The Good Old Days

I recently received a beautifully written question. (If you have questions of your own that are of a general nature, and not necessarily specific to the manuscript you’re working on, check my sidebar for how to contact me!) My reader, Cate, had a lot to say about the golden days of children’s publishing. I know many of you are probably wondering the same things as her, so I’ll let you read it, and then I’ll answer.

Here goes:

A little over a year ago I read Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman, and was amazed that somebody had been able to look at that manuscript and draw To Kill a Mockingbird out of it – and was struck by the fact we probably wouldn’t have TKAM today if it hadn’t been for Tay Hohoff. Then I forgot about it, until recently, when I was reading a collection of Ursula Nordstrom’s letters. She told about receiving a collection of random notebook entries, called the writer in to discuss them and how they could be developed into a book, and was taken aback when the writer finally said, “I’m sorry you don’t like them,” since she’d just spent an hour and a half talking about them. The writer was Louise Fitzhugh and the pages turned into Harriet the Spy. Ursula Nordstrom also talked about going to FAO Schwartz and being so impressed with a window display that she asked the designer, a kid from Brooklyn, if he’d like to “draw some pictures” for her. That was the start of Maurice Sendak’s career. Then last night I was looking at a collection of letters by Margaret Mitchell, who said that (contrary to popular legend that says her book was rejected umpteen times) Harold Latham of MacMillan tracked her down on a trip to Atlanta, persuaded her to let him see her incomplete first draft of Gone With the Wind, and had to buy an extra suitcase to carry it back to NYC with him.

You know where I’m going with this, right? It seems like the relationship between editor and writer has changed a lot over the past few decades. I’m wondering if you can address that – why the change, and what expectations are realistic these days. I’m also wondering if you have any thoughts on the fact that some of our favorite books might never have existed if they came along today?

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Oh Cate, Cate, Cate, sweet Cate. I hear you, loud and clear. I also think you know what I’m going to say.

In the good old days, a lot of crafts used to be much more obscure, or at least prohibitive to most people. If you wanted to make a video, or take pictures, you had to afford or borrow cameras and film. If you wanted anyone to see your work, you had to schlep it around on media that you carried in your hands, and you had to sit them down, and you had to show it to them. Flash forward to now. Now my dogs could have a thriving YouTube channel with millions of subscribers, and I could film, edit, and post their content all from one gadget. While wearing pajama pants.

Publishing used to be a niche industry. It wasn’t until the paperback revolution that books started selling to the masses and actually making money. It turns out there was a market for this stuff! That revolution didn’t come to children’s books specifically until the 1990’s. If you’ve read Ursula Nordstrom’s letters (and if you haven’t, you absolutely should), you will get a sense that she was seen as the red-headed step-child at Harper. Children’s books weren’t sexy, they didn’t bring in the big bucks. They were…quaint. And then Harry Potter showed everyone what a “dumb little kid’s book” could do. In terms of cold, hard sales numbers. Enter the commercial revolution, kidlit phase!

Editors used to have to track writers down and squeeze books out of them. Develop their careers. Foster their talents. Deal with their eccentricities. Take the train to Vermont and trudge through the snow to their cabins in the woods, if need be, to get good books. Believe it or not, it wasn’t always thought of as glamorous to be a writer. Kids didn’t aspire to it. People didn’t dream of it. “That’s my weird old aunt Emily Dickinson,” folks would say in an embarrassed whisper, “she’s a writer.” So editors wouldn’t have thousands–yes, thousands–of submissions coming to them per year. They’d have to go out and make submissions happen.

Trust me, I would love to have a kindly editor come to my house and say, “Mary, I know that you’re having an existential crisis and have written five pages in the last six months, but I really think there’s something there. Why don’t I advance you a little money so you can pay for that cabin in the woods and some quiet time to create?” I would love it.

But the crux of this new age is that publishers and platforms are swimming in content. They no longer need to make content happen. It comes to them. Their jobs now are to cherry pick good and marketable content. Today’s editors are overwhelmed with submissions. Sure, they do tremendously important editorial work with their stable of authors, but those authors are brought to them on platters. The tough truth is that editors also spend their days attending powwows with marketing and sales people. Doing administrative work. Meeting with agents. They often edit–which many would consider to be their actual jobs–on their own time. Any effort they spend to massage good books out of people becomes a second job.

Furthermore, your weird old aunt Emily Dickinson would have someone standing over her, in today’s market, asking her where her next poetry collection is because the last one didn’t perform as hoped, and we’d really like to get on a book-a-year-schedule, kthnx. Today’s most successful writers are expected to produce. With minimal hand-holding, if possible.

Sad? Yes. True? Yes. That’s why more and more writers are choosing to work with developmental editors before they get to the publication phase. In this new reality, you are just not going to find the same editorial relationships as you did in the good old days.

3 Replies to “The Good Old Days”

  1. The question and the answer are perfect. This new age of publishing has swept all of us into an unknown sea where we’ve had to learn to swim very differently.

    When I used to write textbooks, I did have editors come to my office to see what I had under development. That experience definitely didn’t prepare me for publishing as I experience it now.

  2. Like many other writers, I’ve moaned about the “deterioration” of the role of editors from actual editing to sales and project management. It didn’t occur to me before that this transformation was a natural response to very positive social changes over the last century.

    Not only was creative writing not so glamorous in the past, but it was a luxury of the wealthy. Emily Dickinson became a great and prolific poet because her prominent family could afford to send her to fancy academies and house her in a fancy mansion. The other 99.9% of the population at the time had no more than a grammar school education, and they were too busy fending off starvation to sit down and wax eloquent about flowers.

    As late as the 1950s, only 70% of American teens enrolled in secondary school. Harper Lee, as the daughter of a congressman, could go to university and study abroad at Oxford. Her high-society friends gave her a Christmas gift of an entire year’s worth of wages so she didn’t have to work and could write TKAM full-time. And Margaret Mitchell wasn’t just imagining the princess-like life of Scarlet O’Hara; she basically lived the 20th-century version of it.

    When you think about it, the good old days of publishing were good only for a small handful of people. The end of the Golden Age of Editing is a little sad, but it’s not sad at all that the privilege of writing is no longer limited to the upper class. Instead of pining for mythical days long gone, let’s celebrate the great opportunities that average Joes and Janes like us didn’t have fifty years ago.

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