An American Editor

June 18, 2018

Book Indexes — Part 2: No Magic Wands

Ælfwine Mischler

I took up indexing several years ago when I wanted to branch out from copyediting. I have found indexing to be more intellectually challenging and, thus, a welcome change from copyediting. I do both as a freelancer, but not on one book at the same time, and enjoy the variety.

Most indexers describe what they do as mapping a book — and it is mapping — but I think of it as looking at the book from a different angle. Think of forest and trees. When I am copyediting, it is like creeping along the forest floor, looking at not just every tree but at every detail. (I have seen that name spelled two different ways; which is correct? Does that comma belong here? This verb does not match the subject, but what is the subject in this twisted sentence? Is there a better word for that?) But when I am indexing, it is like flying over the treetops, seeing a bigger picture. (Here is a section on topic X. Over there, the topic is raised again. And this topic here is related to X. There is a lot of information about this person. How should I break it up and organize it?)

Indexing is a creative process. It is said that no two indexers would produce the same index of a given book. I have software to help me organize what I put into an index, but I am the one who decides what to include and what words to use. Just as you do not open a word processing program and expect it to write a document for you, I do not open my indexing program and expect it to write an index for me. Many people seem to think that I plug the manuscript into some software and out pops the index. (There are some programs that claim to do just that, but indexers in my circles say they cannot rely on them to produce a good index.)

No, folks, writing an index is not that easy. I actually read the book, cover to cover. I sometimes wish I had a magic wand that could do it for me — “Indexify!” — but I have to read everything.

“So do you read a page and put in all the A words, then all the B words, then all the C words?” asked a friend.

“No, I put in the words and the software alphabetizes them.”

She still seemed a bit stumped.

“Do you read the whole book first?” asked a nephew.

“No, there is not enough time to do that. I have to index from the start.”

Working from a PDF file of a book’s second proofs (usually), I read the foreword, preface, and introduction to get an idea of the importance of the book, the topics covered, and the book’s organization. From the table of contents, I often index the chapter titles and section headings to form the basic structure of the index. Each chapter title becomes a main entry, and the section headings form subentries. I will then break out most of those subentries to form their own main entries as well. (See Part 1 of this series)

I often have to change the chapter titles or section headings to make them suitable for index entries. If the book does not have section headings, I have the more-difficult task of skimming the text for verbal clues to a change of topic.

Then I go back over the chapters and pick up more details within each section. If the entry has a long page range, I look for some logical way to break it down into smaller ranges; that is, create subentries. Also, if a particular name or concept has many different locators, I look for some way to break them into subentries. I also look for related concepts and write see also cross-references.

What to call a given entry is not always obvious. If nothing comes to me quickly, I use tools within the software — color coding to remind myself to come back to it later, and hidden text with a few words about the topic. Often after reading a few more pages, the answer comes to me.

One of the things that makes indexing so mentally challenging is that I have to keep so many things in my head at one time. If I indexed concept Z as term Z′, I have to continue to keep an eye open for Z throughout the book and remember to call it Z′ and not something else — all the while doing this for concepts A, B, C, etc. My indexing software can help me to use Z′ and not something else, but it cannot help me to remember to pick it out from the book. If I later realize that I have missed some cases of Z, I can attempt to search for a word in the PDF file to find it, but in most cases, there is no exact word or phrase that will take me to Z. The words in an index are often not found in the book, which is another reason why automatic computer indexing cannot produce a good index.

Names often present challenges to me and other indexers. In school years ago, I learned to look for names in an index under the surname — Abraham Lincoln under Lincoln — but not all cultures invert names, and parts of names such as de, von, la, Abu, and Ibn can be problematic. Medieval names and names of nobility and royalty have their own conventions. The first book I indexed for hire contained the whole range of problems: ancient Egyptian, ancient Greek and Roman, medieval, and royal names; pre-modern and modern Arabic names (which follow different conventions); European names with particles; nobility titles (from various countries, no less!); and saints, too!

Fortunately, I had a very understanding managing editor who knew this was my first paid index and was willing to help me with the difficult names. Not all indexers are so fortunate in their clients. (For more information about the complexities of indexing names, see Indexing, edited by Noeline Bridge, and occasional articles in The Indexer.)

