Sunday, August 9, 2009

My Work Doesn't Need a Broader Audience! If It's Good Enough for the Voices in My Head, Then It's Good Enough for You!

Hi. I'm a minor mid-list writer. I've been assigned to an editor I'm finding impossible to work with. Is there any tactful way to request a different editor, and is there any chance of a small-time writer being listened to about this? (My writer friends say there is not.)
First, read this post.

Now, your answer:
Is it possible to tactfully request a new editor? Not really.
Is it possible to untactfully request a new editor? Not really.

It is perfectly true that some editors are impossible. It is also perfectly true that some writers are impossible. I know one author who will complain my ear off every time I see him about how hard it is getting his stuff published and then segue directly into how his editor's attempts to make his work marginally saleable are "censorship". (Seriously; I've read it. Marginally saleable.) He orders from the menu; I eat my tongue for lunch.

Per the link above, it is possible to point out to your editor that the changes she's suggested are not ones you are willing to make (after making an attempt to find common ground). But perhaps that's not your problem.

Perhaps your editor has the habit of ignoring you for eons and when she finally calls, she machine-guns a bunch of contradictory notes at you, tosses a laughably unrealistic deadline like a grenade, and hangs up before she can hear your head explode. In that case, it is possible to write her a tactful letter/email letting her know what elements of her workstyle are making doing your job difficult, and telling her what editorial tactics would help you get your end done. Express how much you want to work with her. When that doesn't work, try again.

If that doesn't work, then it is possible to contact her supervisor and detail the chain of communications that have led to this impasse. MAKE SURE you've tried very hard to overcome your/her workstyle differences and the chain of communications backs this up, because if given any choice, her supervisor will side with her. Unless her supervisor was about to fire her anyway (and don't hope for that, because in that case, your book is without an editor and has a squeaky-wheel author, and it's probably going to be cancelled). You MUST come across as calm, realistic, collaborative, and very regretful that you've had to bring the matter to a higher authority.

Part of being a realistic author is knowing that other authors have given you a bit of a bad name in the complaining department. When editors know an award-winning author who is bitterly offended --nay, outraged!-- that you won't publish her 3,000-word picture book biography about the guy who invented thumbtacks... well, you've got an uphill climb. Good luck.


Anonymous said...

I am a mid-list author. My editor was IMPOSSIBLE. I wrote to the woman above her (with my agent's permission) and said either change my editor or I'd like to buy my contract back. They changed my editor.

But the risk you do take is having them say, here's your contract - goodbye. For me, it was worth the risk and I couldn't be happier.

Editorial Anonymous said...

Good for you, Anonymous!

Stroppy Author said...

It's not an immediate help, but I once struggled through and then written to the editor's superior saying I'd prefer a different editor for the next book as we didn't get on brilliantly well. I diudn't have to work with the same editor again.

Hedgehog said...

Yes, involve your agent! This is part of their job.

Literaticat said...

And during all this, if you have an agent, for god's sake tell her what is going on... and never fire off angry emails without running them past your agent first. This is part of why you HAVE an agent - so they can let you know in an unbiased way if your expectations are (or are not) unreasonable, and so they can help mediate this kind of situation.

Anonymous said...

Hey, I'm a minor mid-list author, too! This is like a convention.

Anyway, my experience is this: every editor with whom I've ever worked does a flawless job identifying problems. However, they very rarely identify (or at least articulate) the correct solution. That's our job.

But maybe I've just been lucky that I've never encountered a head-exploder. (Also, I have a mortgage and child and no day job, so I can't afford integrity. If an editor -demanded- that I change my protagonist into a thumbtack, I'd say, 'how sharp?')

Anonymous said...

Editorial Anonymous, this was my question. Thanks for answering it so thoroughly. The whole situation is making my head explode in part because I've never been a difficult person to work with back when I had day jobs, and suddenly being cast into this role by the situation with the editor is just so frustrating!

