There’s a rumor going around that editors don’t edit anymore. I heard it when I was shopping my first novel — specifically that editors are mostly acquisition agents now, only picking up books that are ready to hit actual and virtual shelves. But Barry Harbaugh, an editor at Harper Collins imprint Harper, says the rumor is just that. Plus, he adds, it’s insulting.
Calling himself part of “a population of overworked, underpaid, good-humored, vastly well-read craftspeople often spending huge amounts of time on other people’s writing,” Harbaugh says, “I probably mark up fifty to a hundred pages a week, most of it on the weekend. I ask questions and cut sentences and write chapter titles and all that stuff. The other editors at my company, and editors I know socially from other companies, are just as rigorous.”
So who’s perpetuating this falsehood? Harbaugh shares a few ideas with The New Yorker.
To his point, editors are, of course, editing. As are agents, and book packagers, and editors who freelance their services to writers on the side to supplement their incomes, which is where it can get confusing for writers, at least. When you’ve completed what you think is a masterpiece and an agent tells you it needs editing before they send it to an editor, the instinct is to ask “Well, isn’t that what the editor is for?” This instinct is, of course, borne out of frustration (borne of countless rejections), sleep-deprivation, alcohol, and/or petulance, but it is what it is.
Either way, I appreciate Harbaugh’s own frustration. In the age of Amazon and self-publishing, it’s tempting to run away with the idea that writers don’t need book editors/publishers in the same way authors of the past did. But the fact remains that editors are still the most powerful advocate a writer can have — must have — throughout the publishing process, and in those months (and years) after your work is released.
It’s the editor whose going to be selling your book’s concept to his/her colleagues throughout the chain, ad infinitum. Depending on the editor’s level, and the level of enthusiasm, the editor plays a big part of deciding which authors to invite to that luncheon where the New York Times Book Review Editor will be sitting at the next table over. And it’s the editor who will talk up your book at industry socials that are closed to authors. In short, the editor ultimately determines how much love your book will get, contract notwithstanding.
As I wrote after attending a discussion between Jhumpa Lahiri’s agent Eric Simonoff and the editors of Seabiscuit, Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, and Tina Fey’s Bossypants, if an editor feels a battle is worth fighting — pray God it’s your book — they almost always win.