March 28, 2012

Editors Roundtable: Asking questions about publishing

In An Editor’s Guide to Working with Authors, Barbara Sjoholm suggests asking a potential client a number of questions. Some have to do with the client’s publication goals. This is how Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th edition) defines “publish”: 1 (a) to make generally known; (b) to make public announcement of. 2 (a) to disseminate to the public; (b) to produce or release for distribution; (c) to issue the work of (an author).

These days, there are lots of options for writers who want to publish long-form fiction or nonfiction prose—editors can no longer assume definition 2(c) is the goal. 

Q: What questions do you ask up front about a client’s publication goals?

I always ask: What are your publishing goals for this project (i.e., how or if the client intends to publish)? Are you preparing to send it to an agent? Are you preparing it for self-publishing?

I don’t really know how you can start working with someone and helping them achieve their goals without first knowing what those goals are.

I tend to start out with a whole host of questions, from broad to specific. For example, I’ll start with, Where do you see yourself in five years? Who is the intended audience for this book? I like to know if a writer has a realistic view of the process before we get started.

The questions then start to get more specific, like, How much experience do you have? Is this your first/second/third manuscript of this genre? Is this your first time being edited? Also, What amount of time do you have daily to devote to writing? Do you have a platform or have you thought about it?

Lastly, I try to get a realistic idea of what his or her expectation is of me: What kind of edits are they expecting? How do they want the edits? Are they expecting to email me with questions?

In short, I try to find out where they would like to be and what their writing goals are around this manuscript. How much experience they have in achieving those goals. And lastly, how they are expecting me to help. Once I have that information, I can talk to them about what I can bring to the table.

If an author hasn’t already relayed information about publication goals, vision for the work, genre and intended audience, I feel it’s important to at least ask generally about them. Without knowing who the book is intended to reach and how it should come across, it’s difficult to come up with advice on how to make it a more successful book in the author’s terms.

Most of my developmental editing projects come directly from book publishers, so I work with the understanding that the manuscript will ultimately be published in the traditional sense of the word (that is, a tangible book to be printed, sold, and ultimately read by booklovers everywhere). This assumes the author and I are able to get the manuscript to a place where the publisher and the author are both happy. Usually we all are able to achieve that goal.

Occasionally, though, I work with an unpublished author who has been referred to me by a semi-interested literary agent. In this case the agent may not have agreed to represent the author yet, but he or she believes the manuscript has potential. In those cases I really have to put on multiple hats. In addition to tackling the usual nuts and bolts of any developmental editing project, I need answers to these questions: Who is the intended audience? Who is the target publisher or type of publisher? What is the intended genre? What, if any, are the comparable books out there? And so on. Sometimes an agent won't take on a manuscript if the answers to those questions are muddled. My job would be to help the author crystallize those aspects, to give him or her a better shot at "selling" the work to the agent.

Q: How might a client’s answers change the way you approach a developmental edit?

The publishing questions and their answers naturally affect and lead into other questions I ask: Do you have a deadline, and if so, what is it? What is your budget for editing services? That’s because if an author is self-publishing, they are generally more in control of their editing (and publication) deadlines, and their budget may be different. (If they are self-publishing, they may want more than one editing pass/stage, as opposed to someone who may want their manuscript generally “cleaned up” before sending it to an agent or publisher who will handle later editing stages).

All of these questions also just help me be a more informed partner to my author-client, and help me to provide any information/advice I might have regarding their intended publishing direction(s). In general, my actual developmental editing/analysis is very much the same in all cases. I will still advise authors on what I see as working well, and what may need more work on their part.

Audience is a huge consideration in the shape I might suggest for a story. For instance, if the book is intended to be self-published for extended family members, then the overall story line can be very loose, allowing a much greater level of detail and longer meanders through anecdotes. If this is a trade book for commercial sale, the focus on pace and high reader engagement would require tightening up things around that story line and culling out many of those meanders.

After a first read, I need to clarify what the author is shooting for and how she hopes to affect the reader. Sometimes the most salient or thoughtful messages are hidden in parts of a story where the reader can’t linger and savor. A slight reordering could place those pay-offs so as to make them icing on the cake.

I agree with Jennifer that audience is crucial. In another example, for an author who’s writing a memoir intended for family and friends, naming the individuals is unlikely to be a problem; the author will face any negative reactions directly. Similarly, readers can be assumed to be interested in the topic and have some background information. However, if a memoir is intended for broader distribution, anonymizing characters might be advisable, especially if releases are not available from everyone named, and of course the book must appeal at different levels.

To give a fiction example, I recently attended a writers conference, and several participants were advised to change aspects of plot and settings to make the stories more marketable. Some authors were uncomfortable with, for example, changing the setting of a story they’d envisioned as happening in the 1960s to the present day. But in those cases, the authors’ goals were not necessarily the same as that of the conference presenter. The presenter was assuming everyone wanted to find a large publisher looking for the next blockbuster. The writer of a cozy, to give one example, is instead appealing to a particular demographic, and such a mystery can be very successful without ending up on the New York Times bestseller list.

Q: How do you keep up with publishing trends?

This is especially tough now with the rapidly changing technology and markets. Lately, I’ve been following posts in LinkedIn groups on such topics, which tend to have a mix of people interested in publishing their own work and people who are involved in the publishing process. A complementary way is to follow blogs of people with a strong interest in publishing (for example, Nathan Bransford) and to subscribe to newsletters put out by representatives of the book industry. 

I try to keep in the loop by attending/following discussions, meetings, and conferences through my local editing group (Northwest Independent Editors Guild); following discussions via groups such as LinkedIn and Biznik; and by simply meeting and talking with fellow editors to see what they’re up to, and what kinds of editing projects and issues (and that includes publishing) they’re working on and with. I also keep in touch with or follow news about several of my author-clients to see what publishing direction(s) their work has taken them in and what new publishing options they have discovered.

I keep talking to my published friends!

Well, to be honest with you, I think I am behind on current trends! Every few months I try to catch up by reading some recommended industry blogs, talking to other editors, and of course attending the Editors Guild conference and occasional meetings. I could always do more in the area of professional development, but there is so little time!

Our monthly Editors Roundtable aims to encourage conversation among freelance developmental editors of fiction and creative nonfiction. Please join us—we'd love to hear from you in the comments section! And if you have questions you’d like to see editors answer in future roundtables, please email

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