Thursday, September 11, 2008

The Perfect Book

Lately I’ve been receiving a number of questions about the editorial letters and the explanation of the “perfect” book. In addition to that, a number of questions came up in my post about the stages of editing that I think deserve follow-up as well.

So, while I explained how a book is edited within a publishing house, what I didn’t really explain is how a book is acquired that might need editorial help and why it’s acquired if the only thing authors are regularly told about selling a book is that it has to be perfect. All valid and all about to be explained.

You’ve heard it here a number of times and I know you’ve heard it on other agent blogs as well. If you want to sell a book to a publisher it has to be perfect. These days editors receive so many great submissions that they aren’t about to take someone or something on if they know right out of the gate that it’s going to need a lot of work. So if that is the case, one would assume that the first book you sell is never going to need an edit. Wrong. Perfect to you is not necessarily perfect to an editor, and perfect enough to buy isn’t necessarily perfect enough to publish.

In other words, don’t ever send anything out on submission until you deem it’s as perfect as you’re going to get it, and certainly don’t send anything out on submission when you know it’s going to need a good editor. The goal isn’t to find an editor to edit you book. The goal is to find an editor who can get your book published and make it more than you ever dreamed it could be.

It’s rare that an editor buys a book without some thoughts of what she might want to have the author do to it. Sometimes, if these edits are major, she’ll communicate them to the agent or author first. Typically though she won’t know exactly what those changes will be until the deal is done and she has time to give the book a second read, this time with an editorial eye. One reader asked, “Would an agent let an editor acquire a book without a clear idea first of how much further work was going to be wanted? I'm surprised that a short letter asking for major changes could come as a nasty surprise -- wouldn't one insist on knowing what the editor had in mind before signing the contract?”

Yes, I’m afraid an agent would “let” an editor acquire a book without knowing exactly what the revisions would be. Sometimes the editor might let us know that changes to A, B, or C must be considered before they would be willing to make an offer. However, an editorial letter is a timely and extensive process and no editor is going to willingly pass on a full revision letter without knowing that she is the one editing the book. Truthfully, I’m not sure the editor always knows what changes she wants until she sits down to write the letter. I know I don’t. When I read a book for acquisition I read to enjoy. When I read for revision I read to pick apart. Also consider that in a lot of cases we sell a book on proposal. Reading a proposal is a lot different from reading the entire book.

Also keep in mind when we talk about the “perfect book” that the book you are submitting is usually read by more than just one person. Most books are bought by consensus. In other words, multiple editors at a house are asked to read the project and give their opinion. The “perfect book” has a better chance of appealing to more people than the one that needs work. One thing I’ve been saying to my clients for years is that editors have no imagination. While the editor buying the book might have great vision and wonderful ideas for how it can go from great to amazing, the other members of her editorial team might not be able to see that, and that could be enough to get the book rejected.

Another question I received was about the editorial changes an editor will ask the author for. I was asked if I ever disagree with them and how involved I get. Frankly, I don’t always see the letter. Some editors will cc me on the email or letter and others won’t, and sometimes my clients will forward the letter to me and other times they won’t. I don’t see it as my job to agree or disagree unless asked. If the editor and author are working well together and they both agree with the changes, then that’s the best I can ask for. If the author, however, has some concerns and disagrees with the changes she will sometimes ask my opinion. At that point I will step in if needed or asked to.



Anonymous said...

Jessica, your post hits me, as usual, when this topic is on my mind. I'm currently reading A STOPOVER IN VENICE, published by Knopf, literary women's fiction. I've noticed how often - and I mean really often - the word "lovely" is used. Sometimes 3 or 4 times on a page. All the characters say this word, including the narrator. Last night while reading, I noticed that a main character said it about 3 times in a row. How did this get by the agent and top editor at Knopf? It's really frustrating to see this, when we have to hand in everything so perfect(ly?).

Anonymous said...

Jessica...your post is so where I'm at right first ms was pitched a few months ago, and this week I had the pleasure of speaking to an editor at one of the houses that has it. She asked me a lot of questions about where the series is going, about some of the characters etc. It was a great talk, and I'm hoping that after calling me directly, she'll be calling my agent today with some good news.....I know for a fact that my ms was read by several other editors at this particular house, so....just one more step in the long chain of events still to come!
It's great to get an insiders look at how these things go.....thanks for the insightful blog

Unknown said...

"One thing I’ve been saying to my clients for years is that editors have no imagination."

