What does an editor do? First point of call, as ever, Google! Which prompts the dictionary definition. To put it simply:
Editor – ‘a person who edits, or selects and revises, material for publications, films, etc’.
But, and to put it bluntly:
Editor – ‘there’s a whole lot more to it than a dictionary definition‘.
Following the recent interview mini-series of ‘what does it take to become a traditionally-published fantasy author (2017)?’, I decided to explore one of the most fascinating aspects of publishing (or at least, it is to me): that of the role of the editor, and the process of editing.
I met Julie Crisp at a launch party for John Gwynne’s Malice, held in Goldsboro books, way-back-when in 2013. I’ll be the first to admit, as an industry-outsider looking in, I didn’t know what to expect when I met an editor. From what I’d seen on social media (first mistake, trusting that!) I assumed (second mistake, ass-out-of-you-and-me) that editors were going to be murderers of manuscripts, wielders of wordsmithing-wrath, and sorcerers of spelling-punctuation-grammar.
I was wrong. They’re heroes.
Yes, there’s a dark-art to editing – as much magic as it is a craft. The dreaded ‘red pen’ is not only a sword, it’s a shield, one with which the editor wields to enable the writer in their quest to publishing-dom. And the one getting murdered isn’t the manuscript, it’s anyone who gets in the editor’s way, as they champion the cause of their chosen!
So, when I pulled together a list (albeit short – which made me realise that editors are unsung heroes in some regards) of editors I’d like to interview, Julie’s name leapt off the page at me (less of a page, more of a torn notepad scrap, though fittingly I had written in red pen). As busy as she is, having parted ways with Tor UK as an Editorial Director to set up and run her own literary agency, providing agent, editing and script doctoring services, Julie very kindly agreed to answer a few of my questions!
ME: Hi Julie, thanks for take time out of the busy schedule to talk about the role of the mighty, mystical, and magnificent ‘Editor’. First, before we begin, in 50 words or less, who are you, what do you do, and something/special an interesting fact about you? Go!
JC: I’m the Samurai with a red pen! Seriously, though, I’m just someone who loves books, wanted to work with books from a young age and has been lucky enough to do so. Interesting fact about me? I wrote to Jim Will Fix it asking if I could be Wonder Woman for the day – sure glad he never answered that letter! I do, however, have a Wonder Woman costume I drag out for Halloween… 🙂
So, I joked that the role of the ‘Editor’ was mighty, mystical and magnificent, but in actual fact it is. It’s mighty, because you gals and guys wield a heck of a lot of power. It’s mystical, because to those outside of the industry, it’s magical (damn, should’ve used that one). And it’s magnificent because…LOOK AT ALL THE MAGNIFICENT BOOKS!
Seriously, if you had to summarise the role of the ‘Editor’ how would you do so?
JC: It’s someone who is a champion for their authors. Who doesn’t possess an ego – is happy to work in the shadows and who is silver-tongued and wants to do the very best for the authors they look after. Diplomacy, patience and a good sense of humour are pretty essential. As is a willingness to know when to stand your ground and when to concede gracefully.
What made you want to become an Editor? And how did you become one?
JC: I always wanted to work with books. I devoured a book a day as a child – my local library was my refuge. I just didn’t know what job possibilities were out there for someone like me. I couldn’t see myself as a librarian or teacher. Then at University while doing my English degree I looked into it all a bit more and thought that editing would suit me very nicely. I worked in any job that would bring me closer to that goal – I was a reporter for a small internet-based company to begin with, then got a job as an editorial assistant at Hodder and Stoughton, emigrated to Oz and did three years as an Editor over there, then came back and spent nine years working my way up the ladder at Pan Macmillan.
To dispel some of the mystics surrounding the profession, as an Editor, what’s the one thing that people (authors or prospective authors in particular) don’t know about your job, but you’d like to provide an insight into?
JC: Editing – in fact any job in publishing really, isn’t a career. It’s a life choice. The hours are long, the pay is small and you’re not going to gather fame or fortune in this particular industry. BUT you will end up doing a job you adore and working with colleagues, authors and novels you love and respect.
As an editor, what’s the most rewarding part of your job?
JC: Probably the most rewarding part of my job is, as above, working with authors I would read for pleasure normally. And getting paid to do it. What’s not to like? I really enjoy seeing a script when it first comes in and knowing that any input I have into it will, hopefully, help to make it a better book. And while, it is, of course, all of the author’s hard work that makes it such the great read it is – I like to think that some of my suggestions have helped to shape it. Seeing a book you’ve worked on on the bookshelves and, especially in genre, meeting readers who have then loved reading it, that really makes your blood sing.
And on the flipside, what’s the hardest part of your job?
JC: The hardest part is when a book and author you believe in doesn’t work out commercially. That is heartbreaking!! You feel a sense of responsibility to the author, to their writing, and a huge frustration that the ‘market’ can’t see the books for the wonder they are. But sometimes, unfortunately, no matter how much you believe in a book and how hard you work to sell it – it doesn’t always come together the way it should.
So, stepping away from the big questions – what’s a typical day in the office look like?
