Wednesday, September 21, 2011

The Author’s Lament

I have hesitated writing about editor-author relations because I don’t know if I can be honest and fair. Over the last sixteen or so years, I have had my ups and downs. Sometimes, I have enjoyed working with a particular editor, sometimes not. A good friend of mine, who has worked with many editors told me recently that, although he is a positive person, he never found an editor he liked!

I suppose that there is truth in my friend’s statement. Editors are like bosses. They aren’t there to be liked. They are there to get the job done. This, of course, destroys a bit the romantic notion of having a martini over lunch with one’s editor—you know—the stuff that happened in the old days of publishing, when publishers cared about their authors and considered it important to nurture the fragile egos they had taken under their wing.

Even so, a couple of months ago, I was in Boston and had a wonderful lunch with my editor Kate O’Sullivan at Houghton Mifflin and the book designer for Rain School, Carol Goldenberg. So, the author-editor culture does still exist. In fact, when I sold my first book to Houghton Mifflin, they were definitely in the nurturing mode. They took me under their wing and nursed me along, encouraging me to do better and better work. 

I’d like to think that this culture still exists, but I find, in talking with other authors, that it really doesn’t in spite of my lunch in Boston a few months back. At least, those I have talked to haven’t seen any evidence of it. I don’t know what the reason is. Has publishing become too much of a business? I don’t think so. It always was a business. Perhaps something else has changed. Maybe it is that publishers have gotten too big. They are part of huge corporations with thousands of employees and thousands of rules and a marketing division that rules the roost.

There is something else that has changed the dynamic. Published authors are turning more and more to self-publishing. The money is better. There are fewer hassles. And with hundreds of editors out of a job and looking for free-lance work, it is a simple matter to get a top-notch editor to look over one’s manuscript and make suggestions. 

Editors do have an important function, which I forgot to mention at the outset. If they are good, they know how to tighten the prose, enhance the plot, and ask really good “what if” questions—you know: what if Mortimer kissed Eloise just as they were going into the school cafeteria . . . right in front of everybody? 
Unpublished authors and many self-published authors don’t know the value of a good editor. Unpublished authors are often sure they have the perfect story. Published authors aren’t so cocksure. They have suffered the slings and arrows of outrageous reviewers. They have done booksignings where only one or two books are sold. They know that they really have to listen to what others say about their manuscripts before they go into print.

So, yes, editors are important, but are they always right? When should an author stick to his guns and refuse to change a word or remove a paragraph or have Mortimer kiss Eloise in front of everybody? I don’t have an answer. I do know that when I have solid reasons for not taking the editor’s suggestions, the editor usually bends and lets me have my way. There are rarely any fights. Most editors realize that you know the book better than they do, and, as I said, if your reasons are rock solid, they will usually acquiesce. 

So far, I have only been talking about authors. What about illustrators? Over the years I have gotten the feeling that editors do not treat authors and illustrators in the same way. There seems to be more give and take with words and plot outlines, but not so with pictures. 
“We don’t want yellow in this picture.” 
“We want that girl’s hair longer.” 
“We don’t want gloomy pictures.” 
Editors sometimes treat illustrators as hired help.

Editors are only part of the problem. In big publishing houses there are art directors, too. Their job it is to make sure that the illustrations and the overall design of the book are up to par. Many art directors are sympathetic to illustrators. There is compromise, but there is also the attitude of “my way or the highway.”

I am not solely an illustrator; so I rarely have seen that attitude. I am treated as an author who can draw; I am not just an illustrator who was hired to do a job. This makes a big difference, and over the years, I have enjoyed very good relations with both editors and art directors. Okay, once I took a book away from a publisher because they told me after the book was finished that they didn’t like the art at all. I had no choice in that instance, but, as I said, I have had in general few problems . . . until recently.
Neal Porter, at Roaring Brook Press, and I got in a tug of war over the cover for my next book. Months ago, we had agreed on a cover. I painted it and it was vetted by the marketing guys. All was set . . . until I saw the proof. I no longer liked the cover. I made some changes, drastic ones, and told Neal to stop the presses. Neal took one look at my revised cover and basically said, “No way. We’re sticking with the cover we both agreed on months ago.”
“But it is a terrible cover. I don’t like it at all. It doesn’t fit the vision I have for the book.”
Neal, whom I admire immensely, wouldn’t budge. There was nothing I could do, short of sending back the advance and asking for my manuscript returned. I decided not “to go nuclear,” as my agent put it.

Did Neal overstep his bounds? Did he trample over me as an artist? Did he treat me as a hireling?  Or did I not play fair? Was I too arrogant, thinking that I knew better than he what would make a more appealing cover?

I don’t know the answer to these questions. What I do know is this: writing and illustrating a book is art by committee. Once the editor, the art director, the marketeer have all had their say, a book rarely emerges unchanged. The artist’s work is either improved or his vision is destroyed. This is the way of things, and, to be fair, I should have understood this. 

“Once you hand your book over to the editor,” said the same friend who told me he disliked editors, “you have to realize that it is no longer your book.  It is “our” book. By using the word “our,” you can avoid huge problems because you consider the editor and his or her staff part of the team.”

But I think that for my friend’s advice to be effective—indeed, for publishing even to survive—publishing has to go back to the old days when the houses were smaller, when editors took the time to nurture, when they moved out of the way to let the artist blossom.

This is the third time I have used the word “artist” in this posting. It is an important point to remember these days, as this huge sub species Homo sapiens artiste begins fleeing to the creative freedom that print-on-demand and e-books can offer.


  1. Wow. Thank you for an honest and heartfelt post!

  2. “Once you hand your book over to the editor,” said the same friend who told me he disliked editors, “you have to realize that it is no longer your book. It is “our” book. By using the word “our,” you can avoid huge problems because you consider the editor and his or her staff part of the team.”

    Oh, yes. It's all in the way you angle your brain.

    I have only three books published (well, one in the pipeline) so I don't have too much experience with this, but I do know people who have been tremendously burned, and hurt, and I know that many authors feel like they have no choice but to do exactly what they're told, or they'll lose the publishing contract.

    Thank you for the reminder that we both know our work better than anyone else, and that we can negotiate without going nuclear and find a way to compromise.

    Art by committee is indeed hard.

    (Came to this post via Jama

  3. Aloha. Thank you Debtasticreads and Tanita Davis for your comments. Since I made this post, I have heard of a number of bad experiences. One illustrator actually got into a fist fight with an editor! That is really nuclear. Art is passion. Even so, in the creation of a book, there has to be the art of playing fair, the art of mutual respect. Aloha, James Rumford