Sunday, October 26, 2008

FEATURE The Insider Deal

What is it like when editors become authors? Do they find difficulty in adjusting when the shoe is on the other foot? JANET TAY explores the pros and cons of editors-turned-authors being familiar with the publishing industry before publishing their first book with three publishing heavyweights

LIKE IT OR NOT, book editors have to be aware of market considerations when accepting or rejecting manuscripts. Sales figures, market trends, how marketable an author is in terms of looks, age and credentials all feature in such decision-making. Profit margins dictate that a publishing house is to be run, to a large extent, as a business like any other, while trying to maintain a balance of integrity, professionalism and profitability.

By and large, publishing can be a hit-or-miss industry. Sufficient market survey or promotion efforts may help in researching buying and reading trends, or even help to determine a pattern by swaying readers to specific genres through extensive publicity events, but it is often difficult to predict what kind of books would sell and to ascertain a pattern in the reading tastes of the book-buying public. One ends up knowing the industry inside out, having to not only be skilled enough to spot a potential bestseller but also know what kind of books to avoid publishing.

What then of editors who make the transition to being a published author? Would the knowledge gained from being involved in the book publishing, editing, reviewing industry be advantageous or an impediment to an author? Offhand, it’s tempting to extol its advantages. It seems natural that knowing the pitfalls of publishing and having the ability to discern good literature from bad should equip potential authors who are editors in the process of writing books of their own. However, a 1989 New York Times article by Eleanor Blau seems to indicate otherwise. Marty Asher, at the time editor-in-chief of Vintage Books, said that “too much knowledge is paralysing” and that “it’s easier to criticize a book than to finish it.” Blau also quoted James D. Landis, who was editor-in-chief of William Morrow & Company then, who said that knowing the publishing industry well would be “a lousy way to go about writing unless you’re writing just to sell books.”

In an interview with, Thomas McCormack, the author of The Fiction Editor, the Novel, and the Novelist, in reply to the question of whether fiction writers should start a career in publishing to support themselves, said that despite the examples of working editors who were also flourishing novelists (like Michael Korda and E.L. Doctorow), “no signal is given off when a would-be writer enters publishing and his ambition is smothered by the demands of working with the manuscripts of others all the time” and if a writer “can find a sustaining job elsewhere, [he] wouldn’t urge going into publishing.”

I decided to interview Marie Arana (Cellophane, American Chica, The Writing Life and the forthcoming Lima Nights), currently the editor of Book World, the book review section of The Washington Post; David Davidar (The House of Blue Mangoes and The Solitude of Emperors), publisher of Penguin Canada; and Erica Wagner (Seizure, Gravity and Ariel’s Gift), the literary editor of The Times, to find out whether being ‘insiders’ in the publishing industry have benefited them in having their own work published.

When asked whether their professional experience (Arana has been a book editor, publisher, literary editor, book critic and novelist; Davidar is a publisher, an editor and a novelist; Wagner is a literary editor, novelist and short-story writer) was an advantage or impediment to writing and publishing literary fiction, Arana says that in many ways, it is a disadvantage. “When I’m promoting a recently published book, for instance, people in the media are more likely to want to talk to me about my role as a book review editor rather than about the book at hand.” She also has strict rules about conflicts of interest so her book jackets never have blurbs from other writers, only quotes from reviews, and says, “I tell my publisher that as long as I am editor of Book World, authors cannot be invited to praise my books.”

Davidar finds it safer to wear different hats when writing and editing. He says, “I find that as a writer, I need to keep my publishing or editing experience at arms’ length because otherwise I would not actually finish writing anything since I think it’s an editor’s job to try and improve every text he or she works on.” Thinking like a publisher when he’s writing may cause him never to write simply because he is “aware of all the things that could prevent a book from taking off.”

For Wagner, being a literary editor/critic and writing fiction are “completely separate” for her, so there is no question of conflict or juggling the roles. There are slight advantages in “having your name known in some other context when it comes to releasing a novel” although she adds that when her first book, Gravity, a collection of stories, was published, she had only just begun her “so-called career in the ‘literary world’.” Being an editor could mean better editing of her own work, but the help of friends and professionals are still needed. Having an insight into the way publishers work also helps to alleviate unpleasant surprises. Arana says there is some advantage in knowing “the relative strengths of publishing houses” while Davidar points out other aspects of his experience that helps him both as publisher and author—empathy, marketing and knowing how to read a contract and work with agents and publishers.

What about being conscious of marketing? I wondered about how being aware of market sentiments might affect the way a book is written, structured or even packaged so that it would be more effectively sold in the market. Davidar states that it would be “disastrous if a literary writer wrote a novel driven by market considerations.” Arana has “never written a book for its market appeal”—her books are all “adamantly non-commercial.” It really depends on the book, Wagner says. Certain books such as chick-lit, some types of historical romance or thrillers can be packaged for a target readership. But with literary fiction, it’s hard to predict prize-winners and best-sellers. Wagner quotes William Goldman’s famous rule of Hollywood: Nobody knows anything.

I imagined that a literary editor who had reviewed hundreds or thousands of books, a book publisher who had rejected just as many submitted manuscripts, to be subjected to a heavier burden when their own books are viewed. Arana agrees. “It’s a huge liability,” she says, but also that she’s been very lucky and grateful to be reviewed at all. Davidar also believes that it’s harder for critics to write: “I think a lot of my colleagues choose not to write because of peer pressure or the concern that they might not get a fair shake from people with whom they’ve had disagreements in the wider literary world.” Wagner believes, however, that critics and authors are “all in the same game” and disagrees that there is a higher standard imposed on critics.

All three were asked to comment on McCormack’s pessimistic view on fiction writers starting their careers in publishing. Arana agrees—not having “writerly ambitions” when she started working for The Washington Post. “If I had known I’d be a writer at a younger age,” she says, “I hope I would have been smart enough to know that burying myself in the hard work of saving other people’s prose would not be the best way to shepherd my own.” Davidar, while noting that McCormack’s view is sound, says that there are nevertheless many examples of writers who have worked in publishing without compromising the quality of their work—an example would be Italo Calvino whose writing “certainly hasn’t suffered because of the publishing connection.” Wagner humorously suggests that being something “splendidly physical” like a lumberjack might be ideal “so the mind could float free.” At the end of the day, Davidar accurately states that writers have to do whatever needs to be done in order to write. If it means working in a publishing house, reviewing books or even harvesting lumber to pay the bills, authors must ensure that they are detached from anything that can distract them from writing their books by compartmentalising different jobs and responsibilities. As much as one is tempted to assume the benefits of being experienced in the book or literary industry, it is a position of “mixed blessings,” as Arana puts it, that one should be minded to use wisely.

JANET TAY is a litigation lawyer by training, but decided to leave the legal profession to pursue her first love—books and writing. She is now a book editor at a Malaysian publishing house in Kuala Lumpur. She is also working towards a Master’s degree in English Literature at Universiti Malaya. She enjoys reviewing literary fiction and interviewing authors.

Reproduced from the special Ubud issue of Quill magazine


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