Today I'm Grateful For Old-Fashioned Editors

In this fast-changing world of publishing, we hear about a future where writers will directly post content for digital downloading—no costly binding, no "middle-men," no meager 10-15% cut of a sale, no lengthy turnaround time until our next book is consumable.

Sounds great, right?

Not to me. Take TIGER BOY, for instance, coming in 2014 from Charlesbridge.

A year ago, I was in the doldrums of a newly-empty nest, wondering what to do now that I'd been fired as a Mommy. A mother-writer hyphenated vocation had been a good gig for years; how was I going to weather this transition? I had no creative sizzle, and when students asked the inevitable question during author visits—"Where do you get your ideas?"—my honest answer should have been: "No clue. Got nothing here."

That's when the phone rang. Yes, I got an old-school call. Not a text, not an e-mail, but an actual call on our landline.

I picked it up and grunted into the receiver, expecting a marketing robo-voice. Who else called that number these days?

"Mitali? This is Yo. How are you?" It was Yolanda LeRoy Scott, my Harvard-educated, drop-dead gorgeous editor at Charlesbridge. "I want to take you to lunch and talk about your next book."

"Okay, Yo, I'd like that." How am I going to tell her about my creative constipation? Get ready for the shortest working lunch ever, Mrs. Scott.

We met at Not Your Average Joe's in Watertown, right near Charlesbridge's offices, a mile or so from my house in the Boston area. "I'm stuck, Yo. I got nothing," I said, soaking up parmesan cheese and olive oil with freshly baked bread.

"Just throw out some topics for me. Is there anything you've always wanted to write about? Or a new genre you want to try?"

Yolanda passed me the bread bowl, and I helped myself to another chunk of carb comfort. "Well, there is something. I've always wanted to write a picture book, and I've been thinking about Bengal tigers—how beautiful they are." I didn't add that one of our sons' walls was covered with posters of the creatures, because that would imply I was mooning around his  room.

Her face lit up. "That sounds lovely. Send me a proposal."


"I know you can do this, Mitali. This is your story to tell. Now let's talk babies. Mine isn't sleeping all that well. Got any tips?"

I slipped easily into my role of seasoned veteran as we chatted about mothering for the rest of lunch.

Somehow I eked out a proposal, and then a picture book manuscript. Yo's editorial letter came quickly: "I love it, but as usual you've got the start of a short novel with great potential here, Mitali. It could be the perfect companion to RICKSHAW GIRL." The letter continued with a list of brilliant questions and suggestions.

I felt a sudden spark in my latent imagination. A character leaped to mind—a skinny brown boy, like hundreds I had seen in the villages of West Bengal. Years ago, my own father had been one of them. Immediately, I named him: Neil. He loved tigers.

Yesterday I sent Yolanda a second revision of TIGER BOY, the novel. Thanks to her insights, it's become a real story now, with plot, characters, theme, place. It's going to take another round or two of changes and honing before I like it, but my imagination needs the breathing room of our back-and-forth collaboration.

Here's my question: will the future be a world without small publishers like Charlesbridge who champion stories across borders, without editors like Yo who encourage and nurture broken-down mid-career writers, without the time a story needs between revisions to improve?

If so, I'm never going to make it.

Can we be proactive and keep the best from the old publishing model as we explore new ways to deliver content to consumers? One non-negotiable is the input of an excellent editor who doesn't work for me, but with me.

Thanks, Yo.  And thanks, Charlesbridge. Now on to the next story.


Laurie Thompson said…
I love this post for so many reasons, Mitali!

First and foremost, I totally agree with your point: collaboration with a passionate editor leads to a better book. My husband and I have this discussion all the time. He's a techie and thinks everything can be crowd-sourced, automated, streamlined. He doesn't understand why I am so patient (i.e. doggedly stubborn) with the traditional publishing industry, why I don't just self-publish and get my words onto a page for readers. I'm working my tail off on a revision right now for a book that's under contract, but I KNOW it will be a better book, and I KNOW I will be a better writer when I'm done. Growth is painful, but oh, so rewarding.

I also love your willingness to be vulnerable, though, both in admitting you had no ideas, and then in voicing the one that was still private. What fantastic risks you took! And that Yolanda was able to appreciate that and nurture it is a wonderful thing!

So, here's to vulnerability, acceptance, and creative collaboration! I can't wait to read TIGER BOY.
tanita davis said…
That's kind of been my thought - last Friday, we RH writers got the letter notifying us that RH was buying Penguin - and I thought, "Huh. Wonder what the Penguin writers are feeling like this morning." Bigger sometimes can mean impersonal, and I'm admittedly leery, and on-edge. The personal touch can make such a difference...
Ann said…
Here's another thing: as a reviewer, as much as I try hard to give independent authors a chance, it is mind-numbingly difficult to read a book that's clearly only been self-edited. Editors exist for a reason! Getting through slush piles might be pretty rough, but professional editing as a step in the publishing process is so important to ending up with work that's going to get good reviews, even if you story idea is stellar on its own. I've read probably 20 self-published works since I started doing this, and no more than four or five of them have been anything but painful to trudge through.
I cannot imagine working without an editor. There is no way what I produce is sufficient on its own.
Mitali Perkins said…
I also see a difference between working with an editor who doesn't get a paycheck from you and working with an editor you hire -- as one might when self-publishing.
This is a wonderful story. While I'm still "pre-published" I recognize the value of a good editor. I'm so glad you have Yo gently guiding you. We're all the better for it when we read your stories influenced by Yolanda. I hope to have a truly collaborative relationship with an editor some day soon.
Debbie Levy said…
Great post, Mitali. I so strongly believe in the power of editing and the value of a supportive--but also brutally honest--editor. A good editor is to a piece of writing as a good curator is to a collection of artifacts. Sure, the raw stuff lying around the attic has value and appeal, but it can reach its full potential as an exhibit in the careful and collaborative hands of a skilled curator. I feel the same way about how manuscripts become great books.
Sarah Louise said…
It's so great to hear that things like this are still happening in publishing.

I love your comparison, Well said.
Melissa Stewart said…
I know exactly what you're saying, Mitali. In 2010, I sent Yolanda a manuscript I'd been working at for a long time. Yolanda got the humor. She saw the potential. More than any other editor I've worked with, she helped me to make the manuscript more of what I always wanted it to be. She's SUCH a great editor.

Thanks for saying something that needed to be said, and so honestly and eloquently.

I saw Yolanda perform in the singing skit at the 25th New England SCBWI Conference. She was brilliant . . . and extremely pregnant.

I'm grateful for great editors.

And for your post.

jamie peeps said…
Yolanda is the BEST. And, I am dying to draw tigers.
gail said…
I think that eventually the self-published writers who achieve any level of success will be the ones who are willing to work with editors and have the means to do so. Though, like you, I don't know how the relationship will work when the author is paying the editor instead of the editor being paid by a third party.