Two Books Every Author (& Editor & Publisher) Should Read!

2349630643_52f4f12da9_oI won’t keep you in suspense. The two books are Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird and Go Set a Watchman.

I was reading Diane Johnson’s review of Go Set a Watchman (“Daddy’s Girl,” The New York Review of Books, September 24, 2015, pp. 22–26) when I realized that Harper Lee’s two novels should be read by everyone who touches — no matter how peripherally — on the editing process. The two books provide a stark contrast of the value of editing. Johnson wrote:

According to its editors and Harper Lee herself, To Kill a Mockingbird had profited from extensive editing at R.B. Lippincott by the late Tay Hohoff, who said she and Lee worked for two years on the project. (p. 22)

The result was the production of a classic that continues, 50-plus years later, to sell 1 million copies each year.

Contrast that with Go Set a Watchman, which was published as written — without editorial input. Although Watchman has sold a phenomenal number of copies, those will be one-time sales and they came about because of the high expectations readers of Mockingbird had. The consensus seems to be that Watchman is a disaster and a blight on the reputation of Mockingbird; its primary value is to demonstrate what should not be done if one values one’s writing and reputation as an author.

Authors & Wannabe Authors

Watchman was the parent from which Mockingbird was spawned. Yet it is as different from Mockingbird as night is from day. What it demonstrates, however, is how a good editor can help an author.

Too many authors on too many lists promote self-editing or no editing or friend editing. The complaint is that a good editor costs too much and there is no reason to hire one when the author can do it herself. Too many authors also say that they would like to hire an editor but editors are too expensive; they cannot afford an editor.

If you believe you really have a good story to tell and that people will buy it, then shouldn’t you figure out a way to get that editorial help? Your book will not sell like Watchman has sold because you do not have the reputation that Harper Lee has been trading on for 50 years. And it is expected that sales of Watchman will fall precipitously now that the book has been seen. What Watchman does demonstrate, however, is that the editorial investment made in Mockingbird has paid off doubly: first, by creating a phenomenal bestseller that keeps on selling, and second, by creating a reputation that allowed the author to sell drivel, which is what Watchman amounts to. Watchman would not have sold except for Lee’s reputation built on Mockingbird.

It is hard to convince authors (and readers) of the value of good editing because editing is an invisible hand — but these two books, a before and after, should clearly demonstrate what a good editor brings to the table and why authors need editors.

The two books also offer one other insight that I think authors need: They graphically demonstrate the difference between — and value of — developmental editing and copyediting, as well as the value of each. Watchman was neither developmentally edited nor copyedited; Mockingbird was both. Could you self-edit both developmental editing and copyediting?

Skilled and professional authors know that it is almost impossible to edit one’s own work because we see only what we meant to say; we cannot be objective enough to see where our work might be unclear, clunky, disorganized, or simply grammatically lacking (suffering from misspellings, wrong or missing punctuation, close-but-not-quite-right word choices, missing or doubled words, poor transitions, and more).

It is true that a very few authors have the skills to self-edit, but those are the rare authors. Most, if not all, of the most successful authors did not self-edit. Either they or their publisher hired a professional editor. As an author, you may have spent years writing your book. You know every word, every nuance, but you do not know where you are going wrong, because your book is “perfect” — you have said so.

As did Harper Lee when she originally submitted Watchman. What a difference a skilled, professional editor made for Harper Lee — and could make for authors and wannabe authors today.

Editors

Editors should read these two books to see what a skilled editor can do. This is not to suggest that you are not a skilled editor, but to suggest that rarely are we given the opportunity to see a before and after of such radical dimension as in the case of Watchman and Mockingbird.

Even more importantly, however, these books give us the opportunity to create an explanation of the value of our services. They also give us the opportunity to graphically demonstrate the differences between developmental editing and copyediting, and what each does for a manuscript. How many of us would reread Watchman or call it a classic or even want it taught in our schools? I know I struggle to envision a movie based on Watchman or caring about the characters or the storyline.

But Mockingbird remains a highly praised novel, 50 years after its publication. It is still discussed in schools and in conversations about race relations. The movie is considered a classic that is still shown. The novel still sells a million copies each year with no advertising to speak of. And all of this is because the original version, Watchman, was developmentally edited and then copyedited by professional editors to become Mockingbird.

Editors should use these books as teaching experiences for clients. They illustrate the benefit of not creating an artificial schedule and of taking the time needed to properly develop the story and to do the editing the story requires.

Editors have looked for years for a way to clearly illustrate why they are worth what they are asking and why editing is a valuable service that is ignored or avoided at an author’s and a publisher’s peril. Watchman and Mockingbird graphically demonstrate the value of editing and editors.

