Great editing or great publicity?

I was hanging out with a fabulous group of young adult writers t’other night and we got into a silly debate about the following question:

If you could only choose one which would you choose:

the publishing house with a wonderful editor who brings out the best in you, or

the house with fabulous publicity, marketing and sales departments?

A surprising number of authors plumped for publicity because they have a brilliant group of first readers who can critique their books so that even without a great editor they’d still be getting a kind of editing.

There were lots of attempts to cheat, like, “Can I have a pretty good editor and pretty good publicity?”

No! This is a hypothetical. You have to pick one!

A few people went into long rants about never having had either. To which we replied: This is a hypothetical, not real life! Stop moaning and pick one!

I had two wonderful editors at Razorbill, Eloise Flood and Liesa Abrams, who really did make the Magic or Madness trilogy so much better than it would have been. Ridiculously better. Working with them was the best working experience I’ve ever had. It’s intoxicating working with great editors. Better than champagne (or whatever substance is your equivalent of champagne).

If you’ve never been edited and want to get a sense of the process I recommend you read Dear Genius: The Letters of Ursula Nordstrom. She edited such obscure books as Charlotte’s Web and Where the Wild Things Are. Many of her authors claim that she was a genius, reading those letters made me agree with them.

I’ve also seen excellent publicity/sales/marketing teams at work, creating a hit out of a book that otherwise might have disappeared between the cracks. Sending the writer on pre-publication tour to meet all the “big mouths” of the genre, making a big splash at BEA/ALA etc, sending the author who’s set a book in a boarding school on a tour of boarding schools, setting up interviews and appearances with the big national media etc etc etc, creating smart and catchy advertisements online and off.

Anyone know of a good book about a great publiciist/sales or marketing type?

So what would you choose? Great editing or great publicity? And why?


  1. Peter Hollo on #

    Speaking as an aspirant editor (of sorts), I have to say that if one were an author with a great set of first readers, and indeed if one were willing to spend some money on a decent editor oneself, then the publisher with a great marketing team is a no-brainer.
    In fact, all in all, isn’t it a bit of a no-brainer? I think one can much more easily get one’s hands on good editing help off one’s own bat than get great marketing. I’m thinking about this to some extent from the perspective of my own industry, music – although to turn that upside-down, my own band is very deliberately not signed up to a record label. But we know the value of marketing (of all types – word-of-mouth up to TV spots and full-page Rolling Stone ads…)

  2. Robb Flynn on #

    I would actually lean the other way and say editor, primarily because what I would learn I could directly apply to future projects. There could potentially be an immediate and prolonged effect upon not only the quality of the current work, but the quality of all my future work.

  3. may on #

    after much thought, editor.

    because the work should come first. not the marketing.

  4. Heather Harper on #

    Publicity. I have access to the other on my own. Not that I would turn away extra help, but for what would be my debut, I’d want the mother of all publicity departments in charge of getting the word out about my book.

  5. Ron on #

    Great editor, who could help craft books that would eventually catch on by word-of-mouth.

  6. Diana on #

    this is a far more complex issue than it originally appears. my editor not only edits my work, but also serves as a huge advocate for it within my publishing house. she’s the one that goes to bat for my books in the sales and marketing and with the higher ups, and etc. she’s a huge part of the publicity…

  7. rebecca on #

    editor. i’m adamant that if/when i get published, i’ll be proud of what’s out there. if i’m not proud of my story, i don’t want people reading it. i don’t have a whole lot of editing options on my own. so i’d pick the editor, definitely.

  8. jenny davidson on #

    i am totally putting in my vote for editor. it’s really, really important. the great editor makes a contribution that will affect that book’s whole long (we hope!) history of readership, and the better the book, the more likely it is to find readers over the long haul as opposed to the it’s-out-this-year. of course these things aren’t black and white, great books should not languish in obscurity; but if you’ve never seen a really great revision letter from a great editor, you are missing out on one of the beautiful intellectual achievements of our civilization…

  9. Elodie on #

    I want to be an editor, so I’ll have to put in my vote for great editor here 😉 But, honestly, if all you have is the great advertisement, everyone will find out about the book, read it, go “oh god it’s awful!” (because of grammar mistakes or badly explained plotlines or whatever) and forget about it by next summer. If you only have the great editor, yeah, maybe not everyone will hear about it UNTIL next summer. But when they do, they’ll love it this year, and next year, and the year after that.

