For Editors: Some Dos and Don’ts
A Guest Post by Hope Vestergaard...
This is the first of two guest posts by author Hope Vestergaard. Stop back tomorrow for her Dos and Don'ts for Agents.
As an aspiring writer, I gobbled up any information about publishing that I could get my hands on. How to behave at conferences. How to query agents. The pros and cons of multiple submissions. And so it went. At some point, I became aware of a sarcastic, condescending tone many “helpful” sources took. I don’t know if my perspective shifted with experience, or if our culture (and the industry) just grew snarkier. I quickly wearied of so many don’ts.
Now writers were not only responsible for writing quality books, we were also responsible for marketing them. We weren’t supposed to annoy booksellers, reviewers, or powers that be in promotional venues, but we were supposed to hawk our book, and hard. School visits! Blogs! Conferences! Book Festivals! We were supposed to bend over backward for promotional opportunities, and we were generally expected to foot the bill.
Informed that the success of our books rests squarely on our shoulders, many writers seek out new venues and contacts, only to be told by our publishers, “Let us decide where you should direct your efforts.” And, even more maddeningly: “We put our resources behind books we expect to do well.” Isn’t that a chicken-or-egg situation? It seems publishers want it both ways: they maintain control of a book’s promotion, but the author retains total responsibility for its failure. It’s an endless game of chasing your own tail, if an author is to believe much of the advice proffered by insider sources.
I have a few books under my belt, and have gotten to know enough editors, agents, and seasoned authors that I feel comfortable vetting conflicting advice. But I still wonder about this wacky balance of power. One might get the impression that everyone in the industry is doing writers a favor. I wouldn’t swing to the other extreme and argue writers drive the whole business, but I do think the relationship should be framed as a symbiosis: all parties benefit from the cooperative arrangement. In the interest of a little more equity, I’ve compiled a list of Dos and Don’ts for those folks who are so fond of telling writers where we fall down on the job:
- Do give guidelines, and stick to them. If you say your response time is six weeks, find a way to meet it, or give a more reasonable estimate. If you are overwhelmed with subs and decide to go with an e-mail only, “no news is bad news” non-response policy, make sure that you have an auto-responder so submitters will know that their submission was actually received.
- Don’t take every opportunity to tell us how hard your job is. Most jobs are hard. Telling us how many submissions you get provides perspective, and telling people that you read new stuff on weekends and evenings helps writers be more patient. But leave it at that. If your job sucks so badly, please keep it to yourself or find a different job. (This is a policy I recommend for dealing with whiners of any profession, writers included.)
- Don’t string writers along. Many editors say they take longest to respond to manuscripts about which they are ambivalent—it’s easy to say no to an inappropriate query. Give yourself a 1-2 month time limit for these limbo manuscripts. If you haven’t figured out what they need in that amount of time, the considerate thing to do is to return them to the writers with a note that says something as simple as, “I don’t think this manuscript is quite there but I’m not sure how what it needs,” or even, “Not right for our list.”
- Do be direct with feedback. Don’t be judgmental. Consider the following real-life rejection examples:
“Your character was all over the page, and not believable. The plot was overblown and melodramatic, and the vampire thing has been done, done, done.”
“The writing could use some polish, and the storyline has been overdone.”
“This would give me nightmares. Do you really think preschoolers would want to read it?!”Versus:
“Not age-appropriate for the audience.”
Snark is funny. I employ it myself when venting with friends. I don’t snark when I am dealing with someone I’m in a position of power over, because that is disrespectful. When you feel a flash of sarcasm coming on, check yourself: Does my tone enhance this message? (as in, temper a hard thing to hear with a bit of sympathetic humor), or Will my tone make it difficult for the listener to get this very important message? as is the case when people feel picked on and defensive.
- Do keep your authors informed of progress (or reasons for lack thereof) on their project. Negative information is better than no information. We writers have active imaginations. We can come up with all kinds of terrible explanations for delays if we’re kept in the dark, or build ourselves up for disappointment if our egos fall at that end of the spectrum. Spare us!
- Don’t gush about your other writers and how much fun you have on the vacations you take together. Really, we can survive without this info. When you share an anecdote, ask yourself, “What feeling is this information likely to engender in my audience?” If you’ve barely been able to find time to have coffee with writer B, writer B does not want to hear about your shoe-shopping expedition with writer A. I promise.
- Do meet your deadlines. If circumstances beyond your control make it impossible to meet your turnaround times, please let us know, and adjust your expectations for our deadlines accordingly. Writers understand that there are all kinds of wrinkles in the production process, and we can often be flexible. But please don’t expect writers to pick up the slack for everyone else.
- Do let us know how you like to work. If you prefer phone calls over email, say so. If there is anything we can do to help you be a more effective editor – for example, limit emails to one question at a time, or title documents a certain way – by all means, we want to help.
- Do spell out your expectations for us regarding promotion before our book comes out. The more specific you are, the more effective we can be.