Assumptions, assumptions, part III: editorial suggestions

Those of you who read yesterday’s post may well be wondering: why did the shipping-box/manuscript analogy spring to mind right now, while in mid-revision on my novel? Well, it’s never a good idea to be TOO specific about deals before they go though, so let’s just posit a hypothetical situation and analyze that. (And fair warning: this post will make a LOT more sense, I suspect, if you have already read Assumptions, Assumptions, Part II.)

Let’s say an editor at a house-that-shall-remain-nameless-until-it-makes-an-offer has asked a novelist to change a book in certain very specific ways before they will proffer a deal. Let’s assume further that the vast majority of these, shall we say, strongly suggested changes are fine, perfectly sensible, and even praiseworthy. Paragons of feedback, they are. A couple, however, while not precisely things that the book’s protagonist would never do, are conceptually problematic.

So much so that I believe I can derive a general revision axiom from it: NEVER assume that an editor who is interested in your book will necessarily know much about its subject matter. Especially if it’s fiction. You honestly do need to explain yourself in a submission, EVEN IF YOUR TARGET MARKET IS A GROUP OF PEOPLE WHO WILL ALREADY BE FAMILIAR WITH YOUR SUBJECT MATTER.

Why? Because even if you’re writing for experts, unless you are dealing with a publishing house that specializes in your particular field, your submission will probably not be landing on the desk of an editor with your target reader’s background. In fact — and I tremble to bring this up, but often it’s true — your book may actually be the editor’s introduction to your particular slice of your subject.

Counterintuitive, isn’t it? You’d expect an editor who specialized in gardening books to know his way around a potting shed, wouldn’t you? And it would make sense that if an editor was going through a spate of acquiring books about Paris, she would have a pretty good grasp of how the Metro works, whose picture is on French money, etc.

However, editors at the major publishing houses, like agents, can no longer afford to be quite the specialists that they once were. Take a look at the average editor’s last few years of acquisitions, and the breadth of subject matter may astonish you. Even within books on a particular subject, there may still be quite a range: Lonely Planet Savannah, Charleston & the Carolina Coast and MIDNIGHT IN THE GARDEN OF GOOD AND EVIL were both NF books set in Georgia, after all.

Among fiction editors, subject matter breadth is generally even more extreme: the same editor, Anika Streitfeld of MacAdam/Cage (at the time; now she’s at Random House — remember how I told you people move around a LOT in this industry?) acquired THE TIME TRAVELER’S WIFE and THE MADHOUSE MEMOIR OF MARY TODD LINCOLN. In the same year.

So just because an editor likes your novel, it does not necessarily follow that she will have a background in its underlying subject matter. They are generalists, even if they deal in only one genre — and this can be problematic at submission time.

Although most of us novelists harbor a secret belief that the writing is actually what our books are about, and folks in the industry make a fairly sharp distinction between character-driven and plot-driven novels, the vast majority of fiction is about SOMETHING other than the relationships between its characters. If your protagonist is a coal miner, for instance, coal mining is obviously going to play a fairly significant role in the book, right? (In fact, in a character-driven novel, background tends to be more important than in a plot-driven book.)

If the acquiring editor had no prior experience with this underlying something, or is prey to misconceptions about it, you and she may well have different ideas about how that something should be treated. Which would present a fairly considerable field of potential conflict between the editor and the author.

At our hypothetical author’s stage of the process — requested revisions with an eye to an eventual acquisition — there is no conflict per se, for the exceedingly simple reason that one of the things an editor buys with a publishing contract is the right to speak with the author directly. In the buying stages, everything goes through the agent.

So at this point, 100% of the author’s information about the changes that this editor — whom, lest we forget, the author has never met, and thus whose personal tastes she does not know, beyond the fact that the editor likes the author’s writing — wants come from an extremely flattering 2-page editorial memo and such snippets of the author’s agent’s discussions with her (also flattering) as have been passed on.

In other words, the agent opened the box, took a look at the contents, and successfully pitched it to the editor. The editor, in turn, rummaged through the contents and liked what she saw but, not knowing the sender, relied upon what her life experience told her about certain aspects of the book should play out. She did want the wineglasses, but she thought perhaps the stems should be shortened and the bowl made shallower: basically, she wanted to drink white wine out of glasses that were designed for red.

Which, naturally, is a prospect that would make a giver who, say, grew up near a winery blanch.

However, in this kind of offer — that is, where the author is expected to revise first and get paid later, as opposed to the kind offer that comes with competitive bidding, where changes are generally made AFTER the publishing contract is signed — the author really had only two options here, to make the requested changes or to take the book elsewhere.

Almost everyone, as you might well imagine, opts for making the changes. Even when some of those changes are primarily to cater to an incorrect notion of a phenomenon described in the book. And this might mean, for instance, having to come up with a new way to approach a protagonist’s medical condition, a spin that will conform more closely with the editor’s ideas about it. So in the interests of verisimilitude, the hapless author may well be reduced to bugging specialists thither and yon, trying to come up with a compromise pathology.

All part of the biz, my friends, in this kind of situation. The moral of the story, I think, is multifold. First, the box had better be packaged right, or it’s not going to get in the front door. Second, publishing types, agents and editors in particular, do not see the contents of the box as set in stone until it is actually set in print. In their eyes, a manuscript is always ripe for revision until they like what they see without reservations.

Which is not, to put it as gently as possible, how we writers tend to view our own work. But to succeed in the publishing world, it is very helpful to know that our views on the subject are not universally shared, any more than each of our backgrounds or knowledge set.

Cultivate flexibility, my friends, so you are ready to rise to such challenges! And, as always, keep up the good work!

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