An American Editor

January 27, 2010

For the Lack of an Editor, the Debate Changed

We all know that a controversial topic today is climate change. Yes, this is about climate change, but no, it isn’t about whether there is global warming or not. Instead, this is the story of what happens when the editor goes missing.

The story begins with a 2007 report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a United Nations-affiliated group. Five glaring errors were found in the report, errors serious enough to warrant an apology from the scientists who wrote the particular section under scrutiny.

The section dealt with glacier melt in the Himalayas and the prediction that the glaciers could all melt away by the year 2035. Alas, that prediction missed the mark by several hundred years — the year should have been 2350, not 2035. The scientist who discovered the errors admitted that the errors are neither significant in comparison to the findings of the whole report nor intentional, but they are significant enough to raise questions of credibility regarding the whole report. As a reader, imagine if this had been the drug book your doctor consulted when prescribing medication for you.

Isn’t credibility at the bottom of every author’s book and every publisher’s name? When a new Stephen King novel is published, King’s credibility as an author whose books are worth reading is on the line, as is the publisher’s reputation for publishing interesting and readable (i.e., quality) books. If the new King novel is poorly written and edited, King’s reputation suffers, as does his publisher’s. Consequently, it behooves both King and his publisher to hire professional editors for a high-quality, professional edit. And what is true for fiction is trebly true for nonfiction!

In the case of the IPCC, the scientist who publicized the errors noted, “It is a very shoddily written section. It wasn’t copy-edited properly.” Is this a cautionary tale for publishers and authors? It should be. Instead of focusing on the science behind the report, the focus has shifted to the poor editing and via the poor editing to overall credibility.

Similarly, in the world of ebooks the debate about quality (or lack thereof) has shifted the debate from the author’s story to the shoddy craftsmanship of the ebook sold by the publisher. The “story” is no longer how good or bad a particular book’s storyline is, but how riddled with editorial errors it is. What is it about publishers that makes it difficult for them to grasp the simple fact that to get professional editing, one must hire professional editors and that professional editors do not work for minimum wage! (I say this because publishers will retort that they do hire editors; what they don’t confess is that they hire the least expensive editor possible regardless of whether or not the editor is otherwise qualified.)

Editing is a skill. Bad editing, as the IPCC discovered, can lead to disastrous results. Publishers are learning the same thing as the litany of complaints keeps growing. And, as publishers have also learned, when the focus shifts to poor quality, publishers lose the debate — even the opportunity to debate — the core issue: value. That occurs because poor editing leads readers to believe there is no value; something with no value cannot command a high price. (It was not so long ago that Princeton University Press had to recall a book’s entire press run because of complaints about shoddy editing and in 2009 the American Psychological Association replaced first printings of its new style manual for the same reason.) Remember the Yugo automobile, the poster child for poor quality and little value?

Publishers are on that same Yugo path — slogging their way to becoming the new poster child for poor quality products. Too many books are replete with errors — factual, grammatical, syntactical, and spelling — with individual paragraphs having multiple errors, and most pages having several errors. This problem has become more acute within the past quarter century, there seeming to be a causal relationship between consolidation of publishers into mega media companies and a concurrent decrease in editorial funding.

There was a time when “pride of authorship” referred not only to the author’s pride but to the publisher’s pride. Publisher pride seems to have waned as the focus on quarterly profits has waxed. For the want of a professional editor, the errors in the IPCC report have caused a tectonic shift in the climate change debate from whether global warming is fact to whether or not the fact-finders are credible purveyors of fact. Lack of professional editing in ebooks is causing a similar tectonic shift as ebookers debate the value of ebooks compared to the pricing.

Professional editing is not the panacea for all that troubles the publishing industry, but a return to using professional editors to edit books will allow the debate to refocus on concerns other than wholesale lack of value.

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