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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Two Theories: Why can’t we in publishing all just get along?

For a while now, I’ve been trying to understand the resentment toward self publishers by some in the traditionally published writing community. I get why publishers don’t like it–it’s opened up massive amounts of new, lower-priced competition that threatens not just their sales figures but the entire cost structure of the industry their large infrastructures depend on. Simultaneously, it’s also given writers, who were essentially a captive supplier, leverage to fight against potentially onerous contract terms and even the capacity to walk away from a deal, which was virtually unthinkable even five years ago. I totally get the rhetoric from publishers.

Writers who dismiss or otherwise demonize self publishing, on the other hand, I don’t get at all. These are new opportunities for you to make money. They are opportunities that can get you better terms in your contract, or more money if used properly. It also has the potential to drive the industry toward more writer-friendly terms for a change. There is more access to more readers the world over than ever before and it can all be done keeping most of the proceeds in the actual creators’ pockets, something else virtually unheard of on a wide scale until very recently. As a writer, it makes very little sense to me to fight against this tide.

So I figure there has to be a reason for this. I’ve had two somewhat conjoining theories bouncing around in my head lately and I can’t decide which is more likely. It may well be both, or it could just be as simple as abject fear of change.

My first theory is of the writer’s ego. One of the most commonly referred to benefits of traditional publishing is the validation factor. In some circles, being chosen by a publisher is worn as a badge of honor and used equally as a bludgeon against those who either haven’t yet achieved that contract or who eschew that entire process. Imagine all those years of effort trying to convince the gatekeeper set of your worth, all the mountains of rejection, humiliation, restrictive contract deals you’ve subjected yourself to just to get inside those walls.  Then one day, very suddenly, a whole bunch of other writers start skipping that path altogether, and worse yet, a significant and increasing number of them are selling books and making money at rates only the upper echelons of traditional writers exceed.

What good is that validation you slaved away earning when another writer who doesn’t have it can sell books right next to yours with almost no definable difference from the reader’s point of view? The strength of that validation certainly isn’t what they’d been led to believe it was their entire working lives. Even more, the new ways are much more democratic. It doesn’t matter what school you went to, or if you even went to school at all. It doesn’t matter how many prestigious writing programs you’ve been involved in or how many literary awards you’ve won. A poor housewife from Nebraska who penned her first novel eight weeks ago has a (relatively) equal chance of being a best seller as the most critically acclaimed writer out there.

The writing world has always had an ugly elitest side to it. That was never an issue when virtually all the successful writers were part of the same pipeline, born of that shared experience. But now that large numbers of writers outside of that framework are finding success, it’s not only threatening the business model of their publishers, it’s threatening their very self image.

When outside validation becomes crucial to your worldview, anything that undermines those doing the validating becomes a target. So theory number one is that some writers are resentful because self publishers are finding ways to avoid the crap they were forced to subject themselves to, and their memberships in the exclusive traditional publishing club no longer carry the same cache they once did, and may well be declining by the day.

The second reason is simply laziness. Well, not laziness, exactly, but complacency and a lack of desire to try new and different things. Given the proliferation of comments I’ve seen coming from trad writers characterizing self publishing as a short cut and a lazy choice (Google Sue Grafton for the most recent example) I am beginning to believe they’ve got it backwards. Look, the stark reality is that it’s much more difficult to do this stuff essentially by yourself than with the backing of a giant corporate publisher. To suggest otherwise is to be purposely naive. If you happen to be one of the fortunate writers inside the gates who moves books, you get lots of support the other 95% of traditional writers don’t even get, let alone self publishers. The notion of tossing that off and self publishing is to take on significant responsibilities you currently pass on. In that respect, it’s the traditional writers who are shying away from extra work. Not saying they’re wrong for doing that, given their situation, they’re not. My problem comes when they cast aspersions on the work ethic of others when they, themselves, stay away from these activities because of the added risks and extra effort necessary.

Let’s be honest here. Writers like Grafton, Ewan Morrison and Scott Turow do little more than just write. Even the smallest one-person self publishing operation is doing much more than just writing. Criticizing other writers as lazy or taking shortcuts looks like sour grapes when their paths are far more ambitious than yours, requiring more effort in numerous directions than simply writing a book and sending it to your editor (I know, I’m oversimplifying, but just look at the bitching by trad writers about publishers making them actually, god forbid, promote themselves more to readers. Self pubbed writers accept that as a matter of course).

For serious self pubbed writers, it’s not simply about writing the book. It’s also about publishing the book. And it’s about selling the book. Three inter-related but very different activities. And, to top it off, writing the next book and starting over again. That’s a lot of interconnected hats to wear, and the ones who do it successfully wear them all very well. Lazy’s got nothing to do with it. Lazy writers who flock to self publishing will find themselves discouraged, overwhelmed and out of the picture soon enough. Self publishing is not an easy answer, a shortcut or the lazy way. It’s incredibly difficult to do well. For top tier trad writers to point fingers and call self publishers lazy shows their ignorance of what’s actually involved. Or maybe it’s not. One of the oldest political tricks in the book is to accuse your adversary of the very weaknesses you fear in yourself. But why are we adversaries in the first place? It doesn’t have to be that way. And you certainly don’t have to be openly resentful to those looking to blaze new trails you have no interest in, and willfully taking on the extra work that entails.

Do these writers have a point that there are a lot of shitty self published books out there? Do some writers take the relative ease of getting something live and for sale now and abuse it? Absolutely no doubt. But in case you didn’t notice, there are people like that in every industry and every walk of life, even traditional publishing. I’ve read a lot of shitty books, seen a lot of shitty tv shows and movies, heard a lot of shitty music on the radio over my lifetime, and you know what they almost all have in common? They were vetted by a media company gatekeeper. Shitty work happens in all creative pursuits, no matter how big the bank account of the producer. No one is immune to it. The ratio of great work to crap is always gonna lean heavily on the crap side, no matter the system. Basic human taste and subjectiveness guarantees that.

I think the problem can be illustrated with a simple mental image. Imagine Grafton, Morrison and Turow kicking back catching some rays by the pool inside the gated publisher walls. Suddenly, the gates swing open, and all the outside rabble comes pouring in, doing cannonballs, splashing water everywhere, their shouts and laughter almost deafening. Just generally throwing the relaxed, exlusive poolside scene into chaos. Now, those three are no longer the fortunate few who get the pool to themselves, but just a couple folks in the big crowd diving in. If I were in their shoes, I might resent that kind of development, too. Ah, who am I kidding? I’d be grateful for the company. I’m sure the conversations at that poolside were getting kinda stale before those gates burst open.

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