I’ve been both a children’s book editor and author for roughly a decade. This means that I’m sometimes trying to defend an author’s behavior to my publishing friends, or trying to explain an editor’s moves to my writer friends. Often, authors and their editors operate as a team, but sometimes it feels like we’re playing on opposite sides, and I think that happens when one side doesn’t really understand the other’s perspective.
To try to bridge that gap, I asked a number of authors, “What do you wish your editors knew?” And I asked a number of editors, “What do you wish your authors knew?” And, of course, I thought long and hard about my own answers to both of those questions.
The responses that I got showed an extraordinary amount of respect and collaboration between authors and editors. They showed commonalities between the two groups that one doesn’t always expect of the other—for example, everyone is truly and personally devastated when the published book underperforms, and everyone wants positive reinforcement.
I also saw some real divisions, where it’s hard to give both the author and the editor everything that they want. The clearest example of this is in terms of communication: authors always want more, while editors constantly feel that they’re giving as much as they can.
As an author, I know that I sometimes demand of my editor things that she cannot give; and as an editor, I’m aware that I sometimes keep from my authors things that they want. So I know that simply seeing the process from the other’s eyes doesn’t fix everything. But I do believe that it’s a start.
In this piece, I’ll share 10 things that editors wish their authors knew, followed by 10 things that authors wish their editors knew—because I believe that if we understand what pushes each other’s buttons, we can create a better working environment for all of us.
Ten Things That Editors Wish Authors Knew
■ We want your book to succeed. We love your book. That’s why we signed it up in the first place: because we loved reading it, and we believed that other people would love it, and we wanted to spend years of our lives in the world that you created. We are as invested in the success of your book as you are. Furthermore, remember this: if we sign up books that don’t perform well, that reflects poorly on us as editors. The future of our careers depends on the success of the books we edit. We are never trying to sabotage your book, because we are emotionally and financially invested in how well it does.
■ We are not one-man bands. It may seem like your editors are making all the decisions on their own, since we are the ones you hear news from. But often, what we’re telling you is a decision that’s been made by our publishers, marketing directors, bookstore buyers, et al. If we tell you that we’re moving the pub date or changing the cover, it’s not because we felt like messing with you, but because we are meeting a need that’s been given to us for strategic reasons.
■ We have many books on our lists. When we talk to you, it’s almost exclusively about your book and your career, so it can be easy to forget that we have other authors too, all of whom are priorities to us. When it takes us a long time to get back to you on what seems like a simple question, or when we say no to something that seems like an easy yes, bear in mind that this is often because we are trying to take good care of many authors at once. Doing something one time for you may not be that time-consuming or difficult, but doing it 20 times for all 20 of the authors we are publishing this year may be untenable.
■ Do not rewrite after first-pass pages. Ideally, you should do any significant rewriting before a manuscript even goes into copyediting. It is acceptable to rewrite when the copyedited manuscript comes to you, and again when the first-pass pages come to you. But after that stage, the only changes we should be making are small proofreading corrections that were missed in the earlier stages. If you come to us in second-pass pages wanting to change a character’s name or add in a new scene, it puts a disproportionate burden on the designer and copyediting, and it’s a surefire way to introduce new errors that will sneak into the published book.
■ Be realistic with your dates. Remember that we are always juggling a number of editorial projects at the same time. We carefully space out our workloads, like: “I’ll write an editorial letter for Psychic Twin Princesses the first week in July so that I can write the editorial letter for Big Soccer Winners the next week so that I can be ready for The Fluffy Cat first-pass pages as soon as they hit my desk.” But if all three of those projects come in on the same day, our job gets a lot harder—and all three of those authors will have to wait longer to hear back from us. We know you want to hit the deadlines we set for you and you don’t want to disappoint us, but if you’re going to be two months late, it’s far better for you to tell us the truth up front rather than continually promising that you need “just one more weekend.”
■ Be smart about how you use social media. Don’t get embroiled in Twitter battles. Don’t become obsessed with your Goodreads reviews. (Ideally, just ignore them.) Do use social media to promote your work. Our marketing department is working as hard as it can, but this is a group effort; you cannot just sit back and rely on them to do all the work of promoting you. Create a social media strategy so you’re able to promote yourself.
■ Follow manuscript formatting instructions. Publishing houses have processes in place that every book must go through. If you deliver your manuscript unprepared for those processes, we can’t just skip them—instead, your editor (or your editor’s assistant) will have to take over the preparation him/herself. For example, if you send us your manuscript in multiple files, we are responsible for combining it into one. If you send us your research materials as a dozen attachments, we are responsible for entering the information into a properly formatted bibliography. These instructions may seem arbitrary, but when you don’t follow them, it just means more work (that we hadn’t scheduled) for us.
■ Use your agent. Every minute that we spend replying to your emails is a minute that we can’t spend editing your book. So before you email us, always take a second to think, “Would my agent be better equipped to respond to this?” Certain types of inquiries—e.g., checking on the status of payment or of new manuscript submissions—should always go through your agent. A good rule of thumb is that if it’s a creative matter, it goes to your editor; if it’s business or personal, your agent is probably a better place to start.
■ Pick your battles. We want you to be happy. We want you to be proud of how your book turns out; we want you to feel well cared for with your marketing and publicity plans; we don’t want you to be disappointed in us. At the same time, we are usually not able to give you everything that you want. Fight for the things that are truly important to you (e.g., if you absolutely can’t stand that cover, you can keep pushing back), but also acknowledge which things are merely preferences and are instances where you can compromise or acquiesce and still be happy even with a result that’s not what you’d originally wanted.
