Friends of Smith Libraries Forum
Authors, Agent, and Editor
Ponder the Book as 'Product'
By Edward Shanahan
Shaping the Book, a lively tutorial the other night sponsored by the Friends of the Smith Libraries, took readers between the covers and behind the business of book publishing.
And what fun it was as Northampton novelist Elinor Lipman and non-fiction author Barry Werth joined literary agent Jennifer Gates and noted editor Richard Todd of Ashfield in demystifying the puzzle of converting an idea into a physical object known as a book.
Stripped of all illusions, book-writing and publishing are a business and what is produced, in the final analysis, according to Werth, is “a product.”
So, the insights were not always pretty, as the realities and demands of commerce, it turns out, often trump art.
But above all the panelists stressed that bringing a book to fruition by advancing the author’s ideas and skills and shaping them into an actual book that ends up in stores and on bookshelves is a collaborative effort, involving writer, agent and editor.
In today’s publishing world, it is all but impossible that a manuscript by an unknown author that arrives in the “slush pile” of unsolicited manuscripts will be read, let alone accepted and published, according to Gates.
Thus, the first step in that process is for the writer to retain a literary agent to help market the book. Agents, who are industry insiders, understand, through experience, the arcane folkways of editors and corporations that publish most books.
But before all of that can happen, the agent works with the author
to shape a well-crafted, succinct, and possibly persuasive proposal explaining what the unwritten book is about and why it should be published. This proposal is used to try to convince a huge corporation to pry open the firm’s checkbook and turn over its editing resources to the author.
Both of the authors on the panel said their experience with agents had been positive.
“I rely of her,” said Werth of his agent, “to be my champion.” The agent is a “guiding hand in ways I don’t understand. You can’t do this by yourself.” In other words, the agent handles the commerce, so he can write his book.
Lipman agreed. Agents perform “little acts of love and kindness, they do the dirty work for you, anything to do with money and promotion, things that are a little bit unsavory.”
As the widely admired, long-time book editor who handled the works of such local authors as Jonathan Harr and Tracy Kidder as well as scores of other well-known authors, Todd took a slightly less favorable but accepting view of agents.
He acknowledged the “absolute centrality” of agents, but said he could remember a time when this was less true in publishing. Editors and agents used to be “enemies” but now there is a symbiotic relationship between them. “Editors don’t like writers all that much, ” he said with some irony. “It is easier to deal with agents.”
“Most of my friends happen to be writers,” he said, “but as a group” they are not ideal to work with. From his experience, Todd said it is best for the writer if the editor becomes involved from the “start of the project.” Writing and publishing a book is so complicated that when “you get done you don’t want to tear it apart” because the book did not work out as intended.
That, he said, is like calling in an architect after a house is built. “The best thing a writer can do it learn how to use an editor.”
Lipman said once an author has a track record an editor is more likely to buy a book without seeing even a partial manuscript. In her case, she said, mostly “they want to know where I’m going,” she said. At that point, the start of a work on a new novel, “I don’t know where I’m going,” she admitted.
And Werth recounted struggling with the “architecture” of his book “The Scarlet Professor” about the late Smith College professor, Newton Arvin, which came out a few years ago. He had spent two years on the research and six months of writing and was about half-way through the manuscript when his editor phoned to say: “Barry, I’m confused,” explaining that her confusion was caused by the complicated time frame Werth was using to tell the story. So he reworked the book in a more straightforward time-line. “Chronology is your friend,” he concluded.
But before the editor finally becomes involved, the agent can have a significant editorial role, too. Gates told of working with a client whose book went through some 40 drafts before the author “finally figured out what his book was about.” And at that point, the final manuscript bore no relationship to his original book proposal.
Todd said that his role as an editor mainly involves “the structure” of the book “more than anything else,” and “avoiding bad decisions.”
Lipman said that in her experience, at the risk of dealing in stereotypes, that women editors “are a little more hovering and mothering.”
That ”doesn’t sound like me,” Todd responded. As for physical editing, he said his contribution usually consists of making “squiggles” in the margin which indicate to the writer that there is “something a little off here, something’s bothering me.”
Trying to downplay his role, Todd said much of editing “is small potatoes” and his suggestions only “nitty gritty stuff – how does the voice of the narrator come across.”
Although some editors propose topics to writers, Todd said he has never come up with a “good idea for a book,” because he does not believe it makes sense to think in “market terms.”
Responding a question from the audience as to whether the editing process is being compromised by the increasingly corporate nature of book publishing, Lipman and Werth said they continue to receive sold support from their editors.
The key is to “get proper attention” for your book “in house,” Werth said. That means relying on your editor to be “committed” so your book “gets fair attention inside.”
Todd said in earlier, simpler times 8 or 10 editors would read a manuscript and decisions would be reached in a leisurely, collegial fashion. This is no longer the case in the face of intense in-house competition among editors.
Today an author needs to have an editor with “sharp elbows” who will advocate vigorously on behalf of his author’s book in competition with other editors of the firm who push their authors.
Moderator for the well-attended program in the Neilson Library Browsing Room was Michael Thurston, associate professor of English at Smith.
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