Monday, March 05, 2007

Jane Dystel reflects on publishing then and now.

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.


  1. Aaaaaaaaaa-men!

    Go editors!


  2. The question that immediately springs to my mind is this: Do you believe there are market forces at work in the publishing world that might actually bring this hopeful scenario you describe to fruition? Can publishing be compared to, say, the real estate market, which is currently experiencing a reality check after a protracted period of being purely money/greed-driven? I'd like to think that some sort of forces (market or otherwise) would affect the publishing industry in such a way that it would only make sense (financial and otherwise) for good editors to occupy the top-dog positions they deserve. I wonder if such thinking is simply wishful in this day and age, though.

  3. It seems to me that the only way to get editors to have more clout and the ability to ensure quality is going to be to convince the publishers that doing so will help their bottom line. I'm not sure how we do that.

    The marketing and sales people are interested in what sells. This is a generalization, but I have to imagine it is largely accurate. If they are taking less risky approaches that do not result in the best work getting out there, how do we convince them that they will sell more with a different approach?

  4. What an interesting historical perspective. Obviously the problem is that marketing does take precedence over quality. As a reader, I really struggle with this. When you are done with a good book, you want to read another of that author RIGHT NOW. Publishers are trying to meet that demand (witness the success of Random Houses' back to back to back releases) and readers appreciate it, but the overall quality is lacking.

    What could possibly bring about change? Readers being savvy enough to understand that the push for more isn't good for them in the end. But it's hard to suppress that human desire of want v. need.

  5. I have a question. Do you think the role of editor changes depending on the genre? It's just I am currently being edited in the children's book industry (mine is an MG), and I have had a heck of a lot of attention. I've had a lot of wonderful back and forth with my editor. So I am curious, do you think maybe it also depends on the type of book?

  6. If voices can be heard through sales and marketing, then we readers need to buy more responsibly. If we purchase only works of quality and reccomend them to our friends and colleagues, in time, the message might ring clear throuhgout the publishing community.

    Thanks for a refreshingly moral message in this market-driven world!

  7. "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" --

    I've been looking very closely at literary agency websites recently, as I'm in the process of rereading and editing my novel, having it proofread, etc.

    I've noticed that several agencies mention working closely with clients to help edit and polish their work before it is submitted to editors. Is this primarily because editors themselves are not being given the time, as you mentioned, to care for the books they have acquired, so that, essentially, a manuscript needs to be just about ready "as is" when submitted to an editor by an agent?

    It seems like a shame, if that's the case, to lose not only the wisdom, as you mentioned, of the editor - which matters in the overall quality of books being published - but the excitement of the collaborative process, for all involved - the author, the agent, and the editor.

  8. What's the communication like these days, between the departments? Art + Publicity + Editors.

    Do they work closely together?

    Carrie Kabak

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  10. Excellent insight. I remember reading Michael Korda's book on publishing and he said the same thing. What's clear in my mind was the way the editors reworked "Catch-22." Would this novel even make it past the first round of readers today in the form it was when the editors first saw it? Maybe, but maybe not.

    My favorite writing teacher was an editor. He showed me the very rudiments of writing. I learned how to cut something down and pick up the pace, how to make the prose flow, when the similes weren't working and why, and also encouraged me to find my character's values which will drive the entire piece. More importantly, I learned to dive deep and keep at it.

    A marketing expert has different goals in mind, which are no less valid however, without the skills of someone to hone the language to original and sharp imagery, their job is far more difficult. And less interesting or challenging.

    The balance of art and commerce had never been easy, the process everchanging.

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  12. Thanks for making the complicated business of publishing a little clearer, Jane. We writers don't often consider these elements until immersed in some particular issue or problem. Here's hoping your counterparts on the editor side are thinking along the same lines as you!

  13. I'm a retired journalist and was aware for many years of who had the power in the newspaper business. It wasn't the editor or the writers, it was the money departments. The product isn't that important, it's the sale of it that is.
    Bob Liter

  14. Your comments are spot on. And they bleed into all areas of publishing. I was a magazine editor for years and often found sales would dictate what articles we would select. Much depended upon what would suck the dollar from the pockets of our readers. Quality was a sad little redheaded stepchild in many cases.

    These days I work as a writer and designer for an advertising agency (I prefer the term Media Whore, thank you). I do desperately miss editing and I still write a great deal for myself on the side. If we could wrest the majority of control away from the fingers of sales staff who lack the editorial training to polish a piece, I'd most definitely jump back into the game in that capacity.

  15. What influence might a succuessful author have to help make a change in publishing culture? For example, if the author sells well, does their opinion hold any weight with marketing/sales about what the editor does or which new writers the editor is trying to acquire?

    Are we entering an age of independent editor/agents? Or literary agencies with a staff of editors?

  16. My wife went to theAlgonkian Writers Conference a couple of weeks ago and was fortunate enough to have two out of the four agents she pitched say they wanted to see her manuscript. Even given this interest, she is having a great deal of difficulty finding an agent who is interested in it. Why is that?

    BTW, I have been pitching my book to agents since I first pitched it at the Pikes Peak Writers Conference last month. I get all sorts of encouraging rejections, but they are rejections none the less. They all are very encouraging, but none have wanted to see the manuscript. I am running out of agents who say they represent my genre. What to do?

  17. Jane, you are right; I am a food author with 10 books out there and I can tell you that I have seen a dramatic drop in care for authors by editors. I literally wrote all my books without much advice from my editors. It is disouraging to put so much effort into your work, only to have the bottom line be not quality but what will sell the most, even if it is trash.

  18. The real shakers of that period -- and the decades before it -- were the books that bean counters and market measurers could never have predicted, because they filled a need that was deeply felt just below the surface, instead of tracking to some precedent. RIchard Bach's breakout "Jonathon Livingston Seagull" comes to mind.

    So, in an age when the measurers and counters get to control the creative outlet (for perfectly sound business reasons, of course!) where do the great surprise books, the ones that tell us what we didn't already know, come out?

    A.H. Jessup
    San Diego