The Editor Fallicy…Falacie…Fallacy…yeah, that’s it, Fallacy

I’d like to take a contrary position to the whole of the literary establishment for a moment, if I may. Much has been written, and will continue to be, on the rift between traditional and indie publishing. Hell, many traditional supporters throw a little shit-fit with just the use of the term “indie” as a moniker for self publishers. Some days, it seems like World Peace is a more attainable goal than bridging the gap between the established and emerging segments of the publishing industry.

But there is one area where both sides are in complete agreement. That is the absolute, irrefutable necessity of having any and all writing vetted by an honest to goodness editor. And who could argue with that, you ask? (If you didn’t ask, I apologize for putting words in your mouth but I kinda need that rhetorical response from “you” to keep the narrative flow going. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be able to do this next thing) Who could argue with that, you ask? I can!

Now before you get all up in arms and pissy, nostrils flaring, uppity defensive of something everyone seems to agree on but the implications of which very few people actually consider, let me explain. If you can’t or won’t edit your own work, both for polish and content, you’re not only lazy, but you’re not a complete writer, either. Three…two…one…ok, now you can get all beside yourself with righteous indignation. I mean, come on! Everybody knows that even the best writers churn out barely literate crap until the sainted editor gets his/her red pen into it. Plus, who would want to live in a world where writers are able, or even *gasp* encouraged to release their work bypassing the filters of the all-seeing, all-knowing editor? I shudder to think of the implications of seeing the raw, unfettered power of the writer’s creative muse. I imagine it would be a little like looking directly at an angel, their transcendent light far too bright, burning mere human eyes right out of their sockets. Our minds would turn to jelly without editors to properly harness all that writerly power.

Seriously, though, I am really sick of reading about how writers can’t possibly string together so much as a tweet, let alone an entire novel without someone else hanging over their shoulder steering the course. That’s what editors do, after all. Were you fully aware of that? Editors take other people’s material and structure it to suit either their own preconceived notions or the fiscal necessity of the platform they’re editing for. That’s the gig. Book editors are a little different than periodical editors in that they tend to shape the content to their perceived needs in their particular market sphere rather than a homogenized “style” or publication “brand.” Same difference to the writer in the end, though. I’d still like someone to explain to me how an editor who steeped within the structure of traditional publishing is going to be all that helpful to an indie. Sure, they can shape your book up into something that might resemble something else that once worked in the traditional realm, but if you’re an indie, you’re not really selling into that distribution area. You know how much real world market experience those former and current trad editors have selling digital independently? About as much as my great grandfather, and he’s been dead since 1954.

Then there’s the little matter of whether many editors are even qualified to dick around with an actual creator’s work in the first place. Let’s not kid ourselves, the phrase editor, in some circles, might still hold a bit of prestige, but from my experience, that editor you’re working with is, more often than not, a result of the “those who can’t, teach” school of thought. People become editors for one of three reasons, generally: 1) they’re a failed writer and had to pay the bills somehow, 2) they don’t have the balls to be the writer and it’s much easier–and usually pays better–to manipulate the work of others than produce it yourself, or 3) they are a successful writer who developed their own skills after years of dealing with semi-competent half wits who likely suggested adding some foreshadowing to the table of contents or some other such absurd idea at one time or another. There may be other ways to get that editor title next to your name (some folks go to school for it, I hear) but those are the three big ones. If you’ve got a #3, then you’re golden, but the other two are sure-fire paths to fucking up whatever artistic vision you lacked confidence in so much you turned to a stranger who’s primary claim to career fame is “I fixed some typos in so-and-so’s #1 bestseller back in 1996.”

Editor is the very definition of a fallback career option. Just like nobody ever says, “I wanna be a junkie when I grow up,” nobody says, “I wanna be an editor when I grow up,” either. Editor is the consolation prize in the literary job market. Ask yourself, is that the kind of person you really want impacting your career, someone who slid into a position filled with tedious shit-work just because it was kinda sorta in the same neighborhood as the dashed and discarded dreams of their misspent youth? Not me and you shouldn’t either.

