WHO I AM
At age sixteen, I landed a great part-time job: showing old movies at a revival house built in a barn. Friday night, I’d crank up the projector and watch a classic movie I’d never seen. Saturday, I’d watch it again, focusing on how the movie told its story.
At the time I graduated from college, a fellow waiter at the restaurant where I worked invited me to test-read a novel he’d begun writing. We knew nothing about publishing but managed to get his book finished and sold, to a major trade house. The fact this took us on a multi-year trek made that first-ever book contract all the more satisfying.
In the meantime, I completed a masters in English and Comparative Lit, my focus of comparison being prose narration vs screen narration.
Next came ten years in boot camp, as a literary agent.
The first eight I spent at Curtis Brown, Ltd., one of the longest-established agencies in New York. From colleagues there, I learned a meticulous approach to every aspect of representing authors, from text preparation to deals to contracts to rights management. The agency instills in its trainees a strong code of ethics, one I still strive to live up to. We represented a lot of prize-winning and best-selling authors. A milestone for me was working with Peter Hedges—from early drafts to publication and through to the Oscar-nominated movie—on his first novel, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape.
Next, I worked at a newly founded agency, Endeavor, before it grew big and merged with William Morris. In Hollywood, I was a fish out of water but valued the opportunity to learn about movie and media production, from exceptionally talented colleagues and clients. My most memorable success during that Los Angeles run came in shepherding another first novel, Rex Pickett’s Sideways, on its way to publication and to adaptation as an Oscar-winning movie.
In my years as an agent, I got the greatest satisfaction assisting writers in the development of their work. The natural next step, to complete what amounted to a 20-plus-year apprenticeship, was making that my full-time occupation. While I was getting my business up and running, digital advances made it feasible for an editor to work anyplace there’s broadband access. Since moving to Brazil, I’ve expanded my range of projects to include works in Portuguese as well as in English.
HOW IT WORKS
There’s no longer such a thing as “good enough.”
The publishing and media markets are inundated with written material to consider. Given the exponential expansion in recent decades of the sheer number of projects on offer, only a tiny fraction of submissions to agents, publishers and producers gets more than a glance.
For me as an editor, that suggests just one standard: Make it the best it can be.
Working with writers who share that view, I propose three structured phases of work.
Phase 1, aka “substantive editing,” emphasizes the big picture: story and structure. On reading a work for the first time, I draft a memo detailing my reactions. I aim to be clear, specific and frank—even if it means I’m not the nicest guy in the room. (At my most blunt, I’m a lot kinder and gentler than the buyers and the reading public.) Once the author has reviewed my thinking, we talk, to map out an editorial plan.
Work in Phase 2 is less programmed. Many writers set directly into revisions based on our big-picture discussions (often informed by a variety of readers’ responses along with mine). Others elect to engage an edit and annotation—full or partial—of the draft in hand. My new reading, whether it precedes a revision, follows, or rolls out in parallel, yields digital mark-up copy for the author’s review. Going over edit and annotation in installments, the author can give feedback as my edit moves forward. Ideally, the author reworks my edits as I go, and the exchange flows in both directions.
In Phase 3 my focus shifts to text edit and copy edit, to assist the author in giving the work a polish.
We make every effort to tackle each phase of work comprehensively, and minimize backtracking, re-dos and loops. Like a writer, an editor only has so many clear-eyed passes through a given text.
While our job descriptions differ, we work collaboratively, for the benefit of the work, its characters, and its readers. It’s to be expected that author and editor at times see things differently. The originator of the project, of course, has the final word.
Click here for a sample of digital editing and annotation.
WHAT I DO
Since the best vehicle for communicating just about anything to me is a story, I specialize in narrative projects. Ideally, a writer enlists an editor close to a project’s inception. Calling in fixes at the end of the road seldom proves effective, or even economical. We do better to start while a story—fiction or non-fiction—remains a work in progress, and still has flexibility.
