Sunday, June 20, 2010

A World Without Editors?

The Spring 2010 Authors Guild Bulletin quotes Thomas Mallon:

"The idea of e-books as the most popular format bothers me less than the possibility of a publishing world in which the editorial apparatus has collapsed. As the world of self-publishing proliferates, I just worry about so much stuff being out there that people don't know how to find what's good. That, I think, is the big challenge, more than the shifting technology itself. I suppose that immediately provokes charges of elitism from people. Well, so be it. I don't want to live in a world where everything receives the same imprimatur as everything else. I don't want to live in a world without editors."

What would life be without editors? In such a world, I would have to find a new line of work, since I earn far more of my living as an editor than as a writer.

The Function of an Editor

I'm not too worried about losing my editing job, however. The national nonprofit organization that keeps me busy editing bunches of its publications is unlikely to do away with its editors altogether. As somebody once said: "The function of an editor is to prevent a writer from making a fool of himself." (My Favorite Quotes: 2)  Editors protect not only writers, but also the organizations that publish what the writers write.

No organization wants to look foolish in print. A good editor, for instance, would have caught the blunder about "walruses" in Big Oil's emergency preparedness plans. If the oil companies had bothered to run their plans past an editor, any editor worthy of the title would also have alerted them to the fact that their go-to expert had been dead for the past several years.

No organization, be it for-profit or nonprofit, can afford to be without qualified, conscientious editors examining and correcting the organization's publications before they go public. I can't imagine that world being devoid of editors.

Freelance Editors for Self-Publishing Authors

But what about the world of book publishing? IS the editorial apparatus of the traditional "legacy" publishers on the verge of collapsing?

If it is, then all those book editors will be out searching for work or carving new careers for themselves, just as the newspaper and magazine editors have been doing for years. Many book editors will find work editing online publications. Others will set up shop as freelance editors, the way I did long ago.

Which will leave authors with a decision to make:
  • Do I, Annie Author, self-publish my work without first running it by a good editor?
  • Or do I pay a professional to edit my work before I self-publish it?
Some writers will choose to put their raw copy out there for the world to see -- or, more likely, for the world to ignore.

Serious writers, however, will get it edited before they release it as an e-book or a POD (print-on-demand) book. Writers who care about quality, and who care about their reputations, will not risk making fools of themselves by offering their unedited work to the reading public.

Reader Ratings

Which brings me to the mechanism that may supplant a publisher's mark of approval. When a publisher buys a manuscript, the publisher spends money to get that book edited, designed, printed, and distributed. The publisher's willingness to spend money on the book gives the work a certain validity or legitimacy.

That's the standard view, anyhow. Just because a publisher agrees to publish a manuscript is no guarantee that the manuscript will get good editing.

In a brown-paper sack, I carry around a mass-market paperback that I use as a horrible example of what can happen when neither the writer nor his publisher cares enough about the book to edit it. The unreadable thing came out from a major mass-market imprint of a major New York publisher, and it's just riddled with errors. (For details, see Self-Editing: Part 1.)

But I digress. My point is this: If the traditional publishers go out of business and all authors are self-publishing, then we will need a new way of separating the wheat from the chaff. Ratings by readers may provide that mechanism.

Right now at, readers are rating books for all sorts of qualities: writing, characters, story, cover art and illustrations; whether it's absorbing, funny, challenging, or thrilling; whether it's a book just for fun or it's good for classrooms or improving one's reading skills, etc.

Why not simply add a rating for the quality of the editing? Is the book (check one): Well edited? Minimally edited? Unedited? Unreadable?

An "Angie's List" for Books

I recently joined Angie's List, a site where people grade the businesses and service providers they use. When shopping for a dentist or an auto mechanic, it's reassuring to read about the experiences other people have had with those professionals or businesses.

Why not an "Angie's List"-style review site for books? Readers who review books could be encouraged to comment on the quality of the editing.

Good editing, of course, is invisible. But an absence of editing is obvious to even the most uncritical reader. Volunteer or amateur book reviewers who say the writing is rough or choppy or awkward or hard to follow, or the logic of the story breaks down, or the spelling is atrocious, or the lack of punctuation makes the whole thing unreadable, or the story sags, or it's wordy, or it jumps all over the place, or the quality of the writing is inconsistent -- criticisms such as these indicate that the book didn't get careful editing.

Editors or Gatekeepers?

Even if the editorial apparatus of the traditional publishing industry does collapse and all books become essentially self-published, the world of books, writers, and readers will still require editors. An editor who works for a self-publishing author may, however, fulfill a more basic editorial function:

The editor will be the keeper or caretaker of a book's style, content, and logic, lavishing care and attention upon the work to make it the best it can be. To quote Betty Ballantine, a legendary editor known by everyone who ever wrote or read in the science fiction field:
"To me, the essence of editing lies in helping the author say what he wants to say in the way he wants to say it."
That is the proper role of an editor. I don't believe it is an editor's job to be a gatekeeper who prevents books (even bad books) from reaching the reading public.

Like Thomas Mallon, I'm not much bothered by the idea of e-books becoming the most popular format. (I love reading e-books on my Barnes & Noble "Nook.")

But unlike Mr. Mallon, I'm not too worried about the world losing all of its editors. Nor am I fearful that readers, in a world of self-publishing authors, will be unable to find the good books amongst all the garbage.

I believe in the power of word-of-mouth wisdom. The good books -- those that are well-written and well-edited -- will get noticed.

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