Most writers think their ideas are always wonderful and their prose, beautiful. They aren’t, or at least not always.
Editors junk bad ideas and fix sloppy prose, and while this can be painful for writers, it is ultimately for their own good (as well as the good of readers and books themselves). After all, deep-down, who wants to spend two years on a book that is little more than a pet project or vanity publication? I’ve seen academics and writers pursue such projects in self-publishing and the results are not particularly flattering.
Of course, editors can be wrong, but the need to pitch and defend ideas to editors helps to make evident whether those ideas are interesting or valuable. It also helps to remind writers that a book is not ultimately about them, but about the ideas, the material, the prose.
I’ve said before in this space how much the editor of Little Way improved the book, even though there were times when I disagreed with his decisions. I would sometimes end up grudgingly conceding that he was probably right, and then after more time passed, being so very, very thankful that he had saved me from my worst impulses as a writer. Overall, though, I’m a pretty easy writer for editors to work with, because I take direction well. I think that my time working as an editor of other people’s prose made me more inclined to trust editors. Some writers are prima donnas who despise the hand of an editor. It’s true that some editors aren’t very good, but it’s more true that writers, even good writers, need more help than they probably think. Readers don’t see what editors do, but as someone who has been an editor, and who depends on editing, let me tell you, it’s significant — and, if the writer has more sense than ego, invaluable.
That said, would you want to be an editor at a major publishing house? Reading this account from Daniel Menaker, I don’t think you would. Good grief. Excerpt:
Publishing is an often incredibly frustrating culture. If you want to buy a project—let’s say a nonfiction proposal for a book about the history of Sicily—some of your colleagues will say, “The proposal is too dry” or “Cletis Trebuchet did a book for Grendel Books five years ago about Sardinia and it sold, like, eight copies,” or, airily, “I don’t think many people want to read about little islands.” When Seabiscuit first came up for discussion at an editorial meeting at Random House, some skeptic muttered, “Talk about beating a dead horse!”
To make matters worse, financial success in frontlist publishing is very often random, but the media conglomerates that run most publishing houses act as if it were not. Yes, you may be able to count on a new novel by Surething Jones becoming a big best seller. But the best-seller lists paint nothing remotely like the full financial picture of any publication, because that picture’s most important color is the size of the advance. But let’s say you publish a fluky blockbuster one year, the corporation will see a spike in your profits and sort of autistically, or at least automatically, raise the profit goal for your division by some corporately predetermined amount for the following year. This is close to clinically insane institutional behavior.