Is there a typical author-editor relationship? Not really. Depending on the level of editing and the area of publishing, an editor may have frequent, occasional, or no direct contact at all with an author. For example, developmental editors in trade publishing work closely with authors, and this relationship involves a lot of back-and-forth communication. But in academic publishing, a general editor oversees the content of a book or journal and also handles interaction with the author. The copyeditor and proofreader might never contact the author directly.
Ever the upstart, self-publishing has thrust authors and editors into a new and much closer relationship. With the middleman gone, authors hire editors and rely on them for their editorial and publishing knowledge. Producing the best book possible is their common goal, and in this sense their relationship is a collaboration. This is both good and bad for authors, and sometimes it’s ugly, too.
For authors, the good is about control. Most independent authors place control over all aspects of publication at the top of the list of advantages self-publishing offers. And it’s true: as an independent author, you have the final say about anything your editor recommends. Don’t like a suggestion? It’s your call. You will have your book your way.
If you do reject a suggestion, though, it’s a good idea to find out why the editor made it. Editors seldom make a recommendation they can’t defend. Also find out what the consequences might be if you don’t follow the editor’s advice. Maybe you like the way that 60-word sentence rolls off your tongue, but what will readers think? (Hint: If they have to read it more than once to figure out what you’re saying, you’ve probably lost them. Same goes for swathes of italicized thoughts and awkward use of prepositions.) Editors are always on the lookout for writing tics that will confuse readers.
This is another good thing about author-editor collaboration. You have the chance to discuss your work with someone who can offer meaningful feedback. Most editors are happy to answer your questions. Many editors who work with independent authors will see their clients through developmental, stylistic, and copyediting. Especially with fledgling authors, sometimes they also function as a writing coach, educating their author clients about the conventions of writing and style. They also stock their personal blogs with helpful articles and tips. Whatever you’d like to know is there for the asking—so ask away!
In a sense, this is a gift that keeps on giving. If you’re receptive to feedback and can integrate it into your work, your next book will be better for it.
When good turns to bad in an author-editor collaboration, it is usually about expectations and communication. Maybe you thought your book was finished, but you editor tells you that the middle section should be rewritten. And she wants you to cut 30,000 words! What exactly is your editor doing to your manuscript?
Most editors will put some kind of agreement in place at the beginning of the process. If your editor didn’t iron out terms and expectations at the start, it’s not too late, even if you’re partway through the editing process. Take a timeout. The Standard Freelance Editorial Agreement covers what editorial tasks will be performed, when they will be completed, and more. Having an agreement about expectations can reduce the chances of a good relationship turning bad.
And how are these expectations communicated? What method will your editor use to comment on your work? Communication can be a many-tentacled creature. With the author and editor both sending and receiving messages and files, an occasional misunderstanding is probably unavoidable. Asking for clarification is always a good idea, whether it’s regarding what your editor meant in a particular comment or how to use Word’s Track Changes feature properly. You can head off lots of trouble with a question or two.
Problems communicating can also be subtle and therefore tricky. How much communication is enough and how much is too much? How much is too little? Should you chat with your editor about things besides work? The best advice is to ask. Editors are also aware that how they communicate—method, tone, and frequency—could have a negative impact on the relationship. This is something both parties need to work at.
When expectations and communication aren’t addressed, the bad can quickly tip over into the ugly. What does ugly look like? Here are a few examples:
- Files become mixed up or misplaced, and valuable time is lost in this file storm.
- Not knowing that the correct file is misplaced, someone begins working in the wrong file, setting the stage for what can only be described as a hot, sweet mess (HT to Karen Bergen).
- When you go into a chapter to address your editor’s comments, you see that you should have done things differently in the first place and you proceed to rearrange several edited chapters, adding new bits here and there and also adding 10,000 words in the process.
- You do the above with Track Changes turned off.
These are just some of the disasters that await the author and editor as they work through the collaborative process of producing the best book possible. And believe it or not, these ugly scenarios loop back to the subject of control.
In his wonderful book Story, Robert McKee asks (paraphrasing), “How can the best thing that happens to your protagonist also be the worst thing that happens to your protagonist?”
You are the protagonist in your self-publishing story, and having control over every aspect of your book is the best thing and the worst thing that can happen to you. All that control can be overwhelming. It’s not enough to have control, you also have to exercise control. This means tracking and recording changes, files, and versions, keeping checklists, and treating the book manuscript as a live document.
But the ugly scenarios outlined above aren’t the worst. While an editor is still in the picture, there’s a chance to set right any issues that have become tangled as the book moves through editing. But just as things can move from bad to worse, they can also move from ugly to really ugly.
Really ugly happens when you stop collaborating with your editor, but you also don’t have control of the material. You go rogue. You start making decisions on the fly, and—mercy sakes alive, please don’t do this—you continue to massage the manuscript after your editor has signed off. Not only that, you carry on making changes as the book is being designed and formatted for publication. At this stage, anything can happen, and it probably won’t be good.
What happened to the common goal of the author and editor to produce the best book possible?
Tips for a Positive Author-Editor Collaboration
Some of what’s outlined above is a worst-case scenario. But unfortunately, much of what’s outlined above is familiar to many editors. Here are a few tips that will keep you out of the ugly worst-case-scenario camp:
- Begin by conducting a thorough search and choosing the best editor for your book.
- Choose an editor with good communication skills, who asks you lots of questions.
- Keep the lines of communication open, and whatever you do, don’t follow this advice.
- Be your book’s general editor or project manager. Advocate for your book. Accept and follow your editor’s recommendations—he or she is also committed to the success of your book.
- Think of the manuscript as a living, breathing organism. Every time you poke at it and disturb it, you risk contaminating it.
While there is no typical author-editor relationship, it’s fair to say that you and your editor are the two people most invested in making your book a success. But the author-editor relationship is a WIP, as much for editors as it is for authors. We’re all still finding our way. As publishing continues its transition (to what, we’re not sure) and more independent authors step onto the stage, editors are willing to play a supporting role. Trust us. It doesn’t have to be ugly.