Milo Can You Go?: Editing Across the Aisle

Last week, news broke that controversial internet commentator and Breitbart News editor Milo Yiannopoulos had received a $250,000 advance from Simon & Schuster for his forthcoming book Dangerous. The deal sparked outrage among readers and those within the publishing community who accused S&S of pedaling the views of a hatemonger and attempting to profit by selling books to bigots. Several urged the publisher to withdraw the contract; others threatened a boycott. The Chicago Review of Books announced it would not review any S&S books for all of 2017.

These reactions inspired a number of interesting conversations about the role publishers should play in public discourse. Is S&S doing a public good or spreading hate by providing a platform for this inflammatory figure? As a for-profit business, do they have a moral obligation to uphold when deciding what to publish? If so, who decides what those morals should be?

While as an avid reader, liberal, and member of the publishing community, I could discuss these issues all day, they also made me reflect on something much more personal, something that doesn’t make headlines but still has the ability to influence the messages authors—particularly controversial ones—convey to their readers. Namely, how do you edit a manuscript when you fundamentally disagree with its author?

My first job in publishing was in the editorial department at Sentinel, an imprint of Penguin Group (now Penguin Random House) that specializes in publishing books with a conservative agenda. It was not the dream job I’d hoped for as a recent college grad with starry-eyed notions about editing the next great American novel. But it was the end of 2007, I knew no one in New York City, and I desperately wanted to be an editor at one of the major publishing houses.

During my interview for the position, my would-be boss (one of the few actual Republicans in publishing) asked me how I would tolerate working with people who might disagree with me politically. “Let’s say you have to talk to Ann Coulter on the phone? How would you handle the conversation?” (Sentinel did not publish Ann Coulter at the time; she was just using her as an example.)

“It’s my job as an editor to help people convey their arguments in the best way possible,” I said. “It’s not my job to have a political debate with them.”

It was the right answer. I got the job and for the next five-and-a-half years, I worked very closely with dozens of authors whose politics did not sit well with me at all. Before long, I was acquiring and editing manuscripts of my own and becoming more directly involved in the publication of the books I was working on. I never once got into a political debate with an author, and while some of them may have figured out my leanings over time, they never mentioned it and (at least to my knowledge) our difference of opinion never once interfered with my professional relationships. In fact, one author told me, essentially, that he felt comfortable with any changes I made to his manuscript because “it’s your job to make my book better, not worse.” Music to an editor’s ears!

That, of course, didn’t mean that the process wasn’t challenging. I am not the most active or outspoken person when it comes to politics, but I do have strong convictions about certain issues and there were times when I had to set them aside in order to look at a project more objectively. This naturally came into play when deciding what to acquire—how does one determine what sells to a particular audience when she is not part of that audience?—but, this is part of any publisher’s job.

No, the real challenge came during the editorial process itself. How do I help an author make sense of an argument that I don’t actually think makes sense? How do I push an author to support and defend her opinions without compromising her right to communicate those opinions freely and openly?

Obviously, as an editor at a large publishing house, I was responsible for making sure that anything we published was written to the highest standard possible. The books I was working on weren’t Shakespeare—they didn’t need to be—but they needed to be well-written and they needed to be factually correct. One time an author wrote that Al Gore had won the Nobel Peace Prize for his film An Inconvenient Truth; when I pointed out that one does not win Nobel Prizes for making movies, he changed the wording, and that was the end of the conversation.

Other times, the process was not so straightforward. On one occasion, I was editing a passage in which the author was discussing the importance of the Golden Rule—treating other people the way you want to be treated. It was all fairly innocuous until he started using the Golden Rule as an argument against gay marriage. I don’t recall the exact reasoning he used, but to me—a staunch supporter of gay rights—the entire argument didn’t make sense. Isn’t denying others the right to marry a prime example of not treating others the way you want to be treated? How was I going to retain the message the author was trying to convey to his audience (an audience I knew would agree with him regardless) while upholding my own standards of editorial quality

All in all, the argument took up no more than a few paragraphs of text, but I spent the better part of an hour (if not longer) editing it. It was clear to me that the author felt this argument was important, so while I could have made a case for picking another example that was, perhaps, more relevant to the subject at hand, I instead constructed a new argument that I felt was more appropriate in the context of the book as a whole. As a liberal, I still wasn’t satisfied by the logic, but as an editor, I was confident I had done my job in helping my author articulate what he was trying to say.

I know there are people—perhaps even some in publishing—who feel that one’s personal moral code should outweigh her professional demands and ambitions. According to those people, I should have refused to work with authors whose opinions I felt were dangerous to society. The books will get published without me, after all, so why compromise my integrity?

