What motivates you in your job? What’s the first thing that comes to your mind when you open a manuscript you’re about to start working on? When sparring with an author client over points of style or the order of chapters, who or what is at the forefront of your mind? Is it the reader? The text? Is it your professional ego (however unacknowledged)? Or is it, perhaps, the author?
I’m going to be bold here and submit that success of any professional in any job comes down to the success of the relationships they can build. ‘Know your clients’ is being drummed into us as the single most important rule of business. Who are those clients? And what do they really want from editors they invite into their creative process?
Not long ago, I met with one such client group – writers. I asked them about their expectations and worries around working with an editor and, very generously, they responded. There was a lot for me to digest, not least one biting comment from an author feeling like they were just ‘a mark for additional income on the side’. Ouch! I hope none of my clients ever said that about working with me, I thought.
So let’s look at the feedback in a bit more detail. Several themes came through particularly strongly: collaboration, expertise, empathy and trust. Of those, the majority aren’t easily quantifiable. It’s hard to know after just one email exchange what it’s going to be like to collaborate on a book edit, which can take months. But I believe it is worth trying. In the authors’ words: ‘I’ve always wanted a collaborative effort with somebody honest and enthusiastic’; ‘I would prefer to have an active part in all decisions regarding editing’; ‘I would expect a partner’.
An interesting insight for me was that, perhaps contrary to what myriad self-publishing services would have us believe, the traditional publishing route is still the goal for many authors, even those just entering the field. For that, they need to impress the gatekeepers – agents and commissioning editors: ‘Agents can be very picky.’ A helpful steer is what they’d seek from an editor: ‘I would like to work with a well-connected editor who can help me get published’, ‘I think the editor needs to have an in-depth understanding of what agents and publishers require’ and ‘I’d want someone with … an eye on the market to … give [my work] its best chance of publishing success’. This type of service can come in the form of agent introductions, collaborations with various publishers or providing well-researched, well-grounded market advice. What that would mean for an editor is cultivating relationships in the publishing world: networking, learning the ropes (by taking part in seminars, webinars, book launches, author meetings), going to conferences and being aware of the latest publishing trends. It can add another string to your bow and quite an exciting one at that.
Perhaps less surprisingly, authors are also interested in the more down-to-earth editing know-how: ‘guidance on structure and plot’, ‘help [me] polish the work’, ‘make sure that the work is structurally and grammatically correct’, ‘an informed point of view’. These are all skills we learn by taking part in CIEP courses and other editorial training.
Then, there are the concerns of putting their work into the hands of another. These to me centre around that most intangible of qualities, trust. ‘How to find a good editor?’ was a theme that came through a lot in the comments: ‘finding the right chemistry and a mutual respect’, ‘I worry that I might get the wrong editor who won’t see the book the way I do’, ‘[I’d worry] that the working relationship wouldn’t be strong’. I feel these come down to what the artist Louise Bourgeois called ‘the final achievement … communication with a person.’*
When I shared with her that I was working on this blog, writer Lauren McMenemy responded with an elegant reflection:
‘The relationship between author and editor is almost as important as that between the author and their story. The editor is the one that can get the piece polished – not perfected – and ready to set free, which is the author’s goal. The delicate balance between helpful and pushy is one the editor must carefully tread, but we as authors must also be in a mindset to trust our editor and know that we’re both working towards making the piece the best it can be.’
Taking the time to understand our client and their needs, having clear terms of service (so that both sides know what to expect) and making sure they feel they can trust our editorial expertise are all at the heart of a fulfilling relationship with our authors. If you can top that up with advice about what can get an agent interested and what can help an author get a foot in the door and win them a publishing deal, you’re guaranteed a host of satisfied clients. And your professional ego will thank you, too!
*Cited in Siri Hustvedt (2017) A Woman Looking at Men Looking at Women, London: Sceptre, 27.
I thank Sutton Writers, who hosted me at their meeting in January 2020 and provided invaluable insights which inspired this blog. Lauren McMenemy is one of the group’s coordinators.
If you’re an author worried about finding the right editor for your work, I’ve got some tips on ‘How to find an editor’.
Kasia Trojanowska is a copy-editor, proofreader and text designer, an Advanced Professional Member of CIEP. She’s incurably curious about the world of publishing and is always looking for ways to be more helpful to the editorial and writer communities. She writes about all things editorial on her website.
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Proofread by Andrew Macdonald Powney, Entry-Level Member.
Posted by Abi Saffrey, CIEP blog coordinator.
The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the CIEP.