"The Successful Author-Editor Relationship" with Teri Martini

Thursday, October 5, 2000

Moderator is Kristi Holl, web editor for this site and author of 24 books and over 100 articles and short stories.

Teri is Teri Martini, author of 31 books for children and adults, as well as articles and short stories. Several of her adult novels like To Love and Beyond and Dreams to Give have been translated into foreign languages such as German and Italian and sold around the world. As a writing instructor, she enjoys discovering new and talented writers.

Names color coded in blue are viewers who asked questions.

Interviews begin on Thursday evenings at 9 p.m. Atlantic/Canada, 8 Eastern, 7 Central, 6 Mountain and 5 Pacific

Moderator: Welcome to tonight's interview with Teri Martini on the crucial subject of "The Successful Author-Editor Relationship." I'm Kristi Holl, your moderator and the web editor for this site. I'm so happy to have Teri with us tonight. With 3l books to her credit, she knows about the importance of working comfortably and productively with editors. She's also ready to discuss how editors and editing have changed in recent years, and how we as writers can survive--and thrive--in the current publishing climate. Welcome, Teri!

Teri: Hello, everyone, and thank you. It's nice to be here.

Moderator: First, Teri, how would you describe a good author/editor relationship?

Teri: I believe it is a relationship between two professionals who respect each other's views.

Moderator: What is the author's part?

Teri: The author's part really should be creative and at the same time to be ready to consider suggestions seriously.

Moderator: What is the editor's part?

Teri: Hopefully the editor will edit carefully and come up with good advice. One really superior editor that I had was Stephanie Lurie. She is now the Vice President at Dutton. Stephanie was with Little, Brown at the time that we were working together. She sent back the manuscript I sent her with little stickers on every page. They were questions that concerned content, sources and even suggestions for grammar and wording. That's a seriously good editor.

Moderator: How does a good relationship with an editor pay off?

Teri: I've found it to pay off in many ways. With lasting friendship for one thing, and then if editors find you are easy to work with, they will want to work with you again. For instance, while working with Stephanie, she came up with an idea for a second book and asked me if I would like to work with her on that. Of course, I was delighted.

Moderator: In your initial letter to the editor (cover or query) how formal/informal should you be?

Teri: When you first write to an editor you need to be as formal as you would with anyone you don't really know. Of course, there is nothing wrong with coming up with a catchy and friendly first paragraph, but you need to be professional.

SaraJ: Were you really nervous the first time you talked with an editor?

Teri: Oh, was I! I was 23 years old at the time and it was my first book. What surprised me was the fact that the editors (there were two of them) treated me with deference. I felt ten feet tall. But then one of them, during the course of conversation, leaned toward me and began speaking in Italian. I knew at once what was coming next. I had used several books written in Italian as primary sources. I couldn't really read Italian. But I had a friend who had read the pertinent parts of the books to me. So I had the presence of mind to make a little joke and that worked nicely. The discussion went smoothly after that. And they had some helpful suggestions. It was a good meeting.

SaraJ: I would have been so tongue-tied! Is it realistic these days for us to expect to meet our editors in person?

Teri: Unfortunately, I don't think this happens as often as it used to, Sara. Today publishing is done a good deal through committees and the editors have little to say to you, once they decide that your book fits their needs. But there are always those editors who do want a hands-on approach. I've been lucky enough to work with many of them. Agents can be good editors too.

Tweaker: What WAS that first book, and how did you have occasion to use resources in Italian for it?

Teri: That was a children's book, a biography of Pope Pius X. I needed those books for primary resources.

Moderator: Great "first editor" story!! Teri, is there ever a valid reason for calling an editor before you know him/her well? Should you stick to snail mail contact for a while? Or can you make e-mail inquiries about manuscripts?

Teri: I feel that until you really know an editor you won't even get to first base by calling. It's best to write a letter and use snail mail. I can recall a day I was visiting Phyllis Whitney. She had just discovered a new writer and Phyllis wanted to add a complimentary comment to the jacket. So while I was there she picked up the phone to call the editor and gave her name. Guess what the assistant said! Phyllis who? So, you see it isn't easy to get to the editor by phone. I think that holds true today except for the smaller publishers perhaps.

Moderator: Wow! Even Phyllis Whitney! As new writers, can you expect to work with anyone higher than an assistant or associate editor? And how is this different?

