How editors make a difference

by Tess Gerritsen

It’s called a death spiral, and I was in one.  The year was 2000, and I had just turned in my fifth thriller, The Surgeon.  In the U.S., my first four books had hit bestseller lists.  In the UK my career was, if not dead, barely twitching. In publishing, “death spiral” describes the steady decline in an author’s sales over time, a decline that’s almost impossible to reverse.  With each new release, the orders are smaller.  With smaller orders there’s less visibility and poorer distribution, leading inevitably to even poorer sales.  

Eventually, no bookstores will order your books.  And no publisher wants you as their author.

That’s the position I was in back in 2000.  My sales had all but crashed and burned in the UK.  I’d already failed with two different publishers, and now no one there wanted to touch me.  The Surgeon, it appeared, would not be released in the UK at all.

Then a plucky new editor at Transworld Publishers picked up The Surgeon and decided she had to acquire the book.  The author’s track record was dreadful, getting the book into stores would be a battle, but she was damn well going to do it.  She forced (that’s the description I heard!) all her colleagues to read the manuscript, and now they were getting excited too.  She was the cheerleader, the taskmaster, the evangelist for The Surgeon.  I was only vaguely aware of her efforts at the time; after all, I’d failed miserably in the UK before, and my hopes were no higher this time.  She sent me the cover design that she was so excited about: a sink drain with splashes of blood.  

 

I just didn’t get it.  She assured me it would work in the UK market.  Anyway, what did I know about the UK market?  I was already deemed a failure there, and I was sure to be a failure again.  When the book was released in hardcover in the UK, I paid little attention because it was just too depressing to think about.

But this editor wouldn’t leave me alone.  She kept sending me cheery emails and sales figures.  While The Surgeon wasn’t hitting any bestseller lists, it wasn’t a complete flop.  The corpse of my UK career actually took a breath — if only a shallow one.

The following year, with the publication of The Apprentice in hardcover and The Surgeon in paperback, Transworld invited me for a UK book tour.  It was the first time I’d been asked overseas, and I still have one vividly depressing memory of a group booksigning I did in London.  I was sitting next to a bestselling crime author who had a line of fans to buy her book.  One man came with a whole box of books for that author to sign.  Then he looked at me, shrugged, and said: “I have no idea who you are.”  He bought one of my paperbacks, but I could see it was only out of sheer pity.

The Surgeon, in paperback, miraculously made it to the top-ten bestseller list.

In the years that followed, as my UK sales continued to climb, this editor and the entire Transworld team never stopped flogging my books.  They continually re-packaged the series.  They brought me over again and again for tours.  They invested in publicity and promotions.  

In 2006, I finally hit #1 on the London Times paperback bestseller list with Vanish.  And last year, I hit #1 on the hardcover list with The Killing Place.

Transworld not only breathed life back into this old corpse, they got it up and walking and then sprinting ahead of the pack.  It demonstrates that even a career that looks dead can be reanimated — given the right team with the right book.  It’s a lesson that authors and publishers need to take to heart.  If an author writes great books, even if his sales are moribund, he deserves a second look, a second chance.  Because he just might be your next #1 bestseller.

Lately, there’s been a lot of talk about how authors don’t really need publishers anymore because we can self-publish with e-books.  Hey, we can do it all ourselves, make more money in the long run, and have complete control over our destinies.  To some extent it’s true; we can publish our own books. The question is, can we publish our own books well?

(Even in the world of self-publishing, publishers will still play a vital role as gatekeepers.  Spam now clogs online booksellers with 99 cent e-books that are either junk or blatantly plagiarized. A publisher’s seal of approval can help separate the worthwhile books from the fake ones.)  

Over my twenty-five career, I’ve worked with some truly gifted editors.  Every single one has been a pleasure to work with, and my books are all the better because of their input. True, a self-published author could hire a private editor to help polish a manuscript, but the fact is, editors do a lot more than edit. They advocate. They strategize.  They even harangue, all on your behalf.

And sometimes, they become your dear friends.  This is something we don’t talk enough about: how important friendships are in the publishing business.  It’s not all about sales figures and bean counting.  Long after our business associations end, long after we stop needing each other for deals, the friendships remain. 

Last month, it was announced that my wonderful UK editor, Selina Walker, is leaving Transworld to take an impressive new job as publisher for Century and Arrow Books.  I guess that’s what happens when you do a smashing job — you get promoted.  I’m thrilled for her, of course, but I’m also sad that she’s leaving.  She was the one who pulled me out of my UK death spiral. And that, I will never forget.

 

 

(I am attending the Romance Writers of America convention, so may not be able to answer comments.)

