Why Do Editors Reject Bestsellers?

Why do some brilliant editors discover bestsellers and other incompetent editors miss them? From Emily Dickenson to Harry Potter, how could so many have turned them down? In his history of the Scribners publishing house, written 75 years ago, Roger Burlingame pulls back the veil on this mystery.* For many writers and readers, this will be a revelation. Editors will not be surprised at all. They will recognize their own experience in this account, affirming how true it is in our digital age as it was a century ago when moveable type still ruled.

When a book by a new writer becomes a best-seller, a body of legend grows about it. It appears that it was declined by a dozen stupid publishers until some genius saw its worth and brought the author from his garret into the daylight. It is not explained that the genius who discovered Author A, the week before let Author B’s manuscript slide through his fingers to another genius who may, indeed, be the very oaf who originally saw no prospects in Author A, but now is acclaimed as the discoverer of B’s masterpiece. Nor is it told how long and patiently both these publishers have labored with the beautiful lost words of Authors X and Y, upon whom, year after year, the public has inscrutably turned its back.

To those who know the facts beneath the legend, therefore, it is not surprising that good publishers waste so few tears over mistaken judgments of manuscripts. Over a long career any publisher can find in his record dozens of declinations of books which later brought fame and profit to someone else. If, in that career, he has built up a solid body of good authors who enjoy working with him and bring him a steady income, year after year, and if, besides, he has laid a backlog of departments producing steady-selling religious, educational, juvenile, subscription or technical books, he has spent his energies more wisely than in the restless search for big sellers. The proof of this is in his survival. Those publisher who have approached their job in this way have lived the longest, and the wisest young publishers in the field today are those who are steady building, regardless of brilliant, quick and sporadic successes.

The public, too, amused by the best-seller legends, is seldom aware of the peculiar reasons behind some declinations or of how beneficial to an author the rejection of a manuscript may be. A publisher whose list is full, say, for two seasons ahead, will reluctantly let go a book which seems sure-fire to himself and all his editors. He is already committed to the limit of his capacity. If, now, he takes on another large job, he knows either that he cannot do it justice or that, if he does, the books for which he has already agreed to do his best will suffer. . . . So, though it would be surprising to find an author pleased at a rejection—even when these things are explained to him—yet it is common enough, afterward, for him to look back over his manuscript’s stormy voyage and thank his luck stars that it came to haven at last in the place where the fullest measure of attention could be accorded it.

*Roger Burlingame, Of Making Many Books: A Hundred Years of Reading, Writing and Publishing (University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1946; 1996), 61-62.

image credit: khamkhor, Pixabay

An Editor’s Work

I clearly remember my second day as an editor forty-five years ago.

The first day was mostly orientation. But the second day an author came in to discuss a contracted manuscript with Jim Sire, my boss. I sat in watching and listening as they discussed the editing Jim had done. That morning and afternoon, the two of them sat side by side at a table, flipping through the edited pages one at a time, often reading aloud long passages. Jim would make observations and raise issues about certain passages, about what the author intended and how to resolve various questions. The two would work together to come to an agreement on what do do and move on.

That day provided my whole career with a metaphor for the work of editing. I haven’t always had the privilege of sitting side by side with an author going over a manuscript. But when I have made comments on a manuscript (a manuscript I would originally send to the author my snail mail and later by email) or talked on the phone, I tried to keep the image in mind.

I wanted the author to know I was on his or her side. I’d look for the positive, and cheer great sentences, paragraphs, and sections. I tried to understand what was closest to the author’s heart and goals. Sometimes that meant pointing out where I thought things had gone astray in the manuscript. If I could, I would offer alternatives for how things could be worded or structured or presented.

The editor-author relationship is ideally one of mutual respect and mutual submission. Sometimes the editor accedes to the author’s obvious expertise in subject matter. Sometimes it is the other way around because many editors have not just published six or a dozen books but dozens or hundreds.

A colleague, Jim Hoover, often said, “An editor is the author’s advocate to the reader—and the reader’s advocate to the author.” The job of editors is not to shape manuscripts the way they would write them. Rather when alerting authors to potential problems, editors aim to show authors what questions people might raise the first time they read the text. That is just virtually impossible for authors to do who are overly familiar with what they’ve written. “Isn’t it obvious?” No. Not always.

