November 2, 2010

Brave New World ... or Not?

Thanks to Barbara Sjoholm for that lovely introduction in yesterday's post—my name (Julie Van Pelt) in (teeny, tiny) blog lights! I promise I won't let it go to my head. I'm grateful to Barbara and the Author-Editor Clinic crew for developing this blog as an editors' forum.

My soapbox issue of choice derives from my circumstances: I've been making my living as a freelance editor for 15 years, and that means I'm always looking at what comes next—the next job, the next client, the next area of editing I want to explore. If you work in publishing (which I do, mostly books), you can't avoid that what's coming next has something to do with e-readers, social media, and probably Hal the supercomputer (actually, Hal's pretty much yesterday).

The current issue of Poets & Writers leads with "The Indie Innovators: 17 Groundbreaking Presses and Magazines that are Redrawing the Publishing Map." Last week on NPR, we heard a glimpse of the new world via author/journalist/blogger dynamo Cory Doctorow, who's cut out the publisher in every way—he uses his website, blog, Twitter, lets folks download for free, asks readers to point out typos in return for a footnote credit. Superstars like Stephen King have self-published online (superstardom being helpful in marketing and distribution). John Edgar Wideman ditched his publisher in favor of Lulu. And our own Barbara Sjoholm has written here about her adventures with the Espresso Book Machine. The world of publishing is topsy-turvy, all atwitter with this new thing, that saving technology. What does this actually mean for editing? And, to be crass, for making a living at it?

One refrain is that, digital or physical, there are more venues for content, and content needs to be edited. Leaving aside that I hate that word content (I mean, really, "I want to write the great American ... content?"), there's something—something comforting—to this idea that there's more to edit than ever.

But who will pay me? Does editing matter enough to the (forgive me) content providers to pay for it? Maybe you also got the viral e-mail awhile back with that readable but ghastly misspelled paragraph from some study or other—it was perfectly understandable, though most folks would agree that reading 200 pages of gobbledygook would send you to the nut farm.

So there's the question of standards. What are they? Where do they come from and who sets them? Who agrees to abide by them? Who wants them? In the profit-making publishing firm, how much will be paid for what kinds of standards, from the mechanics of grammar all the way through literary value?

That's a lot of questions! And they're representative of the rabbit hole I go down when I think about how I'll be paying my mortgage. So let me back up and lay out the basic terrain I'll be circling around this month (these questions are from a book on ecological disaster, actually, but let's not read anything into that). As an editor, I want to know:

Who are we?
How did we get here?
Why are we here?
Where are we heading?

Chime in with first thoughts, by all means. And I'll be back in a few days with some thoughts of my own, spurred by social scientist John B. Thompson's analysis of English-language publishing in his new Merchants of Culture: The Publishing Business in the Twenty-First Century. What's he got to say about editors? That's of interest to us? I wonder.


  1. Seems to me that part of what's changing right now is the characters -- decisions about the value (literary and financial) of standards for written text are being made by different players.

    If you want to go academic on this, let's think about, oh, the capillary nature of power and how every person is making individual choices among each other, rather than having whole categories of choices organized by publishing companies. (Yes, I have been out of school long enough that I quote Foucault rather than whoever people are talking about these days.

    Or in practical terms, my work as editor changes when I work with a publisher who has a 20-year tested process and style, versus with an author who has never experienced editing before and is unaware of the possibilities and parameters.

    So part of this is a matter of acquired knowledge: those without years of experience in publishing may not yet have learned to recognize the value (financial as well as literary) of editing.

    And part is a matter of the flow of money throughout the process. Editing takes time; time is expensive. Who are the characters who pay for it, and when and how do they benefit? All these relationships are being experimented with right now.

    I can't wait to hear about the Thompson book ... I hope he does discuss editors. If not, then we need to. I do indeed love a beautiful book cover, but it doesn't make the book. The writing makes the book.

  2. Hi Kyra - Characters, yes. That fits with Thompson's focus on the process of publishing over the product (which I hope to be posting about soon - I need to read more!).

    Barbara and I were just talking about this question of experience in the publishing chain, too, and how that affects what comprises our work as editors (and as writers too, ie, all the traditional functions of publishers that writers take on when they self-publish).

    Off to read ... (Thompson's book is definitely academic, not exactly a page turner, but I think he gives a useful framework for thinking about publishing - he doesn't lean on Foucault, but he does heavily invoke Bourdieu's theory of the field - did I say academic?? And useful.)

  3. Julie, your comment about writers taking on the traditional functions of publishers when they self-publish made me think to myself, What are the roles of a publisher and what functions are in flux?

    I came up with 5 basic functions a publisher performs:
    Publicity and Marketing
    Sales and Distribution
    Rights (foreign, subrights, film, audio & electronic)

    It seems to me that the publishing functions that self-publishers have always assumed most easily are editing and production, and that's as true today as it was in 1970s during the small press revolution. It's what most authors think of when they think of self-publishing: what format, which printer, etc.

