The editor looms large in publishing lore. She’s the celestial gatekeeper, the goddess who bestows fame and riches, the fairy godmother with the magic red pencil, the person who would be your new best friend if only she read your manuscript…
Okay, reality check.
Editors are mere humans like the rest of us, as varied in their tastes as we are, as prone to hopes and fears as we are, and as focused on their own careers as we are. They are not the Grail, attaching to one will not automatically bring you salvation or even fame and fortune, and failing to please one is not the end of your career. This is important to know because that hunted look editors get at conferences is almost always a product of authors flinging themselves at their feet with manuscripts and proposals determined that this editor right now will read and love the work when all this editor wants right now is a bathroom followed by a large drink with some kick to it.
So let’s regroup and look at the species again.
Editors are among the most overworked human beings on the planet. Coal miners don’t have to take their coal home with them on the weekends, loggers don’t get unsolicited trees in the mail, and no commercial fisherman was ever handed an extra net under the door of a restroom stall. They work impossible hours, often for impossible people, trying to achieve impossible outcomes, most of them for impossibly inadequate wages. Nobody in her right mind ever became an editor.
Which I think explains a lot.
Good editors are crazy, crazy in love with books. They love writing, they love publishing, they love talking to (some) writers, they love arguing about covers, they love scheming to make the lists, they go into stores just to rearrange the titles and into libraries just to snort the book dust. And their favorite (professional) fantasy is discovering new writers with talent and skill that they can transform into bestselling superstars.
But here’s the catch. Editors work for publishing houses and publishing houses are businesses and businesses have to make money or they fold. Which means editors have to choose books that will make money or they’ll get fired. Overall, this is a good thing. The more successful a publishing house is, the more money they’ll have to give writers. But it does mean that if an editor looks at your book and loves it but knows she can’t sell it, you’re out of luck. And that if she looks at a book she doesn’t like as well but knows she can sell a zillion copies of, she’ll buy it.
Before you cry, “Unfair,” let me ask you, why is it you want to be published? To get your work of art into as many hands as possible and make a lot of money, right? Well, that’s what the editor wants, too, and if she can’t see a way to do that with your story, it’s good for both of you that she rejects it. That gives you the chance to keep showing it to editors until you find the one who says, “I know how to market this sucker,” and takes you to the top. Or until tastes change and suddenly your unpopular topic is hot. You wait long enough, anything can happen.
So your job in submitting your novel is to find the editor who not only loves it but know how to sell it. How do you do that? By searching out the editors who have sold books that are in some way like yours, especially books with a similar voice, mood, story, characters, or theme. So you go through your bookcase and you pull out every book published in the past two years that you loved. Not that you liked, that you loved. You loved them because they struck a chord in you, the same chord (you hope) that they struck in their editors. Then find out who those editors are. Lots of authors thank their editors in the acknowledgments or dedicate books to them. More of them mention their editors on their websites. And if all else fails, call the publisher and ask. It’s not a secret, they’ll tell you.
Then look at the list of editors you’ve compiled and rank them. Is there somebody on there that appears more than once? She’s a pretty good bet to share your tastes, so put her at the top of your list. If there are no repeat editors, are there repeat houses? That is, are several of your faves from the same publisher? That’s going to be a good place for you to query first. Another way is to arrange your list in the order of the books you liked best. Then if you can, go to conferences where the editors on your list will be talking and listen to them to see if any of them seem especially great, or if any of them strike you as not right for you. Ask around about them at chapter meetings or on internet lists. Do the same kind of digging you did in your agent search. You’re not looking for any editor, you’re looking for your editor. Once you’ve got your ranked list, you’re ready to send in your manuscript starting with the name at the top.
Except not yet.
