The literary editor is now a rare species. Gone are the days when you and your novel could enter into a collegial, comfy relationship with someone like Maxwell Perkins or Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. During the last few decades, numbers of editors have been let go by the major corporatized publishers in cost-cutting measures. Others have left of their own volition for greener pastures. Too often, the author is now on his or her own when it comes to editing...and your novel may well suffer badly from that.
Good editing is, for most writers, an essential in the process of bringing a book to completion. The fresh mind, the clear-eyed look and fearlessness when it comes to telling the truth are all earmarks of the best editors. The renowned Alan Rinzler, who edited two of my books, suggested for one of them that I get rid of a passage that went on for 142 pages. It had taken me 8 months to write that passage. "It doesn't serve any purpose," he said, then going on to explain carefully why that was so. I lay in bed in a stew of resentment that night, and then decided that Alan was right. I got up, got my coffee and got rid of those 142 pages.
The belt-tightening in the traditional publishing industry is being added to by the arrival of self-publishing. Once dismissed as the only way to publishing for hopeless, talentless scribblers, this alternative is now a quite viable one. Major authors with long successful careers with traditional firms have seen that the per-copy royalty they can get from self-publishing is far greater than has been the case previously. Also they don't have to swim in the moat of questionable contracts, delayed publication, the relinquishing of important rights to their work (like film and serialization) and other joys. The digital revolution in publishing has allowed for this new path.
But the digital revolution has nothing to do with good writing. This is a relationship between two (or more) people with one purpose, to get those words to go right. The quality of writing is the issue, and no matter how you plan to get published, you still need a good editor.
Jesse Coleman and Natasa Lekic are the founders of NY Book Editors, based in Manhattan. They met while working as interns at Europa Editions. Jesse went on to Farrar, Straus and Giroux and New Directions, and has edited, among many others, Secret Historian by Justin Spring (a National Book Award finalist), Dream of The Celt by Nobel Prize winner Mario Vargas Llosa and Laurent Binet's notorious novel HHhH, which won the Prix Goncourt du Premier Roman.
While at Europa, Coleman and Lekic had mulled over the idea of founding some sort of venture in the publishing industry. "At first," Coleman says, "we thought of founding a small press. But as the industry was evolving so quickly -- and the technology of it -- our ideas of what we could do evolved as well." They decided that they would offer their services primarily to writers who wished to publish themselves.
"We're lucky," Lekic says, "because our clientele basically finds us, instead of the other way around. Through things we post to the internet, through traffic to our website." One startling innovation on their site is that of the sample edit. The writer sends NY Book Editors the first ten pages of his or her book, fiction or non-fiction. For a nominal fee, the writer will receive back a careful line edit of those ten pages and a few suggestions for what in the trade is called developmental editing; that is, manuscript structure, character development, the clarity of the writing and narrative flow, etc. So far, 90 percent of the writers who have asked for a sample have hired NY Book Editors to edit the entire manuscript.Asked who their clientele are, Coleman pauses a moment.
NY Book Editors was founded this January. So one would expect them to be in the throes of start-up uncertainty. "We're actually growing at a faster rate than we had expected to," Lekic says. "We now have five editors and copy-editors working on projects." Coleman ponders what his hopes had been at first.
That's hard to pin down. There's no one type. We have some authors who have published with major publishing houses...and hated the experience. Others are people who have sent us the first thing they've ever written, who know nonetheless that they need someone outside of themselves to look at it.
I thought that our idea -- marketing ourselves as professional editorial services for authors whose intention is to self-publish -- was maybe eighteen months ahead of the curve. No one else was offering that, and we felt that, with time, the demand would develop. But we found out right away that the demand was already there.
Often in the start-up situation, the founders of a venture are taken up with the storm of immediate day-to-day problems. But Lekic has indeed thought about the future, and mapped one out. "Two years from now, we want to be an established brand in self-publishing, so that when people think of a fine experience with great editors, they think of us."
Most authors worry obsessively about the worth of what they're doing and the quality of their writing. Self-publishing authors are no different. "That's very true," Lekic says, "and we bring the same level of commitment and experience to self-published writers as a traditionally published writer could expect from the Big Five major houses." Coleman nods in agreement. "For people who are out there who have written these books and don't know what to do with them, we're there to help."
(Terence Clarke's new novel The Notorious Dream of Jesús Lázaro will be published later this year.)