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.

All Books Are Self-Help Books

Earlier today, I came across an interview with the authors of a new book called F*ck Feelings: One Shrink's Practical Advice for Managing All Life's Impossible Problems by Michael and Sarah Bennett. Michael Bennett is the shrink referred to in the subtitle, a board-certified, Harvard-educated psychiatrist . Sarah is his daughter, a comedy writer who has lent her voice to helping her father share his wisdom in an entertaining way.

Of course I clicked on the link to the article. I love psychology books. In fact, I came across this article while I was editing a psychology book--one about emotions no less. So, you know, it was research. Also, who can resist a title like that? I thought the title we currently have for the book I'm editing--Emotional Agility--was pretty damn good, but now I'm wondering if it's not profane enough? I'll take it to my boss on Monday.*

Based on the description of F*ck Your Feelings, as well as some reviews I found online, it sounds like a pretty good book. The premise is that our culture has come to value feelings too much--we're taught to get "in touch" with our feelings and to express them constructively. Only by understanding our emotions will we ever be able to move forward in life. The authors argue that this inward focus actually keeps us from achieving what we really want. Instead they promise to show you "how to find a new kind of freedom by getting your head out of your ass and yourself into the right path toward realistic goals and feasible results." Sounds like a pretty good promise to me! The descriptive copy closes by calling F*ck Feelings "the last self-help book you will ever need." (For the record, the copy starts by referring to the book as "the only self-help book you will ever need." Note to publisher: which is it?)

I bring up the last point because in the interview, the reporter asks the authors how their book differs from other "how to be content books" on the market. Sarah Bennett goes on to respond:

Well, from what we know—and we are two people that have never read a self-help book—they seem to put the onus for happiness on the reader. I've had too many friends who made Secret collages. And that makes it seem like, if you made your collage as prescribed by [the pseudoscientific self-help book] The Secret, and you’re not happy, you screwed up. When that’s not really fair to you. You could wake up that morning determined to be happy, and the first step you take out of your building is into dog shit, and now you’re unhappy, but you didn’t put the dog shit there. It's not your fault. You really can't control your happiness, no matter what a book says.

 I don't take issue with 90% of this paragraph. I have never read The Secret either, but I know I hate it because I hate any advice that teaches that the secret to happiness is simply thinking positively or putting out good energy into the universe or whatever. No, bad things happen to good, positive people all the time, and wonderful things happen to assholes. And I also agree with the author's point that there is nothing wrong with you if you aren't happy. Life is crap sometimes. You don't have to be happy about that in order to accept it.

The one comment I do take issue with is the statement that she and her dad have "never read a self-help book." Now, of course, I don't know what these people read. And, frankly, I don't need to know; that's their business. However, I would like to point out: you just wrote a self-help book! Did you not read it? It counts, you know. Also, given that her fatherMichael is a psychiatrist, I have a hard time believing he has never read a self-help book. That's like a doctor saying, "I've never read a science book." Dude, stay away from me with that scalpel! 

Clearly, this is not what the authors mean when they talk about self-help books. They define self-help as only what you find on the self-help shelf (say that three times fast!) at your typical bookstore. Actually, no, that can't be what they mean because their book is categorized as both "Self-Help/Emotions" and "Self-Help/Relationships--Interpersonal Relationships" on Amazon. And I'm sure if I walked into my local Barnes and Noble (which I can't do right now because I hurt my back, so quit criticizing me!), I'm sure I would find their book nestled comfortably between all those other self-help books.

What I assume the author means when she refers to these self-help books that she's never read are books like The Secret--inspirational books written by self-described gurus who profess to know the secrets of life and encourage people to follow their dreams and make vision boards and understand that the universe has a plan for their lives. Yadda yadda.

And I suppose that's fair because that's what people think of when they refer to "self-help" books, despite the fact that the category encompasses so much more.

When I was younger, I was something of a book snob. I wasn't reading anything all that heady, but I was only interested in reading novels (or the occasional memoir) of a certain literary quality. My mother, meanwhile, was a self-help fiend. I distinctly remember five books taking up space on her nightstand: The Power of Positive Thinking by Norman Vincent Peale, Financial Peace by Dave Ramsey, In the Meantime by Ilanya Vanzant, something by Joyce Meyer, and The Holy Bible (the ultimate self-help book!). There was also a brief window of time in which my mother kept trying to get me to read the book Why Men Love Bitches (profane titles strike again).

"It's not about being a bitch!" she told me. "It's about why men like assertive women!"

