The End of Editing

From Publishers Weekly:

We have so many fantasies of what the writer’s life is like: jotting down notes at a café, time to dream, and a certain ease of getting published. While many of these, particularly the last, quickly fade, either because of early rejections or the need for a steady paycheck, there is one fantasy that I held on to until my first book was published: that of the overly involved, tough-love editor who would take my work to some next level—the Gordon Lish to my Raymond Carver—and care about it as much as I did.

My first book, a story collection, was published by a university press. The peer reviewers each gave a few careful comments. One reviewer wanted one story cut, the other thought it could be reworked. A second story was recommended for “fine-tuning.”

I agreed to address these small issues, and I waited for the editor to whom I had originally submitted the work to give me her edits. They never came. She told me to make the changes the reviewers had suggested, and then I was whisked right on to copy editing. I know she cared about the book. She just wasn’t going to edit it in the way I thought she would.

Rewind a year, to when I found an agent for my debut novel. He and I spent months going back and forth with my revisions, his comments, and more revisions. Here was the editing process I expected: where sentences are debated, scenes deleted, problems large and small addressed. Throughout this process, he kept telling me editors these days like really clean copy, and I started to realize that editors don’t really edit anymore.

“My agent used to be an editor,” says author Keith Lee Morris, whom I contacted after hearing him discuss the editing process at a book event, “and she quit to become an agent so that she could work more closely with authors on their manuscripts.”

My own agent, Madison Smartt Bell, agrees that editing has shifted: “Editors now can expect manuscripts submitted to them to be in an extremely finished state, perfected whether by writers teaching in the academy, or by agents drawing on their past experience as editors, or a combination of those two.”

Morris adds that editors are now expected to promote their books, and I know this was true of my university press editor, who not only acquired the book but was its marketing department, as well.

So, what have we lost with these changes in the industry? Is it just romantic ideals, or has some real care and attention to detail been lost? My debut novel, Strange Children, comes out with an independent press this month, and while the editor was certainly not a line-by-line editor, she did give me several helpful notes and talked me through ideas at length. I appreciated both her insight and her trust in me to take her comments and change the book how I saw fit. I know the time she spent made it a better book.

Morris did eventually seek out an “old-school” editor for one novel, but the experience was challenging: as writers, we may not be used to hands-on editing anymore, either. However, he admits, “There’s absolutely no doubt in my mind that, ultimately, he made it a much better book. He pushed me beyond my comfort zone in a couple of crucial scenes, for which I’ll always be  grateful, even though it was painful at the time.”

. . . .

When we don’t have that, what’s lost isn’t just the quality or the not-quite-reached potential of a book, but also a sense of collaboration and mentorship. And though teachers, agents, and other writers are stepping up to fill the gap, there’s no guarantee that will always happen. As a writer, I regret not knowing that publication acceptance meant that the more rigorous editing process was behind me, not ahead of me.

The university press that published my book recently asked me to peer review a new book, and when I voted yes on the manuscript, I also handed in several pages of editorial notes, knowing I may be the only reader to do so. The editor and writer both responded with gratitude. And yet there were many small edits I would have suggested if I had been the actual editor, many places I thought a talented writer could be pushed more. As it stands, it doesn’t seem likely that push will happen. And that push, to me, seems like something we should seek out as writers, and make time for as publishers.

Link to the rest at Publishers Weekly

So, if hiring a professional editor is something the author should undertake, what services does a trade publisher provide in exchange for taking the majority of the proceeds generated by sales of a book?

24 thoughts on “The End of Editing”

  1. I believe the article said editors now focus mostly on marketing. So I guess that’s what they’re providing in lieu of editing services. I’ve noticed the focus on marketing in my experience with trad-pub editors. But in my opinion, it’s not worth it unless you’re a blockbuster author who gets tons of marketing dollars set aside for your launch.

    Unless you like giving up creative control and royalties, or you write compelling upmarket fiction, trad-pub isn’t worth it anymore.

  2. What is disturbing about the OP is that it doesn’t ask, let alone answer, the obvious question:

    If editors at commercial publishers aren’t editing, just what the hell are they doing?

    Well, we can rule out the expense-account lunch, and not just with COVID precautions — the faaaaabulous expense-account lunch inviting both the author and his (sometimes her) agent began disappearing in the late 1970s and was gone by the late 1990s for those whose prospective advances were below a half million or so.

    According to the OP, we can rule out actual editing.

    Based on response times to manuscripts — which have, if anything, lengthened since 2002 — they’re not culling the slush pile.

    Based on what former editorial assistants complain about (not to mention the increasingly common editorial failures), they’re not mentoring the next generation. (And yes, those were “marketing failures” as much as they were editorial failures — but they were within the editor’s ordinary and expected scope of duties.)

    So I can only infer that there are yet more cover meetings and acquisition meetings taking up editors’ time. How’s that working out?

  3. The thought of having someone else tell me what to do, now that I like everything my way, gives me hives. If I want a collaboration, I’ll find a collaborator.

    Writers need to DO THE WORK. Their names are going to be on the final product.

    Maybe extreme red-pen editing was necessary in the days before word-processors and spell-checkers on every digital device, because writers were too tired to type the whole thing again, couldn’t afford to pay someone to do that (or trust them not to introduce more errors), and correcting to an editor’s standard could then be assumed to let the next draft through.

