Publishing: The Traditional Defense Part Two

Continuing my post from yesterday on Steve Laube’s Defense of Traditional Publishing, today I’ll talk about his third post. This one on the all-important topic of editing or, as Steve calls it, content development.

Access to an editorial team is one of the main dreams that has kept me doggedly trudging along the “traditional” path. Like Steve, I know the value of listening to the advice and critiques of knowledgeable, conscientious readers and editors and putting at least some of their suggestions into practice. Like William Faulkner and Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch have said, you have to be able to “kill your darlings” to really progress as a writer. A good editor will not only help you do this, but help you understand why. I know how a lot of people will respond to this, so I’m going to directly quote a large section from Steve’s post where he address that very retort:

A critic might say, “But I can just hire these freelance people myself. Why do I need a traditional publisher?” That is a good point. But it misses a critical part of the process. It is illustrated by the question, “Who pays the invoice?”

Think about it for a moment. In a traditional publishing house the publisher is basically in charge. If there is a major dispute over editorial changes or input, the publisher has final say and contractual clout. Rarely is this used as a hammer, but the writer always knows it is there. In almost every case there are long discussions and a compromise is achieved.

But when the author hires the editor, who is the boss? The writer is the boss. The writer will usually defer to an editor’s comments. But what if your novel is going down a terrible path, a path to commercial destruction? I know of a case where an author was bent on writing a particular storyline and would not take anyone’s advice. His agent was unsuccessful. His writing friends and critique partners could not sway him from the path. If he were self-publishing he would have failed miserably. Instead an editor at a traditional publishing house recognized the talent and came alongside with valuable suggestions. The author, realizing that the editor had the goal of creating a great book, acceded to the advice. The book was saved, is now in print, and being sold in stores everywhere.

I also know of another case where a freelance editor took an author’s manuscript (to be self-published) and rearranged the non-fiction content from a topical presentation to a chronological presentation. (The book was the history of a specialized type of job in our court system.) The editor felt that a history should be told chronologically instead of topically. The author disagreed and made the editor put it all back the way it was in the first draft. Because the author was “paying the invoice” the author’s wishes prevailed. The book did not sell and was not adopted as a textbook, which was the goal of the author.

Sometimes in some situations some people simply do not know what’s best. They’ve lost their objectivity and by not being able to see their work as a reader might (and probably will), they lose their chance of connecting with their ideal audience. Editors are trained to know how to do this. They know what most readers are looking for and can help you erase your weaknesses and show off your strengths, but listening to their advice isn’t always easy.  In fact, it’s often very difficult. Who wants to hear that the scene you spent a month polishing doesn’t work, halts the flow of the action, and should probably be pulled entirely? No one! Does that mean it’s bad advice? Nope. However, without that “hammer” hanging over your head, the desire to ignore the advice and go back to the way you like it is mighty tempting.

Is this really a point in favor of traditional publishing? Only if you sign on with a dedicated, attentive editorial team. But you could also have bad luck with a freelancer and end up hiring someone who has no idea what they’re doing. In the end, you take your chances either way, but at least with an editorial team working directly for a publisher, they have some incentive to make your book the best it can be–they want to keep their jobs.

Tomorrow (or more likely Monday)? Part four of Steve’s series: Design.

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