An American Editor

June 13, 2012

The Business of Editing: Do You Want to Be Acknowledged?

On an editing forum, colleague Carolyn Haley asked a thought-provoking question about being acknowledged as a book’s editor by the book’s author if the editor is not satisfied with the quality of the to-be-published product. She wondered, “[H]ow big is the risk involved in allowing my name to be associated with low-quality books?”

Among the questions that are implicit in her question are these: (a) How much control over the final product does an editor really have? (b) Can an author credit an editor without the editor’s approval? (c) What can an editor do to prevent or get acknowledgment by the author? (d) What harm or good can an acknowledgment do? (e) Who determines whether the final book is of low quality or high quality? (f) Does an acknowledgment really matter?

Alas, none of the questions — explicit or implicit — have easy, infallible answers. Although I gave Carolyn a short reply, I thought her question and dilemma was worth exploring among authors, publishers, and editors, not just the editors that frequent the original forum.

I think analysis has to begin with the baseline question: Does an acknowledgment, or lack of one, really matter? I tackled this question by informally surveying some colleagues, friends, and neighbors about their reading habits. Do they read the acknowledgments page in a book? If yes, do they read it in both fiction and nonfiction, or just fiction, or just nonfiction books? As I suspected, 5% of the sample read the acknowledgments, and of that 5%, 75% read it just in nonfiction.

I grant that my informal survey is far from scientific, but I’d guess it isn’t far off the mark for the general reading public. Few of readers care that an author thanks her children for their patience and the many hamburger helper meals they tolerated during the authoring process, or the author’s spouse or parents or first grade teacher. We know none of these people and whether they were inspiring or not doesn’t make much difference to our reading of fiction.

I was more surprised at the lack of interest in reading the acknowledgments in nonfiction. (Let me confess that I have the “habit” of reading every page — including copyright, dedication, acknowledgments, table of contents, preface, and foreword — in both fiction and nonfiction, a habit I frequently regret, especially in fiction.) Acknowledgments in nonfiction can be very revealing about the effort an author has put into his or her research and even can provide a clue as to the quality of that research.

Regardless, I think the informal survey justifies the conclusion that an acknowledgment probably doesn’t matter. Even if it does matter, how does one judge whether a book is good or bad quality? I have been amazed over my 60+ reading years how many books received awards for quality that I wouldn’t consider quality at all. Consider James Joyce’s Ulysses. This book is considered an important piece of English literature; I wouldn’t give it a 2-dumpster rating, let alone a 2-star rating. I would never recommend anyone buy it or read it unless they wanted to commit mental suicide by reading. Yet, I can imagine that an acknowledged editor would be beaming. Book quality is in the eyes of the individual reader and I know few readers who would automatically say the editor must have been bad because the book is poor quality; readers are much more likely to blame the author, unless the book is riddled with basic spelling and grammar errors that even the least-competent editor should have picked up.

One also needs to consider what the average reader would make of an acknowledgement of the book’s editor. How many readers really have a clue as to what an editor does? How many really care? The growth of self-published editor-less ebooks demonstrates to me that readers are not equating good or bad quality with editor-no editor. I would be willing to venture that 99.9% of the positive or negative reaction to book “quality” by readers is aimed at the author and not to any editor. In fact, if the reader considers a book to be of poor quality, the reader is more likely to exclaim that the author should have hired an editor, and do so without having read the acknowledgments to see if an editor is listed.

In checking some of the ebooks I have in my to-be-read pile, I note that often the editor who is acknowledged is listed as “my wife,” “my neighbor,” “my beta reader”; in only one book was the listing such as to imply a professional editor. Consequently, I am not convinced that an author who is looking for an editor will suddenly start scanning acknowledgment pages to find an editor, not even of books that the author has read and liked. Nor is that author likely to recall who was named as editor of a book they liked but can no longer locate. Additionally, I suspect most authors are sophisticated enough to know that the final published form of a book does not necessarily reflect an editor’s work because the author has the final say and can accept or reject an editor’s work/suggestions.

So in the end, I come down on the side that says it doesn’t matter. With more than 1.5 million books published each year in the United States alone, it doesn’t even matter statistically. Unless the book garners a wide audience, in which case it would be a bestseller and the editor’s belief that it is of low quality matters not at all, it is unlikely that more than a few people will read the book, some of whom will believe it is a 5-star contribution to literature and some of whom will view it as a 1-star insult.

This leads, then, to the question of whether an editor can prevent an author from acknowledging the editor. Absent a contractual term that gives the editor that right, I’d say no. The editor can ask and the author should be willing to do as asked, but there is little else that an editor can do. Yet, if it really doesn’t matter, why make a mountain out of a molehill? An editor should always remember that one reader’s great literature is another reader’s trash.

The one caveat to all this is that I would be adamant about not being named if I had corrected misspellings and misuses of homonyms and language only to discover that the author rejected those corrections. Unlike the situation of the narrative — is it good, bad, or indifferent — the mechanics of spelling and word choice can reflect badly on an editor, except that I fall back to my original proposition, to-wit, few people read acknowledgments or remember whether a book was edited and by whom it was edited. Ultimately, even in this scenario, I’m not sure it matters.