The editor fallacy is willfully perpetuated by the traditional industry. It’s a ruse designed to keep writers down. I’m not kidding, read some of the criticisms floating around. You would seriously think writers turned out little more than random chunks of directionless text that no mere mortal could possibly make sense of if an editor didn’t mold it into shape first. Are you gonna take that? I mean, you fancy yourself a storyteller yet you don’t know if the story you’re telling sucks or not without third party involvement? Why should I plunk down my hard earned cash for the offerings of your literary vision when you don’t even understand or have confidence in it?

My point is that the notion of the infallibility of the editor, and their necessity in shaping a writer’s efforts can be an insidious one. It devalues the writer. If a book is a house, it makes the writer’s output akin to raw lumber and lifts the editor to the role of carpenter. The traditional industry thrived on this relationship dynamic for years, it helped keep writers in their place at the bottom. Otherwise, they, as a group, might have wanted something outrageous like being fairly compensated for work that produces every single dollar in industry revenues.

It’s a new world now. You are the raw material, the carpenter, the plumber, the electrician and the painter. At best, the editor is the day laborer who comes in and sweeps up the leftover dirt off the floor before you move in. Do you think carpenters ask the advice of a broom jockey on hanging joices joists? Would an electrician appreciate getting notes from the sweeper detailing how he could run the wiring to the ceiling fans more efficiently? Don’t get me wrong, writers aren’t infallible by any stretch, either, but there’s one key difference…you’re the fucking writer!

In the old model, the perception in a lot of ways, was that the writer works for the editor, true or not. In the new model, the editor unquestionably works for the writer. Big difference. Now, when your editor suggests that you rewrite chapters 8 through 14 and add a talking sewer rat as comic relief to break up the tension in your drama about an unjustly convicted man’s experiences with prison rape, you can feel free to snort coffee out your nose, laughing hysterically as you work on cancelling the check you paid him or her with. The old way, you’d laugh a bit then cringe at the inevitable realization that you’ll probably end up doing it if you ever wanted to retain any hope of seeing that book in print.

Look, it’s your book, it’s your story, no one on the planet knows it better than you. If you’re going to be a storyteller, believe in the stories you write. That doesn’t mean don’t seek out input or listen if somebody offers up some interesting ideas. But even then, ideas are just that. You’re the one who has to take the grains of inspiration from those ideas and shape them into the story you want to tell. You can’t rely on anyone else to do that for you, otherwise, it’s not your story anymore.

I’ve been a bit harsh on editors here, unfairly so in some ways, but I’m making a point. The editor is no longer among the gatekeeper class you need to appease. You don’t have to do everything they say, and you definitely don’t work for them. Editors are a tool for indie writers that, if properly utilized can be beneficial. Got that? The editor is at the service of the writer. And even then, they’re still only one tool of many. And don’t ever forget that they work for you now.

A truly great editor is almost worth their weight in gold. My descriptions of editors in this piece are obviously exaggerated, but make no mistake, those people exist. Very likely in far greater numbers than anyone will openly admit. Where a great editor can add quite a bit to your efforts, a lousy editor can do just as much, if not more to destroy and detract from your work. And there are an abundance of lousy editors out there, more than not, I believe. Editors are no different than any other field of endeavor. There’s four or five bad to mediocre ones for every good one, and out of every 50 or so good ones, you might see one reach exceptional status. The key is to recognize the difference. If you’re not confident in your storytelling prowess, if you can’t defend the merits of your work and the artistic choices you make, you’re actively making your work susceptible to the heavy hand of a bad editor.

Despite what you might think with my prior insults, there are quality editors out there available for hire, and in the right circumstance with the proper context, they can help polish your work. But any old editor isn’t necessarily a good editor. One of the worst things that can happen to a person is to fail on someone’s terms other than your own. Giving an editor, any editor, even the good ones, carte blanche to screw around with your story is setting yourself up to fail through no fault of your own. Unless, of course, you consider changing key elements of your story against your artistic judgment to appease an editor a fault of your own. I do.

Editor skills aren’t some magical capability that’s unattainable to writers. Anyone with the right motivation can learn quality editing. It’ll surprise you how much improvement creeps into your work just by having an editor’s mentality in the back of your mind. This isn’t to say you should do everything yourself, although I am one of the apparently few people who believes you can successfully do it that way if you’re willing to be meticulous and put in the time. It’s always better to have multiple sets of eyes go over your work. Just don’t ever forget that you’re in charge. It’s your story, your world, you make the rules.

