Thursday, August 04, 2005

Letter to a Young Aspiring Editor

One of the students I spoke to yesterday wrote to me today and asked a few more questions about the editorial life. I thought my replies might interest some of you here, so:

DPI Student: Do you feel that being an editor has given you insight into what it takes to get a book published? Do you feel like you have a better chance, or at least a better idea, about what it would take for you to write a book that would get published if you ever wanted to write a book? I know that's kind of a weird question, but I've always been curious about whether or not editors feel this way. I was surprised to hear Gladys and Arnold [the teachers of the editorial workshop at DPI] say that most good editors do not make good writers because I thought that being a good editor would help you be a good writer. What do you think about this?

CK: Yes, absolutely I feel that being an editor has given me insight into the publication process, how to write up a query letter, who to send a book to, etc. I toy with the idea of writing myself -- one of my New Year's Resolutions is to "Write a bad novel" -- and if I do finally get around to it, the editing experience has taught me what agent I'd want to go with (if I went with an agent), what editors I'd want the book to go to, what kind of terms I'd expect for my work, what subrights I'd hold out for, etc., based on my experience of how the business works. And I also know plenty about the principles of good fiction (which is where my brain goes when I think of "writing"): how stories operate, how to set up mysteries, what my characters need to do in order to be likable. So I know the mechanics of writing good fiction, and I definitely know the mechanics of getting it published.

HOWEVER, this does NOT mean that I can actually write good fiction. Partly this is because I'm so hyperaware of the mechanics of good fiction that I'm incredibly easily dissatisfied and I quit when things aren't going well, and if there's one thing a writer needs more than anything else, it's perseverance. Partly it's because I don't have the time and attention to devote to it that a fiction writer really needs -- I have too many responsibilities to my authors under contract and the ones who submit work to me to use my limited free time to indulge my own writing tastes. You will note that my Resolution is to "Write a *bad* novel" -- I felt if I gave myself permission to have the first draft of the book be crappy, I might get the thing done. Thus far, though I have ideas, very little has been accomplished.

Good editors are often terrific writers of things other than fiction, I should note -- we write flap copy, we write sales letters, we write catalog copy, and all of that is *good* writing in the sense that it sounds good, it means something, and it accomplishes the purpose it's meant to (persuade someone to buy/pay attention to the book). And many editors are successful writers as well -- see Jill Bialosky (Norton), Michael Korda (S&S), Ursula Nordstrom (legendary Harper children's books editor -- read her collection of letters, DEAR GENIUS, if you're at all interested in going into children's books. But note that she threw the sequel to her first novel into a fire because she was dissatisfied with it.). Arthur, my boss, writes picture books and gets them published. But as a rule, editors exist to serve writers and make books, not to write them ourselves, and I'm always an editor first.

DPIS: Do you feel that you get to be creative as an editor? You mentioned that you feel proud when a book you edited has been completed because you played such a huge role in putting the book together, which I found fascinating. Why don't editors get to share in the profits of book sales, especially if the sales are really good?

CK: To address your second question first: Editors don't get to share in the profits of book sales if the sales are good because that would also require us to share in the profits if sales were bad. That is, tying book sales to editorial salaries would have to be done across the board, and editors don't want to risk their own salaries on the chance that a book will tank. (Such a practice would also make editors less likely to buy risky books, and the business would stagnate.) Editors who have notable successes usually get promoted and get more freedom to publish the kind of books they want to publish, which is the way we share in a book's profits. Arthur got to establish his own imprint at Scholastic after he'd discovered REDWALL for Philomel, made a success out of THE GOLDEN COMPASS at Knopf, and won two Caldecott Medals at Putnam -- and that resume led the higher-ups at Scholastic to have faith in him when he wanted to purchase a little British fantasy called HARRY POTTER AND THE PHILOSOPHER'S STONE. And the rest is history.

And your second question -- yes, absolutely, I think we get to be creative. I spoke a little about "vision" yesterday, and that's because from the very first moment I read a manuscript, I develop two visions of it. The first is the editorial vision: I try to figure out what the author is trying to do in the book and how I can help him/her better accomplish that, and all of our conversations and all of my editing after that point will be dedicated to that pursuit, making the book all it can be. Second, I develop a publication vision: How the book should look, how it can be marketed, what kind of audience it would appeal to, how we can reach that market, and all of my efforts for the book not in conjunction with the author are dedicated to that end.

A good example of this is a book I recently edited called THE LEGEND OF THE WANDERING KING (in stores now!). It's a translation of a Spanish fantasy about a prince of pre-Islamic Arabia who commits a terrible crime in his youth (the first half of the book), and spends the second half of the book trying to make up for it and to find an enchanted carpet involved in the crime. (It's an amazing book, if I do say so myself.) I worked with the author to make the ending (and therefore the meaning) of the book more clear and comprehensible to readers and to tighten some loose writing throughout. That was serving the editorial vision.

And then, for the publication vision, I sat down with our book designer to talk over the book and its potential appearance. It has aspects of inspirational fiction a la Paulo Coelho (a hero of the author's), and potential to reach the adult market, so we very consciously modeled our book jacket after the style of Paulo Coelho's books. (You can see a picture of it and the catalog copy here: It follows a quest across Arabia, so I put money in the book's budget for an artist to draw a map of Arabia to use as a frontispiece and as an aid to readers, and I researched Arabia circa 560 CE so the map could be as accurate as possible. It's inspired by a true story, so I worked with Laura on her author's note to more clearly delineate the line between fact and fiction (very important to reviewers in the library market) and to add some great new information about the real-life model for the protagonist that I uncovered in researching him. And it uses Arabic terms throughout, so I compiled a glossary and pronunciation guide with the help of professors at Harvard and NYU and a friend of mine who studies Arabic. I wrote letters to potential blurbers; I wrote letters to our sales reps to inspire them to read the book; I sent galleys of the book to Arabic community centers throughout the United States, hoping to stir up interest in the Arab community, as there hasn't been much fiction for teenagers featuring Arab characters. (You can read more about my work on and love for the book here: This also includes some personal reflections on the book in relation to my time at DPI, oddly enough.) It took a lot of creativity to put all that together -- again, if I do say so myself -- and I am very, very proud of the final product, both its content and its appearance.

1 comment:

  1. Wow. I really want to be an editor when I grow up -- I've wanted to ever since I listened to the episode of PotterCast that you were on. Thanks for helping people like me out! It's easy to find letters to aspiring authors, but it's not so easy to find resources if you're an aspiring editor :P