November 8, 2010

Process over Product

Last week, I asked these questions about editors and editing:
  • Who are we?
  • How did we get here?
  • Why are we here?
  • Where are we heading?
What do all these questions have in common? Well, most obviously, "we." Who the heck is that?

In traditional publishing there are acquiring editors, managing editors, production editors, editors in chief, developmental editors, copyeditors ... and probably more. What I'm most interested in--surprise!--is myself: I want to know about people who do the kind of work I do.

So by "we" I mean editors who work with text, down and dirty, developmental, substantive, copyediting. The people who are not called Max Perkins, editor at Scribner's (who actually worked quite a bit with text, which tells us a lot about the history of editorial roles, but more on that another day).

Acquiring editors, managing editors, production editors--they all work with text to varying degrees, but their roles in buying and selling properties and managing workflow put them in different spheres of a manuscript's life. My point here is that I want to keep uppermost in mind the editors who don't have their name in lights, who work behind the scenes and don't show up in movies unless as neurotic grammar school teachers (I'm not bitter).

So with that in mind, I'm reading John B. Thompson's new Merchants of Culture: The Publishing Business in the Twenty-First Century and looking for where "we" show up.

I almost stopped on page 3. That's where Thompson introduces Pierre Bourdieu's theory of the field. Oh glory, here we go, I'm going to need a PhD to figure this out. I was told in college that I lacked an analytical framework, and I've been looking for one ever since.

So what is a field? "A structured space of social positions which can be occupied by agents and organizations, and in which the position of any agent or organization depends on the type of quantity of resources or 'capital' they have at their disposal." Groan.

Still, all this is to Thompson's advantage because what he's after is breaking down the black box of publishing, figuring out what goes on in that Tower of Babel so he can explore how the, well, field is changing. Such a social scientist. Bear with him. They're so cute.

Thompson wants to talk process, not product. Not the dusty musty book, not the silicon siren e-reader, but how those things come to be. So he lays out the "publishing value chain." Leaving aside the wonk factor, I do believe that now we're getting somewhere. Here's Thompson's take on the traditional steps in book publishing and who does them:
  • content creation (authors)
  • content acquisition (pubs)
  • content development (pubs)
  • quality control (pubs)
  • copyediting (pubs+freelancers)
  • design (pubs+outsourced)
  • typesetting (typesetters) (type? what's that? like I said, this is the historical flow of publishing)
  • proofreading (pubs, authors, freelancers)
  • printing and binding (printers) (ditto the typesetting comment)
  • sales and marketing (pubs) (I can barely resist putting this one in ALL CAPS ...)
  • warehousing and distribution (pubs+distributors)
  • wholesaling (wholesalers), who sell to institutions (libraries etc.) and also to the bookselling crowd (they're next)
  • bookselling (booksellers, book clubs, gen retailers) (the pubs also sell direct to these folks)
  • consumers/readers (finally)

Whoa. No wonder he needs an analytical framework. Actually, this is pretty familiar stuff, but it bears teasing out I think. I look at that list and think, where do I fit? Where, as a developmental editor, as a copyeditor, have I usually done work? More importantly, as this traditional book publishing setup morphs and cannibalizes itself, where will I fit? Where will you? I can just picture the clown-car effect of all of us spilling out of that Espresso Book Machine ...


  1. Somebody hire me a proofreader! I've gone back and fixed a handful of typos since posting this entry ...

  2. Hey, a need for an editor in the new world!

    This is a lot of complexity to tackle in one post, though it highlights the areas to think about. Each of these seems like a topic on its own.

    What do you see as the future role of editors in the marketing and later steps?

  3. Provocative title: Process over Product. I'm guessing "editors who work with text" -- who work in the middle of the larger process -- are acutely aware that process creates product, and good process creates good products.

    Marta, what do you mean by "role of editors in the marketing and later steps"? Are you talking about editing marketing materials, or networking and referring to marketing resources, or actually doing marketing? (I'm good at editing, I think. I think I'd be terrible at marketing.)

  4. Hi Marta - It seems I'm nothing if not wordy! I need an editor ...

    As for the role of editors in marketing, distribution, bookselling et al.? Well, I'd say editors might be using editorial skills (like organization, detail focus, ability to see connections), but they wouldn't be functioning as editors per se.

    But some editors might find work later on in the process to be fun, and lucrative - there's a young editor in publishing, Marian Schembari, who launched her job search on FB and is now a social media consulting guru at age 12 ;).

    This whole marketing arena actually fits right in with Thompson's talk of fields in publishing, because what he gets to is that publishers aren't selling books, they're selling a social relationship.

    Anyway, blah blah blah - where's my editor when I need her! - Julie

  5. I love this forum and this discussion!
    My comment here straddles this post and Barbara's more recent one (Adventures in Self-Publishing Part III) a bit.

