Life is Too Short to Read a Bad Book: A Conversation with My Editor

March 26, 2014 | 3 books mentioned 12 8 min read


When I was younger (read: 27) I thought all book editors were either bow-tied bald men or sharp-jawed women in extreme eyewear. Also: mean. (In my mind, they slammed their hands on their desk and screamed about the bestseller list.) My silly assumptions were chipped away over time: I worked with the incomparable (and smiley!) Deena Drewis at Flatmancrooked (now of Nouvella); I began to follow more and more editors on Twitter; I had a drink with one or two. What I found in all of them was a passion for books and reading that matched my own; ask an editor about a manuscript they have just shepherded into print and their eyes will get as glittery as a bookseller’s when discussing a staff pick. Editors edit books because they love them.

(They also seem to love tote bags.)

coverAfter I sold my novel to Little, Brown, my editor Allie Sommer and I talked on the phone (for the second time ever). I said, “My parents are so proud of me!” and she said something like, “Mine are so proud of me!” You see, California was Allie’s first acquisition, which means that I share my debut with her, and proudly. I learned so much about writing from working with Allie, and my book is better because she edited it. The editorial process was thorough and humbling, and although I always valued revision, I now see just how deeply it can improve my work. (Also: whenever I watch a show like Homeland with random plot holes I turn to my husband and say, “They should hire Allie. She would never let them get away with that!”) Assistant Editor Allie Sommer is a wizard, a mentor, a harsh task master, a champion, and a friend. (She is also a former sorority girl who has never smoked marijuana…but we won’t hold that against her.)

Allie was kind enough to answer a few of my questions about her job.

The Millions: How did you start working in the publishing industry, and why? Did you always want to be an editor?

Allie Sommer: I didn’t always know I wanted to be an editor, but I’ve always been a big reader. My parents claim that “book” was my first word. I’ve been labeled a bookworm my whole life, and so when I was starting to think about what I might want to do for a career, a family friend suggested I might enjoy working as an editor. She recommended me for an internship at a children’s book imprint after my sophomore year of college. While I enjoyed working around books, I still to this day don’t understand what makes a good picture book! The next summer, I got another editorial internship, this time at an adult nonfiction imprint. I was hooked. I knew I wanted to be an editor. As soon as I graduated from college, I started applying for editorial assistant positions at adult trade imprints, and ended up in my dream job working for Little, Brown and Company.

TM: Can you describe your typical work week at Little, Brown? What exactly do editors do?

AS: Lots of reading! There are always tons of manuscripts and proposals on submission, and a huge part of the job is getting through the reading pile. It’s all worth it, though, to find the books you love and will get to publish on your list. Once we buy a book, we have to shepherd it through the publishing process — editing, writing flap copy, suggesting ideas for the jackets, selecting the interior text design, and the many other small steps it takes to turn a manuscript into a finished book. (Today for example, I spent hours going through photos for a nonfiction title — organizing photo captions and credits, confirming text placement, etc.) Editors also serve as the main contacts for the book in-house, coordinating with other departments including production, publicity, marketing, subrights, and sales, among others. Every book is a team effort. Luckily, each title on the list is in a slightly different stage, so there’s lots of variety throughout the week. We will also often go to lunch meetings to build our relationships with literary agents (so we get a little break in the middle of the day!).

TM: Nowadays, people love to say “editors don’t edit” but that is far from true in my experience. I still recall the first editorial letter you emailed me; it was about 12 pages long and I almost fainted I was so floored by your insights (also, I can now admit: I was terrified by what you asked of me and my book). We worked on California for months; I felt supported and challenged by you, and like no one else in the world knew my book as well as the two of us did. You edit not only the nitty-gritty line-by-line stuff, but also larger questions regarding plot, character, and so on.  Can you talk about your editorial process?

