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Stories To Tell is a full service book publishing company for independent authors. We provide editing, design, publishing, and marketing of fiction and non-fiction. We specialize in sophisticated, unique illustrated book design.

Stories To Tell Books BLOG

What Makes a Great Book Editor?

Biff Barnes

Robert Loomis, the dean of New York book editors, announced his retirement after 54 years at Random House.

Loomis edited William Styron, Maya Angelou, Neil Sheehan, Seymour Hersh, Daniel Boorstin, Jonathan Harr, Jim Lehrer, Edmund Morris, Calvin Trillin, Shelby Foote, and John Toland among others.

Bennett Cerf, founder of Random House once described him as "one of those painstaking editors in the old tradition…

Esther Newberg, a veteran literary agent, told the NY Times “We cavalierly say that something is the end of an era. This really is the end of an era. He represents the best of old publishing: a gentleman scholar with a sense of humor. And you try to find that these days.”

But Peter Osnos, journalist, editor, publisher of Public Affairs Books and a former Loomis colleague at Random House, says in The Atlantic, “Don't succumb to the canard that, with the departure of Loomis and his contemporaries, the era of great editing is over… Bob Loomis leaves Random House, and publishing loses a great editor. But he is not the last of his breed. He is merely one of the best.”

What makes someone “one of the best” editors? It’s a useful question for anyone who wants to get a book published. The discussion around Loomis’ retirement offers us some clues.

The first comes from Gina Centrello, president of the Random House Publishing Group, who told the NY Times, "Creative publishing begins with the author-editor relationship. Bob epitomizes the editor's role at its best."

What makes for a great author editor relationship? Peter Osnos lists several things. A great editor, he says, posses “dedication to the authors' best interests, abiding curiosity, and the ability to bond with writers who, like the rest of us, are on a spectrum from insecurity to arrogance and need to be treated accordingly.”

Osnos suggests the qualities of such a collaborative relationship were best expressed by the legendary Maxwell Perkins who edited F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemmingway and Thomas Wolfe. Osnos said, “Perkins's counsel to writers captured the essence of classic editing: ‘Just get it down on paper and then we'll see what to do with it.’"

Once a manuscript is on paper, a great editor can help its author improve it to make it the best it can be. Suggesting things to add, move, change or cut can sharpen the prose, heighten the clarity, and help the author achieve her intended effect. Loomis’ ability to do it is what led Osnos to describe him as one of the “meticulous "pencil" editors whose gift was enabling authors to find the book they set out to write among the words that tumbled out on paper (and now on screens).”

Authors recognize the value of an editor’s attention to detail. Calvin Trillin, one of Loomis’ authors told the Boston Globe, Loomis, was the kind of editor who would "say the things you were supposed to say, like, 'I don't think you're being quite clear here,' or, 'this contradicts what you said back there.'                       

"I would meet with him in his office," Trillin added, "and he would have all these little checks in the manuscript. I would sometimes accuse him of not knowing what the checks meant, but he knew exactly what they meant."

So, let’s try to take a shot at describing a great editor. He, or today more often she, is a person who can bond with the author she’s working with, offer her wise counsel, work meticulously with the manuscript, say the things that need to be said, while always keeping the author’s interest in having her book achieve its ultimate potential at heart.

That’s who you want editing your book.