How Editors Think

Here is how editors think about and sort projects:

Principle Number One

Don’t Even Think About Reading Unsolicited Submissions.

This means if you get something from an agent (or God forbid an un-agented writer) that you did not ask to see, or don’t know, it’s Slush.

Slush is the stuff assistants have to reject with form letters (or just throw out unanswered) in their “free” time. And assistants have no free time. Even weekends are filled with reading and, in my case when I was a baby editor, background work necessary to learn the craft.

So an “agent” who does not have a direct line to an editor is worse than useless.

They have no more clout than a writer does who sends his work over the transom.

If your agent cannot get an editor to return a phone call or email, he’s not an agent. He’s an actor. He may be a wonderful actor, but he will never bring you a deal.

Principle Number Two

You Must Break Down Legitimate Agent Submissions Into Two Piles.

The First Pile is Stuff that Excites You.  This Is What You Read First:

These are agent pitches that strike a chord with the editor. The editor likes the idea of them and the commercial potential of them. Has already started putting together an in-house pitch in his mind after the call with the agent. Is thinking this could be the book to fill that hole in Fall 2017. Don’t forget these people have to keep feeding the monster (the schedule for the next six seasons).

He may even just like the agent, having worked with her before and knowing that she’s as much of a story nerd as he is. She’ll call in favors and help when the book comes out. She gives him some security. He knows that she’s not just going to sell the thing and run away.

If you have one submission a week like this, you are a lucky editor. Usually you get maybe just one or two a month. But these are the ones that make up for all of the other stuff you put up with. These are the projects that keep you directed and sane.

The Second Pile Are Ass-covering Submissions from Big Agents and/or Buzzy Projects.  These You Read Second:

These are projects that may not be all that exciting to the editor, but they need to be read and responded to quickly so that the editor doesn’t piss off a powerful agent.  Part of what agents sell to potential clients isn’t just getting a deal.  It’s getting an answer!  Quickly! So you if take your good old time getting back to Esther Newberg, you can count on her not being so enamored with you.

Or in many cases, this kind of material will slide downhill from the editor’s publisher’s desk. (The boss who approves the editor’s salary and expenses).

Publishers always do this. They agree to personally take on a submission, especially if it’s an exclusive hush-hush one from someone like Tina Bennett’s old bosses at Janklow & Nesbit. And then they’ll pass it to the chump underneath them.


Because the publisher doesn’t want to damage his or her relationships with sources of the best material.

Better to blame the senior editor who works for them than to take responsibility for rejecting the “great opportunity to pick up a bestselling writer (who has been overpaid and is shedding readers faster than Walter Payton shed tacklers )” themselves.

Hey, I thought it was terrific, but I have to listen to my staff or I’ll have to do all of this crap myself…hey hey…you understand…how about Petrossian at 1?

What happens if the editor actually loves the project that gets passed to him and tells the publisher they should acquire the book?

Well, if the book works (it’s a commercial success), then the publisher takes the credit for “getting it in.” And if it doesn’t work, the editor gets the blame for having “poor judgment” or worse “screwing the book up with his editorial demands.”

You understand that I’m taking these scenarios to the most extreme poles, right? Some publishers are mensches who bend over backwards to be upfront with an editor (Dude, take one for the team on this one and I’ll let you buy that short story collection you’ve been pestering me about).

While others aren’t.

The publishers who throw editors under the bus don’t do it because they’re inherently evil. At least I hope not.

They do it because they’re scared.

They simply have no vision. And most likely, they’ve reached their positions through a combo of personality, luck and politicking. See my description in the last post about Story enthusiast poseurs…

They don’t trust themselves (there is no “there” there of craft that they rely on to support their opinions) so why in the Hell would they trust you?

And also remember, just to put even more seasoning into this absurd industrial stew, that literary gravitas is not a black and white thing.

Few in the business are 100% Rain Man Craftsmen or 100% Enthusiastic Bullshit Artists.

Everyone has at least a little craft to go with their dominant BS or a little BS to go with their heavy craft. There’s a spectrum of intellectual chicanery, which makes it hard to pinpoint any one member of the community in one’s own mind. You don’t really know who your peeps are. Are they in it for the craft or for the sizzle?

Truth be told, you’re not even sure where you fit on that line. Some days you feel like Maxwell Perkins, others you feel like Clifford Irving. The True Gen versus the Fraud is the bipolar mindset of the editor. To say it gets hinky is an understatement.

