Saturday, August 18, 2007

brief note

I should perhaps say, as an addendum to an earlier post on copy-editing problems, that The Last Samurai might well never have been published at all without the commitment of its editor. An agent had shown it to editors in London a few years earlier and failed to find it a publisher; it might never have found one. The editor who acquired it in New York had had a very senior position in London, where he had a full complement of well-trained staff; when I met him he was starting up a new imprint with a staff consisting of a PA and a very young, very inexperienced production manager. He found himself having to carry a much heavier workload, and in this case failed to give his subordinates the guidance they needed. It was horrible for me to have so much other work destroyed by these unnecessary problems, and it would have been better if he had backed me up when we discussed matters of style -- but he was certainly an eloquent advocate of the book, and it undoubtedly owes its wide publication outside America to his efforts.

It is uncommon these days for an author to find a publisher without an agent; the problems I encountered are normally settled by an agent with a quick phone call. This is not quite like calling in a lawyer: a lawyer, who hasn't read the book, can insist on compliance with a contract but can't offer encouragement. Editors are used to getting flak for sending out carelessly-edited texts; an agent can persuade the editor that the text will not bring shame on its publishing house, something an author, perhaps, is not well placed to do.


Lee said...

It is nice to know how much your editor helped to make The Last Samurai a book rather than a MS in your bottom drawer, a book I was then able to read and thoroughly enjoy, along with all the thousands of other readers who feel the same.

Helen DeWitt said...

Yes, it was good that he wanted to publish the book. The problem was that, in doing so, he made it impossible to finish so many other books. Publishers put pressure on writers to change passages they think might expose them to lawsuits, because this might wipe out the profits from many other books; they should not really wipe out an author's profit from all other writing in order to present one book to the public -- or, if one wants to look at it another way, make it impossible for the public to read any other books by the author. Readers are not necessarily going to think: Well, I'd have liked to see another book by Helen DeWitt, but the publisher has brought out Bergdorf Blondes and Sammy's Hill so I can read them instead.