I’ve said before that many people, probably most, don’t truly understand the dynamic shift going on right now. Many of us still approach the new possibilities as simply an extension of the way things were always done. It’s not. Digital is a genetically different business than traditional, though they may appear similar today in the early stages, they really are quite divergent, and growing more so as time and technology expands. Old models can be adapted and find a niche, but nothing translates easily and without effort. Don’t hold to any particular dogma, and that especially includes slavish devotion to an editor.

Tell your stories, the way you want. It’s been a long time since writers have had that ability on a wide scale. And don’t listen to the naysayers screaming in comments sections all over the web about having your work “properly vetted”. That’s a holdover from a past that, quite frankly, limited and exploited the writer. It also served to homogenize much of the content. You ever wonder why so many cookie cutter books, both in substance and tone, exist? That, my friends, is the work of editors. Nobody can steal a writer’s voice more effectively than an editor. Nobody can suck the life out of a story better than an editor. That’s not to say editors don’t have a place, they do. It’s just a far less influential one than it has been.

Editors are not higher on the literary food chain than writers. They are little more than a hired hand to provide a specific service on the writer’s terms. They are your employee. You’d do very well to remember that, even if you have to block out the shouting of those who don’t yet see that things have changed.

Oh yeah, about that “lazy and not a complete writer crack,” sure, I was shooting over the top, just trying to get your attention, but I’m sticking to it. Prove me wrong. Please.

Published in: on August 25, 2012 at 9:46 pm  Comments (14)  
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What’s an Indie?

Lately, there’s been some hard talks and consternation floating around the net decrying the chip on some self publishers’ shoulders. The self versus traditional publishing conflict is juvenile, counter productive and mostly pointless, we’ve been told. And you know what? In many ways, those folks are right.

Just as an aside, given that I did it right there in that last sentence, I read an interview with a supposed prominent book reviewer who said one of the things he hates is when writers use conjunctions to start a sentence. I say “supposed” because I’ve never heard of him and, frankly, I care about as much for the pet peeves of critics as I do for the pie in the sky throwback dreams of publishing executives, which is to say, I don’t. I love starting sentences with conjunctions! If used judiciously, they can add pace to a narrative flow. Is it grammatically correct or technically proper? Absolutely not! But you know what? (there, I did it again) About 99.9% of readers aren’t sitting there with your novel in one hand and the little green style book from a college grammar course in the other. Narrative writing is about rhythm and pacing much more than technical perfection and, if the voice is compelling, most readers don’t care if your work would be thrashed with a red pen by an English teacher.  Besides, I don’t see anyone quibbling about the grammar in a Bob Dylan song. This is art, folks, not a technical writing essay. The rules don’t always apply.

Anyway, back to my original point, those people who tell us to knock off the hatin’ war of words between self and traditional publishers are right. There’s no percentage in it, as an old boss of mine used to say. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t criticize. Traditional publishing and its defenders do an ample job of providing fodder for criticism. And I’m sure self pubbed writers provide ample grounds for the traditional folks to attack. In saying that, however, there’s one point of contention I just can’t get past. (By the way, I could’ve started that sentence “But there’s one point…” Quicker, more concise, makes the same point without the roundabout language and punctuation…sorry, I’m just carping now. Bastard! Disparaging my use of conjunctions! Who does he think he is?)

The reason I can’t simply say enough is enough with the self-trad conflict is that traditional publishers would, by and large, wipe us out if they could, and roll back all the progress, freedom and leverage writers have gained over the past few years. There’s no question that self publishing is a threat to their established business models, which have long been built upon an exploitative relationship with writers. It’s kind of difficult to play nice and polite with someone who you know would kill you and all you stand for if they had their druthers. While many self pubbed writers, myself included on occasion, have voiced opinions to the effect of hoping the traditional dinosaurs die off and quickly, I don’t hesitate to say most of us really only want some modicum of freedom and equitable treatment. I believe most of us would happily work with publishers offering those attributes. They, on the other hand, would sooner see us rot on the vine before they deign to offer more favorable terms to writers. Admittedly, they’re not going to have a choice in the matter before much longer, but that doesn’t mean I have to accept or turn a blind eye to mistreatment. Hopefully, someday soon, these conditions won’t be as they are today, and the giant pissing contest will well and truly be over with. But today, too many publishers still don’t respect writers and would still rather put us back in the cubby holes they’d carved out for us than to welcome us to the table as partners or equals. That’s barely grounds to form a mutually beneficial business relationship, let alone a lasting friendship. Show us some respect, and you’ll have it returned in kind. Keep dissing us, and the battle will rage on unabated.

