The website GalleyCat has been running a series, based upon numbers crunched by an outfit called Glassdoor, about the average salaries of publishing professionals. The numbers aren’t pretty. The average salary for a book publicist in the New York area, for example, appears to be $37,093 per year. (I say, “appears to be” because in the surveys that generate this data the sampling is very small.) The figure is higher for those working at the biggest houses, but only by about ten percent.

Next time you get mad at your in-house publicist, remind yourself that every day she’s probably walking past people in Manhattan with more money invested in their wristwatch than she earns in a year. Meanwhile she’s forced to spend five percent of her take-home pay just on her dry-cleaning bill. The wolf is at the door and she devotes most of her waking hours to hearing “no” from magazine editors and TV producers while authors call constantly asking why the Today Show doesn’t want them.

Editors, whose jobs combine a form of quality control with brand management, fare somewhat better. At Penguin, according to GalleyCat and Glassdoor, the average editor earns $55,125 per year and the average senior editor $70,000. That sounds like a decent payday, but consider that the rent for a two-bedroom apartment in Manhattan exceeds five grand a month. With expense accounts now virtually extinct, this person doesn’t get many restaurant meals.

I thought of these figures recently while embroiled in a bit of unpleasantness with a freelance editor whom I’d hired to advise me on a short story. This guy — let’s call him Dick, shall we? — had been laid off by a major publisher not long before I hired him for this small project. Our interaction went something like this:

  • I introduced myself via email and told him what I was looking for. We promptly set up a phone call, where we agreed on a price and that I’d send the manuscript to him. We said we’d work out a deadline later.
  • Via email we agreed on a deadline of mid-July, which Dick soon pushed off to the end of July, which I said was fine. This process happened in slow-motion. He took longer to get back to me than I would have expected, considering I would be paying him. I tried to send a subtle message about this by delaying a reply to one of his emails and then saying we needed to agree to stop communicating in slow motion. This bit of magnanimity, however, seemed to go over his head.
  • He had promised the edit “by the end of July.” I didn’t hear another peep from him, but the edit did arrive on July 30. Tight by the deadline but acceptable. I immediately emailed out of courtesy that I’d received the edit and would look at it soon. No response from Dick.
  • I took a glance at the edit and sent an email on August 1, joking that I hated his f–ing guts (which is the cliched emotional reaction authors usually have to their first glance at an edit), but quickly going on to say that it looked thorough and I was sure I’d be grateful once I went to work on it. No response.
  • On August 4 I sent Dick an email telling him I was still working through the edits and wouldn’t get back to him until the following week. Dick didn’t respond.
  • On August 11, I sent Dick the rewrites. No response.
  • On August 18, I sent him a pointed email telling him that if he couldn’t find the Reply button on his email program, we wouldn’t have much future together. Well, that got a pretty quick reply, telling me what a jerk I am.

Let’s allow for the possibility that I am indeed a jerk. Even so, presumably I’m a jerk who’s helping Dick pay his bills.

For a day I thought long and hard about what this all meant. I told the story to a couple of friends, who assured me that if they were paying someone for a service, they’d expect him to reply to their emails with alacrity. I’d had no such problem with Patrick LoBrutto, the editor of Primacy, who was responsive and communicative during the editorial process for that book, even doing the re-read during a very trying personal time for him. But, then again, Pat has been freelance for a decade, whereas Dick is less than a year out of a major publishing house.

One can make allowances for differences in personality while asserting that there are basic courtesies in life. Responding to emails from a person who’s paying you for a service should be a pretty basic courtesy, I would think. It’s possible that Dick just has no manners, but he’s an intelligent human being and therefore at least ought to be more in tune with his self-interest. So what’s really going on here?

I think I know.

Consider the relationship between editor and author at a major publishing house. The house has paid you an advance, has blessed you with its acceptance, and dangles the promise of possibly making your book into a bestseller. They hold the cards. So when your editor is rude to you, what recourse do you have? He is, in effect, your client. And now you’re contractually obligated, to boot.

But under the paradigm of independent publishing, you are the editor’s client. Think about that. Isn’t that the way it ought to be?

Not everyone seems to believe so. I wrote a post a few weeks ago on the absurdity of the Mystery Writers Association withholding full membership from those who have paid their own money to reach the market. In response, one commenter wrote: “I agree with M.W.A. (assumed) attitudes that it is really a dumb thing to do to self publish and lose out on working with people who believe in you and care about your novel instead of how much you are willing to pay them.”

To which I replied: “Caring ‘about your novel instead of how much you are willing to pay them’ is a false correlative. Does the plumber not care about fixing your leak because you pay him? Does your attorney not care about getting you out of jail because you pay him? Does your college professor not care about your education because you pay him?”

Setting aside the matter of pride in one’s work, doing a good job for your client simply makes sense. If you do a bad job, after all, you’re likely to get less work in the future. The same may be said for showing basic politeness.

With major publishing houses having made years of personnel cuts, there are a lot of editors on the street right now, some of them very talented. Maybe most of Dick’s business will come from traditional publishers, in which case he can continue to treat authors as a nuisance. But if the paradigm is shifting, then Dick, for his own sake, would be well advised to remember that he’s in a service business. Besides just making life more pleasant, common courtesy also has an economic value.

Last week: Publishing Primacy — Folio 22: Marketing ‘Theme’ In Fiction

Next week: Publishing Primacy — Folio 24: Where the Fish Are

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Publishing Primacy posts every Wednesday by 7:00 a.m. Eastern Time.