What did I have to learn in my indexing course? In addition to conventions about names, there are conventions for wording entries (for example, use plural nouns, don’t use adjectives alone, use prepositions or conjunctions at the beginning of subentries in run-in style), different ways to alphabetize (handled by the software options), and guidelines for whether to index a given item — a topic for another day. The course I took from the University of California at Berkeley Extension also required us to sample the three major indexing software programs — Macrex, Cindex, and Sky — which all do the same things but are different in their interfaces. Online courses are also available from the American Society for Indexing and the Society of Indexers.

Now I leave you so I can sail over the trees of another book.

Ælfwine Mischler is an American copyeditor and indexer in Cairo, Egypt, who has been the head copyeditor at a large Islamic website and a senior editor for an EFL textbook publisher. She often edits and indexes books on Islamic studies, Middle East studies, and Egyptology.

September 17, 2010

A Reminder: The Finding Your Niche Conference

Just a reminder for those interested in attending the “Finding Your Niche/Expanding Your Horizons” conference October 1 and 2, 2010, in Rochester, NY (see A Gathering of Freelance Editorial Professionals) that time is running out to register — the conference is 2 weeks from today!

Lots of knowledgable people will be attending — both speakers and conference goers — so it will be a great opportunity to learn what you can do to enhance your freelance career. It will also be an opportunity to speak — one-on-one — to some of the people from whom you have sought advice in other forums. This conference will give you an opportunity to discuss some of your concerns about the future with some of the most successful freelancers around and people who are experts in using the tools of editorial freelancing to get the most bang for the buck.

For example, 3 gurus of Word macros for editors will be available to answer your macro questions. Plus there will be giveaways that are worth coming for in their own right.

Registration information for the conference, which includes a complete schedule, is available here.

If you are on the fence about attending, don’t be — this conference could be the event that opens new opportunities and worlds for you. I look forward to meeting readers of An American Editor at the conference.

(Note: Although I am a speaker at the conference, I have no financial interest in the conference or in the sponsor of the conference, Communication Central, other than that, as a speaker, I will be reimbursed for my expenses.)

May 20, 2010

Editors & “Professional” Resources: A Questionable Reliance

Editors rely on lots of “professional” resources to guide their editorial decisions when working on a manuscript. In addition to dictionaries and word books, we rely on language usage guides and style manuals, among other tools. [To learn more about the professional editor’s (and my) bookshelf, see The Professional Editor’s Bookshelf.]

But it isn’t unusual for an author (or publisher) to have a different view of what is appropriate and desirable than the “professional” resources. And many editors will fight tooth and nail to make the client conform to the rules laid down in a style manual. As between language usage guides like Garner’s Modern American Usage and style manuals like The Chicago Manual of Style, I believe that editors should adhere to the rules of the former but take the rules of the latter with a lot of salt.

The distinction between the two types of manuals is important. A language manual is a guide to the proper use of language such as word choice; for example, when comprise is appropriate and when compose is appropriate. A style manual, although it will discuss in passing similar issues, is really more focused on structural issues such as capitalization: Should it be president of the United States or President of the United States? Here’s the question: How much does it matter whether it is president or President?

When an author insists that a particular structural form be followed that I think is wrong, I will tell the author why I believe the author is wrong and I will cite, where appropriate, the professional sources. But, and I think this is something professional editors lose sight of, those professional sources — such as The Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS) and the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association — are merely books of opinion. Granted we give them great weight, but they are just opinion. And it has never been particularly clear to me why the consensus opinion of the “panel of experts” of CMOS is any better than my client’s opinion. After all, isn’t the key clarity and consistency not conformity to some arbitrary consensus.

If these style manuals were the authoritative source, there would only be one of them to which we would all adhere; the fact that there is disagreement among them indicates that we are dealing with opinion to which we give credence and different amounts of weight. (I should mention that if an author is looking to be published by a particular publisher whose style is to follow the rules in one of the standard style manuals, then it is incumbent on the editor to advise the author of the necessity of adhering to those rules and even insisting that the author do so. But where the author is self-publishing or the author’s target press doesn’t adhere to a standard, then the world is more open.)

