Diary of A Trade Book (Newton and the Counterfeiter) 5.0: Editors and your (dis)Contents

Going back to a little chronology in this series.  Idea – proposal – agent…what happens next is (a) some editor or editors at major houses cannot resist the idea, bid on it, and leave one with a choice:  who (and why).  And even if no auction occurs to propel one (me, oh why not me?) to riches beyond the dreams of avarice, there is still some choice to be made — to whom to send a given proposal.

The reason that’s important is because of what comes after that brief moment when a writer has some kind of a choice, and has to get on with producing the book.

That means, working with an editor.  This post is about the how I’ve tried to match myself up with those who’ve taken me on.  It’s also about what your editor can and cannot do for your book as it moves through the production process, to the point (now) when it is almost out the door.

The most important thing is to remember that a good editor is a writer’s absolute best friend, despite — because of — the pain that can follow when someone who will not compromise tells you that your copy isn’t there yet.  Those writers who’ve felt they’ve grown past editing (and I’ve known, and read, a few) are like those lawyers who choose to represent themselves in court.

So what makes a good editor?  First, most, but not exclusively, it’s how they read, respond and think.  At least for me, the one thing any editor has to do is read my work, understand its engines, and be able to tell me clearly where problems lie and what the nature of those flaws may be.  They don’t have to tell me how to fix each issue (though good advice is always welcome).  But they can’t let dead spots, confusion, lapses of any sort go by.

Which means that I need people who are actual  editors, those who will give my mss. the kind of close reading and analysis that takes a couple of weeks, at least, of sustained attention.  I’ve been, by design, fortunate enough to have such editors for each of my four books to date — working with Rick Kot  on Ice Time:  Climate, Science and Life on Earth (now, sadly, out of print, to be revived soon in in PDF form); Becky Saletan on Measure for Measure for Simon and Schuster; the legendary Ann Harris of Bantam on my third, Einstein in Berlin;and then Becky again — that glutton for punishment, on Newton and the Counterfeiter, for Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

In each case, the choice of editor was born of a mix of hard cash calculation and, once the offers were all in, some sense of where I and the project would fit best.  Rick was an easy choic.  Then a young rising star (Ice Time sold in 1985, back when my printer still punched holes in clay tablets) Rick had the eye and ear and patience to help a writer moving from 3,000 word articles to a 75,000 word sustained narrative; he was clear, quick and rigorous in his marching orders for the rewrite of the first submission.

Becky, similarly, helped me move one more step.  Measure for Measure was a longer and more complicated work than Ice Time and she helped me think through structure and the balance of detail with giddyup and go needed for such a sprawling work.

And then there was Ann Harris.  What I’m about to say is unfair, for while Becky and Rick are now well established, highly prized editors, available in prospect to anyone reading this with a good book in them, Ann has retired and the rest of you cannot gain what I did in working with her over (too) many years on Einstein in Berlin.

That book took a very long time to write, partly because of my own circumstances, partly because Ann had to take breaks to do things like edit Stephen Hawking’s stuff for no-mess-around deadlines,* partly because the book was very ambitious and hard to get right.  She gave the book a complete detailed line edit at least three, and I think four times.  The total of her running memos, giving criticism more deep and detailed than could fit in a page margin, ran to over a hundred pages of typescript over those drafts. Any working writer now knows just how vanishingly unusual such dedicated, rich, relentless effort to make one’s work better is in New York publishing these days.

When the book finally came out — and it is a work of which I remain enormously proud, I felt that after all those years and drafts, I finally felt like I had completed my post-graduate training in writing.  For which I owe Ann a debt of thanks that can be acknowledged, but only repaid to some third party.

If this sounds like a mash note, it is because it is.

And it has a point for this diary as well:  Bantam was not the best house for my book.  It was and is much better known as a lower-brow mass market publisher.  It definitely stands below other imprints within Random House on the prestige scale — think Knopf for the king of place within the Bertelsman octopus as a place that reviewers and bookstore buyers and rest view as a source of the kind of book Einstein in Berlin wanted to be.

