An American Editor

July 30, 2014

Books, Buying, & Editing

The trouble with books is that there are too many of them that interest me. If I see a book advertised that interests me, I tend to buy it. I don’t wait to see if it will be reviewed in one of my magazines because I know the odds of that happening are very long and even should the book be reviewed, who knows when the review will appear. Even though my to-be-read pile is enormous and I could wait before buying another book, I can’t bring myself to do so.

I mention this because in recent weeks six of the books I have bought have been reviewed in at least one of the magazines I trust for reviews. Had I read the reviews first, I probably would not have bought the books. In the case of a seventh book, I haven’t yet bought it and am debating whether to do so.

In the case of the book I have yet to buy and of one that I did buy, The Economist reviewed the books. The books are “World Without End: The Global Empire of Philip II” by Hugh Thomas (the book I have not yet bought) (The Economist, July 12, 2014, p. 75) and “Fierce Patriot: The Tangled Lives of William Tecumseh Sherman” by Robert O’Connell (which I had already bought) (The Economist, July 26, 2014, p. 69).

In both cases, The Economist‘s reviewer praised the book then damned it. In the case of “World Without End,” the reviewer wrote:

“World Without End” would have benefited from better editing. Two of the chapters on the Yucatán are reprised from an earlier volume of the trilogy and refer to events that took place well before Philip became king in 1556. Several of the epigraphs that introduce chapters are irrelevant or misplaced. A dizzying cast of minor officials confuses rather than enlightens. (p. 76)

As to “Fierce Patriot,” the reviewer wrote:

The book would also have benefited from better editing. It is oddly organized, with later parts doubling back chronologically on already-trodden ground. (p. 69)

Several of the other books that I bought received negative reviews in the New York Review of Books, but the editing was not specifically noted.

The better editing comments are directed at better developmental editing, not at better copyediting, but if the developmental editing is bad or nonexistent, I wonder about the copyediting.

There is an interesting factoid about these two books: they are both published by the same megapublisher, Penguin Random House, although by different imprints, Allen Lane (“World Without End”) and Random House (“Fierce Patriot”). This worries me.

As an editor, I know that many publishers, especially the megapublishers, have spent years cutting back. If they haven’t eliminated an author service, they have sought to minimize the service’s financial impact by limiting budgets for items that produce “hidden” value, such as editing. It is rare that a review takes a book to task for poor editing, but it is even rarer for reviews doing so to be so close together in time and to be of books from the same publishing house.

That these two books are from the same megapublisher but from different imprints bodes ill for imprint independence. It also makes me wonder what impact, if any, reviews noting the editorial flaws will have on future behavior of the megapublisher. Because the complaints are about developmental editing issues, my suspicion is that there was no developmental editing and poorly paid copyediting. I also suspect that the reviews will dent sales but that the wrong lesson will be taken from the dented sales.

That sales are low or lower than expected will be taken as justification for editorial cost cutting rather than seen as a result of ill-advised cost cutting.

I wondered what university presses were thinking when they set such high pricing for print-on-demand hardcover books (see What Are They Thinking? UPs and the Road to Self-Destruction). Now I wonder what the megapublishers are thinking as they limit editorial budgets. Clearly, the university presses see the audience as being so limited that the audience will either pay the high price or buy the paperback, doing either without complaint. The megapublisher also sees the audience for these books as limited and doubts a negative review will have much of an effect on sales when the review’s negativity is editorial quality not content-quality based.

In the end, blame really rests on the shoulders of the editors. We have not made the case for why our services are valuable and needed. Few readers (and I am beginning to think reviewers) have either the skills or the interest or the knowledge to notice poor editing — whether developmental editing or copyediting — and thus fail to note it as a flaw.

Is it not interesting that The Economist reviewers spoke of “better editing” without distinguishing between developmental editing (which is what they meant) and copyediting? Or does that distinction not matter?

To me it matters greatly. Had the reviewers said that the books were badly copyedited — misspellings, wrong word choices, bad grammar, etc. — there is no doubt that I would not have bought the books and I would have returned those that I had bought (assuming I could do so; if I couldn’t, they would be relegated forever to the very bottom of my TBR pile and read only in desperation); but that is not true of poor developmental editing. Books that are poorly developmental edited are in somewhat of a limbo land with me.

“World Without End” will not be bought (and had I already ordered it, I would have tried to return it). What ails that book, according to the reviewer, is significant enough to prevent me from buying; what is wrong goes to the heart of the book. The problems with “Fierce Patriot” do not seem so terrible in comparison, especially as I already own the book. They will be annoying and will reflect poorly on the publisher and the author, but they are developmental editing problems that I can suffer with; they are not of such caliber that I feel compelled to try to return the book. Had I known of the problems beforehand, I would not have bought the book.

What is your reaction to these reviews?

Richard Adin, An American Editor



  1. AE wrote: “In the end, blame really rests on the shoulders of the editors. We have not made the case for why our services are valuable and needed.”

