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Jean Naggar

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The Editorial Role: An Agent's View

Posted: 03/02/10 02:43 PM ET

Two pieces by editors I respect, addressing the role of the editor in the "new" publishing industry stirred more than a passing interest.

Sadly, Max Perkins is dead. (To those for whom his name draws a blank, I recommend Scott Berg's excellent biography). It is indisputable that every writer can benefit from the work of a skilled, caring editor, and indeed, both editors who have offered stalwart pieces in defense of the editor are sterling examples of what an editor/publisher should be offering.

However, as a literary agent for these past 33 years, I am compelled to express my observation that over the past decades, the editorial role has been profoundly devalued. As corporate structures have gulped down and digested independent publishing houses and imprints, their corporate agendas have brought about a slow steady erosion of reliance on the editor's skill and intuitive vision. In order to release the magnificent sculpture that such an editor may perceive in a stone, the work of editing takes time, focus, sometimes isolation, silence, deep cogitation, and some eureka moments when the objective eye finally perceives the solution to a thorny dilemma. Few editors today are granted the luxury of so much quality time. As a result, most are on a search for near-perfect manuscripts that they can present to their editorial boards, where sales and marketing can immediately perceive the potential for a successful publication. Needless to say, the less editors are encouraged to flex their editorial muscles effectively, the more atrophied those muscles become, and the safer it seems to reject than to commit.

From where I sit, this has meant that we literary agents are now essentially functioning as editors, stepping into the vacuum and metaphorically taking up the stubby red pencil we had stored as a memento of a bygone age. It is now our responsibility to our writers to polish the gem before it is even seen by editorial eyes. And since most publishers today will not consider unagented manuscripts, over our transoms they come tumbling for us to filter and refine.

I realize with gratitude that for every editor who espouses the fast and furious view there are still some willing to fall in love and to commit. I know who they are. Their names are lovingly breathed within the walls of our agency, Their opinions are shared and treasured. We know the editor who knows how to edit without dictating or ruffling the feathers of a sensitive novelist, who grasps the unspoken intent of the author and enables it, who believes in a work before that belief has been endorsed by everyone else, and who is willing to fight for it in a job climate where a lay-off may be a breath away.

So many of the elements of publishing that a writer and agent used to expect of an editor are currently being farmed out as publishing houses downsize. Indeed, many excellent editors and experienced marketing teams are plying their skills outside of publishing houses. Writers themselves are being asked to write jacket copy (and this in a major publishing conglomerate) create a national platform, develop a continuing presence in the world of social networks, twitter and tweet, and write smart funny blogs to capture a readership before a book comes close to market -- and of course to write a book a year to build branding. Writers are expected to mine their personal brief encounters for blurbs for the jacket. Some have been asked to design the jacket themselves. They are frequently more savvy about the world of digital marketing than their editors are. And no sooner do they feel that they have established a true dialectic with a good editor they like and respect than that editor, often as not, moves to another house, and the author is left floundering in the grip of a contract that does not take the relationship into account.

Yes, the editor is the negotiating voice as deals are struck, but agents are finding that editors are not given the opportunity for education in the swarm of urgent contractual issues that appear almost on a daily basis at this time of paradigm shift in our industry. Lacking the tools for relevant conversation, they quickly claim corporate policy, pass the negotiation along to others, and are unprepared themselves to deal with the hot issues of the day.

Despite all I have said here, my battle is not with editors. Most of them would like nothing better than to be the writer's advocate they had dreamed of becoming. My issue is with an industry contorting to reposition itself rather than to reinvent itself. No longer valuing editors' work and insights, it fails to trust that an editor may have the vision to find and curate the rough diamond and provide the insights to reveal the dazzling gem hidden within.

Jean Naggar is an agent at The Jean V. Naggar Literary Agency, Inc., and author of Sipping From The Nile, My Exodus From Egypt