I mentioned that I just finished Max Perkins: Editor of Genius, which is a must-read if any of the following apply to you:
- You are or want to be an editor
- You are or want to be in publishing
- You want to know about how editors and authors work together
- You’re curious about the “behind the scenes” of a publishing house
- You’re a fan of The Great Gatsby and/or anything F. Scott Fitzgerald
- You’re an Ernest Hemingway fan
- You’re a Thomas Moore fan
- You’re obsessed with the Jazz Age and want to learn more about it
There were so many quotes about publishing in this book that resonated with me. Five in particular stand out:
“The successful editor is one who is constantly finding new writers, nurturing their talents, and publishing them with critical and financial success. The thrill of developing fresh writing makes the search worthwhile, even when the waiting and working becomes months, sometimes years, of drudgery and frequent disappointment.”
Finding good author candidates is incredibly difficult—editors are constantly looking for the ultimate trifecta: authors who are good writers, have a strong platform, and have a winning idea. It does indeed take months or years of developing relationships and constant searching.
“90 percent of the time editors perform duties any office boy could do as well. ‘But once a month, or once every six months,’ said [William C.] Brownwell, ‘there comes a moment which no one but you could cope with. Into that single moment goes all your education, all your background, all the thinking of your life.'”
It’s true that daily tasks—answering emails, holding meetings, line editing—can sometimes be dull. But there are so many perks of being an editor! I’m always in a better mood after a productive brainstorm with an author, or after we’ve decided on a gorgeous book cover. And then, of course, there really are those moments when something goes wrong and you’re called to step up, take ownership, and make it right.
“Novelist Robert Nathan once said, ‘It was a flower show of budding authors; and to be an editor, I guess, was to be full of hope and excitement, and that feeling of not having enough hours in the day, because it sometimes seemed that everyone you met had a good book in him.’”
Although it seems to contradict the fist quote, there are truly times like this—when every good author seems to have a great idea. It’s just as exciting for an editor as getting a new box of books is for an avid reader. I can’t imagine how Max Perkins must have felt, when F. Scott Fitzgerald introduced him to Ernest Hemingway and many others. It’s an editor’s dream come true!
“Publishing is not, of course, dependent on the individual taste of the publisher… He is under an obligation to his profession which binds him to bring out a work which in the judgment of the literary world is significant in its literary qualities and is a pertinent criticism of the civilization of the time.”
Max Perkins wrote this in response to a reader who criticized him for publishing Ernest Hemingway’s first book, The Sun Also Rises. Max defended the publication, upholding the belief that publishers have an obligation to publish good literature. This obligation is sometimes at odds with the more practical duties of a publisher—primarily, to be profitable. What if you get an amazing book that you know won’t sell for one reason or another? It’s not an easy decision to make, and there isn’t a right one. Sometimes you take chances and it (literally) pays off, as it did here for Max. Sometimes it doesn’t. But every editor has books they took a chance on—and those are the ones that mean the most.
“His essential quality was always to say little, but by powerful empathy for writers and for books to draw out of them what they had it in them to say and to write.”
Being an editor is having to perform constant balancing acts. One of those balancing acts is knowing how much feedback to provide. Max Perkins believed that the work should always originate from the author; he tried to provide as little “interference” with the manuscript as possible—while at the same time urging the author to do what was best for the book. He had an instinct about good writing, and his authors almost always took his gently offered advice. Scott Fitzgerald gave Max credit for the organization of The Great Gatsby.
Max Perkins was an editor of geniuses, but he was himself a genius. Author Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings wrote to Max, “When all of us are done for, the chances are that literary history will find you the greatest—and certainly the wisest—of us all.” It’s not an accolade Max would enjoy, but it’s true anyway.
I’m really curious to hear from other editors, publishers, and authors: What’s your experience of publishing been like? What do you believe an editor’s role should be?