Where have all the editors gone?

Traditional publishing has gone belly up. Publishing professionals are either jumping ship or switching fishbowls. Agents are becoming editors, editors are becoming publishers and publishers are become print shops. As for writers ––they are all out of the water, flapping all over the place.  It’s sink or swim. Many writers cling to social media rafts made of tiny twigs and end up losing their moorings altogether.  A few clever ones have built for themselves massive floating devices. The self publishing sharks are out. There’s lots of jumping fish, plenty to be had. Everybody is writing a book these days. Even my UPS man.

I feel like Kate Winslett in the last scene of the Titanic. I see the last two good editors rowing by in the far distance. Their flashlights arc over the frozen water full of corpses. “Is anybody out there?” they call. They don’t see me. I cling to the broken hull and call out in my cracked and feeble voice “Come back, come back.” ( If you want to relive this tear-jerking scene from the Titanic, click on the You-tube clip HERE).

Alright, maybe I am being overly dramatic, but it’s still depressing.

EDITORS COME BACK! Don’t leave writers stranded! The world needs good books. There are serious readers out there, not just nibbling piranhas looking for 99 cent ebook treats. And not all readers like short-short white-knuckled fiction. Good literature was meant to be savored. Not gobbled in between tweets.

We writers need bodyguards. We need advocates. We need curators. We need endorsement, and validation: someone to believe in and someone who believes in us. Our Facebook fans can buoy us along but they can’t keep us afloat. Because good books–– really, really good books–– are not born, they are created: word by painstaking word. Agents and editors put their reputation on the line when they take on a debut author. In the hands of a true and worthy publishing professional, a dingy of a novel can become a mighty sailing vessel. But of course the dingy has to to be certified sea worthy first. The stakes are high. And no writer (and I don’t care how accomplished and brilliant you are) can wing it on his own. If you think you can, good luck. But it aint me, babe.

Here are two cases in point:

Harper Lee did not pop out To Kill a Mockingbird like an unblemished and perfectly formed golden egg. Far from it.  Charles J. Shields in his book Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee describes Lee’s lengthy and rather bumpy journey toward publication. Here is what he says:

“I guess I had these romantic notion that Nelle (Lee’s real name)  frantically typed her book in the in between times of life, full of the muse. I see her type the last word, smile, and then march the streets of Manhattan, perfect manuscript in hand, and hand it to her publisher, J. B. Lippincott. I see the publisher ooing and ahhing, the editor saying things like,

Harper Lee’s letter to her agent touches on the depressing state of publishing even in her time. Here it is FROM LETTERS OF NOTE

“Well, I added a few commas, but this thing is beautiful!”

The manuscript when handed in was more of “a series of anecdotes than a fully conceived novel. The characters were three-dimensional but the novel lacked structure. The original title was Go Set a Watchman, followed by Atticus (both crappy titles in my opinion) Only toward the end did the title To Kill a Mockingbird evolve organically during the editing process.

According to Lee’s editor, “There were dangling threads of plot, there was a lack of unity–a beginning, middle, an end that was inherent in the beginning.”  At one point during the revisions, Lee got so stressed out that she tossed her entire manuscript out the window!(I know that feeling only too well––I’ve been there too.). The world may have never seen Mockingbird if Lee’s editor did not make her go outside and retrieve every single page.

Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner was another diamond in the rough. As first drafted, the novel was far from perfect, but it drew the attention of several New York editors, including Cindy Spiegel, co-publisher of Riverhead, a division of the Penguin Group USA. “The truth is it needed work,” Ms. Spiegel said. “I think that is why other people were less bullish. The last third of the book had to be rewritten.” (You can read the complete New York Times article HERE). The Kite Runner was completely restructured during the editing process.

What does this prove? If Khaled Hosseini and Harper Lee were diamonds in the rough, well, there is hope for me yet.

HERE IS AN EXTRACT FROM AN EXCELLENT POST- an anonymous letter to Editors by a group of successful traditionally published authors on M.J. Rose’s blog, Buzz Balls and Hype.

PLEASE EDIT MY BOOK. Even if you know it will sell and get reviewed because of my name and my previous books, even though you recognize the many good qualities in the manuscript I have turned in, if you think it needs a serious revision, please, please, ask me to do it…Please do not let me go out in public this time with my slip showing and parsley on my tooth…And while we are on the subject, please employ a copy editor who understands the basic rules of grammar and has a working knowledge of the subject of the book sufficient to make useful and necessary changes in the manuscript instead of adding egregious errors while omitting to find crucial mistakes and typos. I love our nice expense account lunches, and I love you, but above all, I really, really want you to edit my book.


Teatime for the Firefly is my debut novel. Here is  the SYNOPSIS and the FIRST CHAPTER.  I am represented by April Eberhardt Literary.


  1. “There are serious readers out there, not just nibbling pirhanas looking for 99 cent Kindle treats. And not all readers like short-short white-knuckled fiction. Good literature was meant to be savored. Not gobbled in between tweets.”

    So true, Shona! 🙂

    I sincerely hope the state of American literature survives this turbulent time in publishing. Sometimes it feels like all people want to read anymore is zombie and sparkly vampire drivel.


    1. teabuddy says:

      This too shall pass. Hang in there and watch the flapping fish!!


  2. Michelle says:

    Oh, I know. Editors are not only important grammatically, structurally, etc… but emotionally as well. My editor is a huge support when the chips are down.

    Great post, Shona!


  3. Thanks Shona, for giving me this to read with my COFFEE (2nd cup). Go Set a Watchman??? Oh dear 🙂 The business end of things–can i sell it?–will always be a battle. Demand and supply shows where we’re at as a society. But there must be a place for bloody good work no matter if it’s “difficult” and everyone’s too busy or too tired or too accustomed to a quick fix. I hope that entertainment will exist alongside art and not continue to replace it. I hope that our human need for stories and beauty, as well as the unlikely, will keep us afloat.


  4. Clinging to the other side of the broken hull, Diane calls out, “Yea, come back! I need help, too!”


    Love it.

    This is so true. I see so many published and unpublished authors struggling with this social media concept while also trying desperately to figure out how to publish their future work.

    I’m working on my first novel, but I’ve been writing for years and never even considered publishing. Now this, when I decide I might like to, there’s all this jumping off the ship quicker than Captain Schettino.

    I’m with you!


  5. Elizabeth Tai says:

    I frankly think that the self publishing revolution is awesome, only because it gives voice to so many whose voice would probably never be heard. But I hear you about good editors – all of us need good editors, and the services offered by traditional publishing houses are invaluable. I’m not into the ‘legacy publishers’ vs indie mentality debate much; I see the merits of both.

    But that said – the traditional publishing model is broken. It’s too expensive to maintain, It’s keeping out books that are good, it panders to the needs and desires of the majority and money speaks louder than words most of the time. Are good books always necessarily found? No. Many are not great, some are even poorly edited.

    I have no trouble with 99c ebooks. In fact, I found quite a few amazing eBooks for just 99c. I frankly feel that they should price themselves a wee higher, however. But most of them use the 99c pricing for promotional purposes.

    Writers, it’s time to wean off your dependence on a ‘vetting party’. Sure, it’s terrifying to get out there on your own, but if you have a decent manuscript, what are you waiting years, even decades for? Get it edited, get a gorgeous cover, and digitise it. Your readers (and bank balance) will love you for it.


    1. teabuddy says:

      Thanks Elizabeth! I think the the trend is headed that way whether we like it or not. The important thing is to keep an open mind in these changing times.


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