Editors are on the author’s side, aiming to make what authors have to say as strong as possible–but as strong as possible for the intended audience (which means advocating for readers). Editors and authors need not have an adversarial relationship. Rather they are partners, allies who sit side by side, facing a common challenge.

Images: James W. Sire (IVP); Twilight (Hypatie, Pixabay)

The Future of Editing 2: Who Editors Need to Be

For me, editing has always been about loving words and loving ideas. Learning and thinking will always be important. Yet in a technology-saturated world with an ever-accelerating rate of change, we don’t know exactly what books and reading will be like in the future. We have a better idea, however, of who editors need to be in the future.
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The Future of Editing 1: Everyone Needs an Editor

Jim Sire, my predecessor at IVP as editorial director, loved to tell the story of a book review he had drafted. He showed it to Paul to look over before he sent it off to a journal.

Paul told him, “Here you say the book has merit but wasn’t evocative enough. What you actually write, however, is, ‘The book isn’t suggestive enough.’ That actually has a very different meaning than the one I think you intend! I doubt you mean that the book fails to contain adequate sexual innuendo.”
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Take Note

What to do with footnotes has been a problem since Gutenberg. To some they are an aggravation on par with elevator music and cable company service. To others they are the glory of the published word.

For those who want to be able to follow an author’s sources, and for authors who want to make comments that don’t interrupt the flow of the main text, notes are indispensible.
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Why I Almost Didn’t Get Hired

I interviewed for an opening in the editorial department at InterVarsity Press over thirty years ago. My prospective boss, Jim Sire, was sick and couldn’t make it to work that day. So I interviewed instead with the publisher, Jim Nyquist, and Linda Doll, who was the only other employee in the editorial department at that time (and part-time at that). I don’t remember much about the interviews except that I had a general sense that they went pretty well.
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So You Want to Be a Book Editor?

Every so often we at IVP get asked what it takes, or how one prepares, to be an editor. The question came regularly enough that my predecessor at IVP, Jim Sire, jotted down some thoughts which we have since been passing on to folks for over two decades. His comments are just as relevant now as they were then, so here they are.

So you want to be an editor? Or, less boldly, so you want to consider being an editor? Here are some matters to take into account.
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Great Production

“Design, production, and manufacturing, in many publishing houses, are not considered as glamorous as editorial or sales, and may be looked upon a secondary. They should be viewed as quite the reverse,” says publishing guru Tom Woll (p. 161). Why? Well, how many times have design and production saved editorial’s and marketing’s behind when an author was late or a book needed to come out early? How many times has great jacket design made customers give a second look at something new? And how much money has been saved by shrewd print buyers?

Woll rightly points out, however, that it is unwise and unfair for others always to rely on production to bear the burden of fixing problems. When it comes to scheduling, one guideline we’ve implemented with some success is this: Do not schedule a book for publication until the revised manuscript is in hand.

That could sound draconian, but it works. Why? Authors may not always meet their deadlines because they are not employees of the publisher. So editors, as peers, have a limited set of tools they can use in working with authors to stay on schedule. But authors always want to know, “When will my book come out?” (Not so subtle subtext: “the sooner the better.”)

Typically the answer would be, “In nine to twelve months.” By saying it can be scheduled only when the final draft is in hand puts responsibility (and motivation) properly in the author’s hands.

Exceptions? Certainly. A big upcoming event for which the book must be available. A big-name author whose bestseller is wanted by marketing (and probably finance) for this fiscal year. But those should be exceptions, not the rule.

That’s just one idea for trying to deal with the scheduling dragon. Any other good ideas out there?

The Joys of Coauthoring

One colleague said I seemed to be pretty negative about coauthoring when I wrote about that here recently. Since I have coauthored five books myself, I suppose one could suppose a certain autobiographical slant to my comments. That has not been the case. I coauthored three Bible study guides with my wife, another with my wife and a friend, and Heart. Soul. Mind. Strength. with my former coworker at IVP, Linda Doll. Each was a very enjoyable experience with minimal problems.
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