Lesson No. 5: Editors on Editing: What Writers Need to Know About What Editors Do

Every writer knows this scene. We create our own versions like fifteen-year-olds fantasizing cherry ’65 Mustangs in driveways, giant sweet-sixteen bows and gas cards. Unfortunately, our actual discovery moments are brief and the subsequent mechanizations of the publishing industry can be as riddled with ambiguity as writing the first novel. Then the euphoria of first discovery will marinate with the uncertainty of the process. And the great publishing veil falls.

Publisher’s Marketplace

If we are lucky, we have an excellent and communicative agent. I am forever grateful for mine, though, I have friends and colleagues who have shared horror stories. No return emails or calls for weeks. The artistic anxiety ratchets up. Uncertainty. The break up or worse, long, cold dark out. Don’t let me scare you. There are many fantastic agents and editors out and about who are passionate not only about the books they represent but also the writers who birth them. Still, there are enough of the “other.” And there are resources to help newer writers navigate this gauntlet. I often recommend to my students and friends Publisher’s Marketplace, where writers can research both books and agents that are successful and hard working for their writers.

Whether or not you have a literary advocate and guide, knowing the processes and complications of an editor’d journey from “the potential book” to the bookshelf can help writers be better equipped to handle the pressures, uncertainties and anxieties of the process. Editors and agents are human, too, and when they take your book into their care, it is because they believe in it and are willing to put their career into it. This doesn’t always mean the book will ultimately find its bookshelf. It doesn’t mean that if the book finds its bookshelf, that it will market and sell well. But this should all be secondary to your primary responsibilities and passions as the writer. 

Below is “Breaking Faith: A Publisher’s Parable,” originally published in Publisher’s Weekly. You can read the full work in Editors on Editing: What Writers Need to Know About What Editors Do: Third Edition (Grove Atlantic), a comprehensive and valuable insight into the publishing process in both the large houses and small presses, written and edited by some of the most successful editors talking directly to you, the writer.  

Breaking Faith A Publishing Parable

by “Maxwell Gherkin”
Excerpt from Editors on Editing
Originally published in Publisher’s Weekly

David R. is a gifted novelist in his forties. His first book, a strongly drawn account of an auto worker’s family that is torn apart by the conflicts of the 1960s, had been successful—glowing reviews, a $50,000 paperback sale, a National Book Award nomination, an immediate place in the sun. His next two were shorter, more experimental novels, one about a surreal commune in northern California, the other a metafictional treatment of people trapped inside a detective novel, andthere was a sharp tailing off in review interest and sales. He wrote short stories for several years, trying unsuccessfully to find a way to score again.

David had taken all of this hard. He’d wanted to explore the different ways of telling a story, of imagining the world. But coming from a working-class background, he was particularly motivated to get ahead, to make his writing pay, and his attempts to develop his powers had made him lose ground; his career seemed to be going backwards, from modest riches to rags. He was also very conscious of the new generation of novelists, the so-called Brat Pack, who were getting so much attention and astonishing advances for what he dismissed as “go-go writing” but by whom he felt eclipsed. Stuck in a teaching job at a small university in Ohio, where he ran the writing program, burdened by family responsibilities, and bored spitless by the small-time community where he had been living for twelve years—the sort of town that novelists of previous generations had fled from—David felt himself sinking into the excuses and cynicism that he had seen mark the end of the line for a number of writers.

But then an NEA grant came through, and soon after he hit upon a story idea that was rich in possibilities, maybe even commercial ones. Spurred on by his returning powers, he wrote a three-hundred-page novel in eighteen months. Thinking it both the best book he had written and the riskiest, he sent it off to New York, and in the weeks that followed felt like a man awaiting a jury verdict…. (Editors on Editing)

Long story shortened, David becomes increasingly entrenched in his own frustrations and misunderstandings, understandably so. Martha is increasingly frustrated with the limitations of her position, irritated with David’s pushing, understandably so. David ends up sending an “angry letter” to the publishing company that succeeds in ostracizing him from the publisher and Martha, the one editor who repeatedly championed his book as much as she was able within her publishing house.

Martha showed a professional empathy and understanding of David’s concerns. If David, in turn, had understood the complications and processes of Martha’s position as an editor, he might have handled things differently, with more tact, thereby keeping the relationship with his publishing company and editor in better standing. All in all, the publishing world is equal parts talent, hard work, diligence, efficacy and a bit of luck. Great books are not always given their due. And this is painful for the authors who birth them, the agents and editors who champion them and the readers who love them. But this is the way of it.

Prepare and Educate Yourself

Prepare and educate yourself on the joys and realities of publishing. Then do what you are meant to do. Write. Let the agents and editors take care of their end and do your part to support your book. Be courageous, smart and empathetic. Writing is not about winning the shelf. It’s about sharing your words. Try not to lose sight of what first brought you to your words.


Rae Bryant is the author of the short story collection, The Indefinite State of Imaginary Morals. Her stories and essays have appeared in print and online at  The Paris Review, The Missouri Review, Diagram, StoryQuarterly, McSweeney’s, New World Writing, Gargoyle Magazine,and Redivider, among other publications and have been nominated for the Pen/Hemingway, Pen Emerging Writers, &NOW Award and Pushcart Prize. She has won awards in fiction from Whidbey Writers and The Johns Hopkins University as well as fellowships from the VCCA and Hopkins to write, study and teach in Florence. She earned a Masters in Writing from Hopkins where she continues to teach creative writing and is editor in chief of The Doctor T. J. Eckleburg Review. She has also taught in the International Writing Program at The University of Iowa. Rae is the director of The Eckleburg Workshops. Rae is a member of VIDA: Women in Literary Arts, AWP, NBCC, CLMP and Johns Hopkins Alumni Association. She is represented by Jennifer Carlson of Dunow, Carlson and Lerner.