Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Editorial Letters and Their Consequences


Of all the possible ways of becoming an editor, your approach was the most accidental you can visualize. This accident was compounded by your complete lack of interest in becoming anything other than what you were at the time, which was a freelance writer. 

Some writers you knew and know now were forced to take non-editorial and certainly non-writing jobs to pay living expenses. True enough, there were times when you had to take on what you called rent work, but the dance intensified to ironic proportions when you found yourself writing novels and short stories at night, while becoming an editor during daylight hours.

 After the initial surprise of becoming an editor for a publishing company wore off, the surprise of having to write letters relating to editorial matters produced a complex and unsettling state of circumstances, many of which persist to this very day. 

To fill in the needed background, you were supplying a mail order sales organization one book a month, predicated on a list the mail order sales organization had paid a rather dodgy public relations firm a considerable sum of money to compile, based, the dodgy public relations firm assured, on a survey of significant and diverse n-sampling to be accurate.

Two other pieces of relevant information: (1) the mail order sales organization was successful to the point where it had six money-counting machines, one at the desk of each of six individuals who opened the mail, extracted cash or check, then produced a daily tally of the items ordered. (2) You'd demonstrated a talent neither you nor the mail order sales organization knew you had when you began writing books for them. 

This talent was the ability to write stimulating enough copy to motivate individuals who might never have bought books under any circumstances to buy the remaindered or discontinued titles the mail order sales organization bought from recognized publishers. You were actually given a bonus for writing copy that sold a two-volume set of the short novels of Henry James. Thus your introduction to such terms and concepts as remainders, overstock, and, in the most blunt of metaphorical terms, dogs, which is to say books that had not sold in the book trade venues of bookstores, book clubs, and promotional tie-ins.

The mail order sales organization explained to you that there was a greater market at hand for them than the one book a month you were on hand to write, therefore you were to solicit, select, and secure works from your writer friends, your initial quota going up to four books a month. 

None or few of these would find their way into bookstores, rather they would be sold directly to readers, meaning among other things that the mail order sales organization did not have to give bookstores a minimum forty percent discount for one-to-five books taken, and as much as a fifty-five percent discount for quantities over a hundred.

Dear Jack, you would write. Or Chuck, Or Matt. You would explain the thrust of the sorts of titles you were interested in having them write, they would call you to see if you were serious, you would tell them you were, and then the dance would begin, with such things as contractual agreements, royalty schedules, cover designs, and two things you were aware of, but only in the most abstract terms, content editing, and copy editing.

You would on occasion have to write to Jack or Chuck or Matt the equivalent of letters you'd had a significant experience with, letters telling you that the material you'd submitted didn't work for the persons you'd sent it to. Jack wanted to know what the fuck kind of friend you were to say such a thing, because he'd had one novel published, two plays produced, and a short story accepted by a major magazine. Chuck took matters a step farther and said you were using your position as editor as payback for all your own rejections, and Matt wanted to know if there were something he could add to the material to make it closer to your liking.

One of the principals of the mail order sales company had the reputation of being a mail-order genius, which he might well have been and would have continued to be had he not decided he might also be a trade publishing genius. At about the time he began thinking to see his books in bookstores, you were far enough along your editorial learning process to suspect you might know more than you did. Thus the company launched itself as a trade publisher;  thus your letters of solicitation to writers and literary agents you knew and did not know, and the further accident of your having found something in the slush pile that caused you to write a letter to the agent who'd sent you the "something," in which you spoke of how well the material worked for you.

You were to learn that it was not a good idea to speak with such enthusiasm about a project, even one that had been rejected by seventeen other publishers. The reason behind this was the author, wanting a considerable advance.

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