An American Editor

June 11, 2012

The Business of Editing: Being Cheap Isn’t Always the Best Choice

A recent story on Ars Technica, which was picked up by many blogs, demonstrates that cutting corners isn’t always the smartest move. The story, “Nook version of War and Peace turns the word ‘kindled’ into ‘Nookd’,” is an editorial classic.

If you recall, a couple of weeks ago I wrote about consistency (see The Business of Editing: Consistency) and the Never Spell Word macro. What I didn’t do in the article was discuss the problems of indiscriminate Find & Replace, under the assumption that professional editors, authors, and publishers innately understood that indiscriminate use of Find & Replace can lead to all kinds of disasters. The Nookd article indicates that perhaps I was wrong.

Our reliance on computers and macros makes us vulnerable to silly mistakes. Computers and macros have greatly reduced the number of errors, and the costs associated with them, that occur in printed materials — when properly applied by professional editors. Unfortunately, the bean-counter quest to squeeze as much savings as possible out of the editorial budget because what editors do is largely invisible to both the bean counter and the reader, can easily lead to the kind of disaster the befell War and Peace.

Unfortunately, the Nooking of War and Peace is representative of what happens when self-publishing authors forego hiring professional editors. Perhaps it isn’t the obvious disaster of changing of Kindle to Nook, but it is the using of you’re for your, which indicates a lack of quality and professionalism. I suppose one could argue that there is a difference in that “It was as if a light had been Nookd in a carved and painted lantern” is nonsensical and the vast majority of readers would stumble on Nookd, wondering what is meant, whereas substituting your for you’re is likely to be missed or glossed over by a majority of readers (who probably would make the same mistake themselves). How many readers understand the difference between which and that, wood and would, its and it’s? How many make the same mistake themself and are unaware that it is a mistake?

It is one thing to compose Jabberwocky, another to assume that jabberwockian grammar and language is the standard against which all writing is to be judged. And this is the result of the demise in our education system of the teaching of such fundamental things as spelling and grammar. Because spelling is no longer part of the testing that determines a school’s and a teacher’s passing or failing, it is bypassed to emphasize those things that are tested. The result is that we graduate students who lack these skills and who become teachers of the next generation. It is difficult, if not impossible, to teach what one neither knows nor understands.

Yet this is a free-market problem as well, if not primarily. In the rush to increase quarterly profits, rather than think long-term strategy, publishers are deemphasizing the skills that separate a poorly prepared book from a professionally prepared book. Professional editors are skilled in spelling and grammar and know the limitations of automation. It is not yet possible to automate detection of the misuse of your and you’re; human intervention is required and human decision making is required.

The pressure to reduce costs and pricing of a book exacts a penalty. If there is not enough margin, services have to be skipped. The services that are skipped tend to be those that are invisible, and editing is invisible until it glares, as in the Nooking of War and Peace. As this demonstrates, being cheap isn’t always the wisest course to follow.

Unfortunately, this error will become a hall of shame error that readers, editors, publishers, and authors will all point to, but which will not result in the alteration of current practices. Each publisher and author will take the stance that it can’t/won’t happen to their books, only to someone else’s books. The ultimate losers are readers and society. Readers because they are taught by example that what is wrong is acceptable so that no effort needs be made to do things correctly, and society because imprecision becomes acceptable and skills are downplayed and lost.

Additionally, as professional editors are financially squeezed, they, too, will make choices about what services they can provide for the reduced fee they are offered. Conversations with colleagues indicate that reduced fees have resulted in a reduction in what they can and will do as part of the editing process. Combined with tighter schedules, it appears that the high standards of editing of previous decades may not be standard in coming decades. The consequences of making cost the determining factor are only now beginning to be seen in the marketplace, but I think we will all rue the day costs became king. We are likely to see more Nookd books than fewer.

June 4, 2012

To Design or Not to Design in the Age of eBooks

Whenever a discussion arises about how an indie author can increase sales, two things generally occur: First, regardless of the merits of the suggestion, the indie author defends by saying he or she cannot afford to spend the money to hire the professional (fill-in-the-blank) and second, with limited funds available for hiring a professional, it is hard to prioritize where to spend the money. There isn’t a lot that can be done about the first matter, but tackling the second matter, every indie author can do.

