We talk in this business of “great rejections” and laugh. Isn’t it wonderful that editors say nice things about books when they are rejecting them? Well, the truth is that no editor has to take the time to say anything nice, though many do, of course. In fact, I have always advised my assistants and interns over the years to try and find something good to say, but only if they can be genuine in doing so. And it’s a far cry from the publishing myth of the assistant who was fired for writing, “It’s a shame that trees had to die so that you might have paper upon which to print this drivel,” to “Thank you for your submission. Unfortunately, your work does not meet the needs of our list at this time.”
Editors don’t have to say anything nice. The standard “not right for our list” works just fine. So when they take the time to say that they liked a particular character’s voice, but not the story, or they liked the writing, but not the plot, that can be a good indicator of whether or not your work has potential.
Of course, if ten editors say they like the writing and not the plot, it may be time to stick that book on a shelf and start something new. If ten editors say the plot is brilliant but the writing isn’t strong enough, it’s time to stop submitting and get into a critique group and rewrite and rewrite. Or perhaps hire a book doctor to help you get the rewrite done.
Book doctors are an interesting subject. The difference between an editor working for a publisher and a book doctor should be zero. Except that an author is paying a book doctor and thus there’s an incentive to keep the project alive, so that the money keeps flowing. Kind of like a lawyer and a lawsuit. I was in a lawsuit once, that I started, and never once did the attorney actively encourage me to (1) not file the suit or (2) drop it. As long as my checks were clearing, they were happy to keep working on it. And I think the same can be true of some book doctors.
I once said I could never be a full-time book doctor because—at least at the start—you can’t really turn anything down, no matter how bad it is. After all, you’re trying to earn a living. So, even though a project might be not publishable, even though you know nothing you can do will make it appeal to publishing houses, you take it on and go through the motions because you need to pay the mortgage.
If you are an author thinking about hiring a book doctor, here’s a list of questions to help you decide if you should go with one or not:
- How many of the books that you’ve worked on have gone on to be published by reputable, advance-paying publishers?
- How many a books a year do you edit?
- How many books do you edit at one time?
- How many books a year do you refuse to edit? Why would you turn down an editing job?
- Do you have a written contract for editorial work?
- Do you work by project or by the hour? If by project, what determines when we are done?
- What is your project/hourly rate?
- Can I see samples of your work, e.g., editorial letters you’ve written to other science fiction/romance/thriller authors?
- What publishing houses have you worked at? What kinds of books did you acquire and edit at those houses?
- Why did you become a book doctor, rather than stay in-house or become an agent?