And as it turned out I  don’t think they published the book all that well, though to their credit they did make a number of international sales.  But the publicity and marketing efforts did not gain any real traction, and while the book itself is key to getting attention, so is the support from the house.

In the event, I don’t think it made much difference to its ultimate fate, given that when it finally appeared, we were three weeks into the Iraq war, and anything that didn’t have “Islam” or “Terror” in the title simply wasn’t breaking through.  But the point is that matching this book with that house was a risk — but it is one I will never regret taking as the reward in working with Ann was so great.   My sympathies to every writer who will not get that opportunity.

And now, at last to Newton. I loved the fact that Becky wanted this book (just as I was disappointed that Rick, when offered the proposal, passed on it).  I’ve always dreamt of having the kind of ongoing relationship with one editor who knows and esteems my work that legends suggest some writers used to get back in the day.  And Becky is an ideal editor for this kind of work:  she loves literary non-fiction and has an acute ear for  voice, story and argument, the  essentials of the genre.

Also, somewhat unusually in this day and age, Becky and her English counterpart, Neil Belton of Faber & Faber, both engaged the project early and late.  They each gave me a good critical read on just the first five chapters –and many editors, even very hands-on ones, much prefer to see the full mss before doing any heavy lifting — and they both produced detailed and very much on-point line and conceptual edits when I finally produced a complete draft.

That is, to the extent that I had any choice in the matter, I found editors for each of my books whom I liked, whose brains I thought worked the way I wanted my books to work, and from whom I could learn the lessons I could absorb at each stage of my growth as a writer.  Becky, twice, has done so magnificently.

But what’s the point of going on at this length just to say that I liked my editors?

There are two. For one–be careful.  The most important thing to understand about the book business — at least its trade non-fiction end — i that not all editors are in the editing business first and foremost.

Some, a lot perhaps, are in the acquiring end of the job.  The identify and buy projects they like, that they think will work.  Editing, if it happens at all, will often fall to an assistant or a freelancer.  Sometimes the only way to get the essential service of someone else’s intelligent eyes working through your mss is to hire a freelancer of your own.  Sounds crazy, but it’s true.

And for plenty of writers that can be fine.  As long as you know what you are getting into, have an advance large enough to pay for the extra help, and take the precautions to make sure that your writing gets the scrutiny it needs, just  work accordingly.  But you have to know up front — that’s the only thing.

The cost that money alone can’t cover is that you don’t have someone in house who is committed to your project on a word or page by page basis.

I find the fact that I can call someone when I need to think with help, or just to have the continuity of thought that comes from having the same person love a proposal enough to buy it, read the manuscript at each stage and so on, helps me write.  So I look for editors who both acquire and pound the copy.  As with all such things, YMMV — but you should, to the extent that you can, tailor your work and your expectations to the situation you in which you find yourself.

The second issue is that there is one other crucial thing your editor does for you:  that person is your advocate within the house for everything to do with not just writing, but publishing your book.

Your editor is your interface  with marketing and publicity departments; they present to the sales force; they send out advance copies to folks they think can lead opinion; they’re who you (or rather, your agent) call when you think that things need to be done to help push your lonely single work above the vast sea of the more than ten thousand books published in the US each month.  If your editor is not good at that, not well placed, or worst of all, no longer there — your life (mine!) becomes harder.

And it sucks, and you have to work around it.

For Newton and the Counterfeiter, the nightmare scenario hit last December, after all the basic editorial work was complete, but before the main publishing effort had begun.  Becky Saletan, my editor — and the boss of her house — quit her job.

I went from having the head of trade publishing at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt as my advocate, able as the capo di tutti capi to get a lot of traction with sales, marketing and the rest — to waiting several weeks to learn who among the survivors in a very bad month for my house and publishing in general would take me on.

In the end I landed with Deanne Urmy, a publishing veteran and a serious and respected editor. She carries real weight over at HMH, and she’s a smart and interesting person to work with.