And, unlike at work, it's not an equal relationship. My side of the story doesn't count as much as the editor's. As you said.

Anonymous at 1.49 am, I'm glad that worked out so well for you, but in the current state of the publishing industry I'm not about to risk it! The answer these days seems likely to be "goodbye".

No agent. And I know how lucky I was to get on with a major publisher without an agent, and don't want to wreck it.

Anonymous at 7.36 a.m-- yes, you've been lucky! Hope your luck holds :-). But you know, there are editors that let the mortage due dates slip by again and again and again without even telling you that they've even *met* your characters, never mind telling you what they want you to do with them.

Anonymous said...

I say suffer in silence and reward yourself heartily everytime you have to deal with her...

* an email = lunch at the McDonald's drive-thru.
* a set of revisions done = you get to buy yourself a new book.
* restraining yourself from calling her an idiot = a Saturday of sleeping in...

THEN, once you are done with this book and her, ASK your agent to NOT send anymore of your work her way, EVER.

It's easier to deal with the stress if you know there is an END to it.

(Lit, telling your agent doesn't really help in these situations. I was told beforehand by the editor what my edits would be and afterwards, when the contract was signed, the editorial letter was the complete opposite. In a bad, bad way. Going to my agent didn't help. I find lots of agents just want sales. His advice was, I kid you not, "Quit being a diva." The fact that I am a polite, even-keeled, and rational writer who was more than willing to do my fair share and take in everyone's point of view no matter how filled with jackassery, wasn't even a consideration. The editor was deemed correct, not because she was, but because she'd bought the book. It takes an agent with balls to really seek the truth, that maybe the editor is wrong, and then do something about it. Dream on.

ae said...

A 3,000 word pb biography about the inventor of thumb tacks. Now that would really prick up my ears.

How about the inventor of whoopie cushions?

Word verification: Dredged -- the people who read the slush piles at publishing houses. Ex: The dredged went out for pizza and when asked, "Do you want to read the menu...they"

Anonymous said...


Perhaps your editor has the habit of ignoring you for eons and when she finally calls, she machine-guns a bunch of contradictory notes at you, tosses a laughably unrealistic deadline like a grenade, and hangs up before she can hear your head explode.

This IS my editor, but my editor is soooo good and soooo nice when doing this that I wouldn't want anyone else. My agent says I'm very patient and easy to work with, but honestly, if you have an editor as good as mine, it's worth the crazy deadlines!

Anonymous said...


Sorry! I re-read my comment at 7:37 and it seems like I'm pinning the blame on you. But that was really in response to the (very interesting) link EA posted. Just my two cents about what to expect from even non-impossible editors!

But I've heard the horror stories. Something's there's just no way to work together. Or if there is, as you say, the first step might be: wait 32 months.

Anonymous said...

Original anon - (At least the published portion of) your original question did not indicate that the "difficulty" of the situaion was mutual. What sort of "being difficult" was implied by the editor? Did you have a problem before that comment? What have you tried? Also, you mentioned that you were assigned to this editor. Were you inherited?

Anon 11:20: Unless you have a terrible agent, I actually think it's pretty rare for an agent to be disinterested in his client's side of the story(dealmaker or no). Can you ask him to discuss further? Is it possible he agrees with the editorial direction? Possible that, in this situation, you are being a diva?

Literaticat said...

Anon 11:20 - Sounds to me like you either have a shitty agent, or unrealistic expectations. Maybe both.

I said "tell your agent what is going on" - and "don't fire off angry emails without running them past your agent."

That doesn't mean that the agent is a magician who will be able to FIX your terrible editor - but at the very least they'll know never to send your work there again, and at best they might be able to help you figure out a way to resolve your problems without going mad yourself, or help you get a new editor for this book.

If you don't tell your agent, there is no way that they can possibly help you. And if you start hollering at your editor or going over your editors head without talking to your agent first, you will not only be a diva, but probably an agentless one.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous at 1.37 pm, it's okay, I didn't take it as you putting me down at all!

