This article by Joanne Grant is from the May 2021 edition of Nink, the monthly newsletter of Novelists, Inc.  (NINC). Nink, which is packed each month with informative articles for career novelists, is a benefit of NINC membership. 

Like any relationship, the relationship you build with an editor may take time. But when it’s right, it can be magical and beneficial to your publishing career. Here are some key tips to help foster a healthy rapport with your editor.

I want to note up front that relationships require respect and effort from both parties. You cannot control how your editor works, but you can set the tone of how you want to work together to get the best result from your relationship.

First and foremost, your relationship should be professional. This is at the root of your healthy editor/author relationship and everything else stems from here. I don’t mean you should only behave in a strictly formal, business-like manner. I’ve had some of the most amazing, fun times with my authors over the years that were certainly not formal!

Professionalism is remembering that fundamentally an editor and author are two business people entering into a legal agreement from which both will benefit: your publisher wants your book, you want your book to be published, and therefore you both stand to make money from each other.

All good relationships are based on mutual trust and, whilst this can take time to earn and build, remembering that it is a professional relationship can help with this. Trust that your editor has the best interests of your work at heart because they want your books to be successful—it is their job!

  • Professionalism shows itself in the way you hold up your end of the publishing deal. This includes:
  • Putting in your best effort to produce quality work.
  • Being open to constructive feedback and executing revisions—the revision process benefits both parties.
  • Taking personal responsibility for your work, such as fact checking and improving your craft.
  • Keeping to deadlines, but being in touch in good time if you’re behind schedule. Your editor will thank you as they are working multiple deadlines.

Communication is key: when it goes wrong, it can cause unnecessary worry and conflict and cause long-term damage by undermining trust. If your editor doesn’t ask how you prefer to work and communicate, then I would actively encourage you to raise the conversation.

For example, you may find telephone conversations difficult, preferring to receive feedback in writing first so you can absorb the information and follow-up with a call. Or perhaps you prefer the immediacy of a call to discuss your work so you can bounce around ideas and solutions. There is no right way to work with your editor, only the right way for you.

Your editor will likely have a default style of working but that doesn’t mean they can’t adjust to your needs. But they won’t know if their way of working isn’t good for you unless you tell them!

The practicalities of working life mean that email will be the primary mode of communication, and we all know how easily emails can be misinterpreted. For example, a terse response to a simple question may leave you thinking, “Have I done something wrong?” or “What are they not telling me?” when in fact, the email was bashed out quickly to get the information to you in between meetings. Which is why I feel a lot can be gained in building a rapport and clearing up misunderstandings through an occasional conversation, even if you prefer emails.

Furthermore, in an ideal world authors and editors would meet once a year in person. So much can be achieved in terms of relationship building if it’s face to face. After all, most of human communication is non-verbal, plus it opens up opportunities for that fun I referenced.

However, I worked for years with authors I never had the chance to meet, yet managed to build good relationships, so you can work with what you’ve got.

Here are some further tips on effective communication between you and your editor:

  • Be open and honest about concerns and misunderstandings rather than letting them fester.
  • Keep communication respectful in tone and language.
  • Use moderate responses in reaction to revisions, publishing news, etc. Remember, it’s a business relationship. If you feel the need, vent first, delete, re-write, then send.
  • Be patient in waiting for a response from your editor, even if two days feels like two weeks when you’ve sent in your latest manuscript.

As you work together and build up trust and respect, it is likely you will connect on a personal level. This is part of the author/editor relationship that can be so special. I went on to become long-term friends with authors and that personal connection for me was a truly wonderful part of being an editor.

However, being mindful of the boundary between personal and professional is important to protect you both. Your editor is your cheerleader, your in-house champion, but they fundamentally represent the publisher and there may come a time when they need to deliver some difficult news. For example, they may have to relate sales results, an advance rollback or even that your contract is not being renewed. When the boundary is in place you can more readily accept the news as a business decision or an aspect of the marketplace. However, if you’re too far over that boundary, it can hurt you on a personal level, knock your confidence and break that bond with your editor.

So, can you protect yourself and still have that fun, easy rapport with your editor? I believe you can, and again, it all comes down to professionalism. Here are some suggestions:

  • If you don’t have one already, consider hiring an agent as your mediator. They can handle the main business chats so you can focus on the creative process with your editor.
  • Even with an agent, remind yourself that your editor is working on behalf of the publisher. “It’s not personal, it’s business” is a good mantra.
  • Keep aware of when the personal chit-chat ends and the business talk begins. Separate them if necessary, and/or ask your editor to clearly signpost specific business conversations so you’re not blindsided.
  • If you do get to have an in-person meet with your editor which is more social in tone, recognise when the time for work chat has ended and don’t overstep that boundary.

What to do when it’s not working…
Like any relationship, it may not work out, often with no fault on either side; you’re just not a good match. If you find yourself in a situation with an editor that is becoming detrimental to your writing, it is important for your own career to address it.

I know from experience that authors are wary of “complaining” about their editor because they like their editor and don’t want to upset them, they worry that they’ll be seen as troublesome, or think it may harm their career at that publisher. None of these reasons are coming from a place of professionalism or healthy boundaries.

Let’s get back to what this relationship is all about: selling books. If you cannot produce your best work because this relationship is failing, then it is in the publisher’s best interest to look for ways to fix this.

So, what can you do?

  • I would encourage a conversation with your editor first to see if you can find a resolution to whatever issue is at play. Often it is a misunderstanding caused by a communication disconnect and an honest conversation can help.
  • If you’ve tried to address this with your editor directly, or don’t feel as though you can, then involve senior members of the editorial team. You can speak to them directly, or go through your agent.

Remember, you are under contract with a publisher who wants your books, so finding a solution is beneficial to both parties.

Keep in mind these three key points: professionalism, communication and boundaries. They will help lay the foundations for a strong relationship with your editor. A healthy relationship benefits your publishing career, because when you’re connecting well with your editor, that’s when the magic happens. You’ll produce your best work and you may even have some fun along the way.