Years ago, when I ran a small publishing company, we worked under very tight budget restraints. As an editor, rather than a designer or artist, I believed that it was better to spend the money on editorial matters, even at the neglect of design. I quickly learned a valuable lesson: Aside from the story and quality of the storyline and writing, the most important facet of the production process was not editorial but cover design. If the cover design didn’t entice a reader to pick the book off the shelf, it mattered not at all how well written or edited the book was — there would be no sale.

The Age of eBooks raises this question yet again: Which is more important: professional cover design or editorial help?

Some ebookers dismiss the covers as being unimportant under the guise of content is king. I think that ignores how we buy products. Consider Apple products. If we look at the content, that is the inner works, of its devices, we find good — not outstanding, just good — components that will not win awards for being high quality; Apple products are basically, component-wise, middle-of-road. Apple’s real genius has been in design — the “cool factor.” People line up to buy Apple products because of the design; if they were interested in high quality components rather than design, they would consider alternatives. They don’t because design is what drives sales.

The same is true of an ebook. Look at how many ebooks of middling content are sold and read (or at least started). There is no consumer clamor for something to indicate that the content has been professionally edited; professional editing doesn’t drive sales although it can maintain sales momentum. Sales are generally visually driven.

Over the past few months, I have been consciously tracking how I make a decision to buy a particular ebook. I also have been tracking how my wife and a few of our friends decide to buy an ebook. I thought my discoveries would be earth-moving, but they aren’t; in fact, they mirror how pbooks are sold.

The two primary factors in the decision-making process (once we get past the genre/subject-matter obstacle) appear to be the blurb and the cover. Secondary factors appear to be reviews, price (especially the price-to-length ratio), and sample pages.

The higher the quality of the cover design, the higher the likelihood that the book will be looked at; the more informative and better written the blurb is, the higher the likelihood, when combined with a professionally designed cover, that the ebook will be bought.

After the initial sales, word of mouth becomes important, but not so important, in most cases, as to override the value of the cover and the blurb. My experience and my recent observations confirm to my satisfaction that a professionally designed cover is, after the quality of the writing and storyline, the most important investment an indie author can make in his or her book. This is not to suggest that this investment can be in lieu of investing in professional editorial help; just that it is an investment that is too often neglected and shouldn’t be.

A good author knows the value of professional editorial help. But it is fairly clear that ebookers are quite forgiving of editorial mistakes (or perhaps are unaware of the mistakes themselves), which means that if you can afford to invest in only one thing, that investment probably should be in the cover.

Remember that the very first thing an ebooker sees when scanning Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Smashwords, or any of the other ebooksellers, is the cover image. A great cover image can cause an ebooker to pause and read the blurb; a well-written blurb, combined with a great cover, can result in a sale.

Do not think that it is easy to create a great cover — it isn’t. Even the big publishers have troubles in this regard. Not only must the image be right and convey the story (remember that a picture is worth a thousand words) to the observer, but the choice of typeface is also important, as is its placement. Much too often it is impossible to read the type on an indie cover because the wrong typeface was chosen or because the image-typeface combination is simply wrong.

I agree that even the poorest cover-designed ebooks may still sell; the question is how many more copies would it sell if the cover were professionally designed and eye-catching? If you cannot capture a reader’s attention using the cover of your book, how much hope do you have that the reader will pause to read your blurb? There is just so much time and effort that a reader is willing to expend to find an ebook to read, and the most common sorting method that readers use is to scan cover images, pausing only on those ebooks whose cover has caught their eye.

May 31, 2012

The Business of Editing: What an Author Should Give an Editor

I know I’m a bit out of synch with my usual schedule of posts, but this topic has been swirling around my thoughts for several days, and I’m finally getting time to write about the topic.

The hardest job an editor has, I think, is determining what the author wants the final product to be like. The editor’s role is to help the author mold the manuscript so that it ends up meeting the author’s wants, not the editor’s belief as to what the author wants.

The problem is that few authors provide the information necessary to accomplish the task. In the books I currently work on, any guidance comes from the publisher, not the author, which is not how it should be. Years ago, when I edited fiction and worked directly with authors, a lot of time and effort were wasted with back-and-forth communications in an attempt to land the author and me on the same page. It is one of the reasons why I stopped working directly with authors (although in the past year I have had many requests from authors to edit their fiction, and I am contemplating doing so).

