July 22, 2011

Re: editors and editing

A New York Times article about this summer’s Columbia Publishing Course describes instructors and students grappling with e-books. There was a passing mention of “short-form electronic publishing—not quite a magazine article, not quite a book—which is so new, the genre doesn’t really have a name.” I’ve been interested in this idea lately (is it not similar to a novella?), especially as I experiment with reading fiction on my hand-me-down iPad.

Virginia Heffernan’s post on the NYT Opinionator blog discusses typos, and the differences between authors who are naturally good spellers or bad spellers (each has different strengths, perhaps). She also suggests that managing editors at publishing houses may be facing the same things that freelance editors are: demands to turn out a book more quickly and less expensively—that is, with less editorial oversight, especially during production stages such as copyediting and proofreading. These are my two favorite quotes from the article:
  • “Now … the text is fluid, in motion, and this leads to typos.” (Paul Elie, senior editor at Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
  • “We seem to keep removing steps that involve editing and checking and don’t bother to think about how we replace them with something better.” (Craig Silverman, journalist and host of the blog Regret the Error)

Developmental editing
The recent Vanity Fair has an article all editors should enjoy: the story of publishing Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, including the last-minute edit to the title. I especially liked a quote from editor Robert Gottlieb, summing up the editorial nature by saying that no matter what he looks at, “I don’t want to interfere with it or control it, exactly—I want it to work.”

There’s a fun description of editing a novel on paper, “bits and pieces of it taped to every available surface in Gottlieb’s cramped office,” but there’s also mention of the developmental work of language and pacing that’s needed as much now as then, as much for self-published e-books or e-novellas as for Man Booker International Prize nominees:

“Gottlieb inspected paragraphs for what he called ‘impoverished vocabulary,’ and asked Joe to stir things up with more active language. He caught places where Joe seemed to be clearing his throat, dawdling, in Joe’s characteristic way, and not getting directly to the point.”

Last month, Alan Rinzler posted an optimistic view of possibilities for authors in a publishing world that includes self-publishing and e-books. I note this because, unlike most that are singing about the wonderful new publishing world, Alan remembers to say this:

“You still have to write a good book. No mean feat. Successful writers I know—whether they’re published commercially or self-published—need to write and rewrite their books many times, usually with the support of a developmental editor, not someone who does spelling and punctuation but a creative partner who is able to identify and solve problems with the story, structure, characterization, dialogue, visual description, literary style, pacing, the narrative arc …”

I think freelance developmental editors have a lot to learn about grappling with e-books and working with authors to establish editorial steps that result in top-quality books (electronic or otherwise). But the value to an author of “a creative partner”—a skilled reader and editor who wants not to control the story but to help make it work—is unlikely to change. So maybe this is a good time for freelance editors as well as for authors. I hope so.

—Kyra Freestar


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  2. I think that the short form digital elements occupy a really exiting space in coming years for publishers, writers and readers alike. There are so many uses for this sort of prose. The small SFF/Horror publishers, Apex Books, call them "alien shots" and sell these flash fiction to short story length texts for 99 cents as a way to introduce potential readers to their authors. Other indie publishers are giving these sorts of pieces away for free as marketing tools.
    Personally, in the future I would like to see a publisher with a wide selection of these short pieces allow a reader to pick say 10 from any of their authors for a set price, allowing readers to create their own anthologies and effectively 'sample' the various authors on a back list. I love the fact that this sort of sampling is really nothing new. In Chaucer's time, the wealthy would go to a book maker and request the parts of various texts that they wanted to purchase. The book maker would then put together a 'custom' book (though all really were) with the selections that the customer had requested. It is not a new idea, but somehow I think it has the potential to be ground-breaking if handled properly.

  3. Hi Samantha,
    I didn't know about the history of short-form publishing -- I think that's fascinating. The custom anthology seems like a great idea for today's print-on-demand possibilities. As a reader I like this idea too, because I tend to prefer reading novels to short stories, and I think the midrange of the novella has a lot of potential for story shape and complexity.