As I get a little older in my job, I enjoy the acquisitive parts of being an editor less and less.
I think I am unusual in this–although I also think many other editors lie about how much they enjoy acquisitions, because they don’t want to look soft or less competitive. I am comfortable enough in my job, though, and secure enough in other people’s opinions of me that I don’t mind admitting it. I love working with authors on project development, nurturing manuscript and publication campaigns, trying to plan careers and maximizing profits for everyone and collecting the best reviews and prizes where we can. These things excite me.
Reading competitive submissions, tussling with other editors for a hot property, wooing new authors with strange combinations of my money and my enthusiasm–in other words, the hyper-glamorous part of being a book editor, the part of the job starry-eyed editorial assistants salivate over while they wait for some Old Guardian to die–this I do not like so much. Or, really, at all.
I also do not like to play poker. Please jump to all the relevant conclusions.
I knew this would happen rather early–when I was an editorial assistant, I said something along the lines of “I’m much more interested in the project development than the, you know, competing for projects side of things” to my first boss. He gave me a sharp look and warned me not to repeat that, and to think hard about whether I really meant it. Good advice. He was a high-powered “important” editor and liked me because I was obviously ambitious. He was not going to encourage me to slide down a less ambitious path (as industry conventions would have it).
Yes, I am very easily excited by new projects. But lately the new projects I like best are the nice, safe ones: new books by authors I already know, love, and work with. Authors I know like me back, who know my style and quirks, and vice versa. I am very lucky in that my particular job is about 80% working with returning customers. Yes, these relationships (like all relationship) need work and loving care, but in all the best ways these long-term commitments are like marriages. If I am putting in my very best work, all I have to offer, the author will never fall out of love, and vice versa. At each new book, we do not have to reinvent the wheel together; instead, we can look at the wheel we already have and make it better, faster, stronger. Neither of us has to feel insecure about where things are going, as long as we do right by each other.
It is embarking on the new acquisitions–the rat race–that makes me anxious. When I am in the acquisitive parts of my year–the periods, blessedly infrequent because of my lucky job, where I am vetting new submissions by new authors for possible inclusion on future lists–I regularly wake up in hot or cold tremors.
The fear, of course, is finding The Perfect Thing, the manuscript that will take over your brain and change the course of your life, and falling desperately in love with it, only to have it yanked away from you by some other editor with more money or a shinier car or whatever.
It only takes one such occasion to scare a girl for life, and yet because of the nature of the job it must happen again, and again, and again.
O happy progressive industry that publishing is, I cannot even rely on traditional gender roles. In this courtship, I am the gentleman. I must woo and impress and lavish. But I am also the debutante, and somewhat of a wallflower debutante at that. I must flaunt my charms–as elegantly as possible–and hope that I will be the one the author asks to dance.
As the Buddhists will tell you, from desire is born all suffering. The more I desire this to work out, the harder it is to stand there elegantly and wait to be asked to dance. Who am I kidding. I’ve never been able to stand anywhere and wait to be asked to anything. I can’t help myself. I just end up bulldozing down the ballroom staircase Bette Davis-style and hope my True Love isn’t completely offended by my bright red dress.
It is one thing to lose sleep over one’s desire. I suppose there is some facet of this in every job–a thing we desperately want and are not sure we can have. But with editorial, the whole emotional process mimics the awful, hectic early days of a love affair even more closely. It is only a matter of moments between the Falling-in-Love and the Questioning-of-Motives.
How much of my True Love for this manuscript is the competition I perceive for it? If other editors want it, too, how much sharper is my desire to possess it?
What if one of those other editors who wants the book would actually be able to publish it better? If I really love the manuscript, do I, in good conscience, continue to fight for it? Do I resort to my bag of tricks to help me get it into my clutches, or is this a King Solomon’s baby situation? Would it be better to sit back and cry softly until the next True Love comes along?
(What if no other True Love ever comes along? How could I possibly know that now? What if this was the chance of a lifetime?)
We all remember how much more appealing Mr. Darcy was after Elizabeth Bennet saw Pemberley. How much of my True Love for this manuscript isn’t so much desperate literary longing as it is practical opportunism? Imagining where and how this manuscript will fit into my year, my account billings, my earned media and reviews, my career booklist? Did I maybe become obsessed with it because I see all the less purely romantic ways this manuscript might work for me?
“We should not aspire to publish things we find worthy,” a boss once told me. “We must publish things that we love.”
And now, of course, we have tied up all kinds of hopes and dreams into what started out as pure chemical attraction. We are sullied and confused and a little more off-balance than we were even at the beginning. And we are also questioning our own motives. We are a sparkling kaleidoscope of anxiety and effervescence and pre-emptive moroseness and glassy-eyed obsession. We are a mess. We become irritating to the world around us.
Ultimately it is the author’s call. I have to offer all and only what I have to offer.
And even once he or she makes the call, there is still plenty of anxiety one might wallow in. Once we take that first step, will I live up to the author’s expectations? Or when a crossroads comes–a contract for a second book, or even, in unhappy cases, earlier–will he or she break things off and move on?
And as an aspiring businesswoman, the most problematic and irreparable question of them all: when I am slave to this desperate longing, how can I possibly drive a hard bargain? Among the belles at the ball, there will always be someone a little prettier, or at least decked out in better jewels. If I reek of this desire, why would I ever be picked over her?
Fix your face, editor friend. Let them know you have a competitive hand, but hide your cards like a mofo.
The adage says “Tis better to have loved and lost,” etc. After all these times, I still cannot tell you whether I believe it. Loving and losing hurts in a way nothing else quite does.
But it does make for better stories.