The lengthy acknowledgments section of Seth Mnookin’s book Hard News: The Scandals at The New York Times and Their Meaning for American Media (Random House) opens with a paragraph devoted to one Hanya Yanagihara-”a passionate, dedicated, and enormously skilled editor for this book” who apparently “put up with too frequent midnight phone calls” from the author, like a patient ex-lover. “She helped on every level,” Mr. Mnookin continues to gush, “and on every level she made this book better.” He goes on to spend two pages thanking his parents, people at Newsweek, Harvard research assistants and the Boston Red Sox, before dispatching his Random House editor, the renowned Daniel Menaker, in one crisp sentence: “enthusiastic and encouraging about this project from the word go; his support, advice, and editing made this book what it is today.”
Hard News, it appears, was outsourced. Much the same way that telemarketers and programmers have migrated to Bangalore, the once-venerated job of book editing is beginning to be shunted from tweedy three-martini fellows in publishing houses to a fleet of laptop-armed freelancers, at home in their sweat pants.
“For my book, Dan Menaker was great, and helped me out in the conception of it and the structure, but he wasn’t going to be able to spend time, on a day-to-day basis, during the writing, focusing on this,” Mr. Mnookin said. “My understanding is that at publishing houses, that’s not how the editor’s role is conceived of anymore. He’s also dealing with marketing, positioning new books. He’s also the editorial director of the whole imprint, so he didn’t have time every day, or even every couple of days, to talk through problems I was having with the narrative or to help me with the structure, or to act as a sounding board.” Enter Ms. Yanagihara, a former colleague of Mr. Mnookin’s at the short-lived media magazine Brill’s Content who had worked on many of his freelance pieces as a favor to a friend. The author worked out a deal with Random House to pay her an hourly rate with a ceiling. Mr. Mnookin said the arrangement was “complex,” and that his advance might have been restructured to account for it-but he wasn’t sure. “I wasn’t writing the checks,” he said, “although I may end up writing the checks.”
Ms. Yanigihara, now articles editor at Radar magazine, proved to be cheap labor. Concerned that her pal’s advance would be unduly depleted, she underbilled the time she devoted to the manuscript. “In my final invoice,” she said, “there were about 100 hours I just lopped off.” But she was happy to do it. “I think journalists go into their relationship with their book editor expecting the same amount of time and daily, visible emotional commitment,” they get from their magazine editors, she said, “and are often alarmed when they don’t get it.”
For his part, Mr. Menaker, the executive editor in chief of Random House Publishing Group, described Mr. Mnookin’s book, with its under-one-year turnaround time, as “an intensely pressured production,” and the author’s quest for outside help atypical. “I edit all of my books, if anyone’s interested. I mean, I edit all the books that I acquire,” Mr. Menaker said. “Each individual writer will have different expectations or requirements for his or her book. Even if a publisher thinks he has done a responsible job editorially, a writer may not feel that. And they’re perfectly at liberty not to feel that. But I swear to you, I have not encountered that in my life.”
For those unlucky authors not acquired by editors of Mr. Menaker’s stature, however, outsourcing is increasingly a way of life. This has been true for a long time at small houses and university presses, which simply don’t have the manpower to handle all their acquisitions. “The editor I had at Northwestern [University Press] didn’t do anything to the manuscript,” said Christine Schutt, author of the novel Florida, which was nominated this year for a National Book Award. “I wouldn’t trust the editors [at my house], necessarily. Even if I liked the editor and I liked the books that he or she were putting out.” Instead, friend and fellow writer Diane Williams read the manuscript and suggested cuts.
But what about the major houses? “The old stories people tell, about famous editor-author pairings over the years that you hear about, don’t exist,” said one female thirtysomething author who didn’t want to be identified-let’s call her Charlotte Brontë-for fear of invoking the wrath of the powerful publisher to which she recently sold a proposal for her first novel. 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 don’t know, I’ve 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. “I mean, I’m sure I could have called them,” Charlotte said. But she didn’t know who to call. The most encouragement she got came from the publishing house’s editorial assistants, who answered the phones and seemed to pity the confused writers looking for guidance. She eventually found her very own, outside editor, paying for the service out of her own pocket. “At first I was afraid people were going to think I didn’t write my book myself,” Charlotte said. “But then everyone said, ‘No, it’s O.K. This is the editor you would have had if publishing worked the way it was supposed to.’”
