Wednesday, February 25, 2009

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?!”


“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.


Vodka Mom said...

Alice- I really loved this post. LOVED it.


Julia @ Hooked on Houses said...

As a writer myself, I found this post very refreshing--and right on the money. Thanks! :-)

Andrew Karre said...

Good post, Hope.

DaveG said...

Wow! This post was spot on! I've been a writer-editor for the past 30 years (27 years as a technical editor-writer for the corporate world and 30 years as a freelance writer-photographer for newspapers and magazines)--and these suggestions would be helpful for not only book publishers but also for magazine and newspaper editors.

The publishing world is changing - where once the publishers would handle the marketing and distribution of new writers' books, now even though they *say* they want to handle it, they also want more "footwork" from the writers as well. Catch-22. With electronic submissions... comes electronic production and distribution. eBooks. Kindle. I'm an editor not associated with any publishing house--I just help authors get their book manuscripts into a better condition so that they are more easily readable (I fix the grammar, typos, things missed by spell-check, and organization). I've been a freelance editor now for many years as well. More and more of the authors I'm working with are bypassing the standard publishers altogether and after getting their work cleaned up a bit are self-publishing-either through subsidy publishers or through venues such as or or some of the other online publishers. This enables the authors to get their work out without the hassles of the "traditional" publishers. Yup... times are changing.

Again... thank you so much for posting this commentary.

The Postcard Project said...

Thanks for your insightful advice, Hope.

janeyolen said...

You know--if the publisher would cut out HALF the meetings (a lot can be sorted out in email) then the editors could get more done. I know because when I was an editor NO ONE ever waited for more than a few weeks for word from me. And stuff I didn't want got sent back in a day.

Because authors are not in the position of power, it behooves editors to treat them with care and understanding. Many already do this. But not all. And it is the "not all" group who get talked about and give the rest a black eye.

Great post.

Jane Yolen

Kimberley Griffiths Little said...

Great post, Hope! You said all those things us writers are *thinking and muttering* in the quiet of our "offices", but never *say* out loud. ;-D

Suzanne Young said...

This was really excellent! I look forward to the next post from Hope!

Hope Vestergaard said...

Thanks, guys. Jane Yolen makes a good point about the "not all" group giving the others a black eye. I should say that the vast majority of editors and agents that I've worked with have been diligent and thoughtful! How else would I know the difference and feel confident asking for high standards across the board? ;)

Christy Raedeke said...

Wow - It's empowering to read a writer laying out some Dos and Don'ts for editors! Right on, Hope!

Heather Ayris Burnell said...

I enjoyed this post! Am looking forward to Do's and Don'ts for Agents.

Anonymous said...

Terrific advice for editors, Hope! I've been lucky enough to have one editor and a great one most of my career, but other writers I know and love haven't been treated as well as they deserve given their talent and diligence.

Val Hobbs

Stella said...

Spot on! I realize not all editors are like this - perhaps most of the aren't - but I think all of them should read your post. Thanks!

Aileen Leijten said...

I want to thank you for voicing the whole book marketing and promotion issue so well. It's really frustrating to feel the full responsibility of your book's success on your shoulders. When is there time to work on new projects? And how much can you really influence book sales with what you can do in that extra time that everybody has lying around?

Kelly Polark said...

Excellent post, Hope!

Joni said...

I agree, terrific post! Though I have to disagree on the feedback point, at least with the examples. "The writing needs polish" doesn't give most of us quite enough direction. "The character wasn't believable" does. I'm a big believer in fewer euphemisms and more bluntness in the words that express why a piece didn't work for that editor. The author can still choose to disagree or get second opinions.

Hope Vestergaard said...

Joni, I agree that very pointed feedback is most helpful, but I don't think editors or agents owe this to writers they haven't worked with yet. My "agents dos and don'ts" post from today has a bit more on that subject. That some editors and agents do give more detailed feedback speaks to their dedication and to the spark of something worthwhile in the writing. Thanks for weighing in.

K.A. Barson said...

Great post, Hope! I agree that editors or agents don't owe writers feedback unless they have a relationship, and we shouldn't expect it. However, I also agree with Joni that a comment about an unbelievable character gives the writer a jumping off point. And some editors are wonderfully gifted at pinpointing specific problems immediately and a single comment can change the direction of manuscript. Newbies might interpret a comment about the writing needing polish to mean that it only needs some surface revision. While "unbelievable character" indicates major flaws, like "you might want to take this back to the drawing board". As writers, we do look at the whole collection of feedback as directional clues. I know I don't want to keep subbing something that has major plot or character flaws. After all, polishing a turd doesn't make it any less...well, you know. But, overall the point to editors to be kind is appeciated, and the point to writers not to expect editorial letters is perfect. Thanks, Hope!


Suzanne Williams said...

Thanks for a great post, Hope. I enjoyed all the follow-up comments too. The expectation these days that writers do much of the promotion and marketing of their books--in addition to writing them--is something I'm grappling with. The time (and expense!) of doing both is definitely an added burden. As others have already said, your "Dos and Don'ts" are spot on.

Andi Carter said...

What a great post! Refreshing.