The Collaborative Process in Traditional Publishing

Previously on Enemy Lines…I’m a writer who makes my living as an editor. It’s my day job, like Bruce Wayne without the money, that covers for my writing, like fighting crime, but without the crime or the fighting. It’s the perfect metaphor, except for all the exceptions. Literally.

I was a writer for many years before I ended up as an editor, so I approach my work in a sometimes substantially different way from my fellow editors who do not pursue writing professionally outside what’s necessary for their jobs. I can see things entirely from the writer’s point of view. I know what it is to hand over your precious work to some person you don’t know and will, most likely, never meet face to face.

That established, I’d like to give some general advice to the myriad writers out there who are up-and-comers trying to get something accepted somewhere or who have sold their first manuscript and are tip-toeing into the shallow end of the pool of the editorial process. In a word: collaborate.

Writing is a solitary process, and some new to the field don’t foresee how much that solitariness evaporates upon the happy day you sign a contract. Now you have an editor, but that editor is just the tip of the iceberg. She’s your connection to the publishing company, and represents all the people that work beneath the surface to create a book: sales and marketing people, freelance copyeditors and proofers, designers, and more. The writer doesn’t have to deal directly with any of those people, just the editor. The editor has to juggle all the needs, sometimes competing needs, from the rest of the team, in an effort to make the best book possible. And here’s the hard truth: the writer is part of that team now. Before you were the god of your manuscript, now you’re just a player on the team, a significant player, the player everyone is counting on, the player that will be hoisted onto shoulders and paraded around if the book is a hit, but during the process of going from manuscript to book…a player. And you have to ask yourself: Am I going to be a team player?

Because here’s the thing: who’s the boss? Neither writer nor editor. As in any business, the boss is the guy who writes the checks. Both editor and writer get their checks from the same place. They are working together for the same boss. To be successful, they need to collaborate. To enter the field of commerce, the writer has to surrender some of his art to the team. There is no I in traditional publishing. Well, it looks like there are actually three i‘s there…so the third eye is the…okay, let’s let that metaphor go.

Anyway, where was I? Collaboration. Don’t enter your relationship with your editor with heels dug in. As soon as the process becomes adversarial both writer and editor are in for months of hell. Writers, remember that your editor is working on many other manuscripts at the same time as yours. Editors are forced to work like contractors, rotating from job to job, each job in a different stage of completion. I choose that metaphor knowing that contractors are often hated, they are like lawyers with tool belts, never there when you need them, off on some other site when you need them most. It’s a rough part of the job for the editor. I hate when I have to tell one of my writers “I can’t get to you right now, I’ve got another project on deadline.” But in my little cube it’s a constant editorial triage…what’s due next? What manuscript has had something go horrible wrong? Which one can afford to run a day or a week late? Which book is timed to some event and absolutely has to make a hard sales date?

So, keep that in mind. Whatever you’re doing just once on your manuscript the editor is dealing with on a couple dozen manuscripts. Helping out with little things like formatting the manuscript the way the editor wants, even if it seems weird to you, is the first step to playing ball, and your editor will appreciate it. Remember, your editor can also be your advocate. Although you both have the same boss, in most cases the editor is the only one who gets face time with the publisher. Your editor is the one who’s in a position to say, “Hey, I know this manuscript is a little unconventional, but here’s why it works, and why we should keep it this way.” Because the editor is on your side, on your team.

None of this is to say you have to simply roll over to every suggestion from your editor. Stand up for what you believe in, explain why you’ve done something the way you have, but do it in a professional, civil fashion. I’ve often changed points of style on a book because the writer has given her reasoning behind it. And, yes, I’ve gone the other way as well, and said, “I see what you’re saying, but I’ve got to tell you that I don’t think the reader is going to get that. We don’t need to reinvent the wheel here.” The point is to have discussions and reach understandings. If everyone works in a collaborative way, no one should end up stating demands, and in the end you produce a better book than any one person could have done. That’s what everyone wants, isn’t it?

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