At the Malice Domestice Convention this year, I met Wildside Press publisher John Betancourt in the book room and received from him a gift of his 1993 anthology Swashbuckling Editor Stories. In John’s introduction, after noting that editors are “underpaid, overworked, their labor usually unacknowledged . . ., [and are] risking eyestrain and blindness . . . , stress-induced strokes from sales conferences, and heart attacks from constant pressure . . . ,” he says that nevertheless “eager young would-be editors flood the streets of Publisher’s Row by the thousands.”
I have no idea whether it’s still true today—twenty years after John’s book went to press—that new college English graduates are pounding the pavements looking for entry-level editorial positions. We have too little turnover at the Dell fiction magazines to gauge how many such job seekers there are out there. But one thing is certain: If publishing retains its romantic aura for new graduates, this is the season (university terms just ended) that they’ll be out there in their swarms. So I thought I’d devote this week to offering a few reflections that may help—or maybe even give pause to—some of those young editors in the making.
Not long after I started in publishing I received an irate letter from an author whose novel I’d rejected that denounced the insularity of New York editors, who were, he claimed, disconnected from the rest of the country. As a Midwesterner who was proud to come from “flyover country,” I found his assertion ridiculous—never mind that just about everyone else I’d met in publishing was also from some other part of the country. The writer was clearly off base thinking there’s a bias in New York publishing against manuscripts from beyond the boundaries of the city’s boroughs. But in a strange way, his complaint came close to hitting on a truth.
Coming to New York to work is almost like passing into another country—and it’s one from which, more often than not, newcomers don’t return. It’s been said many times before in one way or another, but it’s probably worth restating: New York has a gravity that isn’t easily resisted. I’ve known many people who came to New York publishing from elsewhere; I’ve known few who’ve ever left the city’s orbit, within a few hours’ ground travel away. It’s hard to turn away from this city’s powerful energy. So beware, new graduates: You might not want to start on this journey unless you envision a life in or near the Big Apple. Technology is changing somewhat the need for a geographical center for publishing, but a newcomer’s best bet is still to be at the center of things, and for publishing, that’s still New York.
For those who decide life in the big city is for them, the next thing to consider is what kind of preparation is required to land an entry-level job. I came to EQMM midway through the magazine’s 50th anniversary year— a time of celebration that included a Bouchercon Convention panel devoted entirely to EQMM and its history. It was held in a large room, which, astonishingly, was packed full of readers, many of whom had come equipped with file cards—I kid you not— full of questions they intended to ask about stories published two, three, four, five decades past. I may have been EQMM’s editor, but I spent the first forty minutes of that panel swiveling my head back and forth between the experts around me, and thanking my luck that they could answer the questions. It was only in the last few minutes of the session that a question was addressed to me that could not be deflected to my more knowledgeable co-panelists. ‘This may be off topic,’ the member of the audience said—and here I paraphrase, ‘but I want to ask you, as a writer whose work you rejected both when you were a book editor and, more recently, at the magazine: What qualifications do you bring to the job?’
If you’ve ever suffered from nerves over public speaking, try that one on as a surprise question. Did this young writer want my resume? Would it give him satisfaction to know that I only got my first job because someone in Doubleday’s personnel department took pity on me after I’d failed the mandatory typing test twice and set the egg timer for more than the stipulated minutes?
I can’t remember how I answered my questioner on that occasion, but I know how I’d reply now. Students come out of colleges expecting that employers are going to be assessing the knowledge they’ve accumulated or their intellectual abilities and talents. In fact, the step in the door is rarely taken that way: before computers, expert typing was essential (for man or woman) and often a successful proofreading test. At our magazines, the latter is still entry-level job criteria number one. But it’s once the would-be editor is in the door that the real determination of qualifications begins. Experienced editors assign new editorial assistants manuscripts to report on. The decision whether an assistant will make the cut when opportunities for promotion open up is generally based in large part on those manuscript reports.
But it isn’t just literary judgment that’s in question: the market also speaks. The first editorial meetings I attended, as an assistant, were large affairs headed by an editor-in-chief who one day asked whether there was anyone in the room who didn’t have a TV. She didn’t want anyone (like me) who didn’t have a TV reading manuscripts, she said. She explained her requirement by challenging us to say how we could know what people were going to want to read—what books they’d buy—if we weren’t aware of what was attracting them in other cultural mediums. I’ve never been without a TV since, and I’ve never forgotten her point. It’s the editors who can pick the books or stories people want to read who find a place in the business.
An editor doesn’t just acquire books or stories, however. Much of the job involves interaction with authors and that, I guess, is what publishing’s reputation as a “glamour” business derives from. Some of those authors are bound either to be famous or to become so—and isn’t it a movie cliché that intimate editorial discussions with authors are held in exclusive restaurants over three-martini lunches? The cocktails part—way too many—is the one remnant of that old-time publishing picture that still survived when I started out, but even that’s mostly gone now. And even if it weren’t, no one who’s attracted to the business primarily by the opportunity to hobnob is going to last long. Most of an editor’s job is quiet, solitary, and taxing both mentally and emotionally.
It’s mentally taxing because of the wide range of subjects an editor has either to know something about or be willing to delve into enough to check facts; it’s emotionally taxing because the decisions that have to be made affect other people’s dreams. One of our magazines once received a submission from a prison chaplain on behalf of a prisoner on death row. The story came with a note imploring that a reply be sent quickly, because the prisoner didn’t have long to live. I think the absurdity of it would have made more of our staff laugh than did if it hadn’t been for the pitiable nature of that last hope—but it isn’t only the desperate to whom an editor’s decisions matter. I was at a conference once where I heard a very well published author state that she had felt more pleasure over the publication of her first novel than she did over the births of any of her children. Perhaps there was an element of narcissism in that, but it’s also possible that the author was simply expressing how powerful the urge for creative expression was in her.
An editor who doesn’t understand the force of that need to make a creative connection to the world, or who fails to understand how vulnerable a writer becomes in offering the products of his or her imagination to the world, is probably not going to gather to him- or herself a productive circle of authors. Empathy for the writer laboring over a creative work—no matter what level of quality is achieved—is, in my opinion, an essential qualification for this career. Certainly there is no point in encouraging false hopes in those who clearly don’t have the talent for publication; nevertheless, there’s an urge behind almost all fiction writing, good or bad, that deserves respect.
In John’s tongue-in-cheek introduction to Swashbuckling Editor Stories, he hits on some genuine hazards to the editorial profession. But worse than any of those commonly acknowledged downsides, in my view, is the necessity the job places upon one to dash hopes. On days when I’m writing rejecting letters—hands down my worst days—I’m almost always in a dark mood. Somewhere I read—perhaps on a writers’ forum, I can’t remember—the comment that editors are always looking for reasons to send a story back.
Nothing could be further from the truth. Who in their right mind would go into a profession with all the disadvantages John describes but for the thrill of discovery it simultaneously affords. To come across a great novel, a wonderful story, or a new writer with a distinctive voice, and then to have the happiness of bringing that as yet undiscovered treasure to others—that’s what it’s all about.
I was thinking that just the other day as I was reading submissions and chanced on several stories in a row that took me completely out of myself. I’d have paid, gladly, to read each one of those stories, and instead, someone was paying me to read them. When it comes to careers, it’s hard to beat that. If you think so too, new graduates, it’s time to get out there and knock on some doors.—Janet Hutchings