There’s one issue I’d specifically like to address because its been on my mind since I read this missive by literary agent Sarah LaPolla. In it, she does seem very supportive of self publishing in some ways, although a bit condescending in places. Then again, that could be my biases showing, reading a slight where none was intended. Like this line, for instance:

Now, self-publishing really can be the way toward a career in writing, albeit a modest one.

Did she have to toss that “albeit” qualifier in there? I read that and felt like a little kid being patted on the head by his kindergarten teacher. “Sure you can be anything you want. You might even grow up to be a baseball star. Or President of the United States.” Really felt dismissive. Like I said, though, her piece read much more supportive of self publishers than most coming from that side, so I’m willing to accept my biases as my own and not take offense.

However, I will take on one particular statement she made:

AND STOP CALLING YOURSELVES INDIE. You’re not that either. Using “indie” interchangeably with “self” only confuses people who want to self-publish and pisses off actual independent publishers. There is a clear difference between publishing with a small press (“indie”) and using a vendor (“self”). Misusing/stealing pre-existing terms doesn’t give you credibility; it makes you look unprofessional.

To begin, she started her sentence with a conjunction. Some people hate that, so I hear. Plus, ALL CAPS? Really? Why are you yelling? Let’s use our inside voices, please. My problem with this is that, just like the traditional publisher side no longer gets to tell us how high to jump unless we allow it, they also don’t get to tell us what we can call ourselves.

“Real” indie publishers are pissed? Aw, now I feel bad. Some self publishers are confused? “I want to self publish. But wait, that guy there said it was indie publishing. But this guy over here calls it self publishing. I’m so confused! I give up!” The way I look at it, when small presses started co-opting the term indie, self publishing wasn’t a viable or realistic path. Hell, it wasn’t even called self publishing, it was given the dismissive moniker of “vanity publishing.” In that environment, the small presses unaffiliated with the giant conglomerates were the independents.

Today, however, that dynamic has changed. The giants still roam the Earth. The small presses are still small presses but the independents have changed. The individual self published authors have become that. The problem isn’t that self publishers have stolen a label from someone else, it’s that the circumstances where it made sense to call a small press “indie” have changed. Logically, it makes much more sense to label the independently published author indie than a small publisher. One is clearly more “independent” than the other.

Ultimately, I don’t care for labels on the whole. I’m a writer. I’m also a publisher. I’ve worked for small publishers, large publishers and myself through self publishing. If you put a gun to my head and forced me to label one of those “indie” it would have to be self publishing. This opinion comes not from pre-existing terms, but from genuine first hand experience. And maybe some of us wouldn’t try so hard to escape stigmas if there weren’t people out there equating self publishing with a giant steaming pile of unreadable crap.

Ultimately, labels, whatever they happen to be, are limiting. We’re not self publishers or indie, we’re just publishers. The end process is the same: produce work, refine work, sell work. That’s what publishers do. Traditional, small press, indie, self, what have you, all are publishers. A label, even one as seemingly cool or edgy like indie, eventually becomes a defined ceiling for what you are. Personally, I much prefer not having that ceiling, certainly not giving it to myself. So, if I were to re-word her point, I’d do it thusly:

AND STOP CALLING YOURSELVES ANYTHING. Labels are meaningless and self-limiting. The work is what’s important. After all, what’s to be gained by having to listen to a bitter rep from some small press somewhere bitching and moaning about you stealing their term “indie”? Nothing, I tell you, nothing at all.

And stop using all caps. Using all caps doesn’t provide added emphasis to get your point across. It make you look screechy, angry and unprofessional. Conjunctions to start a sentence, however? I’m totally cool with that.

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