Which all leads to a certain base level of editorial paranoia. Trusting the funny gal down the hall, no matter her patter and “team spirit,” is often something one does at one’s own peril.

She’s your supportive friend on Monday and on Tuesday she stabs you in the back with no warning about her upcoming “sorry but I’m just being honest” desecration of the project you’ve been trying to get through the editorial board for months.

Ah the good old days…

The other submissions in this cover-your-ass category are projects being talked up by foreign and film scouts. Here’s an old Observer piece about scouts.

There are a lot of scouts who serve as the royal court for the publishing kingdom. These people are usually very nice—especially if you’re an editor who just got a big job—and they are real artists at making “connections” with powerful editors, publishers and agents.

But they are not your friends.

They are in the business of getting inside information, which production companies and foreign publishers literally pay monthly retainers to be privy to.

Don’t forget that if you are an editor or agent.

Confiding anything personal to them will prove fodder for industry gossip. Don’t talk about your attraction to the art director or how many mai tais you had at lunch or how fat you feel. Unless you’re an even better Machiavelli than they…just be cordial and respectful. They work their asses off and can squash you like a bug.

And always remember to pay your debts.

If you need information and they give it to you, you owe them. It’s a two way street. Don’t be Mr. Ethics after one of these people saves your ass. Pay up and shut up.

At one time or another, every editor and every agent will find themselves in a very tight spot where they need (you don’t really need to but you think you do) to trade on information. Don’t try and wiggle out of giving up the goodies after you’ve risen to Editor-in-Chief by eating off someone else’s dessert tray.

Getting on the wrong side of a powerful scout can really sabotage your career. These scouts have the ears of everyone in the business and if they start talking smack about you or worse still…your books!…it’s impossible to fight back.

Bad juju for a book often has a lot to do with editor as much as the writer. Don’t get a book killed (no sell-in, no reviews, no nothing) because you spilled a liter of Lowenbrau on Lauri Del Commune at the Franfurter hof and then pulled a John Riggins “Loosen up Lauri Baby!” just before you passed out underneath FSG’s goodie bag table. (My sincerest apologies again, Lauri)

So if you hear about a book in your purview from a scout (or that funny colleague down the hall who heard about it from her scout friend) that is on submission elsewhere and you don’t have it (the agent did not send it to you in her first round of submissions, GASP!)…you’ll find yourself doing that thing that no editor wants to do.

You’ll have to call the agent for the project and ask her to officially submit it to you.

Mind you, you don’t do this if you can get the book “slipped” to you unofficially…which means a scout does you a favor. She has a copy of it, makes one for you and sends it over under the radar. You prostrate yourself to the scout to get the book because you don’t want to call and ask the agent for the submission if it’s not something you’d want to acquire.

So you read it without the agent knowing before you actually ask to see it…

Why all the subterfuge?

When an agent doesn’t include you in her first round of submissions, it means one of two things, 1) she’s mad at you for rejecting something in the past or 2) she doesn’t think you have the “weight” to get enough support to acquire it.

Number one is bad enough, but it’s fixable. You just kiss ass until you hate yourself and the agent will usually fold and send it to you. The last thing you want to do, though, is beg for her to send it to you and then reject it…so you worm around and find a way to read it before you make that call. If you love it, then no harm no foul. You make the call asking the agent to submit it to you because you know already that you love the manuscript.  You’re going to make her happy by supporting the book and bring her an offer, so making the call isn’t that hard.

You wait for it to come in officially, and then the next day you call back and tell the agent you love it and want to get some other reads in-house and move it on down the acquisitions line.

That smooths things over good.

But if it’s number two (the agent thinks you’re a light weight), your heart literally stops for a few beats.

Especially if the agent actually tells you…I just don’t think you have the support over there to get this kind of deal done, so I sent it to Eve Harrington!

Guess who Eve Harrington is? …that funny gal down the hall who used to be your friend who then sabotaged you in the editorial meeting by “just being honest” and then chatted up your best agent contact in a way to get her to send her the book everyone is talking about.  Then she told you about the book that you didn’t get in without telling you she had it in.  You panic and scramble to read the thing under the radar…and then call the agent who then tells you that she sent it to the very person who freaked you out in the first place…

See how this can get really painful?  And petty?  And how the writer of the very book everyone is fighting over becomes like the least important element in the entire drama?

