Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Editor suggested books

I have a writer friend who mentioned last year that after quite a few published novels, she was going to be curious to see how her most recent novel did. She said her editor had more input on this book than any other, basically giving the author the subject matter to write about. The book sold very well, better than any of her other previous books, even making bestseller lists.

I wrote this off as a one-time thing, but then I recently heard from another writer, with whom I share an editor. She said that our editor told her that the imprint would be publishing fewer books and as a result, the editor wanted to make sure she got exactly the books she wanted. The editor told the writer that she wanted a novel on a specific topic. The writer was offered the opportunity to write that specific novel. (Both of these writers are with Big 5 imprints.)

Now, two does not make a trend (not even for the New York Times Style section), but it made me wonder: Is this a thing? Editors asking for specific novels to be written? I understand this in nonfiction, but hadn’t realized this happened in fiction. Are we all destined to all be works for hire?

First, let's get our terminology clarified. Just because an editor asks for a particular kind of book does NOT make it a work for hire.  My guess is your writer friends had standard publishing contracts with advances and royalties and (here's the key part) they retain the copyright to their work.

Now, to what you're actually asking about.

This happens ALL the time. I've got a client who has had 10+ books published and his editor suggested an idea, and my client wrote the book.  I'm not sure the editor ever mentioned to the sales team that the ideas was his. He certainly didn't push it any harder than he did the other (not-his) books my client wrote.

Editors hear about books the sales team is hungry for; editors then pass that along to agents and writers.

When you see editors tweet about their manuscript wish list (#MSWL) it's exactly this kind of thing. Editors don't dream up projects based solely on their own idea of what would be good to read. They're listening to the sales and marketing team, who are talking to booksellers and librarians, who are talking to library patrons and readers.

It's not efficient communication by a long shot, but then this is publishing. For efficiency, you need to go someplace else.

Don't worry about this. Write the best novel you can.


Carolynnwith2Ns said...

Hey editors, if you want a 'fiction-novel' about a Brooks-Brother’s, politically minded zombie-thirty-something, who carries a wand, speaks Russian, loves dinosaurs, drinks Gatorade and is related by marriage to a transformer, I’m your girl. (Great movie material)
I can have it finished by November 2018, although, it may not still be relevant at that time.

Colin Smith said...

2N's last line is exactly what I'm thinking. Is this no better than writing to a trend? Granted, an editor may have a little more insight into not only what the publishing house knows is trending, but what it predicts will trend in the coming six months. But it's still a guessing game, and in the end a plugged-in editor is no more prescient than an alert librarian, or a savvy bookseller, both of which could give you the same information. And given how quickly trends shift, what guarantee can the editor give that by the time you finish the book, you'll be riding the crest of the trend, not coming in at the tail end?

What gives, Janet? :)

Unknown said...

When I read #MSWL, Website descriptions about what agents or editors want, and so forth, it seems that market trends and personal preferences are conflated. Is there really a market looking for character driven sci-fi featuring corgis? (This is a real thing). I'd rather write my book and take my chances.

It makes more sense, perhaps, for editors to suggest topics to authors they're already working with. They know the author's voice and range, and are making a judgment that she can write the book they want. And the author has learned about how the publisher works, what he likes. IMO, it would be far trickier to write the right book based on a 240 character description from an unknown person.

Theresa said...

I can definitely see this happening (with both fiction and nonfiction) where the author and the editor have an established relationship. Like Kathy said, I'd consider this a combination of personal preference and attention to market trends, with a dash of appreciation for the author's abilities thrown in.

CynthiaMc said...

When I submitted A Time for War, the agent told me he liked the way I wrote but Civil War was not popular at the time and would I send him something set in Scotland.

Susan said...

I'm curious to know if an author already has ideas or manuscripts they're working on, do they relegate those to the back of the pile to work on the one the editor has suggested? Or do editors suggest ideas when authors are in-between projects and looking for a subject for their next book?

I'm particularly curious in the case of fiction authors. Most authors have a backlog of ideas, so I'm wondering where an editor's suggestions fall into play as far as priority. I'm assuming this might be a discussion between the author, editor, and agent, but I'd think if the author was open to the ideas in the proposed book, everything else might be set aside due to potential timing and placement in the market.

This is fascinating to me.

Timothy Lowe said...

I don't know about the rest of you, but I think I would have a very hard time finishing a novel that adheres to some pre-set idea. Too often, my novels tend to spiral out and become something I didn't anticipate. I've given up trying to script an end and am happy with letting the characters figure it out.

