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.

14 Comments »

  1. Amen!

    What’s perhaps most distressing to me is that quality editing is one area where publishers could so easily distinguish their offerings from the (inevitably coming soon) slew of self-published material drawn directly and unfiltered from the slushpile.

    Anybody who works in this industry (or writes in it) knows that the slushpile is about 90% composed of material for which no amount of copy editing, line editing, or even developmental editing, can salvage it from being utter garbage. Ok maybe that’s harsh assessment, but some days that’s how it feels.

    Yet, publishers who start with the “cream of the slushpile”–material that is already highly filtered through the agent/acquisitions process–and thus should by all rights have an easy time putting out quality, well edited material, seem to be leading this race to the bottom by, as you say, hiring barely literate people to copyedit for them, or be eschewing editing entirely.

    They are sacrificing a key competitive advantage, their financial ability to hire a skilled editor, in the interests of saving a few bucks on the production side. But in doing so, they are erasing in the book-buying public’s mind the difference between polished, quality material from reputable publishers and unpolished, raw slushpile material.

    Penny-wise, perhaps, but oh so pound-foolish.

    Like

    Comment by Jason Black — January 27, 2010 @ 5:45 pm | Reply

    • What I fear most is that eventually there will be no more truly professional editors because they will need to find other means of employment. When that happens, standards will drop and the new lower level will become the new “high” standard.

      Like

      Comment by americaneditor — January 28, 2010 @ 2:22 pm | Reply

  2. Last sentence of sixth paragraph, in parentheses, “editor’s” should be “editor”

    Like

    Comment by Molly — January 27, 2010 @ 11:59 pm | Reply

  3. Social comments and analytics for this post…

    This post was mentioned on Twitter by sell_ebooks: For the Lack of an Editor, the Debate Changed: We all know that a controversial topic today is climate change. Yes… http://bit.ly/dea1K7

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    Trackback by uberVU - social comments — January 28, 2010 @ 2:07 am | Reply

  4. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by BJ Muntain, Wayne Countryman, Mark Allen, Elia Ben-Ari, Amy Reynaldo and others. Amy Reynaldo said: Why hiring a good editor is vital. RT @EditorMark Credibility damaged for want of an editor: http://bit.ly/9rzx5m (An American Editor blog) […]

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    Pingback by Tweets that mention For the Lack of an Editor, the Debate Changed « An American Editor -- Topsy.com — January 28, 2010 @ 2:23 am | Reply

  5. Although I totally agree with your assessment about how publishers are overlooking the value of good editing, I’m not sure a better editor would have helped the IPCC report. Was it obvious from the surrounding text or tables that the 2035 should have been 2350? If so, then yes, the editor (or even a decent proofreader) should have caught that inconsistency. If not, I don’t think it falls to the editor to validate the findings of the study at hand.

    I regularly edit research papers for publication, and they all include a form of the “all errors are the fault of the writers/researchers” disclaimer. And this is as it should be. Editors, copy editors, and proofreaders are responsible for the quality of how the information is expressed, not for the accuracy of the information — outside of internal inconsistencies.

    Speaking of editing and proofreading, consider taking another stab at that 6th paragraph.🙂

    Like

    Comment by 4ndyman — January 28, 2010 @ 2:34 pm | Reply

    • I’ve already fixed that stray ‘s🙂. It is difficult to both write and proof your own work.

      In the case of 2035, I think a professional editor would have queried whether the year was correct. Had the error be 2135, probably not, but complete glacier melt in 25 years should have merited a query, not a correction. You are correct that ultimate responsibility lies with the writers/researchers. In my 25 years of providing editorial services, there have been several occasions when an author has insisted that the original text (as submitted) be used and has ignored any suggestions or corrections. Ultimately, all editorial decisions rest with the author and the publisher, not with the editor.

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      Comment by americaneditor — January 28, 2010 @ 2:44 pm | Reply

      • “…there have been several occasions when an author has insisted that the original text (as submitted) be used and has ignored any suggestions or corrections.”

        Don’t you just hate that?! And just as bad are the authors who don’t bother worrying about clarity, grammar, spelling, consistency, or anything because they know you’re there to make it look right. Some writers just don’t get the idea of book-writing as a team sport.

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        Comment by 4ndyman — January 29, 2010 @ 3:11 pm | Reply

  6. Hear this, self publishers. I attended a presentation by a gentleman who had written and self-published a book. He was happy that it had been edited by an English teacher in exchange for a copy of the book. While preparing for a public reading, he discovered that an entire chapter had been omitted. He and the publisher split the cost of reprinting the entire book run, an expensive mistake. You get what you pay for.

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    Comment by Anita Stuever — January 29, 2010 @ 10:44 pm | Reply

  7. Para. 6, first word … s/b Similarly

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    Comment by Maria Fotopoulos — February 5, 2010 @ 7:23 pm | Reply

  8. […] and Authors Need Them (Part 1); Professional Editors: Publishers and Authors Need Them (Part 2); For the Lack of an Editor, the Debate Changed; and other related articles under the tag Professional Editors), only the opportunities for […]

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    Pingback by eBooks & the Future of Freelance Editors « An American Editor — May 10, 2010 @ 6:57 am | Reply

  9. […] Solid Cloud; The Professional Editor’s Bookshelf; On Words: Is the Correct Word Important?; For the Lack of an Editor, the Debate Changed; Professional Editors: Publishers and Authors Need Them (Part 1); Professional Editors: Publishers […]

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    Pingback by I Published My Book But Readers Keep Finding Errors « An American Editor — June 28, 2010 @ 8:35 am | Reply


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