It seems to me that if there is such a divergence of opinion as to warrant the publication of so many different style manuals, then adding another opinion to the mix and giving that opinion greater credence is acceptable. I am not convinced that my opinion, or the opinion of CMOS, is so much better than that of the author that the author’s opinion should be resisted until the author concedes defeat. In the end, I think but one criterion is the standard to be applied: Will the reader be able to follow and understand what the author is trying to convey? (However, I would also say that there is one other immutable rule: that the author be consistent.) If the answer is yes, then even if what the author wants assaults my sense of good taste or violates the traditional style manual canon, the author wins — and should win.

The battles that are not concedeable by an editor are those that make the author’s work difficult to understand and those of incorrect word choice (e.g., using comprise when compose is the correct word).

A professional editor is hired to give advice. Whether to accept or reject that advice is up to the person doing the hiring. Although we like to think we are the gods of grammar, syntax, spelling, and style, the truth is we are simply more knowledgeable (usually) than those who hire us — we are qualified to give an opinion, perhaps even a forceful or “expert” opinion, but still just an opinion. We are advisors giving advice based on experience and knowledge, but we are not the final decision makers — and this is a lesson that many of us forget. We may be frustrated because we really do know better, but we must not forget that our “bibles” are just collections of consensus-made opinion, not rules cast in stone.

If they were rules cast in stone, there would be no changes, only additions, to the rules, and new editions of the guides would appear with much less frequency than they currently do. More importantly, there would be only one style manual to which all editors would adhere — after all, whether it is president or President isn’t truly dependent on whether the manuscript is for a medical journal, a psychology journal, a chemistry journal, a sociology journal, or a history journal.

Style manuals serve a purpose, giving us a base from which to proceed and some support for our decisions, but we should not put them on the pedestal of inerrancy, just on a higher rung of credibility.

February 22, 2010

Can eBooks Save American Education?

On February 14, in a New York Times Sunday Magazine article titled “How Christian Were the Founders?”, the question of what control people with personal agendas have over what elementary and secondary school students are taught. The article reminded me of a book I read several years ago, The Language Police: How Pressure Groups Restrict What Students Learn by Diane Ravitch (2004), which addressed the same issue.

What bothers me most about what is happening before the Texas State Board of Education, which is the focus of both the article and the book, is that whatever decisions the TSBE make will affect the education not only of Texas students, but of students in 46 other states. I don’t care if Texas wants to dumb-down its student population, but it bothers me that it wants to drag down the rest country along with it.

The problem, yet again, lies with book publishers. Because Texas has a centralized textbook purchasing procedure, it has clout in the textbook market, and publishers kowtow to its demands. Understandably from a financial perspective, publishers don’t want to be excluded from Texas’ $22 billion dollar expenditure on textbooks (some 48 million textbooks each year), but from an ethical/moral perspective, the publishers are contributing to America’s decline in exchange for the almighty dollar.

In past years the problem was nearly insolvable. But now things have changed — or they should be changing — and ebook textbooks can be the answer. With today’s technology, there is no reason why publishers can’t create a pick-and-choose menu for school districts. Instead of printing millions of textbooks and locking knowledge in shackles for the next 10 years (the lifespan of the Texas review decisions), publishers could both reduce textbook costs and allow each state and/or school district to create custom books for local courses.

If Texas and Kansas want to teach that the world is flat, while New York and California want to teach that the world is round, customized textbooks would let them do so. In the expansion of fact over fiction, ebooks can play a role in saving America from total educational collapse.

And think about how much money local school districts could save. It should be less expensive for schools to provide ebooks as course textbooks; in fact, it probably would be cost-effective for several school districts in a state to band together to build their own etextbooks than what is currently being spent on printed books that are not as focused on local needs.

The shame of the publishing industry is that it focuses intensely on profit, with lackadaisical attention paid to insuring that American students are truly well equipped to meet future challenges. Declines in academic scores illustrate the problems that publishers, by permitting themselves to be suborned by agenda-driven groups, are perpetuating and making worse. Publishers should exercise an ethical judgment and refuse to continue down that path.

eTextbooks will make it easy to break the stranglehold pressure groups exert over the textbook market. the questions are: Will textbook publishers go the etextbook route or stick with print? Will schools adopt etextbooks?

