I blame my parents for my love of reading, but I blame Scott Berg’s biography of Maxwell Perkins (Max Perkins: Editor of Genius) for my desire to become an editor. Fitzgerald! Hemingway! Thomas Wolfe! Encouraging one novelist to drink less and write more; massaging the ego of another; wrestling the wild imagination of a third into readable form. Was Perkins a collaborator? No. Cowriter? Absolutely not. But he was an invaluable “second eye,” trusted sounding board, and gentle critic. It sounded to me like my true calling. But in my time, editing for a publishing house wasn’t quite so simple.
A publisher once said to me, almost in passing, “We don’t pay you to edit.” The real message was: “Editing is not crucial. If you’re an editor, what matters is acquiring.” After I’d left in-house editing and was being courted by an agency, the owner/agent said to me, “Remember, you can’t sit in your office and edit.” In other words, “If you’re an agent, what matters is selling.” One thing these comments imply is that editing is no longer the editor’s main function; editing is done on your own time. But that has been true since I went into the business 28 years ago.
As a freelance editor, these models no longer apply to my work. I no longer have to jump on every promising submission overnight. I no longer need to be looking over my shoulder, hoping for the approval of the marketing, publicity, and sales departments. I no longer have to determine the worth of any particular project a year before publication (and we know how often publishers get that right!). The burden on the freelance editor consists solely of helping the author write his or her best possible book.
I’d been through a lot of upheavals in the business, and one of the more insidious, but telling, things I’d seen happen as publishers cut back on staff was the expansion of the role of editors. Need a copywriter? No, we’ll get the editor to write the flap copy. Is the art department understaffed and overloaded? No problem, the editor will come into the art meeting cheerfully armed with ideas.
Need a blurb for the book to get the sales department excited? The editor, in consultation with her magic Rolodex, will get just the right quote from just the right author (whom she’s never met, but for whom she somehow has a home address). It’s a snap. Oh, and bring some publicity and marketing ideas to the launch meeting, too, while you’re at it. And that’s what editors get paid for. It’s fun, but it’s not editing. Working with the authors—which most editors love to do—has become something the editor must do “on the side.” Unless you’re an independent editor.
When I left publishing, I joined a group of four other editors; we call ourselves 5E. We put out a newsletter three or four times a year in which we muse about the business. We meet and discuss what we’re working on. We appear together at conferences. In short, we’ve established the one thing the independent editor might miss on the “outside”: a community of colleagues. We work for writers, agents, and publishers, at all stages of the publication process. Our only goal is to help each project reach its maximum potential.
In this changing landscape, as publishers look more and more at their bottom lines and continue cutting back on in-house staff, I can envision a model in which the in-house editor is the jack-of-all-trades that the publisher requires, while still editing select projects. For other projects, the in-house editor might need to work with a trusted freelance editor to help move things along. But publishers have to acknowledge what every editor—in-house or freelance—knows: editing is crucial and can make the difference between the success or failure of a book.
The Center for Fiction’s Max Perkins Award, given each year to an editor of note, describes Perkins’s dedication to his calling in this way: “The recognizing, the encouraging, the guiding of talent—that, in his opinion, was a sacred task worth any amount of effort, of risk, of time expended.”