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J.E. Fishman, a former Big Six book editor and former literary agent, is author of the thriller Primacy, which Publishers Weekly called "appealing" and Kirkus called "good, boisterous fun." His mystery novel, Cadaver Blues, was serialized in 2010 on TNB and you can still find it here if you dig deep enough. It's now available in ebook and paperback. His financial thriller, The Dark Pool, was published this year, and his new series of police thrillers, Bomb Squad NYC, will be published in February 2014. He blogs here and at the Huffington Post. Please visit and follow him at his very fancy and expensive official author website.

9 responses to “Publishing Primacy — Folio 23: Editing and Its Discontents”

  1. Seth Pollins says:

    Perhaps Dick thought his work was limited only to the manuscript and that the email communication, while obviously helpful for the process, was creating excessive “work” for him.

    Or perhaps that’s how he rationalized it.

    It would seem that any independent agent, no matter the field, should understand the value of customer service.

    Were his edits valuable?

    • J.E. Fishman says:

      Yes, the initial edits were valuable. Part of the editing process, however, is reviewing the writer’s response. That occurred in a cursory way, at best, after the final email exchange.

      If communication isn’t the first obligation of an editor, it’s certainly the second obligation. Frankly, as the client, I’m not too interested in someone’s rationalizations for being rude.

  2. I was that commenter. I guess I should have been more thoughtful. However, I think for someone who does not know the business like myself, I should have started with a small press. I think you were successful because of your experience as an insider in the publishing world and your skill in knowing who to contact for what. I don’t know a lot of writers today who self published as outsiders and end up with his or her book reviewed in the publisher weekly. Maybe if I follow your plan that you wrote in your weekly column, I might have become more successful. Thanks again for your informative articles!

  3. dwoz says:

    Agree One Thousand Percent.

    I work professionally in a field that is traditionally ZERO PERCENT about customer service….enterprise software development.

    But there’s a truism about WORK, that “without clients, life would be so much easier.”

    Of course, THE WORLD would be so much less easy.

    When my CLIENT emails me at 11:30 Sunday evening, I respond within 1/2 hour. I may even work all night to ensure that they walk in on Monday morning to a solved situation. I don’t mention in any way that I went out of my way.

    By the way, my “client” is one of the biggest clients in the friggin’ world. My product is high on their list of key deliverables to THEIR clients.

    But EVERY client is the biggest client in the world. IF the job takes 30 days, then it takes 30 days. Not a problem. But an email reply takes 30 seconds. Set expectations. What, that’s a problem?

    Granted, in my job, multiple hundreds of millions of dollars are at stake on a daily basis. Not like in publishing. But geeezussss. Email the stupid client back. Now. BECAUSE they’re stupid.

  4. I worked for a Midwestern publisher for about 12 years. I spent most of those years working directly with authors and responding to their e-mails.

    I’d consider Dick’s behavior professional. Editors don’t usually respond to e-mails unless there’s a specific reason to do so. (That is, most editors I know aren’t very chatty via e-mail; they probably field 200+ emails per day if employed, and old habits die hard, as you point out.)

    I do think that on August 11, he should’ve acknowledged receipt of the rewrites. (The e-mail of August 1 would not be funny to most editors I know, and editors would probably not see a point in responding to a status update like the one you sent on August 4.)

    You may be paying this editor, but it does sound like you’re expecting communication that’s not specifically needed, but perhaps you personally would like to have — to feel like you’re *really* communicating.

    Of course, miscommunication and ruffled feathers via e-mail is nothing new. Sarcasm/humor rarely translates well. It requires exceptionally clear requests if you’re seeking a response. Etc.

  5. Wayne Yuhasz says:

    Your expectations here were standard for a business relationship…. in ANY business. Whether you are a prime client, or minor client for the person here, prompt communication response is essential.

    I presume you will not use this person again.

  6. Kris Alexander says:

    Jane, couldn’t disagree more. Business just doesn’t work that way. Its too easy to type a quick email acknowledging receipt and then saying something like “I’ll get back to you in a week.” This is especially true when you’re paying someone. If you call a plumber and don’t get quick, courteous service, you call another plumber.

    I’m an officer in the Army. In my last job, I would get 200+ emails a day. Nearly every one of them would get a response, even if it was just a quick Ack short for acknowledged. In addition to these emails, I had to produce a top-quality product for my boss. So you learn to structure you day around emails and communication.

    So lets quit trying to fetishize the book business. If the editor in question can’t be a pro given the new paradigm he’s operating in, he ought to find another job.

  7. J.E. Fishman says:

    It’s interesting to me that this post seems to function as a Rorschach Test of sorts, whereby those who see it my way have low tolerance for the behavior I described and — I’m guessing here — those who have themselves exhibited this behavior in the past are inclined to find a way to justify this editor’s actions (or inactions), as a means of justifying their own.

    For the record, when I was an editor at Doubleday, we didn’t have email. If an author called me, he or she got a quick call back. The risk on the phone is that you can get tied up in a long conversation. With email, as Kris noted above, you can do a very quick acknowledgment of receipt, if that’s all you have time for.

    In both my professional and personal life, I always respond promptly to emails, which afford relatively instant communication and establish that expectation. For personal emails, it’s just good manners. For business, it’s good manners and good business. Full stop.

    And, no, Wayne, I will not use the editor in question again. I think one can say, at minimum, that we have different styles of doing business.

  8. dwoz says:

    Well, it IS true that to some extent, communication in general has a fair bit of just plain old noise. And there’s also a LOT of phatic “here I am” discourse (facebook being a prime example).

    But the problem here is that the freelance editor is not just wearing one hat.

    In a traditional publishing house, you’ll have someone in the role of “traffic manager” or whatever term you prefer, who’s job is just to keep things flowing. The editor in the house has that person to do all the coddling of authors and other stakeholders, but the freelancer must necessarily also take up that role.

    Or, starve.

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