An all-in, concept-to-completion approach particularly serves an author going into the market for the first time. To be recognized as sale-worthy, a novel, script or nonfiction book by an as-yet-unknown writer doesn’t have to be perfect. It has to be complete enough to get its reader engaged—better yet, hooked. The market’s gatekeepers, strongly motivated to get on to the next thing in the stack, are the toughest readers out there.
First up for our consideration are a story’s big-picture elements—plot, structure, pace, strategies for narration, voice, point of view. (This phase of work also helps us determine whether I’m on the right wavelength to serve the story and the author.) Once we have conceptual and structural elements firing on all cylinders, we’re set to pull closer in. Now we focus on the text itself, at the level of paragraphs, sentences, phrases and single words.
At milestones in the course of our efforts, it’s useful to take test runs with select readers versed in articulating their reactions. Though I no longer operate as an agent, I often assist with submissions, acquisitions, and the varied further work that comes with a project’s success.
WHAT IT COSTS
Books in progress have a way of turning themselves into great white whales, and provoke the anguish Ishmael voices as he flails away at Moby-Dick: “O! Time, Strength, Cash & Patience!” The best way to maintain strength and patience is to manage cash and time.
To keep things simple with respect to cash, I work on the basis of two standard fees and a moderate share of revenues. My revenue share pays out only once the author has fully recouped the fees paid to me.
Initial reading, reactions, discussion and proposed editorial plan:
Phases 2 and 3
Annotation, story and structure; text edit, copy edit:
Once an author and I have revisions and editing underway, and confirmed the viability of the methods we’ve tailored to the project, we agree on a fair share to be assigned to me of the project’s revenues. We take into account various factors, chiefly how hands-on the editorial engagement is and the extent to which we expect it will impact content. Having a stake in the work’s future lets me keep my up-front fees affordable to most individual authors. Equally important, it gives me a shared commitment to the work’s success in the market. My financial participation (on most books, in the range of 5-7.5%—so, a third to a half of the commission assigned to an agent) comes into effect only once the work’s income is sufficient that the author has recouped fees paid to me and a reasonable sum for overhead and contingency.
The time we spend varies widely from project to project. With a manuscript of 100,000 to 150,000 words, my work in the second and third phases of editing generally runs between 50 and 75 hours.
Deadlines help; detailed timetables serve a project better. Before the author commits to the plan we map out for our work, we define its stages, addressing story and structure, then text edit. We mark a succession of goals toward the project’s completion, and budget sufficient blocks of time, in days or weeks as well as in hours. The tasks and stages remain flexible, and we almost always make mid-course corrections.
When an author decides to go beyond Phase 1, we put together a written agreement, which it’s advisable to have vetted by an attorney or agent. Ordinarily a short deal memo, the agreement confirms the schedule for deliverables and payments. Additional terms establish the author’s sole ownership of the work and my contingent compensation.
Unless a project entails travel, additional expenses generally come to zero. Authors and I confer via email, phone, instant message and voice-over-internet applications (Skype, Google chat, Facetime, Whatsapp), so we rarely run up a communications tab. I incur reimbursable expenses only with the client’s approval.
New York Times bestselling novelist and comic-book writer; screenwriter
Orphan X (Minotaur/St. Martin’s Press, 2016)
The Book of Henry (Focus Features, 2016)
In a profession constituted of tired readers and failed writers, Jess Taylor stands alone as a true soup-to-nuts editor. He can edit comprehensively, from major thematic commentary right down to tweaking word order to make a sentence pop. I worked with Jess for over a year on my first novel and without his input and dedication I'm certain it would not have reached a level of quality to make it attractive to publishers. Through my first nine published novels, he was my most dedicated — and most demanding – reader. Success for us both was reaching the point where there was no longer a need for such meticulous pre-editing editing.
Trust No One (St. Martin's, 2009)
The Crime Writer (Viking, 2007)
Last Shot (Wm Morrow, 2006)
Troubleshooter (Wm Morrow, 2005)
The Kill Clause (Wm Morrow, 2003)
Endeavor - literary and talent agency - Beverly Hills/New York
Curtis Brown, Ltd. - literary agency - New York
Harvard University - AB - 1983 - English & American Literature
Columbia University - MA - 1987 - English & Comparative Literature