18 thoughts on “How editors make a difference

  1. Reine

    Hi Tess,

    This is really wonderful to read – and great balance to the publishing conversation.

    I'm reading THE KEEPSAKE right now, and I love it.

  2. David DeLee

    Tess,
    What a great story, thanks for sharing. It is nice to hear something good about traditional publishing and editors to counter balance all the negativity out there lately. I worry though, in today's day of overworked editors and downsized organizations and bestseller driven marketing and promotion departments, and limited shelf-space, that a mid-list or newbie author would be unable to garner that kind of attention from an editor and be pushed (or even allowed) to grow.
    As you say, for most dwindling sales means smaller orders, without a savior like you had, what's an author to do against that?
    BTW–making my way through your series from the start. Just finished BODY DOUBLE. Can wait to read the next one. Oh, and so excited RIZZILO & ISLES starts back up next week on TNT. Congrats on that success too.
    David DeLee
    Fatal Destiny – a Grace deHaviland novel

  3. PK the Bookeemonster

    I think that authors that will be successful in e-publishing will be those who had traditionally published in paper and developed an audience who will follow them. Unknown authors doing just e-pub will have a much harder time of it — there will be exceptions of course. For most, it is another method of vanity publishing.
    The sad part of traditional publishing is a) it is difficult to break it and b) they have the blockbuster mentality rather than a developmental one.

  4. Pamela Speak

    As a UK fan I'm so glad that your UK career didn't go belly up, that would have just sucked! Your novels have terrified me and intrigued me and I would hate to have not experienced that.

  5. ZoΓ« Sharp

    Hi Tess

    This is a very interesting POV on the whole e-pub debate. Having met Selina Walker on numerous occasions, I can vouch that she is indeed a star.

    Congratulations on your second chance in the UK. We may be slow on the uptake sometimes, but we get there eventually!

  6. Jenni

    Thanks for this post. I've been researching self-e-publishing, and you are confirmed what I suspected. Glad to hear what a dedicated professional could do for you!

  7. Eika

    That sounds amazing. Really inspiring. *loves that story– especially since it's true*

    And thanks for giving me some more fuel; I have several friends who are self-publishing now, and don't quite understand why I'm not.

    -Alaina

  8. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Great blog, Tess, and an important message about the value of traditional publishing. I'm in the middle of writing my third book, without a contract, so I'll be looking around at the pros and cons of self-publishing versus traditional publishing when I'm done.
    Thanks for sharing your opinion on the subject!

  9. Louise Ure

    Tess, you've articulated one of my main reasons for not self-publishing. I couldn't do as good a job at all the other stuff that these pros do.

  10. David DeLee

    Stephen good luck with the next novel.
    There are pros and cons to both sides of the publishing equation, for sure. Legacy publishing can certainly get an author's books into bookstores, and into the hands of the 60-75 % of the readers still not on Kindle or Nook, and they do still have a stamp of legitimacy with readers and the bookstore owners, for now. No doubt about it.
    But, to break-in is tough, to stay in maybe even tougher, unless you reach that level of bestsellerdom we all strive for.
    And certainly, indie-publishing has its drawbacks, penetration and lack of marketing the big ones, but, for me, the 'I can't do it myself' isn't one of them. I've hired an independent editor for all the work I've put out, one that is every bit as good as NY has, and as experienced. I wouldn't think of putting anything out there without that. Cover art, formatting, design, etc. those can all be hired services for flat fees. And I would venture the amount of self-marketing one must do in today's day and age is no more or less, regardless of which way you go.
    This all comes down to authors choice, of course, to what works best for the individual author. But, I don't see it as an either-or situation. If you were contracted to do a series with one NY, would you think you could not sell and be published by another?
    I'm still sending work into NY, hoping to catch the eye of a big-time editor at one of the big-time publishers. I have had friends who have done this. But in the meantime, I'll continue to self-publish my work too and make some money, learn a ton about publishing by doing it myself (with help where I need it), grow a fan base (hopefully) and improve my ability at my craft.
    IMO, its not an either-or approach, but the best of both worlds.
    Good luck all,
    David DeLee
    Fatal Destiny – a Grace deHaviland novel

  11. David Corbett

    Tess:

    I couldn't help but notice this:

    "Over my twenty-five career, I've worked with some truly gifted editors."

    Apparently, none of them were lurking nearby when you wrote that sentence. πŸ™‚

    And just curious: how long does a Death Spiral last before it reaches The Abyss? (Then again, I'm probably asking the wrong person.)

