I was recently reminded of an old phenomenon I remember well from the days before I was published (and before I realized that my blood pressure was best served by staying off listservs and forums populated by aspiring writers): that of trying to play the stats, rather than concentrating on your book.Usually, they are asking about the probability of their book being published, or their X-written manuscript being the one that makes it, or how much they can be expected to make, or what’s the likelihood of a movie being made from their debut novel, or any one of a dozen quantifiable answers to what are inherently unquantifiable questions.
But the question asked on Daphne Unfeasible’s blog the other day was a new take on the stats topic:
“I know editors at publishing companies ask for re-writes, both great and small, depending on the manuscript. But would you say there is a typical percentage range of changes that authors should expect to make on their novels before publication? For example, are most authors you work with usually asked to change 5% of their original work or closer to 30%? Or nowadays is it simply typos and grammatical errors that are changed? Or does it depend on how busy an editor is and how much time he/she’s willing to spend on rereads?”
Yes. No. 25%.
Bless Daphne — she has more patience than I did fresh off maternity leave. If you want a really nice answer, go click on that link, above. I’m going to be mean blunt:
This is a pointless question. I’m really sad that the writer had the chance to ask an agent something and this is what she chose to ask. It does nothing but serve to bolster her writerly neuroses. Some editors have time for a lot of rewrites. Some don’t. Some manuscripts need a lot of rewrites. Some don’t. Some manuscripts are worthy of working through a lot of rewrites. Some aren’t. There are so many variables going on here that asking for numbers is utterly ridiculous.
What purpose does it serve, really? Are you going to NOT submit your book for publication if you hear the average amount an editor “asks you to change” of your original work is 10%? Are you going to pull a fit if your book is above the average number that you are told by an agent on a blog one day? Are you going to rush around preening like a peacock if you don’t get that amount of changes?
(No seriously. I had a writer friend that did this — that actually sent smart-ass letters to her critique partners saying her editor thought her MS was perfect so there. Um, no. Your editor was busy.)
And while I’m on the topic, I think it’s best if the writer stopped thinking of her relationship with an editor as so adversarial. I often talk to aspiring writers who have somehow got it into their heads that they sell their perfect little books to editors who then force them to make horrible, injurious changes.
The editor who buys your book LOVES your book. They have fought for it, in house, which is why they have managed to pry dollars out of the grasping hands of their publishers and marketing departments in order to publish it. They will live and breathe this book as they edit it, as they help come up with cover concepts and back flap copy. They believe this book should be in the hands of the readers of the world. And they want to make it as good as possible. The changes they will ask for are meant to accomplish that.
Is the writer going to agree with every change? No, of course not. I have yet to get the editorial letter where I’ve agreed with every single thing my editor asks for. Sometimes she asks me to change something I don’t want to change at all. Sometimes she has pinpointed a problem but her proposed solution doesn’t appeal to me, and I have to find something else that will make us both happy. Sometime she’s totally spot on.
And my books? Sometimes they require a LOT of editing. Sometimes very little. When I first sold Rampant, it was told from the points of view of Astrid, Cory, AND Philippa. My editor suggested I rewrite the book to be solely from Astrid’s perspective. As you can imagine, that’s a LOT of rewrites. Compare it with Secret Society Girl, which was also the start of a series, also my first book at a particular publishing house, and also my first time working with a particular editor. I did edits, but not wholesale rewrites that changed the format and point of view of the book, because it was right the way it was.
However, just because I sold a book and then rewrote it completely doesn’t mean everyone will, or can. There were people who chose not to put in an offer for Rampant that may have done so had it come to them in the form that my editor suggested. (Actually, I know this for a fact.) My editor made it better. Editors are there to make your books better.
If you’re lucky. I know a bunch of writers who have editors who are too busy to do substantive editing of their work. I know a writer whose manuscript came back from her editor with a smiley face on the top and that’s it. One of my friends actually hires her old editor, who got out of the business, to edit her manuscripts freelance because she’s not getting it at her publisher. If you’re in this business for any length of time, you learn to consider yourself extremely lucky to get editors as invested, talented, and fantastic as the ones I have had for my last eight books.
So, to sum up: don’t ask questions about stats. Books are not widgets. Love your editor; she’s there to make your book better. Write hard.