■ We are human beings, too. Like you, our feelings can get hurt. We thrive when we hear that our work is valued. We are mollified by a heartfelt apology. We appreciate hearing “please” and “thank you.” We do not appreciate being treated like servants, or like therapists. We have only so many hours in a day. We love our jobs, but we also have lives outside of work, and we love those, too.
Ten Things That Authors Wish Editors Knew
■ We are professionals. You don’t have to hide information from us, or sugarcoat everything, or slather your correspondence to us in smiley faces and exclamation points. Be real with us. Tell us the truth kindly but firmly, as you would any other adult colleague. We chose this career, and we understand that every career has its ups and downs.
■ We want to be edited. We know that the first drafts we hand in aren’t perfect. We like getting compliments on them, because who doesn’t like compliments? But more than that, we want to get substantive, helpful notes. Telling us that you have “light edits” may initially feel like a relief, but in the long run, it makes us feel like you don’t care enough about the book, or believe in us enough as authors, to help us make it truly great.
■ We notice details. We have spent a long time with our books, and we know them intimately. So if you change the flap copy from the version we approved, or rewrite a section of our manuscript, or change a page break in our picture books, we’re going to notice. We may be just fine with your change—we may even prefer it to our original version—but we don’t appreciate feeling like you’re trying to pull the wool over our eyes. The more you can bring us into the process, the calmer we will be.
■ Be clear about what we do and do not have a say in. We know that when you send us a cover with the comment “Everyone in-house loves it!” what you mean is, “We’ve already invested a lot of time and money in this and it’s too late for us to change directions.” It would save us a lot of unnecessary fighting of unwinnable battles if you could just tell us, “This is how it has to be.” We don’t love spending hours typing up comments on sketches, only to find out that none of those comments will get passed on to the illustrator. And we don’t want to kill ourselves rewriting a scene if it’s not going to get included in the book no matter how we phrase it. We’re disappointed when we don’t get a say in things, sure, but it feels far worse when we mistakenly believed that we would have a say.
■ Our time is precious. Please don’t ask us to fill out a three-page publicity questionnaire if nobody’s going to read it. Don’t ask us to write bonus content that we won’t get paid for, that doesn’t get placed, and that doesn’t result in any additional book sales. Don’t tell us you need our next revision in two weeks, causing us to hire babysitters and cancel plans and pull all-nighters, only to tell us at the end of it all that you won’t actually be able to read the revision for another two months.
■ We want to promote our books. We just need direction. We know that we need to self-promote in order to make our books into sales successes, but we don’t always know where to start. We come to you with promotional asks (“Can you set up an appearance at my hometown bookstore? Can you get me more school visits? Can you pitch my book to this podcast?”) not because we are unwilling to do these things ourselves, but because we don’t know how, and we don’t know what we are allowed to do without stepping on the publisher’s toes. If you can be clear with us about which promotional steps are in our hands and can actually make a difference to sales, we are more than willing to exert the energy to take it from there.
■ Be realistic in your expectations for our self-promotion. We are trying our best, but the truth is that unless we are already New York Times bestsellers or celebrities, our social media presence probably isn’t going to have a massive impact on sales. Most posts don’t get meaningful exposure unless they’re boosted, so there are limits to how much we can actually achieve via Twitter. It’s so frustrating when we write a good book, it receives minimal marketing and publicity support, and then we get blamed for the lack of sales—or at least we have to deal with the consequences of a bad sales track.
■ If you don’t tell us what you’re doing, we assume that you’re not doing anything. If the publisher is running an ad for our book, or you’re pitching it to Teen Vogue or sending it out for blurbs, please tell us! Those actions prove to us that you care. We’d rather hear that you pitched us for a panel at ALA and we weren’t accepted than not hear anything about it, which leaves us to assume that you didn’t even bother to pitch us. We know you have limited amounts of time, and you need to spend that time on actually doing things and not just reporting to us on what you’ve done. But a periodic update does wonders for making us feel like we’re not just writing and publishing into a black hole.
■ We are in this for the long haul. Though there are some people who want to publish a single book just to say that they’ve done it and then move on, most of us want to be career writers. We want you to help us achieve that. We want you to have honest conversations with us about our career tracks, just as a boss would have with an employee: where do we see our career going, is that realistic, what are the steps to get us there? We fear the idea of publishing a first book that’s such a flop that we never get the opportunity to do a second. We fear running out of stories to tell, and we fear becoming irrelevant. We fear that you find us easily replaceable and therefore have no motivation to work with us to build our careers beyond one or two books.
■ Be honest and communicative with us about positioning and expectations. It’s heartbreaking to put all of our effort into a book and then feel like sales and marketing are dropping the baton once it’s passed to them. It’s devastating when a book we’ve been slaving over for three years comes out to no more fanfare than some tweets from our friends, or discovering that B&N didn’t take our book when we walk in there and can’t find it on the shelf; or when we choose you over all other publishers in an auction because you promised to make it a “big book” and then you don’t. We know that sometimes this can’t be helped—the market changes, there’s too much in-house competition, etc. A book that we thought was going to be major turns out not to be, and we all understand that is no one’s fault. We will still be disappointed, but we guarantee we’ll be less disappointed if you’re realistic with us along the way so the result doesn’t come to us as a shock. Help us manage our expectations—and if you don’t have the heart to disappoint us directly, at least tell our agents.
At the end of the day, editors and authors share the same goal. We want to publish books that we’re proud of: books that will sell well, be meaningful to readers, and advance our careers. And the more we can see through each other’s eyes, the more likely we are to get there.
Leila Sales is an author, editor, and freelance book developer; her most recent novel is If You Don’t Have Anything Nice to Say (FSG).