One of the very best parts of being published by a traditional publishing house is that you get an editor. The editor is a person who has fallen in love with your book, championed it to her colleagues, laid down cold hard cash for it, and made a commitment to do whatever is needed—from considering every plot twist to wrangling marketing dollars—to get it into the hands of readers. She is, in other words, someone who has willingly and joyfully jumped into the cauldron of your creative fire. It’s hard not to fall in love right back.
In today’s Wall Street Journal, there is an article about what happened when novelist Amy Tan’s beloved editor died, and what she did to try to replace this irreplaceable force in her creative life. If you have any doubt that even super famous writers feel doubt, this is a good article to read. At one point, Tan tells her agent, “I don’t care what the amount of money is, I want an editor. I want the best editor for myself. “ And when she finds that editor—a man named Daniel Halpern, who happens to also edit Richard Ford and Joyce Carol Oates—she tells him, “You’ll have to promise me you’ll never die.”
The two set about editing Tan’s latest novel, The Valley of Amazement. They changed the opening. They fussed with the narrator’s voice. They cut pages and pages. Halpern describes the process like this: “She would argue with certain things, like, `Well why is this? Why did that bother you?’….That’s the fun of it—the back and forth.”
It is indeed so fun to have someone down there in the dirt of your story, wrestling with every word. Having someone to match you thought-by-thought like that is such a gift. It’s about as close to having someone read your mind as I think humans can get—well, except maybe for sex, but that’s a whole different kind of communion.
As I was reading this piece, I was struck by the fact that when you self publish, you don’t get an editor. As you all know, I have had it both ways—and I believe there are pros and cons to each—but I can say without a doubt that it was exponentially better to have an editor. That is one area where traditional publishing wins, hands down, and it wins at every part of the publishing process. When my book didn’t sell as well as we hoped at the publishing house, my editor would call me repeatedly to tell me how much she loved my book (she would go on for many minutes about particular phrases and scenes) and how she knew that it was only a matter of time before something I wrote broke through to the big leagues. When my self-published book didn’t sell as well as I hoped, there was, well, just me, trying to tell myself those same things. And needless to say, it didn’t have quite the same impact. Last week, agent Rachelle Gardner wrote a plea about how we shouldn't refer to agents and editors as gatekeepers, because agents and editors are actually desperate to say yes. They actually want the exact same thing we do: to fall in love.
As a freelance editor and book coach, I offer clients some of the same satisfactions as a publishing house editor, whether they are self publishing or whether they are going to go on to have an editor after me. It's a large part of why I deeply love what I do. But the flat out truth is that there’s nothing like having the real deal.