PLEASING THE EDITOR
Somewhere along the line, I learned not to try to outsmart the editor. Wasn’t it Shakespeare who you even though said in one of his plays, “I believe you even though I know you lie.” That’s the number one rule I follow; although editors lie they are always right. They, at least successful ones, know what they want, and as a writer, it is my task to give them what they want. It’s that simple. I know some writers who insist that editors don’t know what they want. That may be true, editors may be fumbling and uncertain, but they don’t like to be told that. I make a point not to disagree with an editor. Never. They are the ones who are giving the assignments, and they are the ones who tell the accountant to write the checks.
Editors don’t necessarily own or have a vested interest in the publications they work for. They are there, hired to edit. It’s a consolation when I tell myself editors can be difficult but they are not permanent. They change like magazines change covers. Here today, gone tomorrow. I have to remind myself an editor’s first duty is to please the owners, and that means for editors to bring in the money. To do this, editors must satisfy advertisers. I am referring here to magazine editors not book editors. They fall into different categories. For a magazine editor, a wrong or misleading story can cost the loss of an advertiser. In this regard, editors know what they want or what the magazine requires.
I give editors what they want, but I am leery of those editors who are also writers. It’s as certain as night follows day, the stories or articles an editor writes for the publication will be placed before mine. It doesn’t matter that my copy might be better than theirs.
Generally, my practice is to query editors about a story before I write it. The trick is to get editors involved, to get them to make suggestions, and then they feel they are part of the story. To do this, I have several choices. One, I can write and post a letter; two, I can send an e-mail; or three I can make a phone call followed by a visit in person. As for sending a letter, letters prove to be more effective than e-mail. The best way to query an editor, hands down, is to make a phone call for an appointment and then make a personal appearance. I make every attempt I can to see an editor in person. And when I do, I have something in hand to show them. I find it important not to remain silent, not to sit there like a dunce. I keep talking. I lead my ideas and don’t give up. I am insistent but not overbearing. It nearly always works. Editors are, after all, people, and some are even human. When it’s face to face, it’s difficult for an editor to say no. If l go in person, perhaps when I am just back from a trip, a small token of a gift helps. Nothing expensive. A letter opener from Thailand or a carved tiki paperweight from Tahiti. It’s always satisfying to return to the office one day and see the paperweight on the desk.
It is always a concern that editors might steal my ideas. I learned to accept it, for they do, and that is a fact. It’s a chance all writers have to take. Editors steal our work.
Query letters are a must, and they are an art. I write a query letter in such a way that I make the recipient want to read more. Let’s say I’m planning to go to Paris. Never would I contact editors and simply tell them I am going to Paris. Many countless of hundreds of such letters cross an editor’s desk each working day, letters that are tossed into the trashcan? Before ending a query to the editor, I give some thought to the place I am going. If it’s to Paris, I ask myself what would I like to read about Paris? I do my homework before sending that letter. For instance, I don’t tum to guidebooks for information. Every would-be writer does that. I take from the library all the books I can find by noted authors who wrote about Paris, How about Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises or The Moveable Feast. They are about Paris. I read them, but I read between the lines. Hemingway loved the bars and cafes of Paris. He wrote magnificently about them. But what about “The Bar that Hemingway Didn’t Like.” Anyone who reads that title would be interested. In one of his books there must be one of two bars or cafes he didn’t favor. What else on Paris? “The Day the Eiffel Tower Almost Fell Down.” You could build a story around that lead, and a little research could do it. Then “Getting Lost in the Sewers of Paris.” Paris had miles of sewers. If the editor agrees, take a sewer tour when you go to Paris.
An editor approached me one day and said he needed a story on the Bird Park in Singapore, but he wanted something fresh and different, not the general run-or-the-mill stories about how many birds there are in the park, and how big it is, and how many people visited it each year. So what does one write about a bird park that would be fresh and interesting? I sat down to a cup of coffee, came up with an idea and approached the editor. He liked it. My story appeared: “How to Treat a Sick Bird at Jurong Bird Park in Singapore.” I managed to talk to the veterinarian about treating sick animals, and in the article, I was able to work in how big the park is, how many birds it has, and how many people visit it every day. It was much the same, as I mentioned before, when I queried Argosy and said I wanted to expose the way the French were turning the Tahitian islands into an atomic testing ground. The idea was rejected, and I was told to write about the famous Quinn’s Tahitian Hut, the wildest bar in the South Seas. I wrote it and managed to tell that the French were testing super bombs, not too many miles away from Quinn’s, and the effect it was having the islands and the people. I got my point across.
It’s not the big picture that editors want. It’s the small interesting bits that make up the whole. This is the only case I can think of where it pay to think little rather than think big.
