We’ve all heard the theory that it is important to know about history because we can learn from it and use what happened in the past to make our future better. I wish that were true in my world of book publishing.
I often find myself thinking back to when I began in this business and what it was like at that time. There is so much that is different today, I couldn’t write about all of it in a single blog. But I thought I would try to examine the role of the editor then and now – and then, perhaps in future postings, I will cover other areas of the business I love so much.
When I entered publishing, there were two kinds of editors, the ones who acquired books from authors and their agents and those who actually did the editing. Sometimes one person took on both roles.
There was no such thing as multiple submissions in those days. Agents submitted proposals or manuscripts to editors one at a time, rather than to 10 or 20 editors simultaneously. Authors, with agents or not, sent manuscripts in to those editors whose job it was to read and crossed their fingers that their work would be picked up. Advances compared to where they are today, were incredibly low, but there were other ways the author could earn money in the process.
An editor was assigned to the manuscript and that person worked with the author on making the book the best it could be editorially. Sometimes this took a very long time, but in those days, the quality of the final book was of utmost importance to everyone involved and so whatever time was needed was taken. I remember hearing famous stories of editors tearing manuscripts by bestselling writers apart and literally helping to put them back together again so that the story being told became stronger and more commercial.
The editor was also the in-house advocate for the author and the book. It was the editor who presented the book to the rights department, who would then go on to sell serial rights, book club rights, reprint rights and if the author and publisher were really lucky, movie rights.
In those days serial rights were sold for many thousands of dollars. Hearing about a first serial sale of $25,000.00 to $30,000.00 wasn’t all that unusual. And there were lively auctions for magazine rights, very exciting auctions too. Magazines like Ladies Home Journal, McCalls, and Woman’s Day competed for the top women’s interest books – both fiction and non fiction. Esquire and Playboy, among others, vied for the men’s market. And publications like Reader’s Digest paid thousands of dollars for the general interest rights of many books.
The two major books clubs – Book-of-the-Month Club and The Literary Guild were also often in auctions to acquire the book club rights for top authors. Not being a book club pick was a serious “black mark” in an author’s track record.
And then there were the paperback reprint houses where the editors “covered” various hardcover houses and where the big auctions at the time really happened with several paperback houses bidding against each other. Those were very exciting times with books like LOVE STORY and JONATHAN LIVINGSTON SEAGULL, THE GODFATHER and the novels of Judith Krantz going for several hundred thousand dollars.
The role of the editor at the reprint houses was simply that of an acquirer. Since the books were already written and edited, their job was simply to identify those with mass market sales potential and buy them. Sometimes, in the case of noted bestselling authors where the acquisition price was going to be very high, paperback editors would join with their hardcover counterpart to buy the package rights of the book initially. This happened with JAWS which was published by Doubleday in hardcover and Bantam Books in mass market paperback. And, occasionally the paperback publisher would buy the rights to the book from the author’s agent and sell them back to the hardcover publisher. I know there were numerous instances of this between William Morrow and Bantam and I am sure it happened elsewhere as well.
In those days, the editor was “king.” Their taste and their work were respected and they headed up most of the hardcover publishing houses. “Sales” and “rights” were next, followed by “publicity” and the other business areas of the company.
Today, editors simply don’t enjoy the status they once did at their publishing houses. Their opinions are listened to, I suspect, but far more important are the opinions of the sales and marketing staff and what the financial people say about the value of the material submitted. There are those editors who still fight passionately for their authors, but I find that, for the most part, most of them are beaten down by their colleagues who really don’t respect their editorial wisdom.
So, I ask myself what we can learn today from our history in this business? My answer is that we have to try to change the status of the editor within the publishing house. Without his or her skills, the quality of the books we produce will continue to diminish. Editors have to be given the time to properly care for the books they acquire (for today, of course the editor does both acquisition and editing); they can no longer be responsible just for acquiring these manuscripts, they must more fully help their authors realize their total potential.
It is my sincere hope that those currently heading up publishing houses will take better care of those in charge of their important “products,” the manuscripts upon which their bottom line depends. Without these, it doesn’t matter who is distributing and or how strong the promotion is, there will be no business for our future generations to look back on. Editors must be respected, encouraged and promoted so that they can better do their job and so that all of us can continue to do ours.