  10. Justine on #

    I’d just like to point out that the writers who were having this conversation are all very good. They’re seriously not capable of writing a bad book.

    Also we’re not talking about books going out un-copyedited or un-proofread. Or even un-edited. It’s just about not having a great editor who produces the really briliant revision letters Jenny was talking about.

  11. Antoine Wilson on #

    This is a toughie.

    I don’t know the first thing about publicity, so I’d be lost at sea without a great publicity/marketing dept.

    I know just enough about editing to understand that a great editor can save your life.

    Um, editor?

  12. stacy on #

    Given my obvious bias, being an editor, I’ll refrain from actually voting 😉 , but I just wanted to second what Diana says about how intertwined the editor/publicity/marketing thing is. If you find a good match for an editor–both an editor who is good at what she does and really connects with your book–then that editor is more likely to be an enthusiastic advocate for your book in-house to the marketing and publicity teams.

    This enthusiasm carries over, and might encourage a publicity person to read the book when they might not have otherwise, to get behind it and make it their own. It’s kind of like picking up a book because a friend recommended it enthusiastically, knowing your tastes.

  13. Dawn on #

    I can see that most people are voting editor. I don’t know…personally, I wouldn’t put my writing out there unless I knew that it was meant and good enough to be out there. I would also feel incredibly bad for someone who had a great editor and an amazing book but had gotten little publicity and then all that work went practically nowhere. So I guess I’m going to say publicity. At least then people know what’s out there.

  14. Garth Nix on #

    As Diana noted above, this is a much more complex question that it appears. A great editor is also the champion of the book in-house and a powerful (i.e. successful and dynamic) editor can galvanise lacklustre sales, marketing and publicity teams and capture important opportunities for your book. Editors often have a crucial role to play in the packaging of the book too, ensuring a good cover and so on.

    And I’m not just saying that because I used to be an editor, long ago!

    It is unfortunate that all the stars (editorial, marketing & publicity, sales, royalty accounting) in any one publishing house are rarely in alignment. There’s always one department that lets the rest down. Then they fix it (usually by having someone good come in) and some other part goes bad (usually because a good person goes).

    I think it is all about the individual people in the job. I’ve benefited enormously over the years from working with brilliant editors, brilliant marketers, great publicists, super sales teams and so on. But they’ve very rarely been in the same publishing company in the same country, all at the same time.

    This is one of the reasons why that absolutely key relationship with your agent is so important. And I’m not just saying that because I used to be one . . .

  15. Doselle Young on #

    Editor. Editor. Editor.

    Hands down. No questions.

    I’ve had a great editor. I’ve also had a not really editor.

    Nothing is better for a writer than a great editor.

    If you want great publicity, just leave copies of your book at the scenes of violent crimes with your key passages of sex and violence underlined. That’ll pretty much always work.

    Multiple homicide, anyone?


  16. lili on #

    Choosing marketing before editing is putting the cart before the horse. There’s no point marketing a book to the world if it’s crap.

    although, i suppose it depends on what kind of writer you want to be. if you want to be rich or you want to be good. (with the hope that you can be both)

    i’d rather be good. the idea that it only takes one person to write a book is ludicrous. it takes lots of people, and a good editor is vital.

    also, with word of mouth and the intermanet – if your book is truly, truly amazing, people will find out about it anyway.

  17. Heather Harper on #

    In my defense, Justine forced us to choose. Ideally, I wouldn’t want to choose. Who would?

    That said, I’m truly fascinated with marketing and would not have found some of my favorite authors if were not for the huge push their debuts received.

  18. Heather Harper on #

    if “it” were not for…

    Maybe i should have said editor…;)

  19. Ruth on #

    garth nix commented on your blog
    this is, like, where all the cool ya authors come together to chat isn’t it.
    i shall continue to watch admiringly (and mostly silently) from the wings. i only comment now because i must have had too much coffee this afternoon and consequently am overly chatty, friendly and enthusiastic about life.

    fabulous publicity, marketing and sales departments who really understand and are really behind the book.
    for the purposes of this hypothetical, i’m stipulating that you’ve written a darned good book, well looked after by first readers and possibly externally sourced editors.
    i figure you’ve gone to the publishing house because you actually want to sell the darned thing, and hopefully convince millions of people to read it after they’ve bought it. good marketing makes all the difference.
    (possible conflict of interest statement here. i work in marketing. and i believe in it.)

