Writing: The Great Wheel of Publishing

 This wheel is large and ungainly, held together with sweat, tears, slush pile manuscripts, spit, unbought or returned books and elbow grease. It lumbers along, turning ever so slowly, sometimes looking more as if it will tumble over then keep rolling. But roll it does, usually, sometimes losing an author, or a novel, some staff or advertising revenue. It does not turn smoothly but continues until the gap of lost material becomes so big that the wheel must be overhauled.

Such is the case with various publishers along the long road of years. Ten years ago I was trying to get copy editing work with US publishers. This Herculean task met many difficulties. Publishers and the editors in charge are over-busy, always reading and procuring manuscripts and then going through the myriad phases of production. Send a letter and if it isn’t imperative to answer (we want your manuscript, pay our invoice) it never gets answered, not even if you include a SASE and you’re looking for employment. The next stage is to phone and hope you get the right editor in the right department. Should you call and only get their voicemail, presume they won’t return your call. And if you live on the west coast and have a three-hour time difference it will take early hours and a crystal ball to figure out the best time and day to try and catch and editor. Give up on Fridays altogether.

Should you get through these first layers of the publishing house inferno, you will most likely get a copy editing test. Once that’s done you send it back. I did two over two-three years with Tor, where they subsequently lost the test both times. Then said oh well you have to go through St. Martins as they’re our boss. Uh, they didn’t know this beforehand when they gave me the test? And Ace gave me the test; I sent it back and heard nothing. When I queried twice they said, oh we can’t hire Canadians. I didn’t know that when I sent you a test. Great, I’ve had a lot of practice with editing tests.

With Harper Collins, I passed the test. Then they sent me disks because they used a specific computer-based editing system. (This was about ten years ago and I’m not sure Word’s track changes feature was that developed then.) So, I received the disks but then had to buy a new computer because I didn’t have the memory capacity. At that time the guy who was going to train me was on holidays for a month. When he got back, he quit. So they were then trying to find someone else. In that time, they also bought out Avon books.

What ensued was two years of frustration and nary a job out of it. The editor I was dealing with was transferred to a different dept., then let go. Others came and went. I was given various names of people and would call every month. Each time I had to explain the situation who I had talked to, where it had changed, what area of copy editing I specialized in (SF/spec fiction) etc. Each time, it was a different person, a new department, a new system. Two years of calling every month after being told I would be hired as a freelancer and I never got one job out of it. But I had a bigger, better computer.

Over the years I have edited for a few US publishers and Canadian publishers but the sheer frustration of getting New York publishers was enough to stop most people. You really do have to live there. The longest stint I had copy editing with one publisher was three years or so with Byron Preiss book packagers (now gone the way of the dodo). And I got my first job because I was at the World Fantasy Convention standing in the lineup for the hotel. The guy in front told me he had just got a promotion to editor and I said, hey do you need any copy editors. He said send a resume when you get back but before I could he called because he had a rush job. Keith DeCandido gave me my first real break in copy editing. He quit before the company imploded and I had stopped doing work form them before that because getting paid was becoming difficult. He now writes novels. I now think of writing my novel, still copy edit and still write.

Other hurdles in the publishing world are managing editors who ask you to copy edit but don’t clarify by how much. Some publishers (or working on some authors) means that you’re required to only correct typos and punctuation. Copy editing is more than this and includes correcting sentence structure and continuity. It can be structural editing, which looks at the overall structure of chapters, pacing and flow, or very close to proofreading. Over the years I have found most companies who wanted proofreading really wanted more than that.

It’s common for individuals looking for an editor to say they want proofreading when in almost all cases they mean copy editing. It can be confusing for the new writer but just as confusing for the freelance editor. I’ve had publishers cancel a project in the middle (they were moving into movies, but did pay for what I’d ) or wanting a book padded (requiring that one line paragraphs be left in and the worst sentences be reworked but not deleted).

Publishing houses usually have a house style and often a style sheet. If they don’t give me one, I usually ask if they have a house style as it can affect the overall product. I’ve started to see some weird things in some books of late. Tor is an American publisher yet I’ve seen a book or two done with British spellings. In one case it may have been to give it the flavor of an earlier era as it was about a world in the 1800s.

But editing and acquisition of books are just a couple spokes of that great wheel. There is design production, advertising, marketing, distribution, return and paying the employees, artists and authors. Some spokes seem to have more weight, or, if you were looking a wooden wheel, some would be sturdier or decorated, but without all of the spokes the wheel fails. And to carry the analogy to the end the hub of the wheel is the writer and the publisher. Without the writer there is no story to sell. Without the publisher there are still stories but it’s harder to get them out to the public.

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2 Comments

Filed under Culture, entertainment, people, Publishing, Writing

2 responses to “Writing: The Great Wheel of Publishing

  1. Great post on the vagaries of trying to get actual paid editing work with book publishers. The local ones aren’t much easier to get work with – I’ve personally worked or interned with two of the more well-known ones here in Vancouver and made decent contacts with two or three more – and have never billed a single hour of editing time to any of them.

    As for the confusion as to what kind of edits people want, I guess it’s just the nature of the beast!

    • colleenanderson

      I only worked with Raincoast and they were notoriously poor payers (not really worth doing often) and would give an assignment two weeks or less before it was due. Very frustrating. And yeah the editing beast is indeed a confusing creature.

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