The question makes me blink.
“I mean,” he presses, “If their book’s just shit, do you tell them that?”
I’m at the Institute of Directors, in support of my author, Shirley Mansfield, whose book is being showcased. In the break, a knot of would-be authors has gathered around me at the bar. I glance around the art-deco chic, trying to word my answer. The question is as black and white as the clacking tiles underfoot, but there is no black-and-white answer. The question is wrong – it crucially misunderstands two things.
Firstly, it misunderstands the role of an editor. I’m not paid to be a praise-singer, though I won’t hold back on praise when it’s due. A newbie editor might find it tough to give honest feedback to paying clients, but I’m no newbie. I would never lie to a client about the quality of their work. It’s too important: both our reputations are at stake. My own reputation as the editor is at stake. 99% of my work comes through my reputation and through word of mouth. If I’m named as the editor of a book, the quality of that book reflects on me. Your reputation is even more at stake. It’s your name on the cover of the book. Your book exists to raise your status, to showcase your expertise, to position you as the go-to expert in the field. It has to be good, to do that. I wouldn’t lie to you. I wouldn’t let you down like that.
The second misunderstanding in the question is one of mindset. It assumes a book is rubbish or good, end of story. That’s a fixed mindset; that’s not a mindset I use in my own work or in my coaching. I believe in a growth mindset: that it’s not a question of innate talent but of dveloping skills. Likewise, I’m not there to give a book a pass / fail, as if it’s a fixed thing. Even when I do a book critique, which is explicitly a quality check, I don’t think like that. I explore the book’s strengths and weaknesses in its content, its structure, and its style. I tell you what’s working, what isn’t, and what to do next. I’m there to help you make your book better. As the editors in this panel explained it, I stand between you and critical reviewers: I spot the flaws so that those reviewers don’t, and I help you fix them. You’ll always love your book just after you finish it, but I’m there to make sure you love it just as much in five or ten years’ time. This won’t be that ebook you quietly remove from your site a year down the line, hoping people forget about it. But when it arrives in my inbox, your book is not a fixed thing, rubbish or good: it’s at a point in its growth. And we will make it what you need it to be.
In the Institute of Directors, after a blinking moment of gathering my thoughts and unpicking assumptions, I answer honestly.
“I’d never lie to an author – it’s too important, for my reputation as well as theirs. Because it’s my job to make their book as good as it can be.”
I hug my author goodbye at the tube station, sit down on my tube, and pull out her book. I’m pleased to be seen holding it. I’m proud to have my name in the acknowledgements. I know that she’s catching her train equally proud of her book, justifiably so, that she will stay proud of it, and that her book is a worthy ambassador for her business.