Actually, if I were younger I think I would consider entering the etextbook creation market. This is an opportunity for an entrepreneur to break the grip of the major coursebook publishers. And California seems intent on helping with its open source textbook plan. If more states followed California’s example and moved to open source etextbooks, we might see a smartening up rather than a dumbing down of students because there would be no reason why etextbooks couldn’t be customized not only for the local school district, but for the individual classroom or even the individual student.

Perhaps the future of education isn’t as bleak as it appears today. Perhaps the future will include enhanced, customized instruction that enables each student in a classroom to learn at his or her own pace and depth. But most important, perhaps the etextbook world of the future will prevent a whole nation from succumbing to the agenda of a few who would reverse the course of knowledge, taking us back to a medieval time. Certainly, as Macmillan is demonstrating with its DynamicBooks at the college level, the technology is available; now there only needs to be the will.

January 26, 2010

Professional Editors: Publishers and Authors Need Them (Part 2)

As noted in Part 1, one way to distinguish between a professional editor and your neighbor who poses as one, is by their style guide library. The professional knows that to do a good job one needs to have good resources and to be familiar with them. The Internet is not a substitute for a professional editor’s library.

In addition to style manuals, a professional editor’s library includes usage books, that is, books that discuss and provide guidance on correct usage of language. For example, my library includes Garner’s Modern American Usage; Merriam Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage; Mathews’ Dictionary of Americanisms; The American Heritage Guide to Contemporary Usage and Style; Brown’s Composition of Scientific Words; The BBI Dictionary of English Word Combinations; The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage; H.L. Mencken’s multivolume work The American Language: An Inquiry into the Development of English in the United States; and Sheehan’s Word Parts Dictionary, among other language resources.

We haven’t even gotten to the dictionaries and grammar guides, or the books about language cognition and origins, all of which form a part of a professional editor’s library. The editor’s resource library is an important facet of what distinguishes the professional from the casual editor. Another facet is the professional editor’s skill with and knowledge of these resources.

Authors and publishers who care about the quality of their books care about the professionalism of their editors. They recognize that a professional editor is skilled and knowledgeable and brings something important to the book: the firming of the communication link between the author and the reader.

It is this communication link to which the usage guides are inextricably connected. Usage guides help an editor choose the right word. Is it Arkansan, Arkansawyer, or Arkie? How about aren’t I vs. amn’t I vs. an’t I? Given the choice, which of the following is the superior phrase: catch fire or catch on fire? Or cater-corner vs. catter-corner vs. kitty-corner?

A professional editor considers who is the intended audience for the book. If a book is being written for a local audience, then localisms may be excellent word choices, although not so fine for a national audience. But what about a term that has been broadly heard but little understood?

Recently, I read a news article that used the term mugwump. How many readers understood the term or its origins? A professional editor would look at the context and apply the correct definition. Before the 1880s, mugwump meant an important person, the high-muck-a-muck. In the 1880s, it became transformed to refer to Republicans who supported the Democrats’ presidential candidate. Today it means an independent. Is this important? If you are writing a book whose events take place in 1884, don’t you want your readers to understand what the term meant in 1884, not what it means today or meant in 1801?

So we return to the question of book quality. It is these skills and knowledge that professional editors bring to a manuscript. But publishers are increasingly less interested in those skills and knowledge because their accountants see no financial gain in emphasizing editorial quality. And authors too often believe that their manuscript as given to the publisher is “perfect”; they see no gain in paying for a professional editor, much less any editing at all.

A book’s quality is amalgam of multiple endeavors, not least of which is the author’s original creativity. Equally important, however, is editing by a professional who respects his or her profession enough to invest time and money to continuously acquire the skills, knowledge, and resources that distinguish the professional editor from all other claimants to the editorial mantle. Publishers and authors who fail to recognize that distinction — between professional and nonprofessional editing — embark on the road to mediocre quality at best.

This mediocrity brings with it a backlash from consumers who are unwilling to pay the wanted price, who do not buy future books written by the author, and who give negative reviews. This backlash is increasingly evident in the ebookers’ revolt over pricing and quality in ebooks.

