An American Editor

September 23, 2015

Two Books Every Author (& Editor & Publisher) Should Read!

I won’t keep you in suspense. The two books are Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird and Go Set a Watchman.

I was reading Diane Johnson’s review of Go Set a Watchman (“Daddy’s Girl,” The New York Review of Books, September 24, 2015, pp. 22–26) when I realized that Harper Lee’s two novels should be read by everyone who touches — no matter how peripherally — on the editing process. The two books provide a stark contrast of the value of editing. Johnson wrote:

According to its editors and Harper Lee herself, To Kill a Mockingbird had profited from extensive editing at R.B. Lippincott by the late Tay Hohoff, who said she and Lee worked for two years on the project. (p. 22)

The result was the production of a classic that continues, 50-plus years later, to sell 1 million copies each year.

Contrast that with Go Set a Watchman, which was published as written — without editorial input. Although Watchman has sold a phenomenal number of copies, those will be one-time sales and they came about because of the high expectations readers of Mockingbird had. The consensus seems to be that Watchman is a disaster and a blight on the reputation of Mockingbird; its primary value is to demonstrate what should not be done if one values one’s writing and reputation as an author.

Authors & Wannabe Authors

Watchman was the parent from which Mockingbird was spawned. Yet it is as different from Mockingbird as night is from day. What it demonstrates, however, is how a good editor can help an author.

Too many authors on too many lists promote self-editing or no editing or friend editing. The complaint is that a good editor costs too much and there is no reason to hire one when the author can do it herself. Too many authors also say that they would like to hire an editor but editors are too expensive; they cannot afford an editor.

If you believe you really have a good story to tell and that people will buy it, then shouldn’t you figure out a way to get that editorial help? Your book will not sell like Watchman has sold because you do not have the reputation that Harper Lee has been trading on for 50 years. And it is expected that sales of Watchman will fall precipitously now that the book has been seen. What Watchman does demonstrate, however, is that the editorial investment made in Mockingbird has paid off doubly: first, by creating a phenomenal bestseller that keeps on selling, and second, by creating a reputation that allowed the author to sell drivel, which is what Watchman amounts to. Watchman would not have sold except for Lee’s reputation built on Mockingbird.

It is hard to convince authors (and readers) of the value of good editing because editing is an invisible hand — but these two books, a before and after, should clearly demonstrate what a good editor brings to the table and why authors need editors.

The two books also offer one other insight that I think authors need: They graphically demonstrate the difference between — and value of — developmental editing and copyediting, as well as the value of each. Watchman was neither developmentally edited nor copyedited; Mockingbird was both. Could you self-edit both developmental editing and copyediting?

Skilled and professional authors know that it is almost impossible to edit one’s own work because we see only what we meant to say; we cannot be objective enough to see where our work might be unclear, clunky, disorganized, or simply grammatically lacking (suffering from misspellings, wrong or missing punctuation, close-but-not-quite-right word choices, missing or doubled words, poor transitions, and more).

It is true that a very few authors have the skills to self-edit, but those are the rare authors. Most, if not all, of the most successful authors did not self-edit. Either they or their publisher hired a professional editor. As an author, you may have spent years writing your book. You know every word, every nuance, but you do not know where you are going wrong, because your book is “perfect” — you have said so.

As did Harper Lee when she originally submitted Watchman. What a difference a skilled, professional editor made for Harper Lee — and could make for authors and wannabe authors today.

Editors

Editors should read these two books to see what a skilled editor can do. This is not to suggest that you are not a skilled editor, but to suggest that rarely are we given the opportunity to see a before and after of such radical dimension as in the case of Watchman and Mockingbird.

Even more importantly, however, these books give us the opportunity to create an explanation of the value of our services. They also give us the opportunity to graphically demonstrate the differences between developmental editing and copyediting, and what each does for a manuscript. How many of us would reread Watchman or call it a classic or even want it taught in our schools? I know I struggle to envision a movie based on Watchman or caring about the characters or the storyline.

