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The Role of "the Editor"
Hunting and Gathering
Selling and Negotiating
Hand-Holding
Midwifing

When the word "editor" is used unadorned, it is usually the acquisitions or project editor who is meant: the person who convinces the publisher to take on a book, and/or who is responsible for getting it into publishable form. The editor's duties, however, extend far beyond these two tasks.

Hunting and Gathering

Editors are constantly looking for new books. One of the main reasons they put up with the long hours, low pay, and high job uncertainty of book publishing is the thrill of finding new talent and bringing it to light. Editors have many sources for manuscripts:

  • Agents. Meeting and talking with agents is a major part of an editor's job. Some trade editors will only consider proposals if they come from agents.
  • Previous authors. If the relationship worked with the first book, both parties are likely to want to work together again. It's not uncommon for editors to take their authors with them when they move to a different publisher, which, increasingly, they do. Previous authors can also point to other promising writers.
  • Conferences, creative writing courses, universities, magazines, etc. Few editors have the time to go where the writers are, but fewer still would want rule out these sources.
  • In-house ideas. The editor and/or other staff at the publisher may originate an idea for a book or series of books and then search for an author.
Selling and Negotiating

Once an editor finds a suitable manuscript, she must convince the publisher it's worth the risk of publishing it. This takes place in one or more of the many, many meetings that fill an editor's life. Marketing and financial people array themselves against the editor and ask difficult questions, probing to see just how excited and devoted she is. Unconvincing answers or a substandard level of enthusiasm can kill the proposal.

Once the publisher agrees to take on the book, it generally falls to the editor to negotiate a contract with the author, or, more likely, the author's agent. This is often a delicate operation, and marks the beginning of the editor's sometimes troublesome role as mediator between author and publisher. The editor's latitude to negotiate varies, but he generally knows where and how much he's allowed to give. Medium and large publishers tend to have their own legal counsel on staff to approve contract changes.

The editor's role as champion extends right through publication. It is her enthusiasm and optimism that fires up the marketing department and sales reps, and often there is no one else in-house who's willing to fight for the publicity budget a book deserves.

Hand-Holding

From the moment an editor signs a new author, she is usually that author's main contact at the publisher. Just as she must explain the author to the house, she must also explain the house to the author--though a competent agent will help in this regard. Gentle reassurance is something that authors need on a regular basis, as their precious work is altered, packaged, and guided through strange, lengthy processes by strangers.

Midwifing

There seems to be a consensus in the publishing world that editors do much less actual editing than in years past--due in part, most say, to lack of time. Nonetheless, rare is the book that doesn't require some revision, and rare is author who isn't sensitive about it. Editors have to know what they want from the author, what they can reasonably expect to get, how best to get it, and when to leave well enough alone. Good editors practice the art of gentle insistence with a deft hand, and are careful to build up their authors with praise while they cut and slash their work. Like a midwife, an editor must be prepared to coax or command as the occasion warrants.


 

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