The Life of an Editor, 1/25/11

It was a long Saturday in the classroom for the cohort of executive MBA students, with four hours of instruction in the morning, followed by lunch and then four more hours of a different course. The afternoon professor was eager to present himself to the group since it was the first day of class—he definitely had more pep in his step than the students who’d already sat through an extensive lesson on Net Present Value that morning.

The eager professor introduced himself by giving a summary of his background, which included this comment: “I also write books. But I’m not writing a book this semester, for which you should be thankful.” Pause for dramatic effect. “The reason you should be thankful is because when I’m working on a book I can be a bit cranky, and that’s because when you’re an author you have to deal with editors…”

I’m not sure what he said after that, if anything, because my fellow classmates started laughing and pointing at me. Following the fingers to my face, he looked at me a bit startled. But then he asked, somewhat defiantly, “Are you an editor?”

I smiled broadly. He was not deterred. He continued to rant about how editors could be so demanding. “They send emails at 2 a.m. asking for a rewrite.” I smiled knowingly. What he meant for attack, I received as justification: Ah, see, I’m not the only one who does that!

Those of you who are editors can relate well to this. Those of you who are agents are also nodding your heads knowingly—because you’ve observed from a distance (or you’ve gotten, probably reluctantly, caught in the fray)— this sometimes wonderful, sometimes tension-filled dynamic known as the author-editor relationship.

A year ago today I joined BenBella as the editor-in-chief of our general nonfiction line. While I have a lot of responsibilities, my main obligation as the editor is to make sure the book is editorially sound. I am a “grammarian nerd,” according to one friend, but more than fixing misspelled words and adding in commas, I am looking at the big picture, helping my authors have a book that makes sense structurally, has a nice tone and pace, and engages the reader—if the reader isn’t engaged, we have failed editorially. The content should be both interesting and helpful, with applicable stories and principles.

To get content that will resonate with readers I often have to ask more of my authors. This is where the potential tension can come in, especially when you add deadlines to the mix. “The dog ate my homework” just doesn’t work in this business.

My hope is that my authors see our relationship as a partnership, because it is. As a company, we are taking this author and his or her work under our wing because we believe in it and want to present it to the world. (And yes, we also want to make a bunch of money for all involved, but let me stay on my editorial high ground for now, because when my editor hat is on rather than my number-crunching business hat, the joy and satisfaction of having a wonderful product truly is what motivates me.) 

Both the author and I want the same thing: a great book that does well. Even so, my author might see me as his or her biggest pain because I’m asking for another rewrite or suggesting changes, and really, who wants anyone to criticize his or her work? But if you look beyond the bleeding ink and track changes-happy behavior, you see that I am also my author’s biggest cheerleader. When a manuscript is coming together and begins to become really strong editorially, I get excited about it, and I share my enthusiasm with the marketing staff and even others outside the company.

I have had the pleasure of working with a wide assortment of authors this past year, from doctors and CEOs to a lawyer-turned-photographer and a celebrity chef. The great thing about working with so many different types of people has been the opportunity to learn about various professions, from plastic surgery to investment banking to public relations. My authors, and the manuscripts they write, open up these new worlds, and I find it fascinating. I studied journalism because I am a curious person. I love meeting new people and I love to learn.

And one great thing about publishing is that we get to share that knowledge with everyone else.  In the books we have coming out over the next several months our readers can learn about whether or not they have what it takes to be an entrepreneur, how to have amazing customer service, how to tailor their management approach, how one author got her groove back through ballroom dancing, and much more. It’s going to be a great year. So thanks to all the authors who endured the process and made it out the other end of the tunnel.

Oh, and speaking of learning, pray I’ll get an “A” in the aforementioned class. I have a lot of predisposed opinion to overcome thanks to my editor status…and the ten-page paper I have to write for the professor, well, let’s just say I’m completely dead in the water if I have a single typo! Then again, what goes around comes around, and he will certainly enjoy having me be on the other end of that deadly red pen.

Until next time,

Debbie

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