Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Guest editor Marco Palmieri: Deal With the Devil

Marco Palmieri is the editor behind Otherworld Editorial, a recently launched private consultation service for both aspiring and experienced authors. He is a former Senior Editor at Simon & Schuster, Inc., where from 1996-2008 he acquired and developed over 200 titles of fiction and nonfiction.

Make friends with your editor.

It sounds elementary, doesn’t it? That’s why I’m perplexed whenever I hear about authors who regard their editors as adversaries rather than allies. And while I’m pleased to be able to say I can count on one hand the number of times I met this attitude in my own fourteen-year career as a professional editor, the few occasions on which it did happen stand out vividly in my memory, for the simple reason that they were all so unnecessary.

From where I sit, the fact that some writers believe editors are evil incarnate has always struck me as odd. I might understand it if a particular editor had already proven himself to be damaging to an author’s work. Honestly, I have nothing but sympathy for writers who were once burned and have promised themselves never to let it happen a second time. But to then conclude all editors are clueless agents of darkness, lacking souls or sensibility, whose suggestions must be fought at every turn – well, that’s just plain silly.

Some experienced authors, especially if they’ve enjoyed great success, come to believe they’ve outgrown the need for an editor, or that they’ve earned the right to be published without one – as if being edited was something they had to “put up with” early in their career, but which is now no longer required of them because those dues have been paid. This belief, in my opinion, has never failed to backfire on a writer, resulting in books of noticeably diminished quality from their earlier, edited work.

There are also cases when a writer is so committed to maintaining the “purity” of his or her art they view any editorial suggestion beyond correcting a misspelled word or an inverted apostrophe as corruption. I can appreciate the desire to be able to offer a book to the world and declare, with pride, “For better or worse, these words are mine, no one else’s.” But no artist creates in vacuum. We’re influenced in innumerable ways by innumerable sources, whether we acknowledge it or not, whether we realize it or not. To draw the line at an editor is, frankly, absurd.

It’s true not all editors are created equal. There are some pretty lousy ones out there, to be sure, and there are lousy writers, too. But just as no author sets out to write a bad book, so too no editor wants to do harm to one. The goal of each party should be to get the other’s A-game, and therein is the delicate balancing act of the editor-author relationship, and the attitude of each party toward the other can have a big influence on how a book turns out.

The most important thing to remember is that editors and authors have responsibilities to each other. It’s the editor’s obligation to offer the author another perspective on her work, and to suggest ways a manuscript may be improved. But he also has a responsibility to listen to the author, and to allow her to come up with her own solutions to any problems he has identified.

An author has the right to refuse any editorial recommendations she doesn’t agree with, but also a responsibility to carefully consider those recommendations first, with the understanding that these suggestions come not from a callous disregard for a manuscript’s identity or integrity, but from an earnest wish to see it succeed on as many levels as possible.

In my own experience, these considerations more often than not come naturally to authors and editors, and the majority of such working relationships are fun, energetic creative partnerships, built on honest communication, mutual respect, and a shared excitement for work being undertaken. But even then, no author or editor should expect to agree on everything – it would be a poor and stagnant collaboration if they did. That’s exactly what makes the editor-author dynamic work, when it’s at its best: the willingness to disagree without becoming contentious or adversarial. Such partnerships invariably lead to better books…and sometimes even enduring friendships.

Marco Palmieri


Farrah Rochon said...

Welcome to Novel Spaces, Marco. I have to admit, when I received my first revision letter, I thought my editor was out to get me (or at least my book). That is, until I started incorporating the changes she suggested and realized she was making my book better.

Now, I look forward to an editor's suggestions. If there is something I disagree with, we talk it out and compromise. We both have the same end goal, making the book the best it can be.

Liane Spicer said...

Welcome, Marco!

My first editorial collaboration was just that: most of her suggestions improved the book and the suggestions I didn't agree with, she left alone once I explained my position.

There is indeed a popular image out there of editors as evil people who seek to mutilate the work of writers. This has not been my experience to date.

I've read a couple of those unedited books by authors who've gotten 'big' enough that they can call the shots. Ill-advised, indeed.

Charles Gramlich said...

I suspect in at least some cases the "anti-editor" talk is part of a kind of writerly bonding of "us against them." Writers love a good story and are not above "embellinshing" the facts a bit. I've dealt with a variety of editors over the years and have only once had what I'd call an adversarial relationship. Even then I could tell the editor was well intentioned.

KeVin K. said...

I have had only one bad experience with an editor, and that was because she didn't have confidence in my ability to rewrite to editor specs quickly.

I'd turned in a piece for a Shadowrun sourcebook that was longer the space layout had allocated. Also, there was a new game mechanic the developer wanted showcased. With a week before the book had to go to production, she decided to rewrite for me. The result was something only about 60% mine. I pulled my name from it.

Every other editor has treated me with professionalism and varying amounts of respect. Communication is the key; preferably civil discourse.