But I have always believed that, as an editor, I am responsible for upholding another moral code. No one forced me to take a job at a conservative imprint; just like no one forced Kim Davis to take a job as a county clerk in Kentucky. And if I, as a progressive, expect people like Davis to do their jobs despite their personal or religious beliefs, then how can I not hold myself to the same standard? Yes, Davis is a government employee who was denying citizens something they were entitled to under the law, while I was working for a for-profit company and merely debating semantics with myself. But one could make the case that Davis took her job before gay marriage was legal, whereas I took my job knowing what my responsibilities would be.

As I said in that first job interview, it is not my job as an editor to argue with people; it’s my job to help them make their books as good as possible. No one forces me to do that; I choose to and I’m proud of it. I became an editor because I believe passionately in the power of the written word and the right of the freedom of expression. In the age of social media, fake news, and filter bubbles, it’s easy for us to tune out anyone we don’t agree with politically—or engage them in endless rounds of “here’s why you’re wrong” that end up making everyone feel more entrenched in their beliefs than ever before. But the experience of forcing myself to step inside the mind of someone else, to try and understand why people I disagree with feel the way they do, is an inherently empathetic one, one that acknowledges the rights of each of us to hold opinions, that made me appreciate the importance of free and open discourse—of the right to disagree that we so often take advantage of in America.

I eventually left Sentinel because I knew I ultimately wasn’t cut out to edit conservative political books for the rest of my career. Now, as an independent writer and editor, I have more freedom to work on books that I truly believe in. And, while I probably won’t opt to edit any Breitbart contributors anytime soon, I firmly believe that my experience working at Sentinel has not only made be a better editor but a better citizen as well.

This post was originally published at

I Don't Need Credit, that's Why I'm an Editor

Not long before I started my freelance career, my mother and I were discussing what would be involved in the job. I had been an editor at a large publishing house for 8+ years, and she knew what that had entailed--acquiring manuscripts for publication, offering feedback on manuscripts, suggesting titles, schmoozing with agents, etc. But, like most people, she was less familiar with the concept of ghostwriting. As I explained what ghostwriters do--take someone's (the "author's") ideas and/or stories and turn them into a compelling written work (a book, article, blog post, speech, etc)--she paused. "Why would you want to write something that someone else gets credit for?" she asked.

It's a fair question. After all, ghostwriters are called "ghostwriters" because they are supposed to be invisible--playing off their writing as someone else's. True ghosts are not even credited on the book so, for all the reader knows, the author wrote it him or herself. Writing is a creative profession, an art, if you will. Why would you want to cede recognition for that to someone else?

"I don't care about that," I said. And I didn't. I've never cared about it. That's why I became an editor in the first place. 

A couple of years ago, I acquired a book called Invisibles by a journalist named David Zweig. The premise of the book was that there is an entire class of highly skilled workers throughout society who are undervalued because their work is largely invisible. In fact, Zweig argued, the better an Invisible does his or her job, the less they are noticed. Examples that Zweig cited included fact checkers, interpreters, and wayfinders (the people who design signs that help you navigate your way through, say, an airport). The point of the book was not simply to acknowledge these people but to argue that we should place more value on the inherent qualities they possess--things like conscientiousness and a passion for the work for the work's sake.

When I first started working with Zweig, he told me that he didn't consider editors to be Invisibles because they got too much recognition from society at large. I took his point--after all "editor" is one of those jobs that women in rom-coms often have (along with "journalist" and "interior designer," and "some vague non-profit job") indicating that many people have at least a dim idea of what they do (you don't want to spend too much time explaining a character's professional life when the focus is on how to get the guy). The career is also, thanks to these portrayals, considered glamorous (many of us live in New York and hobnob with Serious and Important people, after all). A few famous editors have even become famous in their own right (think Judith Jones or Maxwell Perkins).

But when was the last time you read a book and thought, "Wow! This is extremely well edited!" Now, when was the last time you read something and thought "Jeez, this could have used a better editor." I bet I can guess.

I remember one of the first books I edited received several reviews criticizing the amount of repetition throughout. "Fire the editor!" exclaimed the headline of one Amazon review. I was heartbroken, mostly because I agreed. What the reviewers didn't know was that I had, in fact, repeatedly tried removing several instances of repetition but because the author and I were working on an extremely tight deadline and editing the book in pieces (not ideal to ensure consistency), she kept adding pieces back in, probably under the assumption that they weren't already included. And I, having read the book out of order so many times, started forgetting what had been mentioned and what hadn't.

So, no, I don't get credit from the general public for the editing I do. However, I do get credit from my authors, and that's what I got into this business for. I've always been a decent writer, but I realized early on that I preferred (and was better at) helping others make their writing better. My best days are the ones when an author says to me, "Wow! You're such a great editor! Thank you!" That's all the credit I need.




