The Three Laws of Editing

Through the mystical tangles of modern social media reposting, today I came across an interesting frame of reference—written originally by Lou Anders—for how the traditional publishing industry works. It was done in the mid-2000 (2006, as I recall from memory?). But given the fundamental nature of its presentation, I’d say it’s as true now as ever. Also, to make them even more interesting, given the originator’s position as an editor in the world of science fiction they are written in the form of Asimov’s Three Laws of robotics.

Here they are:

  1. An editor shall select those books which he or she deems will make the most money for his/her publisher.
  2. An editor shall select those books which he or she deems will provide the most entertainment value for his/her readership, in so far as doing so does not conflict with the First Law.
  3. An editor shall select those books which best serve the evolution and growth of his/her genre, in so far as doing so does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

There’s a lot to unpack here. When you dig in, these laws say something about not only how things work(ed) in the industry, but where it might go. So I figured I would write a few pieces to apply the idea to at least three things that are going on now: The full-fledged rising of independent publishing, the viability of creating a career writing fiction, and the arrival of Artificial Intelligence. Yes. I think those three Laws have something to say about them all.

I’m figuring this will take a bit of time, so today I’ll talk only about the first item.  


(I.E. What About the Writers?)

The first thing to note in Anders’ Three Laws is that nowhere in them does the writer or their careers come to play. You would like to say that invalidates them. Alas, this lack of inclusion is correct. The Laws are the Laws because they perfectly describe the world of traditional publishing as it operates rather than how it says it operates.

And the bottom line: this set of laws is horrible for writers.

Before you get all up in arms, I don’t mean that in an adversarial way. I don’t mean to say that the publishing industry actively wishes ill on writers. Not at all.

I’m sure there are a few evil people in the environment, but it’s silly to think that literally everyone in the environment hates writers. Beyond that, no one is that stupid. Editors and publishers love writers as a whole. The issue, though, is that as a business entity, editors and publishers see individual writers as value-neutral. By that I mean that, while publishers are pretty sure a few of us will become Nora Roberts and John Grisham, they are not certain which of us eventually will do so, nor do they particularly care. Time will tell, after all. Writers are important, but until time shows which will make them the most profitable, writers are effectively interchangeable .

See Anders First Law.

These rules became rules simply because they worked exquisitely well for publishers in the days before it became viable for many writers to work outside that system. Obvious, right? As long as there exist enough writers willing to put their work through them, and as long as those writers produce enough quality that a reader will buy it, then the Three Laws will totally rule for publishers. The corollary is that when there is no other viable option for writers to create careers with, there will always be lots of manuscripts to work with.

I’ve written before about how—from the writer’s view—this becomes a tournament game similar to that in corporate America. How, within reasonable limits, success in entering the pool and progression up the chain becomes a zero-sum game. There are only so many slots in a publishing house’s line, therefore the manuscripts submitted are competing for limited real estate. There are only so many marketing dollars in a business, so books being released in any particular slot are competing for those limited dollars. Therefore, each of these rules define a gate that the new writer needs to leap over simply to get a foot in the door.

An established writer has the incumbent’s advantage of having a sales record that suggests they will meet the First Law, and hence negate the need to deal much with Laws #2 or #3.

A new writer has nothing to bring to the First Law of Editing except perhaps a hypothetical argument the acquiring editor can bring to the publisher’s business meetings—unless, of course, the new writer also has some side-gig that suggests they can bring a new audience with them. Let’s call those people celebrities (or in the more modern lingo, influencers). Ultimately, this means that a lot of great fiction does not get published (or gets rejected a billion times before it does get published), and that a lot of good writers never make it past the first speed bump. It also means that a lot of very good writers who editors do find a way to shepherd through the minefield and actually get published (see The Second Law), will eventually crash when their work “proves” that it doesn’t succeed at meeting the First Law.

In the old days, unless they had the emotional energy and drive left to change their names and go at it again, those writers were done.

Ultimately, once a writer became successful enough to prove they could satisfy the First Law (made good money early), then they stood a chance at satisfying the Second Law (draw enough readers to satisfy Rule #1 and make good money over time). If they managed to stick around long enough (or did something blazing enough at some point) to satisfy the Third Law, then they were set.

Anders First Law of Editing is #1 for a reason.

For those few who make it there, the tournament game works.

For most of the rest, though, the tournament game is a meat-grinder.

Note, though, that there is no qualifier in the First Law. No limit. An editor shall select those books which he or she deems will make the most money for his/her publisher is a relative statement that has an infinite top end.

It’s also not timebound.

That all adds up to mean that once even a writer who had been selling at a high level slips in such a fashion as they didn’t please the publisher’s relative expectations (even if they are still profitable), that writer could be done.

If you read Anders Three Laws of Editing, and truly think about it, you eventually come to understand that the existence of the First Law essentially invalidates the other two.

This, and the fact that the capacity of human beings to be creative far outflanks corporate America’s capacity to publish. is the reason the Traditional Publishing sheds so much of what I’ll call here “excess creative output.”


It turns out that so much of that excess creative output that Traditional Publishing sheds is actually very good. At least within the construct of a readership (which is another relative term, right? Whose readership? Mine? Brandon Sanderson’s? Shrug?). Of course there are bad books published independently. Just as there are bad books published traditionally. But that misses the point of Anders Three Laws, which starts with Law #1, and never really leaves it.

In a perfect world, the Second Law (modified to ignore the First) should be paramount. In fact, when you hear an editor from a Traditional publishing house talk they will ignore Anders First Law of Editing if at all possible, covering it up buy gushing about the Second and Third Laws.

But imagine how the industry would work if the Second Law of Editing were:

An editor shall select those books which he or she deems will provide the most entertainment value for his/her readership.

Well… if you look at the world of independent publishing, you can envision how it would work. You can see how different it would be because once technology advanced far enough, the Three Laws of Editing at traditional publishing houses essentially served to create the environment that Independent Publishing could thrive in. Given that Traditional publishing sheds talented writers who they don’t have Law 1 confidence in, it’s not particularly surprising that the advent of Independent Publishing has made such inroads into the world. The Indie world is a place where all those perfectly great writers can go to continue to write, even if they can’t get big publishing to give them a golden ticket in.

In fact, the existence of modern-day Independent publishing as an arena where so many writers are succeeding is proof positive of the truth that Traditional Publishing sheds lots of great writers.

Writers write, you know?

True writers, anyway. Writers who can’t ‘not write.’

And writers live to have someone read their work, and when along came Independent publishing, it’s no surprise that this new game—which is not a Tournament Game at all—attracted some of the best.

You see, Anders First Law of Editing does not exist in the world of Independent publishing, except to the extent that the commercial aspect of one book over the other might influence the writer. It doesn’t have to, though—which is the entire point. In the world of the Independently published writer, the only relationship that matters is the one between one writer and one reader. And in that case, the concept of Anders First Law of Editing simply does not exist.

Which is a beautiful thing.

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