If an editor ever hears that an agent doesn’t think he has the weight to get seven figures to buy her projects, and thank God I got out of the big houses before I heard that, he better start planning for the worst. A hard rain is gonna fall and he better start hunting for a big umbrella.

What’s the umbrella?  It’s craft.  Learn the craft and all of this drama reveals itself for what it really is…Bullshit.

So that’s how editors sort submissions. Lots of fun huh?

Good information to know if you’re an agent, though.

So what do you do with that knowledge? Like practically?

That’s next.

16 comments on “How Editors Think

  1. Hilarious, painfully honest, highly entertaining, and incredibly helpful! It just keeps getting better and better.

    Thanks, Shawn!

  2. Jay Cadmus says:

    Sounds like editors and agents are humans, too. Suspicion led me here. But, I wanted to believe that there might be a God in the publishing house. Guess I have to work harder. And, spend more to those “ten-thousand hours.” You are keeping me grounded.

  3. Mary Doyle says:

    “You just kiss ass until you hate yourself.” My morning coffee almost came out my nose when I read that line. I hope you’re planning to turn this “inside look” into a book. Keep it coming – as always, thanks!

    1. And please, O! please, can I play Philboyd Studge, assistant to Sean O’Coin (you know they’ll spell it that way) in the movie version?

      1. Alec Graf says:

        Opening scene: Eve Harrington in the supply room getting garroted with a typewriter ribbon…

  4. Lea Page says:

    My father was a low-level reader at Ballantine and tried to interest the higher-ups in an unusual story. They passed, thinking that no one would be interested in hobbits.

    1. Tina Goodman says:

      So funny!

    2. Larry says:

      What a great 2-sentence Story. How would one Foolscap it?

  5. jim says:

    thanks for another exciting episode of ,

  6. maggy simony says:

    Well I DID get a contract from a major reference book publisher for my self-published series of travel bibliographies and here’s how it happened. NO AGENT. My books got reviewed by Booklist and Library Journal. After that I sent them with a proposal to Holt Rinehart. Heard nothing for a while and a small travel book publisher in CT indicated interest. So I called Holt, got the editor who had them and she said, “Well you know they’re sitting on my desk and people keep borrowing them and telling me they like them. I don’t see them as one of our books but I’ve taken the liberty of sending them to a friend of mine at Facts on File.”

    And that’s how I got a contract with and advance. THEN I was so stupid I hired an agent, when I’d already done the work myself! And as time went on — they did a second edition several years later with me as editor — I was sorry I hadn’t gone with that little travel publisher with no advance. I really SAW my series as “travel” books, paperbacks not the one-volume hardcover at 50 bucks that Facts on File published it as. Terrible last sentence.

    What I learned? I had absolutely no credentials on paper qualifying me to compile a travel bibliography — I just did a book I knew I would love as an armchair traveler myself. So I had to self publish, no one would have considered me as an editor. Once the two reviewers that librarians use approved my book, no one gave a damn that I didn’t have any credentials to do the work.

  7. Brilliant. Thanks for all that … I think.

  8. shelley says:

    Thoroughly enjoying each of your articles, Shawn. Spending probably more time reading them than writing the ones I have due myself, but it’s a joyful way to play hookie from work.

  9. Patrick Maher says:

    One of the best yet!

  10. Justin Fike says:

    Actually laughed aloud while reading this. Very insightful and a great reminder to us writers that “nobody thinks about you as much as you do” to quote one of my mother’s favorite sayings. Looking forward to the next one.

  11. Tony Levelle says:

    Very interesting. A candid and well-written series looking at the ‘pro-athlete’ level of book publishing. It is a refreshing read.

  12. Talmage says:

    This is priceless information and riveting storytelling. Thank you.

    I had to google several words at the edges of my vocab, and one that I’d never seen before: “mensches.”

    Write another book and sell it to us, please. Your writing and your knowledge ought to be used to put food on your table. Call me an evil capitalist. I’ll only quibble with the word, evil.

    I feel like you’re giving away the farm, and it makes me worry about you. Maybe you don’t need the income. I hope that’s where you’re coming from, Shawn.

    “Rainmaker’s” advice is better than mine, for sure, but I know rare valuable content when I read it. This is it… This whole blog.


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