AS: Wow, thanks. I should hire you as my spokesperson! When I edit, I try to look at the big picture first. What is this book trying to do? In some cases, it’s telling an exciting story, in others it’s exploring a fascinating set of characters, or in others teaching the reader something new. My job is to make suggestions on how the author can take what he or she is already doing and make it even better. Mostly, I try to think about how the reader will react to the text. Is there something a reader might not understand? If so, the author should probably clarify it. Is there something that will make this a more page-turning read? If so, let’s do it. And of course, along the way, you’ll catch smaller things — plot and character inconsistencies, grammar errors, etc. — but it all leads to the same goal of making it the best possible experience for the reader.

TM: Do you have a particular philosophy regarding editing? You’re an Assistant Editor at Little, Brown, so I wonder if you’ve adopted specific editing skills and approaches from more seasoned editors?

AS: I’ve learned so much from the editors I’ve worked with here at Little, Brown. Everyone is brilliant and talented, and I’m constantly impressed with the caliber of my coworkers. But what’s interesting is that there’s no set way to approach a manuscript. Nobody tells you, “This is how to edit. Follow these steps.” Everyone comes to a manuscript with a different perspective, and you quickly learn that each editor has his or her own personal preferences — conventions they love (and maybe even overuse) and things that are huge pet peeves. Also, every manuscript is unique, and so no one rule could apply equally to all books.

Some of my favorite experiences have been providing a “fresh read” for other editors, and when other people provide a “fresh read” for me. After a couple rounds of edits, you can find yourself so close to the text that it’s hard to be objective — and sometimes the thing you need most is someone else to confirm your hunch or point out something you may have taken for granted. The conversations that follow these kinds of reads are better than the best debate you’ve ever had in an English class. Not only can you discuss what you love about the text, but you can change the things you don’t love! It has consistently been an amazing intellectual challenge, and the rush of it keeps me hooked on publishing.

TM: You mention that editors have different “pet peeves”–can you give me an example?  What are some of yours?

AS: I don’t love when fiction writers narrate in the second person or the present tense. I find these styles are often hard to pull off for an entire book-length work and can be distracting from the story. Another pet peeve is the overuse of parentheses, m-dashes, and exclamation points. They are great tools to have, but in most cases a writer can achieve this same emphasis by restructuring his or her sentence. Then when they do appear, they pack the maximum punch.

TM: Can you describe what the acquisitions process at Little, Brown is like?  That is, what has to happen before an editor can make an offer on a book?

AS: When one editor falls in love with a manuscript or proposal, he or she will bring it up at our weekly editorial meeting. Other editors will volunteer to read it, and if there is a positive response, the Editor-in-Chief will give the go ahead to bring it to our Acquisition Board. In advance of the meeting, all of the Little, Brown editors read the book, as do representatives from many other departments including publicity, marketing, sales, and subrights. The meeting feels a bit like a book club, with the Publisher leading the discussion. Everyone has an opportunity to provide an opinion about the book and how we might make it work for our list. And if we think we can do a good job with it, the Publisher approves the editor’s offer.

TM: What has most surprised you about being an editor and working in the New York publishing world?

AS: Everyone thinks that editors get to sit at their desks and read all day. At least, that’s what I thought! Even as an intern, that was mostly my experience. Sadly, that’s not quite how it works. As I mentioned earlier, there are so many other parts of the publishing process we need to manage during the day that reading almost always gets pushed to after hours.

I was also surprised by how much you have to schmooze! There’s lots of networking involved — with authors, agents, editors, and other publicity or industry contacts. There’s always someone you need to meet. I thought in an industry full of bookworms, you could just hole up at your desk and get away with being shy, but that’s just not the way it works. Publishing seems to favor the outgoing (or the shy who are good at faking it!). At a party, you have to train yourself to go up to a group of people you’ve never met and introduce yourself, and shamelessly follow up the next day by email. You also have to cold call or email people you’ve never met and ask them out for lunch. And then when you get to lunch, you have to be able to keep the conversation going. Luckily, people are generally very nice about all this (since they are in the same position), but it can definitely be terrifying at times.