Teri: Actually a new writer should expect to be working with an assistant. This isn't bad, mind you. The assistants eventually do get promoted. My editor at Popular Library, which is now part of Warner, eventually became vice president of Silhouette Books. That's a good contact to have. I did work with the top editor at Westminster Press. She was extremely knowledgeable and had much more control of how the book would be marketed in those days. She also was a superior editor.

SaraJ: Should we find out the assistant's name in the first place and address our manuscripts to him/her?

Teri: Oh, no! You should follow whatever instructions you see in the guidelines. These instructions might not even ask you to use a name. If you should meet an editor at a conference, say, and that editor gives you her name, then you address material to him or her.

Moderator: In writing for adults, must you have an agent to even get to an editor these days? Or do you have to make that first sale yourself?

Teri: It's hard to get a good agent anytime. But I do think agents will be more open to looking at your work if you have a track record. I sold my first adult novel myself, but I have to add that it was on the advice of a friend, a young man I'm sure you all know today as Leonard Maltin. He had sold his first book to Popular Library and he suggested I try there. It worked and because of that sale the editor Karen one day took me to lunch on Madison Avenue in the middle of Publishers' Row. And on the way back to her office she asked me if I would be interested in writing a different kind of book. My first book for adults was a Gothic novel. She suggested I might want to write a big woman's book. Of course, I had no idea of what she meant, but when she told me what the advance would be and it turned out to be more than I earned teaching, I immediately agreed. She sent me samples of what she had in mind. Now that contract was serious and I needed an agent. The parent company of the publisher was CBS. So I turned to an agent for help. My editor volunteered to find me an agent, but when I talked to my mentor, Lee Wyndham and she talked to Phyllis Whitney, they got me a terrific agent. The first thing my editor said was, "How did you get the best agent in all of New York?" And she was. I was lucky to have such good friends.

sis2: What was the name of your first "big woman's" book, Teri?

Teri: To Love and Beyond. It was a romance novel, but about a woman who had a career, which is what the editors found women wanted to read in those days. It was translated into four different languages and sold around the world.

sis2: How do you find an agent, Teri, if you don't have friends in high places?

Teri: You can do two things. There is an organization called Association of Authors' Representatives, Inc. at 10 Astor Place, 3rd Floor, New York, NY 10003. For a few dollars they will send you a list of reputable agents you can contact. You might also call The Author's Guild at 212-563-5904. They have an e-mail address at They might direct you to the right place. You want a reputable agent, someone who pays you your royalties and gets paid a percentage of that.

Moderator: Can you ever ask an editor to recommend an agent? Or is that a good idea?

Teri: Definitely you can ask your editor for a suggestion.

Tweaker: Would it help or hinder to take the initiative to meet an editor we've contracted with in New York or wherever they are? (Moderator note: And what if you can't? Does it matter much?)

Teri: If you have a track record, that can help. But if you haven't published any books or articles, I don't think you will get much of a response. I know that a friend of mine who has many articles published did contact an agent on his own and it's working out quite well. I believe they are researching the possibility of a book. The interesting thing is that they are researching the market first to see if the idea has potential.

Moderator: When you first meet a new editor, how do you make a good impression?

Teri: I think the key word is LISTEN. When you meet someone for the first time, it's always a good idea to listen. But with editors I think it is helpful if you can find out about the editor and see how they think and feel about publishing. You can size up the person too and respond to them in the best possible way.

Moderator: How has the role of an editor changed over the last ten years?

Teri: I do think that editors are less like Stephanie and inclined to let you do your own line by line editing. This puts an extra burden on the writer because no one is out there giving an objective view. From what I have observed the editors are really more attuned to what will fly in the market than to excellent literary quality. This is not all the time, but for the mass market, I would say that's the trend.

Moderator: How much clout does an editor have these days when deciding to accept or reject a manuscript?

Teri: Unfortunately, even the senior editors can be overruled by the committee that meets to decide these things. That will include the sales people who are out there on the scene, watching what people are buying. Their opinions are vital today. The promotion people too and then there are the staff members who are interested in numbers, money, the bottom line. It's big business and no one person seems to make decisions. I do think there are editors like the editor of Front Street which has now merged with Cricket, who was making his own decisions mostly. Maybe he decided at one point that he wanted clout. He's put out some terrific books.

Moderator: What kind of variables go into the editor's decision to accept or reject a manuscript?

Teri: First, I'm sure that the quality of writing is important. But so is the subject matter, the genre. Everything depends on what is selling today. Everyone wants to discover the next J.K. Rowling. Everyone is watching the trends and that counts too. I think some publishers are still willing to take chances on quality rather than seeking popular content, though possibly they are the smaller houses. I'm not an expert there.

