When I embarked on an adventure in publishing back when the 21st century had yet to reach stroppy adolescence, I gathered around me a small team of editors whose brief was to polish off the raw edges of authors who had talent by the bucketload but little experience of the process. Actually as much experience of the process as I had myself – which was why I made sure those editors had a lot more.
And because they’d been doing the job for a long time, and all the books we published for the first year and quite a few afterwards were by debut authors, I decided that if I was asked to arbitrate a dispute between editor and author, my default position would be, tactfully, of course, to support the editor.
Mostly it worked. It wasn’t so much – actually not at all – that authors retreated, browbeaten into submission. Rather, they realized the editors knew what they were doing, and were glad of the guidance.
Later, as the authors gained experience, the differences of opinion became less black and white. But mostly the editor still prevailed, and also mostly the author was (eventually) convinced that it was the right decision.
Earlier this week two things reminded me of that time in my life. First I began to watch the latest TV talent hunt for someone to star in a new musical (yeah, OK, I know, but everyone’s allowed a fix of trash TV now and again). Then something happened when I started to copy-edit a new novel by an author whose work has become very familiar over the past few years.
The boys in the talent hunt are coached and drilled between programmes by a team of professionals; the viewers see little snippets of the training, and it’s instructive to watch the boys’ performances in the light of the advice they’re given. Mostly they accept and follow it – but there’s always one who thinks he knows better than the experts. And so far – this is the fifth of these shows on UK TV – this contestant has not been the winner.
And the moral of that is...
Let me hasten to say that a) I wouldn’t dream of setting myself up as an expert on other people’s writing; and b) the overwhelming majority of authors I’ve worked with are easy to deal with, receptive to editorial suggestions and grateful when bits of knowledge I’ve picked up over the years coincide with gaps in theirs. But occasionally I’ve encountered a situation in which the author’s vision hasn’t quite chimed with the editor’s. The reason – the only reason – the book I’m currently editing reminded me of those early days is that there was a small disagreement about a character’s age. Not with me. This time it was the publisher who wanted the adjustment; I’m only copy-editing. My task was to wait till the matter was resolved, then amend the text accordingly. Or not, as the case may be.
So why did the publisher want the author to make this change? The reasons cited were ‘commercial’, which roughly means her way would help the book to sell better.
In the quaint old-fashioned world some of us still remember with nostalgic sighs, the world before publishers became the bad guys and authors were encouraged, nay urged, to take on the entire job themselves, the author did the writing, and the publisher’s side of the bargain was (still is in most cases, thank goodness) to make sure the book is in the best possible shape, then get it out before the public eye and take some steps towards persuading people to sell it. If some part of the writing, be it style, content or some little detail, works against the second part of that process, it’s part of the publisher’s job (usually by choosing the right editor for the task, though in small companies the two roles often overlap) to guide the author towards rectifying the situation.
And since the author has yet to be born who wouldn’t prefer his/her book actually to sell, those li’l ole commercial reasons can be pretty pressing. So this particular author gave in, with a certain reluctance, but he saw where the publisher was coming from.
If only it was always so painless. An editor’s lot is not always a straightforward one.
But that’s a whole different post.