TM: Do you have a dream catalog of the kinds of books you’d like to acquire and edit? Are there certain types of manuscripts that you connect with, and if so, how and why?

AS: Time for my elevator pitch! I love novels that have a great voice and a compelling plot that keep you turning pages. I love literary and upmarket commercial fiction, thrillers, dystopian and speculative fiction, and anything with a great hook. In nonfiction, I love memoir, humorous essays, narrative nonfiction that takes me into a world I know nothing about, and pop-science/psychology. I like books that are fun and accessible to a wide audience — something you’d read in one sitting and immediately want to share with all your friends and family.

TM: How has editing changed your reading, outside of work? (Do you even read outside of work?!)

AS: It’s funny, when I tell people that I work in book publishing, they get very excited and ask me what they should read next. But often, I’m only reading submissions that haven’t been published, or I’m working on books that won’t come out for another year!

It’s hard to find time to read for fun, but it’s something I really try to prioritize.

While it may seem as though it’s taking time away from reading I could be doing for work, I think it’s actually incredibly helpful market research. It’s important to know the of-the-moment books — what they are about and why they seem to be working. I can then use these examples as I think about how we are pitching books in-house, and have a good mental library of comparative titles. But really, like it sounds, it’s mostly for fun. After reading so many books on submission that are good, but not quite great, it’s sometimes an even bigger thrill to get lost in the world of an amazing book that’s already been published.

However, I read very differently now than I used to. First, I’m extremely picky. I have to prioritize the books I read since I have so little time to do it, and so I don’t impulse buy anymore. I rely heavily on recommendations from friends, colleagues, and reviewers. Still, I always read the first few pages of a book before I buy it to make sure I’ll be able to get into it. Second, once I’m reading, I often think about how I would have edited the book differently. I get frustrated with stories that feel overlong or don’t deliver on plot the way I’d hoped they would. Third, I never finish a book I’m not enjoying. That’s a huge change for me. I used to think I had to finish every book I started. Now I’ve realized that life is too short to read a bad book — especially when there are so many wonderful books out there waiting to become part of your soul and fundamentally change the way you think about the world.

Image via Joanna Penn/Flickr

is a staff writer and contributing editor for The Millions. She is the author of the novella If You're Not Yet Like Me, the New York Times bestselling novel, California, and Woman No. 17. She is the editor of Mothers Before: Stories and Portraits of Our Mothers As We Never Saw Them.


  1. Hi Allie! Thanks for this wonderful interview! Do you have advice for someone who is interested in getting into editorial work from another field?

  2. Hi M. That’s a great question, but one that’s difficult to address so generally. For current college students and recent college grads, I always recommend applying to internships at publishing houses or literary agencies. There’s nothing better than hands-on experience! However, that’s not always practical advice depending on where you are in your career. You may just want to search and see if you’re qualified for open publishing jobs based on your previous work experience. Or if you’re in a completely unrelated field and want a crash course in publishing, NYU and Columbia both have great summer programs and adult education classes on the industry. I hope this is helpful. Good luck!

  3. Hi Edan and Allie –

    Thanks for this lovely exchange. As a writer, reader, bookseller and addict of all things books, I enjoyed it a great deal.

    This longish missive is primarily directed at Allie and Edan, though I’d love discussion from the peanut gallery on this.

    As background—I’ve been writing fiction for 25 years, with some success (read: dozens of journals with few, if any, readers or than the kind editor in Dubuque or Salamanca). So I write and publish a bit, like many other writers do…in tiny publications, likely unread by more than ten or twenty people. One feels good that a story has been accepted, then one feels incredibly deflated as the story very quickly moves into the archives of these web journals within a day or a week or (rarely) a month. Then the story is officially as historical, nebulous and meaningless as a single breath I took 14 years ago in a building 5,000 miles away from where I now live.