Publishers need to recognize that they cannot continue to pay slave wages and expect professional editing — the two simply do not go hand-in-hand. Professional editing and quality do, however, go hand-in-hand.

January 25, 2010

Professional Editors: Publishers and Authors Need Them (Part 1)

One way to distinguish between a professional editor and your neighbor who poses as one, is by their resource library. The professional editor knows that to do a quality job one needs to have good resources and to be familiar with them. The Internet is not a substitute for a professional editor’s library (would you trust your doctor’s drug guide to Wikipedia?). Professional editing does equate with a quality book.

Professional editors are familiar with and use style guides, for example, The Chicago Manual of Style; Scientific Style and Format; AMA Manual of Style; and Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association. There are more — lots more. It seems that every professional and academic discipline has its own style. They also own and use language usage guides, which are discussed in Part 2 of this article.

Style guides are important because a good author is a storyteller but not necessarily a good writer. Good writing includes logical organization and making sure that there is a flow and consistency to a story. It does no good, for example, to begin a chapter in the year 1861 and suddenly, three paragraphs later, the year is 1965, unless the between paragraphs transition the reader from 1861 to 1965. 

Think of the chaos there would be if a book’s references were formatted willy-nilly, or capitalization shifted all over the place, or spelling changed page by page, or compound adjectives (the hyphenated kind) were sometimes hyphenated and sometimes not. How would meaning be transferred from author to reader?

English was a language with no rules until a few hundred years ago. Then authors began to realize that they could no longer read and understand writings from 100 years earlier, and wondered whether their work will be readable 100 years later. Thus began the quest to standardize English. English is still an unruly language, thus the need for style guides — style guides bring order to chaos. Style guides help ensure consistency so that authors can write and know that how their book uses language will convey the author’s meaning — today and tomorrow — because everyone is on the same page.

True, the average reader doesn’t sit with the Chicago Manual of Style next to them. Most readers don’t know it exists. It is the publisher and the editor who need to know and need to apply the rules — as arbitrary as they may be — to the author’s manuscript. Why? So that a diverse population with diverse linguistic skills can join together and understand the author’s work. The style guides provide a common meeting ground and act as arbiters of language, broadening the ability of the audience to read and understand the author’s words. More importantly, by bringing order to chaos the rules heighten quality — something publishers need to do in the age of ebooks.

The professional editor is a master of the relevant style guides and knows the rules of grammar, syntax, spelling, and other language conventions. Professional editors continuously invest in the tools of their profession and tend to read widely. Professional editors know that their primary responsibilities are to ensure consistency, accuracy, and universality, by which I mean that the author’s work meets and embraces language conventions that ensure the widest possible audience can read and understand the author’s work: The professional editor is a communication enhancer who firms up the link between the author and the reader.

Alas, publishers and authors often look for the least expensive way to produce a book, which means that professional editors with skills, experience, and knowledge are often not hired. Why? Because the professional editor’s work is not readily discernible. A professional editor’s work is like polishing silver — adding shine and luster, not replacing the silver. 

A smart author will insist on the publisher hiring a professional editor; a smart publisher will insist on hiring a professional editor and pay a professional price, recognizing that poor editorial work tarnishes the author’s — and publisher’s — silver. A professional editor’s sure hand can make the difference between an also-ran and a bestseller.

Both authors and publishers should recognize that there is more to being a professional editor than simply calling oneself an editor.

Tomorrow the discussion continues with a look at language usage resources and why they are important parts of an editor’s library.

January 22, 2010

From the Frying Pan to the Fire: Amazon to Apple

Let me begin by saying this: I just don’t get it. What hallucinogen are publishers imbibing? The music industry would love to trump Apple and the publishing industry would love to trump Amazon; but only the movie industry is thinking the matter through.

There are lots of problems with publishing’s looking to Apple for salvation; here are a few: First, if there is a bigger control freak in the media industry than Jeff Bezos, it is Steve Jobs. Have publishers forgotten that the music industry was unhappy with iTunes pricing but couldn’t budge Jobs? Publishers can’t budge Amazon’s $9.99 pricing, what are they going to do when Jobs demands $6.99 pricing?

