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Red Pens and Invisible Ink

16 May 2017

From Slate:

In 2008 I published a short piece in Cabinet magazine on the fate of writer Thomas Browne’s skull, stolen from his coffin 158 years after his death. It caught the attention of an editor at a small press called Unbridled Books, Fred Ramey, who contacted me and asked if I would develop it into what became my first book. He particularly praised the final line of the Cabinet piece, saying that line showed him I was a strong writer. I didn’t have the courage to tell him that the line in question had not been written by me but added by my editor at Cabinet, Sina Najafi.

Who can properly claim credit for such a line, written by the editor but appearing under the name of the writer? Where is the editor’s hand evident—if at all—in the writer’s work? Ramey asks these questions in The Insect Dialogues, a book-length conversation with another writer, Marc Estrin, on the role and responsibility of the editor.

In early 2000, Estrin submitted a 900-page manuscript to Ramey, then an editor at Penguin Putnam; Ramey agreed to publish it only on the condition that they cut 300 pages and significantly revise it. The result, Insect Dreams: The Half-Life of Gregor Samsa, went on to garner critical acclaim (though moderate sales) and initiated a professional relationship and friendship between the two. Ramey eventually left Penguin Putnam and co-founded Unbridled Books; there he published five more of Estrin’s books through 2009. (Ramey also published my second book, though we haven’t worked together in over five years.)

Since then, though, Estrin has founded his own press, Fomite Press, and in 2016 decided to publish his original, unadulterated manuscript, now titled Kafka’s Roach: The Life and Times of Gregor Samsa. While Ramey gave Estrin his blessing, he feared such a move might be seen as a repudiation of his original editing, and so a third book was born: The Insect Dialogues, a transcription of a three-month email exchange in which the two discuss the history of this book in particular and, through it, much larger questions of publishing, editing, and authorial authority.

So within these pages there’s a hint of recrimination, at times even bitterness. What’s clear is that Estrin, despite his gratitude for a publishing break, never seems to have considered Insect Dreams entirely his. He refers to it as “my book in Fred’s edit,” or “Fred’s Gregor,” the novel that’s been “fredited,” all the while keeping hold of the manuscript he calls “the original Gregor.” Ramey in turn sees Estrin’s decision to publish his original manuscript as, at least in part, a repudiation both of Ramey’s editorial work and the larger question of editing altogether. “At the end of the day,” he worries, “Kafka’s Roach will become and always be the real novel; Insect Dreams will be the artificial, tainted construct.”

Link to the rest at Slate


32 Comments to “Red Pens and Invisible Ink”

  1. Cut a third of it out and change the rest? No, that wasn’t the author’s book anymore.

  2. So the author saw no value in a collaborative relationship beyond getting his book into print. Sort of like marrying for money.

  3. This is the problem with editors. Not the kind that catch mistakes and problems with flow, pace and plot, but the kind that insist on cutting large portions of a manuscript and “significantly” revising it.

    At that point, it’s no longer the author’s work. No longer their vision, saying what the author intended to say. The editor turns the book into *their* vision and makes it say what *they* mean to say.

    As the author, I’m the one who knows what I’m trying to communicate to the reader. The only thing I need to know is I’m succeeding.

  4. So… an author writes a book as he thinks it should be, the editor demands he delete a third of it or he won’t publish it, the author reluctantly agrees (because obviously he wants to get his book published), and then when the author decides to publish his original version the editor gets his feelings hurt? Yeah…

    • Felix J. Torres

      Philip Jose Farmer did that with his TWO HAWKS FROM EARTH in 1979 (originally butchered in 1965 as The Gate of Time). Same story but with 10000 very significant words restored.

      By then he was big enough not to get blacklisted.
      Many others just had to grin and bear it.

  5. Learn to self-edit strenuously – don’t let words survive which should have been cut – stand behind your work.

    Many of the ‘greats’ have red ink all over ‘their’ work.

    An editor might be useful for learning, but after a certain point the author should take over and become a professional.

    The problem is that editors working for big publishers haven’t been editing the work, they have been adapting it for the markets they see. There has always been a market for the Reader’s Digest condensed version.

    • “The problem is that editors working for big publishers haven’t been editing the work, they have been adapting it for the markets they see.”

      That definitely seems to be the case when an editor acquires a book but will only publish it once it’s been butchered to the editor’s requirements. At some point it’s no longer “making the book the best it can be”, it’s “making the book what we want it to be to sell to the markets we’ve decided exist”.

