Sunday, November 25, 2012

Southeast Asia in the Autumn: Editors' Boot Camp

For the first two weeks of November, I was on the other side of the Earth, first for five days in Singapore, then for seven in Thailand. This will be the first of, I think, five posts about my experiences.

I went to Singapore to teach at an Editors' Boot Camp, which the National Arts Council sponsored as part of the Singapore Writers' Festival. My co-instructor was the excellent Francesca Main of Picador Books UK -- an adult-books editor who was just as passionate about the art and craft of editing as I am, resulting in three good days of sharing our knowledge with the Malay and Singaporean editors in attendance, and learning from them in turn. Case in point: The Singaporean publishing industry does not have two things that completely change the publishing equation when compared to the US & UK:

  • Agents. This makes sense when you consider that Singapore has four official languages (English, Malay, Chinese, and Tamil) for a population of just over five million, which greatly fragments the publishing market, which in turn makes it difficult for an agent to build a living out of 15% commissions. Thus most manuscripts in Singapore are submitted directly to the publishers.
  • and the Kindle. They do have e-books, which can be purchased through the website, among others. But the 900-pound gorilla that has so transformed the US and UK publishing industries hasn't yet established a Singaporean outpost. 
What they DO have:
  • Diversity. This is a "duh" statement given the country's languages and population, but coming from U.S. publishing, it was a pleasure to see so many editors from such diverse backgrounds gathered in one place:  Muslims, Malays, native-Chinese speakers, expatriates . . .
  • Energy. Not only were the editors eager to learn, but the government was eager to support the country's publishing efforts, as evidenced by the existence of the course itself. 
  • Creativity. I was really impressed by the wide-ranging and beautifully designed lists of small publishers like Epigram Books, Monsoon Books, and Marshall Cavendish (which is very different from the MC we have here).
Four observations I offered in class, which I rarely have occasion to offer in my courses for writers:
  • Authors and manuscripts are published most successfully when they are a good fit with the editor's values, the house's values, and the market's values. That is:  The editor values what the book accomplishes artistically, and knows how to help the author maximize its intellectual intentions and emotional effects; the house can successfully connect the book with its audience, because it's an audience the house already values and knows how to reach; and the market recognizes the worth of the book and embraces it. The market's values are endlessly created and recreated, because it doesn't know what it wants until that desire has been offered to it. But an editor's and house's values can usually be seen in what they've published in the past.
  • Having recently seen, and really liked, the film of Cloud Atlas, I finally read the New Yorker article about its making, and I was greatly struck by this quote from Lana Wachowski:  "The problem with market-driven art-making is that movies are green-lit based on past movies. So as nature abhors a vacuum, the system abhors originality. Originality cannot be economically modeled." (Those of us who must deal with comp titles would also observe that originality has a highly mixed sales record.) 
  • Much of being an editor is dealing with negative space:  what is not there at present and should be. 
  • Editors have a close-to-inexhaustible faith in the perfectability of manuscripts:  that they can and will get better, with the application of the right combination of insight, imagination, time, and elbow grease. We acquire this faith through seeing the process happen over and over again, for a wide array of writers and projects. It is a much harder faith for writers to keep, given that they usually don't have the opportunity to see any process but their own, and they're so deeply personally invested in that and the outcome (whereas we editors get to have a little more distance from both).

Thanks very much to Francesca (pictured to my right above), to the writers and editors in our class, and to the National Arts Council for making the trip possible!


  1. "Originality has a highly mixed sales record." So interesting and true. I'd love to hear more on your take.

    1. I wonder how much of that has to do with the choices publishers make about spending marketing dollars, which, I suspect, goes back to basing decisions on comp sales and Lena Wachowski's observation.