(Not that this doesn't mean sleepless nights, but then, as I get older, I'm getting more and more used to these...)

Her Grace, Heidi, the Duchess of Kneale said...

This has happened to me.

Editor mentions something she'd like to see. I crank out an outline and show to editor. She loves it, i write the book, she still loves it, sold.

Colin Smith said...

Timothy: I imagine the editor wouldn't give too many specifics. Maybe something along the line of, "How about something involving cyber crime?" or "What about Dino-Unicorn romance?" leaving the writer to run with it according to his/her style. Your take on it, and however you get to "THE END" is totally up to you.

Am I right?

Colin Smith said...

... what would be cool is if writers had a chance to practice this kind of thing. You know, where an industry professional provides a prompt, doesn't have to be a theme, could be a set of words, and the writers then have to compose a story with that prompt. Totally up to the writers how they run with it. Maybe have a limited word count. Perhaps a prize for the best. Wouldn't that be awesome?! ;)

Susan said...

Colin: You made me snort my orange juice. Thanks for the laugh! =P

Amy Johnson said...

What's this? First 2Ns mentions "Brooks-Brother’s, politically minded zombie-thirty-something, who carries a wand, speaks Russian, loves dinosaurs, drinks Gatorade and is related by marriage to a transformer" novel, which I'm currently querying. Then Colin mentions "Dino-Unicorn romance," which happens to be my WIP. And I thought I had such fresh ideas!

Thanks, Janet, for the information and advice. And thanks, Opie, for the question. I'm always learning something new here while I'm in training.

Craig F said...

When an agent goes into R&R mode, they are doing the same thing. They see a writer with some potential and ask them to make the book they submitted into something closer to what they want.

I just see the editor bypassing the first part. Any book that makes a breakthrough in the market is a good book for the writer. If an editor's ideas can keep you there, go for it.

Timothy Lowe said...

Funny you should mention that, Colin - I do have a dino-unicorn romance in my drawer. It was tough to write - especially the sex scenes. Too many horns.

Unknown said...

Really interesting topic!

I came across an agent #MSWL that I would absolutely love to write (YA retelling of The Count of Monte Cristo), but I am hesitant to have a go precisely because it is an MSWL. Since then I have seen another agent request the same thing! I worry that agents would be deluged by YA Counts of Monte Cristo by the time I finished mine. Then again, it may be a story with room for multiple flavors of retelling, like Cinderella.

Amy Johnson said...

Timothy: "Funny you should mention that, Colin - I do have a dino-unicorn romance in my drawer. It was tough to write - especially the sex scenes. Too many horns."

Oh my! My version of a dino-unicorn romance doesn't get that racy.

DLM said...

I'm actually remembering Janet's own post about That Guy in the line at one of her authors' signing events. The guy with The Idea! That her author could write, and he'd reap the benefits with them, because - his idea.

Yes, I looked for it, no I didn't find it, because Rabbit Hole! Janet's archives are a hard place to stay focused. Shiny. Things. EVERYWHERE.

Unknown said...

Heidi's comment is interesting in that the editor asked, and she responded with an outline and proceeded to a book once she and the editor agreed. My first thought:"Why can't it all be like this? First query, then outline, then book?" In consulting, we'd argue in favor of this approach because the planning and teamwork up front reduces expensive rework later.

Now that I've learned so much about writing and publishing, I understand why this would not work. As Janet mentioned a few posts ago, the process of writing the book first, finding an agent, and revising until publication is training. It's an apprenticeship, and we don't get the "plan with the editor/agent process" until we've reached the master level. Writers can stay apprentices for years. Fortunately, no one kicks you out of the program.

BJ Muntain said...

This is also non-fiction. A friend of mine writes non-fiction children's books for a number of educational publishers. She'll be given topics to write in a series - other authors will be writing to that series, too - and she'll write the books. Her name is on the book, and she gets royalties.

This isn't work for hire. Work for hire is getting paid to write something that no longer belongs to you. I've worked as a technical writer, and I've worked in communications. I've done a lot of writing in my past careers, but although my name has appeared on it ONCE (byline for a newspaper article), I didn't get paid anything other than my wages. And I don't own anything I wrote for those companies or organizations. It all belongs to them, and they can use it as they will.

Fiction work-for-hire includes things like ghost writing, including those writing certain series, like Nancy Drew, etc. The authors got paid to write. They didn't get royalties, they didn't get their name on the cover.

Now, I've heard that editors will sometimes want some say in what a fiction author will write next, such as what happens next in a series book. I don't know about that, though I'd like to, since I'm trying to sell a series right now.

Janet Reid said...