In the case of fiction, I think an author should provide an editor with the following information:

  • a one-page summary of the story;
  • a complete list of characters, including the desired name spelling, any relationships between characters (e.g., spouse of, sister of, granddaughter of), and a physical description of each character;
  • a complete list of geographical locations, indicating whether each is real or made up, and with correct spelling;
  • a list of special terms or made-up words;
  • a timeline of major events; and
  • an indication whether this is part of a series (e.g., book one of a trilogy).

Depending on the story and the author’s plans I would also ask the author to provide additional information.

It is true that an editor can gather all of the above information herself from a first read of the manuscript. But leaving the task to the editor means that there is no assurance that something important will not be missed or misinterpreted. More importantly, it wastes valuable (and costly) time that could be better spent actually editing.

With nonfiction, the list changes based on the type of book and the intended audience. As I have mentioned in other posts, most of my work is in medical textbooks written by doctors for doctors. What I would like to know in advance are such things as:

  • which acronyms can be always used as acronyms and not spelled out because they are commonly understood by the intended audience;
  • how certain terms should be approached (e.g., Is ultrasound acceptable/preferred when talking about the procedure, which is more correctly called ultrasonography? Should it be x-ray or radiography?);
  • preferred spelling where there is more than one spelling option (e.g., distension or distention?); and
  • any other author preferences that I should be aware of.

The point is to make the editing and the review of the editing go smoothly and not end up being focused on something that is minor because it is a pet peeve of the author.

This review focus is really at the core of why an author should provide an editor with as much information as possible. Over the course of 28 years of editing, more times than not, when an author has complained about the editing, the complaint has been because no one passed on information about what the author wanted or expected. The author became focused on the tree rather than the forest.

An often heard complaint from disgruntled fiction authors is that the editor screwed up the book. I don’t doubt that the editor made mistakes, but my first thought goes to the information that the author provided. Was the editor just handed the manuscript or was the editor given sufficient information that the editor’s mistakes are really the sign of an incompetent editor and not of a lazy author?

Unfortunately, there are authors who believe that the only role an editor should play is that of spellchecker because whatever the author wrote is perfect as is, with the exception of the occasional misspelling. I remember editing a novel early in my career where I correct the misuse of their, there, where, were, your, and you’re only to receive a nasty note from the author telling me how I had taken a well-written manuscript and made it a poorly written one, and that I had been hired just to check spelling, not to change words or meaning. I scratched my head vigorously because I would have thought that changing where to were was correcting a misspelling and not changing meaning, but I clearly was missing something. As it turns out, the author believed that using the wrong words reinforced the character’s illiteracy. The author may have intended that but missed the connection because the character used polysyllabic words that indicated a good command of language except for these words. More important, however, was that the author’s failure to communicate to me that the character was intended to be illiterate meant that I didn’t catch the characterization error that resulted from other word choices. The book was a disaster from the author’s intended perspective and I didn’t help matters because of the lack of pre-editing information.

Authors and editors should collaborate, not fight each other. The goal of each is to make the book the best it can be. Authors need to take a more proactive role in the collaborative effort by providing basic information — without waiting to be asked for the information — before the editor begins work. Together, the author and editor can make the author’s voice heard.

May 9, 2012

Should Editors Certify That an eBook has Been Edited?

I’ve been toying with this idea for some time now. I haven’t gotten very far with it because of resistance from editorial colleagues, but I’m wondering if professional editors should certify that a book has been professionally edited as a way to assure the author’s customers that the book was edited?

I know it is impossible to certify an ebook as error-free, especially as editorial decisions are rarely black or white, instead often being shades of gray. Besides, it is the rare book — e or p — that I have bought or read that doesn’t have at least a few errors. The idea is to minimize the number of indisputable errors and to help move a manuscript from the kitchen sink to a more sharply focused story. More importantly, the idea is to encourage authors to make use of professional editors by giving them something of tangible value, something they can use to help sell their ebooks.

There are some gaping problems with the implementation of such an idea. For example, what good is the certification if there is no “penalty” for not meeting the standard? What standards does an editor need to meet to grant the certification? Who will decide whether certification is appropriate? What happens if the author makes changes on his or her own after the ebook has been certified? Who will promote the value of the certification to the reading public? Can the author demand that an ebook be certified if the author rejects the editor’s suggestions? What fee schedule is reasonable for a certification process? And the list goes on…

In reality, few of the problems cannot be overcome, except that manuscripts are not like manufactured goods that are churned out by the thousands in identical form so that there is a single standard that is easily defined. Certification of ebooks requires more individualization than do mass-produced goods.

