“A Foolscap and a Green Eye Shade: How to be an Editor” by Al Sarrantonio

A Foolscap and a Green Eye Shade: How to be an Editor
by Al Sarrantonio

Everyone thinks being an editor is easy.

It’s not.

In fact, it requires as much (though different) talent as being a writer.

Because you have to read writer’s minds, stroke their egos, collaborate without intruding — well, there are a hundred tricks to the trade.

In my case, I was lucky because I was already editing books at a major New York publisher when I started to write, and, later, was already a well-published writer when I started to edit books with my name on the cover.

But what about the nuts and bolts of editing — the day to day slog, the record-keeping, all the boring stuff that has nothing to do with the nicely-bound, shiny-covered book you finally hold in your hands when you get that first copy? (I will never forget the first “Back to the Future” film, when Marty McFly’s father gets his box of books at the end – I felt a palpable thrill so real it was eerie.)

But, back to the nuts and bolts (which is doubly relevant if you’re editing a robot anthology).

First off, you have to become an accountant.  It’s the lousiest part of the job, but it has to be done, mostly in fairness to your contributors.  If you don’t keep track of the money and disburse it correctly, you’re letting your writers down.

But being an accountant isn’t that bad if you’re reasonably organized. In the olden days, it meant piles of paper with numbers on them.  These days, it’s lines of numbers on a computer screen.  But it amounts to the same thing: keep records.

What kind of records?  I’ll try to make it as clear as possible.

It all begins with the sale, and your contract.

Let’s say you’re buying a story from Joe Schmo for an advance of 5 cents a word, at a length of 2,000 words.  That makes for an advance payment of $100.  Now you’ve got a number to keep track of.  So you record it somewhere, along with the writer’s name, physical address, and e-mail address.

Believe it or not, you’re already halfway home.

Because if your contract is a good one, it will already stipulate what the further terms of the sale are: i.e., what the contributor can expect to get above and beyond that $100.   Usually the advance will be paid out under the term “against royalties,” which means that the book has to earn out its own advance from the publisher before anyone (including the editor) sees any more money.  To make it even clearer, I’ll break it completely down:

Let’s say the editor was paid a $5,000 advance to put together an anthology titled NUTS AND BOLTS: A ROBOT ANTHOLOGY.  The normal (and fair) thing to do is for the editor to keep half of that advance ($2,500) for all of his trouble, work and expense, and use the other half ($2,500) to pay the contributors, usually by the word.  In this case, just to keep the math simple, let’s say the anthology is going to be 50,000 words long, so he can pay 5 cents a word to his contributors.

So Joe Schmo sells the editor that story that’s 2,000 words long, and the editor pays him $100 against royalties.  That’s Joe’s share of the advance from the publisher.

But: nobody gets any more money until NUTS AND BOLTS: A ROBOT ANTHOLOGY earns out: meaning that that book makes back for the publisher, based on the royalty rate per book, the $5,000 it paid to the editor to produce it.

What does that mean?  In short, the editor and publisher have agreed on how much of the cover price of the book (the royalty rate) will count toward paying back the advance.  The numbers vary depending on what kind of book it is (hardcover, trade paperback, mass market paperback, e-book) but a nice round number for our purposes is 10 percent.

So, to keep the math simple again, let’s say the cover price of the book is $10.  That means that for every book sold, a buck goes into the kitty to pay back the advance to the publisher.

Do the math: when the book sells 5,000 copies, the debt to the publisher has been paid.

Now what?  Here’s where your accounting skills as an editor come in again.

At this point in a good, fair contract between the editor and contributor it will then say something along the lines of: “Any royalty payment received by the Editor over and above Publisher’s advance, and all other earnings of the Anthology received by the Editor, if any, shall be distributed as follows: fifty percent (50%) to be retained by the Editor, and fifty percent (50%) to be distributed among the Anthology’s contributors in equal shares.”

There we are, retaining that fair split between the editor and his contributors.

You may notice a difference now, though: any further money coming in (more on that in a moment) for the book will now be disbursed to the contributors “in equal shares,” where the advance payment was by the word.


This is, in my view, fair to all concerned.

There is another way to do this, which involves figuring out each share based on how long the story is.  But think about the math involved, concerning percentages or fractions, and your head might explode.  My own philosophy has always been that, up front (the advance, by the word) he who writes more gets more, but after the book is published every story is equal, regardless of length, and everyone should share equally in the spoils, because it’s the book as a whole that now determines how well it does.  A great short story might win all kinds of awards, spur all kinds of sales, while a novelette might just sit there, doing nothing, and share in that success.

This is, in my opinion, fair — and it avoids an accounting nightmare.  All you have to do now as an editor is split whatever other money comes in (again, more on that in a moment) using that equitable formula of 50 percent for you, and the other 50 percent split in equal shares among the contributors.

Again, for simple math’s sake:  if the book earns $1,000 (for the last time, more on that in a moment!) after the advance has earned out, the editor gets $500, and each contributor (let’s say there are ten) gets $50.

And here’s the moment, finally: how does an editor get more money over and above the advance from the publisher?

Easy.  First, there are sales of the original edition after the book has earned out its advance from the publisher.  Now the editor will receive 10% (in the case of our book, $1.00) for every copy sold.  Then there are foreign sales, other-edition sales, audio sales, all kinds of things that are stipulated in the contract between publisher and editor, or that the editor has free reign to pursue himself if those rights have been excluded from the publisher’s contract and retained by the editor.  The publisher most likely gets a cut of this further revenue, but the bottom line is that when the editor gets a check, from whatever source, for NUTS AND BOLTS: A ROBOT ANTHOLOGY, he cashes the check (after running to the bank) and becomes an accountant again, recording in his records the amount of the check, and that 50% needs to be sent to his contributors in equal shares.

And how often should he disburse that money?  That depends on the wording of the contract between editor and contributor – but even if there is no wording to that effect, at least once a year – again, out of fairness to the writers.

Then, at the end of the year, all you have to do is add up all the revenue the book brought in, subtract the amount you’ve paid out to your writers, and you know how much you’ve earned for NUTS AND BOLTS: A ROBOT ANTHOLOGY.

It’s a lot of fun to be an editor, but it’s also a lot of responsibility and work.  You have to wear your green eye shade as well as your editor’s hat (mine’s a foolscap).

But the bottom of bottom lines is: keep records.

Al Sarrantonio can be found on Facebook and his website, Alsarrantonio.com.

Leave a Reply