72 Books

Today, because it was Friday and things were slow at the office, I compiled a list of all of the books I have edited over the 8+ years of my publishing career. It was relatively simple to do given the fact that I have spent my entire career at one company and that company (Penguin Random House) has great systems that are easy to use. Several of the books are now out of print and therefore weren't in the regular management system, but I did some digging through old files and lists and came up with what should be a comprehensive list.

I have edited 72 books.

That is an average of just under 9 per year. This is not a terribly unusual number for an in-house editor; a typical number for someone who works in the categories I do is about 8-12 depending on the imprint. And, for some of these, I didn't edit the entire manuscript. In a few cases I may have offered feedback on early chapters before the book was transitioned to a different editor for some reason (for instance, when I left my first imprint). I only counted books under these circumstances if I felt my edits had a significant impact on shaping the book as a whole. If my feedback was nothing more than "This looks good! Keep going," I didn't consider it an edit.

Any editor knows that some books have a bigger impact on your career than others. Perhaps the book did extremely well and helped you make a name for yourself. Or perhaps it was your first book in a new category and thus helped you expand your repertoire. Perhaps you developed a special rapport with the author and went on to maintain a relationship with them long after the book was published. Perhaps the author was a nightmare who made you rethink your entire career choice but also taught you important lessons about professionalism and dealing with adversity.

In my own case, the thing that strikes me most about these 72 books is not the number but the diversity they represent. The first book I acquired was an account of the Bernie Madoff scandal. My most successful book (in terms of sales) was a collection of Christmas stories by former presidential candidate Mike Huckabee (say what you will about the man or his politics, but that book made me cry on more than one occasion because it was so affecting). The first book I acquired when I switched imprints was a memoir by a Dutch veterinarian who is also the star of his own TV show. The last book I edited was about GMOs and the American food system.

I realized I wanted to be a book editor when I was a freshman in college. If you had asked me then how I envisioned my career, I would have told you I wanted to edit the next Great American Novel. I was always a huge reader, but apart from books I read for school, I exclusively read fiction, except for an occasional memoir. I would never have touched a business book or a book by a conservative politician (or, for that matter, any politician). I took my first job because it was the first one offered to me, and I figured it would be a great foot in the door to what I really wanted to do. But I stayed for five years. And I loved it. And I changed.

I love non-fiction now--all kinds of non-fiction (except sports and military history, though I did read Moneyball, but that's also kind of a business book). Today I tell people I only want to work on non-fiction. Even stranger? I prefer practical non-fiction--self-help, business, lifestyle...My mother once tried to get me to read Financial Peace by Dave Ramsey, and I flat out refused. Now personal finance is one of my favorite categories to work on, and three of the authors with whom I have maintained relationships over the years, have written personal finance books.

A few years ago, I spoke at a panel for my alma mater. I graduated from a journalism school where I majored in magazine journalism. The panel was part of a trip the magazine department organizes every year where they take some seniors in the department to New York for a few days to meet with alumni and pick their brains about how to get a job. This was 2009, so the job prospects for these students was bleak.

Joining me on the panel were two other magazine grads who, like me, had ended up landing jobs with a business focus. One worked at Forbes, the other was at, and then there was me. None of us had sought careers with a business-focus. We knew nothing about business or finance when we entered these jobs, but we all ended up loving what we did. At one point, one of the seniors asked us about this choice and said, "Don't you need to love the work in order to enjoy your job? Shouldn't we be looking for jobs that align with our interests."

I wanted to tell her, "Honey, you're graduating at the bottom of one of the worst recessions in history with a degree in magazines...take any job you can get." Instead I told her that how much you enjoyed your job depended less on the work and more on the work environment. If you hate your coworkers or have a tyrannical boss, you could be working at your favorite publication and be miserable.

I still agree with this and have offered the advice since then. But in thinking about these 72 books and how I've changed in the past 8 years, I also realize that the problem with seeking a job that aligns with your "interests" as opposed to your "skills" is that, when you're 22, you really don't know who you are. Your options have been limited. And studying a subject for a couple hours a week or pursuing a hobby in your free time is very different from working at it 40+  hours a week. I knew I was a good editor, but I had no idea I'd be able to edit 72 books about so many different topics--and edit them well.

There's a bit of a misconception that editors are failed writers--that if they were really talented, their names would be on the front of the book, not tucked away on the acknowledgements page. But I don't know a single editor for whom this is the case. I certainly know some who also write, but good editors love editing. Some people might find the prospect of reading, let alone editing, 72 books books to be a nightmare. Meanwhile, I can't wait to see just how high that number can get.