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September 19, 2018

Reflections: My dream book editor

Book lovers at a library in Nairobi
Book lovers at a library in Nairobi

There are two kinds of experts. The first kind is a person who is very knowledgeable about or is skilful in a particular area, which is what the word expert means. Then there’s the second kind of expert; a person who believes that as an expert he knows everything about, and is skilled in every way, in a particular area. It is this second kind of expert we’re going to focus on, and that’s because this expert puts my teeth on edge. 

Experts, the second kind, are in every field, so to make things simple I’ll narrow it down to one field: book editing. Now in the many… (sigh!) many years I’ve been writing for a living, I’ve run into my fair share of book editors. Many of them, to be fair, were okay to work with. The others, though, I remember vividly, not only because it was a bad experience but also because they were the second kind of expert. 

I am going to assume that most of you have been prudent in your life choices and are, therefore, not full-time fiction writers. So let me give you an overview of how the book publishing process works.

First, you submit a manuscript. If an editor likes it, what follows is a fair bit of back and forth between you and the editor in regards to its content. After content has been agreed on, your novel then moves on to the production stage — printing, binding, and the rest of it. Sounds simple, but it isn’t. There will be acrimony, there will be fights, and there will be tears (mostly yours), and just about all of it takes place at the editor stage. This stage entails the following: the editor goes through your work and writes notes on revisions you should make. There will be several rounds of these revisions. The notes include requests to cut text, add text, clarify information, rewrite chapters, basically a lot of hard work, which is not a problem. Where disagreements erupt is when these annotated revisions involve moving chapters around, or worse, switching up character roles.

It happened to me once. I was a young man, full of spit and vinegar, when this editor told me to switch up characters in my story. I didn’t agree; it didn’t end well. 

The problem wasn’t that I thought the editor was wrong. Who knows, he may well have been right and if I’d made the changes, the book might have been published and been a worldwide bestseller. No, my problem was he thought he was absolutely correct. You see, he was that know-it-all, all-skilful expert and it didn’t matter what the person who created the story (young me) thought. 

Why can’t all book editors (indeed all experts) be as thoughtful and circumspect as the late American book editor, Max Perkins, who, when the novelist Thomas Clayton Wolfe wanted to dedicate a novel to him, said:

‘I wish you wouldn’t do that. Editors should be anonymous. More than that… there’s always the fear that I deformed your book. What’s to say it wasn’t the way it was meant to be… when you first brought it in? That’s what we editors lose sleep over, you know. Are we really making books better? Or just making them different?’

Perkins didn’t doubt his expertise, it was more the attitude that… ‘It is unwise to be too sure of one’s own wisdom.’ — Mahatma Gandhi.

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