What Does an Editor Do?

Yesterday, I came across an article on NPR.com titled "What Exactly Does an Editor Do? The Role Has Changed Over Time." The article was adapted from a segment on All Things Considered and began by discussing the recent publication of Go Set a Watchman, the "sequel" to To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. I put the term "sequel" in quotes because, around the time of the book's publication, it was revealed that Go Set a Watchman was, in fact, not a sequel at all, but rather a very early draft of Mockingbird, Lee's first and wildly famous book.

Say what you will about the ethics of marketing an author's early draft as a sequel (not to mention the other dubious details of the book's publication), but one of the other surprising things this discovery revealed was just how much Lee's editor, Tay Hohoff, played in shaping the book into the classic it would become. As the NPR piece noted, "Lee radically revised this early version of the book on the advice of her editor...That made us wonder: how much do editors shape the final book we read?"

The article goes on to quote Pulitzer-Prize winning author A. Scott Berg, who cites legendary editor Max Perkins as an example of the lengths some editors used to go to in order to shape an author's--even a celebrated author's--final manuscript. "Not only did [Perkins] change the course of the American literary river, but he changed what editors do by becoming their best friends, their money lenders, their marriage counselors, their psychoanalysts...He often provided structure for what their novels ought to be. He often gave them whole ideas for what their next book should be."

He then goes on to say that times have changed and that financial pressure and increased competition in the marketplace (not just from other books but digital media, movies, music, video games, and a ton of other portable distractions) have forced editors to spend more time searching for a sure-thing bestseller than to pore over one manuscript in an effort to transform it into a brilliant contribution to the literary canon.

"It's not necessarily cost-effective," he says, "for book editors to invest as much of their time into any single manuscript or any single author...because the publishing houses have not encouraged their editors to edit."

Berg is not 100% wrong here. It is true that publishers have become less risk-averse in many ways, especially when it comes to literature. I don't work in fiction, but I know from observing the marketplace and talking with agents and authors, that it's harder than ever to turn an undiscovered literary talent into a sensation. 2015 alone saw plenty of proof of this. The biggest bestseller of the year, The Girl on the Train, was by a first-time author, but it was a thriller, not a literary narrative, and it was most often compared, not to the works of Donna Tartt or Jonathan Franzen, but to Gone Girl, the 2012 bestseller by Gillian Flynn. Meanwhile, the most hotly anticipated literary debut of the year, City on Fire by Garth Risk Hallberg, which sold for a reported $2 million advance, received glowing reviews but dropped off the printed New York Times bestseller list after only 2 weeks. Yes, there were certainly literary success stories this year, including Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff and The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah, but these were written by previously published authors. 

On the non-fiction side, the pressure is just as high. Not only do books have to present an original, well-constructed idea, but they also need to be written by someone with a "platform," meaning you can't just have something interesting to say; you have to come with some sort of established credential (a name, a byline, a built-in audience) so that people will  listen to you say it. In the old days, part of a publisher's job was to help gifted authors build this platform, and while they certainly still do so, their efforts are, for the most part, no longer enough. And even if they are willing to take a shot once in a while, they are extremely calculated about the shots they choose to take. 

A few years ago, I read a memoir by Judith Jones, the legendary editor who discovered both Julia Child and The Diary of Anne Frank. The book was called My Life in Food (a nice nod to Child's famous memoir My Life in France) and specifically discussed her work with cookbooks and famous chefs. Overall, it wasn't a great memoir, but I distinctly remember her talking about how she used to go over to the West Village home of one of her cookbook authors and help him (or her...I can't recall who exactly it was) test recipes and prepare delicious meals. This was considered part of her job. I certainly know editors who have, over time, befriended their authors (I've befriended a few myself), but if any of them were to skip out of the office to go cook chicken cordon bleu and drink wine with their authors in the middle of the day, their dedication would be questioned, not celebrated. Oh to have lived 50 years ago.

So, no, the editor-author relationship is generally not as intimate as it used to be. But we are most certainly still editors. And, sometimes. we still serve as psychoanalysts and confidantes. And, occasionally, we even help the authors shape a radically new book--one they had never even considered writing--or give them an idea for their next great masterpiece.

One of the most pervasive refrains I've heard throughout my career is that "editors don't edit anymore." People assume that because we're so focused on publishing bestsellers (quick aside: what publishing house in history has ever not been focused on publishing bestsellers?), we don't actually care if the book is good as long as it sells. This is, without a doubt, one of the most offensive things you can say to an editor (at least a good one) because the truth is, we do edit. We edit a lot. The problem is, our work is generally invisible--as well it should be. 

Early in my career, I edited a very complicated book about a financial scandal. I was an editorial assistant at the time, which meant my days were spent doing whatever my bosses (I had two) needed me to do, and my editing was done at home on nights and weekends. To make matters even more complicated, the book was a rush, so I was editing it chapter-by-chapter while the author was still reporting and writing it. And, because the schedule didn't allow the author enough time to revise the book as much as was required, we even brought in a freelancer to help put it all together. All told, I edited at least three drafts of that manuscript--never all at once--and in an extremely short period of time. I distinctly remember cutting out several repetitive phrases and paragraphs only to find that the author reinserted them in the next draft.

The final result was a great book--it made the company money and even appeared on a few "Best of the Year" lists--but it was repetitive, and this was the main criticism it received. I remember reading one Amazon review titled "Fire the editor!" and called me out (not by name of course) for not cutting so much repetition. Of course, that reviewer could not have known how much I tried to do that--or the schedule I was on. A New York Times reviewer was more charitable, noting that it was repetitive but acknowledging that this was most likely due to the quick publication.  I still wish I'd had more time to perfect it. But I'll be damned if I didn't edit the hell out of that thing. A few years later, I gave that author the idea for her next book. I left the job before I could edit it, but it, too, received fantastic reviews. 

The NPR article acknowledges this reality by quoting an interview with Rebecca Saletan, vice president and editorial director of Riverhead Books (which just so happens to publish both The Girl on the Train and Fates and Furies among many other bestselling and award-winning books). "The editing certainly shouldn't be showoff-y in any way," Saletan says. "And I always cringe a little and feel a little sympathetic for the editor when a review says, 'This wasn't well-edited.'" she says. "Because it's very hard for anybody outside the process to know what went into it."

Perhaps there are fewer editors like Maxwell Perkins and Tay Hohoff in the world, but I actually don't think so. Sure, you'd probably be hard pressed to find someone outside of the literary community who could name the person who edited their favorite book, and that's fine. Because editors don't expect to be celebrities. We don't expect the New York Times or the Paris Review to give us credit for that turn of phrase we suggested or the structural changes we made to Chapter 6. I'm sure at some point, every editor considered becoming a writer--however briefly. They loved books and had a talent for writing and analysis and probably daydreamed at some point about seeing their name printed on the cover of their novel or book of essays or memoir. But we didn't become writers. We chose to become editors. And with that we chose to put aside our own glory in an effort to help someone else realize theirs. We love the work. We love editing. We love working with writers. We love knowing that we had a part to play in the process. We don't care if people know what we do. We do and our authors do and that's really all that counts.