Victoria Barrett, editor and publisher of Engine Books, a boutique fiction press, is here to answer a 1/2 dozen questions, giving an insider's look at what editors are searching for, insights into the industry, and a glimpse into the life of an editor who's also a writer and married to a writer.
What do you always look for in a manuscript?
In a novel manuscript, I need to be able to really see the story; I know I might be the right editor for a book if, as I read it, the rhythms of its language and the emotional drive that the author intended resonate in my head. By no means do I look for perfection. Instead, I have to be able to imagine right away how I will help the author bring the entirety of the whole up to the level of its very best parts. So if it's got a few wobbly chapters, that's fine, as long as I can clearly see the author's vision and think concretely about ways to get the book closer to that vision. (I'm guessing about that vision on a first read, but for the books I've edited, I've begun my work with the authors by trying to explain their vision back to them--so far, this has worked out, and has been the beginning of the collaborative editing process.)
More concretely, I have to care about the characters and perceive enough dramatic tension to keep turning the pages.
For a story collection, I look for a unified, complete book. What that means varies--a lot--from book to book. But what I see most often is a bunch of really good stories that don't fit well together, either because they're too similar in style or theme, so the themes of the book are repeating themselves, or so vastly different from one another that they can't be parts of the same unified narrative arc. By that I don't mean that I have a preference for linked stories--I don't, actually, and often find the linkages forced--but every book of fiction has a narrative arc, even if that arc progresses more in spirit than in subject matter or theme.
You're a writer. How do you balance editor and writer roles?
For as long as I can remember, I have been moved by an internal drive to make stuff. I remember, the summer I turned 10, spending a week at my grandmother's house, bored to death, raiding her quilting scraps and stitching Barbie outfits from her leftovers. That drive is consistent and palpable; it almost feels like anxiety, but with a direction, rather than the nauseating vague gitchiness of regular anxiety. I garden, sew, cook. My husband Andrew Scott and I remodeled our entire house ourselves, with just the smallest bit of contractor help (gas lines, etc). Writing is a product of that drive for me, fed by my endless childhood (adulthood, too) appetite for books.
Editing is a completely different activity, and I think I'm probably better at it than I am at writing. It's much more akin to falling deeply into a book that you love. When I'm editing, I'm positioning myself as a reader in the hands of a writer--I'm recognizing someone else's vision and working in the service of that vision--not as a creator or author. I certainly draw on my writerly affection for language and storytelling. But editing happens in an entirely different cognitive framework than writing for me.
How I balance the time is another story entirely. Running Engine Books has been a constant, ongoing education in all areas, but perhaps the biggest lesson has been the amount of time this work takes. I also teach full time, and there have been weeks when I didn't think it was going to be possible to do what needed to be done, without even trying to work on my own writing. But I've never been an every-day writer. When I try to write every day, the work becomes forced and unappealing, and although we all tell ourselves (and our students) that it's perfectly fine to write badly in a first draft, I can't quite do it. Nothing discourages me more than looking back at my own work and seeing flat language, bloated scenes, dull dialogue. I am much more likely to finish a story or chapter if I've been away from it than if I've forced myself to work on it and written something that leaves a bad taste in my mouth. And because I'm pretty easily discouraged anyway, this becomes a useful excuse for not writing every day. The writing is going to come when that internal drive kicks on, though. It's going to happen if it means I don't sleep. It's not the same thing as waiting for some mysterious inspiration, which I kind of don't believe in anyway. It's a matter of recognizing my own mental and emotional states and working within them. I do as much as I can to encourage that drive to take over on a regular basis. But a bad writing day is much, much worse for me than a not-writing day, so the time factor is not as significant as it might be for someone with a more consistent, stable process. I'm most successful at cultivating that writerly drive when I'm able to do so outdoors. We've got great porch chairs, and a comfy outdoor sofa on the back deck. Last summer I finished the novel I've been working on for years, and am now starting the agent search, so the work: it gets done.
You're married to a writer too. What advice do you have for writerly couples just starting out?
You're married to a writer too. What advice do you have for writerly couples just starting out?
Read together, and permit one another to disagree when you talk about the books. Don't waste time trying to convince your partner that you're seeing the book more accurately or more clearly than s/he is--have those conversations regularly, and make them a learning process. In this way, you're both educating one another and practicing for when you give each other feedback on your work.
People say not to be competitive, but I don't know if that's possible. Andrew and I are not identical writers in style or ambition, so that helps, since we're not frequently competing in specific contexts. But if I try to suppress the envy that rises up when he has a major accolade or accomplishment, it only gets worse. That envy coexists perfectly well with a much larger pride and thrill at those accomplishments, but it does exist. Have your minute of assholery, preferably when your partner is not present, when you're alone, then move on.
I find this life a lot easier than a hypothetical one wherein I had not only to write, but to convince my partner that I was entitled to the time and space, both physical and mental, required to write. I'm sure it would be great to have your household funded by a trust-funder or brain surgeon or something, to be able to choose when to work jobs with salaries, but I'm fairly certain that wouldn't work for me, in part because I'm not entirely convinced myself that I deserve the time and space to write, so the burden of convincing someone else of it would probably halt the writing altogether. People ask Andrew and me--but me more often, it seems--how we can stand to be together all the time, since we live together, teach together, commute together, read one another's work, etc. My answer, which is true and serves nicely to reward their negativity and nosiness with shame, is to ask why I would have married him if I didn't want to spend all of my life with him. The near universal reply: "Oh."
