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December 16, 2004

Maxwell Perkin's Silver Hammer

by Ron Hogan

There was some buzz about the NY Observer article about editorial outsourcing in the publishing industry yesterday, especially after Publisher's Lunch vocally disagreed with its entire thesis. (Me, what I disagree with is the annoying NYO policy of using "frontpageN.asp" URLs which are going to be useless within a week; don't they want other media outlets--including blogs--to be able to create links to their stories with long-term effectiveness? But I digress...) I thought it was mildly amusing that the Observer ran this piece on the very same day that I got a note from MediaBistro offering a course on launching your career in book editing.

All I have to say is that the examples cited in the article itself don't seem to point to publishing houses outsourcing editorial responsibilities, but to authors who, for whatever personal reasons, hire freelancers to give their manuscripts the once-over or perform functions ranging from moral support to book doctoring. This anecdote about "one female thirtysomething author who didn't want to be identified... for fear of invoking the wrath of the powerful publisher to which she recently sold a proposal for her first novel" struck me as particularly amusing:

"'Charlotte' was ecstatic upon news of a healthy advance, but the euphoria didn't last long. 'I'd never written a book before,' she said. 'I had one meeting with them at the beginning'--picture a boardroom full of faceless executives--'and they said, "How do you like to work?", and I said, "I donít know, Iíve never written a book before!" So they said they'd prefer I just turn in a manuscript in seven months"--only then would they assign her an editor. Translation: seven lonely months of first-time book-writing with no one available to hash out plot twists, field phone calls or reassure her she was on the right track."

What Observer reporter Sheelah Kolhatkar gets out of this story and what I get out of it are two different things. I see a woman who managed, without any discernible writing experience, to convince somebody to pay her a "healthy advance" for a book that barely seems to have existed in outline form--in other words, somebody who just got the struggling writer's equivalent of the dream deal--and she's managed to find something to complain about. Mind you, I'm mildly curious as to what publisher would be willing to give an advance like that to self-admittedly unproven talent; my guess is that she might possibly be somebody from the world of magazines, which would account for their apparent belief that she was capable of writing...and maybe the allusion to the Bronte sisters is a clue, too. If it's the book that first sprang to my mind, I'd have to say I thought she did a pretty good job of it, but the article seems to suggest the novel was not, in fact, published earlier this year, so who knows?

But having just turned in a nonfiction manuscript myself, I do have some recent direct experience to draw upon in framing my response, and I basically feel that I got plenty of hands-on editorial attention. Now, I happened to turn in chapters as they were completed, specifically so my editor could take me to lunch a week after I finished the first two or three and go over each page as we hammered out a version of my "voice" that conformed to a decent literate standard while retaining my idiosyncracies...and, more importantly, keeping the emphasis on the objective facts about the movies I discuss rather than my personal opinions (though I did manage to slip in a defense of 1941 anyway). After that, I felt that I had a pretty good feel for what she wanted on the macrolevel, and so ensuing conversations were largely about what films I'd include, what my sidebars were going to be, whether I'd get all the interviews I wanted, and so on.

They did hire an outside designer, which the Observer might consider outsourcing, but seeing as Roger Gorman won a Grammy for his art direction on David Bowie's Sound + Vision compilation, I think their decision works in my favor. No, scratch that, I've seen the prelims and I know I've got the best deal imaginable. Maybe my experience is atypical, but I honestly don't see what all this "outsourcing" fuss is about.


A defense of 1941??? Now that alone will be worth the cover price!! (And here I thought this was a work of non-fiction!)

Posted by: TEV at December 16, 2004 01:41 PM

Well, to be honest, all I really say in the book is that the film may be unfairly maligned as Spielberg's worst, or some such. Whatever the exact phrasing is--and yeah I know I could look it up--it's only a casual aside.

But I do like 1941. The Nancy Allen/Tim Matheson sections are fairly lame, and I'm not saying the rest is Citizen Kane, but it's got some great stuff in it.

Posted by: editor at December 16, 2004 01:49 PM
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