The Art of Finding Your Editor Soulmate

Meru Gokhale
24th Jul 2023

The author-editor relationship is a unique and powerful partnership that can bring out the best in an author's work. It is a relationship that requires trust, mutual respect, and a shared understanding of each other's roles. Both the author and editor must be willing to communicate openly and honestly in order to ensure the success of the project. By working together, both sides can ensure that the end result is something that both are proud of.

The right 'fit' 

The most important factor in the author-editor relationship is finding the right fit. This means finding an editor who not only has the technical skills to help you refine your work, but also shares your values and vision for the project. An editor who understands your writing style and goals can help you create something truly special. How do you know if you have the right fit?

  • Look for an editor with experience in your genre or subject matter. There's no point going to a romantic fiction editor if you are writing a work of narrative non-fiction, and a non-fiction editor might not be much help with a fiction book. So get a good sense of the kind of expertise your editor has.

  • Who else have they worked with? This will give you a sense of the kinds of books the editor has published, if this aligns with the kind of book you are writing, and even how you see yourself as a writer.

  • Discuss your expectations and goals for the project. The best editors are honest -- they have to be in their chosen profession. A great editor will speak to you honestly about the strengths and weaknesses of your project. So take it in the right spirit.

  • Chemistry is important. The author-editor relationship is an intimate one. You'll be working very closely over a long period if time, and almost certainly be having difficult conversations. You need to have a rapport and sense of trust with your editor -- or you'll have a hard time taking feedback.

Don't forget this is a two-way street.

It's easy to forget that the editor needs to feel the 'spark' too. Editors must feel inspired by the author and their work to perform at their best. The editor's passion for your book is the fuel that drives their championing of your book within the publishing house. If you find an editor who truly loves your book and will go all out to push it, you know it's the right match. As the author, you should be open to feedback and willing to work with your editor to make your book the best it can be. In turn, your editor should be willing to listen to your ideas and vision for the project and respect your opinion. A successful author-editor relationship requires both parties to be open-minded and flexible in order to achieve the desired outcome.

Consider this story from Stet: An Editor's Life by Diana Athill:

It is possible that I am the only person in the United Kingdom who remembers Alfred Chester and his books: what he wrote was too strange to attract a large readership, and we did not overcome this problem. But he remains the most remarkable person I met through publishing and I, and his friends in the United States who, since his death in 1971, have been finding new readers for him, continue to think and talk about knowing him as one of our most important experiences.

If you ever find an editor who feels this way about you, never let them go!

How should an author choose an editor?

In Robert Caro's Working, there's a moment when Caro, deeply immersed in writing his second book about the influential city planner Robert Moses, is told pityingly by his editor that the subject isn’t likely to appeal to a broad audience. The editor's scepticism feels devastating but ultimately doesn't deter Caro. His financial situation fuels his determination to make the story compelling to all readers. He digs deeper into Moses's life and impact, shaping the narrative to show how Moses's decisions profoundly shaped New York City and its residents. Caro's relentless effort culminates in The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York, a Pulitzer Prize-winning bestseller that transcended its potentially niche subject to captivate a wide audience.

And he gets an agent, Lynn Nesbit, and a new editor, the legendary Bob Gottleib at Knopf. 

Robert Caro explains his selection of Bob Gottlieb as his editor with a sense of reverence and respect. Caro had been searching for an editor who could grasp the intricate themes of power and urban growth he was weaving into his narrative about Robert Moses. His choice was solidified when he met Gottlieb, a man whose reputation at Knopf was marked by a dedication to thoughtful editing and a strong belief in allowing authors to voice their unique perspectives.

Lynn Nesbit said to him “You can stop worrying about money. But I have read this manuscript. What you care about is writing. My job is to find you an editor you can work with for the rest of your life. I'm going to set up lunches for you”—I think there were four, all with well-known editors—"and you can pick the one you want to work with.” 
Three of the editors took me to the Four Seasons or some other fancy restaurant, and basically said they could make me a star. Bob Gottlieb at Knopf said, “Well, I don't go out for lunch, but we can have a sandwich at my desk and talk about your book.” 
So of course I picked him.

Finding the right editor requires care and discernment, and luck. But with an open mind and good communication, it can lead to editor-author partnerships that transform books and careers. The bond between editor and writer can elevate both parties to new creative heights.

In summary:

  • Find an editor experienced in your genre with a compatible vision

  • Look for rapport, chemistry, and a passion for your work

  • Remember it's a two-way street - the editor must be inspired by you too

  • Be open-minded, flexible, and willing to communicate

  • Draw inspiration from famous author-editor partnerships

  • An editor who truly "gets" you is worth their weight in gold