"Je refuse!" I protested (I was taking AP French). I was 17 and had dated two guys for a total of about 2.5 months. I didn't need advice about men.**

I thought these books were beneath me--and not just because I was a hard-headed teenager who knew everything; I didn't think they were worthy of my time when there were so many great novels out there that someone like me should be reading. 

I persisted in this vein through college. Then, after graduation, I got my first editorial job. I, like most would-be editors, wanted to edit the next great American novel--or at least I thought I did. Unfortunately, that job was not open in late 2007, so I took the one that was offered to me: working for a business book publisher.

I figured this job wouldn't last long--once they figured out I knew jack shit about business and had no desire to learn, they'd send me on my way. By then, though, I would have wedged my foot securely in the door and would be able to move on to something, you know, better.

Then something funny happened--I liked working on business books. Also, I had a certain talent for them--at least some of them. The other funny thing that happened was my boss kept promoting me. Apparently I didn't need to be Warren Buffett or Steve Jobs to be a decent book editor. 

Still, I persisted in thinking "I won't do this forever."

A few years into my career (3.5 to be specific), I took a trip to Eastern Europe with three girlfriends of mine. We had such a blast! We went to Budapest, Vienna, and Prague, and I drank more beer and ate more cake than I usually do in an average year.*** Here's a picture of me eating chicken at Cafe Sperl, the "best restaurant in Vienna" according to the charming Austrian man who gave us directions to get there.:

And here's a photo of me standing in front of the world-famous astrological clock in Prague:

So cool! Oh wait, where was I...

Anyway, on the flight back home, I read the book The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin. This is a memoir by a writer (not a self-help expert by training) who decided to spend a year engaging in activities that, research shows, are supposed to make you happy. The book is great because it teaches you something about happiness (though it doesn't offer lessons per se) but couches all the information in an entertaining story. I thoroughly enjoyed this book--I think I even laughed out loud once or twice--and as I finished reading the last few pages, I had an epiphany. "Oh my god," I thought to myself. "I like self-help books." Followed quickly by, "Am I becoming my mother?"

These days, self-help is what I do for a living. Yes, I'm still an editor, and the list of projects I've edited ranges from books about emotions (Emotional Agility, described above), beauty, altruism, entrepreneurship, inspiration, career advice, dating, science, personal finance, time management and a whole bunch of other stuff. But the thing that ties them all together--what I tell people when they ask me what kind of books I work on--is that they are all books that teach you something that will hopefully improve your life in some way. Sometimes I refer to this genre as self-help. Sometimes I call it "personal development." My favorite term these days is "books for a better life" or "books that teach you something about yourself." Recently, a literary agent I was talking to referred to them as "self-helpful," which I might adopt for my own lexicon. 

In a way, don't all books exist to help us in some way? Sure, plenty of people turn to overtly prescriptive books to help them with a particular problem--whether they want advice on how to manage (or f*ck, I suppose) their feelings, be a better parent, ease their pain, build their business, advance their career, find the perfect husband, or invest their savings in a more fruitful way. But we also turn to history books so we can learn from the past or discover fascinating stories that may illuminate our own lives, families, and situations. We may pick up a celebrity memoir to be entertained, or a humor book to laugh a little bit and forget the stress of the day. If we're grieving the loss of a loved one, we may not want to read a book on grieving, but we may derive comfort from a memoir by someone else who has suffered loss. And don't the greatest novels teach us some of the most profound lessons of our lives? Don't parents turn to books to teach their children about animals, and feelings and, hell, even sex? For some, Judy Blume might be the first self-help guru they encounter.

So, yes, I know what Sarah Bennett meant when she said she and her father had never read a self-help book, and I will likely read her and her father's book because it genuinely sounds like a lot of fun. In the meantime, let's not be so quick to distance ourselves from the people who peruse the self-help shelf. Let's remember that the desire to improve constantly makes us human. And the surest way to fulfillment is to learn how we can help ourselves. 

*Boss, if you're reading this, I'm kidding.

**For the record, I did read one quasi self-help book in high school, The Four Loves by C.S. Lewis, which is one of my favorite books to this day. I read it because the second of those two boyfriends really liked C.S. Lewis. See mom, I know how to get a guy to like me!

***This is not true.

The Cult of Overwork

Yesterday, The New York Times published a fascinating article entitled "How Some Men Fake an 80-Hour Work Week and Why it Matters." I was immediately struck by this headline because it promised to discuss one of my favorite subjects: productivity and time management.

