The End Is Near (If You Skip the Editing Stage)
by Robert Goodman
SEQ CHAPTER h r 1As a publisher, I often feel camaraderie with the ancient prophet Jeremiah, from whose name we have derived the word jeremiad. A jeremiad is a harangue, one that is often ignored, about the dire consequences that can follow flouting a law or a set of standards.
The laws and standards of publishing are quite different from the scriptural principles Jeremiah exhorted his neighbors to abide by. And yet, they have much in common. Like Jeremiah, who faced rejection when he warned that forsaking the faith would open the door to the Babylonian barbarians, publishers often face rejection when they warn that forsaking faith in editors will open the door to commercial disappointment. Maybe it was just a lucky guess, but the Babylonians did overrun Jeremiah’s gates.
For many authors and, indeed, many publishers, editors are afterthoughts. They can be expensive. They can destroy the author’s voice. They can change a word and ham-hand the author’s meaning. They meddle. And they cause more work. Editors are aggravations. Besides, good writing is “good enough,” right?
Is that you, O publisher of too much faith? You know enough about grammar, punctuation, spelling, syntax, style, and the like to make an editor an extravagance. Or your sister’s daughter has a solid B in her English class, and she can do the work on the cheap. Who needs editors? They are just literary witches and familiars. Paying for an editor is the publishing equivalent of buying an indulgence, right?
Well, pride cometh before the fall. And if not pride, then arrogance. Authors and publishers need to be comfortable with humility, to let go and put the book in the pastoral care of someone who isn’t so attached to it. A good editor can see things you can’t simply because the editor looks with fresh eyes, and because the editor is trained to spot ideas that don’t flow, tautologies, non sequiturs, and unsupported conclusions. The editor is more likely to catch the gaffes, the jargon, the missing words, and all the other things Old Nick knows you would never notice on your own.
The Pros Will Say No
Perhaps you think that you are the exception, that you have a book that doesn’t need an editor, a book that is predestined for success. Perhaps you expect a distributor to see the commercial potential that you see in it, and jump on the chance to add you to its congregation? Well, think again. The owner of one of the major exclusive distributors says, “A poorly edited book will usually not get through the door here.” If you luck out and your book sneaks through, he says his staff will suggest that you delay the book in order to fix the editing—and this may be after you have paid the printer. But he adds, “We can usually avoid this problem by not taking the book at all.”
This distributor’s thoughts are not unique. An executive at another major distributor says, “If we review a book or a group of books that have not been edited or have been badly edited, we reject them.” She also says that if she thinks an unedited or badly edited book has a chance to be successful, she’ll send it back and suggest the book be redone. But again, this may happen after you’ve paid the printer.
Don’t expect to get any good publicity, either. One well-known book publicist has told potential clients more than once to have their books edited before she’ll work with them. “If it’s fiction, an unedited book just won’t fly at all. If it is nonfiction primarily for back-of-the-room sales, an unprofessionally done book labels the author as unprofessional. And if I send a poorly done book to media, you can anticipate a less-than-stellar interview.” In other words, she’s not going to throw good time and money away, and she’ll be doing you a favor in the process.
Reviews? Fugeddaboudit. Badly edited books don’t usually get reviewed at all. And when they do, you might not want to read what the reviewer has to say. The review editor at one of the major trade journals took a break from her busy schedule to tell me that even though they expect to see typos in the galleys they review, the reviewers are not going to be very forgiving about sloppy editing (or design). If you don’t convince them that your book is serious, you’re not going to see a review of it. Period. And one way to convince them a book is not serious is to send a version that needs editorial attention.
You might consider yourself blessed if your badly edited book doesn’t get reviewed. Give thanks. Imagine how you’d feel if The New York Times began a review of it with a headline like, “An Assault on Hawaii. On Grammar Too.” That’s what it said about William Forstchen and Newt Gingrich’s Pearl Harbor. The decent things the reviewer had to say about the book were lost behind comments such as, “Although the book has two authors, it could have used a third assigned to cleanup patrol,” and “The book’s war on punctuation is almost as heated as the air assaults it describes.”
Forstchen and Gingrich, and especially their publisher, might have known better. A reviewer of one of their previous collaborations, 1945, wrote: “The prose is unfortunate all the way through. I can see why Gingrich wanted Forstchen’s name on the cover as big as his own. If this were being ghost-written for me, I sure wouldn’t want anyone to think that I’d done it all by myself.” Was it a coincidence that more than four out of every five hardbound copies of 1945 ended up being returned? Or was it a miracle that as many as one out of five remained sold? And if that can happen to household names like Forstchen and Gingrich, think about what can happen to you.
You need good product placement in stores today. Don’t count on getting it with a badly edited book, though. One very successful product-placement specialist told me she rejects about 60 percent of books that come her way, mostly, she says, because their authors or publishers “are unwilling to spend the necessary editorial time and effort.” A major chain buyer once promised her that, on the basis of a book’s cover and premise alone, he’d order 4,000 copies for his stores. Then he read the book and reduced the purchase number by 3,500. The placement specialist pointed out that “an editor was the difference between 4,000 and 500.”
That book was lucky to get so far into the process. The chains that many publishers would sell their souls to be in are pretty strict about the books they stock. They can afford to be picky. There are waaaaaay too many books for them to choose among. Barnes & Noble will not take any books that look or read as unprofessional. A standard paragraph in the rejection letter B&N must send out far too often says: “The production values of the book are not competitive with other books in the marketplace in this category. The book appears not to have been either professionally designed or edited.” You can expect the same reception from Borders, Books-A-Million, and other major booksellers.
The chains may refer you to their online bookstores, where it’s easier to get your book listed. Or you can try Amazon. But that’s no salvation when your own readers can review your book and write things like, “If you like a dry, no-direction book, then go ahead and read it,” and “This book doesn’t flow,” while they go on and on about the “awkward writing style” and “mediocre quality of writing.”
Now Hear This
The lesson is clear. You ignore editors at your own risk. If you think you can get away with skipping the editing process, go ahead. Tempt fate. Defy the gods of publishing. Break their commandments. You’ll find out if you’ve been successful on the literary day of judgment, by which time it will be too late to repent.
Robert Goodman is the owner and publisher of Silvercat, a publishing and publishing-services firm in San Diego. He has published 15 books and edited or packaged numerous others for writers and independent publishers across the country. The coordinator of the San Diego Book Awards unpublished memoir contest, he is a co-founder and faculty member of the La Jolla Writers Conference; a founder and past president of Publishers & Writers of San Diego; and a member of the PMA board.