As far as any of us can tell at this early date, ebooks have caused people to purchase and read more books. Ebook readers also buy more print books than they did before. Through that ease of acquisition--the automated nature of the download--ebooks seem to have reinforced existing appetites for books; through the purchasing of e-readers as gifts, they seem to have multiplied the number of appetites, as well. Most--but not all--of us agree that meeting those appetites, through whatever format, is the best way to get an author's work into as many readers' hands as possible.
I attended a seminar recently that included some proprietary sales numbers; the outcome was the suggestion that as more publishers complete their backlist ebook offerings, ebook purchases versus print book purchases are leveling off--the taking over of market share isn't going to continue forever. The ebook is not going to eliminate the print book as a product or artifact. If anything, we might lose hardcovers at some point in the future, but that will happen because even avid readers don't value books enough to pay hardcover prices for them.
That devaluing of literature is accelerated by arguments that ebooks should be cheaper than print books. It takes a special kind of ignorance to think that, when you buy a product, you're only paying for the object in your hands. When you purchase a product, you are paying for every step in the labor and supply chain of the creation of that product, and you are generally paying much, much for the labor than for the supplies. The vast majority of the labor of a book's creation is writing; a lesser but still significant component is editing. You are not paying for the printing and the paper. You are paying someone to create a story. The means of delivery of that story does not alter that labor cost in the least. (Incidentally, this is also an argument against the pricing tiers represented by hardcover releases.) Further, when you're talking about widely-read, popular paperbacks, the object in a reader's hands likely cost pennies to produce, absent the author's labor. If you care about books, and think that storytelling has value in our culture, don't argue for cheap ebooks; these arguments are one of the most significant impacts of ebooks on book culture, though I think they're widely dismissed (for obvious reasons) within the industry.
Why editing? What drew you to the work?
At a base level, I suppose I was drawn to editing because I love books and I think the world needs more great ones. There are too many excellent books of fiction being passed over by the publishing establishment that deserve to be in readers' hands. I can't solve that problem, publishing four books a year, but I can contribute something small but meaningful to its solution.
Through my work with Andrew at Freight Stories, and before that at Puerto del Sol during my MFA, I developed a strong affinity for editing shorter works. There's something incredibly seductive about seeing literature through to its end stage, a physical object you can hold in your hand. Nothing about writing scratches the itch to be done. But editing is the work of taking fiction out of the hands of a writer who has said, This is as done as I can get it on my own, and shepherding it into a more tangible form. (Obviously, some of the "publisher" functions are at play there, but since I do both, it can be hard to separate.)
I also believe--and this is going to sound bad--that it's morally wrong to recognize a talent in yourself and fail to put it to use, and I feel like I have a talent for this. It also lets me turn, in at least one case, a problem in my writing life into a solution in someone else's: One of my great deficits as a writer is my easily-influenced language use. When I read lyrical, voice-driven fiction, its influence shows up in my own work immediately. This turns out to be a great asset as an editor when I'm doing line-level work, because I find it relatively easy to immerse myself in the style of the book I'm editing, and to reinforce that style with suggestions.
People say that editors don't edit anymore. Does that make sense to you? What's the bulk of the contemporary editor's job?
I hear this regularly from both established and emerging writers working with both large and small presses. It doesn't make much sense to me at small, nonprofit presses, which ought in terms of the nonprofit business structure to be mission driven, and which are often funded at least as heavily by grants as they are by sales. But in the massively corporate model of big publishing, it does make a kind of sense. I can see why those resources fall more heavily toward marketing; once you place publishing in a larger system that's designed to invent the widget once, then sell as many of the exact same widget as possible, it seems ridiculous to pay a labor force to invent brand new widgets all the time. Invention/R&D is hopelessly expensive, if your sole goal is to sell as much stuff as possible in order to put more money in your shareholders' pockets--shareholders who are probably invested in a parent company that has little or nothing to do with books in the first place.
But we all know, once you get below a certain level in the mega-conglomerate organizational chart, that books aren't widgets. Our culture--or at least our rhetoric--appears to me to be moving increasingly toward placing value only on endeavors that create profit. Until/unless that changes, all of us who care about art will continue to fight an uphill battle, and for now, at least, it seems like old-school editing as an expected part of the process of making a book is a casualty in that battle.
Usually that means two or three rounds of edits: one for global stuff, perhaps another for chapter/scene level stuff, and a final line-edit. (At least two rounds of proofing happen later.) So that's a lot of the time and effort.
I spend almost as much time reading manuscripts (and during some phases, probably more), the acquisition phase of editing (though I prefer the term selection). Most of the time, I read a full manuscript I've requested, even if I'm not immediately hooked, though as I receive more great queries I'm going to have to make harder decisions about that workload.
And I suppose this returns to the why edit question, but I don't want that in-depth editing to die. It's another problem I can't solve, but, four times a year, I can make a little contribution to doing things the way I think they ought to be done.
In addition to being the editor and publisher of Engine Books, Victoria Barrett teaches at Ball State University, and lives in Irvington, a neighborhood in Indianapolis where the streets are named after writers, with her husband, Andrew Scott, and their two cats and one dog. A two-tone image of Washington Irving's floating head adorns the historic neighborhood sign on her front porch, the same porch where she recently completed her first novel, Four Points Gin.