Once upon a time, editors were the gold standard of book midwifery. Editors loved books and had the time to discover budding authors, who received nurture and guidance for their entire careers. The best editors took the “long view” and invested patience in allowing “their” authors time to develop, find their audiences, and achieve their full potential. If a single book didn’t do well, author and editor soldiered on; this loyalty and refusal to give up on the partnership encouraged authors to try new and challenging projects. Editors understood that not every book will be a best-seller and that new writers need time to find the true power of their voices.
Nowadays, with a few happy exceptions, the situation is very different. In some traditional publishing houses, one editor may acquire a book and another may edit it. Authors who do not rapidly achieve success (measured in dollars, not the quality of their work and the depth of their vision) are dropped or ordered to change their bylines so that poor sales figures do not affect pre-orders of their next books, or even to change the story to make it fit into current marketing niches. More and more, editors spend their time wrestling sales figures for multinational conglomerates instead of working with their authors. Even so, most editors are in the business because they love good books; for them, the thrill of discovering a new talent and seeing it blossom overrides the long hours and the impossible task of satisfying the bean-counters.
So what does a (good) book editor do and how is that different from what a beta reader does? Every editor/writer partnership is different, of course, but in general the term I used — partnership — is what distinguishes an editor. The book rights have been bought, which means that the editor believes readers will love it. Just about every book, no matter how many times it’s been critiqued and revised, needs further work beyond the acquisition stage. No matter how experienced a writer is, we all have blind spots. We see what we meant to write, not what we actually did. The editor brings professional-level expertise and experience to the process of bringing out and honing the author’s vision. Editor and author are not or should not be at cross-purposes but working together for the same goal — making the book as good as it can be.
Working with a good editor feels like that person has looked into the core of the story and offers skilled insight into how to make the words on the page better convey it. Because the book is now in production, these are likely to be the final round of significant changes (minor ones can be made in proof stage). Editing is the last step in closing plot holes, making characters vivid and their motivations clear, balancing tension, shaping the plot arc, and in general making the book a satisfying and memorable read. Editors are more likely than beta readers or critiquers to have conversations with give-and-take about the shortcomings of the manuscript, but they also may propose solutions.
Generally speaking, an editor has a great deal more authority (read: power) than does a critiquer or beta reader. This arises partly from the authority that comes from skill and partly from the fact that the editor represents the p/u/r/s/e/s/t/r/i/n/g/s publisher. When there is a disagreement, the author is free to refuse to make the requested changes, but sometimes this means the deal is off. The editor has the final say on whether the revised manuscript is acceptable. This is one of many reasons why it’s crucial that author and editor develop a relationship of mutual respect.
Many times, I’ve heard authors express appreciation for the benefit their work has received from skilled editing. A good editor can make the difference between a book with potential but flawed execution and one that goes zing! At the same time, even the best editor is not right for every author. While it is not longer common for a single editor to work with an author throughout that author’s career, when the match is good and has time to develop, it can make an enormous difference to the success of not just a single book but of the author’s work over a lifetime.
A wise author will listen carefully to the editor’s feedback, keeping in mind that editors are not mind-readers, so if a problem is brought up, there very likely is one. A wise editor will let the author do her job — tell her story in her way, keeping in mind that the problem may very likely not be the one the editor notices. Neither profits from being intimidating or intimidated, autocratic or arrogant. Both are wise to remember that publishing is like an extended family; sooner or later, unprofessional behavior — gossip, rudeness, temper tantrums — comes back to bite you. Nowhere is this more true than in the editorial relationship.