      • It’s no longer the author’s book when he sells the rights. Everything else flows from there.

        The publisher is buying raw material, and fashioning it to make money. Just like widgets.

        • Felix J. Torres

          Say it ain’t so!
          Books are special!

          Those same publishers say so.
          You make it sound like they stripmine the creativity and careers of their writers!


  6. Al the Great and Powerful

    I am torn. Perhaps it WAS overlong, and the editor did significant improvement. If so, why are they not co-authors?

    If it was just a trim because the editor had a market for 600 pages but not 900, did they do the author any favor? You might see it either way; it got published (the goal), but it got drastically remodeled away from the author’s intent.

    At this point I say let them burn all bridges and see how the 900 page original sells WITHOUT ANY MENTION OF THE EDITED VERSION IN ANY ADS OR MARKETING OR INTERVIEWS. See if the original, faced with the same level of interest (that is to say, getting no boost from association with the trimmed version) sells better or worse.

    Me, I wouldn’t read 300 pages of Kafka’s story or any derivative, let alone 600 or 900. Nope.

    • I agree. While you can argue that only the author really knows what they are trying to communicate, there are times when someone should talk them out of it.

      • Felix J. Torres

        So why buy such an obviously “defective” book?
        No better use of the editor’s time?
        To hold on to the slot in the system?

  7. Who can properly claim credit for such a line, written by the editor but appearing under the name of the writer?

    An editor I knew was lamenting that writers don’t get enough credit by editors. She had been a reporter, and she said that at job interviews editors routinely would say, “That’s a great line! Who wrote that for you?”

    She was comparing this treatment to photographers, who are assumed to be responsible for every aspect of their photos. The greatness of a photo is due to the greatness of a photographer, but the greatness of writing is assumed to be due to the greatness of an editor, not the writer. I’ve since wondered how many editors are walking around with that idea. I don’t want to hire any of them.

    With Ramey though, I don’t know that he was necessarily wrong for cutting 300 pages out of 900. In fantasy at least you don’t get that page length without a flow-chart’s worth of POV characters. Omnibus editions of the “Lord of the Rings” don’t get up that high; from what I can tell of Estrin’s description there’s only one POV character. Regardless, a book that size is expensive to print, and I only see colossal doorstoppers when they have the names Stephen King or GRRM or Robert Jordan, etc. on the spine: names that recoup the cost. I’ve never heard of Estrin (which isn’t saying much; until he posted here I never heard of Lee Child). Ramey had to care about printing costs, Estrin didn’t. I suspect any editor in Ramey’s place would have done similar, without malice aforethought.

    In Estrin’s place, if I really thought all 900 pages were necessary, I would have withheld the book until I had a better bargaining position, and published something else instead. Especially because in the pre-indie days editors made it clear that word count restrictions were related to their bottom line. If nothing else I hope newbies take from this that if they indie publish they can go with their “writer’s cut” from the get-go.

  8. Having both suffered and greatly benefited from editors over the course of selling 100 books to trad pubs, I have mixed feelings.

    Sometimes the editor encourages major improvements. Other times, changes are made for practical reasons that neither improve nor harm, merely alter. And of course, some editors do horrible, nasty things (I’ve mostly escaped that. But a few times, I did have to fight).

    As a former reviewer for Publishers Weekly, I once was assigned an “author’s cut” version of a bestselling book, considerably longer than the original published version (which I had not read). It lacked structure and, frankly, needed cutting. That author was lucky to get a good editor the first time, in my opinion.

    As for editors becoming co-authors, not unless the editor contributes significant amounts of original material with the author’s blessing. A critique and a few new lines here or there do not constitute co-authorship.

    Lots of people fantasize that they’re really novelists because they can tweak material, but unless they can start from the blank page or screen and create–or, as I said, add significant new material that greatly improves the work, with the author’s approval–they are an editor. Maybe a very good one, but an editor.

    The TV and movie world operates differently when it comes to rewrites and credit. At least those writers have a union. But I don’t envy them.

    • Felix J. Torres

      The TV and Movie world took their formative cues from radio and Madison Avenue. No delusions of literature there. And they’re better off for it; they can actually enjoy when they craft an actual jewel, which happens with some frequency.

  9. I buy the complete works of writers I enjoy. I get all of their books, first to latest so that I cam see their growth. I’ve been doing that since the 70s. In the 90s I started seeing something bizarre, the authors I loved were putting out crap. They weren’t getting better with time, they were getting worse. Then I realized what was really happening, those authors never knew how to write finished copy in the first place. The industry was simply not cleaning up the final prose anymore and we were seeing how they actually wrote.

