Guest Post: 9 Ways to Piss Off an Editor, by James L. Sutter

By far the most useful thing I’ve ever done for my writing career is getting into editing. Being the Fiction Editor for Paizo Publishing has helped me make connections with amazing editors and authors, taught me the business side of publishing from contracts to distribution, and helped me recognize common writing mistakes and cliches before making them myself. Yet as useful as all those are, none of those hold a candle to the most important lesson.

Editing teaches you how to avoid pissing off an editor.

I can’t stress enough how important this is. If you accidentally piss off an editor (or publisher, or agent, etc.), it no longer matters how good your stuff is. Editors are people–often relatively stressed-out, overworked people–and if they find working with you irritating, they’re naturally going to try to avoid it, consciously or otherwise. When an editor picks up your manuscript, you want them to be looking for reasons to accept you, not reject you. And a big part of that is making sure that you as an author are a joy to work with.

With that in mind, here are just a few ways I’ve seen authors shoot themselves in the foot.

Overconfidence

So you’ve had a few books published, or won an award. That’s great! As an editor, that gives me confidence that you know what you’re doing, as well as something useful to put on a back cover or in an author bio. Hopefully it even brings some fans. When new authors contact me, I want to know what they’ve done, and there’s no need for false modesty. Roll out that credit list–you’ve earned it.

The problem comes, however, when folks let their successes go to their head. No matter how successful you may be as an author, you’re never too big to fail. If you treat an editor in a disrespectful manner, or act like you’re doing them a favor by submitting a story, or don’t take them seriously because they’re younger/newer to the business than you, don’t be surprised when that editor decides to reject your story. Sure, maybe you really are big enough that you can come in swingin’ balls (to use an appropriately colorful term) and get away with it. But I’ve had to reject major award winners and New York Times bestsellers in my time as an editor, and I’ve only been at this for a few years. If you’re a big name and treat your editor well, he or she will jump at the chance to keep you happy and fast-track you through the process. But if you come in demanding special treatment, you lose more points than you gain.

Underconfidence

Remember how I said hubris was bad? Well, the truth of this industry is that a little hubris is necessary. At its heart, publishing is hubris: it’s assuming that the stories you tell are more entertaining than the stories other people can tell. If you want an editor to believe in you, you first need to believe in yourself.

In a practical sense, that means not being afraid to cite your credits, to proactively approach editors and publishers, and to present your work in a positive light. Self-deprecation went out of style in middle school, and I cringe every time an author sends me a story and says “this is crap, but hopefully you’ll like it.” How am I supposed to respond to that? You’re either telling the truth–it’s crap, and you’re either untalented or presume I’m desperate enough to buy it–or you’re lying in order to sell yourself short. Both are huge red flags, and as an editor my immediate response is to send it back, with a note informing the overly humble author that I only want to see a story when it’s ready.

In short: humility is good, but if you tell the world your work isn’t very good, the world is likely to take your word for it.

Being a Pretty Princess

This is the worst one, hands-down. With apologies to actual attractive princesses, what I mean by this term is the writers that are overly needy, argumentative, or otherwise difficult to work with.

Since all the fiction I purchase for Paizo is commissioned media tie-in for the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game, I suspect I deal with this less than most editors, because I do my best to make sure that authors understand that work-for-hire does not include any promise of creative control. Yet even then, there are still the authors who freak out when you change one of their painstakingly chosen words, or tell them to rewrite the ending, or ask that they cut that long rambling diatribe in the middle of the action sequence.

Now, I’m an author as well, and I understand that ultimately it’s the author’s name on the cover, and that if an editor changes a work for the worse, the author has to live with the consequences. But the flip side of that equation is that if you constantly argue with your editor or publicly decry the way he or she treated your manuscript, you’re guaranteed to get future books exactly how you like them–in manuscript form, in your desk drawer, unsold.

Business means compromise. While I’ve questioned edits plenty of times as an author–we’ve all got our blind spots, and I’ve certainly made mistakes that my authors kindly pointed out–the important thing is to do so in a respectful manner, and to pick your battles. Do you want five published books that are 95% the way you intended, or one published book that’s 100% the way you wanted it? Editors buy books from those writers who are easiest to work with, and talent only gets you so far.

A final word of warning: Editors talk. Our community is small, and if you have a knock-down, drag-out fight with your editor, or write them scathing emails about how they massacred your baby, other editors are going to hear about it. There are authors that I continue to hold at arms length despite perfect professionalism toward me, simply because of stories I’ve heard from other editors.

Failure to Thrive

The days when an author’s job ended once she typed “the end” are over–if indeed they ever existed. These days, if you want to sell books, you need to hustle. As an editor, I’m invested in you in your book, and I’ll do everything I can to help promote you–but ultimately, you need to take responsibility for how your book sells. That means interviews, podcasts, blog tours, etc. It doesn’t take money–in fact, the most effective marketing can be done in your pajamas on a laptop–but it takes initiative. When I hear an author I’m excited about say “Oh, I hate talking to people and promoting myself, I just want to sit in my house and write,” I die a little inside. It’s not that I don’t sympathize–believe me, I do–but that hermitical approach reflects a fundamental disconnect from the business of writing.