Second, if rumors are right and that what Apple is bringing to the table is a tablet and not a dedicated reading device, what makes publishers think tablet buyers will suddenly become book buyers? Why do publishers think the tablet will be the Damocletian sword over Amazon’s head? Or do publishers plan to simply cut out Amazon altogether even though it commands 20% or more of the book-buying market?

And what about the expected premium price for the Apple tablet? If book buyers are complaining now about what a Sony Reader or Amazon Kindle costs, what makes publishers think they’ll jump at Apple’s pricing?

In addition, studies show that when a multimedia device, which the tablet will be, is used, the user’s time is spent listening to or watching audio and video media or playing games, not reading books. All a publisher needs to do is read the most recent Kaiser Family Foundation study of children and teens ages 8 to 18 years and how they use their multimedia devices for the publishers to know they are barking up the wrong tree.

Third, are publishers so lacking in imagination that they have to give up control of their industry to not one player but two? What are they going to do when Google starts throwing its weight around? Close their doors?

Yes, there has been drooling by some ebookers for the Apple tablet, with pundits assuming its arrival will cure whatever ails all media businesses. But what ails publishers is not curable by any device. It’s like having a fever and assuming that a thermometer will cure it — it isn’t going to happen. If anything, publishers are setting themselves up to fail and fail mightily, especially if there is an initial but unsustained burst in book sales concurrent with Apple tablet sales.

Let’s assume that publishers get very favorable terms from Apple. How long do publishers think that honeymoon will last? My guess: until Jobs decides that people really do read books and realizes that he needs to do to publishers what he did to the music companies. This may be a win for consumers, but not for publishers.

As each day goes by, I worry more about the world of publishing. Publishers have been important to the spread of quality literature and of knowledge, but they are rapidly marching to their funeral pyres. Publishers need to recognize that their salvation lies in their own hands, not in the hands of the Bezos’ and Jobs’ of the world.

If publishers need a role model to emulate, look to the video industry. The Economist reported that 5 of the 6 big studios (Disney is working on a similar solution by itself) want to join, along with some other firms and retailers — but not Apple — to create a single download video format and a single firm to track purchases. They are looking to create what I called a repository in an earlier Modest Proposal. The consumer will buy the video online at a partnering retailer who will then link the buyer to the repository. According to The Economist, “Consumers will be able to buy a film once and then play it on different gadgets….[The] initiative aims to stop a company doing to film what Apple has done to music and Amazon threatens to do to electronic books.” At least the movie industry is thinking with its brains and not sitting on them. Shouldn’t publishers be doing this?

Publishers need to grapple with their problems themselves and not look to external fixes by companies and persons that they ultimately can neither influence nor control. Trying to use Apple to thwart Amazon is jumping from the frying pan of to the fire — it is the tolling of the death bells for the big publishers.

January 21, 2010

A Modest Proposal III: Dying Days of Giant Publishers (Part 2)

In yesterday’s post, I gave four reasons (five if you want to count returns separately) why the giant publishers are on their funeral march: they are too big to react quickly to market conditions; they haven’t learned the Dell lesson; they let others sit in the catbird’s seat of deciding industry policy; and they haven’t come to grips with who are their future customers. Essentially, the giant publishers are early 20th century behemoths who have yet to adapt to 21st century technology and consumers.

These are interrelated problems, all stemming from the same root, which is the giant publisher having ceded industry leadership to outsiders.

In a way, the Dell lesson — Tell the customer he can have it his way and then limit the options — was tackled in my end-the-paperback proposal. Publishers have to learn to create their markets, not be led by markets imposed on them. This is the difference between Amazon, Apple, Google, and the giant publishers.

Amazon led the market by creating the Kindle and Kindle editions, and Apple and Google are inventing their own book markets. The giant publishers are trying to catch up. But Amazon (soon to be joined by Apple and Google), by leading the market defined it and is setting the terms. Amazon is also applying the Dell lesson: You can have an ebook in any format you want as long as it is a Kindle format. The giant publishers, who should have led, instead fumbled so badly that they are in disarray over how to catch up. More importantly, perhaps, for the publishers is that Amazon is turning them into the bad guys in the public relations war for the consumer soul. It’s the problem of the giant publishers being a sumo wrestler when a ballerina is needed — and not recognizing the problem.

