Agents out, editors in?

Predicting the rise of the literary editor

by Mary W. Walters

In addition to the potential to reach a wider audience, my major reasons for wanting to get to the desks of the major publishers are two-fold.

First, the major publishers employ many of the world’s finest books editors (yes. They do so. Granted those editors are usually busy with a million other unrelated tasks, but they can also edit! I am not talking about the publishers or the business managers. I’m talking about the editors).

The other reason is looking after all the hassle of the business end of things–warehousing, distribution and some of the promotion (a job that is increasingly shared by the writers, which is a relief to me. And I am not talking about writing jacket copy, but about dreaming up and executing unique and interesting sales and marketing approaches.)

Most literary writers know that trying to edit one’s own work is as potentially fatal as is trying to remove what appear to be superfluous organs from one’s own body. If these writers are unable to find publication by the world’s major publishers, they are going to self-publish. They are going to hire editors first, and they are going to hire business managers next, and they are going to take on the marketing of their own books with a passion no agent can equal. They are going to do it all themselves.

And this means that the best editors will leave the publishing houses and become self-employed, finally earning what they are worth (I charge $80 to $100 an hour for writing and substantive edits, and I never made anywhere near that when I was employed) and they’ll be able to focus on editing–which most of them love–and forget all the crap like sorting out contracts with agents.

Editors will set up boutique shops of their own. The best will become well known and highly sought. It will be a brave new world indeed.

Note: Amazon is hastening this process by promoting its own self-publishing arm, CreateSpace. Have you noticed how impossible it is to find out who published a book on an Amazon posting lately? Self-published or Random House? It’s not easy to figure that out. Coincidence? I think not.

13 responses

  1. If the best literary writers simply want an editor and a business manager, prior to storming the barricades of bookselling with their professionally self-published works, why don’t they just hire them now?

    And I realize that you are making an argument about a class of people, not yourself, but if it’s that easy – why don’t you do it? Instead of getting upset about agents and doorways into major publishers and so on, why don’t you just hire a business manager and get on with it?

    That sounds much more vitriolic than I mean it to but, truly, when is this brave new world of top quality self publishing going to manifest itself? The only self-pubbers I know of who have hired editors and business managers are the egregious self-help and marketing types, who typically also hire ghost writers.

    Another question: as a freelance editor, are the top literary talents flocking to your door?

    Before I give up my day job and start my own editing bureau, I would be interested to know just what type of writers I will be working with.

  2. Fenestra —

    Nope. I don’t have literary writers flocking to my door (although I have edited several literary novels as well as many other books). The rates I charge are primarily paid by clients in academics, business and industry for non-fiction articles and edits. I am making predictions here for a reorganization of the publishing world, at least as it relates to fiction that is not best-seller type. I am not describing any status quo.

    As for me, I don’t want to edit. I want to write. If literary writers flocked to my doors, I would likely turn them away.

    And as for my own novel, it is on the slush-pile at Authonomy, gradually moving up to the Editor’s Desk (Authonomy being almost the only way to get to an editor’s desk at a house of the calibre of HarperCollins without an agent).

    When it fails to find a home there, which is likely to be in the autumn some time as it takes several months of hard work on Authonomy to get to the top of the heap, yes: I will be looking for a really top-notch literary editor, and I will be prepared to pay.

  3. As my partner and I wrap up our novel, I have two editors I’d like to run it past before a final version hits the presses, hopefully through a small press and we have several in mind. Both editors are self-employed and both I believe can only enhance what I believe is an already excellent story.

    One of the biggest complaints of self-published work (and I’ve seen it first hand with FOAF works) is the fact that the story could have done well to go through a second set of trained eyes to catch things like grammar and punctuation. I once saw what looked like a character speaking for three pages before I realized it was missing a set of closed quotation marks. Unfortunately the rest was written so poorly and all over the map I couldn’t have told you where those closed quotations should have gone.

    Editors, not agents, make writers look good. They help polish, ask the right questions with regards to character and direction, and can hone and sharpen. With marketing falling to writers now, agents are becoming the one trick pony that’s about to become obsolete. If a writer can’t read a contract and maybe run it past a lawyer if the big words are scary, and you can find an entertainment lawyer that will work for an inexpensive hourly rate as opposed to commission, then fine, use an agent.