Yet I suspect that reasonable criteria can be established if what is sought is a uniform standard. I am not, however, convinced that a uniform standard that a manuscript must meet is required; rather, I think the standard needs to be more focused on what constitutes professional editing (as opposed to editing by anyone who claims to be an editor) and what certification means, as well as how the standards are enforced.

This raises the bottom-line problem of identifying a professional editor. I’ve discussed this before and, although I can say that a professional editor has certain characteristics, I cannot say that a lack of one or more of these characteristics makes for a nonprofessional editor. Our industry is too hazy for such clarity — at least as currently configured.

What is needed is a national standards organization for editors. I know I’ve suggested this before, too. Unfortunately, such an organization is unlikely to come about; too few independent editors would be willing to create such an organization and abide by its standards.

So, instead, why can’t individual editors offer their own certification? It is an author’s responsibility to find a professional editor and have their work edited. There is little reason why such an editor couldn’t issue a “seal of good editing” to an ebook that indicates to the consumer that the proffered ebook has been professionally edited so the reader will find few of the errors that plague too many ebooks, such as you’re for your, where for were, and a character with blue eyes and blond hair on page 10 but green eyes and light brown hair on page 55.

Ultimately, the question for the consumer is, “How can I be certain that the ebook really was professionally edited?” The answer is another question: What does the editor “pay” to the consumer should the consumer find a goodly number of these errors? (Which raises another issue: How many errors are acceptable?) Should it be a refund of the purchase price? Twice the purchase price? Some other multiple of the purchase price? Something else?

A lot of matters would have to be addressed when setting up a certification scheme, but it seems to me that it may well be worthwhile for editors, authors, and consumers. For editors, it could be a way to stand out from the crowd and gain more business. For authors, it could be a marketing tool that sets their ebooks apart from the crowd of ebooks. For consumers, it would provide a method for weeding out some ebooks.

Cost is a difficult issue, but one that needs tackling upfront. In exchange for the certification, the editor should be paid a premium fee for the editing work. Yet authors have no assurance that certification will boost sales sufficiently to justify paying a premium, let alone hiring an editor to begin with.

Unfortunately, each day sees hundreds more ebooks become available, all fighting to capture the imagination of the same limited audience. In the absence of quality assurances, how does one ebook get distinguished from the myriad other available ebooks such that it entices consumers to give it a second look? Price is one answer, but price alone has not proven to be a sufficient answer.

Perhaps the combination of price and quality assurance will do the trick. It certainly can’t hurt to try.

April 30, 2012

Business of Editing: Schedules and Client Expectations

A couple of months ago, I was hired to edit a new medical text. The publisher estimated the manuscript to be 2500 pages and wanted a 4-week turnaround with a medium-level edit. When I received the files for the entire project, I did a page count; the client had greatly undercounted the manuscript size. Instead of 2500 ms pages, the actual count was 5300 pages. (Why the disparity? Because, for example, in the original manuscript figure legends were in 7-point type and chapters had 70+ legends; tables and references [of which there could be several hundred in a chapter] were in 8-point type; paragraphs were single spaced.) In addition, it had to be conformed to AMA style; almost nothing conformed to AMA style as presented.

I advised the client and suggested that a 10-week schedule would be more appropriate. I was told to start the editing and the client would get back to me about the schedule.

In 2 weeks, I was able to edit nearly 1400 ms pages, but even at that rate, an 8-week schedule would be needed and it assumes that the initial pace could be maintained.

At the 2-week mark, I was told to stop work on the project. Instead of being edited locally, the manuscript would be shipped overseas (i.e., outside the United States to India) for editing because (a) the budget was based on 2500 ms pages and (b) there is insufficient flexibility in the schedule to extend it to 8 to 10 weeks or longer. The client was assured that both its budget and schedule could be met in India.

I was not overly concerned about the loss of this particular project; I had others waiting. But I was concerned about how realistic client (not just this particular client, but clients in general) expectations are when it comes to both price and schedule; more so schedule than price. I wonder how Indian copyeditors — let alone copyeditors from anywhere — will be able to do a medium edit on a very technical medical textbook in 4 weeks. I am not questioning the Indian editors’ editing skills, as I do not think this is a question of skills. I do understand how the price can be met in India, but not the schedule or the required editing level.

