Author-Editor Collaboration: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

by | Dec 9, 2015

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.

The Good

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.

The Bad

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.

The Ugly

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.

Conclusion

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.

Photo: bigstockphoto.com

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8 Comments

  1. Ana Spoke

    I had a good relationship with my editor, even though there were some things we’ve disagreed on – I credit that to carefully picking her in the first place. I’ve asked for 2-3 pages of sample edits with each quote, and the differences were remarkable – most notably, one person crossed out the entire opening paragraph and wrote their one. No, thanks. Another took my light-hearted comedy and turned it into something resembling a textbook, by cleaning all the fun out. A sample edit is an absolute must and will save you both a lot of grief!

    Reply
    • Carla Douglas

      Hi Ana,

      Thanks for your comments. It’s great that you and your editor were able to work through the areas of disagreement and I hope you got the book you wanted as a result.

      That’s a terrific tip—to request a short sample edit to help you decide if you and an editor could work together. I agree. Editors who work with self-pubs should be prepared to provide a sample. Editing is a big investment for authors.

      Carla

      Reply
  2. Arlene Miller

    Great article. As a copyeditor, I have had mostly good. But I can certainly identify with the ugly. Sometimes I would prefer to edit on hard copy (yes, it still exists) because you usually don’t get files confused and you can’t do it with Track Changes turned off! I once was accused of editing the old file when a new file had been sent (I still disagree with that one), and before I became more experienced, I would occasionally forget to turn on Track Changes until a couple of pages in!

    Reply
    • Carla Douglas

      Thank you, Arlene!

      I hadn’t thought about that benefit to editing on paper—you’re right. Surprisingly, quite a few editors still work on paper and prefer it that way, but eventually the corrections need to go into a digital file, and errors occur in that process too. Version control is so important!

      Carla

      Reply
  3. Michael N. Marcus

    No editor knows everything about anything, and certainly not everything about everything.

    Sometimes an editor will assume that the author, particularly in a specialized field, must know what’s right–and does not correct the author’s error.

    Sometimes an editor assumes the author was wrong, and then changes right into wrong. The author may not notice, or might assume the editor was right.

    Regardless of the source of the error, the blame goes to the person whose name is on the book’s cover.

    Be a careful writer and choose your editors carefully.

    Reply
    • Carla Douglas

      Thanks for your comments, Michael. What you say is true—especially your advice to be a careful writer and choose editorial support carefully too. It’s all about communication. Can’t stress that enough!

      Carla

      Reply
  4. Ernie Zelinski

    I had all three experiences with editors — the good, the bad, and the ugly. The ugly was with a book published by a traditional publisher. I had to take a stand with the editor and let her know that I would not tolerate her trying to promote her own agenda in my book. I told her that if she insisted on her requested changes I would go back to the owner of the publishing company and offer to return the advance in exchange for us canceling the Agreement. At that point she backed off because she knew I wasn’t kidding.

    On somewhat of a less serious note, these quotations apply:

    “The relationship of editor to author is knife to throat.”
    — Unknown wise person

    “Writing is a profession in which you have to keep proving your talent to people who have none.”
    — Jules Renard

    “Writers may be disreputable, incorrigible, early to decay or late to bloom, but they dare to go it alone.”
    — John Updike

    “There is probably no hell for authors in the next world — they suffer so much from critics and publishers in this.”
    — C. N. Bovee

    “Write drunk; edit sober.”
    — Ernest Hemingway

    Reply
    • Carla Douglas

      Hi Ernie, and thanks for your comments.

      I guess over a career, writers are likely to encounter all kinds of editors. Glad your interactions have been largely positive, and that you were able to wrest control back from that trad pub editor. :) As we say in the post, the relationship can be tricky!

      Carla

      Reply

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