One day some years ago, my friend Roz Morris over on Nail Your Novel was talking about an issue that’s extremely important to writers breaking into the industry these days: advice on revision.
I started to throw in my two cents in a comment and realized quickly that there was way too much to say in a short space, so I’m going to talk about that here today—what’s going on when your agent (or acquisitions editor) gives you advice, whom to listen to and why, and how to stay true to your own creative agenda.
These are things you should know:
Acquisitions editors are not free to deal solely in issues of craft
Once upon a time, the job of publishers’ editors was to take diamonds in the rough and help writers shape them into polished works through their professional, artistic understanding of why readers read and what makes storytelling wonderful.
The assumption was that the higher quality their product, the more they could sell and the more loyal their readers would be.
Today, the job of publishers’ editors is to find and negotiate savvy financial deals on those books that will sell the most the fastest. They are no longer free to be artists—those who do edit wind up doing it on their own time, outside office hours. Their primary function is to get the books they love accepted for publication by their sales reps and the bookstore reps at their acquisitions meetings. And then to get those books published. (Not all books that are accepted get published, and those that do get published are usually not marketed properly anymore.)
The assumption is that the more books they can move off the shelves, the more money the publisher makes, even if that means leaving a trail of abandoned, suddenly unemployed authors in their wake—which happens more and more.
Now, as Poets & Writers has pointed out, under the thumb of the marketers serving the agenda of the modern Big Five (and other publishers following in their footsteps), acquisitions editors are often the least powerful people in the process.
This means that you can fight them on their ideas for revision if you want.
But you’re trying to change the minds of the wrong people.
Agents are not editors
Agents are salespeople. Their job was invented to create a filter between writers who may or may not know what makes a book intriguing to the reader and the publishers who provide that reader with their reading material.
Agents screen writers and their manuscripts for those books that they believe they can sell most effectively—whether through quality or topic or authors’ names—and simultaneously screen acquisitions editors for the best matches. Then they sell those manuscripts to those editors.
Once upon a time, agents were the only screening process necessary. There were a lot of writers, yes, but there were also a lot of publishers, and the numbers were much better balanced than they are now. A lot of writers still went directly to publishers. Nobody minded. There was room for everyone, and—as John Gardner said in 1983 in On Becoming a Novelist—if you wrote good books, you would get published.
This is no longer true.
As acquisitions editors are forced to edit on their evenings and weekends if they want to edit at all, the burden of editing falls mostly on those who handle manuscripts before the editors ever see them. Agents have been scrambling in recent years to carry this burden, advising writers on what sells best and how to position a book so it’s most likely to not only win the heart of an acquisitions editor but also win the hearts of the sales reps and booksellers’ reps—the marketers.
Agents know a lot about sales and marketing. They also know a whole lot about the day-to-day fluctuations of the industry. They keep up with developments that nobody else besides the publishers has time to keep up with.
But they are not trained in craft. So when they advise you on how to shape your book for best sales, most of them really can’t offer much more than, “I love your writing. I believe in your talent. I really, really want this manuscript to succeed.”
The burden of craft falls entirely on you.
Independent editors/freelance editors know craft
At least, the qualified ones do.
There are far, far too many folks marketing themselves as freelance editors right now without either adequate experience or developed skills.
This field is brand-new and requires no licensing, no diplomas, no proof of knowledge other than what the freelance editor is willing to put out there. And the field has simply exploded in recent years.
There are self-proclaimed ‘copy-editors’ right this very minute being paid by innocent writers to conscientiously destroy their manuscripts through blatant ignorance of this work. I know because their disgruntled ex-clients have shown me the damage.
And ignore the rest.
Along with the loss of editing at the publisher level has come a tsunami wave of amateur writing in recent years, ever since the explosion of the blogosphere. This means that not only does the burden of editing fall on the writer, but a smaller and smaller percentage of aspiring writers out there have any idea at all what this entails.
Once upon a time, when someone wanted to become a writer they wanted it badly enough to devote their entire life to learning how to do it well. They didn’t write one book and immediately start trying to sell it. They wrote book after book after book, year after year, learning and honing and suffering for their craft the way that professionals have always learned their trades—the hard way.
The assumption was that you can’t become a professional author—one who gets paid for the work—if you haven’t developed your skills to compete with current professional authors.
Now that so much of what’s being published is published for reasons other than quality—topic, marketing, authors’ names—at the same time that many acquisitions editors are free to choose whether or not to even edit, the quality against which aspiring writers measure themselves has dropped precipitously.
And we need a new screening process in the industry: there are far too many aspiring writers, far too many aspiring agents, far too few publishers. The numbers are skewed to the point that they’ve become unmanageable.
Just as once some writers skipped agents and went straight to publishers, now some writers skip independent editors and go straight to agents. Nobody minds. There’s room for everyone.
But when you discuss your manuscript with an accomplished independent editor, you’re not trying to change the wrong person’s mind, and you’re not coping with expertise that focuses entirely upon marketing rather than craft. You’re working with someone who understands your craft better than you do, an artistic mentor who can translate for you the marketing issues that are the bread-&-butter of acquisitions editors and agents into the craft that is yours.
Most of all, you have an advocate who owes loyalty to no one but you, someone with no ulterior motive, someone who can help you make decisions about balancing craft and marketing—in whatever way best suits your own goals and vision.