Misc,  On Writing

Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing: Editors are Evil Myth

Off and on for years I’ve been hearing from newer writers that editors were evil, that they didn’t want to send their manuscripts to editors to be butchered, that they wanted an agent to help protect their work. As a former editor, I mostly just ignored this because it was so absurd.

But now comes along electronic publishing where writers can go directly to readers with their work and suddenly this “evil editor” myth is coming in strong as an excuse to not mail anything to New York or any major publication. And I said excuse, because there is no reality in this myth at all. None.


The truth: 99% of major publishing editors are very, very nice people. They love books, they love helping create books, they are good at corporation politics, they don’t get paid enough, they work seven days a week, and the only editing they do with an author is to fix mistakes and help the author make the book they wanted to write more of what the author wanted. Editors are the most underrated, underpaid workers in all of publishing.

So, where to even begin on this myth that editors are evil? Maybe at the beginning, the origin of the myth and why it has been growing.


In school we all heard about those famous editors of the past who helped major writers like Fitzgerald and Hemingway get their work into shape. So right out of the block we are all afraid of editors for not only that reason, but a hundred other reasons. They have the key to publication in their hands. They seem powerful and all-knowing from a distance. They don’t seem human to new writers, they seem like gods. All perception problems that lead to the following reasons for the myth of “evil editor.”

1) FEAR.

Writers have this fear of rejection which makes no logical sense at all. Editors can’t hurt you, won’t come to your home with a gun, and won’t write rejection letters like Snoopy got in the Peanuts cartoons. The worse editors do is not respond, the second worse is that they send a form rejection along. From there it’s all up.

But baseless fear controls all young writers, so instead of taking a chance that their work might get rejected, which it will because we all get rejected, they make up things like “I don’t want anyone butchering my sacred words or my sacred story.” Thus the young writers don’t have to confront their own fear of rejection. Easier to not mail something with an excuse than it is to take a chance and mail it.

Also, fear of publication does this a great deal as well, even though that sounds odd. Many, many writers are deathly afraid of having someone like their work because they know how easy and fun it was to write. The new writer didn’t struggle over it enough like they were taught was important in college. So therefore the story must be bad and if an editor bought it the writer would be exposed for a fraud. So it’s easier to make up an evil editor excuse and not mail the story.


For some reason a lot of new writers think that an editor’s job is to train them to write, and to mark up their manuscripts in red pens like their high school teacher did. They don’t want that, so instead they start thinking of editors as evil.

Does in reality your manuscript get marked up? Yup, copy edits and slight editing that you have the ability to say no to every change, unlike high school. Go back to many other chapters in this book to remind yourself that writers are in control of their own work. There will be marks on your manuscript for your approval. 99% of the marks are either moving to a house style or catching a mistake you missed. Sometimes you get a bad copy edit, but not enough to cause this myth. The evil editor myth comes from writers hating their English teacher and thinking that editors are the same. They are not.


Book doctors, whom you can hire, are for the most part a scam. (There are a couple with hearts in the right place who really want to help writers, but very few.) There is one New York agent right now telling new writers who come to him to hire his wife for a ton of money as a book doctor. Scam. Book doctors do exist, but they are hired by New York publishers to help get an already bought book into shape with the agreement of the author. These are normally nonfiction books. Most of the real professional book doctors are former editors with major houses. You don’t know who they are and you couldn’t afford them.

The problem comes in with the fact that new writers only see the scams. And these scam book doctors call themselves EDITORS. And some of them are horrid. (I can’t begin to tell you how many times I have heard a new writer say “Oh, I hired an editor to help me and fix my book.” Shudder….)

So this myth has built from those horrid book doctors who do mark up manuscripts like an English teacher because that is all they know how to do. They wouldn’t understand a good story if it bit them, so they have to pay attention to only the words.

Stay away from those types at all costs!!!! They are not editors. Editors work for major publishers. You can’t hire them.


