why new york editors don't have time to edit:
During my 15 years as a senior acquisitions editor at Picador USA/St. Martin's, I reviewed every promising proposal or manuscript with two questions: is the submission going to win-over everyone at the weekly acquisitions meeting---including the sales director? And if it’s not a clear winner out of the gate, are there ways that I could help the writer groom the submission to compete with the best?
Although I joined my colleagues on the exhilarating hunt for bestsellers, I also tried to help writers and their agents strengthen weaker submissions to make them more publishable. On many occasions, after my critiques, the agent and writer returned a year or two later with a radically-revised manuscript or proposal that I happily pitched at the following weekly acquisitions meeting.
My working relationship with the authors of the books I acquired continued to be hands-on as we prepared for publication. Although I was admired by my bosses for my intimate communicative style and in-depth editorial expertise and insight, I was aware that my focus on making every manuscript better and stronger, no matter how many copies we might sell, could become problematic from a corporate standpoint.
Ultimately, Picador USA/St.Martin's Press was not paying me to turn weak submissions into successful acquisitions---or strong acquisitions into even stronger ones---unless those books were predicted to be big sellers, or, unless the modest sales of the books on which I was working so hard, were offset by the bestselling sales of other books that I was publishing that year. All of he Big 5 U.S. publishers have access to annual 'profit and loss' statements for their senior acquisitions editors. Whether or not these profit & loss statements are reviewed every year, and whether or not they are discussed openly with editors, varies by company.
At St. Martin's, where upfront communication is integral to the company's heart and character, these P&L statements for the previous year are printed out annually and reviewed with each editor, and the amount of one's raise and/or bonus depends on them. Although I banked on my P&L successes over the years, I still couldn't burn the financial model for editorial merit into my idealistic head. To me, a good book was a good book, and equal in importance to all of the other good books on my list. In the end, the lesson I learned the hard way is this: Maxwell Perkins---with his long editorial critiques of F. Scott Fitzgerald's and Hemingway's manuscripts, in letters and over drinks---is dead.
In truth, mainstream book publishing is a struggling bottom-line industry---and this has never been more true than today, with the specter of Amazon's hegemony looming ever larger. In the modern corporate book world, the vital measure of a book editor's worth is the monetary success (or failure) of her acquisitions. Given these financial pressures, editors can waste no time working on "promising" manuscripts or trying to help a writer or agent figure out why a submission doesn't work, when the only way for an editor and publisher to survive, and thrive, is to publish the submissions that march perfectly formed into the acquisitions meetings.
There are many successful mainstream editors in the U.S. whose published books include a long string of big sellers, and these fortunate professionals have the freedom to acquire beloved projects (that don't require much, if any, editing) even if those books are not expected to bring in a lot of revenue. This opportunity to give life to a manuscript, in spite of the bottom line, reflects the reason that most of us chose this career in the first place: to experience the power and joy of bringing a wonderful new writer and book into the world, regardless of the predicted size of the Barnes & Noble order.
Eventually, my "astute developmental editorial skills" left me looking up from the street at my former office on the 18th Floor of the historic Flatiron Building. I have no resentment. Book publishing is a fiercely competitive business that is fighting for its life, and we all must accept that fact. Anyway, now, at last, I am able to openly share my prodigious publishing and editorial wisdom, instead of holding it back. In the end, helping a writer revise a proposal or manuscript so that will be more irresistible to a literary agent and publisher---or to countless readers, if self-published--- is as exhilarating for me as it was to lead a winning submission proudly to the publisher's acquisitions table.