Interpreting Editorese

April 06, 2009

When I was an acquisitions editor at a university press, I went to a lot of academic conferences. I would attend papers and panels, make appointments to see people whose work I admired, and take authors and potential authors out for coffee, breakfast, lunch, dinner, and drinks. I would smile until my face hurt, and nod my head until I was dizzy.

Any spare time I had at those meetings, I liked to spend with other editors. I believe in the general intelligence, kindness, and forthrightness of book editors.

Now that I am an academic and an author myself, I sometimes do a dog-and-pony-show with an acquisitions editor, talking at conferences about getting published. But whenever we're on a panel together and he's speaking, I feel like I should hold up little cards that repeat or translate what he's saying as directly as possible. It's not that he's being obscure or disingenuous, not at all. It's that when it comes to conversations between editors and authors, authors tend to hear what they want to hear and not necessarily what's actually been said.

I've noticed plenty of academics equate an editor's polite expression of interest with a promise to publish.

One colleague told me that she was up for tenure, and felt pretty good about her far-from-finished manuscript because a good university press had said it would publish the book. So I quizzed her a little. Had the editor actually seen any of the manuscript? Well, no, but he said it was just his company's cup of tea. Did the press have a peer-review process? Of course it did, she said, in a huff. Was there a board of editorial advisers? She had no idea, and was now irritated. What does it matter?, she wanted to know. The editor was interested. All she had to do was finish the manuscript and ship it off.

It matters. Let me tell you something about the editorial breed. They are, by nature, "interested." In things, in ideas, in people, in potential book projects. If you approach them at a conference, run into them at a bar, sidle up to them during a long run, and tell them about the project you're working on, provided it's reasonably close to a field in which they publish, they are going to act interested. They most likely will be. They will certainly say they are.

In some rare cases, an editor will give you a clear and blanket no. Publishing tends to work by category: If a press doesn't do books in your category, you shouldn't want to publish with it. If you're told, We don't publish classical philology (or we don't do memoirs, fiction, or Festschrifts), take it as a no and don't try to convince the editor otherwise. Most of the time, though, if you run into an editor at a conference in your discipline, she's likely to be publishing books in that field.

Even if you describe the world's most boring, narrow, marketless monograph, most editors won't want to take the chance of missing out on something that could be good. They'll say, "That sounds interesting. I'd like to see it."

Here's the good news. You've gotten the name of a real person at a real press, and you can write a cover letter reminding her that she asked to see the manuscript. But what are the odds that the conversation will lead to publication? You wouldn't want to bet the farm on it. Or even a bale of hay. It's a good first step, but there are a whole lot more.

What are your obligations as a scholar if an editor asks to see something you've written? Is there a deadline? A time by which he will no longer be interested? If she says it sounds "perfect for our list," what does that mean?

Many of my friends have freaked out when an editor has asked to read their work. "What do I do, Rach?" asked a panicky friend recently. "He said he wants to see a proposal and I don't have anything ready to send him." I didn't see what the problem was. But she felt an obligation to get the editor something right away. Because she is a good friend, I said to her, "Are you nuts? Do you really think he's sitting around wondering why he hasn't heard from you? Do you think he's staying up at night, pacing, wondering when he is going to be able to read your manuscript?"

I'm only this mean to my closest friends.

Editors are in the business of asking to see manuscripts. It's what they do. They ask to see lots of them, and then they reject most.

Editors are habitually, characterologically eager. They may make it sound like you have to send them your stuff today! They can't wait to read it! It sounds so exciting! But the truth is, they're also overworked and usually overwhelmed by piles of unread manuscripts. They want to read your work, but it may take a while to get to it.

Here's what I remember about being a press editor. Those manuscripts sit on your desk and taunt you while you do budgets, write copy, send out contracts, line up readers, and prepare for and attend meetings. And more meetings. So while editors are, in fact, enthusiastic about the projects they've heard about when face-to-face with potential authors, by the time they get back to their offices, they're whupped. Those big piles of paper can sit there for a long time. It's best to remember that before you rush to send something off immediately after meeting an editor.

And even if an editor loves, loves, loves your work, she is still likely to have to shepherd it through some kind of review process — either internally, in the case of a trade house, or to external academic readers. Many manuscripts die that way, despite the "interest" of the press. Those that are not outright killed can be wounded and sent back to you for some critical care.

Looking back, I'm sure I often gave academics the wrong impression, even if I never said anything I didn't mean. When someone described a project to me, what I saw were possibilities, all the ways it could go right: The argument would be strong and clear, the scholarship sound, the topic important, the structure solid and logical, the writing engaging. I wouldn't think for a moment about how hard it is to do all of that. I'd just think, Wow, this could be great. Most of the time, when the manuscript came in, I was disappointed on one or more of those fronts. Not because I didn't believe in the author, or didn't think the idea was interesting, but because it's really hard to write a good book.

So go ahead, make contact with an editor. You won't be sorry. You will almost certainly have a good conversation because, as I say, these are smart, well-intentioned, honorable people who are usually happy to be helpful. But before you tell your friends and colleagues that a press is "interested," be sure that you can back it up. Like, with a contract. That's what I call an expression of interest.

Rachel Toor is an assistant professor of creative writing at Eastern Washington University, in Spokane.