The place of the editor in literary production is an ambiguous and often invisible one. As readers, we may notice their role only when a certain lack of editorial presence is felt in the books that we read (for instance, in many self-published works on Amazon). While, as writers, editors can seem to be the gatekeepers of publishing itself – more so, perhaps, than literary agents.
Commissioning editors, for instance, are the ones who will judge whether or not a work is good enough for selection. And, as many writers will know, this is a judgement that can often end in rejection. After all, even the greatest writers of all times had their work rejected by editors who just thought it wasn’t the right fit for their publishing firm. Just think of Peter J. Bentley, the editor of Bentley & Son Publishing House, who famously turned down Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, asking the author: “First, we must ask, does it have to be a whale?”
Meanwhile, there is an art to proofreading and good editorial work (often also conducted by commissioning editors, as well as editorial assistants and teams within a publishing company). Many litterateurs will have heard, for instance, of Gordon Lish – Raymond Carver’s editor, who is known by some as crafting the best bits of seminal works such as What we talk about when we talk about love from the ‘working manuscript’ Carver had originally given him.
Yet while editors play such a crucial role in how literary works are acquired, developed and disseminated, it is a craft and role that is often ignored. This is no good at all; either for readers or for writers hoping that their manuscript will be judged positively by these literary gatekeepers to publication.
So what exactly is it that editors within the publishing sector actually want?
Fortunately, there’s a podcast for that
What Editors Want is a new podcast where we hear straight from industry-leading editors about what they look for in a book and author.
In the series, Unbound’s Philip Connor interviews a different editor from the world of publishing each week. It is aimed at readers who want to hear the behind-the-scenes story of how their favourite books get made, and aspiring authors who want to know how to get published.
Connor has spoken to some of the biggest names in publishing and small independent presses that are taking a dynamic and innovative approach to making books. Along the way he has met the editors behind Nobel and Booker Prize-winning authors, ground-breaking nonfiction (from The Panama Papers to Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race), with everything from kid’s books to cookbooks in between.
In each episode, they’ll be discussing questions like whether or not you need a literary agent to get published, the importance of literary prizes and reviews, and whether editors can spot a bestseller.
The problem with publishing
Speaking about the podcast, Connor says:
“publishing has a massive problem with a lack of diversity – it is staffed almost exclusively by middle-class white people and of course this means there is a huge lack of representation in which books get published. My dream is that this podcast will make the world of books more approachable and inclusive for the authors and publishing professionals of tomorrow by giving them access for the first time to learning about the career paths of industry-leading editors, and how they choose their books.”
Check it out
Episode 1 featured Faber & Faber’s Louisa Joyner discussing books like Call Me By Your Name, Shock of the Fall and Milkman.
You can find it now in all the usual podcast places (iTunes, Spotify etc.) or via this link.
Credit for the images in this article goes to Patrick Tomasso (via Unsplash) for the featured image, and to Phil Connor and Unbound for the ‘What Editors Want’ image.