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The Conventional Wisdom
If you spend any time listening to talks by literary agents or browsing through books on the writing business, you will soon hear that the days of intensive editing are long gone. No more, the agents caution, will a manuscript less than letter-perfect catch the attention of an editor. Agent (and former editor) Lori Perkins says, “The description of what a good editor once did is now the definition of what a good agent can do.” We are given to understand that if Maxwell Perkins (no relationship to Lori, so far as I can ascertain) were still alive, he would be working as an agent, not an editor.
Move a little further down the food chain, however, and you will be told your manuscript must be polished before it even arrives on the desk of an agent. Agent Noah Lukeman writes, “Agents and editors don’t read manuscripts to enjoy them; they read solely with the goal of getting through the pile, solely with an eye to dismiss a manuscript—and believe me, they’ll look for any reason they can, down to the last letter.” Despite Lori Perkins’ comment above, at conferences every session on getting an agent emphasizes you can’t send a manuscript to an agent if it still needs work.
That any manuscript a writer sends out ought to be close to publishable seems self-evident. Isn’t that the writer’s job in the first place? An agent or editor may make suggestions to make a manuscript a better book, but it ought to be a good book before they set eyes upon it. Right?
When Michael Barnard announced the launch of Macmillan New Writing, he made it clear they would not be acquiring works that required massive editing. This seems in line with the policies of virtually every commercial publishing house—are there any houses that are searching for books that are promising but far from being publishable? (If so, those houses ought to speak up, as agents routinely reject such books. There’s plenty available.)
Tempest in a Thimble
Apparently, many considered Barnard’s observations outrageous. In some places his remarks were willfully misconstrued, while in other venues people put forth wholly imaginary scenarios of what MNW planned to do…and then worked themselves into an apoplectic fit about their own conjectures.
In effect, some folks asserted that Macmillan planned to dump books directly from the slush pile onto the market with hardly a glance at the content. One somewhat hysterical observer argued—on the basis of no discernible evidence—that the MNW process would "take away the exercise of taste and judgment from publishing", as though Macmillan planned to print every manuscript hurled into their offices, and as if the only defenders of "taste and judgment" in publishing were the literary agents. (It isn't explained why any publisher would choose to make huge investments in well-produced hardback volumes without at least skimming the manuscripts before send them off for typesetting.)
At the same time, there were assertions that Macmillan would only publish books where the authors paid from their own pockets for editing services. (I’ve seen some recent bestsellers where someone, somewhere ought to have paid for editing services—and possibly even for remedial classes in composition—but that’s another matter.)
With all this noise over editing—or rather over the lack thereof—I was very curious indeed to see how MNW would approach the editing process on Smite the Waters. Would they demand that jail be rewritten as gaol? (I hoped not, as there are some things to which I will not stoop. Not many, but a couple, and once you give in on gaol, you’ll have them insisting on whisky as uisge, and then they'll be improvising--it'll be whale as uiol, and lord knows how you’ll be expected to render James Joyce. It’s this sort of thing, and not the tea tax, that precipitated the American Revolution.)
I’d never taken seriously the idea that, as some had speculated, I’d be charged for editing services by my publisher, since there was no mention of the concept in the contract. And how could such a thing work? Would I be charged (ka-ching!) every time the editor scribbled awk! or wd chce? or sent frag in the margin of my manuscript? (I’d be in trouble, as I’m known for awk sent frags, and odd wd chces, which together form an admittedly shaky pillar of my so-called style.) Would a single Post-It note reading Unclear Eleanor’s motivation re: speaking Count at manor re: Rudolfo’s parentage cost me fifty bucks (or, even worse, fifty pounds)?
As I waited to find out, I trembled, and not only for myself. No, I feared for Rudolfo and Eleanor as well.
Well, I at least maintained a lively interest. And if you want to know what happens in MNW editing, you’ll have to read the my next post. (And if you figure out who Rudolfo and Eleanor are, let me know.)
Jump to Part II