an editor who knows the market and recognizes a great story when she sees it. Years ago, I sat at a table with some editors from big publishing houses that were exchanging tales of “the big one who got away,” talking about bestselling books that they had rejected. Now, as they were talking, there was a current bestseller out by Rosanne Barr, who had a hit show on television with some 25 million followers. Nearly all of the editors at the table had rejected her manuscript, and thus lost millions of sales. I wondered in sort of a dawning shock and horror, Do these people understand this business at all?

And I realized that in nearly every genre, the bestselling books in the genre were universally rejected repeatedly by major publishers. It’s true of novels such as Gone with the Wind, Dune, and even Harry Potter. For over a hundred years, the bestselling novel of all time was A Tale of Two Cities, yet the author had to self-publish the book because he couldn’t find a traditional publisher who would take it.

So I want someone who recognizes a potential hit.

3) I want an editor who can market the book effectively.

Recently a friend told me of a remark by his agent, who said, “[Insert name of well-known editor] is where writers go to die.” I loved the allusion to an elephant’s graveyard, and as I considered the editor’s career, I could see that it was true. The editor took a lot of big, talented authors, and then somehow either killed their careers or let them starve.

Some editors will fight for an author they love. They’ll try to find marketing opportunities on the radio or television. They’ll send high-paying jobs the author’s way. They’ll try to get the author invited to sell books at book festivals or submit their work for awards. Other editors leave that all to the marketing department, which usually consists of one overworked person who has the job of pushing only the biggest authors on the publisher’s list.

So I want an editor who sees herself as my ally.

4) I want an editor with a proven track record. By that I mean, I would like to work with an editor who has taken more than one author to the top, so that the editor understands the process by which careers are made.

5) I want an editor who can edit. Did you notice that this is last on my list? It’s important that the editor recognize ways to improve a manuscript, without getting into the story and trying to take over. Micro-managers in editing usually are more of a pain than a help, because they want to remake the story so that it fits their tastes—and sometimes that just might go counter to the tastes of the audience you’re targeting.

Maybe I put this last on my list because I’m a writer. When I turn in a novel, I do it because I feel confident that it’s already great. I suspect that all new authors, when they are flush with the sense of pride that comes from having created a new book, probably don’t feel like it really needs a strong editor.

The Writer’s Peak Workshop (Prices rise to $449 on Oct. 1st. Sign up this week!)

Each time that I teach a workshop, the subject matter morphs and grows as I try to figure out better methods to get the point across. As we prepare to teach our third Writer’s Peak Workshop, this couldn’t be truer. I’m narrowing down the focus on this one in order to teach authors how to 1) prepare to overcome the blank page, 2) get quickly into what I call the “writers’ trance,” where the tale flows out effortlessly, 3) turn writing into a habit, 4) and keep writing as a priority.

We’ll be holding this one at the gorgeous Zermatt Resort in Midway, Utah, on November 2 and 3. For more information, go here.

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