November 30, 2010

In the End, I Just Want a Good Book

A month ago I asked who editors are, how we got here, why we're here, and, that anxiety-producing finale, where the heck are we heading, where is editing heading? If you've been reading, you'll know I only managed to scratch the surface of those questions, and I hope folks will continue to chime in.

Returning to John Thompson's Merchants of Culture, 400-plus pages that analyze the nether and yon of book publishing, I'm afraid that between the descriptions of megabucks advances and literary agents, the rise of big box bookstores and the fall of big box bookstores, the demise of the backlist and the spreading short-termism that infects the board room, the digital revolution that started even before desktop publishing--in all that, I'm afraid I lost where the editor fits, what all this means for the developmental editor, the copyeditor.

Thompson does mention us specifically on one page, when he's describing how we work: "Both the editor and the copy-editor have traditionally worked with a ... printed manuscript," which he says has its advantages. "It's easier to find your way around," he writes, "to move back and forth between pages and keep track of the changes you've made. Many editors and copy-editors would find it difficult to work on screen, especially if a text needs a lot of structural or developmental editing."

Hmm. Given that I work on up to thirty books a year, all on screen, this makes me wonder if Thompson has ever talked to a copy-editor. I know, I know, I'm not the only editor out there, and I do know colleagues who work exclusively on paper--I definitely do passes on paper for the more developmental work, as he suggests. But still. Most of us find it difficult to work on screen? There's a thicket of opinions here, I'm sure. But I digress ...

To be fair, editors aren't Thompson's express concern; the world of publishing is. And it is useful to know what's going on in the field of my chosen profession. The better I understand the shifting landscape, the better equipped I am to make decisions about my work life, to find promising niches ripe for cultivation. Will I move into marketing? Will I work more with authors who self-publish? Will I move out of traditional publishing entirely to work with foundations, think tanks, government? What will you do?

But I find I can only take so much of the business of publishing, the business of editing, before I begin to get restless, bored actually. Not a good sign. For the staying power essential for tackling these questions, I need sustenance. I need to be reminded of why I work as an editor.

And you know where that leads me? Straight back to my bookshelves.


  1. I found it astonishing that Thompson, who's clearly done extensive research on publishing, can be so clueless about how editors, especially copy-editors, currently work. No publisher would think to hire a copy-editor who couldn't work on screen.

  2. About the business of getting bored, Julie -- Clearly there are a lot of skills and tasks that help books get published (whether by authors or by publishing houses). With self-publishing increasing, authors are, I hope, realizing this. From my reading of the online conversations, some aspects of publishing, such as marketing and cover design, are getting more attention so far than others, such as editing and typography.

    "Will I move into marketing?" you ask. Some editors will, some won't, and it depends on the constellation of their interests. I don't think I will.

    Because though I love books and want them to be published and read by an appreciative crowd, I'm not interested let alone fascinated by the theories, practices, and activities of marketing. The skills and tasks that I enjoy doing many hours a day involve editing the text.

  3. Re. Thompson and electronic editing: I know, his take was so odd, almost made me discount his other 399-plus pages ...

    Re. marketing: No way! That was just rhetorical, since it seems some folks will go that way. Not me. I'd rather make the thing that gets marketed. Still, it might do me good to know more of what goes on when said thing leaves the hands of the author.

    Julie VP