    Editors can indeed make a huge difference, but they cannot always prevail over the Groupspeak that dominates sales meetings. I've been blessed with wonderful editors. The two elder women who championed me were both let go due to the cost of their seniority, and the one young stud either couldn't quite figure out how to get my books across to marketing or was shouted down. (I remember him telling PW, in an article where I was described as Ballantine's rising star: "David's not for everyone." Not quite the grand marketing strategy — unless they slathered that across the cover, defying readers to be among the elect few. But I know he believed in me and supported me and I'm immensely grateful to him and remain quite fond of him, almost like a brother.)

    Mark Haskell Smith has been notably suspect about the whole eBook phenomenon. "I don't think this is going to end well," was how he put it. I've only recently sold my backlist to a digital publisher — Otto Penzler through Open Road — and I waited precisely because the gatekeepers are crucial, imho. I think the smaller percentage of sales revenue is worth the enhanced marketing and the visibility that association with a reputable house provides.

    Alex noted in a recent post that writers are working harder than ever. Sadly, I'm not sure they're working better. A truly good book takes time — not to mention a great book. This manic hustle to get things up on the web I think will very shortly prove counter-productive, and the great mass of eBooks will crumble into The Abyss due to the sheer inscrutability of their numbers.

    But I'm more often wrong than right, so heed my words at your peril.

    David

    P.S. I wonder, as well, if among the editors who've prized is the one who advised you not to write Asian characters. I remain a bit dumbstruck by that, and can only thank God that Amy Tan and Maxine Hong Kingston had different editors.

  12. JT Ellison

    A great blog, Tess, and so important for writers who want some longevity in this business. Write a great book, and have a great team, and good things can happen. I've been blessed with superb editors, a great agent, and a lot of luck so far, but it's so good to hear that there are ways to turn things around. No doubt things are changing, but we are always going to have books, and stories, and writers, and publishers. Relationship building is a HUGE part of that.

  13. Gar Haywood

    A great post, Tess.

    The literary death spiral exists, of course, just as you describe it, and it's scary as hell, to be sure. But it's only fatal if an author stops swimming against the tide and just gives up. If your UK death spiral had resulted in your sales petering out completely there, would that have been the end of it? Would you have resigned yourself eleven years ago to never being a big seller in the UK? I doubt it. That would have been quitting, and no one as successful as you are could ever be accused of being a quitter. So the death spiral is only as deadly as an author, and his/her support network (agent, editor, etc.) allow it to be.

    As for the value of a good and faithful editor, I've only had three my entire career. One was wonderful, my second kind, efficient, but in the end, a little too pragmatic for my tastes, and my editor at present is extremely smart and flexible. No duds in the bunch. BUT…I'm not sure any of them would walk through fire for me, which is the book business equivalent of kicking a marketing department's ass until it sees fit to green-light and sell a book you feel passionate about.

    Truth is, I'm not sure any editor has that kind of power anymore. Or at least, if they do, they're more reluctant than ever to wield it for fear of being wrong and losing their job.

    It's a pity.

  14. Reine

    Fascinating. I think I'm floating toward the positon of its not being an either/or decision for any writer. Rather how might the individual make the most of their situation and what they have to offer the reader, the market, and technology. Technology never goes away, because people embrace it. E-books will not implode. They will sort. The instruments of reading have changed over time. That will continue. Not a resolutionary issue.

  15. PD Martin

    Fascinating post! I often think the collective unconscious is at work in Murderati…given we all post independently it's amazing how often a similar theme comes up in back-to-back posts or over a one-week period. Or maybe it's just because many of these hot topics are affecting so many people. I certainly saw a relationship between Gar's post and his Armageddon reference and your post.

    The support of your UK editor is an inspiring story, although like some I worry that perhaps more and more these days it's marketing and sales who hold the power, rather than editors. Would the outcome have been the same now, in 2011, as it was in 2000? Or would it have been the same if you were also in a death spiral in the US? I'm not being cynical, just genuinely wondering! Amazing and inspiring story, nonetheless.

    And I definitely believe editors have a huge amount to offer writers, even if it is 'only' as editors rather than promoting us and getting us published!

    Phillipa

  16. Jake Nantz

    What an awesome story, Tess! It's always heartening to hear that there's always another day, another shot at it, for any writer. I hate your friend is leaving your UK publisher, but as you said, the friendship will always remain, right?

  17. Leah

    Wow, I'm surprised about this. I came late to your party, Tess, only reading The Surgeon a couple of years ago before quickly reading the rest of your books (I got an early copy of The Silent Girl and I really loved it). I'm really, really pleased Selina picked up The Surgeon, it's an awesome novel and I'm so pleased Selina saw that, too!

    This is a great story, so thank you so much for sharing and I certainly hope to be seeing the next Rizzoli & Isles (#10 — I can't believe there's 9 Rizzoli/Isles books already, it doesn't seem as though I've read nine of them!) novel next year from Transworld!

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