The slush-reading agent who wants writers to rewrite before mailing a book is more than likely the biggest source of the increase in this myth in the last ten years. We’ve talked about horror stories of some writers rewriting a dozen times for an agent. Now trust me, thinking of your agent as your editor is a quick way to death of career and will certainly drive this myth that editors are evil. Editors who work for major publishers are great people. Some agents, on the other hand, are truly evil and scam artists. Never confuse the two for any reason.


For those of you who have never seen the inside of a major editor’s office in New York, let me give you a quick tour.

Editors and senior editors’ offices are often small, not more than about four paces deep and two or three paces wide. Shelves on both sides and a desk and one chair. Assistant editors and associate editors often sit outside in the hall at a desk or in a nearby cubicle. Executive editors have larger offices, but not much, and publishers have larger offices. Books and art are stacked everywhere in the halls and offices, along with piles and piles and piles of paper, mostly manuscripts in one stage or another.

What is a senior editor’s job? Simply put, to produce every month a list of books. Senior editors are at least in charge of one imprint list. The list can be from three to six books per month. So each editor has between 36 and 72 books a year, plus a number of others on other lists that they also buy for. The editor is usually buying two years out, so double that number, and then don’t forget the books already published that are in some stage of promotion. A normal editor can handle 200 plus book titles a year when you add it all up, depending on the house and company and imprint.

An editor’s day is filled with dealing with the art department, with the sales department, with the managing editor, with cover copy, meetings with the publisher, answering mail and email, massive numbers of phone calls, and so much more. Editors seldom, if ever, have time to read in their office. They read at home or on the subway going home or to work. They read on weekends.

In other words, if your image of an editor was what you have seen from Hollywood, with the big offices, the clean desks, the one manuscript sitting on top of the desk waiting to be read, you are sadly lost in a bad myth. Editors’ offices and the area around them are beehives of activity among piles and piles of paper and books and art.

The editors I know who have lasted for years thrive in this corporate craziness. And they do it for the love of taking a book that they have found and helping it get to thousands of readers that they hope will love it as well.

Editors don’t get paid enough. They sit in far, far too many hours of meetings. But when one of their writers show up in town, they do get to use the corporate credit card for lunch, often the only time they can afford to go to a new or nice restaurant.

Editors love and hate working with writers at the same time. They love working with the writers who act professionally and are clear on the process of helping a book become a better book in the writer’s vision. They hate working with writers who haven’t bothered to learn any business, who are lost in egos, or who think that the editor works for them.

It’s working with that type of clueless writer that makes editors sometimes rather work with an agent. At least the agent will usually be professional and understand how the business works. But if you are a clear-thinking writer who knows the realities of the publishing business, the editors would much rather work with you directly than through a third party. Less chance of screw-ups that way.

Editors do their best to protect writers, sometimes too much so. They are deathly afraid of giving a writer bad news for some reason I have yet to figure out.


The publisher of course. Their job, their paycheck, depends on making sure the books sell, that the publisher gets what the publisher needs in profits for the imprint. When faced with buying a book they love, the editor must then turn to a profit-and-loss statement, boiling down the book into numbers of projected sales that both the publisher and sales force have to agree with.

But that said, the editor is also working for the writer.

Editor love the book or they wouldn’t be trying to buy it. They are going to have to spend up to two years on the book in a thousand details and meetings about the book. The editor, while working for the publisher, is your champion inside the publishing house. The editor on a day-to-day level will push and promote and work for you and your book.

So editors are in a tough spot. They get paid by, and report to, the publisher. But they are the champion of the writer who is on the other side of the contract.

When this works the best, which is about 95% of the time, is when the writer and the publisher and the editor are all working together for one purpose and one goal and everyone understands they are working together.

A publishing contract isn’t a line in the sand between two warring parties. A contract is an agreement of partnership to work together.

So editors work for publishers, sure. But they are also your representative in the thousands of details that it takes to get a book published and promoted through the traditional system. They are your champion. But you need to understand their job to help them help you even more.


The problem is that writers believe they don’t have to learn the publishing business, so therefore really can’t help much in the publishing process and are always surprised when something goes wrong. And trust me, if you have more than ten books published, at some point something will go wrong in some stage of the process. Too many hundreds of steps for it not to happen.

And when you really learn the business and how it works, you will be surprised that even more things don’t go wrong.

