At the end of a long NYT Sunday Business section story about the unpredictable alchemy that makes a best seller—a story that centers around the tale of Random House’s Prep (a prep school coming-of-age tale written by Curtis Sittenfeld and originally titled Cipher)—comes this:
Editors’ note: The editor of the Sunday Business section is under contract to Random House and did not edit this article.
Nope, just green-lighted it and decided it should go on the section’s front page. To me, though, the strangest part about this piece is the notion that book publishing is such a crap shoot is because it is full of starry-eyed liberal arts majors, content to work for peanuts, who daren’t soil their pure souls with notions such as marketing, and that “compensation is not tied to sales.” Uh, maybe once. But you ask anyone who works in publishing or who’s written a book in the last few years and the problem is the exact opposite. Sales are completely driving the business, meaning more and more editors’ sole concern is acquisitions—there’s barely any EDITING going on any more.
(True, the acquisitions process seems to be largely driven by group think, which is why we have a ten-year run of far-too-many dysfunctional family memoirs, for example.)
The horror stories of lack of editing are legion. Book publishers almost never fact-check, so you got to find someone to do that for you. And more and more writers are hiring editors, because the ones they’ve got through the publishing house—particularly if their original editor has moved on—just can’t be bothered. One friend recalls how after toiling over a manuscript for three years, his editor gave it a quick read-through, marking it with little else than smiley faces (stuff she liked) and z’s (stuff she found boring). “Three years of my life, smiley faces and z’s.” Sadly this is hardly an isolated incident.