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.)


  1. Back in the early nineties, I read “Desktop Publishing in the University,” edited by Joan Burstyn and published by Syracuse U. Press in 1991 (ISBN 978-0815681168). It was a compilation of eight or nine chapters on the looming changes in the way books and other publications were produced, and the changes were rushing at everyone. Among the changes were the alterations to the workflow and production process, especially now that authors had the tools of editors and layout designers at their own fingertips.

    Some of the topics were dated almost by the time I read it (e.g., proprietary systems that were already being superseded by the asteroid called PostScript that was hitting the publishing and printing world), but others were quite prescient and what they discussed are still relevant today. For example, one author wondered why a lawyer making $60 or $100 an hour should be doing the work of a $15 or $20 an hour editor or designer. Another change was how authors perceived the ease of making changes and thus how late in the production process authors would offer changes and expect easy and ready results.


    Comment by Michael Brady — August 9, 2010 @ 6:25 am

  2. This should chill the cockles of your heart, or at least let a cool breeze waft across them:


    Comment by Michael Brady — August 9, 2010 @ 6:27 am

  3. First and foremost, thank you for the conference mention!

    I think it’s vital for today’s editors (and writers, proofreaders, desktop publishers, graphic artists, etc.) to be aware of the changing publishing industry and think about how to adapt to it, as well as how to expand or adjust their businesses. Today more than ever before, we can’t assume anything – that our long-time, reliable clients will continue to do business the same way and use us in the same ways; that our current skills will be enough for tomorrow; that we don’t need to offer more than solid knowledge of usage, grammar, punctuation, spelling, etc. Some of us may even have to leave editing, but most of us should be able to adjust and adapt. We just can’t sit around and wait before doing so, or at least figuring out what might be required of us.


    Comment by Ruth E. Thaler-Carter — August 9, 2010 @ 2:13 pm

  4. I’m not sure if my comment relates to editing as it does to differences in paginating text for digital publishing.

    Currently, for many of the eBooks I’ve read on my Sony 505, footnotes interupt the flow of text and, because the footnotes are not in a completely differnt font or size, it is difficult when the footnote ends and the continuing text starts.

    Or, is this a case of when the digitizing is done, such things as this should be checked to make sure it does not happen?

    Thank you for a really interesting article.


    Comment by Alan J. Zell — August 9, 2010 @ 7:47 pm

  5. Thanks for the article.
    Editors will always be needed. However, it can be difficult to explain to outsiders why editors are necessary and what editors can do for them, as the need for an editor is often only seen after something fails or mistakes have been made. Very few readers look at a book and say, “This is a well-edited book.” They usually praise the author for the work without realizing how much help an editor may have given him/her. On the other hand, if there is a mistake, they will say, “Where were the editors?” This tendency can make the marketing and even justification of an editor’s services quite difficult.
    This tendency also makes it even more important for us to be actively engaged in showing why we are needed, offering our services, and staying ahead of the curve. Learning new technology and becoming indispensable in other ways can certainly give us an edge as publishing moves from print to digital.


    Comment by Patrick — August 14, 2010 @ 2:58 am

  6. 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.


    Comment by Profreading Manuscript Editing — August 27, 2010 @ 3:27 am

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