At Pulphouse we called certain books “books from hell.” Why? Because it seemed that if something could go wrong, it would go wrong on that book. Nothing to do with the author or the book, just the karma of mistakes and problems happening that seem to pile on one book. About one in twenty books turned into a book from hell.

So something goes wrong and the editor knows you are an uninformed, myth-bound writer. The editor is afraid to tell you. If you have an agent, the editor might tell the agent, but chances are neither of them will tell you and if you discover the problem later, you’ll be angry. Why won’t the agent or editor tell you? Because you don’t understand publishing and will be angry. So for the editor and agent, it’s just better to hope you don’t find out.

Writers who do know publishing and business are usually told at once when there is a problem and can often help with a solution, because again, everyone is on the same side. But your editor has to know you are aware of how publishing works and want to be a part of the process when appropriate. I can’t tell you how many times over the years I helped editors write sales copy and promotion material for my book because they knew I understood what they needed.

But it’s the uninformed writers who get angry and yell and give editors the “evil editor” label when something goes wrong. And then wonder why editors are afraid to tell writers things in general. The last thing an editor needs is to be yelled at by the person they are trying to help. “No good deed goes unpunished.” Editors feel very, very slighted when they have put their jobs on the line for a writer and then the writer out of ignorance yells at them.


If you are one of the writers who thinks this myth is true, go get personal help. That’s the only solution I have on this one. The belief is coming from fear of rejection, fear of success, or complete lack of knowledge of a business you claim you want to work in. For any of those reasons, you need help and education, and just self-publishing your own work won’t solve your problem. Thinking of editors as evil is just a symptom of a much worse problem that will eventually bite you no matter how your work gets published.

Well, that was blunt.

If you look back over all the chapters I’ve done in this book, I always say that editors are the best, the hardest working, the lowest paid part of this business. I tell writers to not listen to how to be a writer from editors, since that’s not their business. But I defend editors completely.

Have I had some bad editors over the years in the fifty plus editors I have worked with? One. And he was a great guy, just not my style of editor. Are there editors I hate in publishing who I haven’t worked with? Yes, one. But that’s because he and I are on different sides of a major belief system. I’m sure he doesn’t much like me either, but not because I’m a stupid writer. He doesn’t like me because I challenge him outside of editing in other issues. Yet I have never told anyone to stay away from him as an editor.

I have been around hundreds and hundreds of editors over the years, worked in book publishing with almost fifty of them on books and countless short fiction editors. I am their greatest supporter and I have never heard of an editor hurting a writer intentionally. Ever. Mistakes happen in publishing. Some are head-shaking stupid, and one editor who worked with Kris on a book was so stupid, he made huge mistakes, got fired and is an agent now. But to this day I doubt anything he did was purposeful.

There are no evil editors. Editing seems to attract the kind of person who loves reading, loves books, and loves helping good books get into print for readers to find. It is a really tough job. If you think editors are evil for some reason or another, go find help. It might be the best thing you do for yourself personally.

And if you won’t find help, I would suggest you keep your opinion on this one to yourself. Spouting such a stupid myth just makes you look like an idiot. There are no evil editors, just ignorant writers.

Well, that was blunt again.


Copyright 2010 Dean Wesley Smith
Because of the new world and technology, my magic bakery got a lot more valuable lately. This is now part of my inventory in my bakery. (Confused on that, read the Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing post about making money with writing.) I’m giving you this small slice as a sample. I’m giving you a taste, but not selling any of the pie.

If you feel this helped you in any way, toss a tip into the tip jar on the way out of the Magic Bakery.

And I would like to thank all the fine folks who have donated. Once this book is done, I will send you a copy. The donations and the comments both after the posts and privately are really keeping me going on this. Thanks!

If you can’t afford to donate, please feel free to pass this chapter along to others who might get some help from it. Every week or so I will be adding a new chapter on the myths and sacred cows of publishing. Stay tuned. Upcoming are chapters on bestsellers, losing control of your writing, having it made, speed equals making money, more on agents, and so much more. This business has a lot of myths. An entire book full.

Thanks, Dean