Anonymous said...

Wow! A friend just sent me a link to this site, and I look forward to reading more. My first novel comes out next month, the second in April, and I was lucky enough to have an editor who did exactly what August 9, 2009 7:37 AM describes -- she was great at pointing out what she felt was missing, but kept her suggestions as to how those questions could be answered to a minimum. That is our job as writers, and distinguishes between writers for themselves and work for hire, when the client should say what they want, and you figure out how to make it work.

In my case, the editor I have is a senior editor at the publisher, contacted by my agent with the manuscript, and the editor "sold" it and the unwritten sequel based on my synopsis to the publisher. So she's the main reason there even is a book, much less two.

Fortunately, though I occasionally pouted at having to keep working on the book when I had thought it was done, the work she led me to improved it considerably, and opened the door to many more.

It is a book I love, and her suggestions just made it do what I wanted it to better, and I was lucky -- she's a gem. But I agree the first step is always through your agent -- an unemotional intermediary is essential in both directions -- and if you don't have one, a friendly lunch conversation asking for clarity and discussion.

Another thing I love about my editor is that she said at the start that these were only suggestions, and that we could discuss any of the changes she thought would improve the book. In this case, she was right, and making them made it the book I really wanted to write all along, and wasn't experienced enough to see clearly. She became a great set of external eyes.

Don't let emotion cloud your response -- wait a day or two and re-read the notes and really ask yourself if they're wrong.

editor out west said...

As an editor, I'd like to know exactly what defines "impossible" here. Could the author expand? For instance, I have some juicy quotes from a previous author that I use to illustrate my "impossible" authors (mostly consisting of inappropriate, unprofessional, disrespectful language).

Anonymous said...

I understand that an editor shouldn't necessarily tell you HOW to "fix" something, but what about the ones that can't even articulate what they don't like?

Hell, give me a clue, at least -- an "I'm bored with the last two chapters" or, "Character X is irritating." Something, anything, so a writer has at least a CLUE what direction to take?

Otherwise it's a guessing game.

I recently did a rewrite/resubmit for an agent. She listed something incredibly vague, like, "Can you do something with chapter ten and eleven?" But when pressed, couldn't tell me what she disliked about the chapters. At all.

"I don't know, it just needs something else."

-- Character-wise? Plot-wise? Can you narrow it down a little?

"I don't know. Something better."

--Better, yeah, um, better in terms of character dialogue? Or, in terms of pacing? Maybe it needs a quicker pace? I could change the pacing if you were bored during that part.

"Maybe. Not really."

-- Is it the writing itself? Those chapters are detail-heavy. Cutting the details will give it a different rythm.

"Hmmm. I don't know. It might be the characters. Maybe the dialogue. Or the plot. I'm not sure what I don't like, you know, just fix it."

I guessed what was wrong. Did a rewrite. Resubmitted. The agent turned me down flat. "You just didn't nail it like I thought you would, sorry."

Well, duh, gee, you mean when I tried to read your mind it didn't work?

Shocker, that.

working illustrator said...

Editorial Anonymous said: He orders from the menu; I eat my tongue for lunch.


The vast majority of grief I've had in publishing - and imagine me flashing a gang hand sign here to all the others here who have suffered from capricious editors - has been from people who didn't communicate.

Sometimes that took the form of flatly lying about things (imaginary contracts, prospects for future projects, etc).

But more often, it took the form of people simply not troubling themselves to give me information that would have helped me to shape my expectations and to frame reasonable responses.

The amount of author sorrow generated by editors sparing themselves fifteen seconds of social discomfort would fill the entire Pacific basin.

I've said it before and I'll it again: editors know things about the way their offices work that authors need to know and don't.

We're not there in the meetings.
We're not there in the elevators. We're not there for those impromptu hallway discussions where the business of any office actually gets done.

We sit alone in our rooms for hours and hours and hours a week. Which - big surprise! - doesn't sharpen our instincts for playing day-to-day personality politics.