To survive the days ahead, the giant publishers need to lead the marketplace, not follow it. If it is true that ebooks are the wave of the future, then publishers need to grab hold of this market and lead it or prepare their funeral pyres.

Publishers need to gain the upper hand in the pricing, geographical, DRM (digital rights management), and format wars. They have started by slowly adopting ePub as the uniform format, but otherwise are in disarray.

My solution: Create an international book repository owned and operated by a consortium of publishers!

Publishers should unite and create a single international repository for every ebook published by member publishers and by self-publishers. Membership should be open to all ebooks with an ISBN. All books would be kept on the repository’s servers. Consumers would buy a book once from a bookseller such as Smashwords or Barnes & Noble, but then be able to read the book on any device they own, without the need to transfer the book from device to device.

Publishers would create a single software system so that if a buyer started reading a book on his dedicated device at home, he could continue reading from the place he bookmarked on his smartphone while commuting to work, on his computer during lunch, on the smartphone for the commute home, and on his dedicated device at home. The repository would also give consumers the option to download a copy of the purchased book to a single device, just as is done now.

This would benefit both consumers and publishers in multiple ways. Here are a few: Because the books would be held remotely, they would be device agnostic. Publishers could use a single uniform format with a single uniform DRM scheme that every device manufacturer could use royalty free. Publishers could enable consumer sharing on a book-by-book basis by allowing, for example, the book buyer to give some number of named individuals access to the book, giving buyers some reasonable ability to share ebooks; different books could have different sharing limits. Consumers could buy a book and access it anywhere at anytime on any device capable of displaying the text — today, tomorrow, and for 99 years into the future. 

The idea is not to replace booksellers. Rather, the bookselling world could continue as is but when an ebook is bought, access to the book would shift from the bookseller to the repository. It could be done as “smoothly and flawlessly” as done now, even with automatic wireless downloading.  With the repository, publishers will lead the ebook marketplace and enhance their survival prospects.

January 13, 2010

Editor, Editor, Everywhere an Editor

A book has many contributors to its success. One contributor is the editor, and in some instances, several editors. Editors are the hidden resource that can help or hurt an author’s work.

There are many levels and types of editing, too many to address. In essence, I think all of the various levels and types of editing are divisible into two broad categories: developmental (sometimes known as substantive or comprehensive)  and copy (or rule based). Each serves a different role in the book production process, but each is important. (Disclosure time: I am an editor of 25 years experience. I am also the owner of Freelance Editorial Services, which provides independent editorial help to publishers and authors.)

A developmental editor’s role is multifaceted, but it is less concerned with grammar and syntax and more concerned with the manuscript’s overall structure. The developmental editor addresses these types of questions (and many more):

  • Is the manuscript coherent, that is, do its various parts fit together as a coherent whole?
  • Who is the author’s audience? Does the manuscript present its information logically for the target audience?
  • Are the author’s ideas presented clearly? Will the audience understand what the author’s point is? Are the author’s thoughts clearly and logically developed or do they meander?
  • Does the author present the ideas concisely, that is, is the author using a shotgun or laser approach?
  • Does the material in chapter 5 connect with what went before?
  • Is the author using jargon or technical terms in such a manner as to befuddle the audience?
  • Is the work complete? For example, are sources cited where and when needed?

The developmental editor helps the author hone the manuscript for the author’s audience. It is not unusual for the editor and author to engage in multiple back-and-forth discussions to clarify text, find missing sources, reorganize chapters and parts, and the like.

Once the author and the developmental editor are satisfied with the manuscript, the copyeditor steps in. The copyeditor’s role, broadly speaking, focuses on the mechanics of the manuscript. That focus includes such things as:

  • Spelling
  • Grammar
  • Punctuation
  • Style
  • Consistency

The copyeditor is the “rules-based” editor. The copyeditor is usually given a set of rules by the author or the publisher to follow when deciding questions of capitalization, numbering, hyphenation, and the like. It is the copyeditor’s job to apply and enforce those rules, and to do so with consistency. In the editorial world, consistency is the law, not the hobgoblin of little minds.

