The Book Editor: Midwife, Handmaiden, Groupie

By Rachel Toor

The Chronicle of Higher Education, Past Chronicle Issues

You leave behind piles of half-read manuscripts, unanswered letters and phone calls, budgets that need refiguring, and go traveling to conferences and campuses, looking for an author to court and sign. You travel many miles. After a much-delayed flight, a searing migraine, and rotten hotel food, you make it to the campus and spend the next hour and a half trying to find a place to park. None of the six students you ask knows where the library is. The departmental assistant persists in assuming that you are a prospective graduate student until you manage to convince him that you are, in fact, an acquisitions editor from a university press and do, indeed, have an appointment with Professor Socrates.

Finally you arrive in his office. He offers you a chair, which is covered by a stack of reprints. He doesn’t seem to notice as you neatly pile them up and place them carefully on the floor. You are facing the window and the sun is in your eyes, so you can’t see him well. He is a blob amid glare. You have entered a privileged space, surrounded by books, usually intruded upon only by students coming to complain about their grades. You’ve read his previous books and articles. (You notice a small piece of pasta stuck in his beard.) You ask what he is currently working on. You inquire enthusiastically about his plans, hopes, and (intellectual) dreams.

He pushes up his glasses and rubs his eyes. He talks. You listen. Suddenly he’s jumping up, reaching for books, handing them to you. Soon 30 pounds of books sit on your lap, but you don’t notice. You are listening. How interesting, you say. How smart he is, you think.

She’s interested, he thinks. She understands.

The two of you are making an emotional connection. It occurs to each of you at the same time:”I want you.”

In just weeks, you have a new book under contract. A year later, or sometimes a decade later, you receive from the production department an advance copy of the bound book. Holding your breath, you look it over quickly to make sure that the title is, in fact, the most recent version, and that the author’s name is spelled correctly. Then you flip for the first time to the acknowledgments section, which arrived just before the book was typeset and sent to the printer. This is where your author expresses publicly what he thinks of you. Sometimes it’s a big surprise. It often seems that the less real editorial work you did on a book, the more profusely you are thanked in print.

It’s a long, strange trip from the campus visit to the acknowledgments page. The relationship between editor and author can be intense and intimate, cordial and cool, or sadly strained. Early in my editorial career, I met one of my colleagues’ authors and reported that I found the author just great. She smiled condescendingly and said,”You think all authors are just great.” In a way, she was right. There’s an element of professional fanhood that comes with the territory. Acting as groupie to the academic stars is where the intellectual thrills are. Getting acknowledged in print is one of the few tangible rewards.

Once the contract is signed and the champagne drunk, the real work begins, and the”fan” relationship may change subtly. Often, if the manuscript is expected to have a trade, or general, readership, the editor will break out the red pencil. The amount of editing done by an acquisitions editor varies enormously from press to press; the nature and economics of scholarly publishing do not encourage it.

But some editors can’t help themselves. It’s a vision thing: You see a manuscript not so much for what it is, but for what it could be. You have the vision. You need to convince the author that you’re right (while being careful always to acknowledge his intellectual superiority). You persuade him to see the book as you see it, and eventually he forgets that he ever saw it differently. The best, the most experienced authors welcome good editing. And good editing, the saw goes, is editing that the author accepts. Sometimes, of course, authors accept everything and come to rely too heavily on their editors. One author used to call me daily to read aloud freshly written paragraphs.

Good editing is invisible. I have often thought of it as “woman’s work.” We editors learn to handle our authors, to give them what they want or need, and send them off so that we can get our work done. We handhold, nurture, cajole, prod, and provoke. We flatter, we advise. We are friends. Sort of. Some editors make it a practice never to socialize with authors. Others not only socialize, but have Relationships with them.

As an acquisitions editor, though, I was never tempted, no matter how”great” I thought an author, to get too personally involved. It’s hard enough to maintain a friendship, given the built-in stresses. It’s not easy to shake off the hat of editor. You are expected to be a good listener. When you talk, it’s better if the subject is the author: her manuscript, her sales figures, her idea for a new book.

I was never surprised, but frequently (silently) annoyed, when authors asked me to promise that I would not leave the press before their book came out. We’ve all heard horror stories of what happens to projects when an editor leaves a press. Still, if your editor were really a friend, would you ask her to delay having that baby, or demand that he not go with his partner on a year-long trek to India, or request that she defer attending medical school until your book was in print?

Yet authors often see editors only as midwives to their own professional success. Not so long ago I was a bystander in a heated, though egg-heady, argument about an academic subject between an editorial colleague and a scholar. The two had a sharp disagreement not only about the merit of a particular project, but about its theoretical underpinnings. They both left the discussion upset.

In a postmortem conversation with me, my colleague was interested in the substance of their disagreement: He wanted to know if the scholar could really be so reactionary. Could he really believe what he was arguing? Yes, I said, I thought that he believed it as strongly as the editor believed his own position.

When the academic wanted to talk about the argument, what he wanted to know was why my colleague had gotten so upset, why he was arguing so passionately. “After all,” he said, sneering,”it’s not like he’s actually involved in doing the work.”

But bringing ideas to print is one way of doing intellectual work, and, more often than not, editors are just as committed to the disciplines they handle as scholars are. Plenty of academics recognize this, and recognize, too, editors’ ability to shape a field. It’s easy to think of examples of presses — indeed, of individual editors — who have made once-marginal fields respectable, even mainstream.

Most editors have had the experience of publishing a book not so much because it was a groundbreaking piece of work, but because of a belief in the author and confidence that the next book would be great. Many of us have had the pleasure of seeing that author go on to greatness — but with a different press.

One academic I know asked me to read and comment, extensively, on three or four different book proposals, all of which he then sold to other presses. It’s terrible to lose books to bigger, richer, or more-prestigious publishers when you know that your press would have done a better job. It was hard not to be cross with the author who said,”I should have listened to you” when he decided to go for the bucks and the imprint — and then called me to complain when he suffered the agonies of being a minnow in a publishing ocean.

Believe it or not, though, some academics treat editors like celebrities. One prominent English professor I know had a serious name-dropping disorder. She was particularly fond of quoting (and, I suspect, misquoting) as gospel what editors from major presses had said about the latest trend in publishing, or how many copies a particular book had sold. She and other academics always told me that I had the dream job. It wasn’t that different from theirs — we went to the same conferences, knew the same people, talked the same talk. But I got to sample from the buffet of academic delights without ever having to settle on just one dish. I could dabble in scholarship without having to worry about the quality of my own ideas.

It is a good job. Indoor work, no heavy lifting — and it’s easy, most of the time, to feel good about what you do. My house is filled with books that I am proud to have published, many of them by authors I am happy to call friends. I have delighted in the sincere appreciation of my authors, whether they acknowledged my work in print, sent flowers or gifts, or simply called to say thanks when the book was published.

When I left scholarly publishing, I signed a contract to write my own book. Having served as midwife to ideas, as handmaiden to knowledge, it’s fun to be on the other side now. I love having my own editor. Especially when we talk about me.

Rachel Toor was an acquisitions editor at Oxford University Press and Duke University Press. She is a free-lance writer and editor in Durham, N.C.

Copyright © 1997 by The Chronicle of Higher Education