If you don't tell us, who do you think will?

Maybe the guy you're talking about is a hopeless nutcase but you're not doing yourself or him any favors by not talking straight with him.

Anonymous said...

How about when your editor, the editor's assistant and the exec editor all get together and decide how the book should REALLY go? And they are SO pleased? And you have already cashed the advance check and spent it on a much needed replacement for your broken furnace? Oh, yeah. THAT's when you ask, "Thumbtack? How sharp?"

Anonymous said...

A and MEN to working illustrator's comment, above.

If I could type that onto the foreheads of everyone in publishing I would. I've never been in a business where information -- even the most basic information -- was kept under lock and key the way it is in publishing. All the while, (some) editors/pubicity people/marketing staff/agents complain about how tempermental writers are.

Tempermental not so much. Left in the dark, often!

Editorial Anonymous said...

I hear you, Working Illustrator and Anonymous 5:24. But there are authors who DON'T want to hear it.

The authors and artists who read my blog are the ones who DO, and as you've no doubt noticed, I DO want to share as much information as I can... with the people who will listen.
Bless you all for being listeners!

Anonymous said...

Dear working illustrator: I really hear you.

I am not a yet published working illustrator (and writer) in kids books but am at the point where I stopped separating working for pay and WORKING. I haven't stopped listening to those voices in my head as that is all I CAN hear... we sit in our rooms for hours and hours and hours and this does not sharpen our instincts for playing our personality politics. How astute.

We are hired minds, hands and hearts...and we carry on without rumors, interception, aha moments from employees in the cubicles and marketing in the meetings...which is NICE is sprung.

I am here and YOU are there. I am an OUTsider and you are an INsider.

I really appreciate your view and I have to believe it is true for many.

Nevertheless, I LOVE hearing from the happy/content/satisfied writers and illustrators who seem to click altho sometimes thru frustration with their editors. That for me, would be the optimum.

RIght now it is just me and my imaginary child readership...(in my head) which is really the ultimate goal.

Thanks, working illustrator for your truth. AE :)

Word verification: Reritico -- Ready to go! That manuscript is editing needed!

Anonymous said...

I'm with Illustrator. Before my agent sold my book, I had no idea what came after it was sold. Somehow, writers never talk about it. When I'd ask, I'd get this vague response like, "oh, you edit and get an editorial letter..." Well, let me tell you, I have been through the whole process now - no word from my editor for five months (!), but I got the money, so hey, they must still want it, right? Then the editing began and guess what? Great edits, but no one told me how to proceed. No one told me anything. I had to ask other writers specific questions like "How do you approach copyediting?" & "What should I be doing now?" and sometimes they answered. If it weren't for my agent, I wouldn't have a clue what was going on. Even now, I'm not sure what happens next. I'm just hanging in there...surfing the web, trying to uncover those little clues that writers leave anonymously because they don't want to say anything that could hurt their future or their relationship with their editor. So not only are they anonymous, but they're vague, so you can't really tell which editor didn't speak to me for five months...because that might sound like complaining, right? I actually had a most excellent editing experience, once it got underway, but you're not going to hear on my blog about my CRAZY deadlines that I had to meet, even though my due date was a month past BEFORE I got my first editorial letter so you know...the fact that it was late had nothing to do with me. And this is with an agent nudging. So that's something you'll have to find out yourself. It even makes me nervous typing it here lest someone thinks I'm complaining! This biz is way toooooo secretive. But I still love it. And I guess I get to use my inner detective to try and figure it out. Good luck everyone. We need it!

Vodka Mom said...

the post was, as always, amazing. However, the banter back and forth in the comments? priceless.

Errant Knave said...

I haven't worked in editorial for long, but thanks for posting this. A lot more gets accomplished when there is a smooth editor-author relationship. It's like that whole you-get-more-bees-with-honey thing.

And the outraged author of the 3000-word pb bio? I've met him. What a guy.

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