An Author's Quandary Tests the Value of an Editor

April 4, 2002

An Author's Quandary Tests the Value of an Editor


One of the enduringly intriguing questions that pops up every now and then within book publishing is: How does one calculate the value of the book editor? It was raised again by the scramble among publishers to sign up the second literary novel by the megaselling author of "Cold Mountain." As of this writing, the sale has not been made, delayed in part by that author's quandary over this very question.

On Monday, a select group of publishers was asked to make a one-time, best-bid offer for Charles Frazier's new novel, to be completed in 2005. His "Cold Mountain," published in hardcover in 1997 by Grove Atlantic, sold 1.5 million copies. (Vintage sold 1.3 million in paperback.)

At its publication, Mr. Frazier said that his editor, Elisabeth Schmitz, had been so important to the process that he would not think of writing his next novel without her editing it. But now huge globs of money are being offered, and unless Grove Atlantic can come fairly close to market value, Mr. Frazier will be gone.

But even in the heat of the bidding moment, this writer has apparently made it clear that along with the money must come an editor he is comfortable with.

So what, then, is the value of an editor? The answer depends on the writer, and even the genre. Generally, nonfiction writers seek more hands-on editing than literary novelists or huge best-selling commercial novelists, whose success convinces them that they don't need much help.

Mr. Frazier is almost unique among literary novelists, most of whom want the editor to more or less stand aside and handle the administrative details. Which brings us to what an editor does. Puts pencil to page and edits, obviously. Suggests changes and clarifications, spots weaknesses, asks author: Is this exactly what you want to say? Most nonfiction authors expect structuring advice, often a great deal: help in defining what's important to keep in and what should be chucked. How do you reduce the 700 pages to 400?

For all writers, the editor is the author's champion within the publishing house, the person who fights the book-jacket battle, who seduces the marketing and public relations people, who sells the writer's work to the sales representatives so that, armed with the editor's ebullience, they can in turn sell the book to the stores. (The truly successful editors are also rainmakers, attracting authors who want to work with them.)

Lynn Freed, author of the literary novel "House of Women" (Little, Brown), said that for her, "the editor is terribly important not so much for editing, but as the protagonist who keeps things going for you at the publishing house." In recent years, editors have been bouncing from house to house like jumping beans, so it's often the author's agent rather than the editor who soothes the psyche. Ms. Freed said, "I moved once with an editor and once when I was offered a great deal more money, but I would never move to an editor I didn't like because of money."

Anne Carson, the poet and essayist, and Clive Cussler, the best-selling thriller writer, perhaps surprisingly, have similar views of the editor's role. Less is better, none is best. "I guess mainly the editors I like leave me alone, because they know the importance of different styles of writing," Ms. Carson said. "What is really helpful is they run interference with the sales people. If you don't want a photo or blurb you have to have someone strong minded, an editor who can make it happen or not happen. Otherwise I want strong avoidance." Her latest book, "The Beauty of the Husband: A Fictional Essay in 29 Tangos" (Knopf, 2001), has no flap photo and no blurbs.

Mr. Cussler said of conceptual editors, "I guess the good editors are hard to find," and that didn't particularly concern him. "It's usually a good line editor who is important," he said. That is, he wants the nuts and bolts of grammar checked, but leave the storytelling to him. His next thriller, "Fire Ice," written with Paul Kemprecos, will be published this June by Putnam, where Mr. Cussler has a good editor, Neil S. Nyren, whether he needs him or not.

Paulette Jiles is a novelist with the audacity to stand comparison to Mr. Frazier and critically meet the challenge. Her book "Enemy Women" (William Morrow) is a Civil War story and also an odyssey (in her case a woman's) of the South. Like Mr. Frazier, Ms. Jiles is a literary novelist, whose editor, Jennifer Brehl, was quick to say, "I don't understand what you are talking about," when she thought Ms. Jiles needed it. Ms. Jiles explained that her editor at times had to pull the meaning out of her because she was writing in "the language of the hill South."

"Most literary novels are psychological, and editors expect that, and mine wasn't," Ms. Jiles said. "And Jennifer was one of the few people who got that. I'd go for the editor rather than the money."

William Styron has been with Robert Loomis, a legendary Random House editor, for his entire career. "I don't depend on him during the creation, but rely on him heavily when it comes to the finishing and the fine tuning," Mr. Styron said.

So exactly what does this great editor do? Mr. Styron answered, "He catches me in moments when I thought I could get away with the easy way, when I was weak in my own thinking," adding that the editor had "an intuitive understanding of where I am trying to go."

Joyce Carol Oates said that an "excellent editor with taste and intelligence confirms the sense of what you are doing in the same way money does to a commercial writer." Her editor is Daniel Halpern at Ecco, a HarperCollins imprint, and she said she would follow him if he left for another publishing house. (Actually it's sometimes a very healthy move for a writer to change editors. Writer and editor can be too accustomed to each other, and a new editor will often treat the author in a more invigorating way.)

Patricia Bosworth, a successful nonfiction writer now working on a biography of Jane Fonda for Hyperion, tells this editing vignette. When she wrote her own family story, "Anything Your Little Heart Desires," in 1997, she started it with two sentences she liked, but then changed the beginning and those two sentences ended up on page 700 of a 750-page manuscript. Her editor, Michael Korda at Simon & Schuster, read the manuscript overnight, pulled out those same lines and told her they should start the book.

"He was right," she said, "and they did."

"That was great editing," Ms. Bosworth said, "and you can't buy it."

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