Who Writes the Book?

- by Laura Resnick


I’ve become aware lately that many readers and aspiring writers have an exaggerated notion of the editor’s contribution to a book.

Or, alternately, I’ve noticed lately that many readers and aspiring writers dramatically underestimate the writer’s role in a book.

I increasingly see online reviews and blogs where a disappointed reader blames the editor for the poor quality of the novel in question. I was at a party recently where a couple of people were giving examples of the sloppy writing in a recent bestselling book, and another person at the party said, “That’s the editor’s fault.” An Amazon.com reader who didn’t like a book of mine recently asked, “Where was the editor?”

Folks, the author writes the book, not the editor. The author’s name is on the book, not the editor’s.

Although I have worked with a few excellent editors who taught me valuabletypewriter lessons about writing and helped me make substantial improvements to my manuscripts, I—and most other writers—have also worked with an equal or greater number of editors who didn’t know what they were doing, didn’t contribute to the material at all, and/or didn’t even want to be editors and quickly left that overworked, underpaid profession. The percentage of editors who actually make a positive difference in a writer’s work is roughly in line with the number of teachers who make a positive difference in a student’s life. These people are rare and valuable, and they deserve a lot more than they get. They’re also the exception rather than the rule.

PhoneMoreover, the editor’s role in the publishing process is not, as I gather many readers and aspiring writers imagine, to sit around reading manuscripts and advising on how to make them better. That’s just what would be the editor’s role in an ideal world. In the real world, however, an editor mostly spends the workday attending oodles of meetings, doing a boatload of administrative work, talking on the phone, and answering email. The majority of editors have to read manuscripts on their own time, not at work; there’s no time for reading when they’re at work. Reading manuscripts is time consuming, and editing them is really time consuming. Given that an editor is a person with a full-time job and a real life, they simply don’t have much time for editing—and certainly not for the involved, elbow-deep, “hand-in-hand, page-by-page with the writer” sort of editing that many readers and aspiring writers (and Hollywood) seem to imagine that we writers get.

This is why, in fact, it’s become hard to sell a book if it’s not perceived as essentially publication-ready when it’s submitted. Increasingly, editors do not have time to work with a writer on the manuscript. But even when they do, keep the following in mind:

The author makes all final decisions about which editorial notes on the book getNotepad1 used and which get rejected. If the author accepts suggestions and makes changes that she doesn’t agree with, that’s the author’s decision; and negative public reaction to your novel is one possible consequence of releasing a book you don’t fully believe in—then again, it’s also one possible consequence of releasing a book you believe in with every fiber of your being! If the author’s contract is canceled because she refused to incorporate certain editorial suggestions, that’s a consequence of exercising her right to artistic control—and she can then to go look for an editor who agrees with her vision of the book. There are no choices without consequences; but all of these choices belong to the author, because it is the author’s book. Not the editor’s.

(Our contracts typically oblige us to be reasonable during the editing/revisions process. Obviously, “reasonable” is open to a wide range of interpretation. Typically, though, far more contracts are canceled due to control-freak editors than to unreasonable writers, and I know a lot of writers who’ve resold novels to other houses after a misguided editor refused to publish a book the way the writer wrote it. See my nonfiction book Rejection, Romance, and Royalties for a fuller account of this phenomenon.)RRR

The author is the one person in the publishing process who reviews every single stage of the book’s production: The author writes and delivers the initial draft; reviews the editorial notes and the editor’s line edit, to determine which suggestions to use and which to discard; reviews the copy edit, to determine which suggested changes to use and which to discard; reviews the galleys (the formatted page proofs) to catch any remaining mistakes before the book goes to the printer. (A “mistake” can be anything from a hyphen being misprinted as an em-dash, to five thousand words of text having disappeared from the book during a file transfer.)

No one in the entire process sees and reviews the manuscript as many times as the author does. No one in the entire process has as much control over the book’s contents as the author does.

Indeed, budget cuts and tightening belts have led to shrinking staffs, and many editors are so pressed for time that they only look at a book once during the entire publishing process. Also, many editors are poorly trained and under-supervised, and they really don’t know what they’re doing. There are also some editors who don’t even read a book before they send it into production. (There are also, by the way, a surprising number of agents who don’t read their clients’ material.)

A good editor is a valuable partner in the publishing process. And a good editor can and does make suggestions that improve the work. But the decision about which suggestions to use is nonetheless the writer’s; and although I’ve worked with some truly outstanding editors, I’ve never worked with one who didn’t give me at least a few editorial notes that I disagreed with and discarded. Because I am responsible for this book. No one else. I am the person who’s got to stand by every word of it, in private and in public.