Here’s the deal: Selling books is really, really hard, and everyone at your publisher is busting his or her ass to try and make you a sensation. If you aren’t willing to meet them halfway and promote your own book as hard as you possibly can, there are other authors who will.

No Website

This ties into the last one. As an editor, the first thing I do when contacted by potential authors is google them. If I can’t find them online, my gut reaction is that they’re not really professionals yet. This doesn’t mean you need to blog all the time–frankly, I think there’s more value to doing guest posts on other people’s blogs, or simply writing and selling stories–but you should at least have an online presence with a little bio and links to your published works. You can make one for free, and it’ll take you an hour.

This is 2012. Get a damn website.

Going Dark

Communication between authors and editors is key. Not only does it help build a personal connection–like every other editor I’ve met, I like to think of authors I work with as my authors–but it makes it far more likely that we’ll be able to work through minor issues as friends and comrades, and that you’ll get what you want out of the final book. While that doesn’t mean being online constantly–in fact, that probably hurts your productivity–it does mean checking your email and replying in a timely manner. Most publishing folks I know run on tight deadlines, and when I email an author with a question, I probably needed the answer ten minutes ago. If an author regularly takes more than a day or two to reply to simple emails, that makes my life difficult. And authors that go dark–meaning they simply disappear and are unreachable for long stretches of time–just aren’t worth the hassle.

(At the opposite end of the spectrum, however, is a personal pet peeve of mine: the phone. Why do so many authors and agents feel the need to talk on the phone? We’re writers, dammit–I want to communicate by email, where I can think about my words, and have a paper trail I can refer to later to prove what we agreed upon. Calling me on the phone doesn’t build a personal connection, it forces me to stop what I’m in the middle of, interrupt my coworkers with a loud conversation, and answer your question on your schedule.)

Stalking

I love getting to know my authors, and I like it when prospective authors familiarize themselves with my company and my personal work. But it’s possible to go too far in your effort to ingratiate yourself. For example, I’m always a little creeped out when an author I’ve never spoken to before leads off an email with, “Hey, how are you and Margo? Wedding planning going well? I saw those Facebook pictures of you guys doing X.” When in doubt, start out professional, and let things evolve from there.

Similarly, hanging out with authors and editors at conventions is one of the greatest joys of this job, but it’s important to be able to read social signals. Every editor has at least one author (probably one she doesn’t want to give work to) that latches on like a remora and follows her around for the whole convention. I’m not above a little strategizing–“Oh, fancy seeing you here, at that panel you’re listed on in the program booklet!”–and invitations to join you are great, but don’t think that hugging an editor’s leg all convention is going to get you a book deal. (Especially if all you talk about is your book–turns out, everyone at that convention has a book to sell. It’s why they’re there. If it comes up, by all means mention your book, but otherwise talk about other things and try to make friends like a normal human.)

Carelessness

Aside from being a jerk or a prima donna, being careless is the worst thing an author can be. I can’t tell you how many “professional” authors don’t bother to proofread or spellcheck their stories or writing samples before sending them in, and it always boggles my mind. If you have a typo in the first paragraph, how do you expect to land a gig as a writer? Equally bad are the authors who ignore explicit instructions regarding submissions or revisions, either through inattentiveness or somehow thinking it’s not worth their time.

Listen: Editors only have a certain amount of time with each book. I can take an adequate book and make it good, or I can take a good book and make it great. By not taking basic steps like proofreading and spellchecking, you’re making me focus on basic mistakes and keeping me from helping you fix the bigger ones. And ignoring instructions shows a fundamental disrespect for the editor and the process. Every editor has stories of those rare and magical manuscripts that require so little work they’re like reading for pleasure. Your goal as an author is to produce that manuscript. (And remember, editors talk–when someone rhapsodizes about an author’s clean manuscripts, her friends take notes, and that author gets more gigs. Having a reputation for clean, instruction-following manuscripts is the publishing equivalent of having a reputation for being great in bed.)

Missing Deadlines

You know how I said being a pain to work with was the worst thing an author can do? Well, the only reason this last one doesn’t take the cake is that it’s over quickly. In the same way that a nuclear blast is over quickly.

If you blow your deadlines, I will drop you.

Understand that this isn’t just out of spite (though there’s some of that). As an editor, I’ve got a schedule I’ve got to stick to. If I say that your book is coming out in June, and you’re still writing it come May, I’ve got a big hole in my revenue stream for that month. I’ve got distributors and readers who think I can’t keep my act together. Writing may be art, but it’s also a business, and I literally can’t afford to have authors who fail to produce when they say they will.