What she is not, however, is someone with a significant involvement with my book.  When we first met, she hadn’t seen anything — not the proposal, nor the edited mss, nothing.  The transition from Becky’s assistant to hers was rocky enough that one of my blurbs — by the wonderful science writer David Bodanis (E=MC2;Passionate Minds; and much else) went missing for months.  And she was busy, with my book an additional task to handle on top of an already full-time load of books she had actually been engaged in for a time.

It hasn’t been a disaster.  Aided by my agent and the freelance publicist I’ve hired (more about that in a post or two) I’ve found my way through the HMH apparatus to get a pretty good sense of what buttons to push to get the most I can in terms of support for the book.

Deanne has certainly been responsive and helpful — and it hasn’t hurt that my office is about a five minute drive from hers.  But the take home from this scare, rather than catastrophe, is that the other service you need from your editor is committed advocacy.  If there was one weakness to Ann Harris’s editing, it was here:  she was old school, and believed that good books carry their own power in their marketplace.  She’s wrong there — and in fact she knew it, that if it had ever been so, it was no longer.  Becky deeply understands this, which is why I miss her hand now.

So if anyone reading this is getting ready to sign or publish a book, my one piece of advice is to do your due diligence.  Find out early how much of the two key roles an editor can play your particular person can do well, or at all.  If you’re working with someone who acquires more than they edit, plan accordingly; be prepared — and discuss this explicitly with your agent — to be aggressive, early, in making sure that the entire house, not just editorial knows about your book and knows how to sell it.  (More on that coming v. soon).  What you can/should/must do to promote your own book is an overlapping but at least conceptually separate question, but even here, you won’t know just how much you have to do until you have a good sense of how well your editor can pull the levers in – house to make good things happen.

Be prepared, in other words.  In this sense, in dealing with the book trade if in no other sphere of our lives, every writer has to be a Boy Scout.

*My one brush with matters Hawking came one afternoon when Ann called.  Her question?  She was putting together a glossary for one of Hawking’s books (The Universe in a Nutshell, I think, but I’m really not sure at this remove), and Hawking had basically taken himself out of the task, understandably enough.  So would I, Ann asked, suggest a definition for “entropy.”

Didn’t even have to think about that one.  Mrs. Levenson did not raise her boy to be stupid enough to mess with the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics under the scrutiny of the current incumbant of the Lucasian Professorship of Mathematics.   (That chair’s second occupant was  Isaac Newton, and I wouldn’t have tried to gloss one of his greatest conceptual insighta, inertia, either.)  Over to you, Sean Carroll.

Image:  Johannes Vermeer, “A Lady Writing,”  1665.

Explore posts in the same categories: navel gazing, Newton and the Counterfeiter, Publishing, Writing

5 Comments on “Diary of A Trade Book (Newton and the Counterfeiter) 5.0: Editors and your (dis)Contents”

  1. Laelaps Says:

    Thanks for this entry, Tom. Hopefully I will find myself with just the sort of dilemma you described here: who do I choose to sign with and why?

    As a neophyte I am definitely looking forward to the next entry, particularly how to make sure the editor also works as an advocate in the publishing house.

    While I have not worked with an editor on a book-length project before, I am thankful that I get to work with editor Laura Helmuth at Smithsonian. She doesn’t let me get away with forgetting that my readers might not be familiar with all the paleontological jargon I am able to rattle off, but also provides enough positive feedback so that I have a better idea of how to turn papers or news reports into something accessible and entertaining.

  2. BCC Says:

    Your freelance copy editor notes:

    “Rick was an easy choic.”?

  3. karen Says:

    Could you tell me why there are two versions available of Newton? Is there a difference?

  4. jubakala Says:

    Hmm… I found this blog-post from Google when I was searching some posts of the rock band Editors… But, I guess it’s about some different kind of editors… So I keep searching, bye! 😀


    The Editors Discography Guy

  5. The New York publishing scene is intellectually bankrupt and has been for seventy-five years.
    By the time they catch onto a new movement–like
    the Beats–it is already passe.

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