More importantly, it worries me what is becoming of the publishing industry. The upheaval caused by ebooks is not being well dealt with by anyone yet. One of the outstanding negatives to ebooks is the ease with which poor quality books can saturate the marketplace. Too many ebook authors are writing as if they were Georges Simenon, an author who once stated that he was able to turn out a new novel every 21 days. (Simenon was prolific and I particularly enjoyed his Inspector Maigret novels.) But unlike Simenon’s novels, which were well-written and well-edited, many ebooks are neither.

At one time readers could feel assured that the pbook they were buying that was published by a traditional publisher also was well-edited. Publishers devoted the time and the money to ensure a minimum quality.

Yet that seems to be changing today. In the case of the books I work on, which are medical texts written by doctors for doctors, I am concerned that unrealistic expectations will cause a decline in quality in books that can have serious implications for the well-being of consumers. If a novel tells you that the Taj Mahal is in Tibet, no harm is done to the reader, only to the author’s reputation. But if a medical text tells you to remove the left lung when it should be the right lung, the potential for harm is present; you have to hope someone catches this error before you are operated on.

Again, the question is not so much that of competency of the editors as it is the compression of the schedule. Editing a 200-page novel in 4 weeks is not wholly unreasonable; errors that slip by are not likely to be catastrophic except possibly to the author’s reputation. But to edit a 5300-page medical text in 4 weeks strikes me as unreasonable, even if the editorial work is divided among numerous editors. I suppose the question boils down to how many editors are used, but as the number of editors used increases, the greater the likelihood of inconsistency and the greater the variation in skill level among the editors.

I know that publishers are increasingly being run by the “bean counters” who take steps to reduce editorial costs because there is no readily visible-to-the-consumer effect of an editor’s work. Editors are the invisible people who can make a good manuscript better. Publishers are increasingly competing with the self-publishers and so must mimic the self-publishing way to final version, which is little to no editing and/or the least expensive editing possible combined with a compressed production schedule in order to get the finished product to market more quickly.

I wonder if, in the end, this will be good for the industry as a whole; that is, not just for the traditional publisher but for the self-publisher, too. In the attempt to get to market sooner and to publish as quickly and as often as possible, are publishers of all stripes sacrificing too much? Will the result be a changed literary landscape that would not be recognizable to a reader who grew up reading the Hemingways and Steinbecks of an earlier era?

Perhaps more importantly, in the case of nonfiction, is this compulsion to reduce costs and speed up production dangerous for the reader and consumer? Is our insatiable appetite for instant gratification and cheap pricing going to boomerang?

How do you give a high-quality edit to a highly technical manuscript of 5300 pages in 4 weeks without making any significant editorial sacrifice? Are client expectations becoming increasingly unreasonable? Something to ponder, I think, and perhaps even to worry about.

March 28, 2012

eBooks: Is it the Editor in Me?

Filed under: Books & eBooks,On Books — Rich Adin @ 4:00 am
Tags: , , , , ,

Anyone who has looked at my On Today’s Bookshelf posts will see that I buy a lot of ebooks. And as I noted in the last On Today’s Bookshelf, my to-be-read pile of ebooks keeps growing, now numbering more than 500.

But that doesn’t mean I am not reading ebooks; rather, it means that even though I am reading ebooks as fast as I can, I am replenishing my stock faster than I can read. This would concern me if, in fact, I was reading every word of every ebook; but I’m not.

One of the “talents” I have developed over my 28+ years of professional editing is the ability to tell within a few sentences whether a manuscript is going to be particularly troublesome; whether the author has done a basically good job in writing and preparing the manuscript or is a terrible writer, prone to amateurish mistakes, and uncaring about how the manuscript is presented.

This “talent” doesn’t seem to be laid aside when I read an ebook for pleasure, which means that it doesn’t take many pages to decide whether to keep reading or hit the delete button, and much too often, I hit the delete button.

First, I need to dismiss, with a wave of the hand, the idea that the more a book costs, the better it will be. “It ain’t necessarily so!”

From ebook purchases I have made, it is clear that price is not an indicator of quality, especially not of editorial quality, as we have discussed on An American Editor any number of times.

Yet I have also discovered in discussions with other ebookers that quality has no universal meaning. eBooks that I have deleted after a dozen pages because of runon sentences, homonym miscues, and other annoying editorial matters, ebookers without the editorial eye have praised. It is not that they didn’t notice many of the same errors; they did. Rather, it is that they were more tolerant of the errors; they were able to look beyond the editorial problems to the story itself.

