Thursday, February 20, 2014

Hiring an editor

This Gun for Hire (1942) Poster

Lots of smart people have gone over the famous Hugh Howey Report, revealing its many statistical and analytical shortcomings. I have nothing to add on those fronts (hell, I didn’t even read the whole piece). Read Shatzkin and others for detailed rebuttal and commentary.

There is one item in the Report and in Shatzkin I would like to address. (And if it has been addressed elsewhere, I’d be glad to know of it.)

Here’s the item in Hugh Howey’s Report:


And Mike Shatzkin actually echoes Howey’s position:


Allow me to say this plainly: When an author chooses, hires, and pays an editor, the author is creating incentives that are meaningfully different than the ones present in a “traditional” publishing deal.

To put it another way, if you want financial advice, you may hire a fee-based financial advisor or solicit the services of a commission-based advisor. And maybe if you’re very wealthy or your money is very interesting, advisors will pursue you. People feel strongly about both models, but no sensible person would claim they are interchangeable.

Or, perhaps an analogy closer to home: authors have long been counseled (rightly) that they should never “hire” an agent, that they should never pay reading fees, etc. to agents. Donald Maass gets tremendous criticism from many quarters from being an agent who also sells and promotes his own writing advice books. There is among authors a strong—and I’d argue healthy—awareness of the different incentives in each model where agenting is concerned.

Why, then, are so many people so quick to say “hiring” an editor is an acceptable substitute for the present model? The incentives are so clearly different.

It is not presently possible to hire me as an editor. I choose the manuscripts I want to edit, compete for them in the marketplace, and when I win them, I am accountable not to the author  but to my employer, the publisher, to make from that manuscript a book that the publisher can sell in quantities sufficient to meet certain performance goals. My incentive is to do this more often than not so I can continue to have a job.

I am not a short-sighted idiot or a sociopath or glutton for punishment, so I want very much for my authors to enjoy working with me and to find the experience rewarding and to be happy in the end. Authors are the fountainheads of my personal satisfaction in doing my job—my emotional incentive, if you will. But that doesn’t mean I want them to sign my paychecks. My primary incentive—my financial incentive—does not not come from the author. When it comes time to say what I believe will make a book successful, the pressure comes not from my relationship with the author but from my relationship with my employer—who is, pleasantly, fairly removed from the day to day work of editing. No one editorial decision has me thinking about my livelihood, thank goodness.

In the world of for hire-editors, the incentives and accountability are much . . . cozier. Or, if you prefer (and I do), you could say the incentives appear hopelessly entangled, painfully acute, and way too close for comfort. I do not want someone who is trying to do the hard work of writing a novel with me looking over her shoulder thinking about whether she’s getting good value for my fee. I don’t want “he who pays the piper calls the tune” in any author’s mind as he works on my edits. I don’t want to think about my mortgage when I suggest an author needs to scrap tens of thousands of words. I don’t want the temptation to flatter a writer whose manuscript I don’t believe will sell because he will make a good reference.

I could go on, but I think I’ve made myself clear. For-hire editing is different from the model that’s evolved in traditional publishing. Maybe it’s actually better for reasons that remain opaque to me in my vast inexperience of it. Maybe for-hire editing is the way I’ll have to go one day (may that day be very, very far off). But don’t let anyone get away with telling you it’s the same.

[Update: I will happily attach a civil rebuttal, critique, or commentary to this from a freelance editor who wants to address the question of incentives and editing. Just stick it in the comments and I’ll copy it into the main post.]