Independent Editing

Growing up, I was always a huge fan of Stephen King, Dean Koontz, and Michael Crichton–as authors went, those guys wrote the books and had the careers I wanted. Later, that list grew to include Neil Gaiman and myriad others. By then I’d grown serious about wanting to be a writer–even if I wasn’t yet serious about writing itself–and I’d begun to learn more about publishing. I’d begun to pick up writing magazines like Digests and Journals, and by the time I was a freshman in college I’d started submitting queries to literary agents. I didn’t know much about what publishing meant or what a contract might be, but I understood that, at least at that time, getting an agent was the first step in a long process that would hopefully ultimately culminate in a “very nice” publication contract, which means one for go-jillions of moneys.

Interestingly, as digital publishing has become a force of disruption, a lot of that is no longer true. If you want to get a book to readers, you can now, at least digitally, go through Amazon and Apple and Kobo to deliver ebooks to their stores. For that, you no longer need an agent. You no longer need a publisher, whether a huge corporation or a smaller press–you can do it yourself. Provided, if you want to get your book on shelves in a bookstore, you do for the most part still need to get an agent who will submit your manuscript to publishers, but at this point, it’s almost smarter to go to Amazon and Apple and Kobo and everyone else first. By publishing independently and getting books out there, you start to build a reputation (a name, a “platform,” a “brand”), and while the reputation you build may or may not lead to the sort of arrangement that gets your print books to bookstore shelves, who knows if that’s necessary?

The interesting thing to me is that the single most important element of publishing, whether with a corporation or on your own, remains, even if it’s the single element some people never even really consider, and one of which I wasn’t even aware until I started putting together a collection.

I’m talking about editing. And I wondered today if editing is going to change as much as publishing has–and if that may be one of the best aspects of all.

Let’s be honest: there are a few examples of editorial relationships that have become almost mythical. The most major is F. Scott Fitzgerald and Maxwell Perkins, which was perhaps a fine a partnership as could be, and which produced The Great Gatsby from Trimalchio in West Egg. There’s also Raymond Carver and Gordon Lish, which you can read more about here, at the New Yorker, as it discusses how Lish made “Beginners” into “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.”

It’s certainly a better title. Better story? Unsure. What’s “better” mean? Is there such a thing?

That’s digression.

Editing is a nuanced beast. I used to be an editor, of two clinical nursing journals, and I totally sucked at it. My red pen was heavier than the stock on which the journals were printed. I changed authors’ words without regard to their voice, always confident that, regardless of what they were trying to say, I could make it better. I think, for a long time, too, my lack of skill at editing made me think it wasn’t as necessary as it certainly is.

And then I realized, when I went to USC, that besides wanting to get published I could be a better writer.

When I published a collection of stories, essays, and poetry back in early 2007, I asked one of my classmates to look it over, in exchange for dinner and drinks. She agreed, and gave me some great notes on how to improve the collection. I sheepishly admit I didn’t take all her changes, but the changes I did make made the work better. If I’d been less insecure at the time, I might have realized that.

That same classmate–who’d since become my friend, and then my fiancee, and who is now my wife–edited Meets Girl, nearly four years later. By then we were living together, and I’d just gotten a Kindle and realized I could make this digital thing work, as I knew a little about html and coding. So she did, and there I took all her advice, and Meets Girl is way better for it.

Along the way, I’ve actually become better, myself, at editing, though I don’t edit my own work. I mean, I read over it and polish it as much as I can, but in the end I agree with the general sentiment that we writers are too close to our own work to effectively either see its flaws or understand how improve them. I’ve worked with a few of the authors Exciting has signed, and in so doing have preserved their voices and helped them make their books fulfill their vision, and I think that’s way more important than making them “better.”

Corporate publishers and those associated with them often claim the books produced by their process are better. They are the keepers of the gate through which they will not allow riffraff to pass, after all, and they claim that the work they do is essential to “literature” or “culture” or just making the reading experience as good as it can possibly be.

I don’t think they are. I don’t think corporations or agents are really necessary.

I think editors are, and sometimes I think the best editors are no longer tied up in that system.

We’ve all heard horror stories about that system. The author whose book is acquired by one editor who leaves for a different publisher just a couple months later, so the book gets passed on to another editor–and oftentimes these editors don’t actually do the hands-on work. I worked with a managing editor on those journals, and that editor often lamented to me that the time she got to spend actually editing had decreased as years had passed. A lot of editors at corporations are too busy attending meetings with marketing and promotions and managing profits and loss sheets to actually spend their time with the words. Not all, mind you, but a lot. And when that happens, they delegate the editing itself to their assistant, or maybe give the new intern a chance, or frequently they have a roster of freelance editors they use fairly often and they send the manuscript to them.

As publishing companies have incorporated and then become parts of conglomerates, their focus on great writing has declined while their focus on profits, revenue, and the bottom line has increased. That’s just the nature of operating businesses like they are.

What that yields, though, is an opportunity for authors and editors alike: independent editing. Independent authors need independent editors. Maybe even the same independent editors who make up that roster of freelance editors I just mentioned. Maybe that’s a great development, too, because maybe an author has a better chance of developing the sort of relationship that makes Trimalchio in West Egg into The Great Gatsby with an independent, freelance editor.