But Mockingbird remains a highly praised novel, 50 years after its publication. It is still discussed in schools and in conversations about race relations. The movie is considered a classic that is still shown. The novel still sells a million copies each year with no advertising to speak of. And all of this is because the original version, Watchman, was developmentally edited and then copyedited by professional editors to become Mockingbird.

Editors should use these books as teaching experiences for clients. They illustrate the benefit of not creating an artificial schedule and of taking the time needed to properly develop the story and to do the editing the story requires.

Editors have looked for years for a way to clearly illustrate why they are worth what they are asking and why editing is a valuable service that is ignored or avoided at an author’s and a publisher’s peril. Watchman and Mockingbird graphically demonstrate the value of editing and editors.

Publishers (& Packagers)

Today, publishing is run largely from the accounting perspective, not the art perspective. Schedules are artificially imposed without regard for the true needs of a manuscript. Editors are asked to do more of the mechanical work and less of the judgmental work; in my earliest years as an editor, for example, the emphasis was on language editing, not on applying styling codes. We did macro-level styling at most, and left micro-level styling to designers and typesetters. But in today’s editing world, the emphasis has switched 180 degrees to emphasize micro-level styling and a deemphasize language editing.

Yet Watchman and Mockingbird can provide a useful lesson for publishers, too. Sure, HarperCollins reaped a quick influx of cash with the publication of Watchman, but if I were the publisher, I would rather have the year-after-year sales of Mockingbird than the one-time sales of Watchman. Watchman will have no lasting value in the marketplace except as an illustration of what publishers used to provide authors versus what they no longer provide authors.

Today, the mantra is “how low can I go”; that is, how little can I, the publisher, spend to take a book from manuscript to bookstore? And the first services publishers squeeze are those that are deemed “invisible” — editorial services. Instead of two years of developmental editing, as was done for Mockingbird, two weeks of copyediting may be provided today (even if the book requires two months of copyediting, let alone additional months of developmental editing).

Watchman and Mockingbird, however, demonstrate the value of the editorial process. Good editing changed a book with no potential into a classic that sells 1 million copies each year and has done so for more than 50 years, with no end in sight. Whatever the editing cost for Mockingbird, it was recouped decades ago, yet keeps on giving. Quality editing is the Timex of publishing — it is the service that keeps on giving.

Publishers and packagers should read these books and use them as guides and reasons why changes to the current editorial and production methods need to be revamped and more attention and money needs to be given to editing. Editing has to be seen today as it was in the early days of publishing. Isn’t it a shame that the books that we treat as classics and must-reads, decade after decade, were nearly all published several decades or longer ago — before accounting supplanted editorial as the decision makers?

Perhaps it is time to rethink the current model. Certainly, Watchman and Mockingbird make that point.

Richard Adin, An American Editor

Selected related An American Editor essays:

May 17, 2010

On Books: The Most Important Novel in Your Life

As I was reading yet another book — seems as if that is all I ever do — a stray thought occurred to me: What was the most important novel I had ever read? By important, I mean that changed my perspective and influenced future decisions I made.

I started thinking about the thousands of books I have read; some I misremembered as fiction when they were really nonfiction. Who knows how many I have completely forgotten, which, I suppose, means they weren’t all that important to me. And my list began to grow.

First, there were all the Tom Swift (made me think I wanted to be an scientist) and the Hardy Boys (nothing cooler than being a detective, or so a 10-year-old once thought) books. Then came the standard books that most of us read or tried to read, such as Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, The Great Gatsby, The Sun Also Rises, and hundreds more. It rapidly became a mountain of a task, when I originally thought it would be just a molehill. I can’t tell you how relieved I was when I realized that I had at least limited the question to novels. I’d be in great distress if I had included nonfiction, although perhaps I’ll ask that question in the not-so-distant future.

