Do editors not say no because they can no longer say yes?

There’s a famous Peter Cook/Barry Fantoni cartoon of two literary types at a party, one says to the other ‘I’m writing a novel’, ‘Neither am I’ says the other. It is a conversation familiar to anyone who has ever tried to write. Recently I’ve been wondering if it couldn’t be adapted to apply to editors: ‘I’m writing a rejection’, ‘Neither am I’.

When I was starting out in the book business the commonly accepted period for an editor to consider a submission was one month. Longer than that was not only considered rude, but unprofessional. If you couldn’t make your mind up after a month then that probably meant you didn’t care for it sufficiently to be the person to take it on, were too indecisive or too disorganised.

Above all though I was told it was a matter of respect to the writer: the people on whose shoulders we all of us stand. Every manuscript we ever look at represents years of distilled effort and hope and deserves to be treated with fundamental respect.                

There are two types of editors in London. Those (generally rather older) editors who pay authors the courtesy of letting them know where they stand. Then there are the others who seem to view it almost a matter of professional pride to never say no: they will only respond to those submissions they wish to acquire.

None of us are perfect: any agent or editor is processing more submissions than they comfortably know what to do with and things do fall through the cracks, but the death of communication skills has reached epidemic proportions. It has of course coincided with the period when the power and authority of editors has been eroded as never before. Do editors not say no because they can no longer say yes?

The slowness and tortuousness of the acquisition process generates some absurd scenarios. It is far from uncommon for books to be acquired a full year after submission. I also know of several examples of books which languished in an acquisition process for months before being noticed simultaneously by several other publishers and going on to sell at auction for large and inflated sums: if the first publisher to be interested had moved faster they would have been able to take the project of the table for a fraction of what it eventually went for.

It is certainly not an efficient system. Agents are (by and large) sympathetic to the tough times publishers are having and we all know that books are acquired by committee and that that can take time and be something of an arbitrary and political process. Editors do not need to pretend (as they generally do) that the decision to acquire is theirs alone.

Not only is that pompous, but their failure to communicate, even to say no, really does anger authors. They hate it with a passion. Rightly so. They feel messed around and treated with contempt: at best some sort of cats paw to the editor’s career, to be kept in play just in case they might be making a mistake in turning it down and at worst like a talentless waste of space polluting the world with their trash: not even worth rejecting.

Author anger matters. Not just by any sensible ethical yardstick, but because it is incredibly bad business by publishers. Hostility to publishers by authors is a huge factor behind the tidal wave of bad press they get on the internet. There are thousands of authors out there who, unsurprisingly are tireless bloggers and tweeters, and feel royally pissed of at the way they have been treated by publishers (and by a good many agents I should also say).

One of Amazon’s more brilliant strokes has been the way in which it has made common cause with the internet’s huge authorial community against the ‘legacy’ publishers. Every self publishing success that Amazon helps create seems like one in the eye for publishers to all of those authors out there who feel angry NOT because they were rejected, but because of the WAY they were rejected, or because no one actually bothered to respond at all.

It’s terrible PR and has deeply damaged the ‘legacy’ publishing brand. Publishers need to recognise that the face they present to ALL of their authors is a crucial element of what they do. Goodwill is incredibly important in the age of social media. It is also happnes to be free.