Alas, the era when the old-school Scribner editor Maxwell Perkins turned F. Scott Fitzgerald’s sheaf of scribbles into This Side of Paradise appears to be well and truly over, with many publishing houses appearing to be not much more than glorified Kinko’s that acquire, bind, print and ship out. “Design was outsourced, proofreading was outsourced, I’m not sure about the copy-editing-it seemed to be in another city,” moaned another thirtysomething woman whose nonfiction book was recently “published” by a high-profile house. “Whole paragraphs dropped out. I had to read the entire book word for word, have it read out loud to me so I could find out what was dropped and what was added twice, ’cause you don’t know what they’ve ruined unless you compare it to your original text. A freelance proofreader could ruin your life.”
David Hirshey, the executive editor of HarperCollins, defended the practice of outsourcing. “As someone who edits an average of 15 books a year, many of them ‘crashes,’ I can’t always devote the kind of round-the-clock energy to line-editing and hand-holding that I’d like to,” he said. “On those occasions, we bring in an outside editor who either has some expertise in the subject or has worked with the writer before or both. There’s a subspecies of this; I guess I would call it the flexo-hack-somebody who comes up with a cravenly commercial idea, and then knocks it out and thinks that his prose is lapidary. The one time I encountered it, I looked at the manuscript and thought, ‘Well, this will sell, but only if it’s totally reworked.’ That’s when you call for air support.”
Mr. Hirshey’s voice dropped to a conspiratorial hush. “Then there’s the other kind of outsourcing,” he said, “which is less prevalent, though I’ve been hearing about it more and more lately. That’s when the author fears that he won’t get enough care and feeding from his publisher and so he hires his own outside editor to be on-call 24/7, kind of like a literary concierge. Of course, this does not absolve the original editor of all the work, but in theory, it cuts the emotional abuse in half.”
A Writer’s Dream
The rumored going rate for a once-over of a standard book project, by one of the more esteemed freelance editors, ranges from $10,000 to $20,000, although it can spike upward of $40,000. For those authors who, for whatever reason, decide to bite the bullet and write the check, their agent might point them in the direction of someone like Alice Truax, who spent 20 years at The New Yorker before leaving to work as an independent book mercenary. Ms. Truax’s résumé includes Adrian Nicole LeBlanc’s Random Family: Love, Drugs, Trouble, and Coming of Age in the Bronx (Scribner, 2003); Frederic Brenner’s Diaspora: Homelands in Exile (HarperCollins, 2003); Alex Kotlowitz’s Never a City So Real: A Walk in Chicago (Crown, 2004); New York Times reporter Abby Goodnough’s Ms. Moffett’s First Year: Becoming a Teacher in America (Public Affairs, 2004); Mark Klempner’s The Heart Has Its Reasons (which is presently being acquired by Pilgrim Press); and Toni Bentley’s anal-sex confessional The Surrender: An Erotic Memoir (ReganBooks, 2004), which was sold as a complete manuscript. “When Judith [Regan] bought my book, they loved the book, and she was very enthusiastic,” Ms. Bentley said. “When I asked if they had any suggestions, they said, ‘No,’ they really trusted me. But I knew that because of the incredibly sensitive subject matter, I wanted an extra pair of eyes.” She and Ms. Truax “worked on everything ,” she said, “from the big scope of things down to the commas. It was fantastic. For me it was a writer’s dream, to have someone be that astute, and be able to pay attention to detail.”
While she refrained from dissing any individual editors or houses, Ms. Truax expressed some disgust at the current state of affairs in publishing-which she compared to “the old Biblical passage about scattering seed on the fields”-despite the fact that it supplies her with a nice livelihood. “I find it very depressing that writers often have so little contact with their editors during the process of writing their books,” she said. “For one thing, it makes it far more difficult for many writers to write. It also means that the book the writer is producing can end up being entirely different from the one the editor is expecting. Then you hand in your book and it’s as if you’re back in seventh grade and you farted in the cafeteria. Why doesn’t the house feel any responsibility for that? You know, people are often writing books for the first time. How are they supposed to know what they’re doing?”
But many in-house editors respond that outsourcing is now just a fact of publishing life. “I’ve heard of it, but I just don’t know who’s doing it,” said Sarah Crichton, who has her own imprint at Farrar, Straus and Giroux, of the practice. “I think it happens because a lot of houses have fewer and fewer editors, handling more and more books, and they don’t have enough time to spend with writers who might need more hands-on help. It’s not that they don’t believe the book needs attention. They just don’t physically have the time to do it. Every editor in New York is swamped.”
Apparently that goes for the outsourcees too: Ms. Yanagihara, Mr. Mnookin’s freelance editor, said that she and the author spoke, probably, “a dozen times a day.”
“Some of it would be kind of friendship pep talks, and some of it would be serious talks about the actual structure of the book, or about the reporting he had or needed to get,” she said. “It was as close to a writer and editor working in a room together as you can get, except he was in Boston and I was in New York.”
Follow Sheelah Kolhatkar via RSS.