So this makes me wonder if I am not missing out some real gems — not necessarily literary masterpieces, just good storytelling — because of the editor in me. It also makes me wonder whether we will eventually devolve into two reading publics: one that cares greatly about the editorial quality of a ebook and so is unwilling to spend much money to buy an ebook and a second that cares little about the mistaking of hear for here and is focused on the story itself and thus willing to pay a higher price for a book as long as the story is interesting.

I also wonder whether American English is changing so rapidly that what editors today would declare error will tomorrow be declared acceptable or correct.

In any event, the problem for me is how to control my editing tendencies so that I can relax and enjoy the underlying story. How do I put aside my editorial hat for the reader’s hat? Should I do so?

The problem was less acute before ebooks. Before ebooks, traditional publishers took some pride in the quality of what they released, although the pride seemed to be diminishing in recent years. But once ebooks made the reading market open to all, the scramble publish pushed aside the need to ensure editorial quality. Part of this is the economics of ebooks; it is hard to justify spending $2000 on an editor for a book that will be sold for 99¢ or less.

Even recognizing the financial considerations, I struggle to read a book that makes me pause every few sentences to say: “The author meant whom not who” or “The author meant your, not you’re.” My neighbor says I’m too fussy. Am I really? Is it too much to ask that at least the basics of grammar and spelling be applied by an author?

What should an ebooker expect from an author, regardless of whether the author gives the book away for free or charges $9.99? Do not most readers have certain basic expectations? Or has the Age of Twitter hardened readers to accept anything goes?

I suspect that I will never be able to set aside my editorial hat when reading a book and so my delete button will continue to get a workout. Are you able to set aside your editorial hat?

March 27, 2012

Worth Noting: EditTools 4.1 is Released

EditTools 4.1 was released last week. It is available at wordsnSync. This is a free upgrade for all current EditTools licensees. I encourage you to download and install the upgrade.

EditTools 4.1 includes numerous improvements to existing macros and a couple of new macros. Some of the noteworthy improvements are the making of various datasets editable, the ability to choose to remove only certain highlight colors, the addition of a clipboard macro, and the ehancing of the Search, Count, and Replace macro. Most of the improvements are discussed at the wordsnSync website in the information about each macro.

Purchasers of the Editor’s Toolkit Ultimate package (Editor’s Toolkit Plus, EditTools, and PerfectIt!) are also eligible for the free upgrade.

How these three macro products can be used in your editing practice was discussed int these previous articles: The 3 Stages of Copyediting: I — The Processing Stage; The 3 Stages of Copyediting: II — The Copyediting Stage; and The 3 Stages of Copyediting: III — The Proofing Stage.

February 22, 2012

The Failure of the Gatekeepers

One of the arguments that many of us have made in support of traditional publishing has been the role that traditional publishers have played as gatekeepers. Gatekeeping means more than just making sure that a manuscript is literate; it includes making sure that it is original.

Increasingly, traditional publishers are failing at this aspect of gatekeeping. They are failing to detect the plagiarized book. A recent article in The New Yorker, “The Plagiarist’s Tale” by Lizzie Widdicombe, explores this problem. If you haven’t read the article, it is well worth reading.

In this case, the publisher failed to recognize that the entire book was made up of takings from numerous books. But not only did the publisher fail, so did numerous others in the chain, including the author’s agent. And in reading the author’s writing history, over the years many persons missed his plagiarizing, including the editors at the Paris Review.

If gatekeepers are failing at this fundamental task, what purpose are they serving that warrants anyone caring about their future survival? I understand missing a plagiarized paragraph here and there, but in the book that is the subject of the article, it appears as if hardly a single paragraph was original to the author.

For me, traditional publishers as gatekeepers served three primary purposes. First, they weeded out those works that really belonged in the slush pile and were not worthy of going further, even though they occasionally missed some gems. Second, they nourished writers who deserved being nourished thus enriching our culture. Third, they weeded out plagiarism. I don’t mean the one-paragraph-in-500-pages-of-manuscript kind; I mean the one-paragraph-on-each-page kind — the blatant plagiarism.

