One of the standard forms of communication between a writer and publisher is the editorial letter. It works this way:
You’ve worked on your book for a year—probably more—and you’ve submitted it to your publisher, which is to say an editor. If the book is accepted, you will, in time, get what is called an editorial letter, which, in essence, is the editor telling the writer how to make the book better.
I have worked with many editors. The best editors are trying to help the writer achieve the full possibilities of the work. Poor editors (I’ve worked with a few) try to bend the book to their vision of your book. Not much fun.
In all my years of publishing only twice has an editor not sent such a letter.
It was with the late, great, Richard Jackson. It was the first time I worked with him, and the book would become SOR Losers. When the text was sent to him, he let me know he felt it was good enough to pass right on to the copyeditor, that’s to say, to start the publication process. I was startled. Did this guy know what he was doing?
So, I objected. I said I thought the book needed more work and made suggestions. He agreed and we went on in regular fashion. Indeed we worked on many books together, and never again did he ignore an editorial letter.
The other time, the editor informed me (do you remember the day of telephone conversations?) she didn’t believe in sending such a letter, but simply told me what she liked about the book I had written and then returned the submitted manuscript with notes for revision right on the text.
But most of the time I’ve gotten an editorial letter as I just did yesterday, for a new book. The letter is four pages, single-spaced. From my experience that is somewhat short.
The letter begins—they all do—with positive remarks about the book, what she thought was the strength of the text. This is important because it gives me confidence that I’ve done something right, and just as vital, I know what the editor thinks is the strength of the text, and I can work to that.
After that introductory section, most of the letter has suggestions as to how to make the book better. Let me stress that word, suggestions. These are not commands, as in “When you do this then I will publish the book.” Indeed, I’m being encouraged to talk to the editor about any of these ideas.
That said, in my early days, I received directives about changes necessary if publication was to take place. One editor—I kid you not—once said to me, “It needs about five more words.” (That book would eventually become The End of the Beginning) Most of the time the requests are for much, much more.
I have never argued about these suggestions. If I disagree with a particular idea, I try to understand the reason for the perceived problem and make changes so as to deal with it in a different way. I am therefore not ignoring the problem as I am finding an alternate way to resolve it.
By and large, I am happy to use the editor’s suggestions about revising the work. I am making the book better. Let it also be said, revising a work is—at least for me—the most enjoyable part of the writing process. I know the work will be published and I know I’m making a better book. Indeed, as I revise, I sense the book is getting better. I also love working with editors. Not infrequently, working with an editor brings out massive improvements.
Also, as I submit revised drafts of the book, I may well receive more editorial letters.
In all of this, it is important, I think, to stress a vital fact about the publishing process: the writer is NOT working alone. It’s a deeply collaborative process. In many a book—on the copyright page, or elsewhere—the book’s graphic designer is cited. So too is the artist who created the cover. They should be. But it is rare to see the editor cited unless the editor has achieved such prominence as to have the book referenced as “A Richard Jackson Book.”
Editors should be cited too.
Someday someone will be smart enough to publish a collection of editorial letters. It will be a revelation, a masterclass on the writing of good books.