Well, it was quite a struggle. I had to pass through many doors, and even had to double-check a couple; for example, I remembered Black Like Me by John Griffin as a novel when it is a true story. I shut the door on 1984, Animal Farm, Grapes of Wrath, Catcher in the Rye, Catch-22, Portnoy’s Complaint, and myriad other novels. I eventually narrowed it down to 4:

  • Farenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
  • To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
  • It Can’t Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis
  • Rumpole of the Bailey by John Mortimer

Now I was stymied. I just couldn’t decide (and really can’t decide) which among the 4 was the most important or influential. Each influenced me in a different era of my life, and each had major consequences for me.

Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury’s story of a future America when books were burned and critical thinking was discouraged, made me question my schooling. I began challenging teachers; I was taught in an era when memorization was key, not critical thinking. There were a few teachers — the good teachers whom I still remember 50+ years later — who encouraged critical thinking, encouraged discussion, encouraged debate, but who, alas, were so few and far between and often forced to leave the school system, as to turn me away from becoming an educator. I simply could not picture myself being a typical, uncritical, nonthinking teacher. I also had difficulty with the publish-or-perish aspects of education that predominated in those days.

Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird made me aware of the racial tensions in my surroundings. I grew up in a small city along the Hudson River in New York. My playmates were of all creeds and color; I had never given a second thought to the issue of race. But after reading To Kill a Mockingbird, I began to look around me. I realized that prejudices of all kinds existed even in my little world. I began to see that my friend and coworker, who was black, never was allowed to wait on customers in the store in which we worked. I began to recognize the subtle covert segregation and discrimination — even in school. And so I joined my first protest movements in support of civil rights — and I never looked back. Harper Lee awakened me to the real world of race relations around me.

Outside of the civil rights movement, I wasn’t involved in political matters. Yes, I did protest the Vietnam War, as did many of us in our teens and early twenties in the late 1960s and early 1970s, but I wasn’t politically involved. Whether it was Hubert Humphrey or Richard Nixon who was elected president didn’t really matter to me. Then I came across It Can’t Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis, originally published in 1935.

It Can’t Happen Here is the story of a U.S. senator’s bid to duplicate in America what had happened in Nazi Germany and how he began by creating a private military force that through fear and violence began suppressing voices opposed to his coup. This book started me thinking and suddenly Watergate and the Pentagon Papers were in the headlines, and I realized that it can happen here if we aren’t diligent about keeping our political processes and (especially) our politicians honest. The confluence of reading Lewis’ book and the political events brought about by Nixon’s paranoia made me change from apolitical to political. Whereas before newspapers were mainly for sports and comics, they now became important for keeping me abreast of current affairs. (Perhaps it is worth noting that Lewis’ “hero” is a newspaper reporter.) This is why I worry about what will happen to high-quality news reporting in the Internet Age (see, e.g., Judging Quality in the Internet Age, Information Doesn’t Want to Be Free, and Is Rupert Right? Newspapers & the Paywall) and the age of sound-bite reporting that is seen too often on programs like Fox News..

The final book, Rumpole of the Bailey by John Mortimer, changed my career path. The book appeared a year after I had graduated law school. Throughout law school and in the beginning of my career, I had wanted to be a commercial lawyer. I thought I loved the dull, dry world of commerce. But Rumpole opened my eyes to the world of the underprivileged, the downtrodden, the criminal, and I began to take on fewer commercial cases and more “human” cases. I found that the lawyer I wanted to be was the lawyer that Rumpole was. If you have never read the Rumpole books or seen the television series (available on DVD), you should. Rumpole is, at least in my estimation, what every lawyer should be and few are.

Rumpole of the Bailey was a game changer for me; unfortunately, my career as a lawyer was short-lived as personal circumstances lead me to yet a new career and one that I have enjoyed for more than 25 years, that of publishing and editing.

So, although I asked the question and asked for the single most important novel in your life, I couldn’t/can’t answer the question myself. The best I could do is narrow it down to 4. But it does prove, at least to me, one thing: great authors can have a great impact on our lives, whether we consciously know it or not.

What was/is the most important novel(s) in your life?

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