With the advent of ebooks and self-publishing, the first role has pretty much disappeared. There are so many publishing house labels that it is nearly impossible to know whether the publisher is a giant or a mouse. Smart self-publishers are creating their own “publishing houses” to publish their books. The result is that there is no weeding of books in the marketplace because books rejected by an established traditional publisher are now published by a new “publishing house” — and few readers know that they are buying from the slush pile until they buy the book and start reading it, only to discover that the book should never have found its way out of the slush pile and into the retail book market.

The second function, that of nourishing new writers, has been falling by the wayside in the last decade. Financially, traditional publishers are struggling (at least so they claim; it is hard to give too much credence to such cries when I read that a publisher had nearly a billion dollars in profit in 2011) — the competition has turned fierce. Reading is down as are traditional book sales. Fewer blockbusters are being published so there are fewer blockbusters available to generate the kind of income needed to nourish nonblockbuster authors. And authors are increasingly going their own way because they get to keep more of the money and don’t need to worry about publisher rejection.

That leaves the third function, the weeding out of plagiarists. Alas, publishers are failing in this role as well. I think there are many causes for this failure. The editors that traditional publishers hire are under the gun to publish books that make a profit and increase the publishing conglomerate’s bottom line. The accountants have taken over from the craftsman and the editor’s ability to keep a job and a steady paycheck is dependant on satisfying the accountants.

In the olden days of publishing, a book was rarely published before it was ready to be published. Publication dates were flexible; if an extra round of editing by a professional editor was needed, it was done. The consolidation of the publishing industry into the conglomerates changed that. Now publication dates are fixed in stone, regardless of whether a book is ready or not. The result is increasing numbers of errors that slip by and the inability to gatekeep for plagiarism.

Also in the olden days, editors were trained to recognize possible plagiarism. Perhaps more importantly, editors were widely read themselves and thus suspicious based on their own broad reading. A book editor, in the olden days, was not an entry-level position. One rose to it; it was a position of prestige. It attracted people like former first lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and master writer Bennett Cerf. Today, the editor is closer to, if not, an entry-level position. The glamour of being an editor at a prestigious traditional publisher is gone — gone with the consolidation of the industry into a few international conglomerates whose first interest is the quarterly bottom line.

Consequently, traditional publishers are no longer fulfilling their role as gatekeepers. In the absence of fulfilling that role, what purpose do they serve? Many ebookers today would say traditional publishers serve no role at all and should follow their dinosaur ancestors into oblivion. Perhaps they are right. Perhaps the time has come for the breakup of the conglomerate publisher and the return of the smaller, independent publishers, the ones who made publishing a great profession and brought great literature to the reading public.

February 20, 2012

The Making of a Professional Editor

On a list for professional editors in which I participate, a colleague posted about a post she recently read in an online forum from someone calling herself an editor. This “editor” related that she had been asked by a prospective client if she used the Chicago Manual of Style — and she had never heard of it! Her approach to editing and proofreading is not to “touch the style of the manuscript or document (but) simply proofread and correct any mistakes in grammar, spelling etc.” The “editor” wondered whether her approach to editing was “odd.” I think the real questions are not is her approach odd, but is her approach professional and is her approach the mark of an editor?

The issue is not one of using the Chicago Manual of Style — after all, the majority of the work I do does not use the Chicago Manual of Style; my work relies on other style manuals — but familiarity with the tools of professional editing and an understanding of the role that style manuals (What is style?) and other tools play in editing.

The quote raises multiple issues from a professional editor’s perspective, not least of which is this: Does “simply proofread[ing] and correct[ing] any mistakes in grammar, spelling, etc.” make someone not a professional editor? (And foundational to these questions are: What is proofreading? and What is copyediting?)

To answer the question, one must delve into what separates the professional editor from all those people who claim to be professional editors but really are, at best, amateurs. Most of us would accept that the idea that reading a novel and catching a few typographical errors doesn’t change us from reader to professional editor, nor does it signal that “I should be an editor!”

On the surface, not knowing what are the dominant style manuals used by professional editors in your country is a sure sign that you are not a professional editor. (By the way, I do not know the country of the person being quoted, which could make a difference, but when read in context, I think it safe to assume that either the person or the prospective client or both are from the United States where the Chicago Manual of Style is prevalent.) Why? Because how can you know the correctness of a “grammar or spelling” decision in the absence of two things: an appropriate dictionary and an appropriate style manual?