  20. liliya on #

    i’m glad to hear from diana and garth that in real life we don’t really have to choose! i’d go for editor, because my first book’s at the editing stage now and i’m enjoying working with my editor; what’s most important to me now is that the best possible book gets out there. however, when my book gets to the sales and marketing stage and ends up languishing in a warehouse before being pulped, i may change my mind…

  21. Maggie on #

    That is such a hard question to answer because they’re *both* so important. Ultimately, though, I think I’d pick the great editor. I have a pollyanna-ish belief that the cream always rises. 🙂

  22. Meeks on #

    Justine–Say more about these wonderful (under-publicized) authors….

  23. Wendy Roberts on #

    I have to go for a great editor. I have one and couldn’t live without her. She’s made wonderful improvements in my own abilities but man-oh-man I’d LOVE a big publicity budget too!

  24. Graeme Williams on #

    As a reader and not a writer, could I beg for more great editors? I know I’m getting old and cranky, but at least half the science fiction / fantasy books I read have me grasping for an imaginary red pen at one point or another.

    In my real job, I’ve worked with both editors and professional writers, and the improvement in my own writing is eventually nothing short of magical.

    And for the writers who chose a great publicist anyway, I’d love two pieces of information: “This is the fifth book in the XXX trilogy” (where relevant); and “If you liked YYY, you’ll like this book”.

  25. Amy on #

    I’d have to go with the publicity — but only because I have friends who are also writers and editors, whose judgment I trust and know to be professional. So I have ways of getting very good editorial advice on my own. Maybe not the kind of miraculous editorial advice that some writers get, but good enough for me to feel that my writing is being made significantly better. Publicity is something I don’t have access to on my own.

  26. Mitali Perkins on #

    Writer, know thyself, I say. If you’re one who can pen first drafts inspired by God that travel straight from your mind to the page, or the kind who can adrenaline-push your own way through ruthless revisions, not much editorial help needed.

    On the other hand, if you can create a blog that lures comments from far and wide and generates discussion around the planet, I presume not much publicity help needed. The problem arises if you’re equally excellent or equally mediocre at both vocations.

  27. Mitali Perkins on #

    Oops! Forgot I had to pick one for ME! I need a good EDITOR, for sure. My mother and mother-in-law see the promotion of my books as their primary vocations.

    But Justine, what happens to all my capital letters on your blog?

  28. Justine on #

    Zombies eat them.

  29. Mitali Perkins on #

    naughty zombies. caps are for kids.

    do you have annoying ads for trix cereal in australia? if not, sorry for not making sense.

  30. Madeline Smoot on #

    Being the slightly (alright extremely) biased individual that I am, I would have to go with editor. I would kill to have that YA thesis I swear I will someday finish go to a fantastic editor. No matter how great or brilliant the marketing campaign, a poorly written book will not do well in the market. Reviewers will pan it, bloggers will despise it, and other authors will tsk, tsk it. However, if your brilliantly edited novel doesn’t have some kind of marketing campaign behind it, it falls through the cracks. Luckily there’s a lot an author can do themselves to help their books get into readers hands.

    So, definitely the editor.

  31. Stacy DeKeyesr on #

    See, this is a trick question. You asked which house we’d choose, but that choice doesn’t guarantee anything. I would definitely choose the house with a great editor, because I *know* I’ll get great editing, even though I’m a nobody. Houses with big bucks and great publicity only use it for famous authors. first-time authors get thrown to the sharks.

  32. Justine on #

    Stacy Dekeyesr: First-time authors get thrown to the sharks.

    This is not always true. I can name several first-time authors who’ve had big publicity campaigns: Libba Bray, Melissa Marr, John Green. The pre-pub tour for debut novelist, Stephen Hall, was just profiled in the New York Times.

    The fact is that most authors—whether debut or not—do not get big publicity campaigns. So the hypothetical was what would you choose: a dream publicity campaign or the bestest editor in the world?

  33. Melissa Marr on #

    I’m coming at it from the perspective of having two great editors & being in the midst of the PR push(es). Both are greatly appreciated, but if I had to choose to keep only one, it would be my editors.

    I’m grateful to my houses for their PR energy. They have interesting ideas, & the US pre-pub tour was a lot of fun. (I got to meet cool people and talk about books. How can that not be fun?) OTOH, seeing the books evolve and strengthen is more important to me. That’s what it’s all about–the writing. My editors make my texts better. The rest is just noise. There’s no contest as to which matters more to me.

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