    There is no more excuse for laziness of this kind: know your work. Use the tools for editing that are easily and inexpensively available, get some beta readers so you’re not the only person who sees the manuscript before it goes out, but DO THE WORK. OWN the work.

    Professional hockey players don’t have anyone editing their performance – you’re at least that good. Once the ballerina gets on stage, she doesn’t, either.

    Get coaching, learn, and then be responsible for your product.

    • God Bless the editor, for he bridges the gulf between the intellectually gifted and all those other people.

      • Are you saying work needs to be dumbed down by an editor to be palatable to the masses?

        I’d say, instead, that there are writers for every group of people, masses or elites or middle-of-the-roaders, and that there is no point in forcing everyone to the lowest common denominator.

        The ‘intellectually gifted’ get short shrift all the time, and no one worries about them. They get books that are too simple, predictable, and mushy – and feel unsatisfied.

        Some people have the background and complexity needed for The Name of the Rose; others don’t. It’s a huge world, and in over 7 billion people, there are plenty who can handle and enjoy the books aimed at them in each category, from graphic novels and comic books to epistolary novels with families who name their children after parents and grandparents generation after generation so you can never tell which particular Emily they’re talking about unless you’re constructing an elaborate genealogy as you read.

        The middle of the bell curve pulls in more money – but there are also far more writers targeting it. The competition can be fierce.

        The kind of novel I care to write is not easily copied – it takes far too long to create. I’m sure there is space for it – in the audience which wants that kind of complexity. Margaret Mitchell and Harper Lee produced one novel each (I don’t count GSAW). Nothing simple about either.

        • Are you saying work needs to be dumbed down by an editor to be palatable to the masses?

          Of course it does. That’s why God gave us Classic Comics.

          • Once upon a time.
            Comics aren’t mass entertainment anymore; they’re the nichiest of niches.
            Mostly because today’s masses don’t find comics accessible enough.

            Most monthly titles sell in the low to mid-figures at prices higher than your typical Indie ebook. (Except STAR WARS. It’s the only thing selling well at Marvel this past decade.) Graphic novels do a bit better but the audience is even more limited.

            Comics these days are for aging collectors, immortal vampires who don’t want to do romance, and as a breeding ground for future light show movies, instead of younger readers. Even Indie comics are Hollywood focused now.

            • I remember the boxes of comics that would come out of neighbors’ basements. All with a preprinted price of ten or twelve cents. Didn’t get any better. That was probably the high point in my intellectual reading.

            • I remember the boxes of comics that would come out of neighbors’ basements. All with a preprinted price of ten or twelve cents. Didn’t get any better. That was probably the high point in my intellectual reading.

              • Try $5 an issue.
                With the big boys putting out some 50-100 titles a month, each good for 15-20 min per read.

                I learned to read on the things before school.
                Learned that SF was for me: ADAM STRANGE, LSH, METAL MEN, GL. All DC, all the time.
                The Marvel guys? Bunch of whiners. 😉

    • Great observations. Writers who want to be cuddled and coddled by TradPub are, today, well on the way to extinction. Or at least non publication.
      If you want something done…

      • I’m still figuring out how to do marketing; it will be easier when I finish the second book in the mainstream trilogy, but the first one has been well received.

        I had arranged for a proofreader who had to bail due to personal circumstances, so I ended up doing every little thing myself – and enjoyed learning.

        I really prefer being responsible – I know what I want.

        As I said, my name is on the book. But I’m super controlling of fine details. It takes time.

  4. From what I hear, BPH “editors” are program managers in all but name and editors in name only.

    From Linked-in:

    “In many organizations, it might take the completion of multiple individual projects to achieve one bigger, overarching goal. When these different projects are all dependent on one another, it can be a challenge to keep them organized. This is where program managers shine. Program managers are responsible for overseeing the achievement of larger organizational goals. They coordinate efforts between different projects without managing any one of them. Instead, they lead the overall program with strong attention to strategy, implementation, and delegation. Program managers are highly skilled professionals who help organizations stay on schedule, on spec, and ultimately on an upward trajectory of success and growth. “

    • Were editors ever consumed with line by line examination of a manuscript? If so, who ran the show? Who made sure the book actually made it out the door?

      • The publisher. Maybe if it was big enough, they had an editorial director or whaterver.

        Remember, every imprint now owned by the BPHs used to be a standalone small business.
        Even in the 70’s the likes of Lester DelRey and Jim Baen actually read submissions and talked to tbe writers.

        Since we mentioned comics: until the 80’s, the big boys at DC and Marvel had letter columns and the editors read the letters coming in. Some of the regulars ended up as writers.

        Editing used to be a content-focused job, not process focused.

      • Several examples:

        Max Perkins
        Michael Pietsch
        Max Brod
        Gordon Lish

        So they do exist. Whether that is — or, rather, was — a good thing, though, is for another time, another graduate seminar overlooking Russell Square on Tuesday evening…

        And it’s usually the editorial assistant who keeps the train running close to on time, not the Publisher.

        • At the big ones.
          But the small ones?
          The stories I hear about the smaller outfits, the Publisher is involved in day to day matters, even on the content side.

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