The article was inspired by a study done on one, unnamed, consulting firm in which several employees reported "faking" an insanely long work week of 70-80 hours because the culture of the firm encouraged it. The article mentioned that workers who tried to demand flexibility in their schedules, thereby challenging the culture, were punished with lackluster performance reviews. And while many people did, indeed, report working up to twice the typical work week for an American (which is 35 hours), others were more creative. Instead of demanding flexible hours or flaunting their personal hours (doctors appointments, time spent with kids, vacations, etc), they simply did what they needed to do to have a balanced life and didn't make a big thing about it:

Some 31 percent of the men and 11 percent of the women whose records Ms. Reid [the professor who interviewed the employees] examined managed to achieve the benefits of a more moderate work schedule without explicitly asking for it.
They made an effort to line up clients who were local, reducing the need for travel. When they skipped work to spend time with their children or spouse, they didn’t call attention to it. One team on which several members had small children agreed among themselves to cover for one another so that everyone could have more flexible hours.
A male junior manager described working to have repeat consulting engagements with a company near enough to his home that he could take care of it with day trips. “I try to head out by 5, get home at 5:30, have dinner, play with my daughter,” he said, adding that he generally kept weekend work down to two hours of catching up on email.
Despite the limited hours, he said: "I know what clients are expecting. So I deliver above that." He received a high performance review and a promotion.

Basically, they let the work speak for itself. They got just as much done as their colleagues who slept at their desks in way less time, and no one was the wiser.

I have been reading about time management for a few years, thanks in large part to the work of Laura Vanderkam, an author and time management expert whose first three books, including 168 Hours and What the Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast, I edited in my previous life as a business book editor.

Ms. Vanderkam's primary goal is to change the way we think about time and productivity. The first step, she argues, is in understanding just how we currently spend our time. If you read any of her work, you'll quickly learn a few hard truths about this subject, specifically, that we really have no clue how we spend our time. Studies, including the annual American Time Use Survey, consistently show that Americans overestimate how much they work (by a lot) and underestimate how much they do other, one would argue more enjoyable. things like sleep, watch TV, or mess around on the internet (though we don't tent to underestimate how much we exercise because we make plenty of excuses to not exercises because we think we don't have any time to do it). 

We've all done it, and we've all heard others do it. We talk about our 50 or 60 or 70 hour work weeks with a pleading look in our eyes. But haven't you ever noticed that when people do this, it often comes across as bragging rather than complaining? And have you ever felt guilty when someone talks about how much they work and you realize that you haven't worked as long--and therefore as hard--as they have? 

Isn't this shameful? I know that I have, at times, felt ashamed when someone tells me how much they work and I think "Hmmm, this week was pretty manageable for me. I did what I needed to do at work and gave it all my best effort, but I didn't have to scramble to do it." Instead of feeling thankful that I don't work in their demanding job, I feel like I'm not earning my keep, like I should just give back my salary because I clearly haven't earned it. Instead of reflecting on the work that I do, I think about the hours I put in even though I know full well that productivity is measured in output, not input. 

Don't get me wrong. I have met people who have worked themselves to the point of breakdown, and, in those cases, I have felt sorry for them, not jealous. Overwork is a real problem, and I don't mean to trivialize it in any way. What I want to challenge is the notion that overwork is something we should be proud of. That we should measure our self-worth in terms of the hours we put in.

This is a fallacy, and a harmful one, because it rewards people for working hard, not well, and can inadvertently punish people for trying to live a balanced life. Perhaps it's just the American way, a holdover from our Puritan forbears who put the fear of God in all of us by preaching that "idle hands are the Devil's workshop." As a result we judge ourselves and others based on how much stamina and endurance we have, and we deny ourselves and our colleagues the chance to enjoy all of those things that make our lives rich, meaningful, and truly productive. Aren't we all happier, and therefore more engaged, when we have a well-rounded life? Aren't we more creative when we get out of the office and meet people or read a book or travel the world? Aren't we more ready to work when we can exercise and get a good night's sleep? Yes, of course we are.

I realize that I am fortunate. I have a lot of flexibility at my job, and my coworkers lead fulfilling and productive lives both in and out of the office. But what I love about the aforementioned article is that it proves that, even in an office culture that promotes and rewards long hours, it is possible to lead a balanced life by simply showing up, doing your work and doing it well, and then making time for the other things in your life that give you energy and bring you joy. Even if you're not fortunate enough to work in an office with a lot of flexibility, it is possible to take matters into your own hands even if you have to fake it.