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Wednesday, May 17, 2017

The Book Editor

   There was a time in book publishing when editors like Maxwell Perkins of Scribner's and Sons played a hands-on role in getting a manuscript ready for publication. Today, editors still evaluate manuscripts and make suggestions, but get much less involved in shaping the book for publication. In the 1960's, editor Don Preston had the almost impossible job of getting a glitzy, gossipy novel by an amateurish writer named Jacqueline Susann into publishable form. The manuscript, entitled Valley of the Dolls, became a national bestseller thanks in large part to Don Preston's editorial skills. This is Preston's evaluation of Susann's manuscript: "...she is a painfully dull, inept, clumsy, undisciplined, rambling and thoroughly amateurish writer whose every sentence, paragraph and scene cries for the hand of a pro. She wastes endless pages on utter trivia, writes wide-eyed romantic scenes that would not make the pages of True Confessions, hauls out every terrible show biz cliche...lets every good scene fall apart in endless talk and allows her book to ramble aimlessly....I reaally don't think there is a page of this manuscript that can stand in its present form. And after it is done, we will be left with a faster, slicker, more readable mediocrity."

     A lot of writers think of book editors as failed novelists who take out their frustration on authors. This view is expressed in a quote by David A. Fryxell: "Most of them [editors] grew up wanting to be writers. Now they hold the power of professional life or death over people who are doing what they would probably still rather be doing--writing." I disagree. Literary editing is an art form in its own right, and great editors are talented people. A great editor can turn a good manuscript into an excellent book.

     What follows are what authors say about book editors and the editing process:

Editors in publishing houses can be perceived as basically performing three different roles, all of them simultaneously. First they must find and select the books the house is to publish. Second they edit (yes, Virginia, they still do edit,...). And third, they perform the Janus-like function of representing the house to the author and the author to the house.
Alan D. Williams

Although they're skittish and sometimes blind to real talent, they [editors] are often ambitious idealists; they would like nothing better than to discover and publish a great book--or even a moderately good one.
John Gardner

Often the editing talent is not the writer's own. An outside eye and hand is usually essential.
Dr. Alice W. Flaherty

The successful editor is one who is constantly finding new writers, nurturing their talents, and publishing them with critical and financial success. The thrill of developing fresh writing makes the search worthwhile, even when the waiting and working becomes months, sometimes years of drudgery and frequent disappointment.
A Scott Berg

Master editors taught me how to break books down and put them back together. You learn values--the value of tension, of keeping tension on the page and how that's done, and you learn how to spot self-indulgence, how you don't need it. You learn to become very free and easy about moving things around, which a reader would never do. A reader sees a printed book and that's it. But when you see a manuscript as an editor, you say, well this is chapter twenty, but it should be chapter three.
E. L. Doctorow

Good editing is one of those laborious invisibile jobs, like housekeeping, that are apparent only when they aren't done.
John Jerome

Readers give as much credit to an editor for the books they read as pitchers pay tribute to the horses whose hides encase baseballs.
John T. Winterich

You know I'm not the sort of editor who pesters authors [of children's books] and artists. I love creative people, and I never want to do anything to make life harder than it is for creative people.
Ursula Nordstrom

Nobody remotely interested in the role of editors or their relationship to writers should fail to read Editor to Author: The Letters of Maxwell Perkins, edited by John Hall Wheelock. With their warmth, eloquence, total empathy with authors, and gentle but keenly persuasive suggestions, these letters stand alone as lasting beacons to those who would follow.
Alan D. Williams

A good editor is a man who understands what you're talking and writing about and doesn't meddle too much. A good editor can put his finger on weakness...without trying to tell you how to repair it.
Irwin Shaw

The job of editor in a publishing house is the dullest, hardest, most exciting, exasperating and rewarding of perhaps any job in the world.
John Hall Wheelock

When I was an editor, nothing turned me off quicker than reading a presentation that stated the author's book was suitable for every man, woman, and child in the U.S.A., and therefore the book had a potential sale of more than 200 million.
Oscar Collier (Oscar became a well-known literarary agent in New York City. I'm proud to say that he represented me until he passed away in 1998.)

Writers work under constant threat of public ridicule and rejection. Editors are protected by a shield of public anonymity
Ralph Keyes

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