I’m curious as to what editors, authors, agents, and publishers who read An American Editor think of this “problem.” What do you think?

9 Comments »

  1. I, too, read acknowledgments and am a bit surprised to hear the results of the informal survey. Especially in nonfiction, the acknowledgments often provide a good context in which to understand the author’s effort. As to whether it matters whether an editor is acknowledged, I agree with all your points, however, would add one: it matters to me. The burden of being associated eternally with a text that is below par would weigh on me, a constant grain of sand inside a shoe. Twice I’ve asked to be omitted for that reason.

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    Comment by irene — June 13, 2012 @ 6:15 am | Reply

  2. I can provide current anecdotal evidence for one arena: articles published in biomedical journals. I specialize in editing journal articles written in English by non-native speakers of English. That kind of editing is intensive. Because of that, and because of the push for full disclosure in medical publishing, I always add this sentence to the authors’ acknowledgments section:

    Medical editor Katharine O’Moore-Klopf, ELS (East Setauket, NY, USA) provided professional English-language editing of this article.

    Most times, the journals leave that sentence in the article. And because lots of authors read others’ acknowledgments sections, I frequently get e-mails from new-to-me authors asking me to edit their latest manuscript.

    But I still do edit some books, mostly nonfiction, though I occasionally edit fiction too. And I’m always happy to have my work acknowledged in those. In 17 years of freelance editing, I’ve been fortunate not to have been credited in any stinkers—at least none that I know of. I don’t know how many people read acknowledgments in books, but I do have this story: My next-door neighbor knows that I’m an editor, but I don’t generally tell her the titles of specific books I’ve edited. Several years ago, we were talking at my children’s school bus stop, and she told me how surprised and pleased she was to see my work as a copyeditor appear in the acknowledgments of a popular biography. She said, “I was reading along and saw your name and had to go back and read it again, because I thought, ‘I know that person!’ “

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    Comment by Katharine O'Moore-Klopf — June 13, 2012 @ 8:47 am | Reply

  3. I, too, read every page in a book, and I suspect that’s true of most all book lovers and especially true of those of us working in the industry: every bit of information about the book has a bearing on the meanings of the book. I read acknowledgments and dedications, even though I rarely recognize any of the people named, because I get a thrill when I do recognize someone I know.

    I appreciate being acknowledged for my work. In those cases where I’m less-than-proud of the published work because my suggestions were ignored or changes were made after my work was done I comfort myself in the fact that most readers don’t read all the front or back matter and will blame the author for the quality of the content.

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    Comment by Leland F. Raymond, Publisher, CyPress Publications — June 13, 2012 @ 10:30 am | Reply

  4. […] post today on the An American Editor blog turns the question on its head: Do editors want to be […]

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    Pingback by Should Editors Get Credited in Books? | Digital Book World — June 13, 2012 @ 12:02 pm | Reply

  5. Here is another reason to be acknowledged: It could affect the book’s rating in an online store. One of the criticisms most often leveled at the books of self-published authors is that they haven’t been professionally edited.

    We are launching WaveCloud.com, a new online, e-book store, and working hard to curate the books we offer. Our starting assumption is all traditionally published books have been professionally edited and that all self-published books have not. When self-published authors bring their e-books to sell on our site, we will ask them if their e-book was professionally (paid-for) edited. We will then randomly confirm their “yes” answers.

    We have discussed, but haven’t implemented an “adjustment” system that will give books “extra-credit” in their rating for having been professionally edited. We think editing is an important indicator of book quality and a self-published author’s commitment to bringing a competitive work to market. As a result, we want to make sure that professionally edited books are indicated as such to our readers.

    I’d even like to consider creating a list of professional editors, and the e-books they are associated with, so that we can provide self-published authors a good resource for finding an editor specific to their genre or subject.

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    Comment by Bill Van Orsdel — June 13, 2012 @ 1:16 pm | Reply

    • One word of caution: simply because an edit has been paid for does not mean the edit was by a qualified professional editor.

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      Comment by americaneditor — June 13, 2012 @ 2:11 pm | Reply

      • I agree. The question is: what can I use as an indicator or proxy for determining if the “paid for” editing was done by a “qualified professional editor”? I don’t want to enrage any authors or “paid for” editors, but the community would benefit from some standard. I believe that Australia and Canada have guilds or certifications or something similar. Where should I look in the U.S.?

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        Comment by Bill Van Orsdel — June 13, 2012 @ 2:15 pm | Reply

  6. I left the project part way through the first book I worked on. They wanted to acknowledge me and I was unhappy with the final product. So I asked them to acknowledge me as “preproduction editor,” which I felt might absolve me of guilt for the dreadful handling of equations in the book.

    The most recent book was going to be edited by a copyeditor with the publisher, which has notoriously poor copyediting. I was asked to line edit and copyedit the text, which was partly translated from Swedish. It was quite a bit of work but turned out well. I was proud to be acknowledged in that one. But I would not be surprised if the unacknowledged editor from the publisher had an out-of-joint nose.

    As for reading acknowledgements, I read quite a bit of historical fiction and fictionalized history and am always interested to read the acknowledgements and afterword to see what work has been put in and what facts or timelines have been altered to serve the story.

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    Comment by Bo — June 14, 2012 @ 7:16 pm | Reply


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