    To whom do we make this case? From the publisher point of view, the bottom line is money. Publishers are in the business of making profit through making books. Some care more than others about making good books, but they all still have to sell their books in order to survive and thrive. It is standard business practice to minimize cost and maximize return; each company makes its own choices about what to enhance or cut back on in service to the people buying its product. So if readers don’t demand quality through editing, why should the business provide it?

    If editors wish to persuade bean counters that good editing will sell more product, we must make a financial case for ourselves. For that we need access to data that, to the best of my knowledge, is not publicly available. If it is, I have no idea how to get it. At the very least, we would have to compile many examples like this AE posting where more and more people choose to not buy because of bad editing. That’s a lot of legwork to do without dollar information to support it.

    It’s ironic that I became a freelancer because the company I worked for, when needing to pare overhead, dumped me instead of other colleagues in the creative department. My position was value-added, not core service. Even though I could do four people’s jobs, while each of those four people could do only one job, the decision makers found it more economical to remove my flexibility and QC than to cut the producers whose jobs (or, at least, job titles) they could understand. During my term with the company, I routinely witnessed events where management dismissed employee concerns about quality until some nice big honker was made that affected sales or image.

    That is a common corporate mindset, and it will likely remain the same if not get worse. In a culture where intellectual/artistic/philosophical excellence is not massively valued and important to success or survival, then editing will remain frosting on the cake instead of vital bread. The people who value it often (usually?) aren’t the ones who make business decisions.

    IMO, the only people who can influence buyers of editorial services are the purchasers of the end-product (i.e., readers) and reputation makers who can influence sales (i.e., reviewers, and the general public). It seems that those elements are gathering force if the important reviewing bodies are now noticing and commenting on bad editing, and remarks on reader forums, such as review sections on Amazon and its ilk, are increasing. Indeed, I’ve gained business in the past year from indie publishers who were distressed by reader comments about the sloppiness of their self-published works, and sought professional editorial help in response.

    It may prove that bad editing is our best advertising!

    IMO, if editors are going to educate anyone, we’re best off helping readers, writers, and reviewers understand the differences between editing types and the effects they have on the product, so that these folks can increase demand for the good stuff.


    Comment by Carolyn — July 30, 2014 @ 6:57 am | Reply

  2. I would be interested in your assessment of the editing after you have read the one you had already purchased. In other words, how reliable is the Economist’s assessment vis-a-vis a professional editor’s. Thank you for your customarily informative and thought-provoking insights.


    Comment by Earl E. Appleby, Jr. — July 30, 2014 @ 5:48 pm | Reply

    • Earl, I’ll try to remember to get to the Sherman bio in the near future and report back just because you asked. Normally, it would be months, if not years before it became this book’s turn to be pulled from my TBR pile and read. FWIW, I have found The Economist‘s reviews of books I have bought and they have reviewed to be spot on. My experience has been that reviews in The Economist and the New York Review of Books are highly accurate and reliable.


      Comment by americaneditor — July 31, 2014 @ 5:17 am | Reply

  3. As a copy-editor (UK, academic and other non-fiction presses), I have occasionally flagged up what I consider to be development editing issues with my desk editor. On one occasion I was asked to fix the issues myself and was given the budget and time to do so. Great. Every other time I was told it was too late to do anything about it, as typesetters, indexers and proofreaders had already been booked and the release schedule could not be changed.

    As a reader, I am more concerned about dev-ed issues than about a few typos and occasional dodgy grammar. The key words here are ‘a few’ and ‘occasional’, though. In fiction (especially fantasy/sci-fi), I’m much more likely to abandon a book if the plot doesn’t hold water than if it contains a few language issues.

    Whether I would buy a book where reviewers mentioned any kind of editing issues would depend on a number of things: the credibility of the reviewer and strength of my interest being among the top ones.


    Comment by Sue Browning — August 4, 2014 @ 5:39 am | Reply

  4. Your post interested me because I have just finished another book from Random House, Margaret MacMillan’s wonderful “The War that Ended Peace”. I was absolutely astounded at the number of copyediting errors; missing commas which made the sentence ambiguous, misplaced modifying passages, poor syntax. There were more than a few sentences that I had to read several times in order to understand them. Big book, big publisher = Bad omen for the future. Is there any value in trying to make RH aware of how horrible the copyediting is in this book?


    Comment by Robert Ley — October 10, 2014 @ 2:18 pm | Reply

    • I have MacMillan’s book in my TBR pile and your comment worries me. Will this be another book I start and not finish because of poor editing? I’d suggest sending a note to RH and to MacMillan about the problems and give a few examples. Can’t do any harm.


      Comment by americaneditor — October 11, 2014 @ 4:50 am | Reply

      • Read it. It’s a great story and well worth the occasional missed edit. I’ll try and send them a note.


        Comment by Robert Ley — October 11, 2014 @ 12:09 pm | Reply

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