An American Editor

August 9, 2010

The Times are Changing! Will Editors Change with Them?

Everyone knows that time doesn’t stand still, except in science fiction and fantasy. Time keeps marching on, even for the publishing world.

The first pebble in the pond appears to be Dorchester Publishing. I admit I hadn’t heard of the company, but then its focus is on mass market romance books, not a category I read (although I have always wondered why the cover models romance books so often use should be physically what I should aspire to in order to have that “hot, passionate, romantic adventure of a lifetime”). Dorchester announced the firing of its 7-person sales force and most importantly for Bookville that it was going 100% digital — only ebooks and POD (print on demand).

Although  there is speculation as to what was the impetus for this move by Dorchester, it really doesn’t matter. Dorchester’s move to all digital is a portent of the change that will overcome publishing during the next decade. Sales figures indicate that the two medium of growth in publishing have been hardcover books and ebooks, with ebooks showing triple-digit increases nearly every month.

Why does this matter to editors? It matters because just as the introduction of the personal computer altered our world, so will the move to all-digital publishing. When PCs (used generically to mean personal computers, not Windows OS computers) became commodities, nearly every editor was expected to own one, to have mastered the necessary software (remember WordStar and WordPerfect?), and to change how editing was done.

I remember when I started offering my services as an editor to publishers 26 years ago, how I promoted myself. Every editor was doing paper-based editing and minimal coding. I advertised my services as online only — I wouldn’t accept paper-based editing projects — with a willingness to do more extensive coding (largely SGML, Standard Generalized Markup Language) that would enable a publisher to bypass the typesetting stage, all for a small premium over what my paper-based colleagues were charging. And it worked when I gave small demonstrations of how using my services could save publishers thousands of dollars in production costs.

But to do that, I had to learn new and different skills and adapt them to the editing process. Today, those skills are minimally required of any editor, so I am constantly looking for ways to differentiate my services from that of my colleagues and to justify a higher price (at which I am not always successful).

As seismic as the change from paper-based to online editing was for professional editors in the 1980s, this change to all-digital publishing, as it overtakes the publishing industry, could be cataclysmic for professional editors. The question is whether professional editors will be better prepared this time.

Dorchester’s switch to all digital is just the first pebble being tossed in the massive pond of publishing. Its ripple is barely noticeable, but like the shamans of old, I find it to be a sign of a vast change that is about to overwhelm professional editing like a tsunami, and one for which few editors are well prepared. I expect to see a rapidly increasing number of small publishers follow Dorchester’s lead, with medium- and large-size publishers not too far behind. But an even larger force in the tsunami will be the author-driven market.

The trend will, I expect, follow this path: Increasingly authors will “abandon” the large publishing houses and strike out on their own. In the beginning, they will believe they can do it all themselves, with the help of a few friends, and they will be encouraged to believe so by their organizations, such as SWFA (Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America). But as fewer authors succeed in making a living from their writing, the trend will begin to alter and authors will start seeking professional help. (For past discussions along these lines, see, e.g., I Published My Book But Readers Keep Finding Errors and Question of the Day: Investing in eBooks by Authors & Readers.)

When should editors start preparing for the trend changes? My belief is that they should start as soon as they identify the change that is coming. To devise a strategy to address the coming changes and to become proficient in the techniques that will be needed to to ride the change waves takes time and effort. The earlier the start, the more likely the success.

The switch from pbooks to ebooks won’t happen tomorrow, but it will happen in the next decade, perhaps even in the next 5 years. There are too many pluses to going digital from the perspectives of consumers, authors, and publishers, even though all are currently struggling to find the right path through the current morass. But once that “right” path is found, movement will go from a turtle’s pace to rocket speed as everyone tries to maximize their experience.

Which brings me to my original question: Will editors help lead the various groups through the current morass or will editors simply be followers who react, as they have done in the past? Will editors change with the changing times? I can only speak for myself, but I’m already working on the problem; how about you?

(The topic of professional editors in an ebook world will be part of my discussion at the upcoming conference “Finding Your Niche/Expanding Your Horizons”, which was discussed in A Gathering of Freelance Editorial Professionals. If you are interested in joining the discussion and learning more about the effects of all-digital publishing on professional editing, join me and other editing professionals at the conference.)

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