    That is me – and that is, I suspect, many hundreds and tens of thousands of writers across the globe. We write, submit and hope that one day the novel on which we are toiling away will fall in the hands of persons who will champion it – agents, editors, publishers, etc. And we read with envy and applause the success stories of writers like Edan and many other young and old(er) novelists. Then we, well I do anyway, wonder when I read an account like Edan’s, a few things:

    1) if the novel was loved strongly enough by an agent to take it on (and according to my anecdotal studies, agents choose to represent a very small amount of manuscripts submitted, 1 or 3 or 7 percent)
    2) if the novel was further loved by a bigwig at a publisher to buy it for a goodly amount of money
    3) if the novel was loved even more by an editor (like Allie) at a publishing house, loved enough to live with the book for the whole prepub process and dive in deeply and long-term

    —if the manuscript successfully navigated these three steps, how on earth is it that this novel that was loved and showered with money and floated to the top of the pool among other manuscripts, how is it that this novel needs so very much work for it to be seen as saleable by the publisher. Shouldn’t this thing be very nearly finished? I’m not picking out Edan’s book particularly, because I know her writing is stellar – I’ve read as much as I can get my hands on – but I’m more wondering if we hear about all these novels that burst onto the hidden literary backroom scene so well and then sell to respected houses for oodles of money and get taken care of so gingerly and with a near sexual fanaticism, how is it that these novels need so very much work in this period between a point where I’ve been told by many that they should be finished and have been written with every last iota of energy that an author has in her being?

    And how could it be that the few cases that Allie mentions of lazy writing that should not exist past the eighth grade (exclamation point , m-dash, and parentheses overuse) – how could it be that these mistakes exist in any manuscript with any chance of even being read past page one by the lowest tier reader at an agency. I work my manuscripts over to try and prove that I take the craft seriously and that means, to me, that I am going to do everything in my power to not send a manuscript out that will need a shitload of work. I’m not saying that a manuscript should be bought and published with no editing, but it is just the sheer AMOUNT of editing that I constantly read about that stuns me. And from my years working as a bookseller and talking to authors, I’ve also heard dozens of stories that a manuscript was really pisspoor before the editor got a hold of it. Well if it was that crapola, how the fuck did it even get purchased? (And, yes, Author, we still recognize that story as underwhelming).

    I’ve read stories from unknown colleagues that are so strong and powerful when they stand alongside some of the total garbage fiction that I read. I wonder how the hell XYZ author could have been paid enough to buy a Brooklyn apartment in cash and was able to pull the wool over the eyes of so many while there are so many writers out there who are polishing their manuscripts and making them as good as they can possibly be before sending them out to an agent. (I also agree with Allie that life is too short for shitty books. I give a book five pages now. If the writer has not done her job in that opening, she has broken the tacit agreement that we have: I’ll read it if you have truly brought it and left yourself on the mat. If not, go home and sell your writing instruments.)

    Henry James said, in The Art of Fiction ‘But the only condition that I can think of attaching to the composition of the novel is, as I have already said, that it be interesting. This freedom is a splendid privilege, and the first lesson of the young novelist is to learn to be worthy of it.’

    Often when I hear the stories of how much work a manuscript needed and how much work was put in by the editor before I now hold this published book in my hands, I stand in the bookstore aisle, read five pages and swallow a little throw, and wonder who thought this book was the tiniest bit interesting and how the thing was let out of the house at all.

    Not looking for specific answers here, just would love the thoughts Edan and Allie and others on this.

    Congrats to the both of you on this first professional baby. Here’s to it growing to be a fine and well-respected old girl. (Also, Edan – is the pic above of your manuscript for California?)

  4. **Often when I hear the stories of how much work a manuscript needed and how much work was put in by the editor before I now hold this published book in my hands, I stand in the bookstore aisle, read five pages and swallow a little throw-up, and wonder who thought this book was the tiniest bit interesting and how the thing was let out of the house at all.