Thank you for saying this. And I don't think this is limited to editors. We focus so hard on a book's marketability sometimes we forget about the writing itself. If you think about it, the reading public are the ones with all the imagination. Lucky them!

Anonymous said...

Excellent post. There was one point in it that I find confusing. You say: "These days editors receive so many great submissions that they aren’t about to take someone or something on if they know right out of the gate that it’s going to need a lot of work."

That makes perfect sense. But then you seem to suggest that most books do need a lot of work. If you care to elaborate on that some time, I for one would appreciate it, and suspect it may be of general interest as well.

Julie Weathers said...

"Perfect to you is not necessarily perfect to an editor, and perfect enough to buy isn’t necessarily perfect enough to publish."


I have never been more aware of this than when I started taking Barbara Rogan's Next Level workshop.

I lucked out and got in a class with some excellent writers. What one misses another catches or comments on. With Barbara being an editor, author and retired agent, she gives a unique perspective on how to take the story apart and examine the components. Add in students with various strengths and a person really gets a chance to look at their work in a new light.

Even so, I know there will still be more revisions ahead because reading is very subjective. I'm sure an agent and editor will notice even more things. Hopefully, the story will appeal to them enough to make it worth the effort to take it that last mile.

Unknown said...


Could you say more about what is involved with line editing? How much do editors scrutinize your ms for errors? What kinds of errors do they look for - just English errors, or do they also look for plot errors, areas with lack of description, lack of setting, etc.?


BookEnds, A Literary Agency said...


Read my post on The Stages of Editing as referred to in this post


Robena Grant said...

Great post.

So, how do we make that jump from thinking it's "perfect" to knowing it's "perfect"?

Anonymous said...

I'm with anon 10:40. I immediately focused on your comment regarding 'major editing' What would constitute that? What, in essence would be areas that a 'major edit' might encompass? Particularly in regards to fiction. Might it even involve changes in plot? Do they look closely at plot structure, as an example, to make certain all the threads work and most or all are tied up at the end? Are those some of the possible elements of a 'major edit'? Or would that particular 'problem' typically be the 'unforgiveable' flaw that no editor would ever take on?

BookEnds, A Literary Agency said...

What constitutes major editing is going to depend on the editor of course. Some don't want to do any editing. They simply want to take the manuscript they have and send it through to the copy editor. Others will be willing to do revisions on the book, but if things jump out at them while reading which makes the book less enjoyable to them they will likely pass rather than offer.

I wish I could answer the question, but I can't. It's all subjective.


Anonymous said...

Jessica, thank you for this post. I'm currently waiting for my first editorial letter for my first novel, and while my agent has passed along word that the revisions shouldn't be extensive, I'm still nervous and terribly curious.

Anonymous said...

ok...pass the bucket....I'm anon 9:57 and a few hours ago my agent called and the lovely editor I chatted with yesterday has offered for the book! So incredibly excited, but am in total sync with the previous post...nervous about the editorial letter!
well, honestly....and everything else still to come my way!
but, I wouldn't change anything!

Novelist said...

Jessica, I consider myself a decent writer, but if I shouldn't submit my MS until it is perfect to me than I might as well spend my spare time doing something more rewarding. I just finished editing one of my manuscripts for the fourth time. I am much happier with it then when I finished it the third time. Is it perfect? I highly doubt it. Is it ready to submit? Prior to this fourth editing, I didn’t think so. Now I do, except for all the “it has to be perfect” comments I see from various blogs.

I’m beginning to wonder if there is any point in submitting at all if it has to be perfect. I don’t keep a high enough regard of myself or my work to ever reach that point.

Haste yee back ;-) said...

Revising... hmmm, sounds like,

note from Editor... Dear Agent,

"I don't know what I want the author to do with this book, but I'll know it when I see it!"

Books, like film, are never really finished, or perfected, they're just kind of... abandoned!

Haste yee back ;-)

Julie Weathers said...

"I’m beginning to wonder if there is any point in submitting at all if it has to be perfect. I don’t keep a high enough regard of myself or my work to ever reach that point."

At some point you have to quit fiddling also. If you have a good critique group or partner, take the comments and apply as desired. Make your final edit and release it. Your agent and, hopefully, editor will most likely see some things they would like changed anyway.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the info Jessica. I learn so much from this blog.

I had no idea that many of the houses would pass your story around to other editors to gain concensus. It sure helps put things in perspective and explain why it takes a while to get a reply.

Do most of the big NY publishing houses use that approach?