    I think one step omitted by Thompson in his list (or perhaps it's just hidden, in a way) is an earlier entry for the marketing folks. I'm no expert, but from what I've picked up, marketing people come in to the process with the acquisitions editor. You can see this in the author contract, where the author advance is stated.

    Early on, a decision is made about how large an advance to provide the author. The size of that advance is based on sales numbers. And that means marketers--the number crunching kind--have already figured out how many copies of this title they can sell (and at what price point). For most authors this is rather mysterious. For me too, though I've seen evidence that publishers know with astonishing accuracy how many copies they will sell. They have to; publishing margins are small. Occasionally a book does better than expected, and sometimes it flops altogether. But by and large, publishers know where their income comes from.

    Besides whether to publish a book and how large the advance will be, these (advance) sales numbers are factors in the total project budget: four-color printing vs. black-and-white; trim size; number of illustrations; budget for cover design; and so forth. Perhaps most important is how these sales predictions affect where the title fits in a publisher’s list. Will it get special attention from the publicist and marketing/sales department because it’s at the top of that season’s list? Or, is it at the bottom of the list because it’s a late addition brought in to replace a project that fell through?

    I think it’s telling that this part of what publishers provide is not shown in Thompson’s list. I suspect it is the publishers’ Secret Sauce.

    As I see it, publishers traditionally have three points of leverage for making a profit:

    1. Expertise in production (editing, design, printing, etc.)
    2. Access to sales and distribution channels
    3. Marketing savvy—from relationships with indie booksellers to the magical number crunching mentioned above

    1. Expertise in production has (largely) already been outsourced to freelancers. And as Barbara noted in her post, any author can act as general contractor for all those phases—though they may not want to.

    2. The big change we all are watching: with self-publishing options like Lulu and e-books and Amazon’s relentless push into more domains of the book market, access to sales and distribution channels is no longer controlled by the publishers.

    3. Marketing savvy: authors have been doing their own marketing for a while now—at least, the kind of publicity we usually think of as marketing—tours, blogs, etc. But the other kind of marketing—the magical number crunching that reveals, in advance, how many copies will sell—is still the province of publishers. If I were a publisher I would be hanging on to this expertise for dear life. If I were this type of marketer, I would be raising my rates.

    I have no idea where all these changes are going to lead, but I think there is still a lot of room for us freelance editors. The need for editing hasn’t changed much, though educating the new clients (authors rather than publishers) is going to be critical. I think working collectively on this could be really valuable.

    And, as Barbara’s post illustrates, (freelance) editors may want to learn more about the new sales and distribution options. Editors who do so may find a solid niche in consulting for serious self-publishing authors.

    Will authors steer themselves through the new publishing universe? Will publishers survive the changes? Will a new kind of book packager—small, savvy groups of marketers, agents and editors—emerge? Will more foundations and philanthropists subsidize worthy publishing projects?

    It’ll be interesting. That’s certain.

    Apologies for the length of my comment!
    Can't wait to see where this series of posts goes.

  6. For what it's worth, I attended a talk last week by editor Alan Rinzler, who echoed the shift in traditional publishing to self-publishing. In response to my question about what this meant for editors, he said he thought it would be a great time for independent editors! (But had no advice on how to get in touch with authors for these editing gigs.)

    Wow, 12 years old for marketing books! Yes, marketing was one of the areas I was wondering about.

  7. Hello AM--Hooray, someone as wordy as I am! No apologies necessary.

    You've got a sociologist's brain on you--your breakdown of publishers' purview is spot-on, I think. (And that they're holding onto their secret sauce for dear life--I just hope it's not thousand island, or they're going to be in [more] trouble.)

    I'm also really intrigued by your comment about "working collectively on this" (you'll see yourself quoted in today's post--don't let the fame go to your head).

    This working collectively seems what professional associations do (like the NWIEG), like what informal blog conversations do, what conferences do, and like, ahem, what unions do. Cards on the table--I come from a trade union background, so the idea of working together makes a good deal of sense to me, even if not in a collective bargaining sense. I like Editcetera's model, in the Bay Area (part temp agency, part professional assoc., part workers collective).

    More and more, this "explaining what we do"--to authors, even to some publishers--seems absolutely necessary. We have to define ourselves, know who we are and what we do--and why that's valuable. We have to make the case.

    For that, I think I'm definitely going to need more coffee ... Keep the comments coming!

    p.s. Marta--Alan Rinzler, cool! I saw that he was speaking (via a notice on his blog). Are you in SF? Someone else who talks a lot about editors and changing roles is Rich Adin, in his blog "An American Editor"; he's just posted about crowd-sourced editing (ick!). He's a little long-winded (sounds familiar!), and a little buttoned up, but blogs are all about the personalities sometimes.

  8. Thanks for the tip on Rich Adin's blog. Don't get me started on crowd-source editing. A topic for a different post, no doubt...

    On Editcetera... I'm neutral. I'm not at all sure it's the answer, though it's a good advocate for what editors do.