A Virtual Montparnasse (Part Three)

by JT Ellison (with Neil Nyren)

(I’m thrilled and honored to have our dear friend and legendary editor Neil Nyren back on Murderati to talk about how our newfound connectivity alters the editorial process. For those of you just tuning in, "A Virtual Montparnasse" is an occasion series examining how the Internet has affected the art and literary communities. Part One is here, and Part Two here.Without further ado, I give you Neil Nyren!)



J.T.’s asked me
to comment on how the “Virtual Montparnasse” has affected the editorial
process, and I’m happy to contribute. It’s affected publishing in a lot more
ways than that, of course, but I’ll leave marketing and such for others – it’s
the editor/writer relationship we’re talking about here.

But first, a

Until the summer
of 1998, I’d barely even touched a computer. We had very few PCs in our
offices, and most of my communication was done by phone and by typewriter. I
shall pause while those of you who are under 25 try to wrap your heads around
that notion. Just a few weeks ago, my assistant was going through some older
files and announced to me, “Carbon copies! They were filled with carbon
copies!” as if announcing some mythological beast she’d thought existed only in

Yes, I told her,
but thanks to young Franklin’s
recent experiments with kite-flying, we did have electricity, however.

Anyway, about
that time, Putnam Berkley combined forces with Viking Penguin, and we all moved
in together. When I arrived at my new office early that Monday morning, there,
gleaming on my desk, was a new computer, and I said, “Well, guess I’ll have to
learn how to use the darn thing, then.”

The first real
test came pretty quickly. One of my authors was based in Brussels,
but his work took him everywhere – he was just as likely to be in Moscow or London on any given day. He was writing a book on the new Germany, and his deadlines were tight,
and so we started swapping chapters online. He’d email me a draft, I’d read it
and give him notes, and then no matter where he was or what time zone he was
in, he did the revisions according to whatever fit his daily schedule, and sent
them back. We did the whole book that way, and I very much doubt we could have brought
it off in time if we had done it any other way.

It was a
revelation. Even now, ten years later, it’s still a revelation, although by now
I’m sure it seems commonplace to all of you reading this on Murderati. I have
authors all around the country and in various spots around the globe, and they
are all instantly accessible. It’s not just editing. If I want someone to see a
jacket design, I no longer have to prepare a comp and overnight it to his house
– I just send him a jpeg. Jacket copy, catalogue copy, queries – off they go,
and back come answers. Photographs – I can eyeball them online, confer with the
author about what works best, and then download them for production. Some
queries I never even have to send to the author, because if I’m unsure of a
fact or a name as I go through the manuscript, a quick trip to Google or
Wikipedia is likely to give me the answer.

And it’s not just
the work relationship that’s improved, it’s the social one as well. We dash off
notes to each other all the time. With one author, I gossip about books and
music. With another, it’s politics. With a third, it’s our mutual obsession
with the Red Sox. J.T. wanted to know if spending so much time interacting
online rather than face to face helped or hurt the editor/author relationship,
and I can say for a fact that we communicate way more now than we ever did
before. After all, with most authors there’s not a lot of face to face anyway. Texas? California? Florida? Outside of occasional trips,
they’re there and we’re here.

I could go on
about other ways our lives have changed, too. Submissions? The vast majority of
them are emailed now, cutting time and expense all around. Some publishers are
experimenting with E-readers for their editors, so that instead of printing out
those attachments, they can simply download them and skip the mass of paper.
The same is being done for sales reps – every one of Putnam’s reps has an
E-reader now, which means that they don’t have to receive the mountains of
manuscripts which tottered in piles around their houses. Now, there’s a site
where everything’s posted and they can download whatever they want and read it
no matter where they might be. Writers’ conferences? The question I always hear
the most at conferences is about how to find the right agent, and I always say,
“Homework.” Now that homework is easier to do than ever. Besides such sites as
Publishers Marketplace, AgentQuery, and the like, every agent in creation has
his or her own website where you can find out about their preferences, authors,
deals, ways of doing business. Really, people, there’s no excuse for
cluelessness anymore.

I’m going to stop
there (though I haven’t even gotten to the subject of Electronic Workflow yet).
Suffice it to say that my life, the life of my assistant (“Carbon copies!”),
and, I suspect, the life of each one of my authors has gotten a lot easier
since that summer of 1998 — at least in that regard. You still have to write
the damn books, though. Sorry. Can’t do anything about that.