Moderator: How much of a personal relationship should you expect from an editor--or should you keep it strictly professional?

Teri: I have almost always had a personal friendship with my editors. They really became friends and mentors. It's very rare that I didn't have this kind of relationship. Your books are like children. You worry about their welfare and you need to do the best you can for them. This means an editor who cares about the book and you as well, don't you think?

enyoc: Teri, did you start with a book or did you have to start with magazine articles to get your foot in the door?

Teri: I honestly started with several books first. I guess I was following my dream. I wanted to see my own book in print and the library. Growing up, I had a good friend in the town librarian who encouraged me. And so I went for the gold. The first books were children's books and one, The True Book of Indians, was extremely successful. Ultimately I wanted to write adult books, but I honestly felt I was too young at the time to have anything to say in that department.

Tweaker: When you write an adult book, are you conscious of writing it for the reader, your editor, or the publisher's sales department--or all three, or none of the above?

Teri: Well, believe it of not, none of the above. I become lost in my characters, addicted to them perhaps. I want to give them life and if their story entertains me, then I guess I assume it will entertain readers and hopefully an editor. I was lucky enough to have an agent for the adult books, who would sit down with me and guide me through the process of planning. When I wrote that first big woman's book To Love and Beyond, my agent read it, and said two words: Start over. She also suggested that I was enamored of my characters and not planning well.

sis2: Teri, I am one of your new students (on lesson 3) and I wonder if it is ever too soon to start submitting our writing or is it best to just sit back and wait until we complete our course?

Teri: You are one of my students? How nice. I think it's wise to wait until you are ready. When my agent told me I had to start over, she meant I wasn't ready for prime time. She gave me a crash course in planning and I think your taking the course is like that. You are learning the techniques that will make you ready for prime time. There's lots to learn.

Moderator: How do you get editors interested in seeing your work in the first place, then seeing more of your work?

Teri: The first rule for new writers, of course, is to study the market. Send for guidelines from the magazines or book publishers you want to impress. Then give them exactly what they want. I have written and published just about every kind of book or story, from picture books to the adult novels. And I believe I did this mainly by studying markets and guidelines. Once you do this, you have a much better chance of pleasing an editor, who might well be interested in seeing something else you have to offer. There's no harm in coming up with a proposal even before the first book or story is actually in print.

Moderator: How do you go from submitting into the slush pile to getting editors to give you assignments?

Teri: I think you have to please them by producing what they want, but most of all by being cooperative. Deadlines are very important. If you don't live up to your promise you lose something with the editor. If you are cooperative, that is really a plus. Once an editor contacted me in August and asked if I could create three Christmas stories for her. She was the editor of three different magazines: one for primary readers, one for middle grade readers and one for teens. Daring as I was in those days, I said, "Sure." And I sat down to write. Nothing! Not one idea. I thought I was dead in the water, as they say. But I kept at it and I did come up with three ideas. "Never promise more than you can give" is what I learned from that.

Moderator: What sort of assignments do editors give you?

Teri: Sometimes the editors will ask for a specific kind of book like the "big woman's book" or sometimes they will come up with something more specific. One editor took me to lunch and told me that she needed a biography of Christopher Columbus. This was about eight months before the big 1992 celebration of 500 years. "How fast can you do that?" she wanted to know. And I had no idea so I asked how soon she needed it. I promised to have it ready and I did. Another time a magazine editor wanted a series of articles on missionaries. It was a summer job. I had to track these people down by phone, interview them and come up with the articles. It was interesting but very tense. I never thought I could make the deadlines. But I did. There are all kinds of assignments, some very surprising.

Moderator: Teri, what kinds of changes will editors ask you to make on your manuscripts?

Teri: Oh, this is a sore point with many writers and me too. They will ask you to make changes that actually you don't want to make and you have to weigh the possibilities of what will happen if you don't comply and even if you do. When I wrote my first adult novel, the gothic novel, I killed off the hero. Actually, there were two men the heroine found attractive and the one I decided had to go was not the one my editor felt should go. I did prevail and the book was successful, but when I tried to end my first big "woman's book" my way, the editor called me at home and said, "Everyone in the office here is crying. You can't believe what that ending does. Please, please consider changing it." So I read the book through again myself and it was too sad, so I did what she wanted. She was right. But editors will ask you to add description of setting and more description of characters too. Those, I think, are easy changes. One editor focused on words that I put into a character's mouth in a nonfiction book. I thought they were fine, but I said I would change them, of course. She gave in and guess what! I was wrong. A reviewer focused on the dialogue as totally out of place. How I wish I had listened! The important thing is that you should never be totally stubborn. Be thoughtful and consider suggestions from these professionals carefully. Nine times out of ten they are right, I think. Anyway, I have always tried to put their suggestions first and I think that pays off.

