A Tale of Two Editors

Two editors describe what it’s like to work between the lines.

By Melissa Cranenburgh

It’s hard to imagine now, but when F. Scott Fitzgerald first submitted a manuscript to New York publisher Scribner, his work was far from a shoo in. Like many authors before and after him, someone in the world of publishing realised his genius and championed his book. Namely, editor Maxwell Perkins, who went on to help shape Fitzgerald’s prose and – as if that weren’t enough – that of Ernest Hemingway and Thomas Wolfe.

Maxwell Perkins, 'a rare beast among book editors', in that his name is known to the reading public.

Maxwell Perkins, 'a rare beast among book editors', in that his name is known to the reading public.

But Perkins was – and remains – a rare beast among book editors, not because of his role in these authors’ success stories, but because people know about him at all.

Time, and the publishing industry, may have marched on, but editors remain a mysterious lot; they tend to lurk in the acknowledgements section, rarely on the cover. But, in a way, perhaps that’s as it should be. Perkins himself once (famously, of course) told an editing class that an ‘editor does not add to a book. At best he serves as a handmaiden…’

It’s a sentiment echoed by modern-day book editor Samantha Sainsbury: ‘The golden, more like, platinum rule of editing is that it is the author’s book and anything I say is just a suggestion,’ says Sainsbury – who edits fiction, non-fiction and children’s books for the Australian branch of Pan Macmillan.

But the relationship between an author and an editor is a delicate one, and there have been tales (generally whispered, unless the author/editor is dead and buried) that things do not always go well. Sainsbury, however, says this hasn’t been her experience at all.

‘I have never encountered an author who wasn’t willing to hear my thoughts and that would always be all I’d ask,’ Sainsbury says. ‘I’ve certainly heard stories of implacable authors rejecting all input but I can’t say I’ve had that experience or that it is at all common.’

Aviva Tuffield, editor and associate publisher with independent Melbourne-based publishing house Scribe, says that while she also has good relationships with her authors, offering feedback and working through drafts, she’s not afraid to be tough when it really matters. ‘There’s no point treading too lightly if something’s not up to scratch: it’s because I care about my authors and their writing careers that I’d never let them release something that was below par, or wasn’t ready to be published yet.’

Tuffield, being a publisher as well as an editor, is totally invested in the books she accepts. So the decision about what manuscripts will be lifted from the ‘slush’ pile is dependent on more than a witty synopsis. She explains: ‘You have to be very decisive in publishing and to trust your instincts: while I’ll read the synopsis before I start reading the submitted manuscripts, I don’t let it cloud my judgement. For me, it’s all in the execution and a weak synopsis can sometimes mask a wonderful book.’

So, it’s all in the writing. But what about spelling and grammar? Isn’t that the sort of stuff that editors really care about? Sainsbury is quick to dispel the popular myths: ‘Editors are not grammar-obsessed, cardigan-clad, cat-ladies nor are we the Birkin-toting, long-lunching glamazons that popular culture makes us out to be,’ she says. ‘We’re somewhere in the middle.’

She continues: ‘I think people also would be surprised to know that we value story and narrative above spelling. Grammar and typos can be cleaned up but if a narrative doesn’t have that magic at its core, no editor can fix that.’

On the topic of stereotypes: while Perkins, at the beginning of last century, may have used the then accepted masculine pronoun when referring to all book editors, these days that would seem more than a little out of place. Because the ‘typical’ editor is reputedly a woman. ‘I hear tell of a fabled male Random House editor … can’t say I’ve met him!’ jokes Sainsbury. But, seriously: ‘There are a few men here and there but certainly it’s a female-dominated craft,’ she says. ‘Editing is a middle-rung role and not very well paid. Of course there are plenty of ambitious women who are editors but I think young men aren’t encouraged to pursue editing as it is not perceived as a powerful, high-profile, bringing-home-the-bacon type role.’

Tuffield says she has had memorable male colleagues, but she concedes there are more women than men in editing roles in Australia. ‘Editing is sometimes compared to midwifery, in that we assist with delivering a book, so perhaps there’s something in that analogy!’

But what about ebooks and the digital revolution? Surely this has changed the nature of editing drastically? Tuffield thinks not: ‘All writing and writers need good editing and editors, whatever the mode of delivery of the written material. I don’t think any writer can fully edit or proofread their own work – you need someone to come in with distance from it and a new perspective.’

Sainsbury agrees: ‘What’s changing most of all for editors is our workflow. There’s a proportion of editing that’s still happening on paper with pencils but much of it is moving onscreen.’

So while, in technological terms, the craft of editing is moving light-years away from the page proofs Perkins would have laboured over, some things never change.

As Sainsbury says, ‘The process of reading happens in your mind, your imagination and your heart – not on a page or a screen.’

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