If you send an unrequested book to a publisher, it goes into the slush pile, the stack of unsolicited manuscripts that arrive at an editor’s office every day. I’ve been in offices where these envelopes are stacked along the walls, reaching the ceiling and toppling over. When you consider that an editor has to meet with senior editors, junior editors, the marketing department, and a thousand other people, has to oversee ad campaigns and PR plans, has to placate agents and talk authors off ledges, has to negotiate contracts and sell books to the sales force at conferences and read submissions from authors under contract and then edit books she’s already bought, that slush pile is not going to be high on her To Do List. Some houses just pitch everything when the stacks reach critical mass, others buy pizza for the editorial assistants and tell them to go through the envelopes as fast as possible, but nobody reads the slush pile with any real hope. I remember hearing that one house figured out they bought one manuscript for every thousand in the their slush. It wasn’t cost effective, so they stopped accepting unsolicited manuscripts. Yes that’s depressing but not for you because you are going to skip right over the slush with your brilliant query letter.
A query letter is a selling tool: You’re trying to show the editor that your book is new, different, exciting, and very, very commercial. You also want her to know that you picked her especially because you like her taste in fiction, because you loved the books she edited, because you want to work with her . You’re selling not only your book, but also your enthusiasm for her in particular. And you’re going to do it all in three short paragraphs, trying to keep the letter to one page, two at the most, because she’s a busy woman and you don’t want to waste her time. You have to grab her attention, make your point, and get out.
- Paragraph 1: Establish a relationship with the editor by telling her how much you liked the book she edited (always tell the truth). Stress the things you liked that are similar to your story. Then tell her that you’ve written a novel and you’d like to send her the proposal. (Do not say you write just like the author of the book–she’s already got one of those–or that your book is better.)
- Paragraph 2: Imagine that the editor is putting together a book ad or a pitch to the sales force and she’s asked you for the copy. You want to sell the things that make your book stand out from the crowd, so show her the fascinating protagonist, the powerful antagonist, the riveting conflict, the irresistible setting, all in your captivating and unique voice. Write a blurb or a tagline that grabs her and that she can use to grab readers. Show her your expertise on the subject: If you’ve written a medical thriller and you’re a doctor, mention it; if it’s a book about a cooking school murder and you’ve been to cooking school, tell her that. Support it with other people’s quotes; if you’ve got a friend who’s a published writer or an expert in a field your book addresses and who will give you a blurb, put that in. Remember, the editor would love to publish a good book, but she needs to publish a book that will sell, so show her how commercial it will be.
- Paragraph 3: Give her every way possible to contact you: SASE (self-addressed stamped envelope), e-mail, phone number, fax number, pony express, whatever. And thank her for giving you hours of pleasure with the book she edited (always tell the truth) and for considering your book.
If she likes the writing in your letter (it’s your first writing sample, after all) and thinks the idea is marketable, it’s easy for her to write “Sure, send the proposal” on the letter, and shove it in the SASE back to you, and you’ll have hurdled the first barrier: You’re out of the slush pile.
Now you have to write a proposal that will knock her socks off. A proposal has one big drawback: It’s long. She may end up reading it on the train or on her lunch break or over the weekend, so it has to be excellent because she doesn’t have time to waste on it. Therefore your proposal will have three brief parts: a cover letter, the first pages of your story, and a synopsis.
The cover letter is to remind her that she requested your ms and to refresh her memory on everything you put in your query letter. It’s really a revamp of your query, this time thanking her for asking to see your work. Don’t expect her to remember your query–you would not believe how much stuff this woman reads–but make it different enough that she’s not reading the same letter.
The second part of your proposal is the first thirty to fifty pages of your book (stop at the end of a scene). An editor can usually tell by the end of the first page if she’s got a winner, so you have to have a great first page followed by a lot of other great pages. This is where you show her you can write a can’t-put-it-down story. Do not say, “The beginning’s a little slow, but it gets really good later.” If the beginning is slow, there is no later.
In particular, this writing sample tells the editor that you can:
- open a book with a strong hook that puts the protagonist on the page in trouble evoking the sympathy of the reader
- structure scene (that is, there’s a clear protagonist, the action rises in escalating tension, and the scene ends with a clear climax and transition)
- handle dialogue so that each character has a distinct voice and sounds real to the reader’s ear
- pace action so that the tension rises from scene to scene, propelling the reader through the story
- establish and maintain your own unique voice throughout, the voice that will make you a bestseller
- make her want to read on so that she’s sorry she doesn’t have the rest of the book.
