Writers and editors– the publishing lifeline


Traditionally, the writer editor relationship has been the very heart of publishing. Writing is a lonely work and every writer at some point needs someone on whom to “bounce off” his ideas. That person may be a wife, a husband, a close friend, a literary agent, but more often than not it still turns out in ways that count the most, to be the writer’s editor. GS Jolly talks more about this unique and beautiful relationship. Of all the functionaries in the publishing house, the editor is usually in closest contact with the author. A good relationship with an editor can be a kind of lifeline as writers tend to be isolated people in their daily lives, their books the greatest reality and if the atmosphere surrounding this focal point, the writing, is mechanical and unsatisfactory, then it certainly can’t help the whole show. “Though writers are tough, but will get on anyway. But if the atmosphere is more personal especially in the beginning, it can become a spiritual home to a great extent.”

The history of publishing is full of sunny spots of deep love and admiration between authors and their editors. The high esteem and affection the great editor Maxwell Perkins was accorded by his authors are pointers to this. Kipling’s admiration and affection for Frank Doubleday, Meneken’s regard for loyalty to Alfred Knopf and Steinbeck’s confidence and trust in Pascal Covici are among the many classical examples of author publisher (editor) closeness and fidelity.

In Indian context, KPS Menon, distinguished diplomat and celebrated writer paying tribute to Hawkins, great editor of the Oxford University Press, on his retirement referred to the closeness he had with him and as a friend and state how a bad book could become a good book just by the work of the editor. Best editors are those who give the writers as much freedom as possible and encourage them to be idiosyncratic even eccentric, in a word to be himself…. The greatest value a writer has; is his individuality. No author can become an author by being coddled by an editor into authorship except in some piece of hackwork or some cliché production.

Editor: link between author and publisher

A good editor is the link between author and his publisher. “There is a spectral third party,” says William Abraham of Atlantic Monthly Press, “who belongs (to the editor- author relationship) too, namely the publisher. It is a triangle of sorts, author–editor–publisher and there is no use pretending that the interests of all three are identical. Ideally the editor must strike a balance.”

But like vintage cars and indoor plants, authors must be treated with love and care if they are to be kept. Many are shy or aggressive, others are naïve touchy or touching; some combine all these qualities. As is normal in an encounter between strangers, particularly when one is trying to sell the other something, both sides tend to be wary at this point, being careful to make clear that the approach on one side and the agreement to consider on the other do not imply any commitment on either side. The editor should be careful in initial stages. Even when a proposal seems prima facie attractive, the editor had better restrain his enthusiasm, carefully balancing the words to ensure that while author is convinced that his proposal is being taken very seriously and that the editor personally impressed, he does not take ultimate acceptance for granted.

It is a melancholy and daily confirmed truth that of a thousand unsolicited manuscripts that flow into the offices of publishers, barely one is publishable. Ideally, a publisher should on consideration of self-interest, if not on grounds of common courtesy enclose a gentle note saying, “The fact that it proved not to our taste does not necessarily mean your work is unpublishable, but all we can do under the pressure of submitted books, is to wish you better luck elsewhere.”

The remarks like that of Samuel Johnson on a rejected manuscript that “Your manuscript is both good and original but the part that is good is not original and the part that is original, is not good,” should be left to the reviewer, if the work has been published by some encouraging publisher.

But when a publisher gets a manuscript that is clearly the work of a person with literary ability, he sets the wheel in motion. He gets one of the editors to read it in order to confirm his opinion. He might seek the opinion of an outside reader and tries to grab the intellectual property for the best price. Authors need to publish their works and publishers need authors to publish and develop their list. The writing of books and publishing of books are, therefore, complimentary activities.

The relationship…

When the process of turning ideas into book starts, a symbiotic, as well as ambivalent relationship follows between editor and author. The close contact between the two is likely to create positive bond. The editor and the copy editor are supposed to help the author make his/her manuscript more readable more attractive to prospective readers.

The pre-publication contact between author and editor is bound to create tensions, moments of apprehension in the minds of authors who feel that editors sacrifice fine points of scholarship or refinement of style to sale appeal. Many a battle in editorial office between author and editor is fought over salability versus scholarship or artistic merit and communicability versus precision.

The symbiosis can be uneasy. According to William Targ, former editor-in-chief of Putnam, “Impersonality in writer–editor relationship seem to be inconceivable. Where a manuscript is involved and a sensitive or emotionally charged writer is concerned, it isn’t possible to achieve rapport and author’s loyalty except on a personal basis.”

Narendra Kumar, chairman, Har-Anand Publications, is of the view that the amount of care with which authors prepare their manuscripts is of course varied. “Whether or not a work is commissioned, the publisher, at the editorial stage is likely to recommend changes in the form of content of a work. The changes may range from minor alterations in grammar and phrasing introduced by copy editor to large scale fundamental revision. Editors feel that generally authors’ manuscripts are sadly lacking in finer details, language structure and subject matter. It is believed that most authors have to be heavily edited,” he said.

How relationship builds while making of the book

With the process of turning ideas into book starts a symbiotic as well as ambivalent relationship follows between editor and author. The editor’s career depends on the success of the author and the close contact between them is likely to create positive bonds, yet the editor is also representative of his firm and must secure the best possible term from his firm’s point of view.

Authors frequently grumble about changes which editors urge them to make. It is a rare manuscript that the attention of an intelligent editor cannot improve. Faults which remain hidden to the author may be apparent to the editor. Editors work closely with authors, helping them to shape difficult manuscripts into publishable form. Authors write books and editors make them.

The purpose of changes recommended at the editorial stage is to realize the better objective of the author. Many a revisions suggested are intended to facilitate the dissemination of work to the readers. It is doubtful that any book length manuscript has been delivered by an author free of the kind of errors and inconsistencies that editor cannot correct. Authors leave countless mistakes uncorrected. The question which gives rise to conflict between an author and editor is not what to change but how much to change. Does the author agree to editor’s judgment? Sometime yes, sometime no, usually yes and no!

The editor, therefore, occupies a unique position, combining in his role the points of view of both author and readers. For young and inexperienced authors, the editor can be an invaluable tutor in the craft of writing. This nurturing of authors is no small part of editor’s contribution to the production of knowledge.

Author & editor: the love–hate relationship

Authors are by and large very sensitive to changes and cuts to the manuscript and feel that every word is indispensable. Any attempt to assess the author–editor relationship may have to take into account what writers want it to be. Arthur Hailey is of the view that no matter how skilled the editor and how talented the author, “Unless they can understand and appreciate each other mentally, their relationship must fail.” There are authors who believe that a good editor is a blessing to an author.

An impressive display of editorial talent and skill, while not fool proof, is possibly the best single guarantor of successful author–editor relationship. It must not be thought that authors and editors having separate and selfish interests on each side, are natural foes. Actually they have more to pull them together than to split them apart.

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