Wednesday, January 5, 2011
READERS, WRITERS, & HIRED GUNS
I'm concerned about the state of writing here in the new millennium. Not only my own writing, which obsesses me quite enough, thank you, or the scary prospects for the future of writing and reading in the text-and-tweet society. I'm mostly worried about the ways writers and readers are and are no longer being served by traditional publishing, once the principal venue for getting the written word into the hands of the reading public.
Over on the writers' website, Red Room, their book editor-in-residence, Alan Rinzler, recently posted an informative blog advising new writers how to find and choose a freelance editor-for-hire. It reads a lot like the advice writers used to be given for finding an agent to rep their work to a publisher: check out references (if any) and credentials, talk to other authors who have worked with the potential editor, try to find out if his or her work habits and creative vision mesh with your own. Rinzler goes on to invoke the sainted memory of Maxwell Perkins, the editor at Charles Scribner's Sons publishing house in the early 20th Century whose dedication and expertise helped to midwife the work of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, and Thomas Wolfe (in particular, the mighty behemoth that would become Look Homeward Angel) into literary classics.
But it seems to me the crucial difference between the Maxwell Perkins era and our own is that Perkins was actually employed by Scribner's to nurture its authors. This was back in the day when a publisher would take on a promising new writer and team him or her up with a simpatico in-house editor to develop the writer's career.
These days, new writers who are still learning their craft are also expected to somehow locate and purchase the services of a freelance editor (and just trust to the Force thy can find a good, or even competent one, judging from the experiences of other writers responding to Rinzler's post) before they've made one dime off their writing. And all this before they've even landed an agent—let alone a publisher. A hired-gun of an editor who may or may not be invested in developing the writer's career over the long haul.
Would Perkins and Wolfe have had such a prolonged, profound, and productive relationship if Perkins had been an editor-for-hire paid for out of Wolfe's own (threadbare) pocket?
Here's my other question: if books are pre-edited before they even get to the agent, and arrive at a publishing house camera-ready, as it were, what is it that editors at publishing houses do all day, if they're not editing books? I'm just asking.