Style manuals give you guidance on whether, for example, certain prefixes should be closed up rather than hyphenated; they give you guidance on whether it is proper to spell out ten or leave it as a numeral; they give you rules to follow to ensure that the grammar decision made on page one is followed on page twenty-three. Perhaps most importantly, they act as verification for the decision being made. Style manuals promote consistency not only within a single document but across multiple documents. It is that consistency that prevents readers from getting bogged down in the wrong things when reading a book.

To say one does not correct style is the same as saying that one has chosen to accept a hodgepodge style. There is nothing wrong with deciding not to apply a particular style to a manuscript, regardless of how pedestrian or undisciplined such a decision makes a manuscript. What is wrong is not knowing that you are making such a decision because you have no idea what style, as applied to a manuscript, means.

Over my 28 years of editing, I like to think I have progressed from a novice with little knowledge to a professional with lots of knowledge, even though there are many professional editors with even greater knowledge about our profession. One of the paths to that growth is familiarizing oneself with the tools of our trade, namely, dictionaries, style manuals, usage manuals, and the like.

Also over those years, I have become savvier about discerning who is and is not a professional editor. I emphasize professional because I think that is the keystone. Our world does not lack for people whose shingles proclaim “Editor Inside.” Our world does lack, however, for standards by which to judge just how professional that “Editor Inside” is. Thus, I have developed my own criteria against which I judge, in the absence of actually having the claimant edit manuscript for me, whether the claimant is a professional.

The first criterion is dictionaries. When I speak with an editor, one of the things I am interested in is the number and types of dictionaries the editor uses and has at his or her fingertips. Not all dictionaries are created equally; some have international reputations for quality, others have reputations for simply being. I do not put much stock in the skills of an editor who relies on The Free Dictionary and Wikipedia alone, or a medical editor who doesn’t subscribe to Stedman’s Electronic Spell Checker Pro.

The second criterion is style manuals. I expect a person who is an editor to have a broad interest in the things editors do and so I want to know what style manuals an editor uses and has at his or her fingertips. I know many editors who own one style manual, and that manual is often not even the latest edition. (One editor told me that the last good version of the Chicago Manual of Style, which is now in its 16th edition, was the 11th edition and that the 11th edition is the only manual the editor uses.) I have never had a project that uses the Council of Science Editor’s Scientific Style and Format manual, but I own a copy of the current edition because sometimes I need to learn more about a subject area than I can find in the manual of style the client wants me to use.

The third criterion is usage guides. Language usage changes, sometimes rapidly, sometimes slowly, but the English we use today is not the English we used 50 years ago, let alone even 10 years ago. I think a professional editor is attuned to this changing and one way of keeping attuned is through the use of usage manuals. When an editor tells me that they rely on Fowler’s Modern English Usage, I pause — American English has changed significantly since the release of the Burchfield edition. It is not that Fowler’s shouldn’t be on the editor’s shelf and consulted, it is that an absence of Garner’s Modern American Usage makes me question the editor’s professionalism.

The fourth criterion is ancillary texts. Depending on the editor’s areas of expertise, I expect a professional editor to make use of subject-matter-specific ancillary texts. For example, I would expect a medical editor to have resources about drugs available, or a resource like The Merck Index to verify chemical composition. An editor who works on contemporary novels may need to have access to resources on slang or quotations.

The fifth, and final, criterion is a basic one. I expect an editor to have resources devoted to grammar.

I think the difference between the amateur editor and the professional editor is witnessed by the above criteria, although not wholly determined by that criteria. To me, the criteria afford clues as to whether this editor is an editor I am willing to trust to do a professional editing job. Of course, a person could score perfect on the foregoing criteria and still be a poor editor — it is almost impossible to know in the absence of the actual editing of manuscript (be it project or test) — but an editor whose professional library is barren is an editor who edits by the seat of his or her pants. An editor who is unfamiliar with the leading texts in the profession and their field of editing is unlikely to produce a professional edit.

In the end, editing is a profession of decisions and many decisions to be made have more than a single answer. A professional editor is one who is aware of the alternative answers to a question and then makes a decision that is justifiable and supportable by more than “because I say so.”

February 3, 2012

Worth Noting: Why Indie Authors Aren’t Taken Seriously

Here’s an article from the Huffington Post, The Big Reasons Indie Authors Aren’t Taken Seriously, on why indie authors aren’t taken seriously — by readers or by publishers. Many of the reasons have been discussed on An American Editor — how many times have we said “hire a professional editor”? — yet another perspective is always welcome. The video following the article is also worth viewing.

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