Mystery and Thriller Publishing: Two Perspectives
September 21, 2006
Forum organized by Wendy Moseley and Christine Freeman
Presentation by Rhys Bowen and Ed Stackler
Notes by Wendy Moseley
Our September forum explored the territory of the mystery and thriller editor from the perspective of author and editor. The forum panel featured Rhys Bowen and Ed Stackler. Bowen is the author of two award-winning mystery series, one following detective Evan Evans in contemporary Wales, and the other portraying the predicaments of Irish immigrant Molly Murphy in New York City at the turn of the 18th Century. Stackler established Stackler Editorial Agency, focusing on thrillers, in the Bay Area in 1996, after seven years’ experience as an editor for St. Martin’s Press and Penguin’s New American Library in New York City.
Stackler posed the basic question: "What does an editor of mysteries and thrillers do?" His answer? "It depends." Mysteries and thrillers fall under the category trade publishing, which requires several types of editors: acquisition editors, production editors, copyeditors, and research editors. In today's market, an acquisition editor's job is to find ready-to-go works, likely to be snapped up by readers, and then shepherd those works to publication. The production editor coordinates copyeditors and proofreaders through final publication. The copyeditor edits for grammar, punctuation, and internal consistency. Research editors check facts or theories on which the author relies to create a sense of authenticity.
Both panelists agreed that the best way to explore working as an editor in trade publishing is to let yourself be known to literary agents and the managing editors at publishing companies. Stackler recommended Publishers Marketplace where you can identify contacts and post your own page describing your skills to potential employers. Other good sources include the Independent Editors’ Group and the Consulting Editors’ Alliance.
According to Stackler, there is "a fairly fast progression from editorial assistant [entry level] up the publishing chain." He recommended several books that discuss commercial success as an editor in trade publishing: Story by Robert McKee; The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler; and The Fiction Editor, the Novelist, the Novel by Thomas J. McCormack.
Trade publishers often use freelance editors. Stackler sends books to freelance copyeditors and proofreaders. He noted that "historically, proofreading was literally 'reading the proof,' i.e., comparing edited copy to the final page proof returned from a typesetter" and as modern computer technology replaces typesetting, the need for proofreaders may disappear.
Bowen disagreed. She said her publishers (St. Martin’s Press and The Berkley Publishing Group) continue to work with paper copy and therefore need proofreaders to compare edited copy to final text. There may no longer be a typeset "proof," but a good publisher still wants a final look by a professional proofreader before committing text between the covers of a book.
Bowen talked about the "day the publishing world changed"— with the buyout of independent publishers by seven conglomerates in the late 1980s. Before the consolidation of publishers into the seven conglomerates, an acquisitions editor could decide to buy a manuscript for its sheer potential, and then work with the author to turn that potential into the book that the editor anticipated. Now, the acquisitions editor cannot decide to buy a manuscript but must take the work to a conglomerate meeting where the question is this: "Where will this fit on the shelf in a bookstore?"—not merely in terms of the genre but, literally, the size of the book compared to the shelf size available in stores. Stackler confirmed that an acquisitions editor no longer plays the role such an editor did in "the golden days of publishing." Initially, he could take any manuscript that caught his attention and work with the author on plot development or character issues, and do substantive editing where necessary. By the time Stackler left New York City, he spent most of his time finding works that were ready to go and met the publishers’ commercial success criteria. If he found a manuscript he liked that needed work, he had to edit it on his own time. Stackler said that is one of the reasons he established his own agency.
Bowen noted that generally, fiction copyeditors are limited to editing for grammar and punctuation. You are the best fiction copyeditor, she said, if you are "the one who does not behave as though you are a writer." There is not an intimate relationship between a mystery or thriller author and her copyeditor, as there might be between a nonfiction writer and her editor, who is probably editing for style, flow, facts, internal consistency, and logic, as well as grammar, syntax, and punctuation.