  5. looks like i’m the one who needed Allie’s magic..

    **Not looking for specific answers here, just would love the thoughts Edan and Allie and others have on this.

  6. Thanks for your comments, Mark. Firstly, no, that’s not my manuscript in the photo…

    When I said that my editor worked hard to help me make this book the best it can be I did not mean to imply that my book was no-good to begin with. The work that editors do can sometimes be mind-boggling…it’s an interesting industry in that I think it’s hard to quantify the work done–everyone, including the author, spends hours upon hours on a book (writing it, editing it), which may or may not earn much money back.

    My guess is that publishers see in a manuscript its essential value, and feel that it can be made even stronger with some edits. For instance, much of the prose in my book is the same, but a few flashbacks were cut and some world-building was added. The story’s core relationships and its overall premise are the same. The characters are the same. These elements worked and made Little Brown want to take on the book.

    The funny thing about publishing is that an editor (And the agent before them) has to ‘fall in love’ with a book to buy it–at least w/ an unknown author. That love is impossible to measure and defend, and it also explains the hours put in to make that love-object even more loveable.

    No answers, I realize, just a response to your thoughts. You make many great points here, and I agree, sometimes the publishing world can be baffling and frustrating.

    Good luck to you!

  7. Thank you to both writer and editor – a really interesting story.

    And it’s great to hear an editor coming out against the scourge of present tense writing.

    An equally pernicious scourge is the modern fashion for alternating between first and third person. It must be stamped out without mercy.

  8. Edan –

    Thanks so much for your reply. I didn’t mean at all to imply that your book wasn’t good or isn’t good…being familiar work makes me think it’ll be incandescent…this situation just provided me a launching point for some thoughts I’ve had for many years.

    I am fully aware of how a good editor can, with a single comment, make a story better. I work privately with an editor who was a Stegner fellow and I have had the good fortune to be on the receiving end of a brief comment/question that led me to adding three words to a short story that really did turn the whole thing from a failed and frequently rejected piece into one that finally worked and was accepted upon my very next submission. I thank my stars every day for that experience and realizing the power of creative collaboration with an insightful editor.

    Thanks again for the interview and subsequent response. Looking forward to the novel!

  9. Like Mark, I run the risk of suggesting that Edan’s book is good or not good, familiar or unfamiliar, candid or a pack of lies. But this is the risk we take in leaving comments on The Millions. It is often as terrifying as learning how to ride a bicycle for the first time and it often leads to expensive psychotherapy decades later. Nevertheless, I must congratulate Edan Lepucki on her fine knack for putting words together. Most of us can write a shopping list, but few of us can insert an observation about tote bags in a parenthetical statement. Because this essay dares to reveal the editorial process, I’d like to show you just how valuable they can be. Here is the first draft of my shopping list:

    * Broccoli
    * Fillet mignon
    * Eggs
    * Butter
    * Extra virgin olive oil
    * Family pack of Fritos

    And here is what the shopping list looks like after my editor took a whack at it:

    * Broccoli
    * Pork chops
    * Eggs
    * Crisco

    Note how my editor not only saved me money, but also removed unnecessary snacks from the list. This is, after all, what the best editors do. They trim the fat. They cut down on unnecessary pages. They transform any collection of words into a utilitarian tome that can be hawked in stores. They don’t wish to offend anyone.

    Again, I don’t wish to suggest that Edan’s book is good or bad. Life’s too short. It is, at this point, a kind of Schrodinger’s cat. But I suspect it will purr quite nicely once I open the Meow Mix.

  10. Hello Edan and Allie! Just a quick note to let you know how much I enjoyed this exchange :) As a freelance editor I can relate to some of Allie’s responses, especially trying to prioritize reading for fun! Thanks for sharing this interview.

Add Your Comment:

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.