Book Review: Thinking Like Your Editor

Book Cover: Thinking Like Your Editor
Thinking Like Your Editor:
How to Write Great Serious Nonfiction—and Get It Published

Susan Rabiner & Alfred Fortunato
W. W. Norton & Company, 2002
Paperback, 288 pp.
ISBN-13: 978-0393324617
List Price: US $15.95

I’ve read many (very good) books about how to write a non-fiction book proposal. While Thinking Like Your Editor includes a substantial section on your “submission package” and concludes with a sample of a successful proposal, the best parts of this book are the subjects not covered in similar books.

Of course, the authors should know all about the importance of including something in your book that your competitors don’t have: they’re literary agents. Before she was an agent, Susan Rabiner was an editor, first with a university press, then with HarperCollins. She provides a lot of inside info not just on how editors interact with authors, but on how they deal with booksellers. (Getting a new book onto a prominent display of new titles requires the payment of “co-op money.”)

There are too many important points made in this book to list here, but one that I can’t remember seeing put into so many words is “Every work of serious nonfiction (Rabiner and I disagree on the need for a hyphen in that word) begins with a question the author has about the topic and ends with an answer the author wants to provide.”

This is something I need to ask my clients, many of whom have a topic but aren’t yet sure which book on that topic they’re going to write: “What is the question driving your book?” The answer to that question could result in several different books on the same topic—books that might compete with one another, but which might all find publishers, nevertheless.

In fact, I might even start asking that question of my blog and podcast clients. It has that “If it was a snake, it woulda bit me” sense of obvious rightness to it.

In addition to such tips as how to leave a good voice mail message for an agent, the book addresses the specific issues of writing serious non-fiction, methodically laying out many things that lurk in the realm of intuition for those who have read widely in this genre. There are lots of good tips for recovering academics, things I had to learn by doing when I made the transition from jargon-laden academic writing to punchier, to-the-point business writing and copywriting.

The one problem I have with this book is that it doesn’t define “serious non-fiction.” For instance, given that Wiley, the largest publisher of business books, isn’t listed among the trade publishers of serious non-fiction on page 130, you might think this category of book doesn’t include business books, yet there are business books chosen as examples elsewhere.

I would recommend that if you’re in doubt as to whether publishers (who themselves seem to have a different definition from this book’s authors) would consider your book “serious non-fiction,” you should read the book anyway. You can check it out of the library, as I did when Hilary Powers recommended it on the Editors Guild list, or you can buy yourself a copy to keep around as a reference, which I expect to do soon. But make a point of reading it, either way.