Here's the post: I swear every word of this is true

Jennifer R. Donohue said...

I love looking at the #MSWL on twitter (And looking at the website!)

I have queried an agent because what I had seemed (to me) to fit and was rejected (or else you'd've already heard otherwise!) I've also gotten ideas based on #MSWL that I've noodled with, but nothing finished. I (think) I made a note of it, though, so if/when those projects do reach completion I know who to query in my first batch.

I've also occasionally written a short story due to twitter banter with a magazine editor. Those have been rejected too thus far, but were stories I enjoyed writing, else I would not have done so.

BJ Muntain said...

Regarding 'writing to a trend':

These writers are not querying the novels that have been suggested to them. They're not trying to find an agent, they're not trying to sell it to a publisher. That's already done. Which cuts off a lot of the time that a trend might change. Publishers are buying books two years into the future. If the writer can write fast enough - say, write this new book in 6 months - then the editor only has to look 6 months into the future, to what they'll probably be buying then.

Regarding #MSWL (Manuscript Wish Lists, for those not on Twitter): Generally, the hope is that these are already written. Sometimes an agent will say something like 'someone write me this book', but usually the idea is 'if you have this book, query me'.

Writing to a #MSWL isn't usually a good idea unless a) the topic REALLY appeals to you, and b) you can write a sellable novel in six months or less. Also, a reminder that just because an agent or editor says they'd like something like that on Twitter, it doesn't mean it will get published.

In the OP's friend's case, though, the editor and writer already have a relationship, and the editor has an idea what they can sell. That book is much more likely to get published.

Lennon Faris said...

Yeah I could never write fast enough for this to apply to me! Kudos to anyone who can. I like #mswl because I can see who might be interested in something I already wrote.

Julie Weathers said...

I can see this happening. I mentioned to one agent in a workshop at Surrey the story of the teen Jewish resistance fighters in WWII and she said she wanted that book. She also wanted a book about the Russian Night Witches. Who wouldn't want the right book about either of them?

Thankfully, I know my limitations and didn't race off to start them.

I look at this as Janet did, akin to the #MSWL.

I know some authors churn out books every three-six months and admire their productivity. I will never be one of them. By the time I finished and polished a book to a high shine the editor would probably have forgotten about it or thirty other people would have submitted one.

Bah, I thought I posted this earlier and here it sits.

An agent on #MSWL actually did ask for a Belle Boyd story. I'm sure by the time I finish Rain Crow she will have been flooded with a hundred of them, but it was interesting anyway.

Donnaeve said...

And again, I can't help myself.

"Funny you should mention that, Colin - I do have a dino-unicorn romance in my drawer. It was tough to write - especially the sex scenes. Too many horns."

Too horny?

That's my comment for the day.

Timothy Lowe said...

Donnaeave -

Good to hear there's at least one other person out there who can't help themselves. :)

Her Grace, Heidi, the Duchess of Kneale said...

Kathy Joyce, the advantages I possessed already were I'd sold to her in the past, she knew what I could do, and she knew my voice and style would fit what she was looking for.

Without that kind of relationship, I'm just another slushie in the pile.

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

Wait a minute, wait a minute, DONNA and TIMOTHY.
Pardon my politically incorrect observation but don't only the male of the species have horns? Which means you've got to add LGBTQ to the dino/unicorn book.

DLM said...

Breaking the rules and strictly off topic, but Oh my Maud how I love you guys.

Beth Carpenter said...

2N's, I think you're thinking of antlers. Cows and doe goats can have horns, for example: http://www.texaslonghorn.com/reference/shadow_jubilee.cfm

And female reindeer/caribou have antlers, as well. So as to the classification: maybe, maybe not.

Megan V said...


I think there is a key difference between MSWL and what's happening here in that I don't think writers should scour MSWL looking for ideas and write them. MSWL is a wonderful resource and it can be used to identify trends, preferences, and occasionally the perfect match, but is shouldn't be used to write to the trend.

I personally like to search MSWL after I've reached the halfway-point of a WIP. I use specific terms and see if anything pops up. I check the date on the tweet (keeping in mind that an agent wanted two years ago, might not be what they want now) and that some agents aren't in the biz anymore. Then I research that agent further.

Did that back in December for a current WIP and I may or may not have some New Leafers on the MSWL checklist I keep.

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

So Beth, the big question is...if you have antlers, do you get horney or antlery? I have neither, so does that mean I...um let's not go there.

Timothy Lowe said...

A unicorn and a triceratops would make a lovely foursome, don't you think?

Beth Carpenter said...


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