The best way to avoid this label is to be honest. If you think you can write a book in six months, ask for nine–if you actually finish in six and turn your book in early, I can use that as a shining example of how awesome my authors are. And if something happens and you do start to slip, for the love of all that’s holy, let your editor know immediately. With forewarning, schedules can often be shuffled. But if you wait until the deadline rolls around before revealing that your novel actually stalled out at ten percent, you might as well pack up your laptop and go home, because most editors would rather set themselves on fire than get betrayed like that twice.

Conclusion

Now that you’ve been inundated with a flood of negativity, remember that most editors are actually very nice people. They spend their professional lives trying to discover new authors and polish them until they shine, often receiving very little recognition for all their hard work. Treat an editor well, and he or she will do everything in their power to turn you into a superstar. But cross them at your own risk.

So speak up, editors: what do authors do that drives you nuts?

James L. Sutter is the author of the novel Death’s Heretic, which Barnes & Noble ranked #3 on its list of the Best Fantasy Releases of 2011, as well as the co-creator of the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game campaign setting. His short stories have appeared in such publications as Escape Pod, Starship Sofa, Apex Magazine, and the #1 Amazon bestseller Machine of Death, and his anthology Before They Were Giants pairs the first published stories of SF luminaries with new interviews and writing advice from the authors themselves. In addition, James has written numerous roleplaying game supplements and is the Fiction Editor for Paizo Publishing. For more information, check out jameslsutter.com or follow him on twitter at @jameslsutter.

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  • Jennifer Brozek

    I hate it when you send a nice rejection letter with detailed points on what could be improved in the story and the author emailed you back to argue with you over the edit suggestions and the fact that you rejected the story.

    • And then blogs in detail about you and how awful you are? Yeah, that. 

      •  But you always have their “fuck you, I’m a genius” email to post on your blog. And it’s much funnier coming from you.

    • Yeah, I still wonder why you let that guy bully you into telling him what was wrong with his story. If he doesn’t know that editors only critique stories that they like then he should find another business. 

  • Love it James!

  • R.C, Jr

    It is always nice when insightful advice is an enjoyable read. Thank you, sir.

  • Thanks for the kind words, everyone!

  • Excellent post!!  As a reader who admires the behind-the-scenes of the industry from a far, posts like this are like candy to me.

    If this is imposing/inappropriate , please ignore: what advise do you have for someone interested in getting into slush reading/entry level editing? Where is a good place to start?

    • The best place to start slush reading is at a fiction magazine that you enjoy! Most places are severely understaffed, and free labor is always appreciated. Even if all you’re allowed to do is point out the stories that are obviously terrible, that’s still useful for editors, and it’ll put you in a position to learn from folks who have been doing it longer while getting some experience under your belt. Internships are great for the same reason.

      Also, one of the best ways to learn about editing is to ask an editor (such as the ones you might be slush reading for) to show you their red lines on a piece, which will explain what they want changed and why.Hope that helps!

  • A. Merc Rustad

    This was a great and informative post, thank you!

  • You do realise that every writer who’s ever worked with you is now trying desperately to work out which of the above they’ve been guilty of. I know I am!

  • Actually the best way to piss off an editor is to mock his no-pay, no-editing, no-promotion publishing company as well as the dozens of crappy books he’s put out in the past year. ANd then keep mentioning the thing on a blog entry until it gets to the top of the google charts. They HATE that.

    Of course, if an editor is professional enough to pay writers and actually edit the work, it’s best to go with your suggestions. 

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  • Sarah

    What about things that editors can do to piss off authors, and make them swear off never working with that editor again? It works both ways, and I see the occasional editor (present company excluded) who think he’s God’s gift to writers, even if his decisions aren’t the best, his manner is condescending and rude, and his expectations are outside the realm of possibility. There’s a fine line between accepting an editor’s changes and giving in to a bully, and it can be especially difficult to find this line when there’s so much out there about How Not To Alienate Editors but almost nothing about How Not To Alienate Writers!

    •  It’s true, and that would be a great post of its own! In general, though, I think the reason you find so many “how not to piss off an editor” posts is because, from a mercenary perspective, those are more useful and sought after. The sad fact is that there are far more writers than there are editors buying fiction. From a career perspective, the editors can afford to piss off authors more than authors can afford to piss off them. It’s still not a good idea–if you get a reputation as a terrible editor, a lot of the better writers won’t work with you–but there are always more writers out there. As with most things in life, the person who controls the money makes the rules.

      Also, the editors that piss you off the most are the ones who wouldn’t care about my blog post anyway. 🙂

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  • I keep seeing these lists. I wonder what pisses authors off about editors. 

  • Barbara Mountjoy

    I have a set of editors who INSIST that I call them all the time to check on this or that or just chat with their mother, who is an author, too. I’m with you on the “Hey, Let’s use Email” thread…. 🙂

  • You nailed it, James. Some of these are real forehead slappers. I’ve heard horror stories, but still… Being hard to work with just doesn’t seem like a good career move, period.