LitNews 4: The disappearing book editors

Most readers and all writers know by now that the book publishing industry is changing. The way readers acquire and read books, and the way writers publish them, is only the surface, the most obvious indication of the changes. With the popularity of electronic book reading devices, readers and writers are forming a seldom before experienced, close and intimate relationship that can only be described as heart-to-heart, soul-to-soul. A reader now reads books that are the innermost creation of the writer, without the interference of the middlemen — the disappearing literary agents and editors. Without spending much time of the former, let us rehash the contribution of the latter to a publication of a book.

Who were the editors and what did they do? Were they beneficial to writers’ creativity? Are they missed by readers?

“For some years now – almost as long as people have been predicting the death of the book – there have been murmurs throughout publishing that books are simply not edited in the way they once were, either on the kind of grand scale that might see the reworking of plot, character or tone, or at the more detailed level that ensures the accuracy of, for example, minute historical or geographical facts. The time and effort afforded to books, it is suggested, has been squeezed by budgetary and staffing constraints, by the shift in contemporary publishing towards the large conglomerates, and by a greater emphasis on sales and marketing campaigns and on the efficient supply of products to a retail environment geared towards selling fewer books in larger quantities. In more broad-brush terms, the question is whether the image of the word-obsessed editor poring over a manuscript, red pen in hand, has given way to that of the whizz-bang entrepreneur attuned to the market’s latest caprice, more at home with a tweet than a metaphor. […]

The demands of a global marketplace, the advent of digitisation and the increased importance of sales, publicity and marketing have all contributed to changing the face of an industry that quietly congratulated itself on its genteel bohemianism. Writers, except for the most financially successful, must maintain the solitary intensity of their creative life while adapting to new realities; they are now often advised to add mastery of social media to the publication round of interviews, readings and festival appearances, and many take on a heavy load of teaching to supplement their earnings. Publishing in its popular incarnation – the legendary long lunches, the opportunistic punts on unheard-of but brilliant young writers, the smoke-filled parties and readings – is probably gone for good. Although you do wonder about the halcyon version of events: with all those long lunches, how did anyone get any editing done in the first place?” SOURCE

And,

“An editor chooses manuscripts for publication that are brought to her attention by an agent who represents authors. This editor must then run the idea of the book past the marketing department who will tell her if they think they can sell it to Indigo or not. They will approve it as long as it’s not something completely insane like a book of short stories. The number of typographical errors in the manuscript at this point doesn’t affect anyone’s decision.

Then the editor gives the author notes on how the manuscript could be improved. These notes will not be spelling or punctuation corrections. They will be ideas about the structure and characterization in a novel. In a book of non-fiction they will be criticism and debate of the ideas being advanced. This is called substantive editing.

After the book is rewritten – possibly more than once – to the satisfaction of the editor, then it is given to a second editor, often a freelancer, who goes through all the persnickety punctuation stuff. This is called copy-editing.

So what do substantive editors mean when they say that a book is “ready” for publication, like doctors announcing that a tumour is gone? What might they mean when they say it has been “cleaned up” or any of the other metaphors they might use, metaphors that might give you the impression that there is some universally accepted check-list for their profession? They won’t tell you, because there isn’t one.

What they should be saying is “when I like it.” And this why I would never counsel any author to hire a freelance editor before a publisher has looked at it. There are no standards to follow here: Editors have quirky and personal tastes. They might want a book to be shorter, or they might want it to be longer. They might want more description or less description.” SOURCE

Hmm, “editors’ quirky and personal tastes”… It begs a question: Whose tastes should a book vie for, the editors’, or the readers’?

George Bernard Shaw: “I object to publishers: the one service they have done me is to teach me to do without them. They combine commercial rascality with artistic touchiness and pettishness, without being either good business men or fine judges of literature. All that is necessary in the production of a book is an author and a bookseller, without the intermediate parasite.

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