Last week, FutureBook published an article by Agent Orange entitled ‘Do Editors Say No Because They Can No Longer Say Yes?' It was largely a diatribe on the length of time editors now take to respond to manuscripts on submission – if indeed they respond at all – and warned of the dangers of angering authors and damaging the ‘legacy' publishing brand through this ‘failure to communicate.' This generated a fair amount of conversation on Twitter – ironically our most instantaneous means of communication.
I can't speak for all editors, of course, and can only assume that there is truth in the assertion that many editors, particularly younger ones, "never say no". But for many editors, particularly younger ones (and as a child of the 80s I'm counting myself amongst them, despite an increasing number of grey hairs), this simply isn't the case at all. For one thing, we learned from the best; in my case as an intern for Carole Blake at Blake Friedmann and as an editorial assistant to Simon Prosser at Hamish Hamilton, who each led by example in replying to submissions promptly and courteously, with thought and care, and with an inherent respect for the work of all authors. As a result, I always aim to acknowledge submissions on the day of receipt and respond within a month, and I know many editors (of all ages) who work the same way.
I say ‘aim to' because this is absolutely the intention, but sometimes the reality falls short. And this is why: because editors today have broader roles than ever before, less administrative support than ever before, and more submissions than ever before.
We have broader roles because we are working in an ever-changing and ever-challenging world – we have to stay on our toes, diversify, and adapt to new media and developments, whilst staying true to the core principles of our industry and doing the work that editors have always done. In our increasingly digital and international age, editors have a wider range of inter-departmental responsibilities, and a greater variety of ways in which to promote authors. The range of activities we are involved in behind the scenes is vast, and it often keeps us away from our desks. Yet we still need to edit (and we do – don't get me started on all those ‘death of the editor' articles. . . ), and brief jackets, and write copy, and meet production deadlines, and tirelessly champion our books both in-house and out. And read submissions. And respond to them.
With so much energy focused upon the books and authors that we do publish, perhaps responses to those we don't are lacking. But it's undeniably hard to keep up when we are receiving more submissions than ever – in no small part due to advances in technology which enable us to forge connections instantly and globally. As a result, we receive submissions not just from agents in the UK, but from agents and publishers all over the world.
But – and I say this cautiously, because I am grateful for every manuscript I receive and approach each one with optimism – the number of incoming submissions doesn't reflect the fact that we are publishing more selectively. So far this year, from the beginning of January to the end of May, I have received 156 novels on submission from agents. Of those, I have acquired three. That's a lot of rejection correspondence.
In many ways, it has never been easier for editors to make a decision on a manuscript – we have more people in-house to convince, we work more collaboratively (and therefore less subjectively), and we publish fewer books more wholeheartedly. This certainly concentrates the mind when it comes to saying yes or no. Perhaps it is true that the market is provoking such caution in some editors that they wait to see whether others bid before responding themselves – and if no-one is prepared to make the first move, small wonder the result is silence. But it is also true that, whilst we might sometimes fail to find the time to reject submissions, we can't afford to agonize over them either – not least with the sudden rise of self-published phenomena that are then acquired and published in a matter of weeks.
In Agent Orange's view, the "death of communication skills" amongst editors has "reached epidemic proportions". Perhaps that's fair when it comes to responses to submissions, though I respectfully disagree all the same, but it is certainly not true of our roles in general. The complete opposite, in fact, given the range of options at our disposal. We still write letters and use the phone, but we also email, tweet, blog and post on Facebook; we use Skype and video-conferencing – and in the process, we make ourselves available 24 hours a day. A quick scroll through my Twitter feed late at night or over the weekend shows countless publishers promoting their authors; and interacting with aspiring ones, too. We are not failing to communicate – we are communicating all the time. And I hope that for every author we may inadvertently anger by not responding fast enough, a good many more will appreciate that editors and publishers are more public-facing and accessible than ever.
Authors are at the heart of everything we do, and the reason we all chose to work in publishing. If agents have authors that feel angry with or disregarded by editors they need to tell us – but ideally on an individual basis and directly, rather than in an anonymous outburst that might just fuel more ‘hostility to publishers' than it aims to point out. They also need to acknowledge the bigger picture. Because for many editors like me, it's not that we're ungrateful to agents for sending a client our way; nor that we don't have the utmost respect and admiration for writers. It's just that there are only so many hours in the day.
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