The editor’s despair?

October 19, 2010

A British literary agent, writing under the pseudonym Agent Orange sees a possible transformation of the current publishing business model:

Here’s a modest proposal. Let’s get rid of editors. Seriously, would publishing be better off without them? Should we abolish lunch?

Any agent worth their salt will be able to tell you many recent stories of editors – senior, well known editors – who have loved books that the agents have submitted to them but for which they have failed to gain the support of their colleagues.

Of course editors are as status conscious as the rest of us and are keen to present themselves (particularly to agents) as mighty forces within the organisations they work for. But in unguarded moments it is possible to get them to concede that the majority of the projects they take forward get shot down during the acquisition process – often for reasons that seem to them to be obscure or arbitrary ….

…. Let’s say I pitched a novel at this meeting, everyone agrees it seems a good idea, solidly in genre, with a marketable author. The publishing director then decides which editor should read it. They love it, others agree and the publisher offers. Fantastic, everyone is happy, except one has to ask, what is the role of the editor in this process?

Traditionally agents pitch books to editors (lunch!), get them fired up, send them the book, the editor loves the book, drives that ‘passion’ through acquisition and editorial, sales conferences. They choose the image on the jacket, the blurb, even the title and author name in many cases. They are the publisher, the apex of a pyramid with sales, publicity, design and marketing all feeding into them. They own the project.

If, as is increasingly the case, that is simply no longer true, then what are they for?

There is, of course, more to it, and no, I’m not in the position to have an actionable opinion. At this point in my life, it’s merely a matter of, “Who do I send to, and what do they want?”

But one sentence in there stands out: “But in unguarded moments it is possible to get them to concede that the majority of the projects they take forward get shot down during the acquisition process—often for reasons that seem to them to be obscure or arbitrary.

We can certainly turn to our own .COMmunity friends who work as editors and ask them their two cents, either in general or on that point specifically. (And why not? One editor in the UK is, well, one editor in the UK. So come now, friends, what say you? I mean, you are editors, and thus are qualified to tell us about the state of the industry as such.)

Meanwhile, Paul Constant of Seattle’s The Stranger suggests:

I’ve talked to dozens of authors who have told me that agents are basically the new editors: They demand rewrites, they help the author shape the book, they make the book a nearly finished thing even before an editor lays eyes on it. I’m all for editors, though, and I think this agent is, too. What editors need is more power; definitive ownership of the books they’re shepherding through the publishing process. But what this agent is envisioning—a world without editors—is a much more likely outcome, at least among the big publishers.

So, yeah … er … something, something, agents, .COMmunity ….

No, no, I’m not disparaging the agents. I just realized I might have started something ugly.

But, yes, seriously: Our friendly, associated agents and editors might have a few things to say about this, so let us invite them, and eagerly await their insight.



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