Young writers often talk to me about getting published, and something they often say is: 'Couldn't I offer to accept a smaller advance in return for publishing the book I actually wrote? I'd like to take the Trans-Siberian Railway/write another book/learn Mongolian, drink mares' milk, live in a yurt/write another book/go to the Cabaret & explore totalitarianism & sexual perversion/write another book/spend a year at the monastery on Mt Athos/write another book' - i.e. do some things with my life other than sit in a room with a keyboard.
THIS book, the thought is, the one written with no money in the interstices of paid employment, is somewhat claustrophobic, it's very bookbound, because it was written when I had no money, spent all my time in a room with a keyboard, and knew the world only through books. Why can't we just agree that it has faults but it shows I can write, if someone will just give me a few thousand dollars I can go off and see the world and do something interesting with my talent, and the next book will be better because the money will have freed up my time to do interesting things and write about them in a focused way, instead of in the interstices of paid employment?
The young writer is under the impression that s/he is offering the publisher a good deal: a busy editor will not have to spend overcommitted time tinkering with the book, it can just be sent straight to the printer while the cheque is sent to the deserving young author who can swan out the door and book a ticket on the Trans-Siberian Railway.
Those who think all books should resemble 1. The Trial, 2. Waiting for Godot, or 3. The Lottery of Babylon will think this very shortsighted, there is a serious danger that in getting out and seeing the world the young writer will stray outside the Golden Triangle. Those who stretch a point -- it's OK if a book is neither Kafkaesque, Beckettian nor Borgesian, because Pinter, Bernhard, Robbe-Grillet and Butor have much to offer -- will still think it shortsighted.
Most editors do not, as it happens, think character, plot, eventfulness deplorable lapses which must be stamped out of modern fiction at all costs. What they do think, though, is that tinkering with other people's books is the fun part of the job; if you deprive an editor of the opportunity to cover a MS with comments, you have stripped away the only thing that gives meaning to the job. 'We're not photocopiers.' 'Publishers are not printers.' The suggestion that the book the author wrote should be shown to the public is outrageous -- agents will be just as outraged by it as any editor.
In other words, whether editorial comments are or are not of value to the book under consideration, the business of taking them on board does incalculable damage to the book's successors. This is never taken into account, and so the handful of writers who take the Trans-Siberian Railway are vastly outnumbered by the writers who spend their time mired down in dealings with the publishing industry.
When I explain this to newcomers they find it counter-intuitive. Wouldn't a book about adventures on the Trans-Siberian Railway be more interesting, more likely to sell, than a book about sitting around in a room with a keyboard waiting for agent/editor/copy-editor & the rest of the gang to get back to the keyboard-bound? and isn't it a business? isn't it about making money? -- and if it's about making MONEY, and if the EDITOR doesn't see this, surely I have only to explain this point to an AGENT, whose JOB it is to make money for ME?
Well, what can I say? Don't take my word for it. Nathan Bransford, an agent at the San Francisco office of Curtis Brown, has a blog on which he has just revived a guest post from March on What an Editor Does. Those of us who like the sound of the Trans-Siberian Railway + yurts + Cabaret + sexual perversion in the face of Nazi Evil + Mount Athos might think if this is what an editor does the thing an agent might usefully do is curb the editor's propensity to waste an author's time. The fact that Bransford has posted this piece of nonsense not once, but twice, will suggest, I think, that market forces are not the author's friend in quite the way very young writers tend to suppose.