Moderator: How closely do editors really edit books and how should you react to changes editors make themselves?

Teri: When I first started to write, editors edited material very closely. I think my writing was much improved by their close editing. But today I think there is very little close editing. I have seldom seen editors make changes themselves without asking. However, I do know people who have had this experience and been very upset by it. I think we writers have to be calm when this happens. If you want to work with this editor again, you really can't get into serious arguments. You have to weigh the consequences. Of course, you don't want to compromise your own work. It's a tough decision sometimes. I think if an editor made serious changes without asking, I'd prefer to work with someone else.

Moderator: What do you do when editors criticize the actual plotting or characterization?

Teri: Listen. I've had this happen a number of times. You have to remember that you are getting an objective view, which you really don't have when you are so close to your material. You need to talk through your feelings and the editor's calmly. Again, that's a good time to have an agent to mediate. My agent was very good at that and very calm. Besides selling your work, an agent can be the referee. But in the end all the advice you get on characters and plotting can be helpful. The important thing to remember is that a professional keeps an open mind.

Moderator: What if it looks like you may miss the deadline the editor gave you for revisions?

Teri: That's a difficult situation. It did happen to me. I was working on a romance novel and I did have a hefty advance. I was in danger of losing all or part of that. But I could not finish the book to my satisfaction on time. So I did call my agent and confess. She talked to the editor, who was really interested in the book and they gave me more time. This kind of extension is easier to get with books than it is with magazine stories. If I had not gotten those three Christmas stories to the editor on time I would have lost all credibility with her. So you have to plan your time very carefully.

Moderator: Can you count on an editor to go to bat for you with the publicity department or sales people or art department?

Teri: You can hope to count on them, but they might not succeed. One editor was very interested in an idea I had for a book on famous legal battles. She worked very hard at selling the idea. And when she lost, no one was more disappointed than that editor, not even me. But today, as we mentioned before, the publishers have committees who work on all the angles of publishing: the changing audience, the costs of publishing, the promotion, the sales. All this goes into the decision of whether to publish or not.

Steve Smith: Is there a difference in the way an editor would edit fiction and nonfiction?

Teri: Yes, a very important difference, Steve. When you have a nonfiction book, the editor not only edits for style, but the editor has to be certain that your research is accurate. This takes extra time and the questions that come to you from the editor have to do with your sources and your interpretation of these sources. When you are writing a novel the editing is less aggressive, I think. Mostly the editors are looking at style there.

sis2: Teri, what was the name of that gothic novel? I would like to read it.

Teri: It was called THE DREAMER LOST IN TERROR. It was a paperback and probably hard to find today.

pixie: When you succeed in having a book published, who pays the publishing costs?

Teri: The publisher pays the costs always.

james55clinton: Should a new writer go with a shorter book and not 600 to 1000 pages?

Teri: No, a good book is a good book, whatever the length.

Tweaker: Do you find it more challenging to write for children or adults? Or equally for both?

Teri: Both are challenging, but the length and depth of the adult books makes them more difficult.

Moderator: How do you deal with a seriously difficult editor?

Teri: I had a friend who had a difficult editor who wanted to cancel the contract by challenging almost all the research done for the book. My advice to her was to carefully supply all the sources for each of the challenges and never, ever argue. The research spoke for itself. But she never worked with that editor again. Try to avoid arguing. Talk it through.

Moderator: I'm sorry to have to interrupt this very helpful discussion, but I'm afraid our time with Teri is up! Thank you so much for coming tonight, Teri, and helping us understand this mysterious author-editor relationship!

Teri: It's been a pleasure. Good luck.

Moderator: Do come back in two weeks on October l9 to hear Pat McCarthy discuss "Getting Started in Travel Writing." Pat has published four books and many articles and she enjoys travel writing, with her work published in Chicago Life, Northwest Parks & Wildlife, Capper's, and others. Come hear Pat discuss how to write travel articles, how to enhance them with photos, and how to sell these travel articles. Until then, good night, everyone!

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