Paul Doiron here—
There’s an advertisement I see in magazines for Breitling watches that always cracks me up. It shows a picture of John Travolta wearing a bomber jacket and staring manfully out at the reader. The tagline reads: PROFESSION: PILOT CAREER: ACTOR. Travolta is, in fact, a highly accomplished pilot. I’m willing to wager that he’s far more capable in the air than most of the commercial aviators into whose hands we regularly entrust our lives. It’s just that: come on, we’re talking about Vinnie Barbarino here.
Probably my sardonic reaction is also colored by the suspicion that I myself am fodder for a Breitling ad, except that mine would read PROFESSION: WRITER CAREER: EDITOR. I participate on this blog as the author of two crime novels, but when I go out in public, what I usually hear is, “Aren’t you the editor of Down East?” (Sometimes, it’s Yankee.) I’m actually fine with that. Magazine editors are rarely public figures, and in a place larger than Maine (aside from the fecund cultural petri dish of Manhattan), a famous editor is the definition of an oxymoron.
Being an editor by day and a novelist by night isn’t like being Batman. My two identities are so similar they doesn’t register with most people. But the distinction has meant a lot to me. In particular, having a career as an editor—of both magazines and books—prepared me in crucial ways for my life as an author. Most professional writers look at editors as exotic creatures of the sort you might find in a nineteenth-century bestiary. Identifying characteristics: intelligent but inexplicably dense at times; highly opinionated and yet maddeningly unable to articulate the specifics of their criticisms; gossipy when it comes to any subject relating to their industry but also prone to long, disquieting silences; underpaid saints capable of recognizing genius who never do enough to advance the causes of their writers against those no-good sales and marketing hirelings. As an editor by trade, I live a truly compromised life as a novelist. How can I piss and moan like a regular book author when I have sat on the other side of that crumb-dusted, Diet-Coke-stained, manuscript-littered desk?
Surely, then, I must have some useful advice for writers who have not similarly enjoyed my unique, dual perspective? As a matter of fact, I do. Thank you for asking. Here are four lessons I have learned as an editor that have served me well as a working writer:
1. It’s Not About You: That staggering work of heart-breaking genius you wrote? Remember how you labored over every punctuation mark, workshopped every chapter with your wizened grad-school professor, reduced each member of your book group to a sobbing puddle? Yes, your novel is a masterpiece. No, it’s not what we’re necessarily looking for. What we want is a book we know how to publish. However it might look from the outside, our business is our business. A prospective author will never know which similar books we’ve already signed or how we’re trying to rebalance our list with more high-margin crafts and gardening titles (despite what we said in those ancient submissions guidelines The Writer’s Market published), or which months our mystery-loving editor will be on maternity leave and not available to edit any new titles.
2. Except When It’s About You That staggering work of genius? In truth, it’s not that staggering. It’s good—don’t get me wrong!—and with some extensive revisions it might even acquire certain attributes of genius. But you as an author (or me as an author) need to be open to hearing some constructive criticism first. I have had the privilege of editing writers who have won every award but the Nobel, and let me tell you—they submit sentences pockmarked with typos, too, and not all of their transitions are particularly well-lubricated. A good editor can see the beautiful statue inside the block of marble. He or she wants nothing more than to help you achieve your Platonic ideal of a book.
3. The Sales and Marketing People Are Your Friends. These days, everyone talks about “platforms.” Does an author Tweet? Does she have a Facebook page, a YouTube Channel, a televised bedroom on the Jersey Shore? The reason people talk about platforms is because books (especially novels) are ridiculously hard to sell without a gimmick or built-in audience. Newspaper editors and TV producers don’t give a toot about novels, for the most part, unless a celebrity is somehow involved. To get your book noticed, what you need is a posse. You need an entourage: someone who’s got your back. Those sales and marketing people want to be your fans. It just makes their lives so much easier (and their wallets so much heavier) if they really love your book, if they find you personally charming and know bookstore owners and radio hosts will too. You become an easy sell by doing two things 1.) Writing the best book you can; 2.) Taking their advice seriously even when it seems uncomfortable, absurd, or overtaxing.
4. But Only If You’re Their Friend. As an author, you don’t have to go along with every idea your editor, publisher, or publicist advances (that’s why you need a good literary agent: to advise you and protect you and help you pick your battles). But you do have to participate, for crying out loud. I’m astonished by the number of writers who come into Down East saying, “I don’t see the point of doing readings” or “You’ll cover all my first-class travel expenses, right, including for events I set up on my own?” (Um, no. We have a staff that likes to get paid, too.) To gain attention from readers in this age of multimedia noise and shrinking attention spans, everyone needs to work hard—especially the author. It’s your book after all. If you don’t love it best, who will? You need to show up at those occasionally dismal readings, you need to sacrifice a Saturday to go on that low-frequency community radio show, you need to answer your electronic fan mail, and sometimes you even need to write an overlong blog post.
Because you don’t just want a profession as a writer; you want a career.
Number one makes me think of my first book contract (with your employer, Paul.) I called the publisher, gave him my spiel, and his words were, “I was just waiting for an idea like that.” Call it fate, synchronicity, good timing — who knows. I’m sure even John Travolta had some lucky breaks along the way from Vinnie to icon. It’s what one does with them that counts.
Great post, Paul! It’s amazing how many people really, really want to be published writers, but don’t want to learn the first thing about the publishing business.