    In the early days, editors were the unacknowledged co-authors, sometimes completely rewriting the work.

    As the industry changed, too many authors were allowed to stamp STET everywhere, they even bragged about it in essays. So now, you have some authors literally putting out rough drafts because they have gamed a system that is trying to fill a monthly slot with a Famous Name. I don’t buy their books anymore. Yet they keep getting published because no one will point out that the Emperor has no clothes.

    This is why I love Indy, what I publish is what I publish. I don’t have an editor second guessing the work. There is no one trying to change the books for their benefit at the expense of what I am trying to do. The books can sit in the system for decades, available, not out of print. I have the time to weave a vast story across many titles, or create jigsaw puzzle pieces for people to assemble.

    If no one buys the books, and nobody reads them, I am pleased that the books are the way I want them to be. Time will prove me right, or wrong, and I will have fun in the process.

    • Felix J. Torres

      Many get to be “too big to edit”.
      Some are lucky and tank one big enough to wake them up. Others just keep blythely (or purposefully) collecting their paychecks while their brand withers. They built it, they wreck it.

    • On the other hand, the authors might’ve still been getting better, but were now stuck with cruddy editors that didn’t know what the heck they were doing and were mangling the books.

      Unless the writers tell us what’s been going on during that time, we have no way of knowing.

  10. 900 pages?! Sometimes it feels like writers forget that there is a reader on the other side of things. You can’t follow every possible thread of the story. That said, it takes a good editor to find and keep the heart of the story.

    I tried an abridged version of Les Misérables, thinking I could do with a bit less about sewers and nunneries. Instead they chopped parts of the Bishop’s story, and that was it for me. (To be fair, Hugo and others of the era got paid by the word for first-right newspaper serializations. And usually had a lot of debts!)

    • I was thinking of Les Mis when I saw this post. Thank you for confirming what I suspected, that an abridged Les Mis would cut out the important parts and leave in the digressions. I’ll just go ahead and get the complete version and skip the boring parts.

    • In 2012, I finished writing (and posting) a fanfic that’s 300k words long. It’s definitely a single story and could not be easily broken into a trilogy. I still get frequent comments/notes from people who’ve read and enjoyed it. I’ve had several people say they read it over a weekend.

      My point is, no one edited that story. Even I didn’t edit with the goal of cutting it down (I edited for things like consistency and line editing). One of the main goals I had when writing it was making sure I saw every single plot thread through to a satisfying conclusion.

      So yeah, people do like long books, as long as they’re good and keep the reader interested. I know that, as a reader myself, if I’m reading a book and it’s boring, 40k can be too long. If I’m sucked in and loving it, it could go on for many hundreds of thousands of words and I’ll still blaze through it. All of which is why arbitrary word limits (aside from the cost of printed books) are stupid and one of the reasons I’m glad I decided to go indie.

      • Felix J. Torres

        Length is not a good criterion to judge a book by.
        Some great stories are inherently long, some inherently short.
        Good thing about ebooks: it no longer matters as long as it keeps the reader going. Some of my favorite books are nice and long. And still not long enough.

        (But it helps to minimize infodumps, which is something Melville and Hugo didn’t quite grasp.) 😉

        • Grrrrh. I don’t have an opinion on Hugo, but don’t take a word from Moby Dick. A single word. Remove a single word and I want to see blood on the floor. I read that book about every two years and each time it is better and I further appreciate the strange ways that book holds together. I can’t understand, much less explain it, but it just gets better.

        • I don’t know about Melville, but Hugo definitely had some other things going on. Namely, problems with creditors (would you believe that drinking and gambling aren’t a great combination?!) “Okay, need to come up with an extra 500 francs…. Let’s see, I’ll throw in a loop about forests and that should do it.”

  11. I’ve read all these comments, this discussion, with interest. The issues you all raise are the same ones Marc and I tried to hash out. The questions and challenges are legitimate, and they’re why I wanted to do The Insect Dialogues in the first place. I’m not sure that Marc and I resolve anything in our discussion, but we try to be honest about the forces at work on an author of such strength, vision and ambition in a commercial literary world. I hope the Dialogues are honest, too, about what it means to put oneself — as editor — into the position of the first reader, a decision that is necessarily taken within a storm of ethical and practical complexities. Thank you all for taking the topic seriously — to my mind it’s an important one; I keep wrestling with it.

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