Neil S.
Nyren is senior vice president, publisher and editor in chief of G.P. Putnam’s
He came to Putnam in
1984 from Atheneum, where he was Executive Editor. Before that he held
editorial positions at Random House and Arbor House. Some of his authors
include Tom Clancy, Clive Cussler, Jack Higgins,
W.E.B. Griffin, John Sandford, Dave Barry, Daniel Silva, Ken Follett, Alex
Berenson, Randy Wayne White, Carol O’Connell, James O. Born, Patricia Cornwell
and Frederick Forsyth; nonfiction by Bob Schieffer, Maureen Dowd, John McEnroe,
Linda Ellerbee, Jeff Greenfield, Charles Kuralt, Secretary of State James Baker
III, Thomas P.M. Barnett, Sara Nelson, and Generals Fred Franks, Chuck Horner,
Carl Stiner, Tony Zinni and Wendy Merrill.

Neil has also been interview on Murderati twice. Click here for his latest interview, and here for the first.

11 thoughts on “A Virtual Montparnasse (Part Three)

  1. Jude Hardin

    Hi Neil:

    Nice post. Would you say that, on average, the advent of the internet has eased the workload of acquisition editors, or increased it? It seems to me there must be a lot more submissions now than there were before the internet, so I’m just wondering if the time saved balances out with the time spent.

  2. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Neil, it is always such a pleasure to have you here, and that was mindblowingly well-written – I feel like I just lived through the entire transition. You’ve confirmed my suspicion that editors could all write rings around their authors… since you choose not to, that must mean you know something we don’t!


  3. JT Ellison

    Thanks so much for your fabulous insights, Neil!

    I’m in Omaha without regular Internet (the horror!)so I’ll be infrequent today. I’ll be back tonight to wrap up the comments.

  4. Louise Ure

    What a wonderful post, Neil. I can picture you gingerly approaching that first PC like it was an alien landing craft.

    I, too, appreciate the immediacy and frequency of contact that the internet has given me with my agent and editor. But I still have to grin every time I print out that final manuscript, put a rubber band around it, and mail it off to New York.

  5. Jake Nantz

    Mr. Nyren,Thank you so much for stopping by and sharing these insights with us. I always chuckle when a published writer I know (a frumpy old codger as I like to call him) says, “The only laptop I need is my typewriter on a breakfast-in-bed tray.” You could say that he and the information age are not speaking to each other right now.

  6. Allison Brennan

    Very enlightening post. I’m not too old (yet) but I still remember typing stories on a monster of a IBM electric typewriter that my mom gave me when her real estate office upgraded their typewriters. My first computer was a Mac in college, the little boxes that you could carry around practically. I bought it–used–for $1,000. Well, my grandma bought it for me. I was broke.

    My editor is in England and we do everything via email. The only hard copies I overnight to NY are the copyedits and the page proofs. However, I’ve heard that some houses have their copyedits via computer as well as their page proofs. That sort of scares me because sometimes, reading on hardcopy is how I find small errors. I spend so much time at the computer writing, I don’t want to do my final proof on the computer. The page proofs are when I read my book for the first time as a full story in the comfort of my reading chair.

    Every agent in my agency has a Kindle and they read both manuscripts and books on it. I haven’t broken down and bought an ereader. Again, too much time at the computer. I want to read on paper.

  7. pari

    Neil,Thank you for this wonderful post.

    I remember typing on my first computer about 21 years ago and having to run across the street to pick up my materials from the printer. Since I worked at an Engineering Research Center, often those pages I’d typed were utter gobbledygook because of coded equations . . . What a nightmare.

    To me, accessibility is great but it has some downsides too. My email box is backed up with hundreds of unanswered messages because every interaction requires another one.

    Also, when we’re always accessible, we’re never unplugged — never too far from that computer — and we forget the natural world around us . . .

  8. neil nyren

    Thanks, everybody, especially you, Alex, for those nice words!

    Jude, I’d say the workload is the same, it’s just the delivery system that’s different: the agents send the projects electronically rather than by mail or messenger. I do tend to get more unsoliciteds — but I never read those anyway (slush is slush, no matter how it arrives).

  9. toni mcgee causey

    Thanks for such a terrific post, Neil! I’m like Allison — I remember my original IBM Selectric and was so grateful when the suckers finally came out with the erase key/ribbon and I didn’t have to use the little manual pieces of eraser paper.

    For the last couple of days, my editor and I have been going back and forth on some really great stuff and they’re asking my opinion and I’m getting to participate in a process that I wouldn’t have been able to even know about in time without the internet. It’s definitely made long distance business relationships and friendships much easier.

  10. Jude Hardin

    Thanks, Neil. That makes sense.

    I’m a little surprised to hear you get a lot of unsolicited manuscripts, though. Some people must think the guidelines just don’t apply to them.

  11. j.t. ellison

    Or they want a piece o’greatness, which is something an editor like Neil provides…

    Back at the homestead. Thanks so much to everyone who participated today, and another round of Murderati applause for Neil!


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