The editorial memo

I received a package in the mail from my editor today, containing some manuscript pages he had marked up. When I opened the FedEx box, I swear that a puff of smoke came out of it, as if my editor had mailed me a small dragon. Turns out that those lovely-to-touch cotton-based papers that I like to print my manuscripts upon soak up cigarette smoke like the proverbial sponge.

The pages are lying all over my dining room table, airing out. My cats, who normally like to mark every manuscript that enters or leaves our house by rolling on it, won’t go near the table.

Ah, the chain-smoking, blunt pencil-wielding editor! Nice to know that some publishing clichés are still operational, isn’t it?

Marginal feedback, however, is actually not the primary means of instruction passing from editor to writer anymore. (Although it is still common enough for it to be worth your while to print your manuscripts on nice paper that render it a pleasure to turn the page. Even if you do not want to splurge on an expensive ream, never print your work on anything less than 20 lb. paper — you can see through anything lighter.) Nor, surprisingly, do many editors prefer to make changes, or even commentary, on soft copy, although the technology is certainly available and easy to use. As I have mentioned before, the publishing industry is paper-oriented: most agencies and even many publishing houses in NYC do not have in-house tech support. If computer-based changes are to be made, then, it is almost always the author who makes them.

So how does commentary pass from editor to author? Through a document called the editorial memo (a.k.a. the editorial letter), a brief, formal missive in standard letter format that gives a straightforward overview of what the editor would like for the author to change in the book.
Often, the editorial memo accompanies a marked-up manuscript, but not necessarily.

What does the editorial memo do that marginal comments or direct conversation do not? In the first place, it is not only sent to the author, but to the editors’ higher-ups as well, both to let everyone concerned know how well the editor feels the manuscript has lived up to the initial expectations of the publishing house and to demonstrate the editor’s active involvement in the book. Second, the editorial memo sets forth a series of requested changes, along with the justifications for them, that the author is expected to make prior to the copyediting phase.

It is often surprising for new authors that the content editing stage (performed by the editor), the copyediting or line editing stage (performed by a lower-level editor), and the proofreading stage (performed by poorly-paid flunkies) are broken out into distinct steps. Surely, the average author feels, the content editor might as well catch a few typos while he’s at it?

Content editing, however, is not always geared toward producing the artistically best possible book. Much of the time, the editor is actually editing for marketability, suggesting additions and cutting lines in order to emphasize the major selling points of the book. With a nonfiction book, this may entail suggesting moving chapters, adding explanations, footnotes, and appendices, and/or adding or removing examples. My memoir’s editorial memo asked me to write a preface to my book, explaining for readers unfamiliar with Philip K. Dick’s work just why his writings are literarily important.

For a novel, editors may ask for more radical changes: deletions of entire characters or plot lines, or a change in the running order. I once had an editing client who was asked to make a family smaller, bring a dead character back to life, and change the moral — a revision that more or less required the writing of an entirely new book. And every time an editor writes such a memo, somewhere in heaven, a writing angel gets a charley horse.

However, the fiction market has changed in one significant respect with regard to editorial instructions within the last fifteen years: in the past, editors would generally buy the novel in question first, before asking for radical revisions. Now, it is extremely common for editors to REJECT books that they would have bought with an eye to revision twenty years ago, merely telling the agents what they would have liked to see work out differently in the book. The book continues to be shopped around by the agent, and if it does not sell, the onus is then upon the author to select WHICH set of advice to take and how to implement it before submitting the book again. Basically, this arrangement allows editors most of the advantages of the editorial memo, without having to ante up an advance that might, if not allow the author to quit her day job, at least take enough time off to revise her book.

I shall spare you a description of what happens to a writing angel every time an editor indulges in such a rejection.

The result, though, is that now, editorial memos for purchased fiction tend to be a lot less scary than they were in days of yore. We’ve all heard the writers’ conference horror stories, I think, about authors being asked to change a character “in order to give the book more mainstream appeal”; Philip once had an editor change a starship captain from black to white with a single sweep of a pen. Don’t you wish you had a nickel for every time an author was told to remove a character that was too feminist, too openly gay, or too interested in politics?

The changes put forth in the editorial memo are, of course, only suggestions: most publishing contracts actually allow the writer quite a bit of leeway in implementing them. From the point of view of the first-time author, however, they are suggestions made by an extremely powerful authority figure: the publisher is really not expecting much opposition. Like having approval rights over the title or the book jacket design, the author’s consent is more or less assumed.

And it’s not as though the publisher and author go through an endless round of suggestion-revision-suggestion-revision to work out conceptual differences of opinion: that, too, is more or less a thing of the past. Contractually, it’s actually rather rare for a book to go through more than one revision after a publisher buys it. Usually, the contract specifies that the author must deliver a book by date X; the publisher must submit requested changes (via the editorial memo) by date Y, usually 60 or 90 days after date X, and the author must deliver a manuscript revised accordingly by date Z, usually 60 or 90 days after that. If there is squabbling over changes, it almost always occurs immediately after the editorial memo is delivered to the author.

Since I have already received my editorial memo, I am relatively confident that the pages on my dining room table hold no truly terrible surprises for me. I already know that they contain enough second-hand smoke to make my cats’ whiskers curl, but, hey, that’s a small price to pay to maintain a publishing tradition. I can always wear a gas mask while I’m revising.

May your editorial memos be positive and plentiful, my friends, and your revise-and-resubmit suggestions be few. And in the meantime, keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

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