How to train your author

Editors and authors can often seem to be adversaries, with opposing desires on a project. But, in reality, we actually want the same thing – for our books to be the best they can be. As a partnership, like that of Hiccup and Toothless in the films, we’re stronger than either alone.

A few years ago, ‘How to train your dragon’ was a big film (and the sequel is in cinemas as I write). The story involves a group of Vikings who live on an island and are in a constant battle against dragons, who steal their sheep. One boy, Hiccup, accidentally befriends a dragon and discovers that things aren’t as they appeared. Ultimately, he enables Vikings and dragons to live peaceably together for mutual benefit.

A feel-good, coming-of-age story (loosely based on a well-known series of children’s books) but with dubious relevance to publishing, perhaps?

Except that I often see a similar story told about the relationship between editors and authors. Authors want to live peacefully, creating stories and sending them out into the world. But fearsome editors are prowling, waiting tear these delicate stories into pieces, carving them into new shapes that the author doesn’t recognise, all because they’re driven by fear of the huge beast of Profit.

Understanding Ultimately, though, this isn’t a true picture. Generally, both editors and authors share the same aim – to get great books in the hands of readers. And this is true across the industry: fiction, cookbooks, education, professional.

If we choose to see each other as adversaries then not only will each side suffer, but so will our readers. Far better to accept that, in fact, authors and editors need each other for each to do their job properly.


Sometimes, the relationship can be difficult. Authors can find it hard to accept well-intended criticism of a work they may have invested a lot of effort creating. Editors can find it hard to accept that the author’s voice needs to be allowed to shine through, rather than a sterile ‘perfection’.

But when we create effective relationships, things are so much better. Authors find that they can write better than they knew was possible. Editors find that comments from the author can shine light onto areas of the text that they had not appreciated. And the cycle allows both to participate in the creation of what is, ultimately, the goal – a book that will really satisfy the reader.

Slaying the beast?

In the final analysis, the great beast that oppresses authors and editors alike may need destroying. This is, in large part, what is driving so much debate in our industry today. Self-publishing, open access, MOOCs – all are symptoms of our now being able to give new answers to a crucial double question:

How can we best get our content to readers who need it, and how can we receive a suitable reward?

No one doubts that there will be a continuing need to create great new content – for entertainment, learning, gifts and so many more reasons. And few deny that authors and the rest of the team who delivers that content to the reader should be rewarded in some way.

The big issue is, as for the Vikings and dragons in the film, whether authors and editors can work together to create the result both ultimately want.

Posted on 7 Jul 2014
Written by John Pettigrew

Hat wearer, recovering editor and now CEO & Founder of We Are Futureproofs, John Pettigrew has 20 years of experience in educational, illustrated and academic publishing, and a history of successful print and digital product development.