“A Question of Editing” by NJ Cooper

All relationships that involve issues of emotion are tough. Marriages founder on mis-matched expectations and a failure to empathise with the problems and sufferings of the ‘Other’. Patients and nurses feel short-changed and under-appreciated as the one fights infection, hospital bureaucracy, and exhaustion, while the other deals with pain, fear, and a desperate need for reassurance. And authors and editors often end up hating each other.

Having been an award-winning editor before turning author, I can see how it happens. As an editor you are doing your best for your author, fighting his/her corner in negotiations with sales, marketing and publicity departments, badgering the art department for a good, attractive and – above all – selling cover design, and doing everything you can to stop all the available promotion budgets being squandered on some new, more glamorous, author whose book has only just been commissioned and for such a huge advance that all the firm’s resources have to go into selling enough copies to recoup the vast cost of the interest on the money, let alone the capital sum itself. So when your author reacts badly to your comments on the novel, or refuses to do extra work you want, or nags and complains you can end up hurt and resentful.

That, of course, is as nothing to the hurt and resentment felt by your author, who was led to believe (if not actually promised) when the book was commissioned that s/he would get a fair chunk of the promotion budgets, be admired by everyone and sell hundreds of thousands of copies.

To the author, the commissioning editor seems a figure of great power, but there are very few editors, even when they are also directors of the company, who have enough clout to give their authors everything they want – or to keep their original faith in the novel intact when its quality is questioned or denied by even more powerful members of the organisation, who may well have private reasons for wanting to destabilise the editor in question. Authors can have their careers destroyed for political reasons that have nothing whatsoever to do with them or the quality of their work. And injustice of that kind burns for ever.

Lesser trouble often starts with the editorial process itself. As the editor, you are doing your absolute best to ensure that the final text is as good as it can be, so you have to concentrate on the problems that need correction. The author, however, has poured skill, feeling, experience and self into the book, and consequently feels hugely protective of it, as well as needing more reassurance than most editors can possibly understand. Often the most apparently arrogant of authors is the one who is most needy and scared.

Editors, the inexperienced in particular, can feel they’re not doing their job if they don’t alter or question every single thing in the novel that could possisbly be questioned, however trivial or unlikely any misunderstanding might be. Professional authors are often driven mad by the silliness of the comments they get from editors and copy-editors. I remember reading one author complaining that her editor had objected to her metaphorical use of the phrase ‘subaqueous light’ filling a room. The editor wrote a marginal note to remind his distinguished author that ‘subaqueous’ means ‘underwater’ and questioned how the room could possibly be full of water when none of the characters were in the least wet. Literal-mindedness and a patronising manner are two of the most hated editorial failings.

A really good editorial team has to act both as the first reader and the factual and stylistic sieve through which no imperfections can pass. The editor must respond to the book in the way that someone who has bought or borrowed it will one day respond, ie become absorbed in the plot, love or hate the characters, share the emotion, and become caught up in the narrative. At the same time, the editorial team must be detached enough to pick up holes in the plot, flaws in the style, factual errors, and – much more contentious – any aspect of the novel likely to put off the kind of readers who could be expected to enjoy it. So much of all this is subjective that it can lead to real offence in both parties to the relationship.

One brilliant editor working in New York a couple of decades ago wrote that she sat on her hands during her first reading of any novel on which she was working so that the critical side of her brain wouldn’t be tempted to interfere and she could assess the emotional impact of the work, which is the most important aspect of any novel. Only then did she allow herself to re-read with a pencil in hand to make notes, criticisms and suggestions for improvement. But that was then, and few publishing houses can now allow editors the time they would need to give their authors everything they want in ways that would soothe their sensitivities and yet protect them from all error.

The best author-editor relationships feel equal to both sides, but achieving that takes experience, generosity, imagination, respect, time – and absolute honesty. Much like a really good marriage…

2 thoughts on ““A Question of Editing” by NJ Cooper

  1. N J Cooper

    Thank you, Robin, for taking the trouble to reply. I’d love to know your taste in crime fiction, and how your customers feel about the various sub-genres. NJ