JC: Well it’s a little different for me now as I cross my editing with being a literary agent. And while they’re flip sides of the same coin – the work can be a little different. A typical day for me though is answering emails first thing, checking out any promising submissions, if I have a client or script in I’m editing I’ll then sit down and crack on with that. That can take anything from a few days to a few weeks. It depends on the level of work that needs doing. Then there’s admin, phone calls and all of this while also trying to be a mum to my five year old and ten month old. It’s a constant juggle and challenge but whoever wants a boring 9-5 job really shouldn’t be looking at working in publishing. 🙂
On the note of ‘typical’ let’s talk commissioning. What is it about a MS that makes it stand out to you?
JC: It’s the voice, the characters – something in it just connects with you and you can’t put it down. I remember when reading Malice by John Gwynne for the first time – it was over the Christmas period and, while I should have been spending time with my family, I remember just curling up on a sofa and being hugely resentful when anyone interrupted my reading. When a submission turns from ‘work’ into ‘pleasure’ reading then you know you’re onto something special.
Everyone loves a metric. How many MS’ would you say you rescue from the slush, but then how many actually ‘make it’?
JC: As an agent I get about 7-10 scripts a week. From that I’ve taken on seven clients in 18 months. That gives you some sense of what we’re looking at. Of those clients, four have now been placed (announcements to follow shortly!!) and the other three are still to go out on submission. As an editor it’s the same – you get an equivalent number of submissions from agents and you’ll take on maybe three-four new authors a year depending on what your list size allows. So it really is a numbers game.
So, once you’ve picked an MS from the fold, what’s the typical treatment that it receives? In a recent mini interview series with several fantasy debut authors, it was really interesting to see the different experiences each MS went through in terms of editorial amendments, and how these impacted the lengths of a story, for example.
JC: It really depends on how much work needs doing to it. I typically would read a script through once, making some general notes as I went through. Then I’d go back through more carefully marking up the script for both line and structural work. I’ve made all sorts of changes to manuscripts from cutting 80K words, to suggesting killing off characters the author loves, revising endings, changing plot threads – all sorts. But all of it I make very clear, is suggestion, I work with the author to shape the book – not dictate how it should be changed. There’s back and forth and ideas bounced off one another – it’s a partnership. There’s respect, and give and take on both sides. At the end of the day it’s the author’s book and they have to be happy with what’s been done to it. But there’s also a commercial reason for most suggestions made in trying to make a novel as accessible as possible to the widest audience as possible.
With wordcount in mind, being one of the factors in making a story a book, what other factors make or contribute to a marketable product?
JC: It’s the voice and writing that make a good read. The package all helps that; if you have the right cover, the right marketing and PR for exposure – but you can have all of that with bells on and if the novel doesn’t grab the reader’s attentions then, unfortunately, it doesn’t work. Then at other times you can have a story that just grabs you – have none of the big campaign backing behind it – and word of mouth takes off and makes it a mammoth success. If publishers could predict that and bottle it – they’d be very happy. But no one knows, really, what’s going to fire a very fickle market’s imagination. We can only hope that if we love it – other people will as well.
Within the fantasy space, is there anything in particular that you believe traditional publishers are looking for? More dragons, non-western settings, strong female leads, diverse casts, complex magic systems?
JC: Strong female writers, diversity and originality. While we all want epic fantasy because that’s a market that always seems to hold steady – things like Grimdark seem to be starting to tail off. Non-western settings are always interesting, but again, like any novel – it’s going to be the voice and characters that sell it – the setting is incidental.
On that note, do you think there’s any area of the fantasy genre that’s on decline? And why do you think they’re declining?
JC: As above, from what I’ve heard Grimdark is starting to tail off a little. I suspect because society is so ‘grim at the moment that readers want more positive characters – something not quite as dark. But who knows – these things are so cyclical – what worked ten years’ ago will probably be back on the ascending in five years’ time.
Now, to put you in the spotlight a little, which of all the books you’ve worked on is your favourite, and why?
JC: I don’t do favourites. I love ALL the authors I’ve worked on. I wouldn’t have taken them on if I didn’t.
It’d be rude not to ask – but is there a book in you? I mean, we all have a story to tell, will you write one?
JC: Who has the time to write? I’m too busy editing!! I don’t know is the honest answer – sometimes I have ideas and think I really should try and get that down, but I never seem to have the drive that other writers do. I suspect that, as a writer, I’d never get past the first chapter and would just edit myself out of a story! I think I’m happier wielding the red pen and helping authors shape their books rather than trying to pen one of my own.
With writing in mind as we come to a close, and not to hijack a question that everyone asks…but I’m still going to, what advice would you give to a) would-be editors, and b) would-be authors?
JC: Think for both I would say think very carefully: this is a life choice. Not a job choice. Both involve long-hours, little in the way of remuneration and fair amount of frustration on both parts. On the other hand – if you’re a true writer then there’s no way you can’t NOT write. And being published is a big bonus – but it’s not the be all and end all. And if you’re an editor then be prepared to fight; fight to take on books you believe in, fight to push your authors, fight your way through the ranks – it’s not so much a glass ceiling as concrete reinforced by Adamantium. But again, if you love books, if you love writing, then there’s really no better job – I can’t imagine doing anything else.
You can find out more about Julie and her services on her website.