An American Editor

August 24, 2022

Thinking Fiction: An Open Letter to the Fiction Publishing Industry

© Carolyn Haley, Fiction Columnist

Dear authors, editors, publishers, and readers:

I think we can all agree that novels exist for entertainment, enlightenment, and education — ideally in balanced combination.

Authors, your job is to create those stories. Take your vision — whatever it might be — and write it out with all your heart and soul, in the best language you can compose.

Editors, your job is to help authors refine their vision and language so their stories are clearly and easily comprehensible to the people who want to read them.

Publishers, your job is to convert authors’ visions into consumable products aimed at the people most likely to be receptive to the content and appreciate it. (For authors who self-publish, the idea is the same.) Then help get the word out.

Readers, your job is to seek out the kinds of novels you enjoy reading, expanding your tastes and horizons now and then — and support the people who provide the works by purchasing and/or reviewing and/or referring their stories to other readers and influencers.

The one thing that none of you can rightfully do is stop anyone from expressing themselves and putting out their work to the public, nor stop any reader from selecting what they want to read. No book banning or burning. None of you are the thought police.

Here’s how it works instead.

Authors, who usually are readers first, don’t have to read or write about what doesn’t interest or compel them. Their best efforts arise from what does interest and compel them, usually resulting in their most powerful stories. Such stories might prove to be controversial, which can make or break a book’s sales or even an author’s career. If an author isn’t willing to accept that possibility, then they should not release the book.

Independent editors are under no obligation to work on manuscripts that don’t interest them, or that offend or repel them. Their business goal should be connecting with authors who are producing materials that do interest and excite them. If they see an incompatible book coming or receive one (whether unsolicited or discussed beforehand), then they should decline it. If they make the wrong call and end up with a project that upsets them, then they should get out of it by whatever means. Having contracts with escape clauses helps with handling this aspect of the project or interaction.

The problem is different for staff editors at publishing houses: To keep their jobs, they might have to work on material that upsets them. In such cases, they must act according to their principles. That means either sucking up and dealing with the upsetting book, or waving good-bye to their employer.

Publishers can reject manuscripts that don’t support their business or editorial positions. There is no moral obligation for them to publish everything.

Readers have the option of not buying a book that doesn’t work for them, and to close it midstride if they realize it’s the wrong story for them. They can also publicly diss or not recommend any book they feel is unworthy, just as they can praise and promote one they admire.

Designers have a role to play in this equation, too, by helping authors and publishers produce covers and descriptions that convey to readers what lies within. Done properly, this eliminates the need for “trigger warnings,” which in turn eliminates catering to political trends.

Everybody in the chain from first idea to product-in-hand has a responsibility toward the story content. Art — a broad umbrella that covers fiction — exists for people to view and respond to. It reflects the myriad qualities of the world, like it or not. Just because we disagree with an author’s work of fiction or find it uncomfortable doesn’t make it wrong or something to burn/ban or declare unpublishable.

It boils down to free choice in response to free speech in a free world. Unless the country you live in has a totalitarian regime, then writing, editing, publishing, and reading fall within the “to each their own” philosophy, letting us savor the vast and wonderful choice of creative works out there across the globe.

“Thinking Fiction“ columnist Carolyn Haley is an award-winning novelist who lives and breathes novels. Although specializing in fiction, she edits across the publishing spectrum — fiction and nonfiction, corporate and indie — and is the author of three novels and a nonfiction book. She has been editing professionally since 1997 and has had her own editorial services company, DocuMania, since 2005. She also reviews for the New York Journal of Books, and has presented about editing fiction at Communication Central conferences. She can be reached at dcma@vermontel.net or through DocuMania.

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