Thirty to fifty pages is a lot of pages, so make sure they’re great pages that keep her reading.
The third part of your proposal is your synopsis, a summary of the story’s events that shows the editor that you can plot. Writing a synopsis is one of the hardest things to do in publishing although it’s a little easier to do after the story is done because that’s when you can see it as a whole. The biggest mistake in synopsis writing is doing a ten page synopsis, nine pages of which tells back story and the first chapter, and the last of page of which says, “And then trouble ensues,” so concentrate on telling the entire story giving equal emphasis to all parts. One way to do that is to write a paragraph for each chapter, assuming you don’t have more than twenty or so chapters in your book. Another is to divide your book into acts, and write a page for each act (Establish, Build Stakes, Build Higher Stakes, Resolution). Another way is to write an outline using turning points. Start with nine index cards. At the top write the following:
- The Trouble Starts.
- The protagonist makes a plan to cope with the trouble.
- The Trouble Gets Worse.
- The protagonist regroups and presses on harder.
- The Point of No Return: The protagonist has changed too much to go back.
- The protagonist is pushed to the brink and struggles even harder.
- The protagonist appears to have lost.
- The protagonist fights on because there’s nothing else she can do.
- The trouble ends.
Now make notes under each of those points as to what actions take place that describe or result from that situation. Then write no more than a page, preferably half that, for each point. Remember, your synopsis is there to show an editor that you can tell a story, so concentrate on events in cause and effect order, escalating to a climax. Don’t stop to explain theme or back-story, just show her the plot, writing it in your voice, using the synopsis as another opportunity to sell her on your writing.
So now you’re ready to send it out, complete with another SASE. How long will it take to get an answer? Hard to tell. I’d say that after a month, you can e-mail and ask about it. At this point, it’s a solicited manuscript, not slush, so a polite inquiry is completely within the bounds of acceptable behavior. At six weeks, I’d say it’s fine to drop the editor a line saying that you understand she’s very busy, but that you’re going to submit to another editor also and then move on to the next name on your list.
So why not just submit to multiple editors to begin with? As long as you make it clear in the submission letter that you’re sending the proposal to other editors, you can. The problem is that if you’ve written her to tell her that you’re targeting her in particular because of the books she’s edited, telling her you’re submitting to other editors at the same time undercuts that by telling her that she’s really not that special. And you do have to tell her if the proposal submitted is a multiple submission, that’s just polite.
My personal stance on this is that it’s a bad idea to be in a hurry to get published. Your concentration should be on writing the best book possible and then finding the best of all possible editors to publish it. If there’s an editor who stands out for you, it makes sense to target her first, concentrating on her and letting her know that she’s your first choice. You are not throwing your book at the wall to see where it sticks; you’re looking for a publishing partner who will take care of you and your stories for a long time. Your goal is not to find any editor who will publish you, it’s to find the right editor to publish you.
So if your first choice rejects you, regroup. Read the letter she sends, looking at any reasons she gave for rejecting you. If she didn’t give any, you were just a completely bad match for her, so she’s off the list, but if she gave you some pointers, look at your manuscript again. Do not make any changes just because she said to, but do look at the places she tripped in the story and see if there’s something there that could be made better. And while you’re doing that, study the next editor on your list and then send your query letter to her. You liked her a lot, too. You’re not lying when you tell her that you think the books she edited are special, that’s how she got on your list. Repeat until your book gets better or you write a new and better book to pitch, and an editor accepts you.
Yes, that’s all probably going to take a long time. With any luck, your career will also be long. Getting it off to a good start with the right editor for you is worth the extra work because once you’re published, the real nightmare starts, and you’re going to want somebody to light a candle while you curse the bad cover, the nasty reviews, the late royalty check… but that’s another column.
Take your time and search for the editor who understands you and loves your work. Just as in hiring an agent, you deserve nothing less.