There was a magazine that I wrote for in Tokyo, The Far East Traveller. It was a fine magazine, and it paid very well. Over the years, I wrote over a hundred articles for the magazine. I was treated well by the editor and on several occasions when I was passing through Japan, I stopped at the office to give my regards to the staff. The editor arranged hotels at no cost to me, and obtained tickets to the kabuki theatre, sumo wrestling matches and many other events taking place in Tokyo. I felt I was part of the family. All was going well with the magazine until one day I received a letter from their new editor, a zealous man with new ideas. He wrote to say he appreciated my work, what I had done over the years, but he was developing a new policy which he believed would improve the magazine. Instead of depending solely upon freelance contributions, he was appointing stringers stationed in major cities throughout Asia. He was still interested in my work, he wrote, but only for the offbeat and unusual that I might come up with. I would need to send it in and then he would consider it.
I knew the routine, from experience. New editors always have grandiose ideas for their magazines. This editor was no exception. Rather than throw up my arms in disappointment, I wrote a nice letter to him, thanking him, and sat back and waited. Six months later, I wrote to him again with six story ideas, and he wrote back accepting five of them. It was obvious his stringers in the field were not coming up with ideas. I continued writing for the magazine until they went out of business a few years ago.
I dare say magazines, like editors, do come and go. There’s a saying, if you want to lose money, open a restaurant or start a magazine. I don’t know about restaurants, but I do know that very few magazines find success unless they are subsidized by private businesses such as airlines, credit card companies or hotel chains. Still, it’s amazing how many new magazines suddenly pop up, fired up by the enthusiasm of someone with dollars to spend and who, most likely, is on an ego trip. They open the new publication with flair: press releases and lavish cocktail parties. A year or two later they fold, leaving creditors and writers unpaid. I don’t know how many times I have been approached by editors of up-coming magazines who ask for my help by contributing article with promises that I will be paid when the magazine is solvent. Please, they ask, would I help, as a favor? Most of those editors I gave in to and did help by contributing a story along with photos went bust in a very short time-and I never saw a cent. I learned to tactfully turn down such requests.
Of course, there are exceptions. Hans Hoefer, the creator of the successful APA Insight Guides is one. He asked me to write a guidebook on Malaysia and forego payment in exchange for stock in the company. The guide I wrote was his second in the series, and I preferred to get cash rather than stock. It took me years to get paid, and I should have taken stock. Today Insight Guides have over 200 titles, and Hans sold out for what I was told to be near to ten million US dollars. I don’t even want to think of what my share might have been had I taken advantage of his offer. But I have no regrets. I am not a businessman; I am a writer. I wrote the full story about Hans in my book At Home in Asia, the book that’s in the time vault at The Oriental Hotel.
I must tell another story here about Hans. In the beginning years he had a house that was also his office on Bukit Tima Road in Singapore. We were putting together the Malaysia guide when a young Australian came up and knocked on the door. He was a very pleasant guy, a bit gaunt, and he wanted to know something about the guidebook publishing business. He and his wife had written a guidebook for backpackers called Southeast Asia on a Shoestring. A guidebook for backpackers, it was the complete opposite of the concept that Hans had for his Insight Guides. Hans was aiming for upmarket travelers, people with money to buy expensive books. Backpackers don’t have money. The young publisher-to-be wasn’t perturbed by Hans’ comments. Hans wished him well and sent him on his way. The young man published his book, and thirty years later has over six hundred titles to his credit. His name is Tony Wheeler and his books are the Lonely Planet Guidebooks. Down through the years I never forgot that incident and I often wondered if Tony would remember it. Then, at this writing, the Oriental Hotel in Bangkok announced that Tony Wheeler, the co-founder of Lonely Planet-his wife is the other founder-was having a talk and book signing in the Author’s Lounge for his latest book, authored by him-Bad Lands. Of course, I had to attend, and when I talked to Tony, he did remember the incident. Hans’ comments hadn’t deterred him one bit from his ultimate goal. In fact, it only spurred him on, he said.
The curious thing about editors is that they all feel they are indispensable. But it’s the writers, in fact, who outlast editors. Book publishers, newspapers and magazines change editors faster than hotels change general managers. If l find an editor who’s difficult to deal with, I will stay in there and bide my time. Chances are in a few years, he will be gone. I have found this to be without exception and, over the years, I have dealt with some very earnest editors. They just don’t last. Most of them move on looking for a better job. No matter how successful an editor is, perhaps even if he has turned the publication around and made it first class, the owners are never happy enough. Unless magazines are sponsored-by credit cards, airlines, hotels and the likes-they then are privately owned, and when they are, there’s always the owner’s nephew just out of Harvard Business School or from a Princeton Journalism Class who has ideas and has impressed his uncle. He gets the job. It happens all the time. I can think of a number of magazines that were successful, and then for no apparent reason, a new editor was assigned. In the next issue, the owner’s relative appears on the credit’s page. Or, in the case of airlines, an in-flight magazine will be doing well, but a new president or a member of the board of directors will have to make his mark and will decide to revamp the airline structure, and the first thing they attack is the in-flight magazine. When the publisher’s contract is up the management will put the contract up for bid and hire someone else, and it won’t necessarily be because they are better. Graft and payoffs often enter the picture, but this is getting into delicate territory, and I will refrain from making further comments.
In pleasing an editor, trust them, even though you know that they lie.