Monday 19 May 2008

Double Pleasure, Double Pain


In my last blog entry, I mentioned that I was waiting to hear from my editors and that this was a nervous time. Well, I've received their first notes and the nervousness has been replaced by bruxism, obsessive snacking and failed attempts at Zen meditation.

First, let me state that I firmly believe a writer without an editor to be a writer at a loss. Yes, it is true that you can strike it unlucky and get saddled with an editor who is a frustrated writer and who brandishes her editing pen like a Katana, lopping off chunks of perfectly serviceable prose and even beheading characters of which she disapproves. These kind of heavy-handed assassination attempts are extreme, but they can happen. On the discussion board of my website, a member recently mentioned that another writer shared with him his despair at having one of his characters eliminated by his editor, which made his work read "disjointed". I can well believe this. It would be rather like dropped phone signals, I would think. Or those outlines left by cartoon characters smashing through walls.

On the other hand, if you're lucky, you have an editor who prunes your prose with a firm but generous hand, reigns in your narcissistic tendencies (those pages where you are getting just a little too happy with yourself), picks up inconsistencies in the story and champions the book in-house with so much enthusiasm that the jaded marketing staff can't wait to rush out and peddle your book to the booksellers. Booksellers don't automatically stock every book that is published; they have to be seduced by the reps and it can be a bumpy courtship. A rep who is psyched about your book will move like Mata Hari but a rep who feels blah about your book, will not dance the dance of the seven veils. Some authors go to extraordinary lengths to get the reps in their corner. Here in the UK, one famous author who obviously doesn't trust her editor to do the job, is known to bake brownies for the reps and deliver them in cute little gingham baskets.

It is also worth keeping in mind that books published within the same publishing house are not part of one happy family. Books – even if they are published under the same umbrella – are in cut-throat competition with each other: think Lewis Hamilton and Fernando Alonso. The star authors -- the Rowlings, the Meyers, Clancys and Kings -- are allocated the biggest chunk of the marketing budget. For envious, mean-spirited midlisters like myself, this doesn't make any sense as these books are practically guaranteed print coverage – not to mention huge sales -- and those marketing dollars can be put to so much better use. What's left of the publisher's budget is doled out to the likes of moi and this is where your editor has to be a gladiator and fight to get your novel noticed in-house. If you have a senior editor with substantial clout, your book stands a much better chance of getting some lolly and this is important: any posters you see in the book store, any cardboard cut-outs or dump displays (those lovely pyramids of books carefully arranged on the front table) are paid for by the publisher and they cost many, many thousands of dollars. It is up to your editor to persuade the publisher that your book--- among all the others on the list -- is the one to push.

I have worked with some demanding editors in the past but at present I am blessed in that I have two lovely editors – one in the UK and one in the US: women of great sagacity, skill and stamina (my UK editor would probably frown on this last showy alliterative sequence but you get my drift: they're pretty good at what they do.) So why the teeth grinding and the attempts at Buddhist Zazen I mention in the first paragraph? Well, precisely because I have two. Double pleasure; double pain. My editors work for different publishing houses, which means they do not have to defer to each other and are free to edit the manuscript independently and according to their own vision. For an author, this presents a challenge. At the moment I have two sets of notes and I am trying to find common ground. The last thing I want is to have two widely differing novels appear under the same title on either side of the ocean. But I know that even if I try my hardest, the two editions will turn out to be different in small but sometimes quite significant aspects. This holds true for Season of the Witch – my previous book – as well. If you buy the book in the States, you will have a slightly different reading experience than if you buy it in England. As for translations: my UK publisher is considered my primary publisher so therefore translators will always follow the British edition.

British editors tend to be more gloomy and American editors more chirpy. American editors like characters who pull themselves up by their bootstraps, whereas British editors enjoy watching those bootstraps severed. Nowhere is this more clear than when it comes to the ending. In Season of the Witch, my American editor was desperately unhappy with the ending and found it far too melancholy. My British editor was all for making my hero suffer even more. I trod a careful path.

Of course, I count myself fortunate that my new book will be published in both markets. There is a common misconception that all books published in Britain are automatically printed and distributed in the US and vice versa. Not so. A relatively small proportion of authors are cross-over authors and the best- seller lists in the two countries often do not correspond. My second book, Other Side of Silence, was never published in the States. My agent at the time was of the opinion that the book – set in South Africa – would not appeal to American readers because the milieu was too "foreign." Brits, on the other hand, are used to playing rugby and cricket against the South Africans (who usually trounce them with gusto – not that this has anything to do with literature but I thought I should mention it, anyway ) and are open to books set in former colonies.

So who has the final say? Can I simply refuse to take on board my editors' suggestions? Technically, yes. But there is a standard clause in my boiler-plate contract, which states that if the publisher doesn't feel the manuscript to be up to scratch, then the publisher has the right to refuse publication. You get to keep your advance, but no book on the shelf for you. This is a pretty big stick, or big carrot, depending on your perspective. Do I follow all the instructions my editors throw at me? Not at all, but I pick my battles. Furthermore, it is probably fair to say that if you keep sending your editor hate mail, "Your woeful misreading of the underlying subtext in chapter seven is inexplicable if not downright laughable" or voodoo dolls covered in pins, chances are she will not look kindly on your next offering and will refuse to buy it.

In the end, compromise but not selling-out is probably the name of the game. And T.S. Eliot may have nailed it on the head when he said: "Some editors are failed writers, but then so are most writers..."

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