    The functions that are much harder for someone who self-publishes are publicity (because the doors are traditionally closed to self-publishers) and distribution (which has favored big trade publishers). The function that seems almost impossible for most self-publishers to assume is selling rights.

    For a number of years traditional trade publishers have been trying to get authors to take on marketing their books--requiring these days that authors have websites and that they blog, create videos, and make themselves available to the public in numerous unpaid ways. Publishers also now often want books to be edited and polished before they get to the desk of the acquiring editor. But other functions, ones that generate money, such as sales of rights, publishers invariably try to hold on to.

    The contractual struggle between authors (and their agents) and publishers is almost always over rights, not over editing, marketing, or distribution.

    From a developmental editor's point of view, the fact that a manuscript needs to be so far advanced and well-thought out in terms of marketing and possible sales, is probably a plus, when it comes to working with an author hoping to find an agent or publisher. And developmental editors have a huge role to play in self-publishing as well.

    Barbara Sjoholm

  4. It seems to me that one thing our brave new world of publishing is bringing us is a devaluing of writing itself. As you hinted, Julie, when you talked about "content providers," writing can be thought of as simply filling space and anyone can do it. Well, if anyone can write, who needs an editor?

    What I've found in doing freelance editing is that a lot of people are interested in my services until they find out how much I charge. Yet, in comparison with other editors I know, my fee is modest. Then I look at some web jobs and what they are paying, e.g., write three blog posts of 500 words each in a week, for which you'll get paid...$25.

    I guess what I'm saying is, the question of standards and who will pay is a big one.

  5. Nancy -- "the question of standards and who will pay is a big one." No doubt. I think that's why I'm so obsessed with exploring who *has* paid in the past and for what.

    I just posted about the "publishing value chain" (by which I don't mean Costco or Wal-Mart!). Do we as editors add value? Unquestionably--that is, unless it comes to be seen as nonmonetary value. For a published work, how good is good enough?

  6. Barbara -- "developmental editors have a huge role to play in self-publishing as well." Working with authors directly definitely seems promising, and a lot of you (in the AE Clinic) do this, way more than I do.

    Recently I've been getting more and more inquiries from academics wanting their ms. "edited" (leaving aside what they mean by that) before sending it to their university publisher--I'm not sure if they're doing this because they've been asked to by the pub or if they just want to send in a clean ms.

    I know that plenty of editors work exclusively with academics before they submit, and I wonder if I'll end up doing more of that. Figuring out where the $ comes from, sussing what the academic means by "editing" and what it'll cost ... well, I actually need to go write one of those emails now!

  7. I want to chime in on the e-publishing aspect of self-publishing. Julie asked some great questions about standards--Who sets them? Who agrees to abide by them? Who wants them?

    I've come across chatter on both ends of the spectrum lately: At one end, a new author who is e-publishing her mystery after receiving encouragement from publishing houses, but no contract offer. I met Susan Schreyer at the Sisters In Crime meetings at Third Place Books. I kind of panicked when I heard she was going to bring the book out herself--all those questions of quality--but then I read her blog. You can see her reasons and her process--and find links to other e-pubbers including JA Konrath which will open eyes!--at Scroll back to her earlier posts on "Decisions, Decisions, Decisions" and "Polishing the Manuscript." Those latter words are magic to an editor's ears. And her "After all, this is a business" mantra puts her squarely in the role of client seeking professional services.

    At the opposite end is a self-published e-book that claimed the #1 spot on the Kindle children's bestseller list for seven weeks. It was picked up by Sterling and will come out in January 2011 with a $250,000 marketing and publicity campaign. A colleague of mine whose daughter is a librarian has read the ARC (Advanced Reader Copy) and could only say it would have greatly benefited from work with an editor. I haven't read the book, and probably won't, though probably should just to see for myself.

    We've all read books published by established houses, though, that could have used editing. I suspect there are lots of reasons a book gets a hands-off from an editor in that situation: not enough money in the budget? perhaps, but more likely the author sells regardless? Will e-publishing threaten the quality of books? Maybe not more than a poorly edited book from a publishing house has? Definitely not if authors like Susan Schreyer hold themselves to that higher standard.

    A few more questions, then: How do we find these clients? What role can we play in educating pre-published authors to the need? Where is our voice in the writing community?

  8. I think it's fascinating that all the editors are interested in standards (including me). We like top-notch writing, we do. In another comment on another post, JVP asked the question "How good is good enough?" -- to sell, I suppose, but also to deliver what the buyer/reader hopes for.

    I guess that might be a question publishers are used to asking themselves. As an editor, I want to focus on quality AND I want to deliver what the author wants. For authors who are self-publishing, thus attending to budget and sales and profit projections, will there be some tension between the two?