Publishers (& Packagers)

Today, publishing is run largely from the accounting perspective, not the art perspective. Schedules are artificially imposed without regard for the true needs of a manuscript. Editors are asked to do more of the mechanical work and less of the judgmental work; in my earliest years as an editor, for example, the emphasis was on language editing, not on applying styling codes. We did macro-level styling at most, and left micro-level styling to designers and typesetters. But in today’s editing world, the emphasis has switched 180 degrees to emphasize micro-level styling and a deemphasize language editing.

Yet Watchman and Mockingbird can provide a useful lesson for publishers, too. Sure, HarperCollins reaped a quick influx of cash with the publication of Watchman, but if I were the publisher, I would rather have the year-after-year sales of Mockingbird than the one-time sales of Watchman. Watchman will have no lasting value in the marketplace except as an illustration of what publishers used to provide authors versus what they no longer provide authors.

Today, the mantra is “how low can I go”; that is, how little can I, the publisher, spend to take a book from manuscript to bookstore? And the first services publishers squeeze are those that are deemed “invisible” — editorial services. Instead of two years of developmental editing, as was done for Mockingbird, two weeks of copyediting may be provided today (even if the book requires two months of copyediting, let alone additional months of developmental editing).

Watchman and Mockingbird, however, demonstrate the value of the editorial process. Good editing changed a book with no potential into a classic that sells 1 million copies each year and has done so for more than 50 years, with no end in sight. Whatever the editing cost for Mockingbird, it was recouped decades ago, yet keeps on giving. Quality editing is the Timex of publishing — it is the service that keeps on giving.

Publishers and packagers should read these books and use them as guides and reasons why changes to the current editorial and production methods need to be revamped and more attention and money needs to be given to editing. Editing has to be seen today as it was in the early days of publishing. Isn’t it a shame that the books that we treat as classics and must-reads, decade after decade, were nearly all published several decades or longer ago — before accounting supplanted editorial as the decision makers?

Perhaps it is time to rethink the current model. Certainly, Watchman and Mockingbird make that point.

reposted with permission from An American Editor

image by Nic's events

7 Comments on Two Books Every Author (& Editor & Publisher) Should Read!

  1. Yet, some authors argue that “To kill a Mockinbird” didn’t reflect as well the wish of the author, what she wished to convey through her book.

    Quoting Ursula Le guin
    (http://bookviewcafe.com/blog/2015/08/03/a-personal-take-on-go-set-a-watchman/)
    “It appears that the New York editor who handled the book was uninterested in the human and moral situation the author was attempting to describe, or in helping her work through the over-simplifications and ineptitudes of that part of the book. Instead, she apparently persuaded Lee to enlarge on the very charming, nostalgic early parts of the book, when Jean Louise was Scout. Lee was encouraged to go back to childhood, and so to evade the problems of the book she wanted to write by writing, instead, a lovable fairytale.”

    • If “Watchman” reflected Lee’s wishes then why didn’t she pull it out and get it published?

      She had decades to do so, and the support of a major publisher. And yet Lee let the manuscript moulder away in a safe deposit box.

  2. LeGuin does postulate an interesting question: who does Mockingbird really belong to? The NY big city liberal editor or the small town southern author? Contrasting the stories and viewpoints it reads more like a northern story than a southron’s narrative.

    When you factor in Lee’s withdrawal from the public eye and, apparently, from writing, that brilliant editing job may have created a “masterpiece” and killed a career. After all, if the highly acclaimed final product bore so little resemblance to Lee’s natural style and intended message, how would she feel about being lionized for doing something she *didn’t* do?

    Which raises the question of what price “brilliant” editing? What is the goal? To make the best book the market will bear or to make the author’s vision shine? ‘Cause one thing is clear: the story at the heart of Watchman, even cleaned up, would not have become an icon of the era that Mockingbird became.

    Now I wonder if Lee didn’t allow Watchman out as is, unedited, to quietly set the record straight. Might make a good book all by itself.

  3. Think about it Nate: all that money, the shame of retroactively admitting the story (and acclaim) wasn’t hers. Who was Harper Lee before Mockingbird?

    Two sides to every story. 😉
    Where an editor might brag about about “improving” an author’s work and making it marketable, the author might see it as a hijacking and a butchering of their vision.

    Check out the story behind Philip Jose Farmer’s TWO HAWKS FROM EARTH and its publishing history. And he was an established writer at the time.

  4. I understand and agree with the message you convey in this post, but try not to repeat it so many times. That creates the exact opposite effect and does not “drill down” the message into the reader’s minds, if you had intended that.

    Destination Infinity

  5. I agree with the article on the point that the books would make an excellent study for all involved in publishing. I wonder, though, which book to read first in order to benefit from this kind of exercise. Any suggestions?

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