    This is my job and I should understand as much about it as I can, including the ins and outs of the business end. The idea that a writer should only concentrate on the “creative” aspect is a lot like assuming that putting gas into your car is all you ever have to do and the car will run forever. I’m not saying that writers should change their own oil or rotate their own tires on the car of their careers, but having a passing knowledge of how and when those things should happen is key to being successful. As I’m already expected to write and market, I’d damned better be versed in how all of that creative front-end work is paying be on the monetary back end.

  4. Heh – my comment could have gone through a second set of eyes.

    Fenestra – From the time writers put pen to paper and even remotely consider getting published they’re encouraged to get an agent, and the agent will take care of everything. In the time before now, Publishing Houses provided the editors and all the writer had to do is be writerly.

    It is *hard* to break that ingrained line of thinking that Real Writers (TM) only write and agents and PH provide everything else. This is a new era for publishing where Houses are regrouping and trying to decide how lean to they need to be and still produce books people want to read. I can think of four Big Names that are allowing direct submissions from authors when just a year ago, it was through an agent only. That means when I submit my manuscript, it had better be as close to perfect as I can make it because there may not be a staff editor than can bat clean-up for me.

    That manuscript needs to shine from Page One, and because I’m not ignorant of how things work, I’m looking towards editors to help make that happen.

    Believe it or not – there are writers that don’t know that. There are writers that think that all they need is an awesome idea, some ideas poorly pounded out, and money will just appear in their pockets. In college while peer-reading, there was a good story that was nearly impossible to read because of all the mistakes. Pointing that out to the writer, I was informed that all of that stuff was an editor’s job. How she planned on getting something like that to an actual editor I had no idea, but she was banking on it. That was almost 20 years ago. I wonder where she is now, and I have to wonder if she ever got an editor – or published anywhere for that matter.

  5. Mary,

    You state you will find a literary editor for your work only after your work fails to reach the top of the Authonomy heap. This is the same approach most unskilled writers take in approaching editors to start with.

    Why not polish the work to a shine before it reaches the HC Editors desk, or anyother publishing houses editors desk?

    As a member of Authonomy, you know very well it is not about the class of writing that propels a writer to the top of the heap but how much they network and get others to back their work.

    As far as independent literary editors, are you familiar with the fact most specialize in genre’s. The last time I checked, the going rate was 3 to 5 cents a word, depending on the level of editing and word count. For a fictional writer, the cost of a 100,000 word manuscript is going to be very expensive and there is still no gaurantee HC or any other publishing house is going to pick the work up.

    Mary, ask yourself this question. If we writers send out work to independent editors for clean up, then why do publishers need us writers? Why not just hire editors to write books in house and pay them salary? Think about it.

    The sooner you stop blaming agents and publishers for your failure to reach an editors desk, the sooner you will realize not everything is publishable by traditional standards, no matter how much we writers want to belive our work is publishable.

    Nick Anthony

  6. “If we writers send out work to independent editors for clean up, then why do publishers need us writers? Why not just hire editors to write books in house and pay them salary? Think about it.”

    It seems that an editor might edit like a champ, but have no idea how to begin to write a book him/herself, no?

  7. Richard,

    Stories are a dime a dozen. Don’t believe me? Ask an agent or publisher to have a look at their slush piles sometimes. It’s the writing that sells the stories.

    Nick Anthony.

  8. >>>As a member of Authonomy, you know very well it is not about the class of writing that propels a writer to the top of the heap but how much they network and get others to back their work.

    This is a curious statement. So it’s really more of a popularity contest as opposed to the quality of the work? If I’m always campaigning to get my work read, when do I have time to write?

    I asked the same question of another writer who now makes money on the marketing end. If I’m constantly selling myself and playing the “look at me” game, when do I have time to sit down and write?

    I’ve been a member of peer-forums and I had to take a step back. So many read/reviews sat in my box that I could have spent days reading and crafting critiques and reviews I could have easily neglected my own work. I didn’t become a writer to review other people’s work.

  9. I want a business person, not an artist, to have a vested interest in getting me a good deal from a publisher. I have self-published but I have no interest in business or marketing because I am too busy living and creating. That’s why I want someone else who actually is into that kind of stuff, to just tell me what to do, or even better, do it for me, so I can be a real live boy!!

    Agents… if you had one, you wouldn’t be complaining.

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