Good editors are rare, and when we find them, the smart writer treasures and sticks with that editor—but editors are employees of publishing houses, not of writers, so sticking with your editor isn’t always possible. Inconsiderate as it may be, good editors often switch jobs in search of better opportunities, damn them! Sometimes they even leave publishing altogether.

So the person the writer has to count on to produce a Really Good Novel is herself. No one else. And that’s who the reader should be counting on, too. When you love a novel, credit the writer. When you hate a novel (yes, even mine), blame the writer.


The sole exception to this golden rule? Work-for-hire: gaming tie-in novels, TV and movie tie-in novels, ghost writing, etc. In those cases, the writer doesn’t own the intellectual property and contractually has zero artistic control over the final book, which can be heavily rewritten without the writer’s permission or knowledge. (I speak from embarrassing personal experience. But more about that some other time.)


  1. Laura, you paint a scary picture, but a real one. I feel blessed to have a wonderful editor, indeed a team of editors at my house, but you are right about them being totally over worked. I find they have time for the bigger picture things, but I really really have to watch the individual words and punctuation.

  2. Good stuff here! There are of course some very talented and committed editors still working in publishing, but what I’ve found is that many don’t really have the skills to really contribute to the development of a novel in an in-depth way, much less the time to do a good job of that. (At least not the way they use to.)

    The sad reality of what acquisitions editors do and don’t do these days do is precisely why my mother, Renni Browne, after a long career in New York publishing bailed on her senior editor position at William Morrow in 1980 to start a company dedicated to providing the feedback and guidance already then in decline in mainstream publishing. Because she was no longer allowed to do the work she loved, which was nurturing authors and helping good manuscripts become great books.

    It’s such a shame that this doesn’t happen the way it use to, but there are lots of good people working independently and in firms like ours that still do what great in-house editors use to and who can really help improve the odds of warm reception by readers, reviewers, agents and publishers. It’s too bad that the writer has to shoulder the cost of the investment, but at least it’s an option for people who recognize the value of what a great editor can bring to a book.

    If you’re looking for a terrific into the way things use to be, check out the book EDITOR TO AUTHOR, which is a compilation of editorial letters from Maxwell Perkins to his authors. It’s really pretty fascinating!

  3. Great post, Laura!

  4. Laura, thanks for an interesting post. As an editor for lo, these 26 years, in Christian publishing, I’m grateful to be in a segment of the market where the exception you’ve described is more the rule.

    I and a number of other editors at CBA (Christian Bookseller’s Assoc) houses actually DO consider it our jobs to champion the book from birth to publication. We read the manuscripts a number of times. We give in-depth editorial reviews (mine have ranged from 6 pages to 28), and do the hands-on edit when the revised ms comes in. Yes, the final decision is the authors on what to revise and which edits to accept, but that’s as it should be. As you wrote, these aren’t my books, but the authors’.

    What I love, though, about being an editor is that synergistic relationship with my authors. My job is to serve them as best I can, to encourage them, to redirect them if needed, to do whatever I can to help them bring out the power in their novels. It’s SO exciting when an author takes a manuscript from good to amazing; I’m humbled to be a part of that process. But my job doesn’t end with the edit: I work with design on the covers and with the authors on catalog and cover copy. Our fantastic marketing director for fiction, Julie Gwinn, knows she’s free to come to me to discuss and brainstorm on any of our novels. I encourage the salesmen, sending them excerpts to get them excited about the author and his/her writing. I champion the products through acquisitions, development, and publication. I’ve even gone on sales calls with our sales team to talk up our writers and their books with buyers.

    The beauty is that I’m not the only one doing all this. I know several great editors in the CBA who do all I do. Some who do more. Because this is more than a job. It’s a passion. We love words, the craft, and the authors we serve. There really is nothing I’d rather do. Oh, sure, I have the occasional desire to chuck it all and go train dogs, but that doesn’t last long. All it takes to chase that away is starting to read the next manuscript, or talking with one of my authors, or being with industry pros who all love this crazy career as much as I do.

    I talk regularly with a publishing friend of mine who once was a retailer, then an editor, and now a literary agent. Almost every conversation ends with the same glad pronouncement: “Isn’t this FUN?” Indeed, it is.

    I am immeasurably blessed to get to do what I do.


    Karen Ball
    Executive Editor, Fiction
    B&H Publishing Group

  5. I’m glad this post sparked such thoughtful replies!