When appropriate, a good copyeditor also questions the text. For example, if the author has referred to a particular character as Sam but now seems to have changed the name to Charlie, the copyeditor will “flag” this change and ask the author about it. Additionally, if the name change is sudden but from further reading appears to be correct, the copyeditor might suggest to the author that a better transition is warranted so readers can follow more easily.

Unlike the developmental editor, the copyeditor’s role is not to help organize and rewrite the manuscript. It is to make the “final” manuscript readable by ensuring that it conforms to the language conventions readers expect. It is to ease the reader’s burden, helping author and reader connect.

The ultimate role of the editor — no matter whether developmental or copy — is to help the author connect with reader. A good editor eases that connection; a poor editor hinders that connection. An editor is another eye, another view for the author. A good editor recognizes pitfalls and helps the author avoid them. A good editor is an artist of language, grammar, and the mechanics that help a manuscript take the journey from ordinary to great. When asked to define my role as editor, I usually reply, “to make sure what you write can be understood by your audience.”

The final arbiter of how the published manuscript will read is the author. Editors give advice that the author can accept or reject. In the end, the manuscript is the author’s; the editor is simply a contributor, but a contributor with special skills and knowledge.

One last note: The above description of what an editor does is not a comprehensive description. There are circles within circles, levels within levels, and many more tasks that editors can and do perform. The above is merely a broad view. If you are an author looking to hire an editor, you should discuss with the editor the parameters of the work to be performed by the editor. There is no set, immutable definition of, for example, developmental editing; for any given manuscript, what role the editor is to play is determined by dialogue between the editor and the author or publisher.

January 6, 2010

Truman & MacArthur & Why a Good Editor is Important

I recently finished reading two books about the Truman and MacArthur dispute. The first, The Truman-MacArthur Controversy and the Korean War by John W. Spanier (1959; available in print only) is a well-written and well-edited book about the problems between a president and a general with an oversized ego.

The second book, Truman & MacArthur: Policy, Politics, and the Hunger for Honor and Renown by Michael Pearlman (2008; available in both print and ebook), is a well-researched book that offers greater insight into the controversy between Truman and MacArthur, but is so poorly edited that it was a struggle to get through. Rather than being able to read the book within a matter of a couple of weeks, it took me many months of struggling.

Aside from author style and amount of detail, the two books illustrate the difference between good editing and not-so-good editing. A bad editor does not improve a book: at best, a bad editor leaves the book quality where it was, at worst makes the book a poor book. Conversely, a good editor always improves a book.

A good editor ensures that a book is readable. To my mind, that is the number 1 job of an editor: make sure that a reader can follow the story. After all, what good is a well-researched book or a well-plotted novel if the audience can’t follow the story? A good editor also ensures that the author’s language communicates well. All languages have rules of grammar and syntax and the reason for these rules (besides keeping the rule writers in work) is to create a common ground for understanding among all speakers and readers of the language; that is, to facilitate communication of ideas. That’s why it is important to know when to use since and when to use because, the difference between affect and effect, and to understand the implications of “the brief case is closed” and “the briefcase is closed.”

Sadly, publishers, as they seek to increase their quarterly returns are devaluing the work of editors. Whereas a decade ago the effort was made to hire experienced, qualified editors at a reasonable price so as to minimize the number of editorial errors in a book, today the effort is find the absolute lowest priced editor, regardless of skill level or qualification, and without regard to the number of errors that such an editor lets slip by. Sometimes I think that the only reason some publishers still hire editors at all is that they want to be able to at least claim they (the publisher) has provided added value to a book to justify their share of the revenue.

Unfortunately, Pearlman’s Truman & MacArthur suffers from poor editing. The writing is confusing, repetitive, and not well-organized, all things a good editor would have addressed, although the book is a plethora of facts. For anyone particularly interested in the Truman-MacArthur controversy, which was a very important one in American history, this book is a must slog because of the detail provided. (For those who don’t know, the bottom-line issue was who was in charge of the military: the president or the general. Truman was widely unpopular at the time and MacArthur, through his manipulation of the press, was perceived by Americans as the war hero, the man who should have been president. MacArthur knowingly, flagrantly, and intentionally disobeyed his commander-in-chief, causing a showdown. Fortunately for America, Truman prevailed or the precedent of military over civilian control would have been established.)

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