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I am an editor having difficulties dealing with the representative of an author's literary estate about an unpublished manuscript by a deceased author. We have a polite (and friendly) disagreement about how much editing should take place on a manuscript where the author is not around to speak his mind. I am not talking about incomplete manuscripts; presumably the author was able to revise it and finalize it, but hadn't shown it to an editor for feedback.

The author was distinguished and nationally recognized for his works of fiction. He wrote about 2 dozen books.

That led me to wonder about the historical role of book editors in American publishing.

  1. Can you point to examples of famous books where an editor's input has been acknowledged to make a significant and positive difference in the final product? (Conversely, are there examples where an editor's contribution has been thought to make a negative difference?) The only example I can think of is Gordon Lish's editing of Raymond Carver, but that is an extreme example. It seems more likely that a critic or reviewer might complain that a novel needs more editing -- rather than less.
  2. Also, can you mention some notable examples where reps of a literary estate have had disagreements with an editor's judgment about how something should be edited -- and how they were resolved (if at all)?

As I said, I am facing that issue right now, and we can't agree about how much deference to give to what is on the deceased author's page -- even when what is there can seem convoluted or awkward. I'm not saying that the estate rep is offbase, but this person seems reluctant to murder ANY darlings. This representative is simply trying to preserve the integrity of the text. I have edited the author's manuscripts when he was alive, so I already have some insight into his approach (basically, he would approve about 1/3 of my edits verbatim, he would reject another 1/3 of them, and would rewrite the remaining third to something different).

The representative of the literary estate has required that I consult this person whenever I am changing the text and get approval. That is not unreasonable, but it can be onerous -- especially when this representative doesn't come from a writing or editing background. I don't consider her opinions wrong or inconsequential -- just a little too deferential to what is already there. My indie publishing company will be dealing with multiple unpublished manuscripts from this author, so this issue is likely to persist for the next few years. That is why I am searching for ways to handle it. Thanks.

Update: I wish to report that I have satisfactorily resolved some of the difficult passages with the family representative. But I remain curious about whether editors will be forever unsung or there are cases of editors significantly improving a book generally considered to be great literary works?

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Two examples spring to mind, neither exactly your situation:

Christopher Tolkien did work on his father's oeuvre, but that's more curation than editing. He did cobble together The Children of Húrin from pieces, but that isn't quite your situation.

A more recent but negative exampe is Go Set a Watchman. Harper Lee is reportedly no longer mentally competent, and various parties, including a lawyer and an agent, found and developed an early manuscript of Lee's until it was a fully-standing novel. While the publisher originally tried to present it as a prequel to To Kill a Mockingbird, critics soon determined it was a rough draft of that novel rather than a separate story set before it. Watchman presents Atticus Finch as racist rather than the equality-supporting man he is in Mockingbird, which deeply upset many readers.

(In your particular case, since you edited this writer's work when he was alive, I think you should have more say, but that's neither here nor there.)

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Firstly, you don't say what type of editor you are. Different editors perform different functions.

Before continuing with my answer I must admit to my own bias. Based on experience: independent editors for manuscripts to be mainstream published are a waste of time. There is no correlation between "well-written" and "best-seller".

Random House, Harpercollins and Co. have sold millions, maybe even billions of books. They employ their own editors to shape content the way they know their existing readers will enjoy. An independent editor may remove the 'darling' that hooked the acquisition's editor.

I cannot answer your primary question but I am able to address the secondary issue.

If your are an independent editor you have no say. You're a contractor - nothing more. It is not your name on the spine. You're working for the son of a deceased property developer. The son wants you to paint the picker fence of the latest property yellow.

You're saying that his father always insisted the picket fences were painted white.

Whatever . . . he is your client: either paint the fence the way he wants it and get paid or refuse and recommend another contractor. You have no legal standing here.

  • FYI, I am not a contractor but run the indie publishing house which sells the books (and profits from them). I do acquisition, editing, formatting and marketing (a man of many hats!) . I have a decent amount of editing experience, but I would not presume to know everything about editing issues. – idiotprogrammer Jun 16 '17 at 16:00

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